The Fighting Spirit

Knockout Girlz learn an ancient sport that promotes strength, confidence and perseverance

Des Larson’s emotional connection with the audience when he is performing is what sets him apart from other musicians—he doesn’t just play for his audience, <a href=

cialis he captures and engages them. “That’s why I make music—to make people feel something, to create moments,” he says. Photo by Boomer Jerritt” src=”http://www.infocusmagazine.ca/wp-content/uploads/2014/02/des-larson-602×415.jpg” width=”602″ height=”415″ /> Des Larson’s emotional connection with the audience when he is performing is what sets him apart from other musicians—he doesn’t just play for his audience, he captures and engages them. “That’s why I make music—to make people feel something, to create moments,” he says. Photo by Boomer Jerritt

The Comox Valley is ripe with musical talent. It seems wherever you go these days, coffee shops, markets, festivals, even street corners—we are surrounded by musicians who know their craft. Des Larson is one of the many talented musicians who call the Comox Valley their home, but there is something about Larson that makes him stand out from his peers.

According to those in the know, Larson is the perfect storm of looks, sound, and talent. But what makes Larson truly unique is his natural ability to connect with his audience. As a result, he has captured the eye and ear of some pretty big names in the music industry—and with their help, he is about to release his first studio album.

Although only 23, Larson has been a musician for a long time. “It seems I’ve been making music all my life,” he says. “When I was a kid my mom would bring me to church every week where she would expect me to sing with everyone else. It wasn’t enough for me to just mouth the words, though, she wanted to actually hear me singing, really belting it out—and if she didn’t, she’d give me a little nudge. It was a good thing though. I became comfortable with the sound of my own voice.”

Though it took some nudges to get Larson started, eventually he couldn’t stop singing. “I could entertain people from a young age—it was comfortable for me,” Larson says. “All my life people have seen something in me, something that can’t be contained. It’s a joy.”

That natural joy comes through in the music Larson creates—and it’s contagious.

Larson is a natural entertainer, and the ease he projects on stage makes his music even more enjoyable. His song lyrics resonate with emotions that the audience can understand. And the music, well it’s just amazing. On the stage may be just Larson and his guitar, but he has such a unique and multilayered way of playing the instrument that it sounds like he has an entire band behind him.

Larson’s music style is hard to pin down. Although he can play just about any genre of music, his overriding style can be compared to the Dave Mathews Band, the Boom Booms, Current Swell, John Mayer, and Jason Mraz. It’s almost impossible to hear Larson and not hear something you like. From gentle ballads and all out rock, to the oldies but goodies, Larson can pull it off—and well.

Though Larson is clearly talented, it’s his emotional connection with the audience that sets him apart. Larson doesn’t just play for his audience, he captures and engages them. “That’s why I make music—to make people feel something, to create moments,” he says. “It was at church that I learned how music is such a powerful tool. I guess it could be called a manipulation tool—it can make people feel things.  For example, the preacher, he was eloquent and all, but when the organ started to play behind him while he was speaking, that’s when his words would begin to impact me.  I forgot about that until recently, but now I want to help people to feel something—something positive.”

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Larson is well known in the Comox Valley. Ask around, and most people will say they’ve heard of him. “I grew up here, even graduated from Highland,” he says. “However, I’ve also spent a good deal of time in Victoria and Vancouver. I’m a city boy, but just a small town community guy, really. Actually, I consider myself sort of a hybrid. That being said, no matter where I go, I consider the Valley my community. This is where I got my start; this is where my biggest fans are.”

That fan base is growing every day. In fact, Larson is popular with people of all ages. It’s not uncommon to see teenagers at a Des Larson concert, and right next to them will be parents, and maybe even the grandparents. “It’s interesting to have such a wide fan base,” he says. “In fact, I’d really like to make a kid’s album someday—something that would appeal to both the kids and to the parents as well. Actually, that’s a goal of mine—to someday win a Juno for best kid’s album.”

Though he’s establishing some long term goals, his short term goal is to finish the album he’s currently working on. The eight song CD, due to be released this year, was recorded in the Valley at The Cave Recording Studio. “I’d say this album will reflect a West Coast vibe with urban appeal,” explains Larson. “But most of all, this album is completely from my heart. It’s an album about a personal journey. You see, I lost my way, I made mistakes and I lost a good friend. But now I’ve found myself again, and that’s what this album is about—getting back on track after you’ve lost your way.”

Larson has been fortunate enough to find some experienced musicians to help him reach his immediate goals, as well as his long term career goals. Phil Comparelli, the former guitarist and vocalist for 54/40, is co-producing the album.

“Working with Comparelli, it’s a perfect match because I wanted this album to be produced by someone who hasn’t produced an album before. As a result, the album is a real collaboration, there is a lot of give and take,” Larson says. “And the experience has been amazing too. I’ve developed a brotherly bond with Comparelli. He’s helping me get my career going, but I’m learning so much more from him. I’m learning from his life experiences—the good and the bad, the touring lifestyle. It’s an honor to work with him. I’m grateful and I’m humbled.”

The feelings are mutual. “I remember the first time I saw Des perform. I remember thinking, ‘Holy crap, this guy’s got it!’ He’s handsome, good with the crowd, his voice is amazing and his songs are very cool. Des? He’s a runaway train. It’s very exciting to be a part of this process, but I believe he would still do it even without my help. He’s unstoppable, and this is just the beginning of an amazing career.”

Producing the album is Jamey Koch, who’s famous for mixing and producing artists such as DOA and Michael Buble. “Jamey was fascinated with my sound when he heard me. He said my sound was unique—he described it as Justin Timberlake goes camping,” recalls Larson with a laugh.

Larson is also excited about his recent meeting with Brian Howes, a songwriter and Juno award-winning producer who’s worked with big name bands such as Nickelback, Hedley, Hinder and Daughtry. Howes, originally from the Comox Valley, was in town this past November to accept his induction into the Comox Valley Walk of Achievement. While Howes was visiting he happened to hear Larson perform. Afterward, the two had a conversation where Howes offered to record Larson at his studio down in LA.

“It’s pretty gratifying to be noticed by people such as Brian Howes,” Larson says. “It’s great to have people appreciate your talent—especially people who have seen a lot of it.”

So far things are looking good for CD sales, and Larson and his team haven’t even finished the album yet. “I’ve pre-sold quite a few CDs already,” he says. “I also recently completed an Indiegogo campaign, which was hugely successful even though we didn’t reach our goal. It was a great way to spread the word about our project and to allow others to help us along the way. It also made me believe in myself—that I really did have something to offer and that people, my community and even strangers, they have my back.”

Larson is commonly associated with the Des Larson Trio, but Larson explains that this CD is a solo album. “It seems that all my life I’ve been in a band, but this is my own project—this album is too personal to be done with a band,” he says.

Though a solo album, Larson asserts that he wasn’t able to complete the project without some musical help from his friends.

“I’ve worked with some amazing session musicians to make this album. They’re also great friends of mine and very talented. Robin Banks is the bass player. He’s a sly, cool cat, and you can quote that because it’s corny, but it fits.

“Then there’s John Hinds on drums. He’s more like what you’d call a quiet riot—he’s a bit on the quiet side, but he’s a genius too.  They’ve both helped with the composing of the songs.  Without them the album would lose a lot of the grit.  I guess you could say they bring the camp,” says Larson. “Seriously, though, their musicianship is far beyond my own. It’s an honor to work with them.”

Larson is becoming a hit internationally, as he recently heard that his song Beautiful has been picked up by a label in Mexico after it was remade into a Spanish version. “The translated version of Beautiful is doing quite well,” he says. “It’s cool to know my song was liked so much that another artist decided to cover it, and that now it’s been picked up by a label.”

He smiles. “It also helps that I get royalty cheques for that too!”

Life is obviously busy for Larson these days. He’s heading out of town for various gigs, such as Song&Surf in Port Renfrew in February. He is also heading to Los Angeles to record with Brian Howes. Closer to home, he’ll be performing at the Waverly Hotel in Cumberland in March. “It’s true that life is busy,” he says. “I’ve got my fingers in about 80 things right now, but for the most part, the CD is still my major focus.”

The CD is just one step toward his ultimate goal, though—to build a career in music. “Things are really starting to happen and it’s pretty exciting, but actually, I’m holding back a little,” he says. “I want to do this thing right. I’m trying to build a career—a lasting career where I can do what I was meant to do.”

You can see Des Larson’s music videos on YouTube and download his songs from iTunes.  For more information visit his Facebook page or go to www.deslarson.com

“Knockout Girlz is a place for women to come if they want to be empowered, <a href=

troche
” says Jennifer Judson, grip
a Muay Thai practitioner and co-owner of Knockout Martial Arts. “They’re looking for something completely different and want to push outside of their comfort zone.” Photo by Boomer Jerritt” src=”http://www.infocusmagazine.ca/wp-content/uploads/2014/02/knockout-1-602×401.jpg” width=”602″ height=”401″ /> “Knockout Girlz is a place for women to come if they want to be empowered,” says Jennifer Judson, a Muay Thai practitioner and co-owner of Knockout Martial Arts. “They’re looking for something completely different and want to push outside of their comfort zone.” Photo by Boomer Jerritt

Ask someone the definition of a knockout girl, and you’ll likely hear names like Marilyn Monroe, Brigitte Bardot, and Kate Upton—Hollywood icons and fashion models that have wowed audiences with their beauty. Not many will tell you it’s a woman or girl capable of delivering a punch that renders her opponent unconscious.

Knockout Martial Arts, located near the intersection of Lerwick and Mission roads in Courtenay, is trying to change that with Knockout Girlz, their women-only martial arts classes. Knockout Girlz teaches women and girls the basics of Muay Thai, and promotes the development of female strength, confidence, and perseverance.

At first glance, Muay Thai might not seem like a natural fit for women. Is is a combat sport and practical fighting technique originating in Thailand and traditionally used in warfare. It is commonly referred to as “the art of eight limbs” because it makes use of punches, kicks, elbows and knee strikes. Training has a heavy focus on body conditioning to provide the level of fitness and toughness required for competition in the ring.

In combat, Muay Thai was considered quite deadly. Today it is an internationally recognized martial art form and a favorite on the mixed martial arts (MMA) fight scene. In fact, a quick search on YouTube for videos on Muay Thai brings up such titles as “Muay Thai Destruction” and “Muay—Deadly Skills.”

Women, however, are turning to Muay Thai in substantial numbers and there are a handful of women in the Comox Valley who have already been practicing for as long as a decade.

What’s the appeal?

“Knockout Girlz is a place for women to come if they want to be empowered,” says Jennifer Judson, a Muay Thai practitioner and co-owner of Knockout Martial Arts with her husband Scott. “They’re looking for something completely different and want to push outside of their comfort zone.”

Instructor Shelley Strachan agrees. “I think it’s a place women come to feel empowered,” she says.

Such statements reflect both Judson’s and Strachan’s personal experiences with Muay Thai. Strachan had always wanted to try kickboxing but never got around to it. Then, in light of what Strachan describes as a series of life events, a friend suggested she try Muay Thai. The pair went together.

“When I started I was 230 pounds and frustrated with life,” says Strachan. “That first class, I didn’t know what I was doing, but I went back. I went from signing up in September to my first fight in February.”

Judson was introduced to the sport by her husband and found the martial art helped her with her own weight and fitness goals. More importantly, it had a positive impact on the baby blues and post-partum depression she experiencedat the birth of each of her five children, the most recent child born just three months ago.

“Being active is major for me. It makes me feel so much happier at the end of the day,” she says.

However, the appeal of Muay Thai goes much beyond weight control and general fitness for Judson, Strachan, and the many women they teach and train with.

“Women come in expecting a fitness program and are amazed at the changes that happen emotionally,” says Strachan. “It’s a mind-body-soul experience.”

“When you’re punching and hitting, all this emotional stuff comes up,” adds Judson. “The women are always telling me how much they didn’t expect it to bring up other emotional things.”

What kind of emotions? Well, permission to explore their own aggression, ignore feminine stereotypes, and take control of their own lives, for starters.

In a column for the Daily Muse, Muay Thai practitioner and Fulbright Scholar Anne Lieberman suggests that Muay Thai is about seeing the big picture. She reminisces about one training session where her coach stated that in Muay Thai you’re going to get hit. What’s important is learning to get hit on your own terms. That means if your opponent drops her right hand every time she throws a left hook, you probably want to let her throw that hook in order to set up a power shot—a cross, a head kick—the moment she drops her hand.

“What you’re doing is understanding how you can turn adversity in your favor,” writes Lieberman. “With your career and life generally, you will experiences challenges—hits, if you will—but it’s about how you respond and come back from those challenges. You develop strategies to overcome adversity. Getting hit on your own terms is all about perspective.”

For women who are often used to hearing that the best thing they can do in life is take care of other people—like their children and spouses—and put their own needs second, the idea and the ability to tackle life on their own terms is a heady change.

“It’s therapeutic,” says Judson. “It gives you that strength to do anything.”

So why the separate classes for women?

“Muay Thai is intimidating,” says Judson. “And many women are just not comfortable training with men.” In general women need more encouragement and most women are self conscious and nervous about being athletic.

“I was so nervous when I started,” says Judson. “I would kick or punch and then say, ‘Sorry, did that hurt?’ And I started in a women’s only class.”

That’s why when the only other Muay Thai school in the Comox Valley closed its doors a couple of years ago, taking with it the one women-only program in the Valley, Knockout Martial Arts made the decision to add women-only classes to their schedule.

“It was really important to us to get a women’s class going again,” says Judson. “Muay Thai is a really wonderful thing once you get into it and we wanted a place where women would feel comfortable.”

“We asked Shelley, who went through the instructor certification program with my husband Scott and David Hoffart, if she would be interested in teaching and she was totally onboard,” continues Judson. “She started in a women’s class as well.”

“I knew how important this was because of what Muay Thai has done for me,” says Strachan. “If I can do that for one woman or one person, I am doing my job.”

It’s a mind-body-soul experience,” says Muay Thai instructor Shelley Strachan.  Photo by Boomer Jerritt

It’s a mind-body-soul experience,” says Muay Thai instructor Shelley Strachan. Photo by Boomer Jerritt

And what a job they do. Knockout Girlz is a combination of fitness, flexibility, and technique. The evening class I attended started with a combination of jogging on the spot, push-ups, sit-ups, and stretches intended to warm up the body for more intense technical work. We eventually moved onto punches and kicks using boxing gloves and padded shields before ending with a skipping rope exercise that involved jogging on the spot. The trick is the skipping rope is stretched out in front of you at waist height and you’re trying to bring your knees up to the rope.

The entire class I was paired with Judson, while Strachan taught up front. Judson helped explain every exercise, and provided additional information where necessary. That one-on-one attention reflects the sort of service offered to every new member. Membership starts with two weeks of unlimited classes, and two 30-minute private sessions. The goal is to build your knowledge, skill, and confidence before committing to a particular class.

Did the one-on-one make the class any easier? Nope. I am a cycle-commuter with a long history of participation in endurance sports like rowing and swimming. I was sweating in the first five minutes, the crunches reminded me I’ve been ignoring my abs for too long, and the skipping rope exercise created the kind of lactic acid burn I haven’t experienced in years.

Did any of that matter? Nope. Every time I stopped an exercise, I only heard encouraging words from Judson, Strachan and the other class participants or was offered an alternative to keep me going. One such moment of encouragement happened during an exercise called “Eye of the Tiger”.  The class is divided into two lines standing face-to-face mere inches apart. The objective is to stare into your classmate’s eyes and count to 10 without blinking. Each blink earns you five push-ups. Now anyone that’s done a childhood staring contest knows it’s tremendously difficult not to laugh, and after a while your eyes start to tear up from the burn. There I am standing nose-to-nose with a complete stranger, and when I make it to 10 without blinking she gives me a fist bump and says, “You got it.” I didn’t even get her name.

The moment that really stands out for me, though, came during the punching training. I was punching and Judson holding the pads. We had been given a sequence of jab-jab-hook, focusing on technique. I was building up some confidence, and a sense of rhythm when the call came for fast, hard punches for 30 seconds. Judson encouraged me to pick up the pace and punch as hard as I could, and I gave it my all. There I am, my arms and shoulders burning, delivering punch-after-punch and there is only one thought in my mind—I like this!

Needless to say, I plan on going back and would encourage any woman curious about Muay Thai to give it a shot as well. Worried about child care? Don’t—Knockout Martial Arts has an on-site children’s playroom, where members’ children are welcome to hang out and play. Strachan has taught classes with her infant son strapped to her chest in a baby carrier, and Judson regularly puts her newborns in a bouncy chair on the edge of the mats.

“It doesn’t matter what your goal is or your fitness level,” says Judson. “We are here to help and we are very much a family place. We didn’t call the classes Knockout Girlz because of the play on words—we always knew we wanted to call our studio Knockout Martial Arts—but every single one of our women is beautiful inside and out.”
For more information visit www.knockoutmartialarts.ca