A Life's Story
May 08, 2021
A short life with friends and music
People were drawn to enigmatic, 'absolute genius' Winnipeg artist Kipp Kocay
By: Eva Wasney
The first episode of Kipp Kocay’s radio show starts with the gentle strumming of a ukulele — a tongue-in-cheek tribute to the host of CBC’s Vinyl Tap.
"I don’t really play the ukulele, but there was one sitting next to me, so I just picked it up," he says, in a nonchalant monotone.
It’s rare for the bereaved to hear their loved ones again, but Kocay left a lot of himself behind. In 54 hour-long episodes of a UMFM radio show called Kipp Interviews His Friends, in five self-produced albums, in hundreds of social media posts and in everyone who crossed his meandering path.
Kocay died April 7 at the age of 34.
"I don’t know if he saw it as this giant feat, he just loved talking to his friends," Matthew Rajfur says of his lifelong pal’s pandemic radio project. Rajfur was an early guest on the weekly program and is grateful for the archive of casual, everyday conversations.
"It’s almost like he knew there was something that was coming on the horizon and so he was just trying to have one last good chat with a lot of people."
The pair had a friendship that never skipped a beat. They met at four months old and bonded during annual canoe trips with their dads. Growing up on opposite ends of the city, they reconnected as young adults and started playing in a band together; Kocay on vocals and guitar, Rajfur on drums.
Music was a constant force in Kocay’s life.
"We first noticed when he was about two years old that he had a musical talent," his father William says. "He would sing and sing and sing, even as a little kid, and it was always perfect."
William marvelled at how quickly his son picked up new instruments; everything from guitar to piano to saxophone. A week after one of his first guitar lessons, Kocay had already mastered a semester’s worth of curriculum.
The family lived outside St. Norbert and made regular trips to Finland — his mother’s birth country — during which Kocay was never without his Finnish-English dictionary. He was the middle of three children and often straddled the line between class clown and romantic intellectual. When Kocay wasn’t reading classic tomes, such as War and Peace, he was playing music, painting, writing or teaching himself Russian so he could read said tomes in their original language.
"I don’t really know that many people with that kind of devotion to absorbing knowledge," says longtime friend Stefan Braun. "He’s an absolute genius."
Kocay was also the epitome of a starving artist. He worked as a cook, most recently at The Ruby West, to support his creative pursuits but was always more interested in making things than making a name for himself — a point of frustration for friends who saw great potential in his particular brand of jazzy, Van Morrison-esque love songs.
"When he first started putting out records we were like, how can we market this to like, every 40-year-old mom in the city? Because as soon as we can do this, you’re a millionaire," Braun says. "But there wasn’t really any desire for monetary or social success."
He was 19 years old when he recorded his first album, yet seemed perfectly content playing small rooms and living a bohemian life as an undiscovered talent.
Braun was one of many people who lived with Kocay in a large brown duplex on Arlington Street in Wolseley. He became the house’s unofficial caretaker and welcomed a steady stream of friends for jam sessions in the attic, deep conversations and "Kippsmas" parties. People were drawn to Kocay and he to them.
Lise Bourbonniere lived in the lower suite of the duplex for several years and became close with the upstairs tenants. She describes Kocay as someone with a childlike sense of wonder who, at the same time, could be quite jaded and grumpy. Scarves and unbuttoned shirts were his uniform, he could do a wicked Michael Caine impression and was equally adept at playing covers of Elvis and Taylor Swift. Above all, Kocay put his friends first.
"Every time we needed him he was there," Bourbonniere says. "He changed my feelings about myself… he would always tell me, ‘Lise, everybody loves you, I love you, you have nothing to worry about.’ He would build me up a lot."
Waking up to the sound of Kocay noodling on his guitar first thing in the morning and the impromptu Easter egg hunt he threw for his housemates are cherished memories.
The confident and lovable life of the party was also a complex figure who overindulged and was stubborn to a fault. Childhood friend Aaron Johnston says that while Kocay’s bullheadedness could be a strain on relationships, it translated into a strict code of ethics and a clear vision for his art and his life.
"He didn’t pretend to be comfortable around everyone, he was brutally honest about being uncomfortable," he says. "He was unabashedly himself all the time."
Growing up together in St. Norbert they spent many hours playing shinny on backyard rinks with Kocay providing play-by-play and colour commentary. As adults, they moved through life as co-conspirators in a grand experiment.
"He grounded me… he was a force like gravity is a force," Johnston says. "I feel lucky that I had someone like that because I don’t know that everyone does.
"I don’t have any regrets, because I know that Kipp and I loved each other."