While she was trained in classical voice and forged her performance skills on classic rock covers, Gillian Nicola Alexander has been on a search for her own sound and her own identity. Over two EPs, Nicola had explored life as a singer and songwriter but it's been three years since we last spoke. With a wealth of performances and concerted development behind her, this weekend Nicola releases her debut full length some three years in the making and with Dried Flowers fans can learn more about what Nicola has learned.
“After I released my last EP, No Place To Call in 2016 I played a bazillion shows,” recalls Nicola. “I ended up doing a hundred shows a year, touring a bit and playing folk conferences and then I went to the Banff Center. It’s a magical place, a multi–disciplinary institution. They provide these residency programs where artists have space and time to focus on their work. I went for the singer/songwriter program for a three week residency in March 2018. There were 30 people that worked with faculty mentors — heavy hitting Nashville songwriters — that help you fine tune lyrics or a melody or whatever. Every songwriter is given their own little hut literally on the side of the mountain in this ridiculous dream–like environment to create. It was amazing. I interacted not only with the faculty but also the other songwriters — some big names you might know and some others just starting out — and we’d all collaborate. We all got a recording session with a guy that recorded the Arcade Fire.
“I wrote half of this record there and recorded two of the songs there,” adds Nicola. “An absurd amount of people played on this record because the Banff Center tracks had two different bands on them. Then last June I recorded the album with John Dinsmore at the Lincoln County Social Club in Toronto and it’s absolutely stacked with great players — Aaron Goldstein, Gord Tough, Drew Jurecka, Rosalyn Dennett, and more.”
As much as having something to sing about, Nicola realized there was so much more to nurture in approach and presentation and she offers a rich tapestry of chill songwriting narratives that can bemuse or unsettle equally well. Dried Flowers is a collection of more pensive ruminations meant for chill times perhaps but it’s the more uptempo singles that Nicola achieves maximum effect. But evoking Bon Iver or City and Colour or a rootsy, country folk rock seems to be her bread and butter. Nicola tackles some serious lyrical fodder as well — sexual assault, domestic violence, gaslighting and more — with the titular track encompassing the overall experience.
“I’ve been told I should use the term Americana but I feel weird about that and would call it Canadiana because I’m not from the US, but if I go on Spotify.com and I look up Americana — yeah, that’s the kind of stuff I like so I’ll roll with it,” says Nicola. “For me, It’s a pretty big umbrella term that includes roots or alt–country and that’s definitely in there.
“I was thinking about things I left behind when relationships end,” she adds on the song “Dried Flowers”. “There was almost a grocery list of things but I focused on the flowers aspect of it. A bouquet, one really nice thing, if you hang on to that for ever, maybe it’s a nice thing or maybe it isn’t. It might be my favourite song on the record because the string section on the song is out of control. Musically, it fit at the end of the record like a finale and yes, it is sad.”
While a lot of her music could be called sad, Nicola is an engaging, uplifting conversationalist and has elevated herself in the business end of things. She’s part of the Hamilton Music Strategy Committee, volunteers for Girls Rock Camp Toronto with a potential Hamilton chapter in the works and more. She teaches voice and guitar and hosts open mics but with the focus on her own original music this weekend focuses on putting the spotlight on her own creation.
“The first half of Dried Flowers to me is pretty light–hearted, I suppose, and then the second half is where we get more into the thick of it,” says Nicola. “I think we’re all trying to figure things out and I think I know my identity better. I hope so — getting there anyways. I like making music that’s flexible because I end up playing a lot by myself but I really like playing with a band, too. I write so that it works in both scenarios. I’m not bummed out all the time, I mean my family asks me sometimes, ‘Are you okay?’ and I just say, ‘yeah, I’m good’, I just like sad music.
“I’m really excited to be having a full band for this release show to flesh out the songs and present them closer to the record but It will also be a nice story telling experience with a lot of info about the songs as well,” adds Nicola. “I think it’s going to be a good show.”
Gillian Nicola plays this Friday May 31 at Mills Hardware with Benjamin Dakota Rogers. Doors are at 7 pm and advance tickets are available for $10 via gillian_nicola.eventbrite.ca or $15 at the door. Click on gilliannicola.com