Gillian Kirkland has exited audiences, musicians and critics alike with her inventive, finely crafted compositions and striking soprano voice. Originally from Toronto, Canada she lived and studied in Montreal for a number of years where she developed her craft which now finds expression in both English and French. Her work has been hailed as “ingenious”, “triumphant” and “truly beautiful”.
Gillian Kirkland est une chanteuse, accordéoniste et compositrice canadienne. Sa musique est parfois appelé du “Néo-Cabaret” pour ses influences alliant le jazz et la tradition européenne. Elle s’est impliquée dans de nombreuses collaborations avec des musiciens de divers confessions ainsi que des conteurs, cinéastes, poètes et dramaturges. Elle vit avec sa famille à Ottawa et se donne régulièrement en spectacle à travers l’Ontario et le Québec.
Guerilla Magazine, number 37, volume 10, Ottawa ON.
There’s an in between quality to Gillian Kirkland and her music, a tension caused by a determined push to be original and the inescapable pull of her classical training. On Rubicon, her new album, Kirkland’s soaring, imploring, operatic voice somehow both fits and contrasts with the whimsical cabaret-esque nature of the accordion she hugs.
By Tony Martins / Photos by Michael Marquette
Points of no return are in between moments, fraught with risk and nine months pregnant.
In storytelling, in songwriting, in opera, in drama, they are the big payoffs, the money shots, the sea changes, the opportunities for catharsis. Ultimately, they are all that we really care about. They reveal much about who we are and how we intend to live.
Gillian Kirkland’s second self-authored album, Rubicon, appeared this September and can be read as one big in between moment. Stylistically, her music has always skittered across so many genres that the singer-songwriter-accordionist requires one slash and three hyphens when defining it as “neo-cabaret/pop-jazz-experimental; you would be hard-pressed to find a relevant comparison.” The new album in particular, however, is a searching for a middle ground.
“In my previous work, I was always reluctant to relinquish the classical ‘box’,” Kirkland says, “but with this project I wanted to push myself outside of my creative comfort zone.”
Slender and sharp-featured, seeming both bohemian and intellectual, Kirkland is aware of the paradox when she calls the album both more experimental and more “popish” than her previous work.
“Pop music has always provoked a sort of bad reaction in me,” Kirkland explains, “so it is a question of how far out I can venture before I begin to cringe and run back to safety.”
Not purely a political album nor a collection of introspective love songs, Rubicon is, again, something in between.
“I feel a responsibility to write about social issues which affect current and future generations,” says Kirkland. “Sometimes, however, life itself becomes so overwhelming that it demands a response and one of the healthiest ways I have found of responding is the act of creation.”
Whether singing allegorically about environment degradation in the title track “Rubicon” or negotiating a tricky romantic entanglement in “Talk about the Weather,” Kirkland offers up decisive moments as a way of asking for action—from herself and from society.
“These songs have a quality of urgency because they were composed out of personal necessity,” the songwriter explains. “Since everything is connected, they also exist in relationship to a greater social context.”
Dramatic catharsis, group therapy
Transfixed from a young age by the transcendent beauty of classical music, Kirkland performed in several productions with the Canadian Opera Company as a child.
“I continued to study singing throughout high school and university but I increasingly had trouble with what I perceived as dogmatism and elitism which sometimes pervade the classical music scene,” Kirkland says.
One of the benefits of classical training was Kirkland’s cultivated taste for dramatic catharsis, a kind of emotional recovery that she likens to group therapy.
“When you go to see Carmen after your lover has betrayed you, you can relive your emotions in a way that is healing and transcends your own individual suffering.” She explains. “I do not pretend to offer such an experience with my music but I try to allow my own suffering to generate something beautiful.”
Her accordion as instrument of choice is one of the ways in which Kirkland breaks through the formal restrictions of the classical genre for a greater range of individual expressiveness.
“I have something of a back-room relationship with the accordion,” she explains. “I took it up as a stand-in for a live accompanist, which is typically what classical singers rely upon. I like its expressive capabilities, which work well with my temperament, and its portability, which allows me the freedom to perform where and when I want.”
Doing things how she wants is fundamental to Kirkland’s musical life. In the constant challenge to balance creative fulfillment with commercial success, she usually opts for the former.
“Ultimately I feel that if I want my audience to have respect for me, I need to have respect for them and offer them what I find truly satisfying,” Kirkland says, “rather than what I think they want to hear.”
The songwriter’s stylistic indulgences include language: alternating between French and English lyrics is another in between aspect to Rubicon. Is the songwriter using this duality to construct dialogues?
“Sometimes yes, sometimes no,” she explains. “With ‘Talk About the Weather’ it is quite deliberate—and let me tell you English and French are not easy to rhyme. But most of the time, it is my intuition that dictates in which language a particular idea will be expressed.”
As indie as they come
Kirkland’s varied life journey might suggest that her time in Ottawa is also an in between—“I moved to Ottawa on a whim three years ago after having lived in Toronto, Sante Fe, Montreal, and most recently Italy,” she says—but the nature of Canada’s capital seems to be suiting her just fine.
“Ottawa is a very good place to make music,” says the performer, “and the only thing preventing it from being a great place to make music is a lack of adventurous venues willing to support the excellent local pool of creative artists who are pushing the envelope in a multitude of ways.”
Helping her break ground on the new album was highly respected producer Phil V. Bova of Bova Sound. The indie project was financed through a grant by the Ontario Arts Council and Kirkland is currently putting together tour dates to support the release.
“At this point I am as ‘indie’ as they come,” concludes Kirkland, “which means that the album will essentially be available at my performances, online, and at small independent record stores. Some people may wonder what the point is since so much work goes into creating an object which has very little chance of being financially viable, but that’s like wondering what is the point of art.”
L’Express, 23/11/2011 (Toronto)
GILLIAN KIRKLAND, DE L’OPÉRA À L’ACCORDÉON
D’origine américaine, Gillian Kirk land a fait ses études en français, à Toronto, puis terminé son baccalauréat en français, à Montréal. En anglais ou en français, elle pose sa voix sur des textes qu’elle a composés et s’accompagne à l’accordéon. Originale, bilingue jusqu’à la moelle, Gillian nous parle de son parcours classique avant qu’elle ne choisisse de «faire ses propres affaires».
Enfant, Gillian étudie à l’école Gabrielle-Roy et participe à des choeurs d’enfants. Elle apprend l’alto, suit quelques cours de piano, mais se destine finalement vers une carrière de chanteuse classique. Elle commence ses études en chant à Toronto puis part pour Montréal ou elle termine son bac.
«En finissant, j’étais dégoûtée du milieu», nous explique-t-elle. Gillian ne fera pas de carrière en chant classique. Elle devient maman et se met donc à composer.
«Je voulais faire des choses en rapport avec notre époque.»
En réaction au côté très quétaine de l’opéra classique et des histoires d’amour à l’eau de rose, elle couche donc sur papier toutes ses idées, de manière chronologique. «À la fin, je me suis ramassée avec un journal d’idées musicales. C’était comme un casse-tête d’idées musicales!»
Et oui, car Gillian Kirland compose séparément la musique et les textes et voit à la fin «s’ils peuvent être amis». Elle ajuste ensuite la musique pour coller au texte.
«Aujourd’hui je commence à avoir un processus délibéré, mais au début c’était vraiment intuitif», se rappelle-t-elle. Mais pourquoi l’accordéon? A-t-on envie de demander! «Il y a un côté dramatique. Et puis ça respire, ça se rapproche du chant.»
Accompagnée d’un violoncelle et d’une clarinette pour certains de ses spectacles, elle tente de trouver l’alchimie, pour que chaque personne de l’ensemble joue quelque chose d’intéressant et qu’il n’y ait pas d’accompagnement.
Samedi soir dernier, elle jouait au Central et s’accompagnait seule à l’accordéon, pour un résultat très sobre et efficace. Le public a également semblé apprécier notre découverte. Gillian, qui habite désormais Ottawa, essaie de venir une fois aux deux mois à Toronto.
THE WIG, February 26th 2011 (Ottawa)
Sounds from the street
Gillian Kirkland enters uncharted territory with new combo
by Allan Wigney
You may have noticed Gillian Kirkland in the ByWard Market, an urchin singing for her supper, shielded by her weathered accordion from distracted passersby, exhaling the drama of Brecht or Weill into the ether.
Or so it might have seemed.
“Playing on the street is very therapeutic,” says Kirkland of her occasional forays into buskerdom. “It gives you a reality check. It requires a lot of emotional stamina; it’s extremely demanding, emotionally and physically, because you never know what response you’re going to get. But it’s a good way to break the ice.”
And, as the artist whose 2010 CD, Indifférence, conveyed a distinct cabaretvibe — in both official languages — prepares for her first show with a new band and a new sound, Kirkland plans to draw on that street-level performance experience.
“The music is changing from what was on the CD,” she says. “There’s more of a jazz influence, more improvisation. But improvisation comes naturally to me, through playing on the street. There’s a lot of time to kill, and you have to be able adapt quickly.”
Indifférence is not devoid of jazz inflections — Kirkland cites Nina Simoneas a major influence on her music — but the shift in direction is a calculated response to the accordionist and singer’s experiences off the street.
“It’s kind of an experiment,” she says of the approach she will be taking at her first show with accompanists Nathan Morris (bass) and Andrew Letourneau (percussion). “The sound on the album, it was difficult to carry in a bar context. People would tell me it was more like chamber music, that it could be more punchy.”
The chamber music charge seems valid, given Kirkland’s classical training and continuing involvement with the genre — she recently composed a work for a local children’s choir. But the artist says she is excited about taking music into uncharted territory.
“For a classical musician to move to improvisation is quite a challenge,” Kirkland admits, “because everything in classical is structured. So this is a little bit scary. But that’s OK, I’m attracted to what scares me.”
And, she need not add, Kirkland has played to tougher crowds.
THE CHARLATAN, Wed, 02/03/2011 (Ottawa)
GILLIAN KIRKLAND DEFIES GENRE
BY: OLIVER SACHGAU
Gillian Kirkland’s music has been called such things as “neo-cabaret” and “folk jazz,” among other things.
But when asked what she would call her style, Kirkland responded, “I think that is the worst question you could ask an artist.”
Instead, Kirkland said her music borrows from many different genres: her vocals come from a background in classical singing, and her music and melodies originate from her love of both folk and Celtic music.
Kirkland, the French-Canadian singer, songwriter and accordionist, played at the Mercury Lounge Feb. 26 for a crowd of 20, accompanied by Nathan Morris on the double bass and keyboard and Andrew Letourneau on drums.
Spending little time on introductions, Kirkland got right into her show, playing songs off her recently released album Indifférence. Her songs, carrying names like “I’ve Been to the Sea” and “So Long El Dorado,” all heavily featured Kirkland’s vocals, as well as her accordion. (…)
Kirkland said a lot of her music is inspired by her experiences and emotions.
“In general it’s an emotion strong enough to make me uncomfortable,” she elaborated. It’s an emotion that’s related to an experience, and then it comes out.”
In addition, Kirkland said she finds inspiration for her texts from songwriters such as Bertold Brecht and Kurt Weill.
The performance was also the first time Kirkland played in Ottawa, having previously performed in Toronto and Montreal. Ottawa, she said, provides a unique opportunity for an artist such as her.
“There’s not as much going on here as in [Toronto or Montreal], but people here are open,” she said.
Despite the low-key nature of her performance, Kirkland was greeted with loud applause at the end of each song, and especially at the end of her show, proving that you don’t need to have a genre to be good.