Musicians all over Vancouver-and, for that matter, across Canada-were bereft when the Sugar Refinery closed its doors at the end of 2003. Clubs that actively support musical experimentation and intimate songwriting are rare, and the downtown venue was particularly friendly to emerging artists, offering a low-pressure learning environment for a number of performers who have since gone on to greater prominence in the local scene.
For one Vancouver player, however, the Sugar Refinery's death sparked an artistic rebirth. "I had a bit of a creative surge a few months after everything shut down with the Sugar Refinery, for some strange reason," says keyboardist and singer Ida Nilsen, laughing at the end of the line connecting me to her Strathcona home. "Maybe it had something to do with all of a sudden having 60 more hours of free time every week."
Nilsen, as those who frequented the Sugar Refinery will remember, was the room's co-owner, booking agent, and primary bartender. Being clear of those obligations is a relief, she admits, but she finds her newfound freedom unsettling at times. "One thing that maybe I'm not happy about my life right now is that it's pretty much revolving around me," she notes. "I'm not really doing anything for anybody else. That's kind of a weird feeling, and I'm probably going to have to change that at some point. But maybe I can be selfish for a few years."
If selfishness results in more CDs like Great Aunt Ida's debut, Our Fall, it might be in danger of losing its bad reputation. The new disc-all Nilsen originals, except for a Neil Young-style cover of the Waterboys' "Fisherman's Blues"-is a gem, but one that reveals its facets slowly. Against a bed of her sturdy but accomplished piano playing, Nilsen sings lines that scan like diary entries: they're revealing yet coded, and this, combined with her tendency to drop her voice at key moments, gives them an attractively enigmatic aspect.
Even the album's one uptempo number, "This Macarena"-a possible hit single, if radio would only play real music-is anything but straightforward. Does Nilsen switch mid-song from her own narrative voice to that of a bird with a broken wing? It's hard to say, and she concedes that she likes to keep some aspects of her art shrouded in mystery.
"Yeah, I think so," Nilsen says. "I like people to sort of interpret things in their own way. And I know that I've been disappointed several times by finding lyrics and realizing that I'd totally got the whole thing wrong, something that I thought was amazing. So maybe it's better that people don't know how boring the words really are."
Boring's not the word I'd choose, however. These songs are domestic in a way, insofar as they're rooted in everyday events and observations; "Acting", for instance, would appear to be a snapshot of the many long nights Nilsen spent running the Sugar Refinery, based on lines like "When will they leave/I am tired/Nothing is happening here/Except sloppy attempts to take home the bartender/Nobody's going to take home the bartender." Elsewhere, her lyrics give voice to the nagging insecurities that plague us all. ("I'm kind of a bit of a perfectionist about my own behaviour," she admits. "Which probably isn't obvious from how I behave.") But they're never one-dimensional, even if their author admits to being disturbed by their apparent simplicity.
"When I first started working on songwriting, I found that my songs were really reminding me of Christmas songs," she says. "I didn't want them to be childlike, but I do think I wanted the content to be simple and the music to be a little less simple. I wanted the music to be inter?esting for me and the other musicians to play."
That it is. On Our Fall, Nilsen's confident keyboards get warm and sensitive support from Annie Wilkinson on bass, Barry Mirochnick on drums, and JP Carter on trumpet and subtle electronic effects. ("I like the dying-whale sounds on 'Without End'," she says of the adventurous trumpeter. "He does some squirrels, too. He's got all these animal noises. It's really great.") The three will also join her for Great Aunt Ida's CD-release party at the Western Front on Friday (June 10).
Nilsen's real-life great aunt, Ida Zinhelt, probably won't show up, however. "To be honest, I've only seen her once, at a family reunion, since I was about four," she confesses, adding that she does intend to send her namesake a copy of the new CD. "But a lot of people have Great Aunt Idas. Almost everybody I talk to has a Great Aunt Ida, or knows somebody who has one. There's just tons of them out there-so many that the name's often used as a term for a fuddy-duddy old person."
Be that as it may, Great Aunt Ida's music is far from old-fashioned-although, like a favourite relative, it exerts a wholesome and timeless appeal.
Great Aunt Ida plays a CD-release party at the Western Front on Friday, June 10.
In + Out
Ida Nilsen sounds off on the things that enquiring minds want to know.
On the impact of Vancouver's long rainy season on local songwriters: "It's pretty obvious that the lack of sunlight does take its effect. There's kind of a dreary”¦well, not dreary, necessarily, but an in-between sort of feeling that comes out a lot."
On the influence of Protestant hymns on songs like "Without End": "I wasn't brought up going to church at all. But I used to play out of hymn books when I was a kid. I don't really know why, but we had some lying around the house, and I kind of played everything."
On the tough work of writing: "It's pretty hard to do. It's not an easy thing. Some people seem to be able to do it easily, but I don't write a lot of songs. I'm not one of those people who writes five new songs a week. Songs usually come all at once, with a lot of time in between."