During the process of making her new record, Before You, Alicia Hansen was wrestling with some big questions, not the least of them being “What genre is it?” and “Who is it for?”
Now that the album is out, with a release party scheduled for this weekend, those are still fair things to ask, because Before You defies easy categorization. A conservatory-trained pianist with an interest in free improvisation, Hansen has unusually strong keyboard skills—but she uses them to explore, not to zero in on one particular sound. Listening to the new disc, it’s possible to detect the influence of early-modernist classical music, as filtered through a 21st-century jazz sensibility, in her playing, but her knotty keyboard ruminations are set on top of a powerful rhythmic pulse that owes an audible debt to progressive rock. And when Hansen opens her mouth to sing, perceptions shift again: her phrasing is careful and considered, but also deeply felt. Easy comparisons can be made to some of the great female singer-songwriters of the past 40 years—Kate Bush, Tori Amos, Veda Hille, Björk—but that’s primarily because, like them, Hansen is sui generis.
The question of who Before You is for, however, is more readily settled. It’s for her.
“If you want the back story, I had my son in 2014, and then after I had him I think I didn’t touch the piano for almost two years,” Hansen explains, checking in with the Straight from her Bowen Island home. “Maybe a little bit here and there, but essentially nothing happened for the first two years of his life. I just couldn’t get to the piano at all, and I had gone back to work full-time after my mat leave—and between commuting to the city and having an infant, there was just absolutely no room left over.
“At some point I realized that I was really suffering because of that, and that there was some crucial part of me that was wearing away from that lack of music and having an outlet,” she continues. “I felt ‘This has to change,’ so I moved my piano into a little shed on the property, fixed it up as a studio, reduced my work hours, and just carved out a little time, every day, to get out to my piano. It was just a huge relief—and all of these songs just were ready to come out.”
Given the circumstances, it’s not surprising that many of those songs detail Hansen’s struggle against the voices, both external and internal, that were raised in opposition to her creative rebirth.
“Yeah, owning my identity as a musician has been really hard for me,” she allows. “There’s always been the imposter syndrome, and also along with that a sense of ‘How do I fit in this culture of the music biz?’ I don’t do anything the way you’re supposed to do it, and whenever I’ve tried it’s just felt so wrong. So I’ve just sort of refused to do it that way.”
Fortunately, Hansen has found support and companionship in Vancouver’s burgeoning improv scene. Violinist and studio ace Jesse Zubot produced Before You, and he’ll be present when Hansen brings it to the stage, along with his equally gifted brother Joshua, cellist Marina Hasselberg, singer Hilary Ison, bassist James Meger, drummer Ben Brown, and Lee Hutzulak on a number of electronic devices.
It’s a dream band, and knowing that she has this kind of support is no doubt a factor in Hansen’s present happiness.
“It’s going to feel really good,” she says of her upcoming show. “That’s my idea of bliss, for sure.”
Alicia Hansen hosts a CD-release party for Before You at Pyatt Hall on Thursday (November 1).