Looking back can be dangerous, and I’m sure there are more than a few of us who are damned glad that they burnt every scrap of their teenage writing before it could be leaked to friends, family, and the wide world of the Interwebs.
Not Veda Hille, though.
On turning 50 last year, the Vancouver singer, songwriter, pianist, and theatrical composer decided to assemble a kind of personal best-of, a lightly theatricalized autobiography in song. And in going way, way back, she was surprisingly pleased to find portents of who she would become in the journals of who she was then—including “a list of things I wanted to accomplish before I was 25, or something like that”.
“One of them was ‘Ride a motorcycle across Europe,’ which is never going to happen, people!” she says, reached on her cellphone while practising piano at Music on Main artistic director David Pay’s East Van house. “But another one was ‘Make a record.’ And this was before I wrote songs, so that was kind of nice to see.”
Hille has in fact gone on to make almost 20 records, most recently releasing her scores for the musical Onegin, cowritten with director Amiel Gladstone, and King Arthur’s Night, a collaboration with Neworld Theatre. For Little Volcano, the career-spanning retrospective she’ll unveil at the Shadbolt Centre for the Arts next week, she’ll be picking some of her favourites, both for sentimental reasons and to illustrate her path as a songwriter.
“I think some artists start out writing more fictionally, and then turn to autobiography later. I definitely started firmly in confessional, personal songwriting, so it was a great freedom for me to suddenly realize that there were other stories,” she says with a laugh, referring to her theatrical projects, which have run from working with choreographer Jennifer Mascall to explore the life of Emily Carr to writing pop parodies for the wildly popular East Van Panto series. “The pressure of keeping up a life that’s full of good stories is a big pressure! It’s good to look away. And that way, I can keep writing and have all these interesting assignments from people, and then every five or six years I can do a really personal project—which feels about right for my pace.”
Hille’s also bringing some of her theatrical associates into Little Volcano, including Theatre Replacement’s James Long and Maiko Bae Yamamoto. The two, she explains, have helped her determine which parts of her life to lean on, and have come up with some innovative ways to make the show—which Music on Main will remount next year as part of the PuSh International Performing Arts Festival—more than just one very talented woman sitting at a large, black piano.
“My life may have not been the most exciting life, but there’s enough going on that you have to pick and choose,” Hille says understatedly. “So this is why it’s been so amazing to work with James Long and Maiko Bae Yamamoto. I’ve worked with them for almost 20 years on theatrical projects, but finally I’ve requested that they turn their excellent artistic eyes onto me and help me figure this out.
“I’m playing songs; it’s essentially a heightened concert situation,” she continues. “But the things that I say between songs are scripted, and I have actions to perform. It’s very much in line with the Theatre Replacement aesthetic, which is never too baroque—which is actually ironic, because I play a lot of Bach in this show as well as my own music.”
Johann Sebastian Bach has been a constant in Hille’s artistic life. His music, she explains, has been a source of inspiration, challenge, and consolation, although she jokingly cautions that she’s not a classical pianist, if only because of her “small hands”.
“But playing Bach means so much to me as an experience of music,” she says, “that I wanted to bring that sense of practice and subservience to a great composer to a show.”
It’s also a chance to fulfill one of her teenage dreams, even if going full-on Easy Rider on the Autobahn will have to wait for her next incarnation. Among the instructions to herself that Hille found in her teenage notebook was “Write lyrics for a Bach aria.” She hasn’t aimed quite that high, but has composed words for one of the German master’s simpler preludes—and, for now, that’s close enough to the fulfillment of a dream deferred.
Veda Hille presents Little Volcano at the Shadbolt Centre for the Arts from April 25 to 27.