Moving from Toronto to the village of Harrison Hot Springs four years ago was tough for Andy Hillhouse as a guitarist and singer. It cut him off abruptly from fellow musicians who’d come to be part his everyday creative life in the city.
“In Toronto there were always lots of musicians around, and living here meant I was somewhat isolated,” says Hillhouse, reached in the offices of the Harrison Festival, of which he’s artistic director. “Without a group to play with all the time, I needed to do something new on my own. It took coming out here to kick off the project for my solo album Passages.”
A leading figure of Canada’s Celtic scene since the '90s, Hillhouse has played and recorded with a long list of bands and musicians—including Vancouver’s Mad Pudding, and champion-fiddler Mark Sullivan. However, a part of his identity as a musican was largely missing in the collaborative experience.
“I’ve been singing ballads in the shows we’ve done, but I’ve never been able to present that in the way I really want.”
According to Hillhouse the title Passages relates to movement, displacement, and transition.
“There’s a strong element of travelling runs through it, both mine and the material’s—traditional songs that have travelled, references to different places, a tune influenced by Brazilian music. And life-passages too—birth, death, homecoming. It works on different levels.”
While a solo album, Hillhouse stresses that Passages is also about community in many ways, and there are a number of contributing musicians.
“It draws on people I’ve worked with or encountered over the last 10 or so years—the McDades, Pierre Schryer, and producer James Stephens—bringing them together in a virtual way. “
For the Vancouver release party of Passages Hillhouse is joined by standup bassist Adam Hill and two former bandmates, Van Django fiddler Cam Wilson and virtuosic whistle-player and saxophonist Jeremiah McDade. It’s a double bill with husband-and-wife duo the Eisenhauers, releasing their impressive debut The Road We Once Knew.
Passages balances traditional songs from England and Ireland with three original pieces by other songwriters, and five by Hillhouse with personal backstories. “Canning Line” is about the men and women—his parents among them—who worked in the old West Coast canneries, And “Meet You There” is dedicated to late fiddler Oliver Schroer, a focus of Hillhouse’s doctorate studies while in Toronto.
“My dissertation grew from interviewing him,” Hillhouse explains. “I wanted to focus on Western Canadian fiddle music, B.C. especially, and the fiddle-music movement here. Oliver did a lot of work in Smithers, and he had such a distinctive career, with an incredible network of collaborators who crossed so many boundaries.”
“It got me thinking about communities in today’s folk scene, and how artists’ musical identities are formed as much by these individualized networks as any particular shared genre, style, or ethnic group. So I mapped out Oliver’s network, interviewed people he knew, and related it to the transnational scene at festivals . Things have changed so much in the way musicians meet and are able to stay connected internationally from when I started playing. It’s fascinating.”
Andy Hillhouse performs at the St. James Hall this Saturday (May 13) on a double bill with the Eisenhauers.