By Jeff Kingsbury
In their short approximately two-year existence as a full band, Hillsburn have wasted no time making their name known. Their impressive five-piece indie-folk sound has been heard by practically everyone in the Canadian music community, from small halls to big festival stages. On January 19th, they’ll make their third stop in Ottawa to play the newly-renovated National Arts Centre Fourth Stage.
Apt613 spoke with Rosanna Burrill (vocals/violin) and Clare MacDonald (drums/percussion) ahead of what is sure to be a magnetic performance.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
Apt613: Shifting into a busier performance schedule, you folks now seem to constantly be on tour. Save for a few lulls to write, record, and I assume rest a bit. What are some lessons that being on the road across Canada has taught you?
Rosanna Burrill: I personally love being on the road. But it’s definitely a learning process figuring out how to get all the things you need and maintaining some semblance of balance while living in a van. I’ve learned how big this country really is. You have to learn to love driving for hours and hours at a time.
I think we’ve learned to navigate a little better how to be around each other 24/7. Anyone who grew up in a family with lots of siblings will know what that’s like. But I think we’ve been around each other long enough that we kind of know what we all need a little better now. There’s sort of a nice rhythm to being on tour once you get used to it.
Clare MacDonald: Also, download lots of movies to your computer, get a power inverter for the van, and get used to gas station coffee! Also get some van-laps in when you can.
Your live show has a great arc to it, between soft and intense moments. Do you take any cues from other bands? From a live production standpoint?
RB: Thank you! We spend a lot of time on that, so that’s awfully nice of you to say. I personally feel like I’m always taking notes. Any concert I’ve ever gone to, I think about what I liked about it or how I would do it differently. I would say we’re influenced by bands like Arkells, The National, July Talk, and Radiohead. They all have great live shows.
Any highlight shows for you so far? Particularly good crowds or artists you’ve shared a bill with?
RB: The biggest highlight for me was performing at the Vancouver Folk Festival last summer. It was the last stop on the tour before the long drive home, none of us had any clean clothes, we had been on the road for a month at that point, and we were all pretty exhausted. It was the kind of festival where you end up playing like three or four times in a day, so we’d play our shows for the day and then go to the hotel and wash our clothes in the tub because there wasn’t time to do laundry. Pretty glamorous!
But then it turned out to be the most fun we’d had on the tour. Every show we played was amazing! And our main set, which was only on a side stage, was incredible. I still dream about the crowd at that show. It made the four day drive home to Halifax from Vancouver totally worth it.
It seems like the band have more of a classically trained background than a folk/indie music background. I definitely see chamber-music moments in your music, not just from an instrumental standpoint but in the spirit of some of the quieter moments. How does that training factor into arranging and performing songs?
RB: We all come from different musical backgrounds, and I think that is a huge part of why our sound has developed the way it has. We rarely get stuck for ideas. Sometimes it takes a while to sift through them and figure out which ones are actually good ideas. I think it works in our favour that Clare, Jackson, and I studied music and Clayton and Paul are largely self-taught.
We never shoot any idea down without trying it, and every idea comes from a different musical place, so it’s interesting to see what comes from that.
CM: One of the big takeaways I received from my education is the importance of listening to all the members of the ensemble you’re playing in, knowing where you fit in, and how it affects the other players. I think (or hope) that we’ve learned how to do that as a band, and it allows us to feed off each other during performances, weather it be in the big exciting moments, or the space that comes between.
Creative work seems spread out amongst the group, between writing, arranging, directing videos, and I’m assuming a decent amount of the busy work behind a successful tour. Do these roles play on skillsets you all already had? Or did they emerge out of necessity, on the fly?
RB: A lot of the creative grunt work is done by Paul, who is not only a brilliant songwriter, but also has the great ability to learn any skill necessary to get the job done. He’s one of a kind. But yes, we do spread the work around throughout the group.
One of the things we’ve learned about ourselves is that we are a very opinionated group and like to have our finger on the pulse of everything that is happening, so it’s easier to learn the skills needed to get something done so we can have the final say about what goes out into the world. Every decision that we make is very much a group process, which I think has become an integral part of how we function as a group, and works in our favour in the long run.
Clare, you co-directed the band’s latest music video for “Bad Behaviours”. Can you shed a bit of light on the concept you had in mind for that video as it relates to the song?
CM: The concept was definitely a homage to the “Over Everything” video by Courtney Barnett and Kurt Vile. I really love that video and usually watch it multiple times in one sitting! I thought that a simple but captivating visual concept like that would work for “Bad Behaviours”, so people would be able to focus on the song and the importance of the lyrics, without getting lost in a complicated story narrative. I wanted us all to be in it singing the words though, because I feel like the lyrics of “Bad Behaviours” can speak to everyone on different levels, and having us all singing might represent that. We also wanted to keep it light, so we added the bonus of all our great dance moves!
What music are you listening to the most lately?
RB: Sylvan Esso, The National, Brandi Carlile, The Barr Brothers.
CM: Pinegrove, Whitney, The Beaches, Partner, Weaves
And finally, what’s in store for the rest of 2018?
RB: We’re putting out a brand new record called The Wilder Beyond on February 2nd! We’re going to be heading out on a spring tour in April, including some places we’ve never been before, which is very exciting! Summer will be filled with festivals and hopefully some sunshine. I think we’re all feeling excited to get this album out into the world. It’s been quite a process for us and we’re all looking forward to getting out on the road and performing the new songs.
Hillsburn play the National Arts Centre Fourth Stage (1 Elgin St) on January 19 at 8:30pm. Devarrow will open the sold out show.