There’s an in between quality to Gillian Kirkland and her music, a tension caused by a determined push to be original and the inescapable pull of her classical training. On Rubicon, her new album, Kirkland’s soaring, imploring, operatic voice somehow both fits and contrasts with the whimsical cabaret-esque nature of the accordion she hugs.
By Tony Martins / Photos by Michael Marquette
Points of no return are in between moments, fraught with risk and nine months pregnant.
In storytelling, in songwriting, in opera, in drama, they are the big payoffs, the money shots, the sea changes, the opportunities for catharsis. Ultimately, they are all that we really care about. They reveal much about who we are and how we intend to live.
Gillian Kirkland’s second self-authored album, Rubicon, appeared this September and can be read as one big in between moment. Stylistically, her music has always skittered across so many genres that the singer-songwriter-accordionist requires one slash and three hyphens when defining it as “neo-cabaret/pop-jazz-experimental; you would be hard-pressed to find a relevant comparison.” The new album in particular, however, is a searching for a middle ground.
“In my previous work, I was always reluctant to relinquish the classical ‘box’,” Kirkland says, “but with this project I wanted to push myself outside of my creative comfort zone.”
Slender and sharp-featured, seeming both bohemian and intellectual, Kirkland is aware of the paradox when she calls the album both more experimental and more “popish" than her previous work.
“Pop music has always provoked a sort of bad reaction in me,” Kirkland explains, “so it is a question of how far out I can venture before I begin to cringe and run back to safety.”
Not purely a political album nor a collection of introspective love songs, Rubicon is, again, something in between.
“I feel a responsibility to write about social issues which affect current and future generations,” says Kirkland. “Sometimes, however, life itself becomes so overwhelming that it demands a response and one of the healthiest ways I have found of responding is the act of creation.”
Whether singing allegorically about environment degradation in the title track “Rubicon” or negotiating a tricky romantic entanglement in “Talk about the Weather,” Kirkland offers up decisive moments as a way of asking for action—from herself and from society.
“These songs have a quality of urgency because they were composed out of personal necessity,” the songwriter explains. “Since everything is connected, they also exist in relationship to a greater social context.”
Dramatic catharsis, group therapy
Transfixed from a young age by the transcendent beauty of classical music, Kirkland performed in several productions with the Canadian Opera Company as a child.
“I continued to study singing throughout high school and university but I increasingly had trouble with what I perceived as dogmatism and elitism which sometimes pervade the classical music scene,” Kirkland says.
One of the benefits of classical training was Kirkland’s cultivated taste for dramatic catharsis, a kind of emotional recovery that she likens to group therapy.
“When you go to see Carmen after your lover has betrayed you, you can relive your emotions in a way that is healing and transcends your own individual suffering.” She explains. “I do not pretend to offer such an experience with my music but I try to allow my own suffering to generate something beautiful.”
Her accordion as instrument of choice is one of the ways in which Kirkland breaks through the formal restrictions of the classical genre for a greater range of individual expressiveness.
“I have something of a back-room relationship with the accordion,” she explains. “I took it up as a stand-in for a live accompanist, which is typically what classical singers rely upon. I like its expressive capabilities, which work well with my temperament, and its portability, which allows me the freedom to perform where and when I want.”
Doing things how she wants is fundamental to Kirkland’s musical life. In the constant challenge to balance creative fulfillment with commercial success, she usually opts for the former.
“Ultimately I feel that if I want my audience to have respect for me, I need to have respect for them and offer them what I find truly satisfying,” Kirkland says, “rather than what I think they want to hear.”
The songwriter’s stylistic indulgences include language: alternating between French and English lyrics is another in between aspect to Rubicon. Is the songwriter using this duality to construct dialogues?
“Sometimes yes, sometimes no,” she explains. “With ‘Talk About the Weather’ it is quite deliberate—and let me tell you English and French are not easy to rhyme. But most of the time, it is my intuition that dictates in which language a particular idea will be expressed.”
As indie as they come
Kirkland’s varied life journey might suggest that her time in Ottawa is also an in between—“I moved to Ottawa on a whim three years ago after having lived in Toronto, Sante Fe, Montreal, and most recently Italy,” she says—but the nature of Canada’s capital seems to be suiting her just fine.
“Ottawa is a very good place to make music,” says the performer, “and the only thing preventing it from being a great place to make music is a lack of adventurous venues willing to support the excellent local pool of creative artists who are pushing the envelope in a multitude of ways.”
Helping her break ground on the new album was highly respected producer Phil V. Bova of Bova Sound. The indie project was financed through a grant by the Ontario Arts Council and Kirkland is currently putting together tour dates to support the release.
“At this point I am as ‘indie' as they come,” concludes Kirkland, “which means that the album will essentially be available at my performances, online, and at small independent record stores. Some people may wonder what the point is since so much work goes into creating an object which has very little chance of being financially viable, but that's like wondering what is the point of art.”