PHOTO CREDIT: Jordan Michaelis
CANADIAN artist Sarah Hiltz talks to me…
about her new track, Without You. She is a singular talent whose voice is very much her own. A blend of different genres; she has echoes of greats like Billie Holiday and Joni Mitchell. I chat to her about the new single, Without You, and what we can expect from her forthcoming album, Beauty in the Blue. I find out about Hiltz’s musical past and the artists she is inspired by; what subjects inspire her music - and whether she is coming to the U.K. anytime soon.
Hiltz talks about long-term collaborators, Jordan Michaelis and David Puzak, and what the Canadian music scene is like; why her new album returns to a Folk sound – and which memories of the year stick in her mind.
Hi, Sarah. How are you? How has your week been?
Busy, busy! (And a little sad).
I always feel a bit melancholy and nostalgic when September rolls around.
For those new to your work, can you introduce yourself, please?
Yeah! I’m an independent Canadian musician, based in Toronto.
I draw mostly from Folk and Jazz influences. Most of my songwriting focuses on finding a way to communicate the complexities of human relationships.
Without You is your new track. What can you reveal about its background and inspiration
Without You came after a long period of watching someone close to me struggle with severe depression. I’m kind of a slow processor, so it took me a long time to realize how much I was also affected by proximity. I think most of us don’t want our own pain to negatively affect the people close to us - but love doesn’t work that way. It hurts to see someone you love suffering; their pain doesn’t stop with themselves.
So, the song is kind of my way of saying, ‘hey, I’m on this road with you and we either fight or we fail together’.
It seems, from listening to the track, there is that difficulty balancing the effects of depression and maintaining a contented relationship. Was it quite hard putting that onto the page?
Yeah. It took a long time for me to be able to find the right way to describe my internal thoughts.
I spent a lot of time focusing outward; trying to tell myself ‘this isn’t about me’ - which is maybe true, in some way - but you can’t live life close together and not be deeply affected by each others’ pain. I think for me to be a better source of support - it was important for me to recognize that. But, also, important to find a way to communicate that in a way that, hopefully, doesn’t sound like blame.
I was going more for solidarity.
The album, Beauty in the Blue, is approaching. Can you tell me the stories and influences on the record? How much of your travels – and time as a travelling musician – go into the album?
It plays a big part, I think...
In Canada, there’s a program for artists to perform onboard our cross-country train in exchange for travel. I’ve done that trip several times and quite a few songs on the album are a direct result of that. Some of them are inspired by people I met: some are made of lyrics that I wrote while on the train… aside from all the strangers you meet and get to know on the train; it’s also really inspiring to see Canada that way.
There’s a lot of built-in time for reflection with nowhere to go and little in the way of distractions - which helps me to focus in on writing lyrics.
On it, you work with long-term collaborators Jordan Michaelis and David Puzak. What was it like working with the guys on the record?
Oh man, so great.
I love playing with them both - they sense so well where I’m going and what I’m trying to do. I’m so grateful I was able to have them in the studio with me. More than just laying down parts; they helped me express something beyond what I could capture alone - it wouldn’t be the same record without them.
It’s also the first time I’ve produced a recording that sounds like what I’m feeling or thinking - and that has a lot to do not only with Jordan and Dave and Kevin (Engineer and Co-Producer); but with everyone who worked on the album being willing to engage with the central message or theme of each song.
PHOTO CREDIT: Jo Elis
The L.P. sees a return to Folk-driven sounds. Was this a conscious decision or did the experiences you went through demand a more contemplative and emotive direction?
In a way, it was a conscious decision.
Before we started recording, Jordan, Dave and I had been playing as a Folk-trio for a couple years. After a bunch of shows around Toronto - and a tour in Ireland and the U.K. - we had developed a certain energy - and I wanted to capture that dynamic in the studio. Most of the beds for each track are the three of us playing live in the studio.
After that, I wanted to fill in the gaps with whatever felt most natural and, usually, that was something that fell inside of a modern-Folk kind of sound.
Is there a particular song on the album that encapsulates the entire spirit (of the record) – the one that has a particularly strong connection?!
I feel a pretty strong connection to them all.
They all seem to take turns being the thing that best expresses where I’m currently at - show-to-show, day-to-day. But, I do think of I Took a Risk as the sort of thesis statement for the record as a whole. It talks about a need to do things for myself, in my own way, and the sometimes-paralyzing self-doubt I experience after making a decision to do just that.
It’s the song that expresses my desire for clarity - and all the songs that follow are examples of me trying to find it in a particular situation.
PHOTO CREDIT: Jo Elis
You are based in Toronto. What is the music scene like there and is it a part of the world, you think, more eyes should be trained on?
In terms of creators, I think it’s a really special place.
Toronto is home to such a wide variety of people from all over the world so the scope of music is really diverse and unique. It’s so interesting to hear where different genres and traditions meet and overlap. In terms of the industry, it’s a challenging place to survive as an independent musician: the city being as expensive as it is (the rent here, I tell ya!)
Who are the artists that compelled you to get into music? Can you remember the first musician that stuck in the mind and struck the heart?
Haha, yes. But I was really young, okay?
I think the first female musician I became aware of was Amy Grant. I remember my parents playing one of her cassettes at home and I was in the living-room and listening to it thinking, ‘I want to do what she’s doing when I grow up.’ She was just so cool with her leopard-print jacket and long, curly hair! I was three-years-old then and that was the moment I decided I wanted to sing.
I also have very early recollections of Neil Young and, having grown up an hour from Detroit, a lot of Motown artists (Martha and the Vandellas; early-Stevie Wonder) that have dug into my subconscious.
PHOTO CREDIT: Tammy Foster
What tour dates do you have coming up? Any plans playing the U.K. this/next year?
I have a release-show on November 7th in Toronto and some dates in Western Canada later this year. I’m considering a return to the U.K. next fall but it’s unconfirmed at this point - still exploring to find the right venues and see if it will be feasible or not.
This year is nearing its end. Which memories have stuck out as being particularly special?
One really special night was the beginning of this year: I rang in the New Year on a train somewhere close to Edmonton, Alberta with a group of travellers from all over the world. As the night got later, and people started heading to bed, I was up in the dome car (where the roof and walls are all windows) with a just a few people.
Eventually, one of the staff came up and handed us the last open bottle of champagne - and said he was going to bed. We polished it off and sat watching fireworks over the city from a distance - and talked about the people we love and about music.
That night definitely stands out.
Who are new acts you recommend we check out?
IN THIS PHOTO: Running Red Lights
If you had to select the three albums that mean the most to you; which would they be and why?
Birth of the Cool by Miles Davis
This was the first record I heard by Miles Davis - and it was like nothing I’d ever heard before. I love the vibe, the arrangements and the melodies. You can really feel the energy of the group…even after all this time.
Wrecking Ball by Emmylou Harris
I never get tired of this album. Her voice is so unique. I love the songwriting and storytelling but, also I love, love, love the production by Daniel Lanois. It’s a Folk/Country album - but isn’t overly earthy or rootsy.
There’s something mysterious about it.
PHOTO CREDIT: Jordan Michaelis
Emily’s D+Evolution by Esperanza Spalding
I heard the first single off this record – One - and was just floored by the melody. Esperanza Spalding is constantly pushing musical boundaries: every record she makes has its own special thing. I can hear the Joni Mitchell influence on this one and, as a fan of them both, it’s really interesting to hear that influence through Spalding’s lens. It’s also encouraging to hear someone as established as her make a record so outside-the-box.
It really defies categorization.
What advice would you give to artists coming through right now?
Create as much as you can. Don’t let perfectionism stop you from completing something and moving on.
I’m still trying to learn that lesson - but I can see where it’s held me back.
Finally, and for being a good sport; you can name a song and I’ll play it here (not one of yours as I’ll do that).
New Jerusalem by Cam Maclean!
Cam and I met as teens in our hometown - we took guitar lessons from the same teacher. I’ve always loved his songwriting - but this new recording may be my favourite-ever of his.
Follow Sarah Hiltz
PHOTO CREDIT: Jordan Michaeli