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BATTLING THEIR WAY TO THE TOP: Q&A with Halifax band Hillsburn

The first time you hear Halifax-based band Hillsburn perform, you know it won't be your last. There is something unfading in the quintet’s distinct sound that lingers. So it comes as no surprise that Hillsburn recently won the New/Emerging Artist of the Year award at the 2016 Canadian Folk Music Awards. Throw the release of their new album, "In the Battle Years," into the mix, with its evocative lyrics and unfiltered sound, and there is no stopping these fabulous five. Local Connections chats with Hillsburn on their new sound, upcoming east coast tour and how the band came to be. 

Congratulations on the release of your first album, "In the Battle Years." From a lyrical standpoint, with five of you in the band, how do you make it work when it comes to writing the songs? Is it a collective process? 

Clayton Burrill (guitar, vocals): We fight about a lot of things but never the lyrics. That's one thing that Paul (Aarntzen) looks after specifically. I don't think there is one thing that he has ever written that we were not all amazed by and very happy to sing about.

Rosanna Burrill (vocals, violin): Paul’s lyrics are very relatable to everyone. You can always find your own story in whatever story he is telling. It’s really helpful from a performance perspective because you can be whoever the character is. Paul basically writes the songs, brings them to us and then we arrange them collectively. That's where we have disagreements. We have rearranged some of Paul's songs musically eight or ten times until we get it right. 

Do you all come from a writing background?

Paul Aarntzen (guitar, ukulele, vocals): I have been playing in bands since I was young and have written songs since I was 16 or 17. I was in bands until I was in my early 20s, then I just didn't do anything for about eight or nine years. I didn't show anything to anyone, but I was still writing songs. I had a few hundred songs stored up. I showed some to Clayton and that is how we ended up in the band together.

Rosanna: Clayton actually used to be a lawyer. Jackson and I and Claire all did music together at Dalhousie. Clayton and I are siblings; we grew up in a pretty musical family. Our mom had a music degree at Dalhousie too, and our dad is one of those people that can play every instrument. So it was just sort of a natural thing for us. 

What spurred on the desire to form a band? 

Rosanna: I don't think the band came to be by someone wanting to be in a band. It was sort of an accident. Clayton went to visit Paul, who was living in Hillsburn, N.S., and he had all these songs written. At the time, Clayton and I had a duo that we were doing together that was totally separate. We were living together with Jackson. Clayton came home from visiting Paul and said he has all these great songs! We went down to Hillsburn to see Paul and play some songs, and mostly to have fun. It was a happy accident. 

Paul: Clayton said to me, ‘Let's start a band!’ It took Clayton a couple of phone calls to convince me to have a band. I even sold my house to focus on the band full time. The name of the band is from the town of Hillsburn, which is pretty much just a stretch of road over the hill from Annapolis Royal. 

How do you feel your sound has evolved with the new album, "In the Battle Years"? 

Paul: We have changed significantly since recording the album. I think that's why we are so excited to be working on another album. We don't even sound like our first album anymore. It’s very strange for us, every six months it seems we sound different. Maybe this time next year we will be a metal band [chuckles]. 

Clayton: It does feel like things have settled a bit in the last six months or so. It has been a really nice, natural progression. We had drum sounds initially in the album, but we needed someone to come in and play drums for us, to re-record a bit. Adding Claire Macdonald, who plays percussion, into the band has made all the songs on the album way, way more interesting. 

Jackson Fairfax-Perry (keyboards, synths, saxophone): I think probably when we first started out as a four-piece we were very much a folk band. I think the biggest evolution has been from that to sort of a pop-rock/indie-rock band. 

Rosanna: Jackson started out playing the mandolin, and his first instrument is the saxophone. He was mostly playing acoustic instruments when we started out, and now he plays keys and bass synth and two pedal boards. I feel his sound has really evolved the most. 

Who decided on the title of the album? 

Clayton: We each made lists of possible titles. In Rosanna's list were all lines from various songs. "In the battle years" is a line from the song “Ava.” We whittled the names down, and “In the Battle Years” just felt like it really encompassed all the things that were going on in the album.

You are all setting out on an Atlantic Canada tour this February. Are there any maritime artists that you draw inspiration from when writing songs? Do you think your music has an east coast feel to it? 

Paul: I tend not to listen to music when I am writing a song so that whatever comes out is close to what I would write, and not a Joel Plaskett rip-off. I think it’s easy if you are listening to something to have it seep into what you are writing. 

Rosanna: I grew up playing the fiddle, which is very east coast. We live here, and musicians that live here and play here surround us. I don't think anything we do is particularly east coast per se, but certainly influenced by living here. 

Going forward into 2017 the plan is a new album and a new sound. Anything else we can look forward to?

Paul: Lots of touring, lots of writing. We are going into the northeastern United States. We also have a new single coming out this winter called "Low Light." It’s sort of like our own anthem. We are all excited about it!