An interview with
Alicia Hansen

By Beppe Colli
May 3, 2011

Released at a time when nice surprises are in very short supply, Alicia Hansen's debut album was obviously destined to make a very good impression on me. But I'll immediately add that Fractography is the kind of album that would be considered noteworthy in any time period. Interested readers are invited to read my review in full. Here I'll only mention the album's high-quality compositions; those versatile, personal-sounding, captivating vocals; those skillful arrangements and sounds, the perfect companions for Hansen's vocals and melodies, the album featuring an inventive sonic landscape that would be quite impressive had the album been recorded with a much larger budget at one's disposal - here I'll obviously have to mention producer/arranger Aaron Joyce, and engineer Jesse Gander.

It goes without saying that listening to an album so successful and mature which at the same time is the artist's debut album is a rare occurrence indeed. So I got in touch with Alicia Hansen, asking for an interview. She kindly accepted, the interview being conducted via e-mail in the past two weeks.

As readers will notice in just a moment, I could not restrain myself from starting the conversation asking a question about a little mystery that I had found to be intriguing when listening to the album.

I'm sure starting our conversation talking about your life story and your artistic background would be more appropriate, but I'm really curious to know the reason why a lot of (very fine) keyboards which are featured on your album were not listed in the CD liner notes... Who played them? And would you please tell me what they are? (In my review I made an educated guess, but I could be very wrong.)

Well, I'm afraid I don't have a good excuse for that. The process was somewhat rushed, and believe it or not, it just didn't occur to me to give details about all the keyboards. I think of myself as a pianist, not a keyboardist, so under the constraints of time, and with limited space on the CD jacket, I just went with the barebone credits. I've been kicking myself about that, actually. The keyboards on the album (all played by me) were: Yamaha C2 grand, pump organ, Wurlitzer A200, e-bow auto-harp samples and electronic 'auto-harp' piano samples (both of which we created in the studio), Digidesign's Vacuum software synthesizer, and a Flemish-replica, single-manual harpsichord owned by Early Music Vancouver.

Of course, I'd also like to know how you came to choose those particular players to appear on your album.

Aaron and I had a particular kind of sound in mind and wanted avant-garde, improvising musicians who would bring a lot of energy, authority, but also a lot of sensitivity to the music. Skye, Tommy, Peggy and Ron all have very sophisticated and distinct sounds but also are amazing ensemble players. I'd never worked with any of them before, but had seen them play around town for years. Aaron insisted that we shoot for our ideal band and go from there. To my great surprise, they all were keen, so suddenly I found myself surrounded by these virtuoso players. It was a bit daunting, actually.

I'd really like to know more about the input of both Aaron Joyce and Jesse Gander. With regards to Joyce, I imagine that his production and his arranging work were very closely entwined... Talk about this.

Aaron and Jesse both deserve a lot of credit for the sound of this album. To explain, I need to rewind a bit:

Aaron and I were acquainted, but I knew him only as a great composer and performer, not a producer. He happened to be at a gig I played back in September '09, and we got to talking about recording. I said, "I think I need a producer," and he said, "Well, I'm a producer," and that was that. I just had a certain feeling that we would click. He told me to apply for a Canada Council recording grant. I had about a week before the Oct 1st deadline (and actually, it was the very last deadline for the now-extinct Specialized Recording grant) and got my application in just under the wire. By the time the results were announced in January, I was really unwell, physically and mentally, and had totally dismissed the possibility of making an album. Suddenly I had this grant that I never expected to receive, a deadline, and no idea how I would pull it together. I called Aaron and told him we were on, and for the next 5 months he sort of pushed and pulled me through the process of preparing for the recording. We met regularly, chose what we thought were the strongest tunes from my last 5-years worth of material, and set some major goals. It was really hard for me to let anyone share the burden of work because I felt that I had to do everything, or it didn't count. But Aaron and I had a great musical chemistry, and I began to see that he knew exactly what I was trying to achieve with my music; I came to trust him implicitly. We met every couple weeks - I'd show him revisions, and he'd show me arrangement ideas, and we'd talk endlessly about the sound we wanted to create. We brought Jesse in early on, too, to discuss whether Aaron's production ideas were feasible. (eg: the piano 'auto-harp' in Clear Enough: We had to make a list of the 63 different chord voicing in Clear Enough, then systematically sample each of them by holding down the piano keys for each chord and then strumming the strings of the piano. Aaron and Jesse built a midi-instrument out of those samples, which is what I played for the recording.) So yes, the production and arrangements were very closely entwined, and I was rewriting and tweaking my compositions right up until our time in the studio.

I'm also curious about the studio where you recorded the album, and about Gander's technical input. (I picture the studio as a Pro Tools-equipped facility with some very fine mics...)

Yes indeed. Jesse is co-owner of The Hive Creative Labs in Burnaby, B.C., which is really the home of Vancouver's independent recording scene. It's a humble and inviting space bursting with talent, and yes, equipped with fine gear. Anyone that has ever worked with Jesse knows that he's a madcap genius. It's hard to describe his technical input, because at the time it all just seemed like so much wizardry to me. He and Aaron have worked on a lot of projects together, so we both had complete confidence in his technical abilities and also his ears... which meant that any differences in opinion were usually resolved by deferring to Jesse.

OK, now I'd really like to know it all from the beginning... Would you mind starting with the hows and the whys you fell in love with music?

I don't remember falling in love with music, because I don't remember ever not being in love with music. I started Orff/Kodaly when I was 3 or 4, piano lessons when I was 5, choir when I was 7, voice lessons when I was 12. All the significant events of my life have either involved music or fallen into the spaces around my musical activities. My Mom was an excellent clarinetist in her youth and my Aunt and Grandfather were very musical, so I had plenty of encouragement. But it was essentially my private obsession. Being alone at the piano has always been my ideal state of existence.

This CD is the only thing of yours that I know, but you obviously sound quite mature and experienced, so it's easy to guess there's quite a lot I don't know. Would you please fill in the blanks for me?

My background is weighted heavily on the classical end of the spectrum: Spent my childhood jumping through the hoops of Royal Conservatory of Toronto till I finished my ARCT (Associate of the Royal Conservatory of Toronto) in piano when I was 16 and voice when I was 20; had a stint at UBC as a classical voice major (until a certain amount of disillusionment drove me away); studied voice with a Russian opera teacher for years; sang for 5 seasons with a professional touring choir; taught piano and voice; accompanied soloists and choirs; took lessons in composition. So, suffice it to say that I loved (and still love) classical music. But I found myself growing more and more frustrated within its confines, because I couldn't just sit down and improvise - everything had to be learned from the page. When I was 22, I decided to take jazz piano lessons, and it just wiped the slate clean for me. It completely changed the way I approached the piano, and not long after, I started writing. I ended up going to Vancouver Community College for a degree in jazz piano, and during those years I started messing around with and sort of trashing my voice, trying to find my own sound. I never really felt like a jazz musician - playing standards didn't really click with me - but I fell in love with the harmonic language of jazz. So I focused all my energy on writing songs - it kind of possessed me. It was/is the most fulfilling thing I've ever done, involving all parts of me - my writing, playing, singing, and poetry.

We're constantly made painfully aware that "difficult music" equals "no money". How did you manage to self-finance your album? Do you have any hopes to recoup?

As I mentioned, it was the grant from The Canada Council that made the album possible. (Though I still had to sell my car to cover all the costs.) I don't expect to recoup, at least not at this stage. I'm really lucky, in that I have a great part-time job (working as Production Manager for Early Music Vancouver) and few expenses. So I just accept that music is what I spend my money on. And one day I know it will all come out in the wash, as my mother would say.

Your lyrics sound phonetically good, but they also appear to be invested with considerable meaning... How do you see the relationship between "meaning" and "sound" in song lyrics?

Lyrics are really important to me, because I absolutely love language. I write a lot of poetry/lyrics, always have. I think that my years of classical singing imbued me with the sense that the vowels and consonants I sing through are just as important as the meanings behind them. Words have a lot of sonic power and can really add to or detract from the sound of the human voice. I've been turned off a lot of music by bad lyrics, and drawn into a lot of music by good lyrics. So it's something I'm very aware of. You can take any word and a list of its synonyms, and each one will have a completely different feeling to it - subtly different shadings that are hard to articulate. It's the same as using different voicing of the same chord. That's how you mix your own palette as a songwriter, if I can use such an obvious metaphor.

Are there any songwriters that you regard as "those who raised the bar" for everybody?

Phew... well I can't speak for everybody - I wouldn't know where to begin. I can talk about who I've been most affected by... starting with song composers like Schubert, Schumann, Grieg, and Brahms, Debussy, Billy Strayhorn, and Ellington. I've also taken a huge amount of inspiration from Björk, Joanna Newsom, PJ Harvey, Jeff Buckley, Kaki King, and Thom Yorke: all songwriters who have carved out their own paths, stepping outside of convention and evading genre.

And what about composers outside the song form?

I listen to a lot of 20th century classical composers like Prokofiev, Stravinsky, Ravel, Rachmaninoff; jazz in the vein of Keith Jarrett, Brad Mehldau, Bad Plus, Avishai Cohen, and the late Esbjorn Svensson; and mixed-genre avant-garde groups like Fond of Tigers, Tin Hat, Inhabitants, Sigur Ros. But that feels like it doesn't cover it - I try to listen as diversely as I can, so there's a lot of instrumental, indie music, film scores and world music in there too.

OK, now tell me about your future plans.

First thing is a tour in a few weeks to Toronto, London, Windsor, Ottawa and Montreal with a trio-version of my band. (Shanto Bhattacharya on bass and Skye Brooks on drums.) I know I need to devote a lot of energy to promoting and touring the album for the next year or so. But I'd really like to record the next album soon, since I've got a backlog of song material to get out of my system. I'm also looking forward to some potential collaborations for film and theatre. So there's plenty to do, and I'm trying not to get too ahead of myself.

Anything else to add?

Just my thanks. It's been a pleasure.

© Beppe Colli 2011 | May 3, 2011