Great Aunt Ida

"I’m being a little more hidden than I have been in the past..."

illustration by Sarah Reid
illustration by Sarah Reid

“We’re all sleeping next to an impostor,” Ida Nilsen sings on “Distant Cousin,” a standout track from Great Aunt Ida’s new album, Nuclearize Me. She does so with a matter-of-factness and quiet confidence that runs through much of the outing, betraying the artistic and perhaps the personal growth the singer-songwriter has experienced in the five years since her last effort, 2006’s How They Fly. On that disc, Nilsen’s voice and words occasionally sounded wide-eyed and uncertain. Nuclearize Me, in contrast, is the sound of an artist looking in the rearview mirror and admiring those twists and turns in the road fading from view with equal parts sobriety, and anticipation of the twists and turns still to come.

Perhaps we are all sleeping next to impostors. Perhaps initially we cannot see those with whom we share a bed for the imperfect, uncertain, and frightened souls they often turn out to be. The clarity that time and distance so graciously provide us with can dull the sting and regret associated with the vulnerability of past love. However, that’s not to suggest that this distance makes for uninteresting art. Nuclearize Me is rich and slow-burning, only revealing itself fully as a statement after multiple listens. With each listen, songs like “Your Window,” (“Have you looked in all the places you have been over the last year?”) and “Romance” (“I don’t want to know the rules to your game—I would rather play it sideways”) reveal less sadness than inquisition; less melancholia than meditation.

Discorder: First off, let me congratulate you on an absolutely stunning/terrifying album cover [ed. The cover in question is a stone-faced portrait of a seemingly hairless Sphynx cat]. I have to ask: what’s the story there?

Ida Nilsen: [Laughs] That was kind of accidental, actually… I was doing Google image searches for the word “nuclear” and that cat came up! I thought it was awesome, and it fit somehow.

D: Are you the terrifying hairless cat, then? Is that how it “fits?”

IN: No, although I do feel there’s something about the expression on the cat’s face with the furrowed brow that I can certainly relate to. One or two people have told me that it kind of looks like me in a strange way.

D: It’s been about five years since your last record. Why did you decide to do something new now?

IN: I started [Nuclearize Me] two years ago. I recorded all of the bed tracks two years ago, and I didn’t do anything with it. There were a lot of changes in my life, and I wasn’t feeling particularly… I don’t know. After living in Toronto for a little while, I felt a little bit turned off by how everyone here is doing something constantly, and it really kind of made me want to do nothing [laughs]. It was quite difficult to get back into it. I got a grant from the Ontario Arts Council, and I felt like I should get my act together and finish it. Setting a deadline certainly helps!

D: Where did the songs on the new record come from? They seem sort of – confessional is probably the wrong word – but it seems as if you’re putting a lot of “yourself” in your lyrics.

IN: Moving, relationships ending, relationships starting… nothing really specific. I actually felt like I’m being a little more hidden than I have been in the past… Just starting with an idea, but letting things become fictional when they need to suit the song.

D: As a songwriter, do you ever give thought to exactly how much of yourself you want to put out there? Is there a line where something you write or sing becomes too personal?

IN: I actually find that when I’m writing something that is really straight from my head… then it really needs to change. Like, I’m being too self-indulgent and it’s not really good enough. I think that for this record, more than I have in the past, I was just trying to write good pop songs, and have them be less to do with “me” in a certain way. I realize that it might not come off like that, but if you listen to some of my earlier stuff it’s way worse. [Laughs]

D: That’s really interesting. I mean, your new record almost puts me in mind of something like Blue by Joni Mitchell, where it’s very much just like, “Here’s where I’m at right now.” Just my ears, I suppose.

IN: I definitely see how you can hear it that way. I like to make people feel personally involved, if that makes sense. But that being said, I did try to make it a little more universal, rather than it being all about me.

D: What do you miss about living in Vancouver, and how does Toronto compare as a city/music scene?

IN: I miss a certain spirit about making music in Vancouver that doesn’t seem to be [in Toronto]. I feel like most people I knew [in Vancouver] weren’t trying to be famous, or really successful… those weren’t really the motivating factors for people trying to make music. It feels like a bit of a generalization—it might have just been the environment that I was in—but Torontonians are really excessive self-promoters, I find. Everyone’s doing things constantly and there seems to be a lot of ego involved in it. It feels a bit different.
I miss living close to my family… I have a lot of good friends in Vancouver who I miss a lot. I miss my favourite sandwich! There’s a deli around Commercial Drive and 3rd that does really awesome grilled sandwiches.
I haven’t been able to find a place that does one quite like that [in Toronto]. They mostly sell jars of things imported from Italy, and there’s a huge cheese counter, but at the back they do grilled sandwiches that are really delicious. I can’t even remember what it’s called! Crazy, I used to go there constantly.

Great Aunt Ida  is playing in Vancouver on December 29 at the Waldorf Hotel. For more information, see http://greatauntida.ca.

Zachary Stockill  is a freelance journalist and graduate student at UBC. Follow him on twitter @zfstockill, or visit his website at http://zfstockill.com.