Vivienne Wilder (and the power of osmosis)
Vivienne Wilder is a Toronto based songwriter-singer-multi instrumentalist whose music elicits a wide variety of descriptions. Examples include live performance comparisons to PJ Harvey, Fiona Apple, Siouxie Sioux, Thom Yorke, The Cure… her songs are described as “Lit-Punk”, “Folk-Noir”, “anti-genre” and beyond. That last one is both apropos and incorrect, because in my humble subjective opinion after a thorough trip through the Wilder oeuvre, her songs are alive in the frameworks of many genres.
There is a wonderful artistic freedom in the dichotomy of being both anti and multi genre; of resisting easy definition or comparison. Therein lies the lessening of restrictive boundaries, and yet I suppose we all require some manner of comparative description when it comes to forms of artistic expression, yes? I spent a good amount of time with Vivienne’s songs, listening as a fan of music and also a person who often laments the lack of originality or craftsmanship that seems to be in abundance these days.
I listened to an entire discography from this artist with a double dose of her Fallen Tree Records release, ‘I Don’t Believe’, which dropped today, May 6th. The first time through was an eyes closed headphones on trip. Pretty sure I smiled and nodded along quite often. My second listen involved paying closer attention to detail; performance, instrumentation, arrangement and the like. By the halfway point of lead off track ‘Jailbird’, I was struck by what a smart songwriter Vivienne is both lyrically and musically. Her lyrics feel like deeply personal observations that leave ample room for listener involvement and interpretation. She blends themes of letdown and resolve that allow darkness and light to coexist, yet there is no surrender to be found. There is a sense of “it is what it is, so deal with it” that many of us can relate to.
Along with her backing band The Vice Presidents, Vivienne presents her lyrics through music that resists easy or lazy labeling. People playing comparison games will hear classic Pixies in some of the passages she plays along with co-guitarist Neil Whitford but the reference veers off into joyful garage rock, deliciously dark clean tones, or the Cobain vibed intro chords that open ‘Sparrow Bones’.
The tenor saxophone work from Gordon Hyland plays a vital role in these songs and further distinguishes this music from the pack. Guitars are underpinned by sax lines that both thicken the sonics, play counter melody hooks, and dish up avant-garde solos that romp and remind me of the great Ornette Coleman. (In the song ‘Low’, for example.)
The rhythm section duties are very capably handled by drummer Kyle McGyle and bassist Andrew Roorda, both of whom “play for the song” but have no shortage of chops and cool ideas which I noticed immediately in ‘Jailbird’ and throughout the album’s use of dynamics.
Vivienne writes songs that are laden with hooks and as is the case with ‘Jordan’, the listener doesn’t wait long for a memorable payoff via pre chorus and chorus. I found the use of quieter passages in several of the songs to be super smart for the way Vivienne’s vocal delivery demanded rapt attention before lifting into ear worm territory. She can flat out sing and has a wide range, yes, but she is a performer who knows how and when to bring it.
The album’s title track, ‘I Don’t Believe’, showcases a singer who is in full command of her talent. Furthermore the running order of these tracks has been well thought out. Three consecutive songs that play from the middle to end of this record have distinct personalities and do a fine job of summarizing the anti-genre multi-genre creative freedom expressed by this artist and her band. ‘Trash’ is quiet and melodic with a soaring hook in the “take me home” passages. ‘Matches’ is a darkly atmospheric poem of a track that addresses the mortality of things and leaves one in thought that is joyfully interrupted by the finale; ‘Ricky’, a raucous love song for the TV and movie character Ricky Lafleur of Trailer Park Boys fame as played by Robb Wells. It’s a fitting “don’t take shit too seriously” conclusion to an album that draws its own lines, colors outside of them, and makes you come back for another go.
Now that I’ve dispensed with all professional impartiality and raved about Vivienne’s music and brand new album… let’s get to know her a little better.
“Don’t cry over mercy kills, sparrow bones or bloody hills. Springtime’s coming; down a bottle in one breath. Squeeze until you break its neck. Keep on humming”– Lyric from ‘Sparrow Bones’
Thank you for taking the time to speak with us, Vivienne. Can you please give our readers a biographical sketch to start things off, including what first sparked your desire to make music and which artists inspired you both then and now?
I come from a music-obsessed family. Both my parents are musicians and my siblings and I all ended up pursuing it one way or another. Some of my earliest memories are of being too small to play the piano but trying to do it, anyway, reaching up and picking out the notes by ear to ‘We Didn’t Start The Fire’ by Billy Joel. We had a lot of classical music playing at home. I had a big crush on Beethoven for some reason when I was like, 5. My dad has one of those old school copper busts of him that was by the piano. But there were also lots of rock, pop, R&B and jazz albums spanning pretty much every decade since records have existed. I got a great music education by osmosis! I used to come up with choreography to Queen songs (I also had a big thing for Freddie Mercury – specifically his yellow jacket phase) and knew every word to every song in Cats. I’m sure that’s all still in there somewhere…
I didn’t really start writing songs seriously until my mid twenties. It was after I had spent some years touring with a bunch of singer-songwriters, and I got to see their processes and again, by osmosis, I internalized a lot of that and eventually became hooked on writing. Since my teens I’ve admired artists like Bjork, Tom Waits, Pete Townshend, PJ Harvey, Cat Power, Ray Davies, Robyn Hitchcock, Thom Yorke… Too many to list without being a bore. I had always wanted to create songs but didn’t know where to start. So being surrounded by real-life singer-songwriters, people I actually knew making a go of it, is what really gave me the push I needed to get started.
Moving to Toronto from Saskatchewan must have presented quite a sudden culture shift. What was that experience like for you and how did you begin to participate in the city’s music scene?
It was just really exciting. I had the benefit of going to school in Toronto so I met a lot of cool people there. What was actually the greatest thing for me was that there’s just a seemingly infinite well of people to meet and collaborate with in a big city. In Regina where I grew up, I was pretty much with the same kids in school from Kindergarten to 12th grade, and there were only so many kids who were doing music in a focused way. There’s not a lot of new people moving there. It’s usually more the opposite, sadly. In Toronto, you know, I ended up joining a band with some dudes I met in the coffee shop across the street from my apartment. Or, I would be invited to a party by a guitarist friend where I didn’t know anyone else, but at that party are 10 other really awesome musicians from a different scene, who I hadn’t even known existed, but we hit it off and end up calling each other up for gigs. It was exciting and inspiring. And intimidating! But in a good way.
I have read that you spent some time in Austin Texas. How did that experience in such a vibrant music city affect and shape you as a person and an artist?
Austin is so important to me! I loved being there. I spent a lot of time there when I was 23-24 because of a group I was in where half the members were based in ATX and half in Toronto. So, that’s where I got immersed in the singer-songwriter life. There’s an openness to people in that city that was very strange and appealing to me, an introverted Canadian. It was almost like being in boot camp for songwriting because there was just so much opportunity to focus on writing and performing, I knew so many people who were focusing on the same thing, but it was friendly competition and we were mostly lifting each other up. And the audiences – there was such a great appreciation and demand for music there, whereas Toronto is a tougher nut to crack. It’s always felt a lot harder to do anything here, for me anyway.
You play guitar and bass very well. Are there any other musical instruments you play or would like to someday add to your musician tool kit?
I play a little bit of piano, and a wee bit of violin. Down the road I’d like to use more of those instruments for writing, and also explore more synthesizers and programming electronic elements. Also, I think harp seems really fun and satisfying. But I already play a ridiculously large and cumbersome instrument (double bass) so that’s probably a bad idea.
“Interesting imagery is really important to me, I’m very visual and I like playing around with drawing, painting and collage, and I think that process is really similar to how I write. A lot of shifting things around trying to find the right composition.”Vivienne Wilder
Can you share some details about how your songwriting process works? Do you write primarily on guitar? Do you jot down lyrics as they occur to you ahead of time or come up with them as you compose on an instrument? Perhaps a combination of both approaches? How much of a role do your bandmates play in the writing and/or fine tuning of your songs? (A lot of questions there, but our readers are detail oriented music fans!)
Apart from the classic voice-memo method, I’ve done a lot of my writing in Garageband, mostly because it was free and relatively easy. I would just use the built-in microphone in my laptop to record guitar and vocals, and then fill it out with samples and MIDI tracks. This made it really easy to write while on the road, too. So I have this big secret archive from the past 10 years of these weird pseudo electronic versions of my songs and a lot of hybrid songs that never ended up translating to the live band. I’d like to brush up on my production skills, honestly, so I can get to the point where I can actually just make an electronic album that’s releasable. But I think there is something cool that happens when you write on one thing, and then transfer it over to something else. Stuff gets lost in translation sometimes, but it can also morph into something completely unique and, dare I say, better – that I wouldn’t have imagined if I was going to be a hardass and be like – “If it’s going to be a rock song with guitars, you have to write it with a guitar!”
Working with my band The Vice Presidents is pretty awesome because everyone is really, really good at what they do, and everyone is also really, really versatile. I’ll usually come in with a new song that’s like a skeleton, and I’ll have some ideas for hooks or what the rhythm section could do, but I try not to be a dictator about it. We’ll play through it a bunch of times and discuss and arrange and flesh it out. I enjoy collaborating and I don’t really want to get too precious about most things in a song I wrote. Sometimes I *do* get precious, but I think it’s pretty rare. The most important thing for me is that everyone’s engaged and having fun playing the music. If that’s not happening, we’ll scrap the song and move on with our lives.
You have a deep thinker’s lyrical approach that really elevates the art of your music. What drives your wordsmithing? Aside from general daily life and the ebb and flow of good or troubled times, is there a particular underlying theme running through these works?
That’s really kind of you to say! I don’t really know what drives my writing other than I just really like doing it. I get a lot of satisfaction from the moment when the music and lyrics click together. I usually do a lot of refining, but there are a few times where the final lyrics were basically untouched from the first draft. That always feels magical. Interesting imagery is really important to me, I’m very visual and I like playing around with drawing, painting and collage, and I think that process is really similar to how I write. A lot of shifting things around trying to find the right composition.
I think I’ve figured out that there are 3 basic kinds of songs I write. The first kind is analytical, with the inspiration usually coming from something either dark or funny (or both) that happened to me, and then I try to dissect that event, and that usually involves a lot of stream-of-consciousness writing. The second kind is reactionary, so it’s a response to someone else’s art or something someone else has done that I had a strong emotional response to, for better or worse. The third kind is character-based, where I get an idea for a character who’ll be at the center of a little story that I can elaborate on, sometimes based on a true event but then spun out into fiction.
“I’m still recovering from having no gigs for 2 years, so ANY gig right now still feels dreamy but also precarious. I’m just really looking forward to getting out of town. And like… playing on a beach.”Vivienne Wilder
With pandemic public health restrictions gradually being lifted, it must feel wonderful to perform again. You have played many shows and locations; are there any in particular that stand out as cherished experiences and memories? What would be your dream gig?
A lot of my favorite experiences happened on the road for sure… First one that came to mind is playing music all night in Memphis until the sun came up, then going for a walk along the Mississippi at 6 in the morning. Epic. Or, the first time I got to play in New York. I think I was 21. We played at some random bar I forget the name of, then walking over the bridge from Manhattan back to Brooklyn after. I was like: “This is it! I played a show in New York! I have arrived.” Or touring in Germany and pretty much every little venue provided the musicians with a place to stay and breakfast the next morning. The way they treated musicians was just next level to anything I’d experienced in North America. Man, that was pleasant as hell.
It’s funny, I guess what I dwell on most isn’t even the performances per se, but the experiences that I got to have because of being on the road and visiting so many legendary cities. And it’s different from traveling for travel’s sake, because you don’t usually have the time to do too much touristy stuff, but you usually do get to connect with some local people at your show, or with a band you shared a bill with, who end up showing you something cool or unique in their local that’s off the beaten track.
Dream gig? Oh dear. This is the toughest question of the bunch. I’m still recovering from having no gigs for 2 years, so ANY gig right now still feels dreamy but also precarious. I’m just really looking forward to getting out of town. And like… playing on a beach. Yeah, I’m gonna go with that. My dream gig right now is playing on a beach while the sun sets behind us.
I watched episode #80 VIVIENNE WILDER’S 420 SHOW, MARCH 25, 2022 and enjoyed the blend of live performance and dialogue. It’s a great way for your audience to stay updated and I wonder if there is anything you would like to share with our readers about the show and how it’s going?
I’m pretty sure doing those live streams saved my sanity, such as it is. We started doing them a couple months into the first lockdowns in Toronto. It was something to do to mark the release of my last EP, Postromantic, since our release show for that got canceled. Everyone’s gigs were canceled and it felt terrible. So it was just something to do. I was really tentative about doing it initially, but I’m so glad we stuck with it. It kept our chops up, we’ve connected with so many cool, sweet people through the show, and we even started getting a bit experimental with the format after a while. My favorite part is the Animal Of The Day. It gets pretty silly. It’s fun. Gord basically runs the tech side of things on top of playing sax, and every week he’s learned new tricks to make the show better and more entertaining. It’s evolved from being all about the music, to being about the music only about half the time. And we have a really nice community that grew around it, from all over the place. Once stuff in Toronto started opening up again this spring, we actually got too busy to keep doing the show on Fridays, but in a couple weeks once we’re better adjusted, we’re going to start doing the show on either Sunday or Monday afternoons/evenings (ET). So keep an eye out for that!
Your new album, ‘I Don’t Believe’, dropped today, May 6th, following the record release party, May 4th, at The Baby G in Toronto. As mentioned above it is a fantastic listen and we wish you every success. Do you have anything else you would like to mention or promote here? Any shouts you’d like to shout? The floor is yours!
I’d like to thank the Academy!
Well, we wish you every success with the new release, and thanks again for speaking with us!! Readers can keep up to date with Vivienne Wilder via her website, YouTube, Instagram, and all the major music streaming platforms.