Hamilton’s Gillian Nicola took an unusual route to becoming a folk/Americana singer-songwriter: trained in classical voice, Nicola spent her teens gigging in a classic rock cover band, singing Janis Joplin and Led Zeppelin before launching herself into alt-country when she began writing songs.
Dried Flowers, Nicola’s wise and stunning debut full-length album, follows 2016’s critically acclaimed EP No Place To Call. The songs for Dried Flowers began to take shape as Nicola recorded demos with Robyn Dell’Unto, with whom Nicola co-wrote the album’s first track, “Ashes.” “‘Ashes’ is about a friendship that’s falling apart and being able to stand my ground and stand up for myself,’” Nicola says.
At Dell’Unto’s recommendation, Nicola connected with producer John Dinsmore (NQ Arbuckle), and the two clicked instantly. “When I went to see the studio we ended up chatting for a really long time. He plays with a lot of people I love, so he always knows where I’m coming from” Nicola says.
Most of Dried Flowers was recorded with Dinsmore at Toronto’s Lincoln County Social Club. Centred around Nicola’s chameleonic vocals - at one moment with a hint of tobacco in her voice, the next outright rocking - strummed and finger picked guitar, and versatile, melodic songwriting, Dried Flowers features Nicola’s core band, bassist Bruce Scavuzzo and drummer Justin Han, along with Dinsmore (banjo), Drew Jurecka (string arrangements), Aaron Goldstein (pedal steel), Gord Tough (electric guitar), Rosalyn Dennett (fiddle), Emily Rockarts (keys), and Alyson McNamara (backing vocals).
In early 2018, Nicola headed to the Banff Centre to participate in its Singer-Songwriter Residency. During those three weeks Nicola wrote roughly half the songs on her new album, with guidance from mentors Kim Richey, Lynn Miles, Kevin Welch, and more. Through these mentors, Nicola found a new level of honesty and vulnerability that she hadn’t yet approached in her songwriting.
Nicola also took advantage of the residency’s recording facilities to collaborate with other songwriters in the program, such as Mike O’Brien (Sin & Swoon), Fats Kaplin (John Prine, Jack White), and Chris Luedecke (Old Man Luedecke), on “New Light” and Rockarts, McNamara, Miranda Currie, Rebecca Emms, Sarah MacDougall, Kim Beggs, and others on “She Stays Silent,” a powerful #MeToo anthem. “’She Stays Silent’ just exploded out of me,” Nicola says. “It was one of the fastest songs I’ve ever written, though I don’t know that’s a good thing; it was inspired by my own experiences and the stories we hear all too often.” “New Light” and “She Stays Silent” were produced by the legendary Howard Bilerman (Arcade Fire).
A true album, the songs on Dried Flowers are about relationships, friendships and family history (a visit to Nicola’s grandmother’s birthplace, Brentwood, Essex, inspired album highlight “Woodman Road”) as well as the life of a touring musician (“Coming and Going”) who is content to spend a night at home alone, FOMO be damned (“Night Comes to Call”). “They are all about self-discovery in different ways,” Nicola says, “about coming into my own.”
Nicola’s songs are often built around open and alternate guitar tunings that allow her to throw music theory out the window. With nominations for the Colleen Peterson Songwriting Award, Toronto Independent Music Awards and Hamilton Music Awards, Nicola has toured Canada’s east and west coasts, and has shared the stage with some of Canada's best songwriters, such as Amelia Curran, Tom Wilson, Terra Lightfoot, and Lori Yates.
Engaging in her community is just as important to Nicola as performing. Nicola teaches voice and guitar, volunteers for Girls Rock Camp Toronto, sits on the City of Hamilton's Music Advisory Sub-Committee, hosts an open mic night, and runs a monthly songwriters round at Toronto’s The Painted Lady.
Dried Flowers will be out on May 3, 2019 (independent).