By all accounts, 2016 was the best year of Hillsburn’s young career. The band released an album, In The Battle Years, in March, wound up a successful inaugural national tour in September, and, in December, won a Canadian Folk Music Award for “New/Emerging Artist of the Year.”
But an intense schedule, personal struggles, and a difficult departure from the band’s record label made their album’s title a little more apt than intended. They needed a reset. A new approach. A trip back to the drawing board.
Hillsburn formed almost by accident in the spring of 2014. Following a health scare that winter, Paul Aarntzen had spent a solid month writing songs. He showed some of them to Clayton Burrill, who brought his sister Rosanna to Aarntzen’s house in Hillsburn, Nova Scotia to hear them. Jackson Fairfax-Perry came along for the trip. The four hit it off and, after a couple informal sessions, Aarntzen sold his house and moved to Halifax to work on the band full time.
The new quartet recorded and released a self-titled EP that October, which garnered national attention after one of its tracks finished in the top ten in CBC’s Searchlight competition. In The Battle Years, their first full-length effort, followed in March 2016. But by the time the group started touring in support of the album that spring, their sound had already changed. What had started as a string band now decidedly was not. Synths and electric guitar had replaced banjo and mandolin, and the addition of Clare Macdonald on drums had helped push things more in the direction of pop and rock. Hillsburn had, in other words, come into its own, and its members were eager to make a record that reflected that.
“We knew we wanted to approach things differently this time around,” Aarntzen says. “In every sense.”
Doing things differently meant having more control, beginning with the recording process. The band, looking to groups like Bon Iver (For Emma, Forever Ago) and Arcade Fire (Reflektor), decided not to make their new album in a formal studio setting. They produced it collectively. And Aarntzen — already the band’s songwriter, graphic designer, photographer, and videographer — took on the role of engineer. The strategy gave them time. Time to make the recording process a creative one. Time to sit with mixes. It also gave them ownership of the final product. In that sense, the as-yet untitled project (set for release in May 2017) is truly an independent effort.
“Low Light,” the album’s lead single, speaks to this theme of independence and agency:
Now while the city sleeps,
Kiss me in the street, my love.
I’m learning to be fearless.
Our time, we’ve got to take it serious.
‘Cause I don’t want to waste my life
Bleeding for the phantom year
When money up and saves us
And everything is painless.
Put simply, our time is short. A band’s window is narrow.