Not your Great Aunt’s folk rock

Ida Nilsen records new album in 10 days

Cast members rehearse at Macgillivray-Brown Hall.
Cast members rehearse at Macgillivray-Brown Hall.

Interview: Great Aunt Ida @ The Grad Club, Tonight

Ida Nilsen’s long list of band experience reads like an experimental-rock family tree.

Emerging from her post-rock days improvising with Beans and her time spent merging new wave and country in The Buttless Chaps, Vancouverite Nilsen founded another project to play the music she was writing. Settling into a subtle, modern folk vibe, Nilsen’s current band, Great Aunt Ida, takes its place not in a rocking chair, but on stage. What Nilsen has to share on Great Aunt Ida’s latest album, How They Fly, is a set of convincing, earnest stories expressed through simple, strange lyrics and understated arrangements of bass, guitar, piano, drums and trumpet.

“When I have to call it something … I usually call it indie rock folk music, and by indie rock, I think I’m really just referring to a sort of aesthetic of instruments as a sound, from the kind of community where
I come from in Vancouver.”

That community’s contribution to Nilsen’s sound may not be evident at first, but perhaps Great Aunt Ida’s fluidity owes something to Nilsen’s experience with playing so many different music styles over the years, from improvisational and experimental music to jazz and new wave.

Nilsen became involved with the innovative Vancouver indie rock community when she ran one of the city’s cosier concert venues, The Sugar Refinery. There, she connected with other musicians who borrowed each other for bands and new sounds.

“It was a really neat space with a wide variety of musical styles, but usually stuff that’s a little bit on the outside, and that was very influential for me as far as the music that I was listening to and what as
going on around me,” Nilsen said. She worked at The Sugar Refinery for five years until the venue closed in 2003. “It was a really kind of important time for me. …
“[The band Cunt] was kind of different—pretty out there. We did a lot of vocal improv and bizarre, whatever we came up with at the time. It was noisy… and then I played in a ’20s style jazz band for a few years, which was fun because it’s really technical piano playing.”

The same year The Sugar Refinery closed, Nilsen recruited a troupe of musicians, including some bandmates picked up from her many projects, and set about forming the flexible lineup of Great Aunt Ida.

“Doing my own thing means more to me; it’s me saying what I want to say, whereas playing with other bands it depends—some are more collaborative than others.”

Along with Great Aunt Ida, Nilsen sings and plays piano for The Violet Archers—the solo project of Rheostatics singer/bassist and Great Aunt Ida producer, Tim Vesley—whose rock ’n’ roll sound she relishes when compared to some of her past projects. While Nilsen currently focuses on piano and vocals, she also has trumpet and accordion skills in her back pocket.

Great Aunt Ida’s debut album, Our Fall, was released in 2005, which was followed by How They Fly, which came out last September.

“Our Fall sounds like the band sounded live at that time, it was live in a theatre … it sounds a lot simpler. How They Fly is more of a recording project ... we did a lot more overdubs and more arranging.”

Nilsen preferred the fast-paced studio experience of recording How They Fly in 10 days to the drawn-out process that was recording Our Fall over almost a year.

How They Fly was representing the best of my abilities at the time, whereas Our Fall took so long by the time it came out, I felt like I was wanting to move on to something else by the time it was released,” Nilsen said.

Of those songs, How They Fly’s first track, “Company You Keep” still resonates with Nilsen. She wrote it after coming home one night, tired, from her job as a bartender and out poured the lyrics and melody in a stream-of-consciousness style: “No one had the sense to walk / now it’s late and shadows argue with lampshades / you are changing me and they don’t care.”

“There’s something about that song. It came to me right away and when I brought it to the band. All the musicians, for the first time, they were playing exactly what they are playing now. It came effortlessly.”

While Nilsen plays constantly, she produces material more sparingly. Nilsen brings her lyrics and chord progressions to her band and they jam together to arrange the music, letting it evolve naturally into Great Aunt Ida’s elusive and engaging living room pop. Great Aunt Ida is Nilsen’s brain-child but Nilsen still seems carry that attitude of collaboration from her past musical experiences over to her band.

“I usually don’t have to do much in terms of direction. It’s kind of fun to see how people hear [my
music] first and work on it over periods of time and how it changes with the band, it’s fun to make that happen.”


Great Aunt Ida plays The Grad Club with Annie Clifford tonight. Tickets are $10 in advance at Destinations and The Grad Club and $12 at the door. Doors open at 9 p.m. and the event is 19+.

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