Veda Hille wasn't really familiar with the songs of First Nations folk singer and activist Buffy Sainte-Marie when she was invited to perform them for the CBC Radio’s Great Canadian Songbook project.
In tandem with the late, great CBC Radio Orchestra and composer friend Giorgio Magnanensi, however, Hille had a personal breakthrough as she tackled Magnanensi’s complex new arrangements live.
“The Buffy Sainte-Marie set was one of the highlights of my performance career,” says the unequivocally delightful pop singer-pianist, mere minutes into our conversation by phone. “Basically, [Giorgio] made incredibly complex and beautiful modern arrangements that swirl around my performance of the Buffy. So I play the songs fairly straightforwardly while the orchestra’s doing completely insane things around me, and it takes a lot of concentration for me to perform it.”
As Hille focused on executing the 25-minute set – made up of piercing classics like “Cripple Creek” and “Little Wheel Spin and Spin” – that concentration allowed the veteran local performer to discover something about music itself.
“In 2007, when we made that performance, it took every ounce of concentration I had just to deliver the songs. And in that, I found there was a stripping away of false emotion,” the East Van Panto star and Songs About People and Buildings singer explains. “Like, it was so hard to sing the songs accurately, that I couldn’t indicate to anyone what they should be feeling,” Hille continues. “[…] And I feel like I discovered something about how music takes care of itself, if you surrender to it completely.”
Meanwhile, her equally formidable Emily Carr collection – more than a dozen songs based on the diarized thoughts and feelings of the West Coast landscape artist – had a similarly life-changing effect. Commissioned almost 20 years ago as a dance score, Hille says the Carr project (which was ultimately recorded for the album Here Is A Picture, and then rearranged and extended with Magnanensi and longtime Hille collaborator Ford Pier for the Victoria Symphony Orchestra in 2011) is the reason she’s been able to create music for so long.
“As a young artist, to read such a clear and concise version of an artist’s life, in her own words, was hugely inspiring and incredibly easy to relate to,” recalls Hille, who would have been in her 20s at the time. “Like, the way she wrote about making things felt completely true to me, and still does. And I’ve always credited that work with teaching me about not writing solely about myself. That has sustained me over a very long writing career because, if it was all about me, I think I would have stopped a long time ago!” she laughs. “And to inhabit someone as amazing as Emily Carr was a huge experience – one that has continued on.”
Icons and underground
Yet the Buffy remix was only ever performed the once, in 2007, and the Emily Carr songs have never been performed live in Vancouver, so it’s fitting that they be combined into one ambitious musical evening – Plastic Acid Orchestra with Veda Hille and Friends – that celebrates Canadian icons past and present.
Spurred on by Magnanensi, both the complete Buffy remix and the entire hour’s worth of Emily Carr creations, including the extended works that have never been recorded, will see new life on stage at the Vancouver Playhouse Sept. 10 at the hands of Veda’s longtime band, as well as underground iconoclasts, the Plastic Acid Orchestra.
“As always happens with these big projects, CBC only presented this project once, and we tried to make it happen other times with other orchestra organizations, but it never happened in the last 10 years,” says Magnanensi, who also serves as artistic director of the Vancouver New Music society. “And so when I finally got to start working with the Plastic Acid Orchestra, I saw the opportunity there to, you know, just get on the ball and try to get this together again.”
“Giorgio is really the kingpin of this whole show,” says Hille, “because he’s the person who’s worked with both of us. When we hadn’t managed to get this work up again, he took it in hand and brought it to Plastic Acid and they were super keen. And,” adds Hille, appreciatively, “I always like working with outsiders, and I think [Plastic Acid] would call themselves that as well.”
To wit, Plastic Acid has long been recognized on the Vancouver scene for their sweeping orchestrations of contemporary classics like Led Zeppelin’s “Kashmir” and Soundgarden’s “Black Hole Sun,” as well as their genre-bending original compositions. That boldness made them an ideal sonic backbone to this already kaleidoscopic evening (which also features new work by Maria in the Shower’s Martin Reisle and violinist Elliot Vaughan).
“My orchestrations are kind of an attempt to create a sound environment that, in a way, destabilizes,” says Magnanensi. “[With the Buffy remix], I wasn’t really keen on doing an arrangement per se; you know, just doing some decoration around a song that doesn’t really need anything,” the gregarious conductor explains. “[…] And in fact, the funny thing is, at the first rehearsal with the CBC [in 2007], the orchestra was a bit baffled, because they were rehearsing without Veda and without the piano and there was no song, so the orchestration sounded really strange and odd. And the orchestra said, ‘Whoa, what is this? It’s not Buffy Sainte-Marie. What’s happening??’” he recalls, with a laugh. “But as soon as Veda came out, the orchestra sounded wonderful together with Veda and everything went well.”
In addition to allowing Hille to revisit these old influences and explore her back catalogue as an even more accomplished artist, though, this one-night-only show can also be seen as a prelude to Canada’s 150th birthday celebrations next year – a snapshot of the nation’s artistic legacy, in dialogue with the Canadian ideal.
“There’s three iconic figures involved,” says Magnanensi. “Buffy Sainte-Marie, [who] has a beautiful story both as a human being and an artist; Emily Carr – again a very iconic Canadian figure, beautiful artist, and, in a way, very revolutionary figure in the history of Canada [...]; and Veda – a contemporary figure, representative of a beautiful artist and mind that works with songwriting in a very imaginative way, and is, you know, political and poetic at the same time.
“And I think those values – poetry, politics, imagination, equality – represent a very good Canadian set of values that we are going to celebrate next year.”
“[It’s] sort of old friends-new friends,” adds Hille, of the scope. “Old friends being the things I listened to when I was a kid, like the McGarrigles and the other iconic Canadians: Joni Mitchell, Leonard Cohen, Neil Young, that kind of thing. And then my contemporary community would be Kim Barlow, [...] the Rheostatics, John Southworth. There’s something about the people that you run into on the road, that you see at festivals, that you play shows with all the time, that becomes your sounding board. And so I like to think that I’ve taken on some bigger sounding boards with Emily Carr and Buffy Sainte-Marie. It was obviously less personal, because they weren’t in the room with me, but, you know, one likes to have that connection to history.”
• Plastic Acid Orchestra with Veda Hille and friends takes place Sept. 10 at 8pm at the Vancouver Playhouse (600 Hamilton). Tickets from $31.75 at TicketsTonight.ca