Battle, Struggle and Victory of Hillsburn

Nova Scotia Band’s Busy Year Includes Stops on the rock. Blink and you’ll miss Hillsburn, Nova Scotia, nestled alongside the Bay of Fundy. According to Rosanna Burrill, one of the singers in the five-piece folk group of the same name, it’s a hidden gem worth discovering.

The same can be said of the band Hillsburn—although, if this year is any indication, it’s not likely they’ll be hidden much longer.

“Paul [Aarntzen] lived on a beautiful creek with his dog,” she said, recalling how herself, her brother Clayton, and Jackson Fairfax-Perry spent a weekend there in 2014, playing songs Aarntzen had written. It was the first time the songwriter had allowed his songs to be transformed to a fuller group arrangement, now a defining feature of the band.

“I think that that was a pretty momentous occasion, because it was the start of us spending literally all of our time together. A lot of what we do comes out of bringing all of those elements of ourselves together in that place—when I think of Hillsburn, I think of that house. When I’m on stage, I’m thinking of the creek.”

‘Momentous Occasion’

After only a few sessions in the remote Nova Scotia town, the members of Hillsburn committed entirely to the project.

“Very rarely in your life do you experience something where you’re just completely with a sense that this is the thing that you need to be doing right now,” Burrill said. “When we sat down in Hillsburn, playing for 12 hours straight, we were just like, ‘Oh, this is a real thing.’ It was just a clear picture that presented itself to us. And that’s not to say it hasn’t been hard, but when you do something and it feels that right, right away, you know that you have to just do it and figure out the rest later.”

The rest seems to be figuring itself out pretty well. The group released a self-titled EP in October of that year which led them to a top ten spot in CBC’s national Searchlight competition. Now joined by percussionist Clare Macdonald, Hillsburn released a full length album, In The Battle Years, in March 2016, and are set to embark on their first ever tour, including stops at the Montreal Folk Festival, The Stan Rogers Folk Festival, and five performances across Newfoundland.

The Battle Years

In The Battle Years is immediately a sing-along record of toe-tappers, with the Americana vibes of The Lumineers and the powerful male and female vocal balance of The Civil Wars, yet there’s something just beneath the surface. Take, for example, the despondent resignation in When We Were Young over a lively ukulele and fiddle melody: “I’m pretty sure I will never learn to speak a second language / I’m pretty sure you will never learn what made your father run.”

Or the painfully beautiful Like The Winter, which cuts through the frost of a breakup with stirring harmonies and the simple reassurance in the line: “And daylight comes often / No reason to cry out your eyes.”

It’s the seamless blend of whimsical, raucousness, and sadness that makes this debut album stand out.

“There’s a lot of struggle in living, just in being human,” Burrill said. “But not only is there struggle, there is intense joy and happiness. I think that’s really what Paul is great at—really writing about what is real and what is painful, but in a way that doesn’t make you feel like the world is going to end.”

‘Working for Something’

It’s not surprising then that the band selected In The Battle Years, a line from the surprisingly sparse “Ava,” to title their project. “It speaks to where we’ve all made the decision to put ourselves. We’re in the years where we’re working for something—we really do, wholeheartedly, believe that what we’re doing is the thing that we need to be doing.”

Despite coming into their own as a band, Hillsburn is sticking to their formula of transforming Aarntzen’s songs as they look to a new album in 2017. “He’s just so good. When you have that fountain of words coming out at you, you don’t want to let it go!”

For now, however, this band to watch is looking forward to their first time playing in this province. “I’m really excited to go to Gros Morne—I hiked Gros Morne as a nine-year-old,” Burrill laughed. “Just ridiculous!”

Maybe the battle years cut across all ages after all—but the view from the top is always just as rewarding.

Hillsburn will be performing May 31 to June 4, in Corner Brook, Norris Point, Stephenville, St. John’s & Bonavista.

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