Ariana Gillis shows her roots

As the daughter of a working musician, Ariana Gillis has certain advantages that must be mentioned:  a musical upbringing, familiarity with the musical life, musical mentoring, and the open doors provided by a musical parent.

On the other hand, the expectations that come with being a musician’s kid are not easy to handle, and can often be confining.

Adam Cohen, Clay Tyson, Nathan Rogers and many others have struggled with the shadow. No artist wants to be defined on another’s terms. Even— maybe especially—if the musician is your mom or dad.

Enter the talented and highly energetic Ariana Gillis, whose father David Gillis is an accomplished songwriter, arranger and player.

Like Liam Titcomb, (son of folk veteran Brent Titcomb) Ariana has hit the stage in the past few years with everything an emerging roots artist could want: great voice, solid chops, good looks, energy, connections and an intimate knowledge of the craft.

But as the ears of the folk scene turn her way, the question is whether Ariana’s roots—genetically and musically—will help, or hinder the progress she deserves.

The answer lies with Ariana herself. I watched this kid start making waves as a teeny-bopper. She already had a bold hairstyle,  a silver-lined voice and the energy of a banshee on stage when she was 16. Yet she was all class, and an eager learner as she followed the path laid out for her in her own unique way.

Thanks to David, who accompanies, manages and produces her, Ariana’s entrée was to the world of folk and roots festivals and venues.

She’s always impressed audiences and artistic directors both with her classy presence both on and off stage. Despite giving a powerful pop performance on stage with all the exuberance of her 20 years, Ariana’s venues are still mostly grassy hillsides and intimate cafes. She may not be a folkie, per se, but it’s a fit. We know where she came from.

The same is true for Ariana as a recording artist —but there the categories get trickier. She won the 2009 Canadian Folk Music Award for Young Performer of the Year – but Ariana’s debut album, To Make It Make Sense, doesn’t fit as neatly into a genre as she fits onto a festival stage. Like Serena Ryder before her, Ariana knows her roots, but she’s a musician of her time, too.

She’s no stranger to rock & roll rebellion, and she expresses it with full heart and throat on tunes like “Project Man,” in which the little guy gets the short end of the stick. The longings of youthful love make their way into the singalong anthem “Simon Brooke” and you could be forgiven for hearing a new country tinge when her sweet voice and a radio friendly backbeat come together.

“Blueberry Ocean” has a pop sparkle – but “Boom Dah” hits as hard as the name suggests, and there are deep introspective pieces too:  “May 21st” deals Ariana’s  own near-death experience, and the conflicts in Afghanistan and Vietnam both get serious treatment on “Bridges of Queen Elizabeth Hway” and “Agent Orange” respectively.

How will her peers – or the DJs who program for her peers – categorize this talented newcomer, who just happened to have the panache of a pro before she was even old enough to drive?

It will be up to Ariana to indicate her direction -and like many millennial kids, she’s got a lot of possibilities to choose from. Why pick one? Only because it makes it easier to categorize her music. She may not want that. Subtle indications, though, make me suspect that Ariana’s future is in an alt-country or roots rock vibe.

As a writer, the strength of her storytelling goes beyond mere puppy love lyrics; she explores complex themes like love and war, through intriguing metaphors like the currents of the ocean, the chemistry of a city, and the biology of a baby bird.

That’s the aura of serious songcraft that lingers over the pen of many a Canadian writer (to that point, Ariana recently took part in a Gordon Lightfoot tribute concert, where she handily proved her mettle with his material). Her lyricism dovetails nicely with the bold back beats, the twang of her dad’s six-string banjo, the slightly lonesome sound of her voice in the pining songs, and the depth of her themes.

To Make It Make Sense is a catchy, often very singable, sometimes surprisingly deep first album that shows the significant promise of this young artist. Which is why Ariana’s been able to work with the likes of Kevin Breit, Gary Craig, and Anne Lindsay, among the many gifted musicians who grace this CD.

It may be hard to say exactly To Make It Make Sense is from a genre point of view, but it is NOT the work of pop princess—and that’s a relief. You need to come from somewhere to get somewhere. Ariana Gillis has a bright future ahead of her, whatever the look and feel she adopts—as long as her roots are showing.

This video of Ariana Gillis in action, accompanied by her father David Gillis, was filmed at an exclusive Roots Music Canada “Songwriters’ Speakeasy” at the OCFF conference in Ottawa, October 2010.

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  1. avatar
    Jim Ansell 16 February, 2011 at 18:58

    You got me at Kevin, Gary and Anne…have to get the CD!
    I first saw Ariana perform MANY years ago, and now she’s
    only 19?? There IS a bright future ahead.
    (nice piece, Mr. Newland!)

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