The town of Hillsburn is a tiny dot on the Bay of Fundy, outside Annapolis Royal, between two coves, Parkers and Delaps. Paul Aarntzen calls it "a little stretch of road" and it's where he lived, "by myself with my dog for three years with no furniture," after a wandering stretch in the US, living in a van. "You can only wake up in a Walmart parking lot so many mornings," he says, "before you realize this On the Road, Jack Kerouac dream is not that."
There may have been no couch, but in that little house in Hillsburn he had a guitar and a piano, and he was writing songs every day. Aarntzen had put his music dreams back under the bed a decade ago, after a bad year in a band in Toronto—"I hadn't really figured out lots of stuff about myself; you go through your 20s and you learn a lot that you don't know when you're 19"—but a 2014 health scare pushed him into taking another shot.
"I went into the hospital and they did a bunch of tests and when I got out I was sitting around, wondering what do I want to do with my time—because for the first time in your life you realize you're not going to live forever," says Aarntzen. "What if I'm dead in three years? What would I want to have done? I wanted to write songs again."
There are five members of Hillsburn and everyone had a pre-existing relationship before the band. Aarntzen, 34, who sings and plays guitar, went to university with Clayton Burrill, 33, who sings and plays guitar. Clayton's sister is Rosanna, 26, who sings and plays violin. (Their father is Gary, leader of the provincial NDP.) Rosanna's boyfriend is Jackson Fairfax-Perry, 27, who plays keyboards and effects. Jackson and Rosanna's Dalhousie music school classmate is Clare Macdonald, 29, who plays the drums. Everyone agrees that her addition, later than the rest, changed everything for the better. "I think that was the best move we ever made," says Rosanna.
Hillsburn broke in 2015 when "Farther in the Fire," a slow-building, piano-driven, harmony-laden wonder, landed the band in the top 10 of CBC's inaugural Searchlight competition, which looks for the best unsigned artists in the country. Local interest materialized instantly, and the band quickly found itself signed to GroundSwell Music and making its debut full-length, In the Battle Years, at Codapop Studios. It was released in 2016.
In those days, they leaned folkier—there was a mandolin—and Rosanna's violin immediately made people think Celtic, so Hillsburn was slotted into a traditional Maritime space.
But an indie-rock band roiled underneath.
"I think the best thing that came out of that first record really was after we finished it, we had all these elements that we had to figure out how to do live," says Fairfax-Perry. "We added an independent bass element to the band, and we all started using different effects pedals, just changing our sound fairly drastically but gradually as well. The last step was adding Clare to the mix."
Macdonald was already an ardent fan. "I went to your first concert, was it at Plan B?" she asks Clayton. It was, "and we really sucked at that point," he notes.
"I spent a year sending them telepathic messages: 'You need a drummer. That drummer's gotta be me,'" she says. She had an informal audition at a Christmas radio show. Afterwards, "Jackson took me to Java Blend and sat me down and said, 'OK, we're thinking of getting some percussion involved in the band,' was all serious and stuff," she says. "'Would you have time to do this?' and I was like, 'Yes. Jackson. 100. Percent. When. Do. We. Start.'"
Aarntzen is the core of Hillsburn: He writes the songs, takes the photos, shoots the videos. For the second album, The Wilder Beyond, which comes out Friday, he learned how to engineer and mix records. (Hillsburn has parted ways, not very amicably, with GroundSwell, and now does most things in-house.)
"Paul is one of those people whose main skill is learning new skills," says Rosanna. "Which is so ridiculously useful: 'We need to do this thing. Paul, could you learn how to do that please? OK thanks.'"
"It was really spending a bunch of nights watching YouTube videos by people who actually do it," says Aarntzen, "and making copious notes."
Amongst the rest of the band, there's none of the tight-mouthedness that comes with being part of a benevolent dictatorship, a theoretically democratic situation that's quietly building resentment instead. They all give Aarntzen his due, genuinely and easily.
"The arrangement and orchestration of the songs is more of a collaborative effort," says Fairfax-Perry, "but the actual writing of the lyrics and the form of the songs, the melodies and stuff, that's all Paul."
"There's a real vetting process—if someone thinks an idea's not good, it's not going to get past the censor," says Clayton.
On stage, Aarntzen and Clayton play guitars on either side, while Fairfax-Perry stands back by the drums in a triangle of keyboards and effects pedals. ("We call it The Spaceship," says Macdonald.)
In the live version of Hillsburn, Rosanna is the leader. "It hasn't been a challenge because I don't like being the centre of attention and she does," says Aarntzen.
"As we've played more music, it became more clear—I mean I always knew this about myself—that I liked the spotlight," she says. "I like to be on stage, I like to talk to the crowd, I like to be social. And Clayton and Paul generally do not. Paul really likes writing songs. I can't write a song to save my soul."
Hillsburn was instantly popular locally; Rosanna's push to the front has only increased the live dynamics and crowd fervour. "The more that we've started to structure the live show around her as the host—she's just a warm, inviting, compelling presence," says Clayton. "People do really respond to her. And I like to think that between the five of us, what we're doing is fundamentally interesting."
"I find more so now my violin is a bit cumbersome," says Rosanna. "If I could not play this, then I could go out there. And that's what people need: They need to feel like they're doing the thing with you, not that they're watching you do the thing."
Multiple tours will occur before the hometown shows for The Wilder Beyond in Halifax in the late spring, because Hillsburn has learned to take its time. The first album took a month; this one took a meticulous, deliberate, strategic year.
"We had a lot more time to finesse, to do what we wanted," says Fairfax-Perry, "and ultimately I think we're a lot happier with the second record."
"I have no regrets about it. It's the first time I've ever been able to finish a music recording and been able to listen to it without picking out all the things I wish were different," says Clayton. "That's a nice feeling."
And about those songs: Aarntzen constructs intellectually dense, grand-idea stories set outside, in the past, novelistic in detail, smatters pop-culture references across them—Steinbeck, Lennon and Sagan appear on The Wilder Beyond—then locks them into your brain forever with the perfect repeated (and repeatable) line: "I'm sinking farther in the fire"; "I'm not gonna miss you"; "This is your young desire"; "I was born only to love you."
"Paul's songs really provoke some sort of emotional reaction," says Fairfax-Perry.
"We do sometimes say, 'Paul, I think this needs a pre-chorus or something,' but he's the one who's gonna write the pre-chorus," says Clayton. "And you can do that with him, because he has a lot of ideas and he likes doing it. As long as he has time to write, it's no skin off his back."
"The songs are amazing. They're anthemic songs. They make me feel something. And that's all people want to do, is feel something," says Rosanna. "They want to feel like they're part of a thing that is meaningful. And I think that the songs are meaningful."
Tara Thorne is The Coast's arts editor.