In a sense, In The Battle Years represents Hillsburn’s formal introduction as a band. But for the members of the quintet, the release of their first album also feels like the end of a long road.
Paul Aarntzen, one of Hillsburn’s three singers and the songwriting force behind the project, remembers clearly the first time the group got together in the spring of 2014: “We crammed four people and half a dozen instruments into my two-door hatchback, drove down to Hillsburn —the village on the Bay of Fundy where I used to live — and spent three straight days playing together.” After two or three such sessions, Aarntzen sold his house and moved to Halifax to work on the band full time.
“It seems ridiculous looking back on it,” he admits. “But we all felt like we’d stumbled onto something good, something worth taking a chance on.”
Hillsburn released a self-titled, self-produced EP in October 2014. “At that point, we’d only been rehearsing seriously for a month, but we were excited to share what we’d been working on,” recalls Rosanna Burrill, another of Hillsburn’s singers. “We rented a hundred bucks’ worth of gear and recorded the EP in one weekend.”
In March 2015, the band entered “Farther In The Fire,” a song from that EP, in CBC’s Searchlight competition, an annual hunt for the best unsigned talent in Canada. The song’s eventual finish in the national top ten led to relationships with Halifax-based independent record label GroundSwell Music and with producer Jon Landry (The Stanfields, The Town Heroes).
Recorded over a two-week period in August 2015, In The Battle Years showcases a clarity of approach that hadn’t had time to develop when Hillsburn released its EP.
“We have a method of choosing songs and of putting arrangements together that’s emerged naturally over a year or so of playing together,” explains Jackson Fairfax-Perry, Hillsburn’s jack-of-all-trades keyboardist, saxophonist, and mandolin player. “I think there’s a feeling of settledness about our sound that comes out of that.”
Aarntzen agrees: “When we started out, part of the fun was swapping instruments and seeing what different sounds we could make. We’ve streamlined things now. We know who sounds best doing what, and I think we’re better as a band when each of us is playing to our strengths.”
The group also credits Landry with helping to pull the project together.
“We were a bit nervous about inviting a fifth voice into the process,” concedes Clayton Burrill, the third of Hillsburn’s singers and Rosanna’s older brother. “We all tend to have strong opinions and we weren’t sure if having another person involved would make it more difficult to get everyone on the same page.”
As it turned out, Landry’s input had the opposite effect. “Jon did an amazing job of acting as a facilitator,” says Fairfax-Perry. “He brought a fresh perspective to the project. He had a great feel for recognizing when we needed to shake things up a bit, either arrangement-wise or on the performance side.”
The material on In The Battle Years is carefully chosen — varied in feel but tied together by recurring lyrical themes and ambitious arrangements.
“We wanted the album to sound as big as possible without straying too far from what people would hear if they came to see us live,” says Aarntzen.
“We drew on everyone’s skills to make that happen,” Clayton continues. “I definitely think you get a better final product when everyone involved feels invested enough in the project to take risks and see where their crazy ideas lead them.”
Having spent a couple of months experimenting with making the material from In The Battle Years work in a live setting, though, the band decided a reconfiguration was necessary.
“We added a bass synth into the mix after recording the album,” Fairfax-Perry explains. “We were all really happy with how well that worked but were having a much harder time trying to figure out the percussion side of things.”
The answer came in the form of friend and drummer/percussionist Clare Macdonald.
“We’re incredibly lucky that Clare was interested in joining the band,” says Rosanna. “Knowing her already, and knowing her abilities as a musician, made it such an easy transition. We’re a much different band than we were a year ago, but we’re a much better band.”
The album title is a phrase from “Ava,” the most sparsely-arranged song on the album with just vocals and a keyboard.
“In The Battle Years really felt like it fit as a title,” says Clayton. “It speaks to what we’re doing collectively: taking a long shot at something we’re all really passionate about.”
The reality of taking that kind of chance — of struggling to make ends meet, of feeling stuck and discouraged — is one of the album’s central themes. Many of the songs are rooted in a recognition of how difficult life can be.
And yet, there’s a light-hearted defiance and a resilience to Aarntzen’s writing as well. Part of his skill as a lyricist is an ability to set a clear-eyed view of life’s hardships side by side with occasional glimmers of hope and redemption.
“We want to play music that makes people feel something. If it makes you dance, great. If it makes you cry, that’s good too,” he laughs. “Hopefully the album will inspire a bit of both.”