Sometimes, judging a book by its cover pays off. About a year ago, Cape Breton violinist Gillian Boucher’s agent Hilda MacDonald gave her a cd to listen to. Boucher didn’t recognize the name Andrea Wittgens, but she thought the artwork was brilliant, so she put it on.
“I was seriously and immediately hooked,” says Boucher. “I completely fell in love with Andrea’s classic yet quirky style. The arrangements, the words, everything grabbed me. It became my favorite CD of the year.”
Antigonish-native singer-songwriter and pianist Andrea Wittgens has been compared to artists as diverse as Ricki Lee Jones, PJ Harvey and Regina Spektor. After moving to Seattle, Washington in the late ‘90s, Andrea stirred up a wave of notice with her band Sugartown. Two albums and four years later she set out as a solo artist. Her 2006 EP Alibi (produced by Grammy Award winning producer/mixer Bob Power) garnered excited reviews in the northwest and in New York City where she suddenly found herself with a notable buzz. In June 2009, her full-length album In The Skyline was released in the US to critical acclaim.
While Wittgens is an indie-pop singer-songwriter who’s been described as “quirky” and “witty”, Boucher is a violinist from Cape Breton who plays “fiddle music for people who don’t like fiddle music”. Winner of the 2009 Nova Scotia Music Award for Traditional/Roots Recording of the Year and nominated for the 2010 East Coast Music Award in the same category, Boucher returned to Nova Scotia from New Zealand in 2005. She has since toured regularly with the Mary Jane Lamond Band and finger-style guitar virtuoso Andrew White. In 2008 she released her critically acclaimed debut album Elemental produced by Glenn Meisner at CBC’s Studio H in Halifax. With a broad range of musical influences, this progressive yet easy-listening album seamlessly blends Celtic and contemporary sounds with hints of Eastern European styles and a touch of jazz.
“When Hilda approached me in the spring about maybe doing some shows with Andrea my first reaction was ‘absolutely!’” says Boucher, “…and then I realized that musically we came from opposite ends of the planet and I wasn’t quite sure how to find a happy meeting place, musically speaking, but hey… that’s the beauty of collaboration!”
The unlikely pair got together last summer for a show at Music On Main, a weekly concert series held during July in Antigonish.
“I spent a few years living in Antigonish,” explains Boucher, “and the Music on Main committee had become good friends of mine. I had performed once or twice there with finger-style guitarist Andrew White and they wanted a spot where they could put me on stage with a band. Andrea was going to be around and being a native of Antigonish, it seemed like the perfect opportunity to play together. We hired Darren McMullen (bass and guitar) and Keith Mullins (percussion) to back us up. I had worked with the boys before and knew that no matter how little rehearsal time we had, they would do the job brilliantly. In fact, our first and only rehearsal was about two hours before sound-check! The weather was beautiful, the beer backstage calmed our nerves and the night was a success.”
Despite their seemingly disparate musical styles, the quirky pop singer and Celtic fiddler found some common musical ground in collaboration. And that’s what makes this show—the combination of pop, Celtic and jazz sensibilities coming together to create a fresh new musical expression.
“Our ambition was to collaborate, to find a place where our styles could meet,” Boucher says. “Mixing Celtic Fiddle with Indie Pop isn’t the easiest thing! The result, however, is magical. We’ve both had to move out of our comfort zones… I’m playing in key signatures that I wouldn’t usually play in and she’s playing in tempos she usually wouldn’t play in. Granted, I have experience working with singer-songwriters and so I’m pretty versatile in that respect and Andrea, well Andrea can play anything! It’s pretty cool. Very dynamic. We’ve had a blast, leaving expectations at the door, and just communicating honestly with each other. It was great that personally, we hit it off from the beginning. There will be a couple of songs that I will leave Andrea to do solo, and vice versa, but we’re playing together for most of the evening.”
All in all, Gillian Boucher is glad Andrea Wittgens’ CD artwork caught her eye and that they were able to connect so well musically and personally.
“Playing with Andrea is like eating the perfect dessert!” muses Boucher. “Soft, sultry, a little dangerous, but wonderfully sweet and totally delicious! I’ve felt shivers through my skin playing with Andrea, a feeling that as a musician I spend most of my time searching for but find only on those rare and special occasions.”
Wittgens agrees that this is a collaboration that really works. “Working with Gillian on these shows has been such a magical experience,” she says. “It’s been wonderful to stretch myself musically with her. Growing up in Nova Scotia I always had a spectator’s love affair with fiddle music but never really jumped in and played a part. Now I get to experience it as a musician and actually be a part of the beautiful sound. It’s also been so refreshing to hear the new textures and sounds that the fiddle brings to my pop songs.”
Don’t miss this unique collaboration when they come to Cape Breton, February 5 at Governors Pub in Sydney, and February 6 at Bras d’Or Lakes Inn in St. Peter’s.