Album Review: Jenina MacGillivray’s Marion

MacGillivray’s debut is a love letter to friends and family, to cities and towns, and to the past and potential lovers who inhabit them.

Last month St. John’s-based filmmaker, writer, and musician Jenina MacGillivray released her debut album, Marion. After years of writing and playing her songs for audiences in cafes and bars, she sent the album, which she named in honour of her mother, out into the world.  MacGillivray’s debut is a love letter to friends and family, to cities and towns, and to the past and potential lovers who inhabit them. It is a love letter to life as a continuous succession of present moments.

Marion begins with light guitar, moody tremolo, and MacGillivray looking back warmly on a fleeting marriage engagement in the Portuguese resort town, Carvoeiro. Ill-fated seaside love fast-forwards to Ontario, St. John’s, and back around to their care free time in Carvoeiro. On the surface it’s an affectionate, light-hearted song about being in love, or at least being in love with love, but it’s also a meditation on remaining open-hearted because, well, what else can we do?

MacGillivray’s lyrics are rooted in poetry about everyday things, whether that be the death of a parent, missing good friends on the other side of the world, or crushing on the new cute boy at the grocery store. It’s this equal appreciation for everyday moments and impermanence that MacGillivray weaves throughout the 12 songs on Marion.

For the most part she seems non-committal about what listeners take away. Are her songs well-spun romantic tales, or solid life advice to be taken at face-value? It’s largely up to the listener to choose. Two songs, “Holy Winter” and “Marion,” are the exception. “Holy Winter” recounts Macgillivray’s brush with death in the winter of 2014. Waking up in a hospital bed after emergency surgery, MacGillivray listened over the phone to the sound of her many friends playing a benefit concert for her in downtown St. John’s. It is a vivid movie scene about frailty and grace, written by MacGillivray the filmmaker first and foremost, and set to song. She approaches mortality once again with the album’s title track.

“Marion” is a sorrowful contemplation about the loss of MacGillivray’s mother, but also a thank you for the gift of her own life and those of her siblings. With each listen I’m reminded of a chance encounter with MacGillivray at the airport; both of us waiting for planes to take us home to siblings and an ailing parent. The closing line: “you taught us all how to be best friends” is such a simple and moving observation about the journey of loss; about sadness and hopefulness and everything in between.

For her debut album, MacGillivray handed the task of recording to Jake Nicoll. Nicoll has a discernable style, which is present throughout Marion, particularly on songs like “Beautiful Boy in the Grocery Store,” and “Skipping Stones,” where he contributes backing vocals and drums. Nicoll knows well what to leave on and off the table, however, and complements MacGillivray’s songs and magnetism perfectly.

In terms of her sound, MacGillivray’s voice is warm and laid back, with an understated quality to it that immediately calls to mind Sherry Ryan. On “Carvoeiro,” there’s even a Julee Cruise/David Lynch feeling to her backing vocals, but ultimately it’s MacGillivray’s unabashed love for indie-hero Jonathan Richman that most comes through on Marion. Richman might have actually written “Olden Days,” had he not been so in love with the Modern World. Richman’s special brand of humour is something MacGillivray clearly cherishes.

All in all Marion is a thoroughly enjoyable debut from MacGillivray that I appreciate more with each listen. Favourite tracks include: Marion, Little Things, Beautiful Boy in the Grocery Store.

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