As St. John’s artist Ilia Nicoll prepares for the release of her sophomore album, i in team, she is completing her Masters, creating a zine, and shooting a music video. She took some time from her very busy days to speak to me about all of this – and more.
As a performer, your audience knows that you aren’t a one-trick pony. You play the violin, viola, guitar, and sing as a backing and lead vocalist. So we know about your musical diversity. But music isn’t your entire life, it’s the other piece.
So do you want to tell me about other major projects going on in your life outside of “i in team”?
Yeah! It’s a good question because right now I’m focused in three very different areas of my life and in each area there is a project that will culminate at the end of October. So in addition to music I am doing my Masters in Linguistics and currently finishing up my thesis, and I also have a doll making project that has been on going for a few years now.
But my thesis – that’s what I really love right now. I am interested in a particular type of verb construction and a particular phenomenon that happens in those constructions, and from doing research on it, I noticed there was room for a new syntactic model (there’s always room for new stuff).
Basically this is pure theory; it is connected to reality and real languages, but it’s really given me a chance to use my imagination. I think it uses the same part of my brain as writing music but it’s exciting to do it in a way that creates a conversation.
And potentially creates a conversation internationally with a small but widespread group of people who are also interested in this thing that I do. I’ve never been part of that kind of group before so I’m feeling really charged and excited about it. I just printed off the first draft of my thesis the other day and it looks legit! It’s exciting!
And it’s huge!
It’s pretty big yeah, I’m going to have to do some pairing, take out my pairing knife.
Can we talk a little more about the dolls? These are handmade dolls that you design and create?
Yes, I started a few years ago making these dolls. I got the idea from my Dad. When I was a kid, he made these plasticine dolls and he would fill them with organs and put a stomach over them and then give us knives and say, “Okay! Operate!” and we would open them up and we would carefully take out his heart and put in another heart.
It was so much fun to have a toy that goes to the next level of three dimensionality. It’s not just something you can hold and manipulate. It’s something that has its own insides. There was this depth to them that I loved. So I decided I was going to try and knit a doll like that plasticine man that my Dad would make for us to operate on.
So I did that and that was a success so I went on to try different things with no plan– only the most basic knitting skills are needed to do it. And then from the combination of that and the enjoyment of sewing things into interesting shapes, I discovered I could basically make any three dimensional object I wanted to and didn’t even need to know what I was making.
It is this incredibly freeing thing to start out without any plan and end up with a complete object. And I get to play with colour and texture. It’s very sensual. And cathartic – it gets out all of my little creepy demons.
I’ve recently been working on a series that’s about abortion. The idea was to try and get to the experience that a woman has before any kind of judgement steps in because I believe that everyone, regardless of their moral code, would benefit from talking about abortion from a more anthropological prospective, understanding what exactly that experience can be for a person and understanding things like, you know, how should they deal with post-partum depression?
Why aren’t there more things set up to help women in situations like that? It could eventually lead to making suggestions for improvements to the public health system, but at this point, what I wanted to do was just use my own experience with abortion to say that the direction of information needs to come from the true source.
We need to find out about abortion from women who are comfortable speaking about their experience with it. And I also wanted to bring attention to the fact that with the decision to have a child or to have an abortion, there isn’t a fixed rule that determines how you are going to feel about the choice you made.
On both sides of that decision, there are women having experiences that they don’t know how to deal with because they are told that they are not supposed to feel the way that they are actually feeling. For a woman who has an abortion– “may” she mourn? Is there any time or space for that mourning and how long “should” it take?
For a woman who decides to have a baby, where’s the room for her mourning if she feels it? So basically, I just wanted to use my own experience, since I’m very comfortable with it, to open it up to people and say, look at this: I am told I shouldn’t have mourned because I do not regret the decision I made, and yet mourn I did.
My morals don’t dictate my feelings– they can only lay judgement after my feelings have been felt. The point is, before there is any judgement about whether abortion is Good or Bad, there is a physical, chemical, animal experience.
So why don’t we find out what that experience is before we judge it? That’s it. And anyways. That’s what this is about. It’s interesting because it took a sort of a dark turn at one point and then it got kind of happier. And there’s even goofy aspects to it. Since I had no plan or design — I was just building from my feelings — it has come out in all of these different colours and different shapes that I wasn’t expecting.
Right now as I’m talking I’m working on a series of four dolls that will live in this box, and their heads are going to be inside their stomachs. They represent these different flavours of fear that I feel these days. And again, it helps me. It helps me to make it physical, to make the fear a little, controllable object. It helps me deal with the things that I’m afraid of. I can shut them away in a box, literally, when I want to, or I can take them out and play with them, literally. Huh!
Brilliant. That is such an important conversation and I look forward to seeing the project! And so the album launch may also have a zine launch that is related to the dolls?
Yeah! I’m going to try and finish up this series and then create a zine that has photos and talks about my doll-making technique and whatever else I feel like writing about the dolls, and then I’ll be selling that zine at the album release so that the two can kind of go hand in hand. And you have the option to get both! And if you REALLY want, I’ll sell you my thesis!
Or your opening act could be your thesis defense! And so before we jump into more specifics about the record, I want to talk about Art Therapy. You’ve mentioned you find the doll-making cathartic. And so I want to know if you have more to say about the idea of self-guided therapy. Is it something you’ve always done?
Yes yes! Music for me started as a completely private thing. I learned how to play guitar when I was 15 or 16.
My Dad taught me his finger-picking style, and as soon as I learned a few chords, and as soon as he set me to the task of mastering the F bar chord and I was alone in my room practicing until my finger would bleed, from that point on for the next 6 years or so, it was mostly just me in my room alone with towels stuffed under the door.
Occasionally I would come out of my shell and play with certain safe people. But it was entirely self-indulgent writing and it was lyrical and poetic and romantic and so unselfconscious because it wasn’t made for any other ears. I appreciate the ways in which my writing has matured as I’ve matured, but I also kind of miss that early stage when I could fearlessly write because it was just for my own sake.
The doll-making has kind of taken over that private part of myself in a way. At least right now, I think I’m in a transitional writing phase where my thesis has taken over the hours of pouring out thoughts in writing, and the dolls have taken over the self-expression and cathartic self-therapy.
Music has become in a lot of ways a very self-conscious thing because it’s become communal in a way it wasn’t before and THAT is beautiful. That’s what this whole past year has been about for me. I’ve kind of stepped away from doing the solo thing and more-so have sought out group music experiences in various ways.
I’m finding new ways to play violin, pushing myself to master things that I thought I couldn’t because I wasn’t classically trained for the last 10 years. And just sharing the stage, sharing that presence. That’s been a LOT of fun. And at the same time, I’m enjoying how my personality can still shine through in those group settings, and enjoying how to share space without competition and how to be an individual while being part of a group.
And so right away I think of the album title.
Yeah! The “i in team.” I like playing with that idea and thinking of all of the meanings and connotations that that phrase raises for different people. It can mean many things. It can have a bad undertone or a really positive meaning and they can both exist at the same time.
And so your previous record Caterwaul took a long time to get to us, and I think it took a lot from you to get to us, and there seems to be a marked difference with this one.
Yeah the last album I had been writing those songs for years and it was my first album but it was my “best of” album. I had a set idea of how I wanted things to go and I had this idea for so long that it was very important to me that I do justice to each song and present the most classic version of it.
It was very consciously not supposed to be a representation of where I was at musically at that point in my life. It was intended to be, through the window of my vision at that time, the best version of the songs as I would have wanted it when I wrote it.
This album, I don’t have that at all. I’m going to say that this album was produced by the band because it was! These are songs that I wrote and created, but the way in which it’s presented is a group effort and it’s great! This album represents me right now, this past year. And nothing else. It’s not classic.
A lot of the songs are just as old as the ones on the first album, but I’m not trying to force some kind of model onto the songs. And you know, in some ways I think [the classic version] was a good thing to try and it sort of makes sense for a first album. I think everyone tries to do that at some point. For now, I’ve just let go of that idea.
There’s such a diversity of sound on this record. Maybe that speaks to the diversity of Ilia this past year, with all of the different projects…
Ha, yeah. And it’s a little more outspoken. It’s interesting that the songs are louder, I’m not sticking inside a genre terribly carefully. It’s definitely lost some self-consciousness and is making bolder statements, that’s for sure. I dunno, I’m less afraid of speaking up.
Speaking of “speaking”, can we talk about the recording of the vocal tracks?
Yeah, sure. It was great, I was left alone in a room and just banged out the songs one after another. And I think I only re-did the vocals on two of the tracks. But the rest of them, that’s how it sounded the first time it came out and we were like “Good! Next!” It was so much fun! And we got it all done in about an hour. That’s HUGELY different from the last album.
I’ve been in the studio with tons of other people while they do their vocals and this idea that “Oh don’t worry! You can do it as many times as you want until you get it perfect!” isn’t freeing for me. Maybe some people find that reassuring but for me that just means “Now I have to do this until it’s perfect” and how do you know when it’s perfect?
There are so many beautiful mistakes that can happen, and that you lose, when you’re seeking perfection. And the bed tracks for this album, again, a lot of them were one-take wonders. We did it once and it was done. There would be moments when someone would mess up but there was a glue that kept it all together.
You can tell that we’re all there and doing it together, and that makes it very easy to accept mistakes. Whereas the musicians who come in after and have to lay down vocals or whatever, they’re not part of that group experience and their mistakes seem far less forgivable to them. It’s way easier to obsess and lose the magic.
Luckily we didn’t have to do that too much. So I’m really really happy with it. I love this album and I can say that I’m not sick of listening to it and I’m really proud to get to be part of the team who made it.
And so now I want to move into more specifics about the album. Tell us about the music video?
It’s a music video for the song Hazel off the record. This project has been super fun. There have been a lot of opportunities to try many different things, like I’ve never done a music video before for one of my songs before. That was so much fun!
And so the folks in your band are the creative forces behind the video?
That’s right. I didn’t get funding for this album, which means that no one in this band has been paid yet. And that really says something about each of them. They are so committed and generous. If I sell any records, we’ll share that profit.
It’s been really neat to see how big we can make this with such a small number of people. The only people that have done anything on this album at all are myself, Jake (who has done a heck of a lot and deserves credit for that), Knoah, Darren, Natasha (who are the band members) and Pepa Chan (who does the artwork. Pepa did the artwork for my last album, she’ll do the artwork for all of my albums, she’s my girl ) and that’s it! That’s the Hot Toddy team.
Incredible. And so about the artwork. I’m curious about the dynamic in terms of idea sharing and how much control Pepa has as the Visual Artist.
She has complete control. For this album, I wanted everyone to do what they do, and as much as possible I tried to not control other elements other than myself and the overall structure of songs and things like that. And that was very successful because Pepa doesn’t need anyone telling her what to do.
I couldn’t be happier with what she made. She wants to make t-shirts! I’m very lucky to have people with such great ideas who want to be part of this project with me.
And I’m very lucky that Jake is my brother because he has so many skills that are so practical and necessary for this kind of thing. I didn’t ever want, you know, a guy, telling me how I am supposed to make my music sound and what my goals are supposed to be. So I’m very lucky to have Jake, not only because he gives me his time so generously – that is huge. But also for the fact that he has always been a support and given me space to be myself and knows me well enough to have input that is relevant and useful.
So we work really well as a team. I CAN let someone else in. That’s actually what’s so cool about this album is that it’s the first time I’ve really been able to let people in and be part of the creative process and production because they know me and understand me well enough to have a contribution that I can accept and that feels safe. It is given for the right reasons and so I can receive it for the right reasons.
I feel that “for the right reasons” is key. It can be such a tough battle for women in the studio.
Yeah. I want to say though that I’ve had fantastic experiences in the studio. For example, I love working with Kristjan Leslie. He encourages me to let myself loose a little bit and be a bit wild. I’ve tried things vocally for the first time in that studio so many times.
I want to be clear that I don’t think that being a guy automatically makes you a control freak, but all disclaimers set aside, I do think a woman has to work harder than a man to get to the point where people stop telling them how their music should sound.
I’d like to single out a song off of the album. I want to talk about selkies. This is partly selfish. I love selkies and would like to hear you speak about them. What are selkies?
A selkie is a seal in the water and a human on land. They can take their seal skin off and sun themselves on the rocks, but if someone takes their sealskin, they cannot go back to the water until they find it again. Selkie stories tend to always be of a similar nature.
It starts with a wild creature whose sealskin is captured. Often it is the sealskin of a woman, and the person who steals it gets to be with her, marry her, have children. But the life they build together is always overshadowed by the fact that if the selkie can find its sealskin, it will go back to the water because it needs to be both a seal and a human.
And there’s this beautiful sorrow in that story because selkies can never be fully content in either life. They are shape shifters and they must keep shifting. Which means that contentment for a selkie must come from not being settled.
Those two ideas, contentment and immobility, are so often intertwined. But contentment in this case is temporal. It happens over time and in space, not by being sedate and calm, unmoving, unchanging. I really like that idea, maybe as a Gemini, and as someone who– you know, product of my generation– has a problem with commitment in various ways.
I’m fascinated by how a person negotiates between needing to belong and needing to be free. And so I have a song on the album called Selkie.
Which is absolutely beautiful by the way. I love that song so much.
Those last few lines “there might be sealers, there might be bears…”
That line means a lot to me too. That song is about a selkie climbing up out of the harbour in St. John’s, takes off her sealskin, maybe takes a shower first [laughs] and then puts on a dress and walks to the bar, hanging her sealskin in the coatroom.
In my head, the bar is Distortion but with a coatroom. And the room is teaming with people and they are sweaty, and you’re just seeing the light from the stage shining over their heads and shoulders because they are such a dense crowd that they are forming the surface of water and are moving together in these waves.
Their bodies have joined and formed a mass. Then this selkie enters the group and she stands there alone, wanting so badly to feel touched by something; to be moved and to be part of something. And at one point, somebody touches her and she’s filled with passion and comes alive.
So it’s about letting herself be moved and letting herself be touched. She still has her skin in the coatroom – she’s not losing that. The skin represents a lot of things for me. It’s freedom, individuality, and at the same time it’s a story.
It’s something that she tells herself and by removing it she’s free to do something outside of the story that she’s telling herself and everyone else. And so there’s this moment of realization, and this epiphany that she has when she’s finally moved makes her look around the room and she notices that everyone is baring their real selves.
Everyone’s skin is hung in the coatroom and everyone is just as vulnerable and just as free. So those last lines, “there might be sealers/ there might be bears/we still need to breathe the air/take a chance on a dance floor” it’s about being free to take a risk and put yourself out there socially and not be afraid of losing the wild part of yourself that is healthy, and to not be afraid of losing the wild part of yourself that isn’t.
Thank you so much for sharing that.
Oh, thank you!
So we’ll wrap things up I guess. But you are dedicating the album to….
Yeah! I haven’t told him yet. So either he’ll find out from reading this article or from the album itself. I have been very lucky to know Phil Branigan. He is so generous and considerate.
I think like most grad students I have a bit of Imposter Syndrome. Sometimes I feel like, “Do I deserve to be here? Am I smart enough?”, and every step of the way Phil has made me feel like I deserve it and like I’m good enough to try.
He’s encouraged me to look into PhD programs and let’s me talk and talk for hours and never kicks me out! For years now, I have had a habit of dropping into his office and fly in with a question, “Phil! But I don’t understand!…” and he would go with it.
It’s pretty annoying to have a student throw random questions at you all of a sudden and expect to have your full attention. Phil’s put up with a lot from me. For a long time I was having an existential crisis, basically, and he coached me through it.
And then I almost did my Masters, and I didn’t, and then I almost did again, and then I didn’t, and then I applied and got in, then I deferred my acceptance, and then I said I was never going back, and then I started my Masters after all.
And the final launch happened very quickly…
The final launch is interesting cause, basically, having time to think about things is the worst thing I can have. All of the best decisions I’ve made are made quickly because I have the ability and the strength to deal with what happens quickly.
Not to say that I think it isn’t wise to have some things go slow, like putting a financial plan in place, that is important. But I became neurotic about this decision even though I had to try to know. I was working as a waitress, making dolls and playing music. I had a very full life!
I had no reason to complain, but I wasn’t intellectually stimulated and I really need that to feel okay. I just think that I don’t need more time for myself. I have a lot of “me” time and I’m naturally introspective, so I don’t need to be encouraged to think about myself more. I write music and do creative projects that are about me when I’m stimulated and involved in something that isn’t about me.
I had the same conversation the other day…
Yeah! And so I feel like Phil has been an inspiration. You hear people talk about their coaches and their mentors and you hear people give thank you speeches or read the acknowledgments before a book, and it’s all the same thing.
It’s very hard to explain to other people why that particular person inspires you, why you couldn’t have done it without them. But I think that having a mentor is a really important thing and I know that he’s changed my life in ways that even he doesn’t understand.
It’s a gift to get to talk to someone, to not be lonely while I do my Masters. I can tell that he’s interested in what I’m doing too. How could I not have confidence in what I’m doing when someone like that has confidence in me, you know? I cling to that when I go through the phases where I don’t feel good enough. But yeah. That’s it I guess!
Thank you so much, Ilia.
Thank you, Joanna! Use what you want from this. It’s so long!