It’s clear from the first listen to Canadian alt-pop artist VISSIA’s music that she doesn’t play by the rules. In fact, her career evolution illustrates she has no problem making up her own. Singer-songwriter, multi-instrumentalist, label manager, graphic designer — VISSIA has become a prominent figure in the Alberta music scene, and increasingly, the Canadian music scene overall.
It’s certainly light years away from the days when she was simply Alex Vissia, singing folk and country songs as part of a trio with her sisters. But since taking full control of her work in 2011 after studying music at MacEwan University, she has combined a myriad of styles into a distinctive sound that has won the hearts of critics, radio programmers and festival bookers across Canada.
The great leap forward occurred in the wake of her 2017 album Place Holder—released on her own imprint, Hurry Hard Records—which No Depression described as possessing “a timeless quality. If Kathleen Edwards were a little less sad or Neko Case a little poppier, you’d get VISSIA.”
Recorded with Emily Bachynski at Edmonton’s BitterNorth Studios, and mixed by longtime Josh Ritter collaborator Sam Kassirer, Place Holder marked a new beginning for VISSIA, both creatively and philosophically. “In some ways Place Holder feels like my first record,” she says. “I put out two records before it, but I consider those now to be initial attempts as a solo artist. Since the name shift to VISSIA, my career has felt like it’s been given a new beginning. As my confidence has grown, I’ve wanted to surround myself with people who possess a similar approach. That’s why I worked with Emily Bachynski. She is fearless, creatively, and does everything with so much care.”
Indeed, it takes fierce energy, talent and experience to hold together the diversity of loves VISSIA brought to Place Holder. Broadly speaking, the album’s nine songs blend pop smarts with rootsy sensibilities, as evidenced by the sexy, full-band rocker “Mountaineer” about a loved one prone to wandering, “The Kind of Good,” a live-off-the-floor ode to old hotel rooms and the single life, and the dreamy “You Should Be Sleeping” about a passerby in a legendary Edmonton bar. Each track has its own distinct mood to match its particular, intimate content.
“Those songs are partly about the emotional subtleties between people,” she explains. “I am notorious for my lack of openness about how I feel, face to face, but my songwriting is lyrically-driven, and I feel I can place my trust there. Also, the album took four years to write and each song holds a meaningful moment or place from that time.” This compelling theme winds through Place Holder, with the songs serving as stand-ins for the mysterious, tenuous bond between people, holding in place the fleeting, beautiful now.
But while Place Holder set VISSIA upon a new path, it offers only glimpses of what’s sure to come from the ever-evolving artist. Starting early on piano and continuing with classical voice and guitar lessons, Alex Vissia was a part of the Vissia Sisters from 2000-2010. The trio earned two Canadian Folk Music Award nominations in 2006 and 2007, played the Vancouver 2010 Olympics, and toured Japan.
Her solo career began in 2011 with the album A Lot Less Gold. Young Love followed, an EP of three originals and three covers, with her interpretation of Gordon Lightfoot’s “Sundown” exhibiting her ability to experiment with influences and bend genres. However, it was her own songs that caught the attention of critics, earning high profile festival slots where VISSIA shared stages with Lindi Ortega, Whitehorse, Jim Bryson, Matt Andersen, Skydiggers and others. Those performances have included the UK’s Great Escape Festival, the Edmonton Folk Music Festival, Canmore Folk Music Festival, Beaumont Blues & Roots Festival and hundreds of tour dates from coast to coast across Canada.
VISSIA is also a member of acclaimed Edmonton alt-pop collective The Hearts and the Emily Bachynski-led project Bad Buddy, along with being an increasingly in-demand session singer, including for the likes of JUNO nominee Nuela Charles.
But whether it is creating her own music, or adding her talents to the work of others, VISSIA’s choices are unfailingly natural and honest. It’s a testament to her decade-plus of engagement, perseverance, and curiosity in all areas of making music—from composing, to recording, to album art. It’s all led to VISSIA defining a sound distinctly her own, which simultaneously manages to connect listeners to their own favourite private feelings and imagined landscapes.