Place Holder (Hurry Hard Records, 2017)
by Thea Bowering
Love doesn’t live miles down the road. She’s lying in your bed, waiting in arms of a song. — “Macondo,” Place Holder
VISSIA's suggestive new album title Place Holder makes you wonder—what or who is standing in place, and for what?
“It’s partly about the emotional subtleties between people. 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 — Song as a stand-in for the mysterious, tenuous bond between people, holding in place the fleeting, beautiful Now.
While Place Holder’s songs are pop length, and can broadly be called Americana, each of the nine tracks has its own distinct mood to match its particular, intimate content. Opening with the sexy, full-band rocker “Mountaineer” about a loved one prone to wandering, the album settles into “The Kind of Good," a live-off-the-floor ode to old hotel rooms and the single life; and winds down with the dreamy, torchy “You Should Be Sleeping," about a passerby in a legendary Edmonton bar. Whether it’s a nod to Wilco or Neko Case, a surprising seventh chord Jazz change-up, some big t-rex/Visconti-like backing vocals — the choice always seems natural and right and you go with it, happily, a testament to VISSIA's decade and a half engagement, perseverance, and curiosity in all areas of making music, from composing, to recording, to album art and design.
“In some ways Place Holder feels like my first record.” VISSIA reveals — this is, in fact, her third solo project, but is both a culmination of and break from everything that came before. VISSIA started early on piano, continued with classical voice and guitar lessons, and in 2000 formed The Vissia Sisters with her two sisters. The young Pop-Folk/Country trio gained popular and critical attention over a decade, showcasing at festivals, earning two Canadian Folk Music Award nominations, playing the Vancouver Olympics, and touring Japan. In 2011, following a diploma in Composition at MacEwan University, VISSIA struck out with a solo career under the name Alex Vissia, releasing the full album A Lot Less Gold. Young Love followed, an EP of three originals and three covers. Her interpretation of Gordon Lightfoot’s “Sundown” exhibited her ability to experiment with influences and bend genre; however, it was her own songs that caught the attention of critics. Hard won but satisfying solo success earned VISSIA folk festival stages shared with Lindi Ortega, White Horse, The Skydiggers and Harry Stinson, among other greats. “Both albums were formative for me as a solo artist, but making a name shift to VISSIA a little over a year ago, my career has felt like it’s been given a new beginning.”
This new beginning is a huge step up from VISSIA's previous releases, including collaborations of instinct and measured risk. VISSIA recorded with Emily Bachynski at BitterNorth Studio in Edmonton. “I wanted Emily because she is fearless, creatively, and works with so much care.” At the nudge of her other band, The Hearts, who know she is a big Josh Ritter fan, VISSIA asked Sam Kassirer, Ritter’s producer and longtime bandmate, to work on the mix. It was a leap of faith, sending the album off to Great North Sound Society in Kassirer’s remote farmhouse in Maine, but Vissia shared Kassirer’s core belief that everything on a recording should be essential. The risk paid off. Marked by surprising sonic shifts inside satisfying melodies, the production highlights the soaring strength and subtle nuances of Vissia’s heartfelt voice (backed by her sister and Bachynski), as well as her studied sense of measure and euphony. VISSIA's sound is distinctly her own yet manages to connect listeners to their own most favourite private feelings and imagined landscapes.
This album feels like a work of love, for all involved. Where VISSIA's music is now makes it smart enough to satisfy a close listen, and warm enough to accompany your daily routine. Distilled to one word: it is joyful. A placeholder is something that reserves a spot for the thing to come. With this album, VISSIA is at the table, poised at the exciting beginning of just that.