Like me, Ariana Gillis has never owned a cellphone. Which makes us both unusual nowadays. But I'm 39. I lived most of my life without them even existing. I didn't get my first email address 'til I was 29, so I spent the first three-quarters of my life offline. Ariana Gillis, on the other hand, is 21 years old, which makes her dodge of the all-pervasive technology-- one which has the power to distract us from ourselves more than any other today-- all the more singular.
But spend some time with Ariana's extraordinary new album Forget Me Not (released independently, 2011), and you'll soon realize the cell-phone fact (like most of what we use 'em for) is mere trivia-- though it does shed some light on one of the things that makes Forget Me Not such an exciting work of art. The album is a beautiful statement on the importance of protecting our inner lives from the outer, workaday world; it asks the question, what happens when the dreams we've nurtured in solitude are exposed to the noise and traffic and plastic? How does someone who's protected what Mervyn Peake called 'the world of their centre where their lives burn genuinely and with a free flame' emerge from that sanctum? What happens then?
This has been a central struggle for true artists, time out of mind; reconciling their inner lives with the dirty fingers of the world at large. And there isn't a shred or a shadow of doubt that Ariana Gillis is a true artist. I want to make this as clear as possible: Forget Me Not is as good as anything, anywhere, from anytime. It's Ariana's second album (her first, To Make It Make Sense, came out in 2009), and the quality of it is so incredible that I doubt my ability to describe it. Ariana's is as individual a voice as I've heard come out of this city (she's from St. Catharines but I think of her as a Toronto artist) in all the eighteen years I've lived here. Forget Me Not is the kind of work that will cast a long, beautiful shadow, which other artists-- perhaps not so sure of their voices-- will be working in, and inspired by.
The songs on Forget Me Not are as true and mysterious and as honest as a series of dreams, which is how I think of them. And like a series of dreams, the deeper experience of this record is had by absorbing it as a whole work. I'm thrilled to share pieces of it here, but even by breaking the songs up for this article, I can't help but feel I'm doing the accomplishment of it a disservice. If you're a reader who trusts my taste-- if I've steered you right in the past-- I recommend ceasing all internal dialogue, clicking here, right now, and buying the album from iTunes to experience it for yourself, as an album. My hope is that anyone who reads this Jukebox will be inspired to do that. Come back and read this again when you've spent some time with it. It'll be a brand new read.
Oh, and it rocks, by the way. Did I mention that?
From The Start (Ariana Gillis)
This isn't even on Forget Me Not, but snack on the mojo goin' on here. This song was posted recently, and Ariana's playing it here for her father, David Gillis, who's also the guitar player in her band, and producer of the new album:
You're at the Bottom of the Lake, No One Will Find You
The lyric in that last song, 'Oh this ocean is so dark, bottomless and full of sharks/ What you want you'll never find, a bottled message left behind', reminds me of something I love about the songs on Forget Me Not, and that's that nearly all of them have something hiding in the water-- usually at the bottom, where it's cold and dark and will never be found. It's a potent image, and it comes up throughout the record. Check out the first track: 'Money Money' (Ariana Gillis), and notice the words 'Meet at the lake where it all goes south/ Bottom full of bones no one knows about/ They don't know, they don't know, they don't know...'
I mean, hell, notice all the words if you can catch 'em. I've got the advantage on you there, 'cause I've probably heard this song fifty times now. 'Money money here, money money there, Crawling off the wind, tousling my hair'. What a killer song-- everything about it is killer! It's like a little movie shot through a fractured lens. And her performance? C'mon!! Total authority, absolute confidence, boiler-room energy!! I mean, that's just the first track, and the truth is, part of me wishes I could just Matrix all eleven songs into your head so that you'd instantly understand why I love 'em. Then you'd be singin' along with me: 'Gotta get a little dirty to make a buck!'.
Forgive me, friends, that's my enthusiasm talkin'... but worth stopping to notice that last line I quoted is another theme running through this record, which is: if money's being made, don't trust it. 'Everyone's a liar, everyone's a cheat/ I'm cheating on you, but you don't see/ You don't know, you don't know, you don't know/ Money money here, money money there/ Clawin' at the dirt 'cause I want a share'. In the meantime, here's track 2-- another fractured poem to the forces that can't be trusted, and the title track: 'Forget Me Not' (Ariana Gillis). Listen here, and tell me that isn't the shit.
All Along The Watchtower (Bob Dylan), performed by Ariana Gillis at Hugh's Room.
We'll get back to her new album in exactly five minutes and forty-three seconds-- until then, here's Ariana doing Dylan. And dig Bob's lyric, 'Businessmen they drink my wine, ploughmen dig my earth/ None of them along the line know what any of it is worth'. Ariana could have written those words if Dylan had just given her some time. Oh, and there's her dad, David Gillis, playing slide guitar. See you in 5:43...
The Creature In The Lake Was Born Of Doubt
To introduce this next song, I wanna say a little something more about dreams. I used to record mine religiously. There's a two-year period of my life-- from my twenties-- for which I have a three-inch-thick file of them, all of which I caught on a voice-recorder (before I was too awake to forget 'em) and then typed out on the Majestic 600 I inherited from my stepmother Karen, who died in '78.
Some people say they don't dream, which isn't true. If it were true, they'd be machines that look like people; they'd be cyborgs. Everyone dreams. Everyone has an unconscious and our unconscious is always working to help balance us. For my money, there aren't any communications more benevolent (or entertaining) than the ones transmitted by the nightly theatre of our subconscious. It's the most direct way our subconscious dialogues with our conscious selves. And our dreams-- the bad ones especially-- are always offering us ways to right ourselves, to gather the pieces of us, for us to become whole.
But forgetting dreams is so easy, it can feel like we don't dream at all. Remembering dreams takes effort; there's muscles involved. I can be totally unaware of my dream-life for months at a time, but when I start paying attention to them, they begin to emerge. When I make a conscious effort to recall them, it feels like I'm scanning the surface of dark harbour water; I'm on the pier looking into the waves. I'll lie there in my bed, still half asleep, knowing I've been dreaming -- and I can almost remember what... and then... if I lie still enough... it's as if I'm letting my gaze relax, just past the surface of the water. And if I'm patient, I'll start to see shapes looming up, slowly... and slowly, I can lift the dream story-- or fragments of it-- up from the bottom of the harbour-- the way a salvage crew would do if they were easing a sunken ship into the surface world.
This is the analogy I use when thinking about my conscious and unconscious; I've always considered my unconscious to be dark water. And I was reminded of this, as I mentioned up top, by nearly every track on Ariana's new record. These motifs-- what's under that surface, what's lying at the bottom of the lake-- whether it's bodies, monsters, solitude, escape-- or the image of someone going down into the cold to retrieve what's been murdered, drowned, or forgotten, or of someone encountering what swims up from the depths-- these motifs run through Forget Me Not like dream fragments.
Take track 5. 'John and the Monster' is the story of a creature who lives at the bottom of 'a deep dark lake in a Northern town', as Ariana says in her spoken intro. Local legend describes the monster having 'millions of scales that shine and glow'. John's a young man dying of cancer, who 'has always been skeptical about the monster', but his illness has brought him to a place where even his doubts are in doubt, and one night he rows out on the lake alone. 'And he sits there for hours. John doesn't know it, but the monster is looking right up at him from the bottom of the lake. And for some reason, it's drawn to John. The creature wants to meet him. So it decides to show itself for the very first time.'
Listen to what happens here: John and the Monster (Ariana & David Gillis).
To me, this is a beautiful way to describe those parts of ourselves which we unknowingly resign to darkness-- the monsters in us, which would help us if we'd only let them make contact. In Ariana's song, the creature heals the man it touches: 'John says good night, goes home and then to bed/ but as he sleeps the cancer leaves his head'. But the encounter has a cost. Word of the monster's cure gets out, and 'in a flash reporters swarm from everywhere/ they catch the beast and now the lake is bare'. It seems to me this is a theme running through the whole record: what happens when the secret pieces of us become exposed?
These songs, for instance, have their own power to heal, and they were created by an artist who obviously trusts herself (and her own lake monsters) deeply. I can't help but feel, when I consider these songs as a series of dreams, that Ariana's talent itself is now rising up-- like something shimmering from the depths of the lake-- up from those solitary places where the artist creates-- and into the world at large.
So what happens when the word gets out? How will something born in our imaginations survive in the pedestrian world?
Here's another one of my favourites (and yeah, you got me-- they're all my favourites): track 3, 'Dream Street' (Ariana & David Gillis). Another kind of dreaming all together. 'You with your feet on the ground/ Well I've got one foot on a cloud...' I remember reading an interview with Tom Waits in which he was asked, if there was one thing he could impart to his children, what would it be? He said that he'd want them to know how to dream, and to know that they could literally dream themselves to somewhere else-- from wherever they were to a whole other place. I think Ariana knows. There's an ache in this song that kills me, like a loneliness for our unfinished work, for our rightful place. It's an incantation of destiny, a path invoked, and listen to how it slinks and rolls!
Also, I love the way Ariana hijacks word-sounds, the way she bends them to her own stories. That chorus: 'But my daddy don't like it when I wish too far he says/ I don't got the means, but I got the heart/ I traded all I own for a busted up guitar/ I'm gonna play it so hard'. The way 'says' becomes 'shesh' and 'I traded all I own for a buuusted up guitar'. I can't even write how she sings it!! Her vocal daring throughout this whole album is fearless and I can't get enough.
Pulse, Power, and Universe
I know an album is a friend for life when it reminds me of my favourite literature. 'John and the Monster'-- along with the idea of things underwater-- made me think of the poem 'The Death of the Loch Ness Monster', by Gwendolyn MacEwen, in which she imagines its story from the creature's point of view. Another song, 'Samuel Starr' (track 7), put me in mind of the way the dead speak from the ground in Edgar Lee Masters' Spoon River Anthology, or of the cemetery scene at the end of Thornton Wilder's Our Town. In Ariana's song, Samuel Starr and Joe Jasper Cloverwood speak to each other from side by side in their graves. They're still full of life and mischief, and their conversation is hilarious. It made me think of the (more somber) poem, 'Is My Team Ploughing?' by A.E. Houseman. I'm gonna hijack the first comment box below in order to post the poems, which are worth discovering.
But the artist I was reminded of most was Mervyn Peake, who I happened to be rereading when I listened to Forget Me Not for the first time. I was on a writing retreat in a cabin on Keats Island, on the Sunshine Coast of B.C. in March, where I spent seven days without any internet or phone. I managed to write most of my next one-man show; I read a couple books; and my only soundtrack was the crack of the woodstove, the rush of the treetops being tossed by ocean wind, the rain on the skylight, and Ariana Gillis. I probably listened to Forget Me Not twenty times before I was back in the fibre-optic world. It strikes me now how appropriate it was that I discovered the album in a place where my own inner life was able to grow wild, because, as I've said up top, I believe that our 'inner life' is a birthright which this album honours. And it's just as magically appropriate that I was rereading Titus Groan, by Mervyn Peake--whose work celebrates the individual imagination more than anyone else's I could name.
Mervyn Peake (1911-1968) was an English painter, illustrator (famed for his illustrations of Grimm's Fairytales, Alice In Wonderland, Treasure Island), poet, and playwright; but he's known best for creating the world of Gormenghast, which he brought to life with a trilogy of books: Titus Groan, Gormenghast, and Titus Alone (in my opinion the entire story is contained in the first two books, and Titus Alone is to Gormenghast what The Phantom Menace is to Star Wars). The amazing thing about the Gormenghast books is that, although they could be likened to The Lord of The Rings for the sheer feat of bringing another world so entirely to life (Peake's and Tolkiens' masterpieces were published within the same decade, incidentally), the world that Mervyn Peake created is unique. The Lord of The Rings is developed from British, Celtic, and Norse mythologies, but Gormenghast... Gormenghast is so completely the achievement of one man's imagination, there's really nothing to compare it to.
Titus Groan begins with the birth of Titus, who is the 77th Earl to the House of Groan, which rules over the outlandish and ancient castle-world of Gormenghast. There's no time to tell you more about it; I can only hope you'll find these books and savour them for yourself.
Ariana Gillis reminds me of Mervyn Peake for two reasons: one is that Forget Me Not is also a world unto itself; an unmistakably authentic other-dimension, the work of an individual artist who trusts her own imagination completely. Both Ariana Gillis and Mervyn Peake created something beautiful, brave, and bizarre. The other reason is that in Gormenghast there is a character named Fuchsia, fifteen-year old sister to the newly-born Titus. Fuchsia is absolutely adolescent:
"Less formidable, yet sullen as her mother and as incalculable, is Titus' sister, Fuchsia. Sensitive as was her father without his intellect, Fuchsia tosses her black flag of hair, bites her childish underlip, scowls, laughs, broods, is tender, is intemperate, suspicious and credulous all in a day. Her crimson dress inflames grey corridors, or flaring in a sunshaft through high branches makes of the deep green shadows a greenness darker yet, and a darkness greener."
In spite of Fuchsia's adolescence, (Forget Me Not isn't adolescent, it just happens to be the work of an artist who's young), Forget Me Not reminds me of Fuchshia, because this is a record which 'inflames grey corridors' with its sheer vitality:
"Fuchsia had covered the walls of her room with impetuous drawings in charcoal. There had been no attempt to create a design of any kind upon the coral plaster at either end of the bedroom. The drawings had been done at many an odd moment of loathing or excitement and although lacking in subtlety or proportion were filled with extraordinary energy." (Peake's own charcoal drawings of Fuchsia are featured in the books, and on the cover of my Penguin copy of Titus Groan).
But mostly, I'm reminded of Fuchsia because of how sacred to her the world of her imagination is. Fuchsia has an attic loft which has been forgotten by all else and is hers alone.
"It was here that she would see the people of her imagination, the fierce figures of her making, as they strolled through from corner to corner, brooded like monsters or flew through the air like seraphs with burning wings, or danced, or fought, or laughed, or cried. This was her attic of make-believe, where she would watch her mind's companions advancing or retreating across the dusty floor."
Forget Me Not is as richly peopled as Fuchsia's attic, with characters like John and the Monster, Samuel Starr, Joe Jasper Cloverwood, Cannonball Sam-- you didn't even meet Cannonball Sam! Track 8. One more look at Fuchsia, who, it seems to me, experiences what an artist-in-creation does, when:
"...with her candle lighting her face and the three sliding steps before her as she climbed, she ascended into her region.
As Fuchsia climbed into the winding darkness her body was impregnated and made faint by a qualm as of green April. Her heart beat painfully.
This is a love that equals in its power the love of man for woman and reaches inwards as deeply. It is the love of a man or of a woman for their world. For the world of their centre where their lives burn genuinely and with a free flame.
The love of the diver for his world of wavering light. His world of pearls and tendrils and his breath at his breast. Born as a plunger into the deeps he is at one with every swarm of lime-green fish, with every coloured sponge. As he holds himself to the ocean's faery floor, one hand clasped to a bedded whale's rib, he is complete and infinite. Pulse, power and universe sway in his body. He is in love."
I'm Gonna Play It So Hard
There's been so much else to say I've hardly talked at all about how impeccable this record sounds-- how great the music is-- but you'll find out. As well as being in awe of Ariana, I'm in awe right now of David Gillis, who produced the album and also cowrote a lot of the songs. I've listened to these eleven tracks over and over (and over), and it's a sonic thrill from beginning to end. Every sound; every choice. With all the verve and vivacity of a perfect pop album, but born in a place (where it's always cold) where pop music would need a pressure suit to survive.
Forget Me Not is a record we can dance to, party to, drive to; it's very easy to listen to on repeat. It bursts with life! Forget Me Not is the kind of album that makes your life better even if it's just playing in the next room while you're spring cleaning. But should you decide, during your spring clean, to go after the skeletons in the closet, Forget Me Not can help you with that too.
For me, this album is a powerful statement on trusting in our own solitude. It's about how fertile the muck is at the bottom of our minds, and the treasures a person who's untroubled by the bullshit of the upper world can find there. Forget Me Not is what happens when a fiercely talented gal who's spent a lot of time in the shimmering underwater caves of her imagination spikes her pink-patched hair, emerges with an unstoppable record, and offers us all the chance to do the same, with her lake-locked rock n' roll dreams as our soundtrack.