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First Play: Gabrielle Papillon, Keep the Fire

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Holly Gordon

“I think I've actually been working on this album for years,” says Gabrielle Papillon, standing in the mezzanine of the Old Confidence Lodge in Riverport, N.S., between soundcheck and a recording session that August night.

The Halifax-based singer says it’s unusual for that to be her process, not normally one to dwell. But there are songs on Keep the Fire, her sixth full-length album, that are disparate parts she could “never really find a home” for. She needed to find out what was stopping her.

“I had been progressively, over the last couple years, just dealing with a lot of anxiety but not actually really realizing that it was generalized anxiety,” Papillon says, adding that she would often try to address it alone, times when she thought she should simply exercise more regularly or eat healthier.

“[During Christmas 2016] I had time to get some space and it just kind of hit me that this was what I was dealing with, and so I started doing research and made appointments to see the doctor and doing all these things just made me feel so empowered and so much less out of control. Because that’s what it is: you feel like you’re drowning.”

Papillon says it took a long time to get the help she needed — finding the right people in the public system — but once she did, “suddenly all the songs were falling into place.”

Keep the Fire is the resting place for those songs, 11 tracks that soundtrack that time in the singer’s life. The opening track, “Overture for the Fire Keeper,” is a string instrumental (played by Hey Rosetta!’s Kinley Dowling on viola and violin, and John Spearns on cello), a moving opening that leads seamlessly into “Three Years,” a track filled with self-doubt (“Three years and what do I have to show/ where do I have to go/ to be heard,” sings Papillon).

Working with producer Daniel Ledwell again (who produced 2015's The Tempest of Old), Papillon has created a house of sweeping folk-pop songs that will tear you down before building you back up, ripping your heart in half on “Hold on, I Will” — a song Papillon wrote for her friend and fellow musician Fleur Mainville, who died of cancer two years ago — and jolting you to life with the next track, “When the Heart Attacks,” her feminist anthem.

“I watch a lot of TV with strong female characters, and I'm a pretty passionate feminist, and these words just came out: ‘Tell me a story that nobody knows/ a fable of honour/ when danger unfolds/ with a woman/ who comes to the rescue.’ Which to me felt like such a strong thing to say — and yet I actually don't think it's strong enough.”

Neon Dreams’ Corey LeRue produced that track, dismantling it with Papillon and turning it into something bigger. “I was like, ‘Drama here! I want to punch them in the face with it!’ Which is maybe a little violent,” says Papillon.

Arguably, every track on this new album is a feminist anthem. Written by a woman who found it in herself to reach out and pull herself up, Keep the Fire is ultimately about learning how to stand up and live — and that will always be feminist.

“Initially, [the album] was going to be called What to Keep, because it felt very much like that was the story and the narrative of the songs,” says Papillon. “And then it kind of dawned on me that ‘what to keep’ is the question, but the answer is ‘keep the fire’ — and that felt so much more confident and commanding.”

Keep the Fire comes out Oct. 13. Listen to it in full in the player to the left, and pre-order it here.