On the opening track of Hannah Georgas’s third full-length album, For Evelyn, the Toronto-based artist is met with a crisis in the middle of the night. She wakes up, perhaps paralyzed with fears and anxieties, wondering if her best moments have passed her by and if the foreseeable future is in fact just a ride back, a slow steady decline.
But there’s a warm glow emitting this whole time, a saxophone that beams us into “Rideback” and continues to hum throughout the track as a gentle sound, a reassurance, that these negative thoughts are just that. That sax is hope — though Georgas will later shatter this picturesque image in our conversation by telling me that she wrote it on a keyboard pre-set called the “blow sax." That sax is the faith Georgas reaches for from deep within her to bat away the uncertainty. And while those worries don’t just melt away — the following track is the gorgeously heartbreaking single, “Don’t Go” — by the time she reaches her mission statement on “Evelyn,” we know that Georgas has zeroed in on her goal in life and in her music: to not be afraid anymore.
For Evelyn, out June 24, was named after Georgas’s Newmarket, Ont., native grandmother, a woman who is the singer's symbol of strength and fearlessness. While the 11 new songs don’t address Evelyn directly, it is clear that Georgas’s faith is partially constructed from the love she gets from her family and that everything — from her decision to move home to Ontario after being in Vancouver for over a decade, to devoting an entire record to tackling and conquering her fears — bears personal and familial ties. By drawing from her deepest, rawest well of feelings, For Evelyn flourishes. It is undoubtedly the best work Georgas has ever produced, one of the best Canadian records of the year so far.
CBC Music sat down with Georgas to talk about family, moving and her secret tip for tackling anxieties.
Your new album, For Evelyn, is named after your grandmother. What about her inspires you the most?
She has been such an important figure in my life as far as never seeing her lose her patience with anything. She always puts everybody before herself and almost to a fault. She’s just so selfless. The record’s a lot about me and my anxiety and getting to a place in my life where, one day, I will make decisions without any fear and I see my grandma as somebody who has kind of been there, done that. The record isn’t about my grandma but it’s an acknowledgement of her.
Has she listened to the album?
I don’t think she has listened to the full thing, no. But I think she knows I acknowledged her. She still lives in the house that she grew up in, in Newmarket, and my aunt takes care of her. My aunt talks about me to her all the time. I visit her frequently now, now that I’m back living in Toronto. I always feel a little weird when we talk about music; it’s a weird thing I don’t know why.
Do you have a musical family?
My dad was very musical; he was an amazing blues piano player. My mom wasn’t very musical. One of my siblings is really musical. It’s a split.
What was the music like in your household growing up? What did your parents listen to?
I grew up listening to my dad a lot. He was really into a type of music called boogie-woogie. He was really into artists like Pinetop Smith and Brook Benton, Elvis and Spike Jones. My mom’s more like, easy listening, the Bee Gees ... she loved her Meatloaf! My sisters were really into dance music and hip-hop. So there was a wide range of things going on in my family. I loved R&B and Michael Jackson, and then I went into this female singer-songwriter phase. Music was always prevalent for sure and everybody had different tastes.
Did you know back then that you wanted to get into music?
Oh yeah, I knew when I was like, five. I really loved music. I started writing music when I was five because my mom put me into piano lessons when I was really little and as soon as I could figure things out I started writing songs.
Do you remember what your grandmother was like at your age?
Oh, wow, good question. I think my grandma really was the caregiver. My grandma and grandpa had their own dry-cleaning service in Newmarket, on Main Street, and she ran the shop and took care of the homestead so that was one thing that she did.
As you mentioned, you live in Toronto now but you’ve spent the past decade in Vancouver. Was family a huge motivating factor for you to return to Ontario?
Yeah, my mom was a big reason. I think that was the biggest reason. I moved out to Victoria for school 12 years ago and, at the time, I was like, I’m outta here! But then it just changed. My dad passed away five years ago and after that I developed a whole other relationship with my mom and we just became very, very close. I just realized they’re getting older and life is short so I felt that urge to come closer. But also, I do feel like, in terms of what I’m doing musically and the people I’m working with and what’s happening in Toronto, it feels like the right place to be right now.
Did your feelings about Vancouver change as well?
It did. At one point in my life, I thought it was my forever home. When I made the move this past summer, it was like my heart kind of broke because I have friends out there that I love dearly and still talk with on the phone every day. But in the last couple of years it started to switch for me like maybe this chapter is going to end. At least right now I didn’t feel like I should be there. I really love how beautiful it is there and I don’t take that for granted but I did feel just a little bit of an empty feeling.
And impressively, you made the move in four days. That sounds crazy.
I highly recommend not doing it! My mom was like, "Are you crazy, what are you doing?" and I said it’s fine, it’ll be easy! I had a party, I moved to my place in three days, I was just on autopilot and then I crashed real hard. When I got back I just cried.
Did any of that anxiety from moving make it into the record?
I wrote the record before I made the move. Anxiety comes in moments for me, it depends on what’s going on in my life. But I did feel a bit of anxiety weeks after I got back and I had anxiety making the record too. I think I’ve always dealt with it but never really realized how much I had it until I got older.
Does it normally take this long to record an album for you?
We spent a lot of time on the record and we took breaks. I went back and reworked things and changed things. I think you forget, when you make a record, it’s such a process. It’s a great process but it’s also an insane process too, sometimes. I got to a point where I was satisfied. There was a time in there where I thought I was never going to finish but it’s weird how all of a sudden you’re like, oh I’m done!
The record opens with a beautiful sax part and the sax makes a couple of appearances throughout the record. Can you tell me a bit about those little touches?
I have this keyboard that has a pre-set called the “blow sax” pre-set. [Laughs] I wrote a lot of songs with that pre-set and that’s how I wrote “Rideback,” playing those parts on my keyboard. Then we got a sax player to put those parts to sax and not fake sax.
That’s great! But how are you going to recreate that live?
I’m playing those parts on my keyboard!
Amazing! Another thing I noticed throughout the album are these reoccurring themes of angels and praying — are you a religious person?
I was raised Christian and I went to a Christian private school for nine years of my life. I went to church every Sunday, but I’m not religious. My family is really religious. I question things a lot. I’d like to think I question things in my music, too. I have faith in things and I think there are all kinds of different practices and I think that’s beneficial. I think I have my own way of making things work for me but I’m definitely not religious.
Is that faith you have something you draw on to get you through tough times?
Yes, of course. I find hope is such an important thing to have. Whatever way you need to find that and make it work is good. My mom is very religious but she’s happy and it works for her so I’m happy for her.
Are there other things you do to deal with anxieties or tough times? When someone is down, it can be so easy to just stay in bed for days.
Well, I do that! But also, I know how to tap into the things that can get me out of it. My friends help me out of it. Getting out of my bed and going for walks or exercise is something that helps me through any kind of depression that I have. Honestly, exercise is like my saving grace. Or just running, it flushes out any crap that’s in my head.