Great Aunt Ida's Toronto Fortress

Ida Nilsen, the multi-instrumentalist and songwriter behind the ex-Vancouver project Great Aunt Ida, packed her bags for Toronto in 2007. The Victoria-native decided to make the shift after ten years in Vancouver, seven of which she spent booking shows at the iconic (and now-defunct) Sugar Refinery.

With a number of projects now behind her (Buttless Chaps, Radiogram, an "all girl improv thing called Cunt"), and new backup from in and around Canada's biggest city, Great Aunt Ida is busy assembling mellow demos for a fresh summer album that combines her new crew and her old one (whom I refer to as Great Great Aunt Ida).

Ida and I met at Tinto on Roncesvalles, where she will be playing solo tonight at Parkdale's monthly roundup of local storytellers. We talked about the west coast city we have both adopted, jobs for teenagers, her upcoming plans, Sudbury, and Armenian music.

You moved here from Vancouver a year and a half ago. Why?

I moved here because I needed to change my universe. I've never really had a lot of love for the city, although I was very involved in music making there for a long time.

Do you hate Toronto yet?

I hate Vancouver. In cities, I'm interested in arts and culture and venues and bars and places where all that comes together. You can't really sustain anything like that in Vancouver.

Are you managing a venue in Toronto now?

I'm not interested in being a show promoter. It ended up being something that I did for quite a while, but I'm not trying to get ahead in that business... I just have been doing things like that because I like to see things happen. But it's not really necessary for me to do that here. In Vancouver it was more necessary for me to do it because there was less going on. But there's enough here for me to sustain my interests without getting involved.

The questions of why I came here... (pauses)

It boggles your mind?

I think Toronto's a very interesting city. I like the neighbourhoods here. I really like the way everything is mixed in the downtown area.

Has your creative process changed since you started Great Aunt Ida?

No. I smoke a lot of pot when I write songs. And I don't care if that goes on the internet or not. (laughs)

Is anything different now that you're in Toronto?

I've become much more productive. I'm pretty inspired by change. And my life, while I'm doing basically the same thing that I was doing in Vancouver, all those things are different than the same thing I was doing in Vancouver. It's new and unfamiliar.

Do you have any shows coming up?

I do the first Tuesday of every month at the Tranzac. I play in another band called the Violet Archers, and we have some things coming up in the future. We're playing a show in Sudbury.

Really? When?

June some time I think. I'm actually looking forward to it. It's like a record store. Our last record that we did... this company Saved By Vinyl released it on vinyl, and I dunno, there's some kind of connection between them and this record store. So we're playing in this record store form 7 to 9 or something ridiculous like that and then we can go have a Sudbury Saturday night.

There's one good pizza place, I think.

I've never played in Sudbury before. I've been across Canada ten, twelve times and I've never played in there. Last time I stopped in Sudbury, I stopped for a coffee and I paid something ridiculous... like six dollars... for a double espresso with some steamed milk. Coffee is so expensive in small towns.

Do you want to tour again?

Yeah, I would like to... I just can't really figure out how to make that happen. Honestly I hate booking tours - it's a pain in the ass. I haven't done any tours in the last year and a half. I moved here and I decided not to plan anything 'cause I've been going pretty hard for the last few years. I was pretty worn out. I just wanted to sit here and...

I spent the month of October in Italy, which was extremely awesome. I was all over the north. I did a lot of gigs in some very small towns. I want to go back there. Honestly 'cause I'm kind of tired of touring in Canada and I'd like to spend more time over there. I think when I make my new record I'll put a little bit more focus on trying to get myself back over there instead of the same old Canadian slog.

I think I'm going to call this post Great Aunt Ida's Toronto Vacation.

Well I've been working. I just didn't want to spend all the time that you have to spend on the computer in order to book a tour.

What are your favourite venues in Toronto?

I think I probably haven't played in any of my favourite venues. I love playing at the Tranzac. I think it's really fun but it's very casual. It's not a fancy gig at all but it's fun.

I worked in a pretty hilarious place when I first moved here. It was not something I thought I would be doing at this point in my life. (laughs)

I want to hear this story...

I was working at a restaurant on Queen called Skadarlija. Now it's a full-on dive bar; back then it was a Serbian restaurant. When I first started working there, it was still smoking inside. And it wasn't really a... nice Serbian place - it was a Parkdale Serbian place. I served a lot of kind of scary people.

There was live music. I was really fascinated by that. Everything was a bit illegitimate. There was smoking inside, they'd serve booze after hours, and the music would go all night some times. But it was just a terrible job. The money was awful and the customers...

The way that men liked to talk to women was very different. There was a lot of pretty borderline and sometimes not so borderline sexual harassment. I had to get rid of people on a very regular basis, for awful things. The last guy I kicked out of there... I found out the next day that he'd been in jail twice. Once for tying up and robbing an old lady, and the other time for spousal abuse.

I thought this was a funny story, until you mentioned spousal abuse.

So wait you thought it was funny when he was tying up and robbing an old woman?

Well it's a funny image.

I had my life threatened several times while I was working at this place. Because I wouldn't take any nonsense.

So you left.

Yeah. Yeah I did. I also think I was making less money than I had since I was about 15 years old. It was totally ridiculous.

But it was very interesting, and I met a lot of people that I never would have met any other way. There was a woman who lived upstairs who used to sing there four nights a week, and had the most incredible voice. This wonderful, beautiful, voice... and Serbian songs are so sad. They're all about drinking and love and things gone wrong. There was an accordion player there who was incredible. The best accordion player I've ever seen in my life. He was unbelievable. There's a big Serbian place out in Mississauga that I've sort of been meaning to go to because I miss the music.

It's weird though, because it's always synth... a synth back up. I always loved it but I wished there wasn't that aspect to it. It takes some getting used to. The keyboard player would do drum machine and some kind of a beat poet electronic keyboard bass, string lines, and all sorts of things would accompany the music which is otherwise very traditional sounding. It's kind of strange.

That's a weird combination.

I think that's quite common. Traditional European music is played that way now in places. But it took some getting used to for me. Big time. It's also always top volume and drenched with reverb. Hilarious. But you stop hearing those things at a certain point, and the music is beautiful.

How much time can you devote to your music?

I don't really do anything else. However much I want to. I dunno, there's lots of time. I have a lot less responsibility in my life now then I did in Vancouver.

So we've been talking for 50 minutes? Anything else we should talk about?

I guess I had fun in Vancouver.

That's a great line.

Well I stayed for 10 years. I must have.

Do you think you're having more fun here?

Yeah, I think so.

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