Breakout Toronto Bands: Picastro

Everything in music is about struggle: not only the performance and the interplay of the instruments with each other (then confronting the temperaments of listeners), but every aspect of stepping outside of everyday life to plan and create music can be a real battle in itself.

It's approaching half a decade since we last checked in with Toronto's premiere source for introspective chamber folk (as a "breakout band" this act is slow steeped tea compared to the espresso hype machine), Picastro, and Liz Hysen's always evolving band has naturally undergone a lot of struggles and changes to bring us her outstanding new album, You.

Who is she?

Playfully nicknamed Liz Picastro by many of her friends in Toronto's music scene, guitarist, singer and songwriter Hysen has been leading a revolving cast of players since 1998 (read more about her early years from our first conversation with Hysen) not only through the dark recesses of her exploratory songwriting, but out on board many tour across the United States and Europe. It's a lot of hard work and continued effort when you're going it alone, and Picastro has always been about the DIY approach, with a little help from her friends.


One such friend is doom-metal duo Nadja who, after relocating from Toronto to Berlin, teamed up with Picastro for a European tour which also spawned the collaborative album Fool, Redeemer, a 2011 release on Alien8 Recordings. Picastro's down-tempo folk and Nadja's spacey invasions were an ideal match, but in the years that have followed Hysen has had to focus just as heavily upon another equally wonderful creative struggle - her family life.

"I only get a few hours a week - if that - of any creative time, so Picastro is all I do when I have free time," says Hysen. "I have taken the kids and husband on tour with me at different stages when I knew they would be easy to bring along. It's tough for sure. I don't know if the two things are all that compatible really but I basically just try every combination of something out to see if it's going to work. It can put on strain, but at the same time it makes me more careful about my choices, and that's a good thing. I would definitely be a less happier parent if I wasn't playing music, though - it's just so important to keep up with that part of your life."

She sounds like...

Bare bones folk-rock that dances on the edges of madness, Picastro's music cavorts instead of settling down. In previous years the band has changed in light of losing its astounding drummer Brandon Valdivia to his many other projects (Not the Wind, Not the Flag, Mas Aya, and Pachamama), but cellist and experimenter Nick Storring, who completed Picastro's long-term trio lineup, is still involved, and handled much of the production and mixing of You along with the always delightful Sandro Perri.

Released a couple of weeks ago by Static Clang (and by Function overseas), You feels more like a collection of significant photographs taken throughout time than a single night's session laid down in a studio, and what adds to the stimulating variation between these songs is the vast array of storied players and collaborators lending their hands: Evan Clarke and Alex Lukashevsky (currently of Eucalyptus, previously of many), Tony Dekker of Great Lake Swimmers, and Caleb Mulkerin and Colleen Kinsella who hail from Cerberus Shoal.

"It's very collaborative," says Hysen of You. "I do write things solo sometimes and keep it that way but for the most part, I just really enjoy playing with other musicians and the trust that goes along with it. It's very comforting."

Likewise, it is human relationships that often feed Hysen's songwriting and lyrics, an inspiration that came across in full flight on You. "It's definitely focused on the various people in my life, friends and family," she says. "It's also based on things I have read about or seen that affected me. I will take something in and then not know how much it bothers me until a week or two later. It's hard not to feel empathy with those around you sometimes, even strangers."

Hear her / see her


Picastro are getting out in support of You for some shows in the USA, England, and will be gracing Toronto's wonderful arts slum spot Cinecycle (129 Spadina) on April 9th, presented by Wavelength. Hysen's quintet for this brief tour will include Storring, Clarke, Matthew Ramolo (of Khora), and percussionist Germaine Liu, so it promises to be an elaborate affair, a grandiose compositional struggle, and an enlightening experience all wrapped up into one enchanting evening.

Beyond this tour and You, Hysen has many exciting plans for the future. "We're probably going back to Europe later this year, but I am doing a few shows with this Finnish musician I really like, Islaja. I heard about her and the other amazing bands on Fonal and realized we both had records coming out at the same time. Hopefully I can get her to come over here and do some collaboration."

Writing by Kevin Hainey

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