Gabrielle Papillon might not be the folk artist you remember. Her new album Keep The Fire has traded in banjo and snare for whatever it is that John Williams eats for breakfast. Where her previous album The Tempest of Old might have been a ship tossed about on the ocean—a collection of graceful songs anchored in something profound, Keep The Fire has turned Papillon into the ocean.
“It used to irk me when I would be identified as one genre or another, and then many people will also reject you as an artist of a certain genre, so I’ve just started writing what feels true to me and let the rest sort itself out,” says Papillon of being labelled as a folk artist in the first place, a label she feels was shouldered on her by fans and critics.
Instead, Papillion likens her transition to artists like Bjork, Radiohead, Tori Amos, Florence and Fiona Apple, who have consistently evaded being pinned down to a genre and maintain a mass appeal despite—or perhaps because—of it. They belong to a breed of a musicians that Papillon refers to as ‘art pop’, a mantel she’s more comfortable with herself.
“They have released records that are massive successes, but they are truly artists at the very heart of what they do. And while I have lived and played in the folk world for a while, and I do love folk music and the folk world, I’m not a storyteller through and through. I feel more like a painter, or maybe sometimes a poet.”
‘Art pop’ is an appropriate word for Keep The Fire. There’s an undeniable pop element to it and despite what Papillon might claim, it’s not hard to see the radio appeal of many tracks. Singles like ‘Deep In The Earth’ and the title track ‘Keep The Fire’ stand out as immediate hits. The instrumentation gives the album a wonderful depth that’s beyond what you hear in the string accents repeated ad nauseam that modern pop music likes to substitute for respectable hooks.
It’s hardly an accident that the album takes a path deep through the string section. Right off the bat, Papillion is telling us this album is working on an entirely different scale, and making the unusual choice for a pop album by opening Keep The Fire with an overture.
“I’ve been a huge fan of film scores since I was in my teens. Pretty much the moment I realized that that music was accessible I was listening to it, and I often listen to certain composers when I want to listen to music and when I’m feeling that words and lyrics add too much clutter,” says Papillon.
“Most of my writing is orchestral or strings when I start and it is always cinematic. I am seeing a scene while I write. So it’s not so much for a specific film or television show, but film and television inspires me and the visual imagery especially so. Sweeping drama and landscapes are something I’ve been drawn to since I was very young.”
Papillon says that she is already in the process of writing a musical and hopes to score a film some day, but Keep The Fire is something of a first attempt at wetting her feet in that world.
“When it came to me I could not imagine singing it. I knew it had to remain a violin-centric piece. But I could not have written the full score without Ian Bent’s help. He has the degree in classical composition.”
From there we’re taken through a journey that began back in 2012, before the release of Papillon’s album Little Bug, when she began writing the song ‘Three Years’.
“[It] was largely about feeling like I had put time into things that were not going in the right directions, or maybe not moving at the pace I wanted them to. The first part was definitely about feeling like I was not getting anywhere in the music industry, which I have since learned is a pretty common feeling at any stage of your career.
I do think that it can be a slog, and it’s very easy to get wrapped up in where you are in your career and wonder why you aren’t someplace else, or getting the things you see other people getting. What I have realized, though, is that so many artists feel this way. And I’ve been really focussed with this record on just making something I am immensely proud of, that I feel has integrity, and then just appreciating the moment I am in, rather than hoping for one thing and being disappointed when it doesn’t happen and in the process not appreciating the good things that ARE happening.”
The album itself is a curious blend of emotive introspection. In a broad sense, it is a story of loss and self-discovery, but what we’ve lost and discovered remains a mystery. At times, like with ‘Heart Beat’, we’re given a glimpse of something, a sense of disappointment, both in others and ourselves for our dependency on them. Like most tracks on the album, it amounts to a bread crumb trail of clues leading to what’s actually happening in Papillon’s life.
“I am a very private person, so I won’t speak to specifics, but I have had a very difficult time these past few years with a series of really hard and painful and sad things happening one after another, and that triggered anxiety and depression. It was in a moment of crisis and feeling very much alone in how much I felt things that I realized I have likely struggled with generalized anxiety my whole life, but I had not known to call it that, and thus would not have known it was something I could address.
Realizing I was struggling with this thing, for which there are tools, was such a watershed moment. To make the decision to go see my GP and explain what I went through on a daily basis, when triggered, and seek counselling in order to gain the tools and the awareness to manage it better was a giant first step. I am still struggling with it, as most people do, but I have been given tools to manage it. I talk about it with friends. I am open and honest about it. That made such a huge difference. And then came a series of decisions, and one big overarching question, which I applied to everything in my life: “What to Keep?”
I had to decided what was good and what was hurtful. I had to rid myself of ways of thinking, or actual things that cluttered my space (I still have so much stuff), I had to let things go that were damaging, and then it also became pretty clear to me that I had to keep the things that would allow me to keep the fire—to nurture the fire that I need, that probably everyone of us needs, to keep pushing for the things that are important to me.”