Lesley Hoyles admits with a laugh that there are two subjects that keep cropping up in her songs no matter what seems to be going on in her personal life: heartbreak and the weather.
“I don’t really understand why; must have to do with being a Canadian singer/songwriter,” she shrugs as she sips tea at a Vancouver coffee shop.
The 23-year-old native of New Liskeard, Ontario recently released her debut CD, Stories You Earn. It’s a collection of bittersweet songs that draws inspiration from the confessional blueprint drawn up by Canadian icons like Joni Mitchell. Like Mitchell, Hoyles takes an honest look at relationships, which results in some biting commentary on what sometimes passes for behaviour between lovers.
The opening track, The Long Run (“I probably should have left you the day after I met you/All your bullshit lies”) covers betrayal. In another song, The Weather Changed Quickly, Hoyles sings like a weary traveller who is fed up and can’t wait for her journey to end (“I’m all out of love songs/I’m too tired for poetics/And I’m through with explaining my position”).
After braving the cold in Northern Ontario, Hoyles moved with her family to Ottawa, where she attended Canterbury High School, a public arts school where the artistic talents of a sensitive young lesbian could flourish.
It was also a place that celebrated diversity and liberal values. Hoyles feels this “very accepting environment” made her comfortable enough to come out at an early age. She was 15.
“My sister was the first person I came out to and then I didn’t come out to my parents for three years. I’d been dating the same girl in high school for about two years and my Mom finally asked me if Sarah-that was her name-liked me as more than a friend,” Hoyles recalls. She hesitated briefly, and then the truth came out.
The truth is important to Hoyles. She is happy to be an independent artist, as it allows her the creative freedom she craves, although occasionally she will still edit herself and wonder how certain lyrics will be received.
On Stories You Earn, a half-dozen other musicians-who added drums, bass and some very tasteful cello, trumpet and viola-joined Hoyles, who plays guitar, keyboard and sings.
She is most proud of the song Sunday Morning, especially pointing to the lyric: “I just came from my girl’s bed and that’s all the religion I need.” Another favourite is Blue-Letter Day, mainly because of a haunting cello line.
Hoyles was classically trained in piano and voice beginning when she was seven, and only made the full-time switch to guitar when she went away to school. Carting a piano along to McGill University in Montreal (she has a degree in Women’s Studies) proved impractical, so Hoyles started to devote her time to composing on the guitar when she was 18.
Later, when she moved to Vancouver to attend the University of British Columbia, she continued strumming and picking.
She still finds listening to Bach relaxing and marvels at the complexity of his compositions. She also loves the richness of Brahms’ music. Her knowledge of harmony, scales and the ability to write out charts helps when she’s playing with a band.
Hoyles performed with a band for the CD release of Stories You Earn in July at the Backstage Lounge on Granville Island. She has also performed solo at Lugz Coffeehouse and Cafe Montmartre (both on Main St), at Pride UBC OutWeek and on the 2004 Vancouver Pride festival stage. She hopes to play Pride again and is setting her goals now on getting on the Canadian folk festival circuit next summer.
It’s all a long way from being cast as a kid as Golde in Fiddler on the Roof. Hoyles attended a performing arts camp when she was in her early teens, and recalls “bursting into laughter on stage” just thinking of the absurdity of being a tall, skinny kid playing a Jewish mother.
What about the weather thing and the heartbreak songs?
“I’m trying to move away from that a little bit and write more about things that are going on in the world… or things that I’m involved with,” Hoyles explains. She has done a lot of activist work for pro-choice groups including Canadian Abortion Rights Action League and Pro-Choice Action Network.
There are also queer issues to cover but Hoyles doesn’t want to “hit you over the head” with preachy tunes, so is taking that step cautiously.
Hoyles, who is “happily single at the moment,” likes to think music can be a big part of activism and relates a story connected to her debut CD.
Her mother, who teaches at a rural French Catholic school in Eastern Ontario, played her CD often in the staff room as she marked exams. Several sometimes close-minded, conservative teachers were prompted to purchase their own copies. Now they are being exposed to the views of a lesbian, feminist, pro-choice singer/songwriter in a form they may not normally be receptive to.
They’ll either be changed by the experience, Hoyles figures, “or they aren’t fluent enough in English to get what I’m talking about.”