Veda Hille is a beloved figure on the Vancouver arts scene. Once best known as a prolific indie singer/songwriter, she is making her mark in a big way in theatre – and will continue to do so in 2015.
Ms. Hille, 46, has just started a stint as artist-in-residence at the Arts Club Theatre Company, she has a show that will have its world premiere in the Arts Club's new space in its inaugural season, and she's collaborating again with CBC alumnus Bill Richardson. And there's big news about their previous collaboration: Do You Want What I Have Got? A Craigslist Cantata has been optioned for off-Broadway.
The Globe and Mail met with Ms. Hille earlier this week as she was preparing to launch yet another one of her projects – Club PuSh, which she co-curates.
What are the benefits of being an artist-in-residence?
Essentially it's time to write. It's nice to know my income is secure and I can just work on the origins of things. And I do find that it focuses my writing to have a destination, to have an office. As someone who works a lot on my own in my little garret on the east side, it's also really exciting to be in a busy place where people are coming and going and I can pop out of my little work room and hang out with the actors and whoever's walking through. I'm writing a script and score for an animation in Berlin, and needed to do a temp recording, so I just wandered into the green room and there was everybody. I was able to really easily book five fantastic voice actors and singers; the Berliners were astounded at what I was able to pull together. And it's really because I was right there, hanging out.
Do you have a home office/studio?
I've got a nook in my house. I also have a rehearsal space where I work with my band. But that's pretty rock 'n' roll dingy. Currently at the Arts Club, I am working on the white grand piano that used to belong to [the late actor and singer] Denis Simpson that's in a little glass box above the Arts Club bar overlooking the [public] market. I kind of love it because I'm a bit on display but no one can actually look me in the face. It feels like an art piece in itself just to have this odd little woman in a glass box on Granville Island making new music.
Are you working on something specific?
I've got three projects, two of which I'm going to be vague about. I'm putting the finishing touches on Onegin, which is a new piece that Ami [Gladstone] and I have been putting together that premieres at the Arts Club in the new space next season. That's a huge piece for me. It's a sung-through reworking of the Tchaikovsky opera and the Pushkin poem, Eugene Onegin. It's very different from a lot of my other work – it's linear, it's romantic, it's very grand. And then Mr. Bill Richardson and I have been making little waves. so this is going to give us a chance to really focus; we'll see whether we can come up with a new idea. Then I have another pet project that's been in the back of my head for a while that I won't reveal in case it comes to naught.
Craigslist Cantata has been a huge success; would you say one of the biggest of your career?
Definitely. I would say in terms of the number of people who have been to it or enjoyed it, it rivals my biggest record way back in the nineties which was Spine, which was the other moment where I was closer to the mainstream. It's been thrilling to have that happen again and wonderfully surprising – and we just signed an option for off-Broadway.
That's great. Congratulations.
I felt like it maybe had finished in Canada; it played a lot of places in Canada. But one of the originators of the role, Cameron Barnett, who does live in New York part-time, has a new production company and has decided to try and take a stab at getting it up at a small theatre there. We're very excited.
You were onstage with the show originally but not recently.
Yeah I don't always play in the show any more, but we'll see what they do in New York; it's a new production. I'm open to playing it, but we found wonderfully that it didn't need me when Marguerite Witvoet took over and it still was a great show. So it's kind of nice for me to be on the outside. Plus I have all these other [projects], and a new work with Neworld [Theatre] that's in process as well, and I'm making a record and touring next year, so it's a very excitingly wild time for me right now.
Are you moving away from the music career and more into the theatre realm?
Well I try not to separate them. I'm really excited about my new record that I wrote in Berlin last year and I'm just getting started on. You sort of also go where the energy is, right? And theatre clearly really wants me right now and I love to be wanted. My first record came out in '92. That's 23 years ago, so I'm familiar with the ebbs and flows to some extent. So I think that the only clear thing is that I'm still interested in working and I'm lucky that I can.
Did it ever seem that you weren't going to be able to make a go of it?
There was a time when I realized I wasn't going to be a capital R Rock Star because that of course was my aim in my early 20s. And I got a little bit close and then I started getting weird, started writing songs about plants; I don't know what I was thinking. And it became clear that what I was interested in creatively was moving away from the mainstream and so I had a time where I had to grapple with my own perception of success. But I think that the key for me is that I've continued to be supremely engaged with the work I do and it's never felt rote or tedious and that has served me really well. And now it turns out that what I thought was a sideways commitment to hanging out with cool theatre people is turning into the major part of my career at this point.
Were you in Berlin on a residency?
Yeah it was a self-directed residency in the fall of 2013. That was a real moment for me of wondering. I'd done only commissioned work essentially since my son was born in 2008 so I thought maybe I'm a commissioned composer now. But I wanted to see whether I still had songs to write. And I was happy to find that after about two weeks of really solid naps, I started writing songs again.
Has parental exhaustion been getting in the way of free-flow creativity?
It's just really busy being alive. And yeah I write differently than I did in my 20s where there was so much time and so much self-obsession and so much feeling of importance. One of the great things about becoming a mother is that you actually finally believe that you're not the most important person. And I wondered if that would stop me from writing. But I think it's actually led to some writing that feels freer to me in the end. I have to do it in very concentrated chunks when I have the time, but as a mother you just come to appreciate any 15 minutes that you can eke out.
Club PuSh launches this week. As a co-curator, what do you look for in a Club PuSh artist?
I do think some of the edgier, younger stuff ends up there. Our opening artist, The Christeene Machine, is wild. She feels dangerous, even for PuSh. She's a wild gender-bending punk performer from Austin and it just seems like she leaves a wake of wreckage in her path. The great thing about PuSh is because we've spent the time showing people what our taste is, we don't have to prove it any more. So we can really just book what we love. And people have been very wonderful in coming to whatever the heck it is.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
Veda Hille is one of the musicians in the lineup at the Fox Cabaret as part of the PuSh Festival on Feb 4. Doors open at 10 p.m.