Reluctant rock star: Pianist Alexandra Streliski on being a Junos outlier

Alexandra Streliski's been toasted as a rising star of the Canadian music scene, with three Juno nominations for instrumental album, breakthrough artist and album of the year. Graham Hughes / The Canadian Press

Forgive pianist Alexandra Streliski if she bristles over being called a “rock star” for the classical music community.

It’s a label the Montreal composer has noticed is coming up more often these days as she prepares for the Juno Awards taking place this weekend in Saskatoon. At the event, she’ll be toasted as a rising star of the Canadian music scene, with three nominations for instrumental album, breakthrough artist and album of the year.

The last two categories carry significant weight. Streliski is the first purely instrumental artist to be nominated for either of the awards in Junos history, so in a sense, she’s carrying the torch for the classical music community — even if she doesn’t subscribe to its rigid definitions.

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“I don’t even identify with classical music so much,” Streliski, 35, explains near the outset of a phone conversation.

“I want to call myself more of a neo-romantic, if I could, because I very much identify with the romantic period.”

Seemingly harmless comments like these can get you branded a rebel in some classical music circles, but Streliski’s Juno-nominated Inscape doesn’t seem interested in playing by the rules.

The album comes alive in ways piano compositions rarely do on tape. At times, you can hear the instrument squeaking as Streliski taps at the keys, evoking the weariness of creaky bones and a life that’s survived many headwinds.

She points to celebrated Toronto pianist Glenn Gould for inspiring her to capture humanity in a performance, which she says can make the music “all the more emotionally profound.”

Streliski, who was born in Montreal, began learning piano after her family moved to Paris when she was six years old. Her parents introduced her to the sounds of Bach, Chopin and Liszt, but it wasn’t until they bought her an upright piano that she found an outlet for her emotions.

“It became an essential part of how I expressed myself,” she said.

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When her family returned home a few years later, they shipped her piano back to Canada. Streliski has kept it nearby ever since, working on her own projects and as a composer in the advertising world.

She recorded portions of Inscape on the old gem, which became a confidant of sorts as she spiralled into a depression in her late 20s. A confluence of events pushed her to burn out and leave her job, while the dissolution of a romantic relationship only made it worse.

“My life became a mess,” she said. “I guess it was sort of a mid-life crisis… I deconstructed everything, which I don’t recommend people doing because it’s a little bit absolute.”

She named her album Inscape, a nod to the “inner landscapes” she tread while rediscovering herself. She used improvisation and spontaneity to extract her feelings and turn them into music.

“You can’t get a more direct relationship to the emotions,” she said of working on her familiar piano.

“It feels like an extension of yourself. Instruments have their own characteristics — for instance, some keys are going to be heavier, some keys are going to be lighter… It becomes a personality you get to know.”

Click to play video: 'The Dead South on their second Juno nomination'
The Dead South on their second Juno nomination

Streliski had earned a fan in Quebecois director Jean-Marc Vallee by that point. He licensed one of her older songs for his Oscar-winning 2013 film Dallas Buyers Club, and would later set his other projects to her compositions, among them HBO series Big Little Lies. His support of Streliski’s music proved to be a powerful tool in spreading the word about a composer.

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At last year’s Felix Awards, which celebrates the Quebec music industry, Streliski reached new levels of awareness within her own province. She picked up accolades in several key categories: breakthrough artist, instrumental album, and songwriter of the year.

Streliski suspects the explosion of interest was a culmination of circumstances that included changes in how listeners choose music in the streaming age.

“The kind of music that I do… accompanies people in their every day, whether they’re writing, reading or putting their kids to sleep,” she said.

“It becomes the soundtrack to people’s lives.”

Click to play video: 'Events during JUNO week'
Events during JUNO week

What Streliski downplays is how hard she’s worked to reach this point, added Justin West, whose Montreal label Secret City Records released her album.

Beyond her songs appearing in films, she’s also returned to her advertising roots, licensing several pieces for major campaigns, including “Plus tot,” which appeared in IBM’s commercial during the U.S. Open last year, he said. The awareness from the ads piqued the curiosity of streaming platforms, who added her songs to playlists.

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“It becomes an exponential story,” West said. “You can point to the magic of many things happening and all of them reinforcing each other.”

Helped by the attention, Inscape had racked up nearly 100 million streams across all platforms, he noted, with about a quarter of the plays coming from Canada.

Allan Reid, president of the Juno Awards, said with Streliski’s music charting among the most popular Canadian artists, her album was eligible for some of the top Junos categories, which are partly based on sales.

“Even though it was coming out of Quebec, the fact she was also picked as a breakthrough artist (nominee) spoke to there being a wider recognition to who she is in the overall Canadian industry,” he said.

Reid wanted to acknowledge that fascination on Sunday’s Juno broadcast, so when City and Colour’s Dallas Green expressed his admiration for her album, the ball started rolling on plans to get them together on stage for a live performance.

“When a natural collaboration can come about that’s authentic, it makes for a must-see moment,” Reid said.

Streliski said she’s pleased with her historic nominations because “it shows a bit of guts from the Junos” to venture outside the popular music of radio playlists. Still, she can’t help but consider what it’ll mean if the broadcast raises her profile outside of Quebec where she’s already a recognizable face. People already expect her to represent a certain type of public persona, she added.

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“My music can be associated with nostalgia and sadness, but I’m a little clown in my everyday life,” she said.

“I’m personally very different than the image. I mean, I am fully myself, but it’s a part of me.”

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