Nicole Byblow Plays All the White Keys by Nicole Byblow (Shiny Nickle Music 2011)
Manitoba born, British Columbia educated, and now calling Ontario home, Nicole Byblow brings a sound that all of Canada can love. The young singer/songwriter who is finding her footing in the national music scene has embarked on a tour to promote her latest CD, entitled “Nicole Byblow Plays All the White Keys.” She made a stop in Victoria where I saw her play and met with her to discuss music, school, life and even a little fashion. Nicole and her piano are packed and ready to go back east with a few more stops in the prairies before heading home.
Over the years, we have seen enough examples of “boys playing guitar”, and Nicole falls into the female opposition of “girls playing pianos” which seems to be a common theme in recent musical trends. Starting with Alicia Keys and Vanessa Carlton, this movement led the way for the likes of Sara Bareilles, Sarah Slean and more.
Slean is one of Byblow’s biggest influences for the career path she chose. The Canadian Juno-Nominated singer was one of the reasons Nicole started playing piano and writing songs when she was just 16. Luckily, Nicole was able to meet her other idol at the 2011 Juno Awards Dinner and Gala in Toronto in March of this year. The spontaneous introduction initiated by her sister and singer Matt Dusk left Byblow both wide-eyed and starstruck. It’s nice to know that even people who make CD’s and tour get a little speechless every once in a while.
When listening to Nicole’s music, you can immediately hear the impact of her influences in her vocal and piano stylings. Citing Ben Folds as one of her biggest inspirations, Nicole told me of how she spent many hours trying to learn his songs. When things weren’t going well, she would write to Ben via email. She assumed that her angry rants about the difficult of Folds’ songs went unheard, until she received a reply from an artist who has sold over 3 million records in his career spanning almost 2 decades. The two pianists continued emailing and eventually Nicole was invited to meet Ben at his show in Seattle. Fully expecting to be turned away at the door, Nicole was shocked when two tickets had been left under her name. The evening concluded with a conversation at the hotel bar where Folds was staying.
Now, I think this is enough background for you, what you’re really here for is to know what her CD is like and whether or not Nicole Byblow is worth a listen. But before I give you that answer, I’ll do my best to break it down for you.
Nicole Byblow Plays All the White Keys actually comes with one of the “Parental Advisory” stickers commonly found on albums from Eminem, NWA and 50 Cent. This is rather unexpected from the girl on the cover with a white background and staring at a red balloon. Nicole’s been described as “hyper-feminine” and “delicate” and for me; this is one of the first things that grabbed me about this music: Nicole’s unabashed attitude towards profanity is rather striking. When hearing her drop an “F Bomb” for the first time in a small coffee house on a rainy night in Victoria, I instantly looked up from whatever it was I was doing and started paying attention. Not many singer/pianists of this genre have the guts to swear on their records. You’ll never hear Sara Bareilles say “I don’t give a shit” about her former job in a hospital, but Nicole is unafraid to tell it as it is. She speaks the way in her songs the way she does in her normal life and that translates to her songs. She’s not trying to beat around the bush or use a clever metaphor to say she doesn’t care; she just doesn’t give a shit.
(Things That I Learned When I Worked in the Hospital)
My favourite track from the album is “Things I Learned When I Worked in the Hospital.” Starting with the toy piano, and the rolling drums chugging along, Nicole’s witty lyrics bring you a real insight to the life of a hospital. Lyrics like, “Patient confidentiality is of the utmost importance, but you’d be surprised how accessible that information is when you have to sweep the room it’s in”, are the kind of sarcastic backhanded lines that riddle this song. The chorus reminds us “who cares what we do in the mean time, it builds character doing the things we hate all our lives,” which, in out of context is rather quite depressing. But in the nature of the song, it’s understood that this is a sarcastic inflection of the songwriter and just an excuse for her to get through her shitty job. The bridge of this song builds follows the typical pattern of most pop songs, with one slight deviation. We have all come to expect the key change going into the last chorus of songs (think “You Raise Me Up”, “My Heart Will Go On”, etc.), and thankfully, Byblow doesn’t go this route with this song.
Once you get past the occasional expletive, the music itself is simplistic in its nature. All the songs only feature piano, drums and bass guitar, with the occasional splashes of violin and the toy piano from the CD cover. It’s Nicole’s song writing and melodies that stand out musically. Some of her lyrics are complex and compact, not unlike the rap counterparts who share her “Parental Advisory” sticker, which is juxtaposed by simple melodies and hooks that make the CD a treat to listen to. The track “February” has a particularly catchy “Ooh ah” section, that later features the range of Nicole’s vocal in the bridge.
Aside from the first single “They Didn’t Think So”, which Nicole describes as a song about what would happen if Jesus came and let every person on earth ask him a question about life, the lyrical content of the album is mostly what you would expect from the genre of girls playing piano. “A Song About A Lover” and “If I’m Lucky” may not have different thematic content, but are striking and beautiful in their own right. The production quality of the entire CD is superb. Ben Nixon, who was the bass player, recording engineer and co-producer of the album, did a fantastic job in a “garage turned studio” to produce The White Keys. I can only hear one minor slight throughout the whole album, but overall I have been impressed throughout.
You will be happy to know that Nicole does play in keys other than C major and A minor, utilizing more of the piano than the album title implies. I hate to use the buzz-word “up-and-coming” to describe Nicole and this album, as I think it gets thrown around too liberally these days, but I feel that you hipsters out there need to latch onto this girl so you can say that you liked her “before she was mainstream.” Byblow’s album is a melting pot of the fairy tale wonder of Cinderella, the epic storytelling of the Princess Bride, with just a sprinkle of Tarantino-esque profanity. If you love “girls with pianos” but are missing something with a little bit of an edge, Nicole Byblow Plays All the White Keys will be able to fill that void for you. No matter what kind of music you enjoy listening to, I would highly recommend this album for anyone (even if there is a Parental Advisory on it).
This is what Canadian music is all about and I look forward to everything else Nicole Byblow has to offer.