Nilia Berkin has been pounding piano keys from the tender age of four, when she started her classical training. Like many others before her, she felt a great relief when she finally found the courage to quit the forced lessons and become a normal booze-swilling, class-skipping teenager. Still, music was never very far away as choral singing soon replaced her first instrument and continued on for many years.

            At the end of university, she tagged along to a friend’s rehearsal space to watch his band. “I was instantly mesmerized,” she recalls, “I kept thinking, ‘wow, this reminds me of Iggy Pop’, yet I’d never even seen him before. I knew I had to join this group.”  By the end of the month, she had joined Les Poupées Gonflables as background singer and center stage dancer. “I wasn’t really doing too much up there but I got to wear go-go boots and be in a rock band. It’s everyone’s fantasy, really.” After playing Montreal and the Quebec region for a number of years, band members went their separate ways. “In the final months I was dead–set on being a guitar player but the band already had three of them and really needed a bassist. Everything became a lot harder for us and I just wanted to write songs on my new acoustic.”

            Fast forward two years and Nilia found herself immersed in piano playing once again but this time under the tutelage of Montreal jazz pianist, Lorraine Desmarais. “I studied with her for two years. She was such a dynamo and a real musical force and I could barely remember any of the voicings she taught me. I had to write everything down and was by far the slowest in the class.” Nevertheless, Desmarais had enough faith in Nilia to offer her cocktail gigs around the city. She would find herself frequently performing as a duo with partner-in-crime guitarist, TJ Plenty (the Asexuals).

             In 2000, she met a local agent who booked her a 3-month cocktail pianist gig in Matsuyama, Japan. “I was worried about all the wrong things before going,” she remembers, “I thought it would be hard to play but in the end, it was the isolation that got to me. It was a bit like the movie Groundhog Day: waking up and doing the exact same thing for a hundred days. Still, it was a beautiful country and a great professional experience.”

            Upon her return she started writing songs for her new album. “I knew it was something that I had to do so I just sat down every morning for half a year until I had 12 songs. I’d think about the lyrics while walking my dog, Beast. We’d wander around endlessly sometimes; me, just mumbling to myself like a lunatic while he took a half an hour to sniff a snowbank. Those walks served a huge purpose for both of us.”

            Whirlwind is Nilia’s debut album and an intensely intimate work. “The songs are mostly little musings on my view of the world and question what happens in the spaces that we can’t see. Where do we go when we fall asleep, when we die, when we daydream? I’ve always been interested in symbols and coincidences. Sometimes when you’re perfectly still, the world starts to reveal itself in ways you can’t pick up on when you’re distracted by all this living.” 

            Whirlwind was produced by TJ Plenty at their home studio. “I paid him in pizza, mostly.” The baby grand piano was recorded in the sanctuary of the church that Nilia sang at for over a decade as soloist. “I was lucky to have extremely talented musicians and the luxury of as much time as we needed to get things perfect. It would have been a very different album if we’d had limited time in an expensive studio. TJ has the rare gift of taking raw music and working at it until it sounds very polished and professional. But most of all, everyone involved really put their heart and a strong focus into it. I think the album really reflects that loving care.”  

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