“When you’re in a band with your brother, you get to be super honest,” Gillian Thomson laughs.
Gillian is one half of Sister Says, and her brother, Robert Thomson, is the other half.
“We have pushed one another to the edge at some point, but there is also total trust. It’s special.”
The siblings have been playing together since childhood. For years they played in a jazz/funk/blues band with their father.
“After a while, Rob and I wanted to carve out something for just the two of us,” Thomson explains. At the time Rob, was at school for audio engineering and worked in his home studio making beats. Thomson, who had been taking voice lessons from professional singers since she was twelve, would sing over the beats.
At an aboriginal music festival in Toronto, the two met a music director and the chance encounter led to a meaningful mentorship. After a year of track feedback, the Thomsons went to Toronto and signed onto his small studio label.
It was three years before the release of their debut album.
“It’s not wildly unusual for it to take that long,” Thomson explains. “But it was quite the process for us. We were developing and discovering our sound, working with various studio musicians and figuring out how to record in a studio. Our mentor and the owner of the label was also in a freak accident where he was electrocuted on stage, and he was in a coma for a year. So between the worry and the dynamics of a studio in flux, it took time.”
A first record is a massive learning curve and by the release of their first album the duo had ideas of what to do with their second.
“We had a lot of big sound and strings in our first album,” Thomson says. “You can perform and create the sound through laptops and mixings and the core is the same, but we realized we wanted our next album to reflect how we sound live.”
By then, the Thomsons had found the key musicians with whom they wanted to work.
“We had people we knew and always played with who had become friends,” she says.
Thomson is mainly a lyricist who works on vocals and melodies, though she is growing into musical compositions.
“I’ve started writing songs on the piano,” she says. “And sometimes I pass over chord charts to the band or my brother and they interpret it a little differently, adding their own spice to it.”
In turn, Robert has started to work on lyrics.
For the Thomsons, writing music is a fluid affair. It might involve a jam session in a room or sending poetry or compositions to one another. This allows each sibling to contribute meaningfully to their music.
While Sister Says does not play traditional Indigenous music, Gillian and Rob are proud of their Haida-Tsimshian heritage.
“Truthfully, we didn’t always talk about our roots out of fear of being pigeonholed,” Thomson says. “After time and talking with other indigenous artists, I’ve learned that if you feel connected to your heritage, and I do and always have, then representation matters, regardless of blood quantum. Colonization is about assimilation, so to talk about it is activism in action.”
“I’m still connecting to my past and figuring it out,” Thomson explains.
She is part of an Indigenous artist in residence community in Vancouver’s Skwachays Lodge. Located in downtown Vancouver, the hotel boasts an art gallery, meeting and event spaces, and traditional sweat lodge and smudging ceremonies. Each room has been decorated and designed by an Indigenous artist.
Sister Says proudly plays various Indigenous specific events as well as various festivals and concerts.
Sister Says is currently working on their third studio album.
“We will create some singles and videos before releasing it all at once,” Thomson says. “It can be hard to find the time because we perform live so often. I think live performance is really important; it allows musicians to put the time in and develop their sound and work ideas out.”
For their Revelstoke performance on Saturday, Aug. 25, the brother-sister team will be playing with a full band including Trevor Ainsworth on percussion, Keith Sinclair on electric guitar and Max Ley on drums.