Kelly & Gibson, Harmony Arts Festival, Millennium Park, Friday, Aug. 3, 3:30 p.m. (harmonyarts.ca).
She had fire on her mind.
Singer/songwriter Nicole Gibson had just arrived in Vancouver along with her bandmate, collaborator and co-lead singer Chris Kelly. And for some reason, the phrase “burning up” was rolling around in her consciousness like a Roomba in a skate park.
“I was like, ‘Chris, I just want to talk about burning up. I don’t know why.’”
Kelly went on his guitar, looking for simple lines while Gibson searched for the rest of the song, hoping to figure just what “burning up” meant.
She kept saying it.
“I’m cold as ice.”
“I’m so tired.”
“Can’t sleep at night.”
There’d been invocations about fire (“Light My Fire”), disclaimers (“We Didn’t Start the Fire”) geologic surveys (“Lake of Fire”) nuclear fallout projections (“I Melt with You”). But this was the rare song about absence. Gibson and Kelly sing about seeing telltale signs of fire but not the fire.
It’s about anxiety, Gibson explains, about not knowing what would happen in Vancouver. Not knowing if all the work they put into their music would produce anything more than smoke.
The duo met at a club in Montréal. Kelly’s alternative rock band was opening for Gibson’s progressive rock band The Alibis.
“I really didn’t want to play the show,” Gibson says, recalling that she wasn’t feeling great that day.
She went anyway, and she found the other half of her sound.
It would be a year-and-a-half before they knew each other well enough to write music together. But before a word or a note was exchanged there was a “magnetic moment” when Kelly walked in, Gibson says.
They ended up chatting while hawking their respective band merchandise.
Gibson grew up with a healthy Abba obsession, singing along to the vibrant echoes of the Swedish sensation provided by Abba tribute groups.
For Kelly, Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean” was the one, the groove that seized his musical sensibilities before he knew what musical sensibilities were. Although he adds that Jackson has, “nothing to do with our style of music.”
Their style could be described as Gemini pop. The two voices work as fraternal twins that mirror, support and split from each other amid otherwise spare arrangements.
But for that style to evolve, Gibson thought they needed a new city.
“I felt like we needed to do something kind of drastic to really throw ourselves into this project,” she says.
For reasons that can’t quite be explained, they were drawn west, eventually settling in Edgemont.
“We just had this really weird feeling that things were going to work out on the West Coast,” Gibson says.
The group gained a following by releasing a steady stream of acoustic cover songs on YouTube; reworking tunes by Imagine Dragons, Linkin Park and Ed Sheeran.
The videos tend to get viewed anywhere from about 2,000 to 65,000 times. But what seems most noteworthy is that the group seem to have cut the nice YouTube commenters out of the stampede of trolls that usually dominate and defile the comments section with ungrammatical venom.
Fans tend to be nice and supportive, Gibson says, noting they’ve heard from music lovers as far afield as Iceland and Saudi Arabia.
The songs and videos are often unvarnished: one camera angle, one guitar and the two voices.
The direct approach is particularly fitting from a band that chose the name Chris Kelly & Nicole Gibson.
While some bands arguably put too much thought into their name (Devo, Unprovoked Moose Attack) Kelly and Gibson opted for simplicity.
“We didn’t think of a funny band name or a cool band name, we just were like, ‘We’ll use our names for now and see what happens,’” Kelly says.
“It’s been hard to think of naming ourselves anything different because the music is really just kind of us, it’s very true and honest to us, so putting a name on it besides our own just feels weird.”