Elise Arsenault is a writer and musician based in Hamilton, Ontario. She released an EP called “This is a Reunion” in the Summer of 2019 and is currently pursuing her Masters of Fine Arts in Creative Nonfiction at the University of King’s College in Halifax, Nova Scotia. Christian Courier talked with Elise about her music and creative process.
Hi Elise! What was 2020 like for you as a musician?
Hello hello! Songwriting-wise, I’ve enjoyed slow-cooking new lyrics. I wouldn’t say I’ve ever rushed the process, but there’s been a special kind of patience this year. No timeline, no forcing. Finishing a song feels like a quieter victory when you’re not sharing it on stage soon after, but there’s a sweetness to that. My newest song is named “Slowly,” in that spirit (listen here).
A good handful of shows were cancelled because of COVID. I was getting more confident playing with bandmates, rather than solo, so I was looking forward to growing in that. Some of the sets were opening for local groups, too, whose audiences would have been new to my songs. Online exchanges have happened, though! I was able to play a virtual book-launch for writer [and former CC columnist] Brent van Staalduinen in October, and film a half-hour set in my backyard for a wonderful concert series by the Hamilton Public Library. Both were new experiences that made me think differently about performance.
How has music changed your relationship with your community in Hamilton?
Wow. Great question. I’m realizing how much of my community here is connected to music. I first visited my church, Philpott Memorial, after meeting the associate pastor at a songwriting workshop over a year ago. Philpott’s creative and prayerful community has helped me to grow as an artist and worshiper ever since.
And come to think of it — my first real experience with this city, after moving from Oakville as a student in 2014, was the annual Supercrawl music festival taking over the downtown core. I couldn’t get enough. That year I attended as many living room shows, coffeehouses, and venues as I could. My first time taking the wrong bus was returning from a random jazz concert I’d gone to alone, on a whim, one September weeknight. All of these things — moving to Hamilton, late adolescence/ young adulthood, and more prayerful music-making — were wrapped up in each other. I couldn’t help but be shaped by their combination.
Can you tell us about the process that went into writing one of your songs, “In the Velvet”?
I initially hoped to write a spoken word piece, so I journaled a stream-of-consciousness to get started. Eventually I paired my favourite lines with a chorus that began: “I’ve got a rendezvous with the man in the moon.” I liked the sound of it — sorta dreamy. I let this feeling inform how I wrote the rest.
There’s an image in the last verse about the night sky being a layer of velvet, and stars being holes poked to another, brighter side: “We’ll always question the cosmos / causing God’s kids to dream with eyes closed / wondering if stars are just the pinholes made by the angels in the velvet.” The image came from a book in The Christy Miller Series by Robin Jones Gunn that I’d read as a kid.
My friend Jessie Borsellino surprised me with a visual interpretation of these lyrics for my birthday. She made a fine pen drawing of the starry scene with a little girl reading beneath it, incorporating pieces of my cover art and printing words from the chorus. It’s beautiful. I’m amazed by how art and meaning can evolve — how the Spirit makes them come alive in ways we don’t expect.
Speaking of how art and meaning evolve, how does your MFA in Creative Nonfiction influence your songwriting?
Songwriting felt separate from other kinds of writing, growing up. Songwriting happened at home, in my bedroom, while poetry and prose were in English class. Only in the last few years, as I’ve more deliberately brought poetry and prose “home,” have I noticed some overlapping in how I practice them.
Studying creative nonfiction is definitely strengthening my writing as a whole. Even the simple habits of daily reading and writing help me make songs with more colour and care. I’ve also noticed the subject matter of my songs and prose becoming more similar, now — or maybe I’m just not limiting their scope anymore. I’d say both consider how strange and sacred it is to be alive.
What are your hopes and plans for the future?
Gulp. The future! I hope to finish my MFA with stories that resonate with others. We work on a book-length project throughout, and mine has to do with place, creativity, and young womanhood.
Music-wise, I look forward to sharing these slow-cooked songs. I’m itching to perform and eventually collect them in another EP or album. Part of me is restless about this, but I remind myself I’m in it for the long haul. Writing, music-making, whatever else comes — I don’t want to rush them. Lord knows we rush too much away. His timing is the real deal, and I want to trust and welcome it. There’s a verse in Psalm 25 that says, “He guides the humble in what is right, and teaches them his way.” I stuck it on a post-it note above my dresser this year. What a beautiful invitation.
Where can people go to access your music?
linktr.ee/elisearsenault is a handy one-stop shop. My songs are on all streaming platforms, and updates on my process and performances pop up on my Instagram account, @eliseswindow.
If this story piqued your curiosity about the singers, songwriters, and writers among us, check out our December article on Canadian songwriters spreading hope in covid.
Don’t miss our January 2021 print issue for two more feature stories on Canadian writers — one at the very beginning of her career, and one distinguished author reflecting on his 40-year career!