INTERVIEW: Tilsen brings the power of opera to pop music

Tilsen interview

In opera, everything is big. The voices themselves are big, booming out so everyone in the auditorium can hear them. The gestures and the facial expressions are equally big for the same reason. The sets are huge and intricately detailed. The stories themselves are epic, telling tales of epic duels and burning emotions. At the same time, there’s a huge amount of nuance in operas. Their plots allow for complex looks at what we know about life and love, making us see things from new perspectives and examine the truths in our own lives. Many of those truths and that philosophy of “big” appear in pop music as well. The hooks on a chorus are designed to grab your attention in the same way as an opera solo, and you only need to listen to a pop ballad to hear grand outbursts of emotion. In the intersection between opera and pop lies Toronto pop artist Tilsen. Classically trained and surrounded by opera growing up before working her way through Toronto’s music scene to emerge with her singles “Hurts” and “Doubt,” Tilsen is ready to bring listeners in with the grand scale and nuance of her music.

Tilsen’s parents were involved in opera from the time she was very young, so high level, professional music has been a part of her entire life. She herself has appeared in opera choruses, which should tip you off to her natural talent if you can’t pick it up from the power of her vocals on her singles (you don’t just have to be good to be in even smaller regional operas, you have to be GOOD). While the classical training in the technical aspects of singing are what come across most evidently, Tilsen loves all of it. “I just really love the drama of opera and the theatrical element,” she says. She explains she wants to incorporate that background into her music and her live shows, even bringing up the possibility of having theater-type sets on stage in the future. “I want there to be a lot of drama even in the writing as well,” she explains of the influence it had on her.

Tilsen’s experience in opera helped her while she was finding her footing in the Toronto music scene, which in turn has helped her as she introduces herself to an even larger audience. One of the biggest benefits she cites is simply having the knowledge of how everything in music works before diving in. “I sort of know how things go, but also this wouldn’t be happening if I hadn’t had that experience because I learned so much from years of growing and learning and reading and changing,” she says of her initial run. She explains she tried out several different sounds and directions for her music career before she settled on the electro-pop sound of “Hurts” and “Doubt.”

From a more personal standpoint, Tilsen is also grateful for the perspective her journey has given her. “I would say a big advantage from going through that and having years of struggling and working on it is just how much I appreciate things when they’re happening now,” she explains. That perspective works it way back into her writing, which she says has sharpened both technically and emotionally since she started at the age of 16 (she’s currently 25). She’s frank in discussing how it took her some time to get to where she is now. She says “For me, I didn’t know what I wanted to say when I first started writing, and I just wanted to build something myself that felt really ‘me,’ so I’m glad that it took time.” She emphasizes it’s not a race, and admires those who can make it work in their teens, chuckling while calling them “magical beings.”

Now that she’s an adult, the message Tilsen has settled on in her recent music is the emotional nuance in a relationship. You hear it in both “Hurts” and “Doubt” as she sings about relationships that take work, that go through rough patches, and aren’t just fairy tale love stories. When talking about a relationship, she says “It’s about the work, and the good is the work within it. It’s putting two people together and having them co-exist in a relationship, whether it be friendship or love or whatever. That’s hard.” She says she was inspired to write about this not only because she personally finds it “interesting,” but also to give listeners a song to listen to that explores the reality of love, which can sometimes be hard to find in popular media.

Not only are the lyrics and emotions of Tilsen’s songs nuanced, so too is the music. While they’re not overwhelming in their production, they contain a depth in their restraint, revealing layers upon each new listen. “I really love sparse production and I really like to showcase the writing” she explains about she approaches her sound. Another reason she decided upon pop as the direction she wanted to go is because of its versatility. “I also love how you can put different flavors into it depending on the song, because pop can morph and incorporate different sounds into it,” she explains. It gives her the room to explore everything she wants to musically and lyrically while having a strong foundation to work from.

Going forward, Tilsen says she’s exploring even more facets and themes of love in her new music. “My writing does evolve based on what’s going on in my life and what I’m feeling, what is inspiring me, and also how people are reacting to the songs I’m releasing,” she says. On that last point, she explains while she always makes the music she wants to make, getting feedback and learning what her fans enjoy is something she wants to consider while writing. With so many different ideas and angles of how to approach love, she says she’s not going to run out of material any time soon.

With classical training, pop sensibilities, and smart writing, Tilsen is a pop star with a special set of gifts. She may not be in operas anymore, but she brings the same dramatic flair, emotional nuance, and vocal prowess to her music. Like the best operatic productions, Tilsen is primed to shine bright for a long time to come.