Review: Briar Summers, “From The Ashes”

Briar Summers - From the Ashes

We consider ourselves very fortunate here at GDW to have discovered many artists in our quest for new music over the years, and never tire of great new tunes coming our way.  From established names to rising stars, there is always something amazing out there to grab our attention.  Yet over these last few years, one constant has been the notable emergence of the next generation of musicians; teenagers who are not only making waves, but are confidently staking their claim on an industry which they are taking by storm.

Take, for example, the prominent rise of Toronto-based teen Avery Raquel, whose 2018 “My Heart Away” album impressed us so much that we found ourselves catching one of her live performances that same summer.  Drawing inspirations from jazz, soul, and R&B, this was no teenage introvert front and center on that stage, but instead a confident young lady who projected her on-stage persona well beyond her true years with plenty of talent and gumption.  Later that year we would learn of Katie Barbour, another teen contemporary soul and jazz artist out of Hamilton, who mostly flew beneath the radar, but impressed us once found.  I really don’t like to resort to clichéd labels such as child prodigy or teen sensation when discussing young performers, but both artists were exactly that.

With the release today of her sophomore album, “From The Ashes,” Huntsville, ON singer-songwriter Briar Summers shall undoubtedly be tagged with similar labels as her music spreads beyond her current Toronto base, out into the world.  Such labels will certainly be justified, as it is nigh on impossible to not be impressed by this stunning collection of original tunes, themselves a lifelong ambition of a 17-year-old who developed her love for music and performing at a much younger age.  We fondly recall our first encounter with Briar at an intimate music festival in the summer of 2017, who fulfilled the national anthem singing duties and other collaborations with much more confidence and gusto you’d typically anticipate from somebody barely into their early teen years.  A mental note of the name Briar Summers was promptly saved; it was only a matter of time before the name would cross our radar once more.

Once news reached us that Briar was working on her latest album late last year, we took notice, and shared her recent single, “Stronger,” in one of our Snappy Singles features.  “In 2019, I’d started recording a collection of songs at a small studio in Muskoka. I was 15 at the time. Then COVID-19 hit. The studio shut down and I was told to look elsewhere. I had no clue what to do,” she recalls.  “But things happened to turn out for the best in the end, when multi-platinum, three-time GRAMMY Award-winning producer David Bottrill (Peter Gabriel, Tool, Rush) saw potential in this project and decided to take it on.”  

Being the first teaser of music from her album, if “Stronger” did not grab your attention, pause now and check your pulse for signs of life, please – doctors are standing by – because with this single, Briar also dispelled any pre-conceived notions of creating adolescent bubblegum music. “I won’t fall, I’ll beat the odds and stand up tall / And the world can doubt me but I won’t listen at all.”  Instead, the airwaves were filled with a beautiful, yet potent “piano and strings” sound that not only demonstrates incredible poise and maturity in her sound, but also belies both her age and the expectations of the listener. “‘Cause I believe that I’m stronger than they make me out to be / Yes, I believe.”  

Recorded at Union Sound Company in Toronto, Briar could not have asked for a better caliber of talent to guide her from behind the scenes – produced and mixed by David Bottrill, engineered by Chris Stringer (assisted by Darren McGill), and mastered by Joao Carvalho – some of the finest names in the industry.  “In late 2020/early 2021, these songs were given new life in Toronto,” Briar shares.  “The record would feature the incredible talents of Drew Jurecka, Ben Riley, Jason Logue and Chris Stringer, in addition to well-established Muskoka pros, Jamie Bestwick, Daniel Dennis, Logan Coey, and Dylan Teakle, who had been there since day one.”  Making her transition from local singer-songwriter to national recording artist, Briar also acknowledges good friend Rob Currie (Currie’s Recording) in Gravenhurst for his behind-the-scenes mentoring and earlier contributions and mastering.

Briar Summers

Now I’m rising from the ashes / I’m rising from the ashes.”  Opening with the title track, these two lines are delivered quickly and lay the groundwork of what to expect here from Briar Summers.  Wrapped in the confines of an exciting synth/piano pop-rock number, the artist earns your attention with a confident display of her vocal capabilities.  “So many times, they brought me down, they threw my body on the ground / The flames surrounded me, and I drowned / I’ll grab the wheel, get back on track, and no more falling for your crap / My time has come, I won’t hold back.”  It is impossible to ignore Briar’s attention to detail, painting vivid pictures through her prose, while cementing an immediate emotional bond with those who listen; as the sound intensifies, and her vocals soar: “Now I’m rising from the ashes.”

Slowing things down, Briar proceeds to “Wingless Angel,” which proves to be one of the most potent, deeply moving tracks on the album.  “You look in the mirror, into your eyes / Inside yourself, and there you’ll find / A child crying out, a desperate call / A wingless angel, ready to fall / But I’ll catch you.”  Clocking in at 4:12 in length, you only need under five minutes to soak up the beauty of this power ballad, but trust me, you’ll hit the repeat button many times before moving on.  Heading into the bridge following the second chorus, prepare to have your spirits lifted on every level, as Briar once again builds intensity to deliver her lines: “When life gets you down you push your feelings down / The end up getting stuck inside / And you can’t stand the weight that’s dragging you down / You can stand up, you can stand up again.”  And just as quickly, the band downshift to a momentary pause, before a timely acknowledgement from the kick drum ignites the final reprise. 

As part of the build up to this album release today, Briar shared her latest single, “I Won’t,” just two weeks ago, and once again demonstrates her passion for the vintage power-pop sound.  A little more up-tempo, there is a strong emphasis again on the vocals, cushioned by thundering drums and soothing piano.  I’m quite prepared to repeat the words vintage power-pop when listening to “Nocturne,” complete with atmospheric opening and vocals that are much more drawn out here.  My first thoughts were of hearing hints of Martika in Briar’s delivery (anybody remember “Toy Soldiers,” the popular music hit from the late 80s?): “And I fall into a nightmare / Haunted by the past, chased by wolves and bears / I would rather be anywhere / But I can’t get out of this nightmare / Can’t get myself out.”  I’m also hearing hints of Avril Lavigne’s “Complicated” during “Signs On The Road,” a radio-friendly happy pop tune that could easily double as a feature track on a “Legally Blonde” soundtrack.

The beauty with piano and strings-based music, of course, is that the sound is very interchangeable. Reducing the impact of the guitars and drums that accompany those faster pieces, and placing an emphasis instead on the calming effects of the strings creates a whole new dimension to the music.  Briar is more than comfortable easing off the gas pedal, and taking time to deliver some remarkable slower-paced offerings.  Take, for example, the beautiful high/low piano notes that set an immediate tone to “Something More” – you’ll instinctively seat yourself to relax and enjoy the sentimentality from Briar’s lyrics: “Sometimes we hurt, sometimes we cry / But that don’t mean we can’t smile up at the sky / We’ll sing with the wolves, shine bright like the stars / We will let the world know who we are / Oh they’ll know who we are.”  Bouncing her ever-powerful vocals against the piano strokes is a thing of beauty, as are the arrival of the strings that raise the emotions even more.  And of course, the vocal fade as the piano rings a few last notes, and the drawn-out slow pull from Jurecka’s bow is the perfect close.  

The chemistry shines with these slower paced compositions too, repeated on both “What I’m Leaving Behind” and “Through The Clouds,” the latter leaning much closer to a mainstream pop-ballad, albeit with added emphasis on the strings.  “Make it rain, make it pour, let me see its beauty / Let it storm, let it transform us, ‘til we’re perfectly in time / You’ve got me and I’ve got you, together we can make it through / Let the sun show through the clouds, let the stars shine.”  The final track, “Unique” once again opts for the slower-paced, piano-centered theme, while surprising the listener with an unexpected change: what makes “Unique” unique is that Briar writes, records, and sings the song in French.  A powerful closer, there is an abundance of raw emotion – in the song, in her voice, in the pace, and in the piano and the strings. “Quand tu me pars, comme les amis font chaque fois / Je sais que les larmes vont tomber / Quand te me pars, je ne vais jamais oublier les souvenirs qu´on a fait / Avec toi la vie est merveilleuse, ca vaut la peine.”  Oh, did I mention those strings?

“Against all odds, the album was able to see the light of day,” shares Briar. “From The Ashes is a story of determination and perseverance, overcoming seemingly insurmountable obstacles. Ignoring petty naysayers along the way, not putting up with any crap, and not being afraid to ask for help when you need it.”  After spending this last week enjoying this album on repeat listening, I am very, very impressed with this stunning collection being presented by an incredibly talented 17-year-old musician.  So, go ahead and toss out your child prodigy and teen sensation labels if you must, but for myself, I’m happy to report that I instead see a young artist transitioning into adulthood, with enough maturity in her music that very quickly blossoms into something extraordinary.  “The album may not be perfect, but at least it got finished,” Briar adds in closing.  “[And] on my terms.”

Learn more and pick up your copy today at: www.briarsummers.com

Photo Credit: Adison Powell Photography

The British guy that crossed the ocean and crash landed in central Pennsylvania (to quote Greg Keelor, “And I wonder what am I doing here?”). As the youngest of four siblings, exposure to music from a very early age nurtured my passion and appreciation for many musical genres. Continuing to discover some amazingly diverse and talented musicians based in Canada, I gravitate to live music experiences and remain devoted to spreading the word about such a vibrant music scene.

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