The Sound Cafe
Folk-Roots Music PEI Award Winner Alicia Toner Releases Haunting 'Time Travel'
By Eric Alper.
There’s a certain irony to the chorus of Alicia Toner’s new single, the haunting “Time Travel”: “Only one thing left for you to do / travel back in time and tell the truth.” The lyric is directed toward an ex that the Charlottetown singer-songwriter is struggling to forgive. But there’s another truth lurking beneath.
The song was released on her 2021 album Joan, which garnered seven Music PEI nominations, and took home the prize for Solo Recording of the Year, and two ECMA nominations, including the Rising Star award. But only now is the acclaimed actor and musician telling the truth about what the album is really about. It’s an uncomfortable truth, a painful personal story that Toner is ready to tell only now.
“It’s about the after-effects of an abusive marriage,” she says. “When I first released this album in 2021, I still wasn’t ready to speak to the level of trauma I had been through. It still felt much too private. Like it was just mine. Domestic abuse isn't an easy topic, and I hid behind veiled references, so I didn’t have to face my own reality. Now I find the full scope of it to be important. What I went through is present in my daily life. It effects how I raise my daughter, how I interact with people, how I react to the world. But I’m lucky enough to have gone through this from a very privileged position and I have a small platform to be able to share my story. If that reaches one person going through something similar and inspires change, that’s important.”
Toner started writing the album a few months after escaping the relationship in question. It took her three years and a journey of self-rediscovery to channel the experience into 10 songs that illustrate her clear, honest approach to lyrics, and matching them to melodies that put her in the same league as Brandi Carlile or one of Toner’s childhood heroes, Jann Arden. Those songs are then delivered by a veteran of the musical stage, one who can quite easily communicate emotional depth to the back rows of a theatre. “It started as therapy, as a way to let traumatic events come to the surface without having to discuss them,” she says of the writing process for Joan. “Topics range from dealing with anxiety in ‘Try Again,’ to the inability to forgive in ‘Time Travel’ to the grief of saying goodbye to what should have been in ‘Easier Today.’ There is even a song about cautiously falling in love again in ‘Tonight.’ What I ended with was a reclamation of myself. Releasing this album, making the videos, and playing these songs live has been a sort of rebirth and a stepping into a power I’ve always had but was too scared to claim as my own.”
Knowing this backstory, “Time Travel” carries even more emotional weight as Toner sings in between heaving pedal-steel swells: “I want to say I’m sorry / for all the strength I lack / for failing to forgive you / because you can't take it back.”
Alicia Toner was raised in Fredericton, where she spent years playing classical violin with the New Brunswick Youth Orchestra, which took her to Carnegie Hall. She then spent a decade on the Toronto theatre scene, including stints with Soulpepper (Chasse Galerie) and Mirvish Productions (Once). Relocating to Charlottetown, she sold out the Confederation Centre of the Arts in 2021. Joan was recorded with her trusted recording team of Stuart Cameron (Crash Test Dummies) and Peter Fusco (Matthew Good Band). “That was important to me because there was a level of trust that already existed,” she says, of a creative partnership that dates back to her 2016 debut. “They are incredibly talented at what they do but they always make room for my voice and my opinion. “I knew they would let me tell my story but elevate it beyond my ability.”