Fionn Doubles Down at NXNE

Songwriting sisters learned craft chasing Nashville open mics as teenagers.

Fionn cover image

I Might Start Smoking:

Fionn

Genre: Pop-rock

Sound: Insightful lyrics driven by pop power, great melodies and sister harmony — not afraid to be funny.
If you like: Taylor Swift, Tegan and Sara, Caroline Polachek
Best track: 18
Rating: NNNN (out of 5)
Next: playing NXNE, Wed., June 14 Monarch Tavern, 10 pm, with MBG, Borito, Pillow Fite

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Identical twins Alanna and Brianne Fionn, who perform under their last name, have gone from a budding folk duo to a full-on pop powerhouse. This evolution, they say, is natural and not unlike the changes Tegan and Sara — the singing sisters also from Vancouver to whom Fionn is routinely compared — went through. When the duo rst started busking at 12 in Vancouver’s Granville Market — quickly scoring paying gigs in clubs, community events and restaurants — right away people would declare, “You’re just like Tegan and Sara” when they spotted the identical twins singing.

“It’s cool, twins got to unite you know,” says Alanna over a Zoom call, ahead of their June NXNE gig, from the B.C. apartment they share. “There aren’t a lot of twin acts out there; we’ve got to stick together.”

“Tegan and Sara started in 1998, the year we were born,” notes Brianne and they both acknowledge they draw inspiration from the longevity and path of Tegan and Sara’s career.

“When you’re a sibling band, especially twins — and I’m sure Tegan and Sara got this — when you start, it’s so focused on just singing together so you start with the most basic, which is acoustic. We were straight up country at the beginning, a country duo.”

After some pre-pandemic touring, the pair grew a little dissatisfied with the limited palette of acoustic play. “Too many people sitting at our shows,” Alanna notes.

“I love making people dance because we were so used to playing to sit-down audiences for a long time. It just brings a lot more energy to a performance.”

This desire saw the pair add a drummer and tapes to their shows.

What emerges early speaking with Fionn is how quietly determined they are. Once they decided to “go electric,” they spent the pandemic learning new instruments, Alanna went from playing mandolin to electric bass while Brianne spent her days mastering a new electric guitar.

It’s a transition they have made masterfully. Their new album, I Might Start Smoking, is out June 9 — they are promoting it at their NXNE gig on Wed., June 14 at the Monarch Tavern — and it’s packed with radio-ready hits that would seem destined to top the charts.

The sisters have had an eye on careers in music since adolescence, no doubt inspired by their musician parents. Their father originally came to Canada playing in an Irish Showband performing classic tunes from his homeland; he and his bandmates wore matching green suits and toured this new country on a green tour bus. An ongoing gig at the Blarney Stone pub in Vancouver eventually lead to a lifelong commitment to B.C., where Dad abandoned show tunes for a law career, marrying their music-teaching mother along the way.

Both sisters are songwriters, producing consistently well-written material.

I ask who inspired them to be songwriters and on one of the rare times on our call, they answer as one.

“Taylor Swift.” And it shows. Their material is consistently intimate and insightful yet driven by catchy hooks and memorable melodies, all supported by sister-powered harmonies.

“I feel like that’s every girl of our generation’s inspiration, but yeah, Taylor Swift,” emphasizes Alanna. “She’s such a great songwriter and she inspired us to pick up guitars and start writing. She was writing songs about things that were relevant to us at that age and we grew up with her, and her music continues to be relevant. As she’s been growing, we’ve been growing.

“We just love storytelling songs and nice little visuals and details, a song that has a lot of authenticity and tells a clear story; and she definitely knows how to do that very well.”

But the two sisters didn’t just wish to become singers. They had a plan and, as 12-year-olds, started sending their songs to the Nashville Songwriters Association who gives free feedback to budding songwriters — who knew? (The group also operates the legendary Bluebird Café, famous for its jam sessions and musical collaborations.)

Not content to simply pore over their feedback from pros, their mother agreed to spend vacations in Nashville, driving the sisters from B.C. to Tennessee to spend weeks at a time performing at any open mic that would have them and working with professionals whenever they could get their time.

“We did that for a couple of years,” says Allana. “I feel like it was a really good introduction to our understanding of song structure; learning structure is really important because then you can break it in a way that works.”

Weren’t they intimidated in a gritty U.S. city, barely teenagers, spending time with seasoned professionals?

“Honestly, it felt very comfortable there,” says Brianne. “People are very kind and open in the songwriting community, and we were like a couple of babies.”

The seasoned pros were, no doubt, impressed by the sisters’ work ethic and songwriting skills to match their compelling vocals.

Now, fully committed to their pop-powered path, Fionn are hitting festivals to promote their new album. They played Austin’s SXSW a few months ago — their first festival gig — and feel playing the Texas fest’s sister event in Canada is the perfect one-two.

“Excited we get to play both for sure,” says Alanna, describing SXSW as “probably the coolest thing I’ve been to.”

“Exposing your music to new audiences in a different place is always good. The hope is that out of a crowd, you can at least gain a couple of fans that will stick with you along the way.”

“It’s nice to go somewhere where you don’t know a soul in the audience,” says Brianne, noting the pair have played a lot in their hometown and are now enjoying the scrutiny of performing for strangers.

I ask if their upcoming NXNE gig is their first Toronto show. Turns out, they’ve played here once before, opening for Royal Wood.

“Where?”

“Massey Hall.”

Of course, their first local gig was at this hallowed hall — as teenagers. Exceptions don’t seem exceptional for this talented tandem, who seem likely to be the next big thing launched out of Canada.

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