Alexandra Stréliski Is the Underdog of 2024's Festival Headliners: "A Sea of Men and Just Me Playing the Piano"

"I'm always the one who is going to play solo piano and make people cry amongst parties and pop songs," says the Montreal modern classical pianist and composer

BY Ian GormelyPublished Jun 12, 2024

With its grand halls and elite academies, classical music is often thought of as the music of the establishment. But to hear Alexandra Stréliski tell it, when she pulls up to a gig, it's her who's on the outside looking in.

"I'm always the one who is going to play solo piano and make people cry amongst parties and pop songs," says the Montreal modern classical pianist and composer. "I have this hat of the underdog — weird pianist. But it's super powerful to have that hat on, because it's unexpected."

Since her second album, 2018's all-instrumental INSCAPE, went double platinum, Stréliski's found herself wearing that hat a lot more often. Packed shows at traditional venues have coincided with festival dates across North America and Europe. Touring behind last year's lauded Néo-Romance — nominated for Album of the Year at the JUNOS — this summer she's playing Festival d'été de Québec, where she's a headliner alongside bands like Mötley Crüe, Nickelback, Jonas Brothers and Post Malone. "A sea of men and just me playing the piano," she jokes.

Multi-platinum sales, Hollywood film scores, festival sets and award ceremony performances all with the backing of a hip indie label — Stréliski's career is anything but orthodox for an instrumental pianist. She cites artists like Philip Glass and Yann Tiersen as models, composers with "hybrid careers" who make music that crosses over into the pop world despite its non-pop sounds and structures.

This was the plan all along.

"I had this clear vision," she says. Scoring films and playing songs "in two-floor little rooms" were the priority. She pointedly didn't study composition at school. She scored ads and documentary films, and got a break when Canadian filmmaker Jean-Marc Vallée included some of her work in his films Dallas Buyers Club and Demolition, and in the trailer for the TV series Big Little Lies.

Eventually she hit a point of burnout, and jumped "two feet into this career" full-time. In 2017 she got a manager and a label, Montreal's Secret City Records. The following year, she released INSCAPE and she scored another Vallée project, Sharp Objects.

"I knew it would be highly emotional work, and it really is," she says of her steady career arc. "But I kind of sensed that something would happen. Because I'm small, people stop when I play the piano. That was something I was afraid of for a long time. It took until I was 33 to embrace it."

Once her bête noire, live performances are now "the biggest part of my life," she says. Taking a page with some of the more pop-friendly artists who she both admires and shares stages with, she's embraced more theatrical elements in her live performance. She plays with twin sisters on cello and violin, and her set includes panels and a mirror that shift around and she works with a lighting engineer. "Umbra," from the extended edition of Néo-Romance, was even written with the live performance in mind.

"I wanted something fun to go out on a high note with," she says. "My music is very emotional. I speak about love, about death, about depression on stage, and I also make a lot of jokes. I cracked the tension with humour. It can get emotionally really draining to do such work night after night. So it has to also be fun and calm and funny."

Despite the success, Stréliski still wears her "weirdo" hat with pride.

"It's still rare," she says of seeing an instrumental artist of any genre in a mainstream pop setting. "They're still extremely scared to put instrumental music for a minute and a half or two minutes on broadcast television. They're scared that it's slow-sad. But slow-sad is one of the most powerful forms of art. Ultimately, it's just music. You play in a little bar, or you play in a Palace d'Arts. People are just there to experience something."

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