PHOTOS BY  Gillian Mapp

PHOTOS BY Gillian Mapp

Today’s special: Nova Scotian baked beans

Growing up in Fairview, outside of Halifax, Lynette Gillis’s big sister Darlene taught her how to rock – feeding her a diet of heavy metal from the age of 11. When Darlene died suddenly in an accident, Lynette wrote an album to carry herself through the darkness

Lynette Gillis’s mother told her to find yellow-eyed beans. She looked everywhere in Parkdale, but no luck. Baked beans, served with brown bread, were a staple growing up in the suburbs of Halifax, served with chow chow, a pickled green-tomato relish, on the side. From her kitchen on a quiet tree-lined street not far from the bustle of Queen West, Lynette measures out molasses to mix with the white navy beans she was forced to purchase. “It’s not quite as authentic, I guess,” she says. With her brown hair tied back, she mixes them with the molasses in a casserole dish, consulting a recipe printed from a cooking site, with notes from her mother, who lives in Cape Breton, scrawled in the margin.

Baked beans being prepared in a casserole dish

Lynette is a drummer, married to an architect, living in a bright and airy art-filled house on O’Hara. Right now she’s going to school to be a psychotherapist, but back when she was 11 years old she dreamed of being the next Tommy Lee.

She begged her parents for a drum kit. “I saw a sign for a free percussion program in the community centre and they said, ‘If you do that for a year we’ll pay for a kit.’”

She signed up. Only the percussion instrument the community centre was offering lessons in wasn’t the drums, it was the xylophone.

“We were playing ‘Over the Rainbow’ and I wanted to play Guns N’ Roses,” she laughs. “It was really good training. Part of it is just the discipline to show up to a weekly class. And learning to play quietly – I hated it at the time but that stayed with me.”

She stuck it out and her parents got her the drum kit. Her sister Carla already had a guitar, so they started jamming, learning songs they liked but also making stuff up. “That was good, just making up songs and figuring out how to play.”

One night their older sisters Cheryl and Darlene had a party. Lynette recalls, “I was very proud of getting this drum set and I remember (Darlene’s) friend Chris, who was a drummer, seeing it and laughing, being like, ‘Look how cute it is.’ And I felt so embarrassed because it wasn’t a real drum set. It was for kids.”

Despite this, Lynette stuck with it. Her and Carla’s early influences of GNR, Skid Row and Def Leppard soon morphed into more obscure L.A. bands like Shotgun Zion, then heavier stuff. “Old Metallica of course, and Slayer. It just got darker and heavier as time went on. But initially it was hard rock and hair metal.”

She credits her older siblings and their love of music with bringing Fleetwood Mac and Genesis into the mix. “I got to hear all this stuff that wasn’t really my era because of them.” Darlene took her young sisters to an Alice Cooper concert in Halifax that same year. “It was my first concert! My first experiences going to see bands play on an indie/ local level were because of Darlene. All her friends played in bands.”

Lynette Gillis sitting in her home
Lynette Gillis' drum

While we talk, she begins chopping onions to mix in with the beans. I ask her why she loved Tommy Lee. “Did you want him as a boyfriend or...?”

“I didn’t really want him. I just wanted to be him. Thank god. I’m very thankful I had that distinction as a teenager. I had a bit of a crush on Sebastian Bach though. How could you not?”

Her eyes are welling up. “I’m not crying because of Sebastian Bach!” She laughs, pointing to the onions. She wipes her eyes, sobers.

“When I discovered rock it was all I wanted. I was obsessive about music but it was a complicated relationship. Gender stuff is really interesting to me, looking back on it, because I just wanted to be them. I felt so different and I think that was part of the draw. They had this confidence that I didn’t have – Sebastian Bach and Axl Rose, those huge characters. It wasn’t about lusting after those guys. It was wanting to be in their shoes.”

During high school she and Carla joined a band called Plumtree and they toured a lot, even playing shows in L.A. “It wasn’t metal at all. It was pop, indie rock.”

Grunge hit and Plumtree began getting attention. “Things were happening and we went with it. It felt good – it just wasn’t what I had initially imagined. Instead of playing a stadium in Los Angeles we were playing a dive bar in Banff. Just a little indie band touring in a van.”

In between tours Lynette was studying photography at the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design. After graduating she moved to Vancouver, tried a new band, tried to break into the notoriously insular music scene out there, failed and decided to head back east, landing in Toronto. She was soon joined by Carla. Lynette got a job managing the non-profit Dixon Hall Music School, and Carla started writing for Now magazine, eventually becoming their music editor.

Now they’re both studying to become psychotherapists and they’ve formed a band called Overnight – they’ve released one album – all because of the events of one night in the summer of 2008.

Plumtree & Overnight album covers

Lynette’s parents are John Robert and Janette Gillis. Big in the Cape Breton music scene, John Robert Gillis is a well-known step dancer and fiddler. They had a baby girl and named her Cheryl. They wanted more kids but were having trouble, so they decided to adopt.

“They had the option to adopt a little girl or boy. They decided they didn’t want to go visit the kids and just base it on a superficial thing like who’s cuter or who’s more friendly,” Lynette explains as she covers the casserole dish and puts it in the oven.

Her parents discovered that the baby girl needed a hip operation and since they lived close to a hospital they decided they would adopt her. Her birth mother had called her Trixie. The Gillises named her Darlene.

“Our family is a little boring. Darlene was totally different from us – super rebellious and a big personality, big character, big laugh. Cheryl, Carla and I are all a bit quiet, a little reserved. Darlene changed our family,” she tells me. She mentions that the casserole dish she’s using today belonged to Darlene.

We leave the beans to bake – we’ll never get around to eating them; baked beans take hours to cook – and move to the couch in the living room, where she tells me about that summer night in 2008. Darlene was in Cape Breton, at a house party with her boyfriend. Some friends asked her to drive them home. She didn’t want to, she was having a good time, but they convinced her.

“The roads there are dark and windy and kind of scary. Darlene was always a fast driver. She always drove a little too fast and crazy – her rebellious spirit. She got in a car accident and she was the only one who died. The others walked away from the scene. Only one of them even went to the hospital, but she died.”

Her eyes are glassy. Bright autumn sunlight filters through the window while the cat snoozes on a pink crocheted afghan. “I’m glad the others survived, but I don’t know them. It was a hard thing to come to terms with and accept. The unfairness of it, I mean.”

Lynette and Darlene Gillis

Lynette had been in therapy once, before the accident, and when Darlene died she sought out the therapist again. Then she and Carla decided to make an album.

“The two things for me were going to therapy and making music. The two of us would go to the practice space and just improvise and start building songs. It took us a long time. This is a thing that really matters to us, so there’s a bit of responsibility, but at the same time there was a freedom. Because it wasn’t for anybody else.”

Lynette wrote songs for the first time and together the two sisters sang and played and over the course of eight years they created the work that became Carry Me Home. The 10-track album was produced by Joel Plaskett and Alaska B and released in 2016.

Exclaim!’s Alison Lang called it a tribute to classic rock and metal, saying it was “like hearing Black Sabbath led by choirgirls in a cathedral.”

“Most of my upbringing was like, ‘What’s Darlene up to now?’ You couldn’t stop her. She was a wild child.” Lynette smiles as she rifles through her record collection, pulling out the re-releases of their Plumtree albums before finding Carry Me Home. The cover is a photo Lynette took while they were making the record – sunset over a road near Baddeck, pink and grey with mist. Telephone poles stretch on either side to the horizon, and the road is wide open. Darkness hasn’t fallen yet.

She has some family pictures, shots of Darlene. “This is on our way to see Mötley Crüe in Vancouver. She partied so hard. I was trying to keep up.”

Like a Joan Jett sent from heaven, Darlene dropped into this family of fiddling Cape Bretoners and forever changed them. She could never know the effects her blasting of Genesis, Stevie Nicks and Sabbath would have. That it would infuse her sisters with a deep love of music that would one day spur them to make an album to honour her life.

The ties that bind this family come from unexpected places – the dark and twisting roads of backwoods Cape Breton, hair metal, fiddle music, and a baby girl with a wild streak set down among three quiet siblings with rock and roll in their hearts.

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