BY SANDRA SPEROUNES
When Elliot Niven was 15, he crashed his parents’ car through a fence and into a neighbour’s tree.
These days, he’s more likely to drive his acoustic folk-rock through your speakers and into your soul. As part of Edmonton duo El Niven & The Alibi, the singer/guitarist delivers rugged and restless tunes about liquor, love and lone wolves — fuelled by intoxicating blasts of twang, melody and honesty.
“It’s kind of like therapy for us,” says Niven. “If I’m not happy about something, I’ll put it in a song.”
Drummer Jeff Burwash is the other half of El Niven & The Alibi. The two started writing tunes and playing stripped-down yet raucous sets after putting the brakes on their previous project, Stone Iris, a reggae-turned-rock outfit, in 2016.
“With Stone Iris, we had a good run and did a lot of awesome stuff, but I was done with it,” says Niven. “The music I’m making now is much different. You get older, you start looking at things and where you want to be, and an honesty comes out.”
A sense of danger also underlines many of El Niven & The Alibi’s songs. Next To Me, a sweet and jaunty ballad about Niven’s wife, hints at the exhilarating dizziness of love. “Driven by your mystery / You got me cruising through a feverish dream,” he swoons.
Likker, the duo’s lead single, sounds like a hearty pint-hoisting anthem, but it documents Niven’s much rockier affair with alcohol. “I wish the drink would last forever / But she tried to kill me / So I had to quit,” he admits.
The truth? Music saved Niven’s life. While he took guitar lessons as a child, he didn’t fully experience the power of music until his early 20s. Fresh out of rehab — after years of “drinking and getting into a lot of trouble” — he started jamming with his younger brother and entering battle-of-the-bands contests in his hometown of Calgary. “It was awesome,” he says. “It made getting up and going to work all good. I started listening to music again … then moved to Edmonton to take music at MacEwan University, which lasted a term because we got Stone Iris going.”
From the start, Niven has displayed a preternatural knack for melody, infectious choruses and stick-to-itiveness— with Stone Iris signing to Cadence Music, winning Indie Week 2014, and touring extensively through the U.S. and UK during the band’s seven-year career. Yet the full extent of his songwriting skills are only now on display with El Niven & The Alibi. The duo has recorded several songs, including Next To Me and Likker, with Brian Moncarz (Our Lady Peace, The Trews, Yukon Blonde) and plan to return to the studio in the months to come.
“I think we have all the ingredients,” says Niven. “I want people to think we’re new and interesting and be intrigued by it. I don’t want to be safe. I’ve got nothing to lose. We’ve got everything to lose by being safe.”