Nova Scotia·Profile

Gary Burrill's love of music runs in the family

In the third profile of a three-part series looking at the lives of the leaders of Nova Scotia's three major political parties, CBC News takes a look at what music means to Gary Burrill and his family.

NDP leader's mother taught him to play piano but he 'just wanted to play rock 'n' roll and boogie-woogie'

Music was a part of NDP Leader Gary Burrill's (left) youth and he's made it a part of his family's life. (CBC)

Editor's note: This is the third profile in a three-part series looking at the lives of the leaders of Nova Scotia's three major political parties. CBC asked each of the party leaders to share a side of themselves outside of the political arena, something very important to them.

A smile stretches across NDP Leader Gary Burrill's face and his toes start tapping as he listens to his grown children, Clayton and Rosanna, belt out one of their songs.

He is clearly in his element.

His kids are part of the indie folk band Hillsburn and on this spring evening, they are gathered in the living room of the west-end Halifax home where they live with Burrill and their mother, Debra Perrott.

"I'm so proud and excited about Hillsburn. I don't think I can talk to you about it without bawling," Burrill, 61, said in an interview.

"It's a great band. It's a great project. Everything they do is full of love for people, full of power and gas."

Burrill has reason to be so proud. Hillsburn, formed in 2014 and named after the Nova Scotia hometown of fellow band member Paul Aarntzen, was nominated for three East Coast Music Awards last weekend and won for fans' choice video of the year.

NDP Leader Gary Burrill beams with pride when he listens to his children play music. (CBC)

Burrill said he made sure his family, which also includes daughter Eva and son Fred, was raised in a house full of music, just like his was growing up.

"My mother is a very determined piano teacher and she taught my brothers to play properly, but I just wanted to play rock 'n' roll and boogie-woogie," said Burrill, who now plays piano and mandolin.

"I had a hard time to learn properly and I still ... play by memory and by ear. I don't play by note."

While music is a big part of their lives now, Clayton and Rosanna were a bit reluctant in their earlier years. Both started taking fiddle lessons when they were five.

Faith and music

"I remember we used to have to practise in the living room and I would go in the kitchen and set the timer because we had to practise for 20 minutes," Rosanna said with a laugh.

"I would go and play a fiddle tune and run back in the kitchen and see how long I was playing for. It was like 30 seconds or something. Ugh, 19 minutes and 30 seconds to go!"

For their dad, a United Church minister before entering politics, there's always been something spiritual in notes and harmonies. Burrill said if he were in charge of theological education, he would make sure there were two compulsory courses for all ministers: piano and guitar.

Burrill was recently the minister of a new congregation in Sydney that brought together four different churches. One of the first things they did, Burrill said, was put a call out for musicians of all skill levels.

Gary Burrill (left) has played music at rural dances, often accompanying fiddle players. (CBC)

"Every Sunday, there were 12, 14 players and it was just terrific."

Much of Burrill's music playing has been at rural dances, accompanying some talented fiddle players.

"I'm not very good. I'm very average," he said. "But in old-time music for guitar and keyboard accompaniment, a person can be quite average and can take part, same with old country music. So there's a place for everybody.

"You see this all over Nova Scotia, especially in the rural areas. Little jams here, there and everywhere. It's because it's something we can participate in and you can't beat it."

About the Author

After spending more than a decade as a reporter covering the Nova Scotia legislature, Amy Smith joined CBC News in 2009 as host for CBC Nova Scotia News as well as Atlantic Tonight at 11. She can be reached at or on Twitter @amysmithcbc


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