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article imageReview: Big Little Lions primed to burst out of their cage Special

By Mark J. Allan     May 19, 2016 in Music
Overcoming huge gaps in height and geography, two singer-songwriters in different countries are making infectious music on the verge of a breakout to a wider audience.
Thanks to technology and affinity, Helen Austin and Paul Otten are a duo known as Big Little Lions.
Since their debut EP Paper Cage in 2014, they’ve released critically acclaimed CDs A Little Frayed, A Little Torn in 2015 and Just Keep Moving this year.
Austin, originally from northern England, was a classically trained flutist, then a successful standup comedian in her homeland. Since 2002, she has lived in the Comox Valley on Vancouver Island off Canada’s west coast.
Big Lion Otten, who towers more than a foot taller than the petite Little Lion (hence the duo’s stage name), lives in Cincinnati.
A couple of years after meeting on a conference songwriting panel, they started a long-distance collaboration made possible by the Internet.
They became Big Little Lions while Otten was producing Austin’s Juno Award-winning children’s album Colour It.
Besides the Juno (Canada’s equivalent of a Grammy Award), the title song from that CD, which Otten co-wrote, earned the John Lennon Songwriting Contest’s prestigious Song of the Year honors in 2014.
Otten and Austin split the $20,000 prize money, and realized they were on to something.
Together and individually, their resumes include a Lennon Award win in 2012, a Canadian Folk Music Award in 2013 for Ensemble of the Year, first place in the International Songwriting Competition in 2012 and 2013, a Western Canadian Music Award in 2014, first place for Female Songwriter and Artist of the Year at the 2011 Vancouver Island Music Awards and recipient of the first John Braheny Songwriting Award.
This Road With You, the lead track from A Little Frayed, placed first in the Americana/country category of the 2015-16 Indie International Songwriting Contest.
Fills Me Up, the leadoff track from Just Keep Moving, has been in the top 20 of CBC Radio 2’s online listener voting for more than four weeks. CBC Radio is the national public radio service in Canada.
Expert at crafting catchy melodies, the prolific pair has created music that has been heard on easily more than 100 ads, TV shows and films.
Their music on TV includes Elementary on CBS, MTV's Catfish, ABC's The Vineyard, MBC's The Night Shift and the trailer for the Love The Coopers movie.
Do not make the mistake of dismissing them as schlockmeisters, though, because this unlikely pair meshes seamlessly as writers and singers to create high-caliber pop songcraft with heart.
Mumford and Sons and American duo Pomplamoose are often-cited comparisons.
Warning: Listening to the Big Little Lions might cause you to spontaneously hum in a crowded elevator.
Austin’s sometimes-childlike voice helps to create an aura of naiveté and wonder.
Big Little Lions’ songs are not children’s songs, however, because they often deal with deep interpersonal adult issues. This, combined with Austin’s voice, creates an organic tension that adds interest, and weight, to the songs.
An outstanding example is Just Keep Moving’s In the Quieter Times. About a failed relationship, it begins softly and atmospherically, building slowly to a stately, still-poignant roar.
Fills Me Up, Sounds Like Home and the title track are other standout tracks on a CD that meets and even exceeds the high quality of Frayed and its strong songs that include This Road With You, Fire Me Up, The Time is Now and Closer.
Make It Up As We Go Along, the first song on Paper Cage, is addictively catchy.
Otten’s resourceful production includes the Lions’ core instruments (guitar, drums, piano, bass), augmented by fiddle played by Austin’s daughter Daisy Squires. You might also hear synths, banjo, handclaps, whistling, footstomps, fingersnaps – anything to further the tune.
Playing live is much trickier because it’s just a duo after all. As well as Austin singing and strumming a guitar, Otten is a veritable one-man band on drums, piano, bass pedals and vocals.
Whenever possible, such as an appearance May 12 at Austin’s local pub in the Comox Valley community of Royston, Squires is part of the band.
With fiddle, glockenspiel, melodica (a vital part of The Time is Now), harmony vocals and supplementary percussion, Squires is an invaluable addition to the Lions’ stage act.
After playing some shakedown gigs around the Comox Valley, the threesome hit the road for performances this month in Washington and Oregon.
Outdoor performances this summer include Canada’s venerable Mariposa Folk Festival, the Filberg Festival and Summerfolk Music and Crafts Festival.
In the spirit of international co-operation, the Big Lion and Little Lion typically take turns visiting the West Coast and the Ohio River Valley for gigs in each other’s territory.
Keep on moving indeed.
More about Big Little Lions, Helen Austin, Paul Otten, Daisy Squires, Comox Valley
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