Alexandra Stréliski: From ad agency to award-winning musician with a hand from Jean-Marc Vallée

Stréliski, who has a new album out, Neo-Romance, says the late director gave her a push to make music her career.

By Nick Krewen

Special to the Star

When Montréal composer Alexandra Stréliski release her instrumental album of lush piano music, Inscape, back in 2018, a funny thing happened.

It became not only a smash hit in her home province of Québec and the rest of Canada, selling over 160,000 copies of an album deemed “neo-classical,” but it also took off around the world,  charting in 20 countries and registering 300 million streams on global platforms like Spotify.

And that doesn’t include the haul of five Felix Awards (La Belle Province’s equivalent of the Juno Awards) and a Juno itself for Instrumental Album of the Year.

Now that she’s back after a pandemic interim with a brand new album, Neo-Romance, and a sold-out date at Toronto’s TD Music Hall on May 16 – and she’s had a chance to reflect on her success, does Stréliski offer any theories as to why Inscape struck such a chord with listeners?

“It’s a bit hard to tell, but I feel like people connected – especially here in Québec – to  the music and whenever I started to perform on television,” replied Stréliski, 38, over the phone from her home last week.

“I don’t understand it but I’m definitely grateful for it. I think people that listen to my  music can answer this question better than myself.”

Neo-Romance, actually her third album following Inscape and 2010’s Pianoscape, doesn’t fall far from the musical tree of its predecessors: 14 wordless,  melodic 88-key vistas both calming and passionate  that the composer says is the most organic version of herself.

“It really just comes out,” Stréliski explained. “For me, this is the most normal thing to be doing. I’ve been improvising on the piano and just kind of playing my moods since I can remember, and the biggest thing that changed was when I decided to dedicate my life to sharing this with people and not keeping it for myself.  

“So yeah, it is very natural, very spontaneous and very normal for me.  The only thing I choose to do as a person is to remain here and not block out any feelings that I might get.”

 It’s also music – the universal language –  with purpose.

 “Music that expresses things that people connect with  – and very different types of people connect with – and that’s what I’m really interested in: how you can build bridges between people. And, if I can do it through art, that’s fantastic.”

After hearing the somewhat relaxed nuances of such Neo-Romance numbers as the poignant ballad “First Kiss” and the evocative waltz “The Hills,” it’s hard to imagine that Stréliski was once part of the crazy ad agency business.

She was a  composer/producer at Montreal’s La Majeure Studio and part of CLIO Award winning campaigns by agency DentsuBos a decade ago, creating scores for numerous clients, but somewhat supressing her own internal compositional desires due to the demanding nature of the ad industry.

“I was also managing the whole department, so I was talking to clients and pitching to other composers and kind of translating, what the client needed in terms of music and then  talking to the artists and writing myself, of course,” said Stréliski, “I did that for a few years.

“I was quite young and I was working the advertising industry and not doing my own art:  I was putting my music to the service of products and stuff like that.  It was a great school and to this day, working as a composer in the ad industry is very good training because you deal with human beings, with hard deadlines and different genres of music.

 “But, as an artist,  deep down, the expression of your true self can sometimes be set aside – and that, for me, led to a burnout.”

She was rescued somewhat when Canadian filmmaker Jean-Marc Vallée played her music at the 86th Annual Academy Awards during the montage for his Oscar-nominated Dallas Buyers Club – which won Best Actor and Best Supporting Actor Awards for Matthew McConaughey and Jared Leto, respectively; and then used her music as part of the score for 2015’s Demolition, starring Jake Gyllenhall and Naomi Watts.

When he moved into television, Vallée, who passed in 2021, then used her music in the trailer for his Emmy-winning 2017 HBO limited series Big Little Lies and as part of the soundtrack for his 2018 miniseries Sharp Objects. 

Stréliski said it was a strong indication that a career change was in the offing.

“This  was very early in my career when Jean-Marc Vallée used ‘Prelude’ in Dallas Buyers Club and it had a huge impact. The fact that he would use my art in his art was a very big deal. It was a validation – that maybe what I’m doing is good, you know? Maybe I should pursue this avenue? It was a big credibility signal. If I look back, the biggest influence it had was that it told me that maybe I’m credible enough as an artist to pursue this.

“It gave me validation,” Stréliski continued. “It was clear to me that this was the path I needed to go on.”

Born in Montréal and raised in Paris, it was while she was in Europe that Stréliski caught the piano bug.

“I wanted to play an instrument,” she remembered. “I was 5 or 6,  and my parents had a friend who was a composer and they asked him, ‘which instrument should we get her? He said, ‘the piano, because it has the orchestra there – she can figure out what part of the orchestra she likes.’

“Turns out, I liked the whole orchestra. I fell in love with it – I really did. It’s been part of my life forever. It’s the piano that I recorded ‘Inscape’ on and the piano I still have to this day – although for Neo-Romance, I bought a new piano to have a new romance.”

That third piano is located in Rotterdam, where she shares a home with her partner. 

Stréliski, who “loves to cook, play very dumb video games, go for walks and bike” in order to decompress, is very happy with her career trajectory and will continue to make albums and tour.

But she’s also casting an eye on film scoring and hasn’t completely left the advertising world behind.

“I actually became  a partner in the studio I used to work in; I bought the studio with two of my great friends,” she stated. “I’m looking at film scores more. I do love to tour and I will continue making records, but I’m also looking forward to developing more of the film score side of my career.”