TORONTO - Fifteen years ago, Amanda and Tyler Wilkinson were freshly scrubbed teenagers topping the Canadian country chart with tunes so chaste they were pretty much the definition of family friendly — especially true given that the pair's father, Steve, rounded out their trio.
They've since grown up, but they haven't grown apart.
So after weathering some lean years, the Wilkinsons are reunited and rechristened the Small Town Pistols. And now the siblings just hope listeners give them a fair shot.
"I'm not saying the Wilkinsons were a gimmick, but it was kind of hard for people not to go: 'Oh, that's a dad and his two children,'" Tyler said in a recent interview from a Toronto bar, seated next to his sister.
"Even though people loved our songs and understood the songwriting behind (them), there was still that thing where: 'It's a brother and a father and a sister act!'" added Amanda, 31.
"That's kind of a hard thing, to get past the stigma I guess that comes along with something like that."
Indeed, the Wilkinsons got off to a hot start with the 1998 debut "Nothing But Love," but found it difficult to build on that.
That record went gold in Canada and the U.S., garnering the group a Juno Award and two Grammy nominations and spawning the hit songs "26 Cents," "Fly (The Angel Song)" and "Boy Oh Boy."
Beginning with 2000's follow-up "Here and Now," subsequent Wilkinsons records brought diminishing commercial returns and, following the two-year run of their CMT reality show in 2006-07, the Wilkinsons split.
Tyler had his alt-rock outfit Motion Picture Ending to worry about, while Amanda had dropped a self-titled solo debut in 2005. Meantime, both Wilkinsons put in work writing for other artists. But when they linked up in Nashville a few years ago, it's safe to say both were at a bit of a low point.
Amanda had just ended a seven-year relationship and Tyler was recovering from a breakup too. They were under pressure from agents and other people in the music community to produce new songs, but the Wilkinsons wanted to take their time.
"In a very diplomatic way, (I) raised my middle finger and said, 'Peace out. Give me a moment and I'll figure it out,'" said Amanda, who grew up with Tyler in Trenton, Ont.
Amanda and Tyler — "best buds," she says — needed to support each other. They gradually began penning new material but they knew it was different, and they wanted to release those songs under a different name.
Again, it was a decision that some in their inner circle didn't like. They didn't care.
"A lot of people (said) you have to keep part of your pre-existing imagery and branding in there, it's going to make things so much easier for you," Tyler said. "And we were like, we agree. It probably would have made things easier. But that's not what we wanted to do."
The band's self-titled album, out Feb. 19, reflects the time away. It's still polished, with the sturdy songwriting one would expect of musicians once immersed in the competitive Nashville scene and the siblings' long-honed harmonies, but there's a new maturity in these songs.
Some, like "Blame it on the Radio," bely the scars of a recent breakup, while "Anthems of a Runaway" is about chafing at the binding restraints of growing up in a small town.
"All Small Town Pistols stuff comes from a far more mature place for both of us," Tyler said. "There are certain things that people might find weird to sing with your dad in the band."
Still, Steve Wilkinson hasn't been excluded from the project — contrary to what some have assumed.
"People always go, what happened to your dad?" Amanda said, sipping at a pint of beer. "Did you kick him to the curb?"
In fact, Steve co-wrote three songs on the album. That he wasn't further involved was a mutual decision, the Wilkinsons said.
It certainly played a role that their mother had developed breast cancer (she's just recently been declared cancer-free, the siblings happily report), but there were other concerns.
"He just looked at us and said, 'Guys, this is a young man's game and as much as I love performing, I don't want to be there to (that) extent," Amanda said.
"There are moments in time when I know he looks and says: 'I wish I was out there playing,' but I think also like, (he doesn't) want everything else that comes along with it.... He's like our biggest fan. We've learned so much from him. He's always in the background."
Having essentially grown up in the industry, the Wilkinsons acknowledge it can be tempting to succumb to a certain jadedness.
"(I remember) when I was that 15-year-old girl when we all moved to Nashville, thinking: 'If I just sing my face off and I sing my heart out and we have a song that we believe in, everyone will like it and they'll want to come see us!'" Amanda recalled.
"And then you realize — no. That's part of it. It's not the whole thing."
Well, they insist they're not that focused on the rest — on charts or radio or whatever else. They're all in, and — as always — they're in it together.
"Some people have asked if it's going to be a one-album thing and we'll go off and do our own things," Tyler said. "I think we're really invested in this and it's lit a really awesome fire in us.
"It would be a shame to stop after one album. Even if we were unsuccessful."