Liz Stringer Gets Accustomed To Her First Time Really Feeling

Photo Credit: Kristoffer Paulsen

Let’s time warp back to April, back when it was just over a year of lockdowns, restrictions, fear (and loathing), and a sense of exhaustion reigned globally. It was glum, in short. But in the bleakness, Liz Stringer released her sixth album, First Time Really Feeling. On it, she revealed the newfound sobriety that it took until her late 30s to embrace. It is a confessional album, her most honest to date by her own admission in multiple interviews. The country, rockin’ folk vibe sonically is warm and lush and the straight-talking lyrics are unvarnished and untarnished by a haze of alcohol and hangovers. It marked two years since she’d been feted at Woodford Folk Festival in 2019 by fellow performers Catherine MacLellan, Tim Levinson, Jessie Lloyd and Jeff Lang, who paid tribute to her catalogue to date by covering their favourite Stringer songs.

In October the same year, Stringer joined fellow musos Jen Cloher and Mia Dyson for the second time since releasing a 2013 tour EP to record their debut Dyson Stringer Cloher LP. The album was a celebration of some of Melbourne’s finest songwriters, voices and guitar talent, though Stringer had moved to Toronto a year earlier to avoid the party scene she’d become prey to in Melbourne. As she told Conor Lochrie at Tone Deaf: “For me there was a lot of grief in getting sober, against all the amazing stuff. There was a period of having to mourn my life that I had been living for around 20 years. That was a big reason why I left and moved to Canada in 2018 because I couldn’t be around here, it was too triggering. Everywhere I went I remembered getting shitfaced there or hanging out there or going to the party there. It was constant!”

Melbourne has welcomed her back with open arms, though – her album received praise widely in media and she’s got tours booked through the end of 2021 and early 2022. She had been touring with Dyson and Cloher in 2019 until the borders closed and she found herself inadvertently but willingly back home.

Stringer’s sisterhood of songwriters did not begin and end with Dyson and Cloher. In 2008, she’d been invited by the esteemed singer-songwriter Deborah Conway to take part in the Broad Festival project. The Australia-wide tour was a vehicle for Stringer, Laura Jean, Dianna Corcoran and Elana Stone to perform their own work and reinterpret each other’s songs on stage. It has never been lost on her industry cohorts that in Stringer, the strength of her songwriting and performing – travelling the country-roots-folk route – are a phenomenon and have been since Soon, her 2006 debut. That was followed by Pendulum in 2008, Tides of Time in 2010, Warm in the Darkness in 2012, Live at the Yarra in 2014, and All the Bridges in 2016.

It was fortuitous and fitting that Cloher’s Milk! Records (founded with Courtney Barnett) signed Stringer in February, merely two months before she dropped First Time Really Feeling – easily her most raw, real album to date. The album, as much as it is about Melbourne and the weight of addiction on her mind and body, was recorded in Toronto in 2018.

“When I made the record, it took so long to bring out, because I didn’t have anyone,” she told Lochrie. “I was totally on my own, I had no money, I was in Toronto working as a session musician. And I just knew instinctively that either I put this album out well or I just don’t. I thought maybe that’s it, maybe I’m done. Then ironically during the pandemic it came together.”

First Time Really Feeling had to arrive when it arrived, which sounds obvious, but really – it is nigh on impossible to dig into the hurt, the grief, the true depths you’ve plunged into as an addict when you are still an addict. Stringer did not make the album all about herself though. As with her prior work, her songs are the collected stories of creatives who have nurtured their craft in ways that are self-destructive, no matter how necessary they feel at the time.

The title track is a percussive, country-inflected ballad in which Stringer’s earthy, plaintive storytelling comes to the front. “Don’t hurt me, don’t hurt me!” she croons early on. Later: “It feels like I’m always leaving, and love, it ain’t a conscious thing/My body is still reeling/The fear of losing everything/When it’s the first time you’re really feeling.”

On “Metrologist,” she channels the Liz Stringer of old: propping up the bar. “I’ve never seen you here before, have you got time for just one more?” is her opening line to the metrologist she meets. An expert in measurement, her newfound friend prompts her to consider the distance between her bar stool and the table, the weight of alcohol, and inevitably the lyrics get darker and the mood more threatening as she begins to probe deeper into weights and worthiness.

“Can you tell me how long before I disappear? What’s the point look like at which I am no longer here? If my body’s too heavy and my list’s too long, have I failed as a woman ’cause my measurements are wrong?”

Then: “What’s the unit for the negative shit in my head that only drowns when I down a solid litre before bed?”

Her voice is a sturdy, weathered, rootsy creature that is delivered in a defiant, captivating, shamelessly Australian accent. There’s a reckless, almost breathless urgency to her realisations that being a woman musician might not measure up to much that is crushing to listen to, let alone to write – I imagine.

On “Victoria”, she sums up the juxtaposing love-and-fear relationship she maintains with the state she has lived most of her adult life in. “Bluestone lane, brick wall and gutter/Every house I got fucked up in ’til they all looked like any other/Informs it all since I could crawl/You taught me all I know, Victoria, Victoria.”

For the most part, tracks are pared back to rocksy, rootsy guitar, vocals and a steady, complementary drum. If it needed to be classified, it wouldn’t be astray in the Alt-Country box. There’s something of the dramatic, frank delivery of Brandi Carlisle and the deep, soul-moving realness of Linda Perry’s voice in Stringer’s sound.  

The thrum of guitars creates waves upon which Stringer lands her serene, resolute ode to “Little Fears, Little Loves.” It’s anthemic, without trumpeting its arrival. “When we see who we are/Every secret, every scar/It’s only that moment that we’ll feel love,” comes the rousing, poignant and subtly sentimental message.

Like love, like addiction, like finding a sense of home, this album is the eye of the storm: the peaceful calm within the noise of living. Find your own solace with Stringer’s voice, so close to you, and really feel it.

Follow Liz Stringer on Instagram and Facebook for ongoing updates.

Premiere: Mimi Oz Goes Under the Microscope In “Hate” Video

Photo courtesy of artist

Mimi Oz wrote her song “Hate” as a way to deal with conflicting feelings of being an outsider. The Toronto-based singer-songwriter thrives on “being alone,” she says, as a “highly creative” person. With a strong support system, she adds, “I can’t say that loneliness is a regular feeling that I experience.” And yet, when she was living in New York City from 2018-19, pangs of loneliness continuously ripped right through her psyche, inspiring her to write “Hate.” A visual for the track, directed by Dylan Mars Greenberg, premieres today via Audiofemme.

“I was hit hard by a lot of things that were adding up, one of them being that it didn’t matter where I went, I just kind of felt like people didn’t like me,” she tells Audiofemme. “That was a hard truth that wore on my mental health. Not fitting into my community was also part of it, and that was every area of NY that I lived in.”

The song appears on Oz’s third studio record, Growing Pains, released October 22. “All my life, I tried to live outside the hate,” she huffs in almost a dream state, then caterwauls, “I see the hate you feel for me,” as electric guitar intensifies into a rolling boil. Oz reaches her hand through space and time to appeal to our collective sadness and the pressures of modern living and dying. With drums played by Miles Gibbons and guitar from David Celia, Oz conjures up a “perfect hollow space where you can feel the intensity of the lyrics, and everything hits hard and together and pulls you along. There is also a sense of violence, and I wanted to somehow explore that in the video but it didn’t end up turning out that way.”

Instead, the accompanying visual plants Oz smack dab in the middle of a bustling NYC subway. Trains whizz by, and preoccupied people in suits shuffle off to their 9-to-5, desperation hanging in the background like gnawed-up cork board. Within this setting, Oz and Greenberg accentuate the heavy sorrow woven into everyday existence. “It’s true millions of people feel that sadness. I’ve seen a number of people pushed off the edge in New York, mentally,” says Oz. “Sharing my experience and writing music that is relevant is key. If I was living without passion or purpose, that would be a cause for concern.”

Reality-rooted imagery mingles with absurdism like floating heads and oversized eyeballs, a creative idea Greenberg brought to the table to illustrate “the world inside my mind and the real world, the physical world,” Oz explains. “I’m isolated and alone, telling the story with menacing floating heads above me. I think the CGI helps the viewer really clue into the storyline and focus on the lyrics more.”

“Dylan has this really renegade, hands-on approach to film-making that I admire,” she continues. “The original artwork I released for this single was a watercolor that I had painted of a black sheep with a psychedelic coat of fur. I recreated this by tying together bright pieces of scrap fabric into a long boa that I wore across my neck. The character is someone that people don’t understand, but are fascinated with.”

While her journey to acceptance “probably doesn’t matter,” Oz says frankly, the experiences that lead her to write “Hate” have at least given her some perspective. “Life is confusing, so just try to be a good person,” she says. “I think now I care less, and also try to have as much compassion as I can, while also taking care of myself.”

Follow Mimi Oz on Instagram for ongoing updates.

Casper Skulls Build Monument to Memory on Sophomore LP Knows No Kindness

Photo Credit: Amanda Fotes

When Casper Skulls vocalist/guitarist Melanie St-Pierre was eight years old, she witnessed a murder. Playing outdoors with childhood pals, a neighbor shot her best friend’s father seemingly unprompted. St-Pierre testified at the trial, then buried the memory deep. On her band’s latest record, Knows No Kindness (released November 12 via Next Door Records), she excavates this and other moments – some bitter, some sweet – with a poet’s precision, unearthing truths about the human condition in the process.

“Witness,” for instance – the song that deals with the murder – doesn’t recount the grisly details of what she saw that day. Rather, it reframes the trauma as moment in time where a young girl fought for and found justice, resonating with strength while, understandably, honoring the innocence that was lost. “When I was young/I never knew what death was/Or that I could live next to it,” St-Pierre sings in the last verse. “Loving someone and then they’re gone/What have you done?” It’s a powerful statement about believing children, and young girls especially, and how traumatic events can reverberate through our lives to emerge in unexpected ways.

Released November 12, Knows No Kindness takes its title from Georgia O’Keefe’s description of the desert’s formidable beauty, but also the process with which she rendered overlooked objects in exacting detail. St-Pierre does the same with fleeting and forgotten echoes in her life’s history, turning them over and over until her songs, like O’Keefe’s paintings, take their larger-than-life shapes. And the rest of Casper Skulls – guitarist Neil Bednis, drummer Aurora Bangarth, and bassist Fraser McClean – help bring out each detail with compositions just as painstakingly rendered, recorded across four different Toronto-area studios.

“We worked with so many different engineers on this record… We knew what we wanted for it. We self-produced it, but the engineers that we worked with really helped us get it to where it needed to be and it was a little bit meticulous,” says St-Pierre. “We worked very hard on this record. Down to the arrangements and everything – we all had helping hands, we all made contributions. It was really nice to work with some local people in Toronto that helped us, that understood our vision, and understood what we were going for and understood the songs.”

That’s vastly different from how they approached debut LP Mercy Works, whose lead single “Lingua Franca” was nomimated for a SOCAN Songwriting Prize in 2018. A noisier affair that earned them supporting slots for Thurston Moore, Julie Ruin, PUP, Hop Along, Speedy Ortiz, and Charly Bliss among others, the attention may have “spooked” St-Pierre just a bit, she says, though she notes that her bandmates help keep her grounded. Almost immediately after the release of Mercy Works, the songs that would form Knows No Kindness began to pour out.

“Actually, we’ve been trying to get to this record for a while. We started off being a bit of a louder band in the beginning – [Neil and I] were just kind of fooling around in a basement with some pals and ‘King of Gold‘ happened, and it’s just like, [your first song] ends up being the trajectory of your band,” St-Pierre says of the decidedly post-punk inflected track, on which Bednis takes lead vocal. “That’s what was coming out at the time. But that was such a long time ago. That was six years ago! And just as you grow and change, you get better at writing, you get more mature. And I think for me anyways, this is the record where I really do feel like I have improved so much with songwriting and this is the statement of that, I guess. I’m a musician, I really feel it, it feels nice.”

“This album is almost like a fresh start in a way,” says Bangarth, who joined the band as Knows No Kindness was taking shape, bringing both classical training and years of studio drumming to provide the band’s heartbeat. “There’s still a lot of sonic similarities – Neil’s guitar tone is a defining characteristic of the band. It’s still there. But it does kind of feel almost like a fresh start in a way because there’s such a different take on things.”

“I feel like we never do songwriting the same way each time. We change our sound a lot… and that’s great cause it’s a growing process, you’re learning how to write, you’re learning how to put away things that don’t serve you anymore, and you’re picking up new things,” St-Pierre confirms. “This new record was just what was serving me at the time aesthetically. I was homesick a lot, thinking a lot about Massey, which was a town that my grandma grew up in; I spent a lot of time there as a child. And [my hometown] Sudbury as well. Those are just the things that organically came out. I think it made things a little bit more melancholy but in a really nice sort of way that we could still keep it very much Casper Skulls.”

“Tommy” was the song that kickstarted things, and it opens the album with resonant piano notes. St-Pierre and Bednis had noticed that a friendly man in their neighborhood was leaving items behind in the bus shelter for others to take. “They were things that were really useful, like bike helmets or jams, CDs, things to make people happy, and they would be gone by the end of the day,” St-Pierre recalls. She began to wonder about his interior life, about the unknowable realities of everyone we encounter. “I’ll never understand that part of me that is tied to you,” she sings as the band builds up a lush sonic palette.

“The second verse on ‘Tommy’ is my favorite thing on the whole album,” Bangarth says. “Just all of those layers and pieces together… I just really love it. It’s dense but everything has its place and I’m just really proud of how that turned out.”

Like her mysterious neighbor leaving useful items behind for others, St-Pierre leaves breadcrumbs across Knows No Kindness for listeners to follow. “Honestly it really did create these helping hands to like hold up my childhood and examine these things, and it started with ‘Tommy,'” she says. On “Thesis,” she pays tribute to an English teacher who encouraged her scattered prose – and kept St-Pierre writing. But it also acts as a blueprint for the rest of the record. “The first few lines of it literally talk about ‘Witness,’ the next few lines talk about ‘Knows No Kindness,’ the next few lines talk about ‘Stay the Same’ – it’s all in there,” St-Pierre points out. “The last lines are about me being who I am. I love winter; I think that it has something really beautiful in it and for me. It reminds me of my femininity, it’s what makes me feel good and creative.”

While St-Pierre cites “Ouija” as the best song she’s ever written, Bangarth points to “Rose of Jericho” as a personal favorite. It’s named for a type of tumbleweed that goes dormant and appears dead, but dramatically revives when in contact with water. “The way that song grows, it starts off completely different but it feels natural. I think that song is a good representation of where we are now, and remember, this is where we were.”

The personal touches extend to the album’s artwork too, which St-Pierre designed (she’s also a visual artist who has directed the bulk of the band’s visual aesthetic). The 1960 photograph depicts Massey, Ontario townsfolk (including St-Pierre’s grandmother, Velma) protesting the A.E.C.L in an attempt to stop the now-defunct nuclear waste company from creating a runoff where the Spanish and Sables Rivers meet, in an area known as The Mouth Park. They were successful in running the company out of town, and St-Pierre spent her childhood swimming in the park, referenced in an album track called, appropriately, “The Mouth,” which exhibits the quiet/loud dynamics that make Knows No Kindness such a revelation to listen to. “The Mouth” ranks among Mercy Works track “Colour of the Outside” as one of the band’s favorite to play live. “I love being able to do some loud things. I love to rock out. If we couldn’t do that live anymore, I’d be sad.” St-Pierre says. “I like being able to get really quiet and little and then get really loud. I think that there’s such a space for both.”

Though Casper Skulls had to take a break from touring amid the pandemic, they’d already been working out most of the songs on Knows No Kindness on stage. “It’s almost like the album was written in two phases,” explains Bangarth. “We got all the sounds written for being tour-ready first, and then just by touring them a ton, we got really comfortable on them. Then there was kind of this second process of arranging them for the album. By that point we’d already become super familiar with them, and had been tweaking them along the way anyway.” All but one of the recording sessions took place before lockdown in March of 2020; that last session got pushed back to July. Since then, they’ve been working on new stuff – and will likely go in a completely new direction once more.

“I don’t think one person has all the answers for songs – maybe some people do if they’re like, Bob Dylan. But I personally really love collaboration. I think it’s a really beautiful thing. It’s nice to bring people into the story, into the fold and just have these ideas bouncing around and these exciting moments. I live for that,” says St-Pierre. “I think our next record I just want to make some really nice striking songs and collaborations and let things kind of breathe a bit more, and just see how that works out.”

After making such a vulnerable record, St-Pierre definitely needs the emotional respite. Writing Knows No Kindness was, at times, “pretty unbearable,” she says. “We would jam and you would be able to tell I’d be kind of getting weird, crying, or something. But then eventually it started to be better. When you bring them to jam and start working on them, you start seeing these songs taking all these different shapes. It becomes this other thing and you can detach a little bit. Then when you start playing them live, you’re the one singing, it comes back again, but then when you do it over and over and over again for a tour, you’re like, okay I got this, I’m not gonna break.”

“But there are still moments,” she adds. “Say I’m playing live and it’s getting real emotional, we’re playing really well and I’m really feeling it, I’ll cry during a set. It’ll happen. And I’ll play it off a little, but you can hear the vulnerability in my voice or something, you can tell. People will come up to me after we play and be like, I don’t know what that song was about but it made me really reflect on something that happened to me. I’ve had a lot of those [comments], like this song made me think this, and thank you for that and that is a huge accomplishment. That’s why we do this.”

This is the very fiber of Knows No Kindness, and each song is constructed in service to building up those moments and memories. It’s the kind of album you can only write once, though; while there are glimmers of Casper Skulls’ noisy past, no song here feels interchangeable with any on their debut.

“I really enjoyed like honing in on all these things but they’re very much for this,” St-Pierre says. “There’s a time and a place for each record, I think, and this one is just, this is its time and place. I wouldn’t have put ‘Witness’ on Mercy Works and I might not put it on the next record. It exists in this universe that Knows No Kindness exists in.”

Follow Casper Skulls on Instagram for ongoing updates.

New Chance Blurs Lines Between Digital and Physical Realms with “Two Pictures” Premiere

Photo Credit: Yuula Benivolski

In this digital world, the lines of intimacy and consumption can cross over and over until they blur into a single continuum – especially in the last year or so of global isolation, when millions took to the internet as their only means of connection or meaning. Victoria Cheong of New Chance meditates on the nuanced intersection of physical versus digital, meaningfulness and the meaninglessness in her new video and song, “Two Pictures,” premiering today on Audiofemme. The single will appear on New Chance’s forthcoming record Real Time, out July 16 via We Are Time.

The Toronto-based artist explores her relationship to the outer world by removing herself from it completely. Her face painted in skull makeup, she narrates her observations as w post-Earth version of herself, recounting the way she used to move through the world and the things that stimulated her. She reflects on her connection to the digital realm and the way it shaped her everyday life. “I woke each day to pass through the gate to relate to other people,” Cheong sings over extraterrestrial synths and sparse drums, letting woozy saxophone (courtesy Karen Ng) take over the bridge. Viewing the internet as a gate to an endless web of connection is a perfect way to represent it’s duality; the positivity of connection and closeness mixed with infinite opportunities to spar hate or sadness. 

Cheong explains that “Two Pictures” was inspired in part by social media algorithms. “There’s no meaning between images that follow each other on a feed,” says Cheong. “It’s actually de-stabilizing, because we can’t make meaning between images. Like, if you see someone celebrating someone and the next image is some horrible thing in the world, it’s like, ‘How am I supposed to feel?’”

She juxtaposes this esoteric phenomenon with the concrete sensation of physical touch. “How do we integrate this image culture into the realm of the senses and the realm of how we perceive or how we project and relate?” asks Cheong. When digital and physical intertwine, what does that mean for our relationships, and what if the two become unbalanced? If all of your intimate connections are formed online, you’re missing out on the essential human need of touching and being touched. But in a world where everyone is online, having no digital footprint can feel close to being non-existent to some. 

Cheong’s out-of-body voice contemplates this binary when she sings: “Two pictures/I got stuck in between/I couldn’t tell what either should mean/I knew I had a body/And I knew what it could do/And I could tell it just how to move.” In the wake of algorithmic-fueled confusion, Cheong turns to the simplicity of touch and physical intimacy to ground herself. The observations of her “future self” serve as a sage reminder to find stillness and peace in the things that can’t be found online – the warmth of the sun, a hand to hold, a deep breath.

Follow New Chance on Facebook for ongoing updates.

Jayli Wolf Reclaims Every Part of Herself on Forthcoming EP Wild Whisper

Photo Credit: Hayden Wolf

With her two new singles “Child of the Government” and “Hush” and their accompanying videos, Canadian-born actress and musician Jayli Wolf is poised and proud of every inch of who she is. But her palpable self-possession and undeniable star-quality has been hard-earned, arising after many excruciating years spent coming to terms with some earth-shaking revelations around her identity.

Wolf spent most of her young life assuming her dark hair and tanned skin were the result of Mexican heritage, only to find out at eight years old that she was First Nations . This discovery—delivered by her estranged biological father who also had no idea he was indigenous—queued a process of personal exploration and reclamation that was later expedited by Wolf’s growing disillusionment with the Jehovah’s Witness community, the religion she was raised in and eventually left completely about a decade ago.

Understandably, the force of relinquishing her entire belief system and learning her true heritage blew Wolf’s world apart. For several years, she fell deep into depression and addiction before beginning to make music again—something that she’d loved since she was a kid, but wasn’t allowed to pursue professionally due to her religion. She charts this progression on revelatory solo debut Wild Whisper, out June 18.

Recently, Wolf spoke with Audiofemme about coming to terms with life after growing up in a “cult,” her indigenous identity, and bisexuality, which her latest singles so bravely and tenderly document.

AF: “Child Of The Government,” comments on the generational impacts of the Sixties Scoop—when, from the 1950’s into the 1990’s, the Canadian Government and the Catholic Church “scooped” more than 20,000 First Nation, Métis and Inuit children from their families and communities. I know you recently learned that this happened to your father. Was he able to get back in touch with his indigenous roots? 

JW: Yeah, he did. He thought he was Mexican because the Canadian government and the Catholic church changed his adoption papers and basically said that he was not eligible for Indian status, that he was not Indian, and that’s part of the erasure, like what they’ve done with our culture. And that was part of what they wanted with the Sixties Scoop. He thought he was Mexican and if he never found his family he never would have known.

So, he went up North. I belong to the Saulteau First Nations community near Chetwynd, British Columbia, and he was able to get the adoption papers and find his biological mother’s name and then he went and found his biological family. He went and he actually lived up on the reservation for quite a few years after he found my biological family. He got to spend a lot of time with them, and I just made it up there two years ago to meet my family. 

AF: Wow. So at the end of the video for “Child of the Government,” when you are standing with two elders—is that your father and your grandmother?

JW: That is actually my biological father but we got an actor for my grandma because of COVID—I didn’t want to fly her in. 

AF: Fair enough. So when was that, that your father got reunited with his family?

JW: I don’t actually know – years ago. I haven’t been close with my biological father so it’s only been the last couple years that I’m trying to rebuild that relationship. We’re not going to be a typical father-daughter but at least we can be acquaintances, so I’m getting to know him again. 

AF: Did he raise you? Tell me a little about your upbringing. 

JW: I was raised by my mom’s family. I grew up as a Jehovah’s Witness in a little town called Creston, BC, and my grandma pretty much raised me. My grandmother was a devout Jehovah’s Witness and my mom had me when she was like 15, so we lived in a trailer – my grandma, her five kids, and me. My grandpa too, but my grandpa, he was like the opposite of my grandma—a severe alcoholic, you know, drug addict. So it was a really weird upbringing. A lot of polarity. And I had no idea I was indigenous. I actually thought that my dad was Mexican. I had heard that he was Mexican. It wasn’t until he let us know that he had found his biological family that I found out I was First Nations.

AF: That must have been an astounding revelation. 

JW: It was weird because when I was little I was outside all the time. I tan really easily, I get pretty dark in the summer, and [I had] long dark hair. Then all my mom’s family is like Danish—so blond, blue eyes. I always stood out in my little family. And then [seeing] my dad, it was like, oh, this is where my brown eyes come from, this is where my dark hair comes from. 

AF: That must have been a huge identity shift for you to know you’re indigenous. What did that process look like for you? How does that make you feel, learning that information? 

JW: Really, really good. Initially when I found out I was still a Jehovah’s Witness so it didn’t really mean a lot to me because the culture would have been something I never would have wanted to be a part of, especially spiritually, the Cree stories, the Star people. As a Jehovah’s Witness, that would have been very demonistic so I never would have honored my culture. And my growing up in a very white—like my mom’s side is Danish— so growing up in that, I had no knowledge of indigenous culture. It was life-changing to find out I was indigenous, but it really took reclaiming it and going back up North and meeting my family and reading and trying to connect with other people in my community… to be proud that I’m indigenous [and start] to understand it. And once I understood what my dad had been through and the history of everything in this country, the history of indigenous people, I was so much more connected to it. 

AF: Totally! So, you went back two years ago to meet your family? 

JW: Yeah. Two years ago I went up North and met everyone. Well, I already knew my dad but I went and met my grandma for the first time, my great grandma, all my cousins, my aunt. It was really cool because when I got to go back there, I started to learn about things that I never knew. Like, my cousin took me out in the forest and taught me how to forage for different plants and make different teas and my great grandma taught me how to make—she was making dry meat because she had her big dry meat rack, and she’s teaching me how to make pemmican. So, I got to learn a lot. She was teaching me words in Cree, she brought out her children’s book to teach me words in Cree. And hearing her stories about what happened to her when she was little and how they came to try to take her residential school… I got to learn so much just by meeting my family and I feel very grateful because I know a lot of people will never be able to make their way back home and have that connection. 

AF: And you put all of that into “Child of the Government?” When did you write that song? 

JW: I just wrote that song like 8 months ago, 9 months ago. 

AF: Was that your first time really writing about your indigenous connections?

JW: I would say so, yeah, because I was thinking about my dad and it just sort of came out and I was like, I think this is worth putting into the world. I think this needs to be said. 

AF: Did you know about the Sixties Scoop before learning about it in relation to your family? 

JW: I had heard things from others in the community when I started to do the reclamation work. But [when] I really talked to my dad, sat down at the table with him, seeing his adoption papers, that really hit me, because I was like, wow, the government literally lied. They literally just took your indigenousness away. They said no. They put a big x, you know?

AF: What did your reclamation work look like? Is that how the community refers to reclaiming your tribal status? 

JW: I mean, not for everybody. I think everybody has their own journey of reclamation. I would say for me it was a part of it but a lot of people don’t want to – a lot of people can’t get their status, first of all, because even if they wanted reclamation they have to be able to trace their roots back in such a way that the government can verify everything. Everyone has a different process of reclamation and for me, I did get my status, I did want to become a part of the community so I can vote and learn about everything that’s going on on the land that my family comes from.

AF: Backing up just a bit, tell me about your upbringing as a JW. Was there music in your life? 

JW: We could listen to music as long as there’s no swearing or debauchery or anything that’s R-rated, but yeah, Jehovah’s Witnesses do listen to music. It’s just… I could never pursue music. I could never be someone who could go on the road and actually be a musician because that would take me away from God, so I never thought I would be a musician. 

AF: Tell me more about that. Why is that considered being taken away from God? Because in some cultures, I know music is used in worshipping God.

JW: To be a Jehovah’s Witness, there’s so much time committed. We had our three meetings a week. I don’t want to go into all [the rules], because we’ll be here all day – the rules of being a Jehovah’s Witness are so time-consuming. You have to be stationed so that you can go to all your meetings and be a part of your little community group and make sure that everyone is watching out, like, if you’re doing good, if you’re behaving, if you’re following the rules. If I’m on the road [as a musician], that’s like freedom, right? I’m not going to my meetings, I’m not recruiting other people and going door to door and doing the responsibilities and that’s a huge part of serving Jehovah, serving God.

AF: Did you want to do music professionally from a young age? 

JW: I thought about it a couple of times but never thought I could actually do it because I was like, I don’t want to displease God. 

AF: Were you exposed to R&B and soul and the stuff you kind of draw on now in your music when you were in the religion? 

JW: My grandma listened to Elvis and she listened to old-time music. I wasn’t exposed to a whole lot of music. It was basically just my grandma would listen to the radio.

AF: So, what did leaving look like, and when did you leave? 

JW: So, I’ve been [out] for a while, more than a few years. First, I’ll answer what it felt like. It’s like dying. It’s like you literally have to die and be reborn. You know you’re going to lose everyone you’ve ever known, your community. Everything you’ve ever lived for and dedicated yourself to, you’re going to lose. And then your belief system comes crumbling down. Like, I talked to God every day and I followed all these rules for so long. And then to be like—I’m free. It’s bittersweet. You’re scared because you have to let go of the hope too, of paradise. So, now I know I’m going to die, but also I’m free. It’s something that’s very hard to put into words. 

AF: What motivated you to leave? 

JW: I figured out it was a cult. As soon as I understood that it wasn’t real, it took months to really deprogram myself and be like, well, this is not based on the Bible. It took a long time and realizing it was a cult was like, well, I can’t live my life like this anymore. I need to do what I want to do and be true to myself. 

AF: What exactly accounted for such a sharp change in perspective? Were you doing a lot of reading on the internet? 

JW: I was just getting into trouble. I wasn’t following all those rules and I stopped going to meetings. I was getting ‘spiritually weak’ and falling away a bit and started to ask questions. I was lucky that there were people around me that came into my life that answered those questions for me. They had already left [the religion], so they helped me to start to deprogram. 

AF: Was Hayden Wolf – your partner and musical collaborator in your other band, Once A Tree – one of those people? 

JW: No, actually I helped him get out. We just met when I was leaving and then within a month he was out. 

AF: That must help to have somebody close to you that can relate to being an ex-Jehovah’s Witness. 

JW: It’s so nice. It’s a whole conversation you don’t have to have. 

AF: Well, I also watched “Hush” and was really touched by the story behind it—how it’s a commentary on what you went through falling for a woman and realizing you were bisexual while you were still a Jehovah’s Witness. Where does that experience and realization fall into the process of leaving the religion? 

JW: I actually had a relationship when I was still in the religion. We hid it, me and this girl. But we both would pray for forgiveness all the time, and pray that the feelings would go away. I’m really happy to say she’s also out of the religion now and we’ve reconnected. I’m very, very happy about that. And before I met Hayden, I was already out, and I started to open up my life and date whoever the fuck I wanted. And yeah, that was so awesome, and so, so freeing. And Hayden is amazing, we have a kind of open relationship, and it’s beautiful. 

AF: Wow. So, is your sexuality received well in your indigenous community? 

JW: Yeah. [They’re] so accepting. 

AF: And as a Jehovah’s Witness that wouldn’t have been the case? 

JW: No. That’s like the ultimate sin, to be gay. [It’s considered] immoral. 

AF: So tell me about making “Hush.” Why did you feel like you needed to tell that story? 

JW: You know what’s interesting? I didn’t actually feel like I was going to ever talk about my bisexuality and then I was just drinking wine and sitting around and I started to talk to the girl [I loved] and we started to reconnect and I was like, man, I do want to talk about this. So, that night I finished talking to her, and I wrote that song. It just came out. I just kind of decided, I’m never going to feel shame over any part of myself and I’m not just doing it for me, I’m doing it for the other people who are still in the religion or thinking about leaving the religion. I wanted to really look at every part of who I am and be proud.

AF: That’s awesome. So, I know you’re calling from the set of a new show that’s coming out soon on Disney. Do you do a lot of acting, too? 

JW: Yeah, yeah. The show I’m doing now is definitely the biggest thing I’ve ever done. I’ve been acting for four or five years now and kind of booking little things here and there like CBC shows and then this movie [I’m in is] coming out in July. It’s called The Exchange and it’s got Justin Hartley and it’s got the Borat director and The Simpsons writer, yeah, so that’s coming out July 29th. And then the show that I’m doing, I’m going to be filming until August. 

AF: Do you see your music and acting going together or are they two separate pursuits?

JW: I think they’re very different pursuits and I curve with it. Like right now I’m in acting mode, and when I get a couple weeks off I go back into music mode and then I’ll take an audition.

AF: I know you said that music has been a really important healing tool for you. Can you talk about that? 

JW: Art in general is so necessary for anyone who’s doing healing work. I think you need to express it, you need to get it out in some way, whether you share that with anyone or not. Dance it out, sing it out, paint it out. I don’t know where I would be without art as an expression. For me it’s very cathartic when I make music, but also it shows me who I am – it reflects back to me where I need to do more healing or how I’m feeling about something. 

AF: That’s powerful. It’s a mirror in a way. Tell me about writing songs for you. Is the process the same every time? Is it organic? 

JW: I like to freestyle. The only way I can write is to freestyle. So I’ll either have a guitar chord progression and I’ll freestyle lyrics, or there’ll be a beat and I’ll freestyle over it. And usually if a song doesn’t come out in a couple times, I move on. 

AF: Is guitar your main instrument? When did you learn? 

JW: I’ve been practicing for a long time. My aunt lent me a guitar before I left the religion, when I was like 15. I’m not a pro by any means. I really actually need to get back to it. This summer I’m planning to start working on instruments again. 

AF: Let’s talk a bit about this new EP. What binds it all together?

JW: It’s called Wild Whisper. It’s my personal story; [I] talk about being indigenous, I go in a little bit about the religion, my bisexuality. This word keeps coming up, but it’s just about reclamation of everything; of my indigenous culture, myself. It’s releasing shame. It’s me stepping into my power.

Follow Jayli Wolf on Instagram and Facebook for ongoing updates.

Charlie Houston Grapples With the Anxieties of Growing Up on Debut EP I Hate Spring

Photo Credit: Gaëlle Leroyer

On her debut EP, I Hate Spring (out April 30th on Arts & Crafts), Toronto-based artist Charlie Houston collects candid thoughts about the vulnerability of growing up and all the in-betweens that come with entering adulthood. The music, although largely undefined by any specific genre, is as tender as the time she’s navigating; each of the songs on the album touches on the experience of learning how to be authentically yourself beyond the confines of childhood expectations.

Houston uses familiar pop formulas that make for easy, fun listening while also sounding fresh and unexpected. She worked closely with producer Chris Yonge to find the right sound for the music, and although Yonge is more heavily influenced by artists like Mac Miller and Juice WRLD, they were able to create a sonic world that is Charlie’s all her own. “I think it’s a hybrid of indie, electronic, R&B, and a whisper of bedroom pop as well. When I’m writing songs I’m thinking more about if it sounds good than if it’s in a specific genre,” Houston says. The production on the album, which utilizes quirky sounds like telephones ringing and curling guitar riffs, leaves room for an unfiltered joy that belies the difficult topics addressed in the lyrics.

While I Hate Spring centers on her personal growth during her first prolonged period away from home – the five months she spent studying at NYU’s Clive Davis Institute – there’s an element to it that speaks universally about difficult transitions, particularly for young people. At NYU, Houston struggled with her mental health while at the same time exploring her sexuality and self-expression; leaving her small town in Canada and venturing into New York, a far more diverse and expressive atmosphere, Houston was given room to break down societal expectations. “I wasn’t around anyone who I grew up with so I wasn’t tied to any person that I was before moving there. In New York I could be whoever I wanted to be even though I was having a hard time 90% of the time,” she says. “I was existing in New York and trying to deal with myself. My sexuality was a huge thing that was coming to play in New York; I had my first experience talking to a girl there. I was very focused on that and exploring that at the time.”

Unfortunately, two weeks into her program, a negative experience with a pot brownie “unleashed this batch of anxiety that I never knew was possible,” Houston says. “People in the past had talked about their anxiety with me, but I never really understood what they were experiencing.  I took this edible and it completely ruined my brain – I haven’t been the same since.”

Houston wrote I Hate Spring once leaving NYU and returning home, beginning with “Honey” in the spring and summer of 2019. It utilizes smooth riffs and down tempo percussion to portray the feelings of rejection and yearning. Houston croons, “Fucked up babe when you left/I’ve been calling you’ve been stalling/Because you know/I’m a mess,” exposing the subtle nature of desiring a love interest’s attention while acknowledging you’re not in a healthy place. The rest of the songs deal directly with her experiences, good and bad, at NYU.

“I’ve realized that I can’t write a song about an experience that I’m presently going through. It’s always a retroactive experience I’ve had in the past that I’m then writing about,” she explains. “19,” the focus track from the album, epitomizes all of the delicate experiences of being young and unsure. Opening the song with slow and smooth guitars, Houston describes the experience of feeling alone for the first time up until reaching the chorus: “I’m sure you’ll be just fine is what my parents say/They don’t know what it’s like/19 in modern day.”

The loose sound of the song reflects the recklessness escape she seeks via desire and drink, slurring the lines, “So let’s just go back to the party/Kiss each other like we’ve never kissed someone before/I’m just tryna clear my mind/I’m fucked up/Just enough to clear my mind.” Houston says the track is about not knowing how to deal with all the newness of being in a different environment, surrounded by a diverse array of people while navigating strange and unfamiliar spaces. Her social anxiety is visualized best through the line, “I’m freaking out/Can you tell/My hands are shaking in my pockets so I hide them well.”

Houston references Uber Eats and seeing people’s vacations on Instagram, which places her in a GenZ context, so while there’s certainly a discomfort with online relationships as is portrayed in “Calls,” Houston embraces her audience’s experience with ease. Meanwhile, the artist doesn’t use pronouns for any of the people she’s singing about, giving the songs a more universal relatability. “My main goal for music is to have it be as universal as possible and as inclusive as possible,” she explains, although she does admit that when she wrote the songs, she felt hesitant to explicitly acknowledge her forays into the queer experience.

“I wasn’t ready to sing about my relationships and let people know they were about women,” Houston says. “The songs I’m writing now use pronouns but that’s because I’m at a different place now than I was in then. I wanted those songs to be accurately representative of that time in my life.” As a result, the EP subtly touches on being closeted and not knowing how to navigate the coming out process. “Everyone in the LGBTQ community I think can understand that feeling of gay panic, where you don’t want someone to know you’re gay and you don’t know what to say,” she says. Being in this grey area of outness can be complicated, and making art about it pairs well with the idea of partial adulthood she discusses throughout the album. 

Houston has just turned 20, she’s working through trauma and mental health and first loves, and she’s doing so in a world that’s just beginning to make space for voices like hers without questioning their authenticity. It’s not that she outright rejects genre, androgyny, or the use of pronouns in songs; rather, Houston allows the intersectional aspects of her identity to influence her music, embracing an organic and honest process that is authentic to her. Like so many other people of her generation, she displays herself genuinely, and it’s our responsibility as consumers to take her at her word. Charlie Houston asks us to “delete TikTok,” implores us to “do whatever the fuck you want with your life,” and she says she “wants to make music where everyone from a fetus to a 90 year old lady can enjoy it together.”

Follow Charlie Houston on Instagram for ongoing updates.

Babygirl Speaks to the Angsty Teen in All of Us on Debut EP Losers Weepers

Photo Credit: Kate Dockeray

In a time when Taylor Swift is in the midst of re-releasing her entire catalogue, nostalgia is reigning supreme. Millennials long for the days of screaming “Love Story” with the windows down on the way to soccer practice or crying into their diary to “You Belong With Me.” Let’s face it, high school sucks, but it’s looking a lot better than most of our current situations. Toronto-based duo Babygirl harnesses that same raw Y2K teen pop magic on their debut EP, Losers Weepers. 

Kiki Frances and Cameron Breithaupt bring combined influences of Hillary Duff, blink-182, Kelly Clarkson and Alvvays to create self-aware underdog pop for the angsty adolescent in all of us; although their melodies are soaked in nostalgia, their lyrics contain a contemporary exhaustion that feels all too familiar. “Nevermind” encapsulates the residual saltiness that comes with the aftermath of a one-sided relationship. Frances sings, “Thought we were both in the deep-end/But you’re only in town for the weekend,” capturing the non-committal aura surrounding most people in their 20’s. The sun-drenched chorus feels like the sonic child of Sheryl Crow and Avril Lavigne, reminding the listener not to take anyone or anything too serious. “We made an effort to offset some of the bummer lyrics by making the productions playful and sweet, almost hopeful. We always want to make it feel bittersweet,” says the pair.

While most of the songs hover around the context of love lost or found, “Million Dollar Bed” also incorporates a reflection on the futility of chasing money or fame in search of happiness. The lyrics paint a picture of a heartbroken soul replacing love with possessions: “Chasing a daydream to forget we ever happened/Pretty distractions/I’ll be happy when I have them.” This is a deeply relatable sentiment for someone (me) who has turned to online shopping as a coping mechanism during the pandemic, hoping the next box will be the one to restore peace and balance in life. 

There is not a line on this record that isn’t perfectly crafted to stick to your brain like that awkward thing you said in 2007. It makes sense, then, that Frances and Breithaupt met in music school and bonded over their obsession with making top 40 music. “We had similar tastes when it came to pop music and that made us want to try working together,” says Frances. “We were just like, how do we write a hit song? You seem to care as much as me. Let’s figure it out,” adds Breithaupt. The band explains that they have to agree on every part of a song for it to make it out of demo-mode, which makes for a long and sometimes arduous writing process. But despite their calculated approach to writing, Babygirl’s songs don’t come off as try-hard or cringe, but more like a conversation you’d have with your best friend, or yourself.

In “Today Just Isn’t My Day,” Babygirl presents a familiar internal monologue — “I’m all out of steam/I’m all out of weed/Today just isn’t my day.” The song allows the listener to stew in self pity while reminding them not to stay there forever. Simple guitars, percussion bells and wells of strings keep the song from feeling too dark, like laying in bed all day in a sunny room. If the band’s organic arrangements set them apart from most modern popstar hopefuls, their intuitive melodies are what bring them back to center. 

One of the earliest physical copies of an album I remember having was a cassette of Backstreet Boys’ Millennium. That was definitely melodically really important for me,” says Breithaupt. The band recreates the accessible lyrics and melodies of late ’90s, early 2000s pop while leaving most of the melodrama behind. There’s something about hyper-cute lyrics sung in a nonchalant falsetto that just works, and Babygirl seems to get that. Although, their “dream band” would not be as low key:  “Let’s just take Coldplay, make Lindsay Lohan the lead singer, have Ne-Yo write the songs, have Kanye executive produce them, and call it a day,” says Babygirl.

Follow Babygirl on Instagram and Facebook for ongoing updates.

Carlyn Bezic of Ice Cream Launches Solo Project As Jane Inc.

Photo Credit: Andrew McGill

Carlyn Bezic had a demo on her computer labeled Gem simply because she wrote the chord changes on a GEM keyboard. It had a disco vibe and Bezic, best known as one half of Canadian duo Ice Cream, is a fan of the genre anyhow, so she had a “vague idea” of what the song could be. Meanwhile, there was a lyric stuck in her head – “It’s coming on, baby, like sunlight through a gem.”

It all clicked. Bezic liked the image of light refracting through a gem. It reminded her of the how the self might translate through a camera. It was the camera, specifically, that she was thinking of when she sang “my friend, the lens” over a languid disco groove in “Gem,” the lead track off Number One, Bezic’s debut solo album, released March 19 via Telephone Explosion under the name Jane Inc. The camera, she says, can be “exciting and empowering.”

“Or,” she adds over a recent phone call from her home in Toronto, “it can be really scary and limiting and confusing and create this removal from what is real.” 

With “Gem,” she considered both sensations happening at the same time. Similarly, the thought of contradiction is in the music, where Bezic channels the vibe of “late night” disco, “when you’re at the after-hours and it’s not necessarily a good late night feeling,” she explains. But, at the same time, she says, “you also feel a sort of freedom.” 

Bezic uses tracks on Number One, like “Gem” and “Obliterated,” to dig into themes surrounding online life; she admits to be online a lot, although she isn’t necessarily posting. “I’m experimenting with trying to be on the internet more, which I think is not a good idea – but, anyway, I’m trying it,” Bezic says, describing her online habits as passive. “I’m just consuming, consuming, consuming. Consuming information. Consuming images.”

She continues, “I found that I can be completely overwhelmed by it and also feel like I’m losing some sort of sense of self just by this overload of information and overload of connection.” That leads to part of the freedom found in “Gem.” The song focuses on the person with the audience, as opposed to the audience, Bezic explains. 

Elsewhere on the album, Bezic considers the environment and climate change. “Dirt and Earth” is a reflection on a complicated mix of emotions, including anger and a desire to place the blame for climate change on a single person. “In reality, there’s many people and many events that have led us to this,” Bezic points out. At the same time, she’s wrestling with the notion of being complicit in the degradation of the planet, simply by living life. “I am creating garbage. I’m driving cars,” she says. “You’re a musician, you fly in planes.”

Meanwhile, “Bloom Becomes Me” is also about the environment, but the song’s muse is pottery that Bezic spotted in Mexico. She describes the pots as taking on the figure of a creature that was half-animal, half-human, and they were filled with flowers. “You have flowers and animals and humans all melding together,” she says. “There was something really moving about it to me, this attempt at having everything live inside you at once as it’s all dying.” 

Number One had been in the making for quite some time. Bezic tends to write on Ableton and had produced and mixed a set of songs on her own based around some samples, but didn’t feel they could work for Ice Cream. Despite that, she wanted to continue developing them; in the process, she built an album that was fairly complete. It was also one that she thought might be difficult for a label to handle on account of all the samples that would have needed to be cleared. “For practical reasons, I wanted to bring in a drummer to re-record the percussion,” she says. “Also, just for artistic reasons, it seems more exciting to have a bit more energy and reactivity in the drums.” 

About a year-and-a-half ago, Bezic went into the studio with Evan Cartwright (U.S. Girls), who played drums on the album. “Everything felt like entirely new songs,” she says. That led to mixing with Steve Chahley (Badge Epoque, U.S. Girls) and some additional work to add cohesiveness to the project. The mixing sessions were completed last year, shortly after the COVID-19 pandemic hit.

“I had started playing in the U.S. Girls live band,” says Bezic, “so I was preparing for what I thought would be a couple years of pretty extensive touring and the album was coming along, but it didn’t feel pressing for that reason.” With the onset of the pandemic, she saw an opportunity to finish mixing; not only had live gigs been put on hold, but social distancing guidelines meant that Bezic wouldn’t be able to write or practice in person with Ice Cream bandmate Amanda Crist. 

As Jane Inc., Bezic has been able to explore multiple themes while making music that draws from an eclectic mix of styles, from vibey disco, to the bouncy ’80s-style synth-pop on “Steel,” to the electronic ambience of “Mine/His.” Number One is s a stellar debut and Bezic is excited about the release – though she’s already thinking about what she’ll be making next. “I’m always writing songs,” she says.

Follow Jane Inc. on Instagram for ongoing updates.

Toronto’s Bernice Mix Mindfulness and Imagination on New LP Eau De Bonjourno

Photo Credit: Colin Medley

On a small island just outside of Toronto in the summer of 2019, Robin Dann and her band, Bernice, unknowingly made a record that would be extremely relevant to the unforeseeable year ahead. On Eau De Bonjourno, Bernice covers themes of isolation, disconnecting self-worth from productivity and escaping into the imagination. Dann and her bandmates Thom Gill, Dan Fortin, Phil Melanson and Felicity Williams combine their deep knowledge of jazz and shared curiosity for experimentation to create an album that truly transports the listener. 

Dann says that this is the first time the band attempted songwriting as a group, a new challenge that proved to be worth the clunky learning curve. “Collaborative songwriting… I think it’s never easy until you land on a flow,” explains Dann, the band’s lead vocalist and (previously) primary songwriter. “Thankfully, Thom and I have been playing together for so long, we have almost like a psychic connection that works really well… I think the songs on this record are some of our best that we’ve ever written.” The band wrote all of the songs for Eau De Bonjourno in an old school container on Toronto Island. The way that Dann explains the residency – creating and relaxing with friends on a sunny island – sounds like a literal fairytale compared to the way most of us have been living our lives for the past year, more or less in complete isolation. 

Shortly after Bernice finished recording the album in late 2019, everything changed, including the meaning of some of their new songs. Take, for instance, “Bubble,” a song that Dann initially wrote about being uncomfortable in crowds; in 2020, crowds meant contracting more than just social anxiety. The song’s lyrics – “You’re not allowed in my personal bubble/Please step away from my personal bubble” – sound like they could be 2020’s catchphrase. “When we wrote that song… it was a lot more related to having mixed feelings about being social and being in crowded spaces and having a lot of friends that have anxiety around that,” says Dann. “Now, that’s not what it’s gonna be about. It’s gonna be about this year’s experience for anyone who listens to it now. I love that – I love how a song can just change identities when it needs to.”

Most of Dann’s lyric writing contains an innate universality, allowing the song to mold its meaning to the psyche of whoever’s listening. This elasticity is mimicked in the band’s instrumentation — a lush orchestra of experimental synths following syncopated rhythms. And while Dann’s crystal voice and intuitive melodies contain traces of R&B and pop, the band’s heavy jazz influence is evident in the improvisational nature of the music. This “play it as it comes” disposition is something Dann comes back to again and again in the record. Mindfulness and self-acceptance play a central role in this record – and in her everyday life. 

On “It’s Me, Robin,” Dann presents the idea that just being is enough. And in a time when so many of our lives have been put on pause, this idea is more than welcome. The song starts out with an unapologetic introduction: “It’s me Robin/You don’t really know me/I thought if I just expressed this/You might just let me be me and accept that/I’m here, still here/I am really here.” In this song, Dann is simply and elegantly stating that a person is not a list of their accomplishments, social connections or financial assets, that being yourself and being at peace with who that person is is as good a vocation as any. “I don’t agree with [the idea of] some lives having more or less value than other lives,” explains Dann. “It’s like, am I gonna accept myself just for who I am no matter what I do? Or am I gonna continuously try to better myself and do more for my community? And can you live with both somehow? I feel like I’m confronting that a lot.”

These existential questions are ones that seem to have been screamed into the ether for millions of years, and although Dann is still searching for the answers herself, she gives such succinct advice on that it feels she’s on the right track: “Give yourself the same love you receive, believe in your inner value,” she concludes.

Dann’s constant reminders to find worth from within and immerse yourself in the moment are therapeutic in nature, but even more so when sung in her translucent, soothing falsetto. Especially on “Lone Swan,” which was inspired by a swan who would follow her around Toronto Island. Dann explains that swans are creatures of wonder to her – that one day, when swans are extinct, humans will look back in disbelief that we shared the planet with them. “Swans are interesting to me because they have this horrible reputation, but you see them and you’re like, ‘You are not of this world,’” says Dann. “Like, how do people see swans and just accept that they’re real? I see a swan and I’m like, that’s an alien, like that is coming from another planet, it’s not a bird.” 

Simple, but awe-inspiring moments like this throughout Eau De Bonjourno remind the listener not to take our surroundings for granted, but not to take them too seriously either. This balance of playfulness, self-awareness and intention is what makes Bernice’s music so pleasant to listen to, and even heal to. Maybe, one day, we’ll be able to look back on pandemic times the way Dann predicts our predecessors will look at swans – in shock and awe that they ever existed. Until then, I suggest taking a page from Dann’s book on living: “If I did nothing but love myself and love one other person, that’s fine.”

Follow Bernice on Facebook and Instagram for ongoing updates.

PREMIERE: Wrené Emerges From the Ashes with “Phoenix”

During a time when many are longing for renewal, the symbol of the phoenix is a beacon of hope, creating something beautiful from what seems to be destroyed. Toronto-based experimental artist Renée Mortin-Toth, known professionally as Wrené, employs this image in her latest single “Phoenix,” describing the experience of regeneration: “I’m a little songbird/if I shed the last tear, I’ve won!/My heart unlocks the cage/and I rise from the ashes.”

Wrené wrote “Phoenix” about the process of leaving an abusive relationship and “finding ways to empower yourself in these times of manipulation where you feel a lot of pressure is on you,” she says. “What I hope people can take away from it is that message of empowerment – so it can be for young women, it can be for people who are stigmatized, people who feel their feelings and worth are diminished by other people.”

The song combines an upbeat ’80s synthwave pop sound with darker melodies and lyrics, beginning with erratic synths, loud drums, and theatrically sung lyrics: “Sometimes it feels like I have no choice/and so I’m stripped of my voice/I can’t let my woes carry me through the wind.” She goes on to sing about finding independence and carving out a new life for herself.

Co-producing with her friend Joash Mendoza, she broke from her usual routine of using Logic and utilized the program Ableton, incorporating EDM elements. Many of the drum sounds are samples of organic drums that they sequenced themselves, but other than the vocals, everything is electronic.

Mortin-Toth has been singing her whole life, though she previously worked as an actor. After finding the roles available to women her age limiting, she threw herself into music and released her first album, Unharmed, last year. “Phoenix” is off her second album, Live Wire, which comes out in February.

The album is “an experiment with pop sounds and different pop elements,” she says. “But they all hold a common theme of storytelling, and a lot of them are quite darker in their tone, even if they sound more upbeat.”

The title is inspired by lyrics from “Psycho Killer” by the Talking Heads, which Wrené adapts for her album’s title track with the passionately sung line: “Don’t you fucking touch me/I’m a real live wire.” Heavy guitars create almost a metal aesthetic as she stands up to mistreatment from a lover. The song is a response to “the misogynistic pressure to be the perfect partner,” she explains.

The album as a whole, she adds, “was a project to explore the many colors of a malfunctioning mind. I’ve always been someone who’s felt like an outcast, who’s felt like I didn’t really have places to belong, and I’m kind of vouching for the people who are shut down because of that.”

Embodying this spirit, much of the album defies musical conventions. Several of the songs lack a chorus, sounding more like one long, drawn-out verse. And rather than record the vocals line by line, she went through each song in its entirety, making the vocals intentionally imperfect and rough around the edges in places.

The minimalistic “Unravel” mixes an R&B-like beat with theatrical, despondent singing — “it’s never good enough/everything is all out of place” — that focuses on the emotional impact of being shamed and gaslighted by a partner.

“Marionette,” a cinematic song influenced by ’90s rock, critiques society’s rise-and-grind mentality with powerful guitar riffs, atmospheric percussion, and lyrics like “I’m stuck in an endless search/my feet can’t seem to grow tired.”

The last song, “Secret Garden,” has an airy pop sound, using the metaphor of planting a seed to represent recovery from addiction and self-harm. “This album has a journey within each song, but as a collective, it starts off with being angrier and more defiant, and it comes around to being forgiving for yourself,” she says.

Even as she gears up to release Live Wire, Wrené is already at work on her next project, a self-produced concept album focused on string and synth sounds and aimed at creating a surreal landscape. “This one is kind of an experiment in melding the sort of classical organic sounds with very odd dark synth or electronic elements,” she says. “I like to delve into the area where lightness and darkness coalesce.”

Disparate as her music may seem, it all revolves around the central concept of self-empowerment. “I really want to get across the notion of finding empowerment within yourself,” she says. “Especially in dark times where you feel trapped, you feel weakened or invalidated, or you feel your most vulnerable, it’s really important for people listening to understand that, whatever hardship or difficulty you’re facing in your life, you have to be the one to overcome it; you have the power within yourself to do that.”

Follow Wrené on Instagram for ongoing updates.

Teenanger Have “Good Time” with Social Critique on Latest LP

Photo Credit: Jake Sherman

Sometimes, music prompts us to reflect on the hard truths about ourselves and the times we’re living in. Other times, it makes us want to bob our heads and shake off our worries. And, occasionally, it does both. Good Time, the latest release from Toronto-based post-punk band Teenanger is one of those rare albums that’s equal parts fun and thought-provoking. On it, bassist and vocalist Melissa Ball, singer and keyboardist Chris Swimmings, guitarist Jon Schouten, and drummer Steve Sidoli respond to political and social unrest with catchy vocal harmonies against groovy electronic guitar, creating music that is intellectual but unpretentious.

The topics addressed on the album range from dating to environmental issues, several of the songs specifically addressing mid-COVID life, making timely social commentary with playful but incisive lyrics. In “Touching Glass,” Ball sings about the disconnection that stems from always communicating through technology: “Scratch the surface/There’s a reflection/Mediocre means of a connection/Bloodshot bedroom eyes tethered and tired/Filtered fiction demands what is required.”

The most overly political track is “Trillium Song,” where Swimmings critiques the Ontario government’s failure to address COVID-induced economic losses: “Capped and traded, poisoned fertile crops/A buck a beer, closing all the tops/Manning the wheel, to drive us out of home/Dwindle the future, what have you done?”

The musical styles on the album vary to match the subject matter, which ranges from flirtatious to melancholy. “We were trying to be as open as possible and not pigeonhole ourselves with the sound,” says Ball, whose personal goal was to sing more and write more on the album than she had on past ones. On the fun, dance-rock-style “Pleassure,” Ball shouts about the “pressure for pleasure” people encounter in the dating scene, while “Beige” gives off ’90s grunge vibes, with Ball repeating in an airy, flat tone, “It’s the safest shade/Everything is beige.” On “Straight to Computer,” you can hear the influence of the Talking Heads as Swimmings half-sings, half-speaks about being immersed in “acronyms and useless chatterbots.”

Overall, the band wanted to make this album lighter and simpler than their past work, though the environment where it was written and recorded was perhaps not always conducive to lightheartedness. They had recently left a studio they shared with other bands so they could devote more time to the process, and their new studio was in a basement underneath a restaurant, where they were dealing with rats and flooding. “We were just in this little workshop in the basement, having all the time in the world, and we just naturally kind of adapted to that little basement and just had a summer full of writing,” Ball remembers.

Despite the suboptimal conditions, the new studio allowed the band the space and time to flow with their creative impulses. “We have so much more freedom,” says Ball. “We were like, try this, try that, bring different weird instruments, and I think that that freedom lifts us up a little bit, and it made a more spacious, poppier record. I think that environment has a lot to do with the writing process: If you feel pressure because you’re waiting for some band to come in or you only have a set amount of time to be creative, it’s hard because being forced into a creative setting feels rushed. The space is like another part of the record — there’s a spacial influence.”

In the playful spirit of the album, the band decided to make cover art out of their feline mascot of sorts, Roxy, who was originally Swimmings’ cat, but was later adopted by Ball and Schouten. “We just wanted to pay tribute to her because she’s the sweetest little thing,” says Ball. “We did a bunch of photos at high contrast, and we were originally going to go with the same photo, then we got a treatment on it and decided it would be that still of her with her tongue sticking out. It was more of like a dedication.”

Teenanger originated in the same kind of environment it ultimately ended up in: in a basement, where Ball would jam with Schouten and his former band. Now twelve years old, the band is releasing Good Time via Telephone Explosion as its seventh album, after 2017’s Teenager. Ball describes the band as more garage-rock in the beginning, but consistently lo-fi and DIY throughout its lifespan. “Every record seems like a new sound for us,” she says. “We’re just trying to do what come naturally right now. Not a lot is coming naturally in general in the world, but that’s all I got.”

Follow Teenanger on Facebook for ongoing updates.

PLAYING TORONTO: Daniela Andrade Unravels Latinx Identity on Latest EP

Photo Credit: Jean François Sauvé

“I really just wanted to come out of what felt like a very strange Spring with something tangible. Music always helps me process emotions and this project is very much a result of needing that for my own sanity,” shares Daniela Andrade about the making of her forthcoming EP, Nothing much has changed, I don’t feel the same, the follow-up to 2019’s self-released EP, Tamale.

As the COVID-19 pandemic spread across the world, Andradein quarantine—longed for experiences she once took for granted. “I just missed being around people. Sitting next to or gazing at the park, simple interactions like that,” Andrade says. “Touch became something I missed deeply. Friendly affection [that] I think we all miss in the countless zoom calls. In retrospect, having dug into memories or fantasies seemed like a form of escape or survival, hope even.”

Just a single listen of Nothing much has changed… takes you through shifts in sound, from the loungey-languidness of its romantic title track to “Puddles” glitchy R&B vibe and the wistfully slow pace of “Deseo.”

“At times, I love keeping things stripped down, but I also like more elaborate and manipulated production like what Tyler the Creator and Frank Ocean do,” Andrade says. “I really love R&B lyricism and have also been revisiting old Spanish classics my parents grew up on. I don’t want to hold myself back from trying out different styles so long as it feels true to me.”

Being true to where her music takes her reverberates through Andrade’s work by way of its unapologetic fluidity, effortlessly moving from R&B to classic Latin rhythms, and from Spanish to English. “I always knew I loved speaking and thinking in Spanish,” she explains. “Thanks to my mother’s diligence, Spanish was my mother tongue and I was able to hold onto it. It’s hard to explain if you don’t speak more than one language but mannerisms and intonations change so much from one language to another. People talk about alter-egos — I’ve felt like me and my Spanish self were more like sisters than one entire whole of me. I was afraid to approach writing in Spanish out of fear of not doing the language I treasured justice. Once I did it though — on Tamale — it felt really good and incredibly natural. I think the idea of the mainstream is also changing. I hear more Latinx artists coming up and it’s starting to feel like the new normal to accept diverse sounds and stories. It’s really exciting to feel more represented in music.”

Born to Honduran parents who immigrated to Canada before her birth, Andrade grew up surrounded by music, recalling her father and three siblings harmonizing together. But the spiritual and secular words of music were competing forces in her childhood.  

“My influences are heavily grounded in two different experiences: growing up in a religious household and leaving the church,” Andrade says. “Growing up, I wasn’t allowed to listen to non-religious music at home, although there were few exceptions when my older siblings played me music they loved.” That music could be as diverse as Boyz II Men and Lauryn Hill, which her sisters loved, or the salsa and Sade her brother played. Or her father’s favourite, Julio Iglesias. Her middle school best friend introduced her to Guns N’ Roses, The Gorillaz, Daft Punk and Linkin Park. “I’d spend countless hours at her place, and we would listen to whatever we wanted on YouTube,” she recalls. “Having been in choirs most of my life, and near the end of my religious experience, gospel and R&B became new obsessions with groups like Destiny’s Child, and their three-part harmonies. Or Toni Braxton and her incredible tone.”

While a career in creative writing tugged at her, by the end of high school the dream of music won. She created a YouTube channel with friend and manager, Jeff Kwok, and a couple years later she was a full-time musician, leaving her waitressing job behind. She had also left the church, leading her to exploring womanhood and self-expression on levels she had never had the opportunity to do before. “I feel really passionate about the female experience under conservative, religious households,” Andrade says. “I know how it affected questions I had about so many things that I realized are normal for other girls to know [and] understand about themselves outside of a religious framework. In many ways I feel like I am just beginning to grasp how this affected my outlook on life and where I am choosing to stand now as a person and citizen.”

She is now on a journey – musically and personally – to uncover the forces that have shaped who she is, and those she loves. “As a Latinx woman growing up within the context that I did, I simply wasn’t given the tools or language to value myself and my existence within my experience as a child to immigrants,” she shares. “I’m starting to understand that the answer as to why leads to endless questions. It’s going to be a lifetime of work to continue to unravel these questions and I’m very much looking forward to continuing to dig into it.”

Follow Daniela Andrade on Facebook and Instagram for ongoing updates.

Dione Taylor Returns with Eclectic “Prairie Blues” Sound on Spirits in the Water

Photo Credit: CRILAPHOTO

When Dione Taylor appeared on the Canadian music scene in 2004, the young artist was part of an exciting class of singers and musicians making jazz relevant for a new generation. Open Your Eyes not only put the Regina, Saskatchewan singer-songwriter on the Canadian map, it took her to the White House to perform during Black Music Month in George W. Bush’s administration. A Gemini nomination followed for her take on Oscar Peterson’s “Hymn to Freedom.”

Since then, Taylor has expanded her sound beyond jazz.  The 2015 album Born Free illustrated a genre mash up she coined, “Prairie Blues” – folk, roots and Americana spun in the Canadian blender. Now she’s back with Spirits in the Water, a haunting string of tracks that touch on injustice and tragedy, as well as sacrifice, resilience and triumph in the face of brutality.

Taylor spoke to Audio Femme about stories only the water knows and finding her voice.

AF:  Can you describe the concept for the album?

DT: When I first began to write songs for Spirits in the Water, I became fascinated by the concept of water. I read stories about African American slaves who were coerced from their homes, forced to get on boats and then sent to travel by water to a “Promised Land.” There were a few mothers who instinctively knew that trouble and heartache were patiently waiting on the other side for them. Rather than living a life of servitude they took their children and threw them overboard. Some mothers even tried to throw themselves overboard. They chose death over slavery. There’s an unspoken freedom in death. Then I thought, if the ocean could speak, what stories would we hear when we listen to the water? What stories of happiness, hardship, murder, grief, love and pain are buried in the muddy waters?

AF: Did this pandemic and worldwide protests affect the way you approached the sound or production of the songs? Or even your feelings about the album and making art in general?

DT: The album was already complete before COVID hit. You’ll find that thematically the songs are just as relevant today as they were when they were written years ago. For example, my song “How Many Times” is a peaceful protest against inequality and injustices against BIPOC, women, children [and] pretty much anyone who feels isolated and ostracized right now.

AF: Do you consider Spirits in the Water a protest album?

DT: There are two songs on Spirits in the Water that are protest songs: “How Many Times” and “Ain’t Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me Around.” Although [that’s] originally a freedom song written for the civil rights movement lyrically it’s as relevant today as it was in the 1960s. I added more lyrics to reflect what’s happening today in 2020 with Black racial profiling and women’s rights.

AF: Many think of you as a jazz artist. But this album is blues, rock, country… Have those sounds always been of interest to you? Was jazz a detour or is this a detour?

DT: I’m an artist, so that allows me the freedom to explore whatever sounds and vibrations out in the universe. I happened to launch my career as a jazz artist but I’m inspired by many styles and genres of music. When I began writing for myself I knew that I needed to incorporate my love of gospel, blues and roots music because those were the styles of music that I heard growing up as a P.K. in Regina, Saskatchewan. I didn’t hear anything or anyone who sounded like me so I created my own style/genre called “Prairie Blues.” I like to say that it’s a dynamic blend of folk, roots and Americana but it’s 100% Canadian because it’s mine! I hope that my music will inspire others to write as well.

AF: Does music today feel different as opposed to when you began in 2004?

DT: For me, releasing music is about self-expression. I feel extremely lucky and blessed because I have an emotional musical outlet in which I can tap into when I need to, especially right now when life is so full of uncertainty. I feel like my fans – old and new – and I are on this crazy journey together through life. When I’m on the road, it makes me so happy when I see and hear from people who were at my first CD release party and are still excited and proud to see me doing me. From jazz to blues and everything in between, it’s all Dione Taylor.

Follow Dione Taylor on Facebook for ongoing updates.

Hannah Georgas Explores Loss and Change on All That Emotion

Photo Credit: Vanessa Heins

It’s impossible not to be enveloped by the intimate, searing voice and songwriting of Hannah Georgas. Georgas has been taking listeners on an emotional, and sometimes existential, journey since her debut EP, The Beat Stuff, in 2009. Steadily moving from small regional stages throughout Canada to stadium openings for Sara Bareilles, The National, City and Colour, Rhye, and more, the Juno and Polaris Music Prize nominee released the heart-rending For Evelyn in 2016. Inspired by her grandmother, For Evelyn took Georgas’ expressive lyricism and unflinching quality even deeper on tracks “Ride Back,” “Walls” and “Lost Cause.” In 2019 she switched it up with the release of digital EP, Imprints, featuring the sexy remake of Janet Jackson’s “That’s the Way Love Goes” with Emily King. Now, Georgas returns with All That Emotion, a  stripped, stark and luminescent album written between the spaces of loss and change.

“I realized that a lot of the songs were a result of the things that were going on in my personal and work life at that time,” explains Georgas a few days before its release. “I had finished my album cycle for For Evelyn and was settling into my new place in Toronto after having moved from my home in Vancouver of 13 years or so. That change was sinking in a little bit. I was going through a breakup at that time as well and I was trying to sort out some new pieces with my team in music. All of these changes were being expressed in what I was writing and reflecting upon. I wanted to explore the idea of change and how when it is happening it can feel uncomfortable and challenging. It’s hard sometimes to see the good in it but more often than not it ends up showing you something really beautiful in a way you never thought.”

The making of All That Emotion was like nothing she had done before. Recording tracks “in concentrated periods of time with breaks in between,” A.T.E was the first album Georgas recorded outside of Canada, in upstate New York. The long drives from Toronto to NY allowed her dedicated time to just focus solely and freely on one moving song after another, and helped create tracks like “Pray It Away” and “Same Mistakes,” both of which grapple with despair, heartache and brewing resentments. Georgas describes the time as both therapeutic and refreshing. “[Song writing] always felt like a clear way to express how I’m feeling,” she says. “A lot of the time when I sit down to write I’m wanting to express something that I’m trying to work through. I think as I get older, I’m learning that I really want to get better at accepting who I am and that I make mistakes.”

But love at its best also appears on the album in the relatable and lovely, “Dreams;” for Georgas, love songs become territory that sometimes feels more vulnerable than the brutally raw tracks she does so strikingly. “I think it’s harder to write about love sometimes,” she confesses. “When you’re in a relationship it really makes you take a hard look at yourself sometimes – the things we do to protect ourselves from getting hurt and things we are insecure about. ‘Dreams’ explores the idea of breaking down those barriers and being more open. It’s about finding happiness within yourself and realizing that we’re deserving of love. It’s about learning how to not push the great things away.”

Completed before the pandemic hit, Georgas could never have anticipated she would release it during a global time of isolation, loss, and change – yet the album feels incredibly well-timed. And she’s finding that she also needs this music more than ever. “I got together with my band for a rehearsal just the other day. The last time we had played together was in February of this year,” she says. “It felt so refreshing to play together again. It feels surreal not to be heading out to tour the album. I almost shed a tear in rehearsal because it reminded me how much I really do love playing music.” She hopes the album brings listeners the same comfort, during this strange and surreal time, that she felt while making it. “I know for me, some days have been easier than others, and music really helps me get through stuff,” she says. “I hope [All That Emotion] inspires people and gives them hope.”

Follow Hannah Georgas on Facebook for ongoing updates.

New Fries’ ‘Is The Idea Of Us’ LP Is the Anti-Music the World Needs

During the early days of Toronto-based experimental group New Fries, they were stumped about what to call the band. “Each time we played a show, we had a different name,” singer Anni Spadafora remembers. Then, as they were driving, they passed a mangled Burger King sign where only the words “New Fries” were visible, and for lack of better options, that became the band name. “Now, I’ve had to live with this terrible band name almost 10 years later,” Spadafora laughs.

This naming process captures the ethos of New Fries, which is built around challenging pretentious notions about what good music is and who’s entitled to make music. In fact, the band “began kind of as a joke, to be honest,” says Spadafora. When she and her bandmate, drummer Jenny Gitman, started collaborating, they’d never played music before, aside from their own private “fooling around.”

“We didn’t really know how to play our instruments, but it was kind of this really open and transformative space,” she recounts. “It’s been a bunch of friends making music, but because we’re not really musicians, we’re not really interested in traditional songwriting.” Sometimes, during live performances, they’ll even abruptly stop playing and stand in silence in the middle of a song.

Their latest album, Is The Idea Of Us, gives a sound to this philosophy — and is also named in accordance with it. “It was very classic New Fries — we couldn’t decide on a title,” says Spadafora. The title they came up with ultimately reflected the uncertainty that characterizes the band, especially at the time they recorded it, which was during a transition in the membership. After Ryan Carley (synthesizer) left in 2018, the remaining members reshuffled, with Spadafora (formerly on guitar) taking up the bass, Tim Fagan (formerly on bass) getting on the guitar and sampler, and Gitman cutting her drum kit down to three pieces. This way, even after eight years playing together as a band, the members got to be beginners.

“It was almost like this recommitting to being that way and not being seduced by, ‘Oh, we just have to get better at playing or get better at creating this career as a band,'” says Spadafora. “We wanted to kind of recommit to the punk, recommit to being messy non-players, to being open. We’re not trying to win anything; it’s just about experimenting.”

Appropriately, the thirteen songs on the album each buck musical conventions in their own ways. The opening track, “Bangs,” sounds almost like a PSA over a loudspeaker, with siren-like noises over a bass track that speeds up and up as the song goes on. The chaotic sound of “Genre I” evokes the feeling of a crowded subway station, lasting only 28 seconds. And “Ploce,” a single named after Fagan’s late fish, gives off an ’80s dance vibe, with sassy spoken word echoing through the composition before it cuts off abruptly in the middle of a sentence.

The music for the album was written first, then Spadafora was charged with writing the lyrics, which she decided would reflect the overall theme of in-between spaces. “Lily” is about her grandfather’s life as a medium in Lily Dale, New York, referencing the town’s distinctively large population of mediums, as well as its history as a home for suffragists. “This song is about naming that personal history and also questioning its validity,” says Spadafora. “Was he a liar? Was he a saint?”

Another song, “Mt. Tambora,” is about the volcano’s eruption in 1815, which precipitated the following “year without a summer” by reducing global temperatures. After learning that Mary Shelley wrote Frankenstein in 1816, Spadafora was inspired by the idea that creativity blossoms in transition, much like her own band’s. The band intentionally used lots of repetition in the music and lyrics in order to create a feeling of anxiety that characterizes this sense of in-between-ness.

There isn’t any cohesive message Spadafora wants listeners to gain from the album; to the contrary, she hopes it helps them let go of their minds, of the impulse to make sense of things, for a moment — that it invites them into the realm of nonsense, randomness, and chaos that shaped the album and the band itself.

“For me, the spirit of punk music or noise or weirdo music is meant to kind of pull us out of the complacence of our lives,” she says. “The world is often so confusing and demands that we behave in a particular way. To me, these sorts of music worlds feel like this opportunity to be something different, to behave differently from the world, in the sense that I can be really aggressive and ugly and kind of grotesque with my body when I’m performing on stage. There’s literally nowhere else in the world where I can behave that way, and to me, that’s really utopic and inspiring and exciting. There are these opportunities to kind of be a different world.”

Follow New Fries on Facebook for ongoing updates.

Little Kid Puts an Indie Folk Twist on Religious Motifs with ‘Transfiguration Highway’

Transfiguration Highway, the latest album from Toronto-based indie folk band Little Kid, begins with a story about the Rapture — but certainly not a traditional one. On the LP’s opening track “I Thought That You’d Been Raptured,” with a harmonica-driven sound reminiscent of Bob Dylan and Wilco, lead singer/songwriter Kenny Boothby sings about finding his partner’s clothes in the living room when he gets home, thinking she’s been raptured when she’s actually having an affair.

“I remember joking about the concept with my partner,” says Boothby. “We both have some Christian history, and there are a lot of jokes between us about the Rapture. I knew right away it would make a great concept for a Little Kid song. I’m proud of that one because it’s probably the most overtly humorous song I’ve written. A lot of our discography is a little heavy and inward-looking, but people who know me well know I’m rarely 100 percent serious.”

This song is emblematic of the band’s playful, clever twists on religious and mystical motifs. The name of the album itself comes from the biblical Transfiguration — Christ’s radiant appearance to his disciples, or more generally, transformation into a more spiritual state. The album is the first the b

 

Little Kid started off as a one-person operation by Boothby but has expanded over the past few years to include Megan Lunn (banjo, keys, vocals), Paul Vroom (bass and vocals), Liam Cole (drums), and Brodie Germain (drums, guitar, percussion). The band provided Lunn’s first recording experience and also one of her first live performances. “I had already been a fan of Little Kid prior to joining and was familiar with past albums, so it was fun to add in harmonies or instrumental parts of the album that I enjoyed but weren’t already a part of the live performances,” she says. Lunn previously had only contributed vocals to the project, so she was excited to add banjo to Transfiguration Highway. “I also wanted to create unique and memorable harmonies for this album, and give it more of a country feel,” she explains.

Transfiguration Highway, the band’s first album for Brooklyn imprint Solitaire Recordings, departs from Little Kid’s early music in its heavy use of live-off-the-floor recording, with the band playing together straight to tape. In addition, the group aimed to center the piano, avoid electric guitars and guitar pedals, and find other ways to “make things sound strange,” like recording different parts at different tape speeds, says Boothby. “I’ve also been embracing accidentals and unexpected chords or key changes. I’ve enjoyed playing with expectations — playing chords that invoke a certain genre (e.g., a set of chords that make a song sound or feel ‘country’), and then subverting that expectation somehow.”

The tracks vary both thematically and sonically. In “What’s in a Name,” with airy vocals and pianos that conjure up Elliott Smith, Boothby explores how names and pronouns shape others’ perception of us, particularly with regard to gender. Lunn’s voice joins in for graceful harmonies and alternating verses in “all night (golden ring),” an examination of abusive relationship dynamics based on country singers Tammy Wynette and George Jones.

The project feels especially timely, as the world could currently be said to be undergoing a process of transfiguration right now. “Many individuals are starting the lifelong journey of transfiguration surrounding their views on racism and activism, and I hope that this will reflect how our governments function moving forward,” Lunn says. “I think feelings of isolation and disconnect brought on by the pandemic are driving the capacity for personal growth in a lot of us, challenging us to put more effort into connecting and understanding others’ perspectives.”

Follow Little Kid on Facebook for ongoing updates.

Pantayo Merges Traditional Filipino Kulintang with Punk, R&B, and Synthy Electronica

Photo Credit: Sarah Bodri

Pantayo – an experimental, all-women kulintang ensemble – is a sound evolution that began over meals and music in 2012. Founding members Michelle Cruz (vocals, agong), Katrina Estacio (vocals, kulintang, sarunay) and Kat Estacio (vocals, kulintang, dabakan, programming) met at an Anakbayan fundraiser at Kapisanan, a Filipino cultural centre in Toronto’s Kensington Market. They all shared a desire to reclaim and re-imagine kulintang—a traditional Southern Philippine form of instrumental music composed on gongs. That initial meeting, and shared vision, eventually gave birth to Pantayo.

“We accidentally became a band when we received an invitation to play at an event. We thought we had to introduce the thing that we were doing, and who we were, and the thing became Pantayo,” shares Cruz. “As we continued to grow and learn as Pantayo, the group grew in members. Eirene and Jo came along, and this is when the next layer of magic began to manifest.”

Estacio says that Eirene Coloma’s arrival in 2015 was significant to the Pantayo sound by “synthesizing chords and progressions with our gong tunings.” “We are blessed to have her ear and talent of piecing these together with the complex tones of each gong hit,” she explains. “She [also] has some sick bass lines and synth moves, which make her a great fit. Her vocals also make us melt.”

For Joanna Delos Reyes (vocals and guitar), the ensemble became a part of her life just when she needed community the most. “I [had] recently moved back to Toronto after living abroad for a bit. I became hyper-aware of who I was as a brown, Filipina woman navigating predominantly white spaces, institutions, and jobs. I wanted to intentionally reconnect with my Filipino-Canadian settler identity. Collective art and music making became that way for me.”

The name Pantayo reflects the multi-layered ethos and intentions that drive the ensemble. “Pantayo is an ongoing commitment to ourselves, and to each other,” explains Kat E. “The word roughly translates to ‘by us for us’ [in Tagalog], so the conversations around what our sound is and why we play the way we do and what we stand for as a group is a constant navigation around that meaning. Much like the word does not really translate to one single English word, our initial intent is to make art and meaning that speaks to us and our experiences first. If that translates to something that resonates with other people, then great. If not, then we just accept that what we do is not for them. And we can’t be bothered with that because life is short.”

Describing their sound as “percussive metallophones and drums from kulintang traditions of Southern Philippines, with electronic and synth-based grooves,” Pantayo is a sonic collage of influences that include genres as diverse as R&B to punk. Yet somehow these diverging sounds are both thrillingly challenging and masterfully cohesive. The members say that this is not by chance, but rather a thoughtful, collective approach deeply guided by producer alaska B.

“We strictly workshopped traditional kulintang music during the early days of Pantayo,” says Cruz. “That was very fundamental to the sound that we were able to develop later. We started imagining and experimenting with sounds that were familiar to us like pop and R&B. I guess it was natural for us to gravitate towards these vibes because of our musical influences. It also made making music together so much more fun.”  A grant awarded by the Ontario Arts Council to fund their first album made them even more determined to make music that says something with its sound. “We were fortunate enough to be able to work with producer alaska B for our album project and she became instrumental in helping us determine our purpose and what was authentic to us, sonically, personally and together as one unit. It became clear that integrating our musical influences were necessary for us to create music with conviction.”

This conviction has led them to delve deeply into the roots of their sound. During a recent visit to Manila, Kat E. met with Aga Mayo Butocan, a professor and pioneer in transcribing kulintang music at Diliman, the University of the Philippines.

“Ma’am Aga—as she is warmly referred to by her students—explained that the primary purpose of kulintang, based on the Maguindanao Indigenous culture, is for self-relaxation and expression, while also fulfilling a need for playing with and for the community. To see the connection between her teaching and our art-making felt affirming. It feels freeing to know that as long as we are respectful, and learn traditional kulintang pieces as our foundation, that we can add our own influences on it. We use instruments which are visibly Filipino, but how we use them speaks to our different experiences.”

These diverse influences include Delos Reyes’ love of everything from punk and post-punk to girl bands like Destiny’s Child, Cruz’s childhood love of quiet storm R&B and new wave, and Estacio’s love for house, ASMR and new passion for merengue, reggaeton and Latinx pop.

“I think it’s important to acknowledge that the music that I grew up with, and the music that I create right now exists because of the contributions of Black people to pop music,” says Estacio. “Blues, rock, R&B, hip-hop, soul, funk, techno, experimental music, jazz, and more all came from Black culture. Even though I did not see Black people in my local community (in Manila) growing up, the influence reached my ears through pop music. I remember listening to my dad’s favourite mixtapes that featured Toto, Starship, and Grand Funk Railroad. I also remember listening to Filipino artists like Smokey Mountain, Asin, and Aegis.”

The album’s songs are sung in Tagalog and English, and were inspired by everything from pain and love to resistance, trauma, hope, and growth, says Cruz. And these powerful stories and mercurial sounds are resonating beyond themselves and their community, including recently making Canada’s Polaris Music Prize long-list.

“It’s been refreshing to see that our music is reaching non-English, heck, even non-Tagalog speaking communities,” continues Estacio. “I love how music is able to do that, and I feel pretty proud to be able to start conversations beyond the confines of language. Whenever I see reviews that seem like they don’t understand what we were doing, I remind myself that it’s actually a good thing—that those are helpful notes to consider when we make more music down the road. The bigger picture here is that we have made a valiant effort in making our voices heard with this record, during a pandemic no less. It’s been a long journey and we’re so glad that people are listening and grooving to it and are able to relate.”

Follow Pantayo on Facebook and Instagram for ongoing updates.

PREMIERE: Lydia Ainsworth Puts Self-Doubt in Check with “Diamonds Cutting Diamonds”

“In chess, the opening moves are the most important,” Lydia Ainsworth tells me, but won’t go into further detail lest future opponents learn to anticipate her strategy. The Toronto-based experimental pop composer took up playing online simulators and later moved to competing with friends and fans who challenged her on Instagram when mysterious bouts of vertigo made it difficult for her to focus on little else. Though the unexplained vertigo faded, playing chess made a fitting theme for a video set to “Diamonds Cutting Diamonds,” the first track on her Phantom Forest LP, released last year. Not only does the song open her album, it was the first one she completed for the collection – an opening move that determined the rest of her shrewd compositional decisions and ultimately led to a victorious marriage of her classical training with modern sounds and ideas.

“I had been working and working on [a new album] for ages, and I couldn’t crack the code,” she remembers. “I called [the song] ‘Diamonds Cutting Diamonds’ because it went through many stages and I was just hacking away at it.” Lyrically inspired by a reading of landmark 1992 tome Women Who Run With the Wolves by Jungian analyst Clarissa Pinkola Estés, the song encourages the same reawakening of the wild inner self – a source of creativity, passion, intuition, and strength – and celebrates the “wild woman” archetype as a means of empowerment. “Baby hides her claws again/She’s twitching but won’t let it show/Masking inner wildlife/Be what you are and let it go,” Ainsworth trills over her slinky synth bassline. She took her own advice to heart, self-releasing Phantom Forest as a means of retaining ownership over her creative work, and embracing what has become her trademark sound – a unique mélange of of ethereal voicework, futuristic textures, orchestral arrangements, and biting observation delivered in a disarmingly dance-worthy package.

At every turn, the video for “Diamonds Cutting Diamonds” reflects both internal pressure and the positive results that can arise from it (as Ainsworth promises, “Failure draws a crystal out from underneath a curse”). Graceful choreography (courtesy of Kalie Hunter, who runs a dance studio called Metro Movement near Ainsworth’s home) depicts a bull and a matador in an endless, teasing standoff; Ainsworth kicks useless pawns out of her path; characters hold signs that boldly spell “HAVE NO FEAR.” Directed by Ainsworth’s younger sister Abby (who also directed a clip for Phantom Forest cut “Can You Find Her Place“), the video has a dream-like feel, owed in no small part to the fact that it was shot mostly in slow motion, with the dancers performing in double-time to accommodate. Ainsworth twirls around the life-sized chess board in a truly stunning costume composed of white feathers (designed by Emily Kowalik), a reference to the “bird of prey” motif in the song, which hearkens back to the wild woman archetype. All of it works together to create an intriguing blueprint of the ideas at play within the song itself, and cements Ainsworth herself as a true artistic visionary.

“The song is about breaking free to your authentic self, not caring what anyone thinks, unlocking your inner wildness and just being you, so I used the chess board as a metaphor for that,” Ainsworth says. “I don’t really listen to trends in music. I try to actually steer away from trends. When I’m writing, first and foremost, I want to write something that I want to hear. It’s not because it’s gonna be popular, which is maybe to my detriment.” Often compared to Kate Bush, Ainsworth leans proudly into that likeness without being derivative. On Phantom Forest, she sings from the point of view of Mother Nature, critiques facial recognition technology, and covers Pink Floyd’s “Green Is The Colour.” Though she’s already mixing new material that she hopes will be ready for release by spring of this year, she’s also remixed four Phantom Forest tracks for string quartet.

“I grew up playing cello, so I’ve always loved string instruments and wanted to reimagine these songs in that way,” she explains. Though Phantom Forest has some subtle string elements, most of it was electronically produced with little to no live instrumentation other than Ainsworth’s voice. “It’s like taking an oil painting and then making it into a black and white sketch,” she says.

This process of constant reinvention, joyful experimentation, and – though Ainsworth jokes that she’s “a terrible procrastinator ruled by fear” – prolific work ethic buoyed by seemingly dauntless confidence can be easily boiled down to one of the most salient mantras offered up in “Diamonds Cutting Diamonds:” “Double dare the old world away.” Ainsworth may have struggled through the process of writing, producing, and self-releasing Phantom Forest, but she makes slaying self doubt look both effortless and fun. With “Diamonds Cutting Diamonds,” Ainsworth provides a surefire anthem of validation for anyone who feels a little at odds with those around them.

Follow Lydia Ainsworth on Facebook for ongoing updates.

PREMIERE: Grizzly Coast “Half-Light Boy”

photo by Brendan Downey

“Music as background to me becomes like a mosquito, an insect. In the studio we have big speakers, and to me that’s the way music should be listened to. When I listen to music, I want to just listen to music,” David Lynch told The Independent in 2013. Grizzly Coast’s latest music video for “Half-Light Boy” draws on Lynch’s 90s TV classic Twin Peaks, employing more than just the show’s aesthetic by mirroring the foreboding, skin prickling plot in timber as well as tone.

Grizzly Coast, the project of singer-songwriter Alannah Kavanagh, grabs attention from her  first sweet, passive aggressive coo; the song is a kind of time vortex, instantly reminding the listener of young romances embroiled in misunderstanding. “Broke my patterns / have I not earned your words,” Kavanagh pleads with her lover, attempting to regain favor. “Half-Light Boy” has a winning restraint to it, the quiet angst that accompanies the slow death of intimacy.

Watch the exclusive AudioFemme premiere of “Half-Light Boy” and read our interview with Alannah below.

AF: Tell us about your new single “Half-Light Boy.” The music video is super dark and dreamy.

AK: Half-Light Boy is a song I wrote when I realized that not everyone you meet will have the same heart as you do. The lyrics explore the idea that someone else’s small capacity for caring for you is due to something lacking in them, and not an expression of what you deserve. I tried to illustrate this by exploring the aftermath of a scene where I felt insignificant in the eyes of someone I held a candle for. With the video, which was very much inspired by David Lynch’s spooky ’90s TV Show Twin Peaks, I had a lot of fun running with the idea of using the visual metaphor of being haunted by a ghost to make the lyrics hit harder.

AF: What is the songwriting process normally like for you? Do you start with a line, a general theme, or with the music itself?

AK: Songwriting is by far the most fulfilling part of the process to me, and the way I go about it changes from song to song. There are times that I do just go in with a general theme I’ve been aching to write about, but there are others where I sing stream of conscious lyrics along with my guitar to just see what presents itself. Sometimes, when I’m really lucky with the latter approach, a song will essentially pour out in its full form. These are typically the best ones and I’ll never know where they come from.

AF: You’re from Toronto. What’s the music scene like there?

AK: The Toronto music scene is welcoming and cool as hell. What I love about living in the city is the sheer number of different types of shows that happen every night of the week. There’s always something to go to!

AF: What’s your favorite local music venue?

AK: It really depends on what you want to see. But I’d have to say that the Horseshoe Tavern is my favorite. It’s always a good night there, they host killer bands!

AF: Name a book or painting or record you regularly come back to for artistic inspiration.

AK: I’m not big on re-reading books, but I’ll typically underline sentences and passages of what I’m reading if I feel like they speak to me in some way. Two books I’ll often check back on to see what I underlined are Just Kids by Patti Smith, and The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron. Both are centered on the journey of what it takes to make it and feel fulfilled living as an artist.

AF: What artists do you have on rotation right now? Anyone new we should have on the radar?

AK: I’m currently into this Toronto artist named Lenny Bull. I saw her live show a while ago and was totally blown away by her entire deal. In my rotation though, Hard Bargain by Ron Sexsmith has been on repeat. I’m also super into the new Julia Jacklin album, Crushing.

“Half-Light Boy” will appear on Grizzly Coast’s forthcoming LP later this year. Check her out live at one of the dates below.

GRIZZLY COAST TOUR DATES:

4/19 – London, ON @ The Rec Room
5/6-12 – Toronto, ON @ Canadian Music Week, TBD
5/22 – Edmonton, AB @ Sofar Sounds
5/19 –  Burlington, ON @ TBD

PREMIERE: For Esmé “Modern Love”

Photo by Vanessa Heins

Everyone has that friend so obsessed with getting a boyfriend that she completely misses the interesting, multi-layered, kick-ass person who’s right in front of her (herself). Ok, we’ve all been that friend. Canadian band For Esmé addresses self-love in their newest track “Modern Love” off 2018’s Righteous Woman.

I was looking for somebody / to figure me out and come to love me / like I was wanting / I was incomplete / like winning love would justify me,” front-woman Martha Meredith sings into her bathroom mirror. The video for “Modern Love” features a variety of actors dancing, singing, screaming this reminder into the glass: “To make your own damn bed / sleep in it / cause you are the one who’s got to live with it.” It’s an anthem of self-acceptance, a tried and true reminder that ultimately you have to fall in love with yourself before you can receive love from anyone else. “Modern Love” is the Folger’s coffee of music; from the starting beat, it’ll be the best part of your morning playlist. Skip the mirror, grab a cup, and fall into step.

Watch “Modern Love” and read our full interview with Martha Meredith below:

AF: You’re from Toronto. Can you give us an idea of the music scene where you grew up?

Martha Meredith: I actually grew up on a farm near Peterborough, which is North East of Toronto. There was no ‘scene’ per say, so I was always making mix tapes and homemade music videos (lots of choreographed dances), playing piano and singing in choirs and plays as a kid. Later, as an emo teen, I’d mostly venture to Toronto to catch shows. I joke about Peterborough because it’s such a small town, but it actually has a wonderful creative scene that I didn’t fully appreciate at the time. So many of my creative peers in Toronto right now have a connection to or grew up in Peterborough that people joke that there must be something in the water.

AF: Do you remember the first song you wrote? What was it about?

MM: Ugh I hate this question because the answer is so embarrassing! The first significant song I ever remember writing was about a boy I was having a fling with at the boys summer camp I worked at in high school. We were essentially the least compatible duo imaginable, but at the time I took our inability to have a normal conversation as having a deeper romantic meaning. I wrote this song that, though is so cheesy to me now, really resonated with all my women friends that worked there with me at the time, and I was pretty proud of it. It was about overthinking what to say to someone you like and just being so awkward. My friends advised me that it was really good and I should perform it at the camp coffee house, because no one would know who it was about. That was some of the worst advice I’ve ever been given. I did perform it, and everyone knew exactly who it was about and I’ve honestly never lived it down.

To give you an idea, the chorus included: “I talk to you more in my head than for real, and all I want to know is how you feel.” YIKES! But, it was catchy and the feeling of satisfaction that I felt for making it was addictive, so I kept writing. Luckily, I’ve improved.

AF: Tell us about the writing process for Righteous Woman. Did you know the themes you wanted to tackle on this album early on?

MM: I have always been interested in songs that resonate on a psychological or existential level, and I’d started to experiment with some of that on my last record Sugar. My favorite songs critiqued societal structure or my role in it, and I wanted to narrow that focus in for Righteous Woman. I’ve always identified as a feminist, but in writing Righteous Woman I spent more time interrogating my internalized misogyny and some of the toxic ideas that I have either learned or been exposed to. I was deep into work on myself in psychotherapy when I started the record, and really staring down some of my unhealthy notions about womanhood, about myself. Generally I was feeling pretty angry about the expectations and double standards I felt were placed on me and women in general while simultaneously trying to really unpack my own privilege – a learning curve I’m still climbing. The title came later, when I realized there was a solid thread weaving through the record, of trying to cultivate authenticity and self respect. Of knowing when to speak up to stand up for yourself, and when to shut up to hold or make space for others.

AF: “Modern Love” was inspired in part by Joan Didion’s essay “On Self Respect”. Can you walk us through the writing process? Did you start with a line from the essay? Was the music already written?

MM: “Modern Love” started after I got engaged to my now husband and I was feeling uncomfortable with the reaction I felt I was getting from many people (especially women) like I had accomplished my ultimate goal in having secured a husband. This irked me significantly and as I started to interrogate that feeling I realized that my younger self had often defined herself by her relationships to and ability to attract men. Something about that caused me to revisit “On Self Respect” which is an essay I’ve always loved. It is like a signpost to reread to get back on track; for me it works every time. I wanted to write something that had the same ability to remind me to take full responsibility for myself, to forgive myself, to be true to my own character. I embrace the current ideology of self-love in theory, but struggle against it often internally. It always feels like a push and pull. Self Respect is different – there’s no discomfort for me about wanting to cultivate that.

AF: On Facebook, you had this to say about writing “To Hate“:

“I remember at the time feeling frustrated and helpless about the treatment of indigenous peoples in Canada, about the murder of black people at the hands of police in the US, about the seeming impossibility of bringing abusers to justice…. The list of things eroding my hope about society has since stretched much longer. It’s soul crushing. But that is the root of this song. I can’t become apathetic to what’s going on, as helpless as I often feel, and I need to remind myself all the time to find more hope amidst all my cynicism and rage. I have to stay vigilant, informed and keep fighting hate in every way I can, using the privilege and shelter from injustice that I do have to help make the world better.” 

This echoes the thoughts of a lot of people right now. How do you make it a point to address these issues in your art, while also keeping yourself fresh, focused, and not totally depressed?

MM: I honestly really struggle with that. I’ve read the research confirming indefinitely how unhealthy it is to be on social media all the time, but I also learn so much there. Twitter for example has allowed me to engage with communities that I didn’t have a direct connection to before (shout out to #nativetwitter for the memes but also the labor of helping educate white settlers like myself about the realities and deep problems in this country we live in, as one example). That has helped me hugely broaden the range of perspectives through which I think about the world. It is also the fastest place to find out what is going on. Like so many women, it was impossibly hard to pull myself away from the Kavanaugh stuff this week because it fills me with so much rage. I wanted to be on the front lines, but I was also playing shows, attending a conference and sick, so I had to take care of myself.

I’m in this constant battle between tuning in and tuning out. I know how it affects my mental health, but I’m simultaneously so outraged with the state of the world and how sincerely fucked up things are that I need to feel really engaged as a citizen. Being a citizen in our globalized era is such an overwhelming task! It’s so vast. The levels of corruption, misinformation, and lack of empathy – it’s all so heavy. I’m trying to learn balance: making space for engagement, activism, debate, etc, while also making space for myself, for peace, for art, and for forgiving myself for not having all the answers. The best tool I’ve found over the past couple of years, as obvious as it sounds, is to make more room for gratitude. Taking time in a day to write down what you love and are grateful for can really give you strength to face the things that make you angry, complicit, or sad.

AF: What Toronto artists should we be spinning right now?

MM: I just got home from Pop Montreal and really enjoyed seeing both Fleece and Jaunt’s sets there – both great Toronto bands! Anyone who knows me knows I’m obsessed with The Highest Order, they’re my #1. Recently I had the pleasure of catching Loom at Venus Fest and Brooke’s songs have been on repeat for soothing my soul ever since. Another artist I am really into right now is Leanne Betasamosake Simpson. She’s a brilliant author, songwriter and poet doing really important work in Canada right now. I am currently reading her book  As We Have Always Done: Indigenous Freedom Through Radical Resistance and learning a LOT, and I like to listen to her music too. Check out her song “Under Your Always Light.”

AF: Besides music, what’s something you’re seriously into? We’re talking macrame level hobby.

MM: I used to do ballet, modern, jazz, hip hop, all of it, and I still find moving to music continues to be one of the best ways to center myself and express really freely. I’ve been renting a dance studio sometimes lately just to move. It makes me feel really in touch with myself and brings me a lot of joy.

AF: I’ve just stumbled upon a For Esmé show. What can I expect?

MM: A good time! Lots of dancing, some high energy theatrics, and really excellent players. I am so happy with my band right now – it’s a real pleasure playing with Charles Tilden, Karrie Douglas, Lewis Parker and Liam Cole. The energy is huge! Together we’ve taken these electronic songs and extended and experimented with them to get a really fluid, dynamic set. I think the songs are the most compelling when you hear them live.

For Esme’s Righteous Woman is out now. Want to see the band live? Check out their tour dates below!

UPCOMING SHOWS:
OCT 12 – GUELPH – HOLY SMOKES FEST @ THE COMMON
OCT 14 – WINDSOR – PHOG LOUNGE
OCT 22 – QUEBEC CITY – L’ANTI
OCT 24 – OTTAWA – PRESSED CAFE
OCT 26 – TORONTO – MONARCH TAVERN – TICKETS
OCT 31 – PETERBOROUGH – THE GORDON BEST
NOV 1 – KINGSTON – CLARK HALL PUB

PREMIERE: Ace of Wands “Float The Flood”

Ace of Wands lead singer Lee Rose

Ace of Wands lead singer Lee Rose

On the minor arcana tarot card from which the Toronto-based band Ace of Wands take their name, a hand reaches out from a cloud to present a flowering branch, signifying inspiration, power, creation, beginnings, and potential. It is with this offering in mind that Lee Rose, the woman behind both the music and the visual storytelling that accompanies it, prepares to release her debut EP 10,000 Feet this Friday. Amplified and enriched by her bandmates, Anna Mernieks (of Beams) on guitar and backing vocals and Jody Brumell (of SHANKS) on drums, the songs on the EP feel more like epiphanies or spells, capable of conjuring expansive visions.

Their newest track, “Float The Flood,” follows the cinematic flair of the band’s previous releases; in Ace of Wands’ music, nature becomes a main character, helping to create a physical space for their ominous, multi-layered sound. In their music videos, forests are seemingly without end, lakes never hit a horizon, and the sky looms above, eternal. Rose has provided art direction for each of these clips, cementing a potent image and creating a thematic through-line to the work. With its jangling guitar and harmonic incantations, “Float the Flood” documents the twisting turmoil of exorcising inner demons.

We spoke with Lee Rose about growing up in the wilds of Canada, how she approaches art direction for her videos, and where sustainability fits into her ethos as a musician. Listen to “Float The Flood” below.

AF: Tell us a bit about your upbringing in Toronto. What did you grow up listening to?

Lee Rose: I grew up in the neighborhood of Parkdale in Toronto. I would say my dad is my biggest musical influence. He is a musician and had an enormous record collection, so I was constantly surrounded by music. I have strong memories of listening to Nirvana and dancing around as a 3-year old. But we listened to all kinds of music – The Fall, Randy Newman, Neil Young, The Ronnettes, Bonnie Raitt and Tom Petty were all staples. My dad also worked at a drop-in center in the neighborhood called PARC – it was a community space primarily for homeless people and psychiatric survivors needing support, and music was a big part of his time there. I have memories of going to PARC to watch the open stages, and hearing my dad write songs about poverty in the city and the stories of the PARC members he worked with. It was a very formative experience for me.

AF: At what age did you start writing your own music?

LR: I started writing lyrics to songs about six years ago, but I have been writing melodies for as long as I can remember. I started a band with my brother Graeme called Rival Boys when I was 17; he did all the lyric writing and I did the singing. I taught myself how to play bass and made up bass lines. But the lyrical poetry has really just started flowing out of me more recently it feels like. I find lyrics are such a key element to a song and I admire so many other songwriters for their poetry. For a long time I was very self-conscious of what I was writing and didn’t feel safe sharing it. I have gotten more confident as I’ve gotten older I guess.

AF: Ace of Wands’ music has an epic, cinematic feel to it. Have you always been drawn to those kinds of lush, layered sounds?

LR: Absolutely! I am a classically trained violinist, and have spent a lot of time playing in orchestras. I have a love for the huge sounds you can achieve with dozens of players, and it’s been fun to experiment with creating lush sounds (that are similar in intent) with a three-piece band. I love layering effects and vocal harmonies to really transport the listener to whatever world I am writing about

AF: In your videos for “10,000 Feet” and “Grown From Good,” nature is focal point. Are these landscapes in your mind when you’re writing?

LR: Yes, for sure. I have such an affinity for natural landscapes, and while I live in the city I always find another kind of peace in nature. I am a gardener when I’m not playing music, so soil and plants and water are always on my mind. They invariably make it into the songwriting!

AF: How do you scout for locations?

LR: Well, mostly we choose places where we can safely film! But I have spent a lot of time in swimming in Georgian Bay and surrounding areas, so it has made it into both videos so far.

AF: You lead art direction for your videos, as well as construction on the key design pieces (like the recycled fabric train in “Grown From Good”). Is sustainability something you incorporate often into your mixed media artwork?

LR: I try to create as little waste as possible when I make things for the videos. But it’s hard! Everything leaves an environmental footprint it seems… but I do my best to use recycled materials. I’m also really interested in having themes that carry through my projects, so that pieces can be reused and repurposed multiple times. We also have had Ceremonial burnings of props in bonfires… maybe not so good for the ozone but it looks cool and disappears! Ha.

AF: Your new single, “Float the Flood,” is yet another song that for me, drew up intense visuals: images of whales lurking beneath the surface of the ocean, boats on fire. Can you give us some insight on how this song was constructed and what the backstory is?

LR: I was going through a really difficult time in a long term relationship when I wrote the song, and was feeling suffocated by having to express hard emotions. I was starting therapy to help with my depression and for the first time was really seeing all the ways I hate myself. I can be very punishing. I was feeling a lot of guilt and anger and was taking a lot out on my partner. I kept seeing images of myself as a fog, a flood and a mess of endless water and murk. I was trying to express how lost I was in the expanse, and how it was effecting the people I love.

AF: Are you at work on a new video?

LR: Yes we are! We are starting to create art for our next video called “Lioness.” This video will introduce our third band member Jody (drums), and will be part performance video. It will incorporate landscape shots of the fall foliage I hope! I wanted to transition between seasons from video to video as well.

AF: The digital download for “Grown from Good” was printed on paper embedded with wildflower seeds and even came with a glass jar of soil. “Float the Flood” also has a creative twist in terms of its download. What can listeners expect?

LR: “Float the Flood” will be available as a digital download, accompanied by a balsa wood glider plane. I’m really interested in the idea of creating ways for our audience to interact with our music beyond just listening. I want to make merch that turns the music into participatory experience, and the idea of ‘play’ is a central part of that. I wanted to make something that would inspire people to literally go outside play. I have found it harder and harder to get our music to people (and actually have them listen to it!) so in trying to think outside the box I found myself drawn to ideas where the music becomes almost secondary to an experience that could facilitate a listeners own personal creativity.

Ace of Wands release 10,000 Feet EP August 17th. If you’re based in Toronto, don’t miss the band’s show at The Horseshoe Tavern on August 18th.

EP REVIEW: Chrystyna Marie “Loaded Gun”

Chrystyna Marie

At first click, I saw visions of Janis Joplin singing “Loaded Gun,” the single off Chrystyna Marie‘s upcoming EP (also named Loaded Gun). She’s a Toronto-native chick and sultry vocalist—also super stunning. She’s no alien to performing and making music; she has won the Kiwanis Music Festival a couple times. When she’s not seeing Infected Mushroom, she’s writing and releasing her own material. Now, her next feat—the EP is definitely grungy, but melodically so. Her voice compliments lyrics like “Yeah, your love is a loaded gun. You shoot me down, just for fun. But tonight, you better run.” Loaded Gun is a brief ensemble of tracks, yet shows the different sides of her blues-y style. In “Down The Road,” she croons like a pre-swing jazz musician, although the track is very much gritty and grungy. Then she tunes down in “No More” and “The Tower,” to a more personal struggle. Adding more piano than guitar riffs in “The Tower,” Chrystyna Marie delivers a more haunting tone. “There will be no breaking down, just breaking through. When it all falls down, who will wear the crown,” she sings. The EP finishes on a poetic note. Look out for the release of Loaded Gun on February 29.

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VIDEO REVIEW: Dilly Dally “The Touch”

sore

If your band practice doesn’t include hazy shadows, falling feathers, slinking felines and unbridled pain, you’re doing it wrong. Or, you’re just not on the same level as Toronto’s Dilly Dally (which would be admittedly hard to achieve). Led by long-time friends Katie Monks (vocals/guitar) and Liz Ball (guitar), the band has been bursting through unsuspecting earbuds everywhere after releasing their debut album Sore in early October and making waves at New York’s CMJ music festival.

Now they’ve shared their music video for “The Touch,” a song that Monks revealed was written with a very specific, urgent purpose: “I wrote this song for a friend of mine who was having suicidal thoughts… the song attempts to reach him in his dark place, and then lure him away from there.” Monks makes his pain her own in the black-and-white video by yelling, practically swallowing the mic, and holding onto her guitar like a life preserver. In the background, there’s a calming influence via her bandmates, their heads down as they focus on their instruments as feathers float and swirl around them.

As the band plays the heavy, fast beat and snarling guitars, the video occasionally cuts to a figure dressed in black, brandishing a whip: some sort of dominatrix superhero. While Monks sings about healing someone with a “woman’s touch,” she knows that sometimes, a soft touch won’t cut it. Sometimes, it takes a figurative slap in the face.

ARTIST INTERVIEW: Slim Twig

slim

We’ve all been a bit dizzied by Toronto song man Slim Twig lately. He’s been on a roll reissuing his pop-opera opus A Hound at the Hem, touring the mid and North Easts of the country, and never letting the creative juices run dry. We had a chance to catch up with Slim (or Max Turnbull if you prefer his mortal name)  to see what’s up next, and why being weird is always better.

AudioFemme: So you just finished up a tour; how did it go? Any funny stories?

Slim Twig: It went well. I’m still very much in the throes of building an audience, so there remains a certain amount of crowd fluctuation between shows. The important thing is that the band sounds great, and we’re able to win the attention of anyone who has shown up. Funny tour stories normally involve some element of band stupidity or (modest) debauchery, so I think those are best saved for personal conversation. I have a band like any other, we like to get in trouble from time to time. Mostly we’re alright.

AF: I didn’t recognize anything from A Hound at the Hem when you played at Cake Shop the other week…was the set you played the beginnings of a new record?

ST: It’s funny you say that. The songs off Hound are so densely arranged, it’s heavy slogging trying to arrange for rock n’ roll quartet. I was very pleased that we were able to perform two songs off that record in our set off this last tour… It felt like an achievement of some kind. They are of course re-arranged somewhat to suit what we travel as so if you had your ears perked up for those lovely string quartet moments off the record, you may have missed those tunes completely! It’s something of a point of pride to give an audience that’s come and paid to hear my tunes something that they wouldn’t have encountered on the record… What’s the point otherwise? I think I’m somewhat in the minority in this practice nowadays, many bands seem content to play faithful versions accompanied by backing tracks. To answer your question a little more directly, yes many of the songs you would have heard are off the forthcoming album which is just finished. Very excited to be playing this new stuff.

AF: Hound has gotten a lot of well-deserved attention lately because of the DFA reissue. It really is a fantastic record!  For a lot of us it’s a new discovery, but you recorded it a few years ago…what’s it like promoting something that you wrapped up a while back?  Do you see it in a different light now?

ST: It’s been an odd journey, but I’ve been very pleased with the reception of this older record. I’m prideful of the fact that the album is not easily pigeonholed, and I keep this in mind whenever my mind strays to why its path has been an unanticipated one. It has been an odd feeling of deja vu trying to engender excitement for something that is a clear product of my younger mind, especially for someone whose musical vision is constantly in motion as mine seems to be. In some ways this album marks a new beginning in my music making, so it’s logical that it’s the introduction for most people to my music.

AF: What has your relationship with DFA been like?  They seem to really believe in your work. After I bought the pink version of the Hound LP online Kris sent me a thank you email and put me on the list for your Palisades show. He said buying your album showed ‘discerning tastes.’ It sounds like you really won them over!

ST: In one of my first meetings with DFA, Jonathan Galkin (who runs the label along with Kris) told me to ‘keep the music as weird as possible.’ This was the best encouragement for someone like me, as I took it to mean ‘continue deeper into your own vision’… I don’t think many musicians are working under such a cushy pretext anymore. I suppose they knew what they were getting into being that I was drawn into the fold via a Black Dice connection. In any case, I’m blessed and right where I need to be.

AF: At your set at Cake Shop you introduced a song by saying: ‘This song is about not fetishizing the past.’  What do you mean by that?

ST: Especially in the rock idiom, there seems to be an assumption that all the best music has been and gone. I have a giant classic rock fixation, so I too am guilty of this train of thought every so often. I do feel though that it is this way of thinking itself, that prevents a context for new sounds to break through and seem as vital as the old sounds. Some of my music is concerned with this battle between mining the past for inspiration (the only concrete source of inspiration in a literal sense), and the desire to transcend those elements… I think contemporary rock culture could do with a good dose of killing one’s idols. The trouble is once having killed one’s idols, there’s a tendency to also do away with melody, structure, clever lyrics and a more ambitious approach to production. I have a fondness for all those elements that many punkier folk will simply do away with in an effort to not repeat the classics.

AF: Who are some of your favorite contemporary artists?

ST: I can admire anyone who has their own vision, not to say that they can’t betray influences – but any distinct voice that rises through the murk is appreciated. U.S. Girls, Danava, Zacht Automaat, Jack Name, Jennifer Herrema, Ghost Box artists & Eric Copeland are some good examples of modern stuff I can go deep with.

AF: Can you speak about your artistic relationship with your wife Meghan Remy?  You seem to have a very crucial role in each other’s work.

ST: Basically we just have totally opposite creative sensibilities. Meghan is driven by a very deep emotional place in her music, where my process is a lot more cerebral (if you couldn’t tell by my longwinded answers). Not to say that those tracks don’t intersect, but often times we serve to widen each other’s vision. Obviously, there’s a great personal rapport that makes this process highly enjoyable and repeatable. It’s a good situation.

AF: Where are some places you’d really like to tour that you haven’t had a chance to visit yet?

ST: Italy. Italy. Italy. Have done much of Europe a handful of times, but never Italy. Japan too, though I hate to fly so it’s a bit of a tall order.

AF: From what I’ve read your whole family is creative. Did making art ever seem like an option for you, or was it simply a necessity?

ST: It’s just part of the culture of how I came up. It was never enforced of course, but it’s very natural to always have a project on the go. Any way of life that doesn’t accommodate constant creativity would seem awfully dull in my view.

AF: What’s up next for Slim Twig?

ST: Dragging an appropriation of rock ‘n’ roll kicking and screaming into a place free of cliche, sexism and trod on association. Wish me luck!

AF: GOOD LUCK!!! We’d expect nothing less from you. Keep that fire burning.

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