They’re not the first to say so: music brings people together. Equipped with his electronic beats and his bass, Jean-François Lemieux was looking to forge links with music he didn’t yet know, and so Afrikana Soul Sister was born. A native of Mali, Djely Tapa sings atop the dancing rhythms, while Joannie Labelle and Fa Cissokho play percussion that “humanizes” the sometimes cold feeling of computer-based music. And then the magic happens…

“I’ve always been into World music in general,” says Lemieux, while he readily admits that Afrikana Soul Sister happened largely by chance. Electronic music allows him to escape his comfort zone the most easily. “What’s so simple about electro is that we do sampling, and are able to mix eras and places,” he says. “I went to Morocco and came back with many ideas.”

Once he was back home in Montréal, he wanted to visit Africa without leaving home. “Thank to a friend, I met African musicians, and that was it,” Lemieux remembers. And although he does consider music as a business, it was still important to him to absorb the meaning that rhythms carry in other places. “I’ve earned a living in this business for 35 years, to me it’s a source of revenue,” he says. “But in Africa, music plays a different role, it plays a social role first, and it’s even used to heal, or in certain rituals.”

It was therefore crucial to Lemieux that the African community approved of him; he wants to know the meaning of what they’re playing as a group. “It was important to me to have an exchange,” he says. “It had to be a meeting of their traditional rhythms and what I do. They don’t operate according to the same codes, that’s why I chose house music, because it’s the one music that’s closest to their sound.” As a matter of fact, that’s part of the way they work: Jean-François let’s things happen on their own, and it often ends up as a jam session, but he still wants to understand the message afterward.

To Lemieux, Djely Tapa and Fa Cissokho aren’t just musicians. “It’s important to go beyond creation,” he says, “because in Africa, people who are musically inclined are guardians of tradition, social mediators. It’s essential that you always understand the others’ codes when you’re playing music.”

True unifiers, Afrikana Soul Sister don’t make music for themselves, but to please people. ‘We play in summer festivals and clubs for people of all ages,” says Lemieux. “We’re trying to create a hybrid of world and electronic music, as if to transmit to the audience a bit of culture amid their dancing music.”

That’s how the band adapts to any crowd. “We can play a general-public gig in the afternoon, and play a club the same night,’ he says, explaining that one of the band members” common goals is to play at events like Piknic Électronik. “In DJ culture, there are no musicians or singers onstage, which is a disadvantage for us,” says Lemieux. “But we’d like to demonstrate that boundaries in music aren’t so sealed.”

The coming year should see the release of a new EP from the band, after releasing their eponymous debut album in 2017. “There’s a marked interest ingenres such as ours, anything to do with African electronic music, like Pierre Kwenders, for example,” says Lemieux. “but, humbly, I haven’t heard much that sounds like we do.”

Thanks to Instagram, the band is starting to make friends all over the place, and is considering the option to play abroad when the timing is right. “There’s a bona fide movement going on, thanks to Samito, Ngabo and others,” he says. “My goal is to promote the community aspect at the root of our sound.”

Afrikana Soul Sister’s stage shows are part improv and part calculated, with a very festive vibe, every time. “What we appreciate the most is when Africans come to our show and dance, and tell us they like what they’re hearing,” Lemieux admits. “The rest doesn’t matter!”


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SOCAN members! Do you ever wonder who makes the decisions that can influence the path of your musical career? In a new series of articles, under the heading Decision-Makers, the SOCAN online magazine interviews some of those people to find out what makes them tick, and how best to approach them.

A self-admitted “night owl,” who survives on sleep deprivation and obsesses over every sentence, Ben Rayner’s brain doesn’t start firing until at least 4:00 p.m. He’s known for his sardonic wit, which have led some to describe him as “that guy who just doesn’t give two shits.” The reality is this: when it comes to critics, Rayner is one of the premier purveyors of musical taste in this country. As an industry “decision-maker,” he cares more than most. He admits one of his faults is never saying no; Rayner does his best to respond to the more than 650 e-mails he receives each day. The Toronto Star music critic/columnist also listens to more music than most – making it hard not to respect his opinions, even though they often stray to an underground scene or new niche others neglect.

Says Rayner, “I always say to people who ask me why I do this, that I like hanging out in bars, sleeping in late, and going out to rock shows.”

 FAST FACTS
Age: 43
Born: Colchester, England
Employer: The Toronto Star
First Cassette: Rick Springfield – Success Hasn’t Spoiled Me Yet
Favourite Band: Joy Division
Seminal Record: The Jesus & Mary Chain – Psychocandy
Twitter: @IhateBenRayner

Rayner and I exchange texts for a week before we chat in the late afternoon [I wanted to make sure his brain was in top condition.] The music writer is hard to pin down; that’s not surprising when you learn his work/life balance these days vacillates between a job that sees him out at shows until the wee hours and dad duties to 18-month-old daughter Polly, appropriately named after PJ Harvey. The 43-year-old laughs when we finally connect and I tell him the name of this new SOCAN series of articles.

“I don’t consider myself a decision-maker,” he says. “I’m more of a ditherer… A passenger, not a go-getter!”

Somehow this leave-it-to-fate life philosophy worked; in June of 2018, this “passenger” celebrated his 20th anniversary at The Toronto Star. It was inevitable Rayner ended up in journalism, and in a career that revolved around music; his parents met while working for the same newspaper in England, and his dad was an audiophile and mixed-tape enthusiast. As a teenage goth/punk kid, Rayner read music magazines like Spin and the now-long-defunct Graffiti voraciously; bands that formed the soundtrack to the writer’s formative years included The Jesus & Mary Chain, Joy Division, The Church, and The Damned.

One wonders how, after two decades in the business, he still keeps it real, and stays on top of what’s hot, cool, and trendy in the minds of the hipsters?

“I read a lot of music journalism, listen to a lot of music, and keep my ear to the ground,” says Rayner. “That hasn’t changed; what has changed is the volume of music, and whole scenes within the city that I can only skim. Many people say, ‘Keeping up with music today is a full-time job.’ And yes, for me it is. But I have that luxury because it is my full-time job!”

Rayner recently celebrated his Star milestone just like every other anniversary for the past two decades: up north, in the woods, and at a rave. “That’s my solstice,” he adds. “That’s how I still keep it real!”

How did this tastemaker end up as the chief music critic for one of Canada’s oldest and biggest dailies? Flash back 22 years. During his fourth year of journalism school at Carleton University, Rayner got a summer gig at The Ottawa Sun covering some entertainment, some hard news, and even the crime beat. He liked Ottawa, and didn’t expect to ever live in Toronto, but that’s where fate punched the next ticket on this journalism journey.

Three tips to crack Rayner’s inbox
1. Be Patient: “Just don’t badger me! I have a short temper and I will freeze people out. I have literally hundreds of people a day pitch me. Don’t take it personally. Sometimes you won’t hear back. I’m just not interested.”
2. Know Your Target Audience: “Don’t pitch me on The Tenors. Most publicists know when they will get a hit.”
3. Make it personal: “I know it’s hard not to do a mass e-mail, but personalizing your note goes a long way to get my attention. I will always open an e-mail if I know you. And if I like you, I’ll open your e-mail for the rest of my life.”

“When The National Post arrived, The Toronto Star decided to compete by hiring a bunch of young writers, so I applied,” says Rayner. “I didn’t think I would get it; I thought I had botched the interview, so I went and did some mushrooms with a friend at Christie Pitts and sulked; one week later I get a call offering me the job.”

Rayner joined the newspaper’s entertainment section in 1998; the rest is musical history. Over the years, he’s interviewed everyone from Neil Young and Robert Plant to Lady Gaga and Iggy Pop. While his tastes veer towards what he describes as: “music that makes me uncomfortable,” he does his best to cover all genres: from mainstream pop to classic rock, country to hip-hop, electronica to alternative.

After two decades on the music beat, how does Rayner choose who and what he writes about?

“I’ve been lucky,” he says. “I’ve had a good relationship with most of my editors over the years. They’ve always trusted my judgement. When I started, my one ace-in-the-hole was that I landed in Toronto as a fairly young rave-kid into electronic music, when most of the music coverage focused on the negatives of this scene: ‘Oh no, all our children are on drugs!’ But I talked about the music, and had an in with the promoters: I was a fan of the music, and also attended the parties. Immediately, I had this little niche that no one else had.

The Star has been very good to me,” continues Rayner. “They took a chance on a 22-year-old kid. They’re always willing to defer to my knowledge. That said, I can’t ignore Justin Bieber, Taylor Swift, or Drake. It’s a balance.”

 

 


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Meg Remy recently broke up with the love of her life. No, we’re not talking about Max Turnbull, who is still very much her husband and collaborator in her Toronto-based art-pop project, U.S. Girls. We’re talking about a muse that’s been embedded in her consciousness ever since she was a child growing up in Illinois.

U.S. Girls, Meg RemyRemy was raised Catholic, in a conservative Republican household, but one where “the radio was always on,” she says. And Bruce Springsteen was the formative Top 40 favourite, whose impact resonated far beyond other early obsessions like Billy Joel and Elton John. Even as Remy got into punk as a teenager, and began questioning everything about the world around her, she kept Bruce close to her heart, recognizing a kindred underdog spirit. And even when U.S. Girls first emerged from a tangle of tape loops and effects pedals, as a Suicide-inspired, do-it-yourself recording experiment, she managed to work in a brutalist, beat-damaged cover of the early Boss standard “Prove It All Night” on her 2008 release, Introducting… Now that U.S. Girls has evolved from the sort of noisy, droning act that might challenge a room into the sort of crack disco-pop crew that can fill a dancefloor, you can more easily detect Remy’s E Street DNA in the cinematic, sax-powered jams that course through U.S. Girls’ stunning 2018 release, In a Poem Unlimited.

But these days, the ability to separate art from the artist’s personal life is a luxury that conscientious music fans are no longer willing to entertain. And while Springsteen is by no means guilty of any R. Kelly-level transgressions, there’s something about him in particular that just doesn’t sit well with Remy. “I recently looked up his net worth,” she says over a morning coffee at her west-end local, “and it’s just not right. Nobody needs 400 million dollars!”

Of course, Remy was under no illusions that rock’s foremost working-class hero wasn’t also a filthy rich celebrity. But at a time when our economy has come to resemble a football game where the dominant players keep sadistically running up the score, Remy is finding it hard to root for even good-intentioned beneficiaries like The Boss. As such, In a Poem Unlimited is a series of requiems for the disadvantaged souls who’ve been left to die on the field, steamrolled by the crushing forces of patriarchy and late capitalism. For women trapped in abusive relationships; workers forced to inhale pollutants at their low-paying factory jobs; and voters continually let down by their country’s political apparatus, even when the person they vote for wins. (The album’s divine, mirror-ball-twirling lead single, “Mad as Hell,” takes aim at a U.S. President, though not the one you think – it’s Remy’s exasperated attempt to reconcile Barack Obama’s nice-guy image with his formidable drone-strike record.)

But as much as it’s an indictment of the modern condition, In a Poem Unlimited also doubles as a coronation of the Toronto music community that’s supported her efforts over the course of this decade. After bouncing around underground scenes in Chicago, Portland, and Philadelphia, Remy re-located to Toronto in 2011 after meeting – and quickly falling in love with – Turnbull, who was conducting his own avant/pop experiments at the time under the name Slim Twig.

“Max was someone I was comfortable enough to work with, and sing in front of, which I’d never done before,” says Remy. “I recorded my first couple of records all in the red – I thought it if it was in the red, that meant it was working! I thought the stuff I was making was much clearer than it was, but when I listen back to it now, I can’t believe that stuff came out on record, and people bought it, and liked it! Max had the technical skills to take my ideas and make them come out clean. He was basically my engineer, cheerleader, and translator, and still is.”

However, in Turnbull, Remy found more than a romantic partner and creative foil.  She was also absorbed into his expansive, eclectic network of musician friends, which include everyone from power-pop revivalist Michael Rault to dance-punk duo Ice Cream to shadowy beat-maker Mark Roberts (a.k.a. Louis Percival, a.k.a. Onakabazien). All of them would contribute to, or perform with, U.S. Girls as she cycled through the surrealist ‘60s girl-group flashbacks of 2012’s GEM, to the dubby R&B de-constructions of 2013’s Free Advice Column EP, and the lustrous pop-noir of 2015’s Half Free (which earned Remy a spot on the Polaris Music Prize short list). But on In a Poem Unlimited, Remy opens up the guest list to 20-plus contributors, most notably The Cosmic Range, the Toronto psych-jazz ensemble that serves as her backing band on the record. “They’re like the Wrecking Crew,” Remy raves. “They can just go in, and read charts, and map things out, and play things so proficiently.”

“I’d much rather confuse or surprise people than satisfy them.”

As Cosmic Range ringleader Matthew “Doc” Dunn tells it, the process of adapting his band’s improvisatory instincts to Remy’s resolute auteurist vision was effortless. “Not to sound like a big-headed asshole, but we can play any kind of music,” he says with a chuckle. “We could do classical music, jazz, funk, country music… we can tighten up when we have to. But the reason the record is so good is, Meg is so organized. She’s the most professional person I’ve ever dealt with at this level. She’d probably be appalled to hear me say that, but she really is the film director – she’s in the control room, guiding us with a very light hand. The fact that she can’t, quote-unquote, ‘play’ an instrument, but is able to do all this, is even more impressive.”

But for Remy, In a Poem Unlimited’s communal spirit extends beyond human resources to the song selection. Among the album’s highlights is “Rage of Plastics,” a sly, sultry reworking of a backwoods dirge originally written by her friend Simone Schmidt, a.k.a. Fiver, about a woman reckoning with the infertility brought on by her work in a pollution-spewing refinery. It’s the album’s lone cover, but it’s the song that best illustrates Remy’s vision for the album: to lead unsuspecting listeners toward difficult, topical subject matter via the shiny allure of pop music.

“That song just means so much to me, and I’m so inspired and in awe of it as a piece of work,” Remy says. “The original arrangement on the Fiver record appeals to me because I’m into dark, dirge-y, hard-to-take stuff. But the message is something I think everyone needs to hear, so I always wanted to do it in the style of ‘Black Velvet’ – that’s a hit, everyone loves that song. So I was like, let’s do it like ‘Black Velvet’ and get people to listen to these lyrics!”

So far, that sort of indoctrination process seems to be working. In a Poem Unlimited recently earned Remy her second Polaris short list nod, and this year has seen her accumulate all the telltale markers of a breakthrough indie-rock success: bookings at high-profile festivals around the world, steady satellite-radio play, and profiles in Rolling Stone, The New Yorker and – much to Remy’s disbelief – the Wall Street Journal. But if In a Poem Unlimited represents the pristine sculpture that was always embedded in the wall of noise Remy has been chiseling away at for the past decade, don’t be surprised if her next move is to smash it all down.

“I’m going to make another record that will probably be totally different,” she says. “It’s all about not getting bored. And it’s also a little bit of a punk thing of wanting to mess with people – like, don’t put me in a box or think you’ve got me figured out. I’d much rather confuse or surprise people than satisfy them.”


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