Though the members of MonkeyJunk may have decades between them age-wise, they share a common musical goal: to push the boundaries of the blues.

Steve Marriner, the band’s front man, is in his late twenties, lead guitarist Tony D is on the cusp of fifty, and drummer Matt Sobb falls somewhere in between. But with 12 Maple Blues Awards, a Canadian Independent Music Award, a Blues Music Award and a 2012 Juno for Blues Album of the Year (for To Behold), the generation gap isn’t slowing them down. “We’ve arrived at the same place,” explains Sobb, “but we got here on different roads.”

While all three grew up playing and listening to the blues, they also bring decidedly different musical influences to the table. “Steve is well versed in stuff that’s new,” explains Tony D with a laugh, “but I still think of stuff from the ’80s and ’90s as new music!” But Marriner says it all contributes to a sound they like to describe as “swamp R&B, soul boogie, and bedroom funk,” rather than anything that fits neatly into a single category.

When the trio first joined forces in 2008, they had no plans for making it big. Marriner, who plays harmonica, keyboards and baritone guitar, had been playing a weekly gig at Irene’s, a popular music venue in the band’s hometown of Ottawa, when he asked Tony D to accompany him. “We just wanted to have a good time on Sunday night,” he laughs. When the pair realized they were on to something, however, they called Sobb and told him he was in their new band. “We said ‘hey, we just started a band called MonkeyJunk, and you’re the drummer!” recalls Marriner.

Once they got together, things ramped up quickly. Within a month, the trio had recorded four songs, and a year later, they had their first studio album in hand. While all three shape the songs, Marriner handles most of the lyric writing, a process he says is getting easier as he learns to trust his gut. Their creative process may be mysterious and chaotic, but the band is happy with the way things are working out.

With a new album in the works, a touring schedule that includes the U.S. and France, and an ever-expanding legion of fans, the members of MonkeyJunk are keen to see what else the future has in store. “We’re just going to keep pushing the envelope,” says Marriner.

Track Record
• The name MonkeyJunk was inspired by a offhanded remark vintage American blues artist Son House made in a filmed interview. “I’m talkin’ ‘bout the blues. I ain’t talkin’ about monkey junk,” he said. The expression struck a chord with the band.
• MonkeyJunk deliberately has no bass, an homage to early blues music where it was common not to have one. Instead, Marriner plays baritone guitar.
• The band’s influences range from traditional blues (Hound Dog Taylor, Muddy Waters) to soul (Otis Redding, Al Green) to their current listening (The Meters, Little Feat, JJ Grey & Mofro, Derek Trucks).

Acceptance into one’s local music community is an important component in the career of any singer-songwriter. To be equally embraced by two communities is a major bonus, one for which Rose Cousins is deeply grateful.

The P.E.I-raised, Halifax-based Cousins is a key member of the folk/roots scenes in both Halifax and Boston. Her American connection is vividly showcased on her compelling new album, We Have Made A Spark. Her third full-length CD, it was recorded at Boston studio Q Division, produced by Bostonian Zachariah Hickman, and features a large cast of area musicians and backing singers.
Cousins has set down roots within the Boston scene over the past decade. “The people there have really lit a spark with what they’ve taught me,” she says. She traces her interest in that scene back to the late ‘90s. “I was learning how to play guitar and I was really attracted to the singer-songwriter style. I was listening to people like Deb Talan, Kris Delmhorst and John Gorka, and it seemed like everyone was filtering through the Boston area. I was hungry to connect with the places and people I was listening to, and every summer I’d look for a folk festival there to go to as my vacation.”

“I don‘t think the details are important. I think the emotion in the song is important.”

A turning point came in 2002, when Cousins played an open mic night at legendary Boston folk haunt Club Passim. That led to an invitation to perform at the Cutting Edge of Campfire benefit festival, termed by Cousins “the beginning of my becoming part of that community.”

Fittingly, her Boston CD launch for We Have Made A Spark came via a performance at Club Passim in February. “Almost everybody who plays on the album was there, and it was just amazing,” recalls Cousins. The fact that she’s recently been playing U.S. dates opening for Gorka further indicates the peer respect she’s earned there.

The eloquence of her songwriting and purity of her voice have long made Cousins a favourite on the Maritime circuit. She’s won PEI Music and Music Nova Scotia Awards, a 2008 East Coast Music Award (ECMA) for Female Solo Recording of the Year (for her album If You Were For Me), and, in 2011, ECMAs for Female Solo Recording (The Send Off) and SOCAN-sponsored Songwriter of the Year.

Cousins has been delighted to witness the success of East Coast comrades like Jill Barber, Catherine MacLellan, David Myles, Meaghan Smith, and Old Man Luedecke. “All the Atlantic regions have such an amazing variety and high level of talent. I feel I’m part of this very cool graduating class,” she says. “We all started at similar times, plugging away and meeting each other. Now everyone is doing it full-time and finding success with it.”

A signature of Cousins’ style is the unflinching honesty of her lyrics. Emotion is the real spark behind her writing, she explains. “I’m spurred by an emotion I’m feeling, ” she says. “It may be a notion I haven’t quite figured out and the writing of the song may help me do that, or it may be a pure emotion that’s harder to talk about than write about. In order to write I need to feel the thing I’m writing.”

We Have Made A Spark has been termed a “breakup” album, but Cousins disputes that characterization. “It’s not a breakup record, in the standard sense of the fact that I may have been with one person and broken up with them, ” she says. “That’s just not the case. I’m into my ‘30s now and there are chunks of time when you’re wrestling with certain things. There comes a point where you assess patterns you have, and people in your life, and things you are telling yourself, and you have to check in on those things. See what serves you and what no longer serves you. I think the record has a lot of that. It’s not about one particular person. It’s about the part of me that has to let go. I don‘t think the details are important. I think the emotion in the song is important.”

She acknowledges that she’s drawn to darker themes in her writing. “I guess I look at sadness and introspection as a little more interesting, ” she says. “There are more unexplored caves, nooks and crannies, with things hiding in them. It feels more complicated when you feel sad than when you feel joyful, and that attracts me to it. That doesn’t mean I’m a miserable person.”

Carving out time for writing is an increasing challenge, given her hectic touring schedule. “There’s not a lot of uninterrupted down time when I’m on the road,” she says, and mentions an annual retreat she’ll be taking in June. “I’ve done it for the past two years, and I’m so excited for that. No phones, no computers, just a lake and woods. That is the best time to figure out what I’m actually thinking and feeling.”

In Flames was an iconic heavy metal band from the ’90s. It’s also the title of Haralabos (Harry) Stafylakis’ second string quartet, which premiered in New York in May. There are no death metal growls in the quartet, but the title is hardly a coincidence. Stafylakis composed, played guitar and sang for years in a metal band – progressive metal, to be sure, and unabashedly informed by classical and jazz practice, but, yes, there was some screaming.

Stafylakis’ band days are behind him, but metal’s power chords, dense textures, guitar-riff basslines and complex rhythms are not. In fact, the intersection of heavy metal and classical music is the focus of the Ph.D Stafylakis is pursuing at the City University of New York (CUNY), where he studies with David Del Tredici.

“Contemporary metal bands Symphony X and Opeth are as integral to my sound world as Beethoven and Stravinsky,” says Stafylakis, who received his B.A. in composition from McGill University in 2010. “I’m not in line with the prevailing zeitgeist that art music should be as difficult and innovative as possible. If higher music is to survive – and if I’m going to enjoy myself – it needs to be more inclusive.”

“If higher music is to survive it needs to be more inclusive.”

Not that metal is always obvious in his music, although it is sometimes explicit, as in the saxophone quartet, Sharp End, or in Critical Density, which won a SOCAN Foundation Award for Young Composers. Stafylakis considers Critical Density – essentially a guitar concerto with string quartet accompaniment – his “masterpiece” to date.

But not surprisingly for someone who composes by singing, Stafylakis is increasingly drawn to writing for voice. Ubi Sunt, for women’s choir, harp, vibraphone and strings also won a SOCAN Foundation Young Composers Award, and recent projects include The Metal and the Flower for tenor, accordion and piano, set to poetry by P.K. Page; and The Esther Diaries, for soprano and chamber ensemble (based on the Biblical story of Esther, with a libretto by Ellen Frankel), which premieres in New York in December.

Stafylakis likes his music to sound big. “I come from the Romantic tradition – as does progressive metal in general – so I tend towards lushness, even if my actual language is not Romantic,” he says. Consecutive chords don’t progress diatonically, and Stafylakis avoids “the cheesiness of the pure major scale,” preferring to cycle quickly through different modes to exploit their characteristic qualities.

But he loves triads, seeing “no reason to dismiss them simply because other people have used them for thousands of years.” Charles Ives, who once stood up just as categorically for dissonance, might have admired Stafylakis’ attitude. That’s apt, inasmuch as the American Academy of Arts and Letters recently awarded Stafylakis a prestigious $15,000 Charles Ives Fellowship.

Ives, of course, quoted prodigiously, and Stafylakis’ music has moments that seem oddly familiar. But there are no postmodernist (or modernist) quotations here. “I don’t do irony and humour,” says Stafylakis, categorical again. “My main reason for composing is to create more of the kind of music that I like.”