Bobby Bazini, his girlfriend, his guitar and their dog were ready for their great road trip across the U. S. of A. They were headed from his native Montreal to L.A. to record Bobby’s sophomore album, Where I Belong, but he wanted to drive there so he could fill his head up with wide-open spaces, beauty and truth, stuff that would inform his work in the studio. Whether or not his Kia would make it 2,800 miles remained to be seen, but it didn’t really matter: he was well aware that the next time he travelled to L.A., it would be on a plane.

“It would’ve been a lot more romantic to take this trip in a sporty convertible, but it would also have cost a lot more in gas,” says Bazini, laughing. Since then, he’s been back in the United States to present showcases, give interviews and play opening slots for singer Lily Kershaw. “Breaking the U.S. market takes time. You have to start from scratch, and stop at nothing to make sure people come in contact with your music. Opening for other artists is hard. A lot of the concertgoers haven’t made it to the venue yet, and the ones who are there are talking among themselves because they’re not there to see you… You need to be in top shape and give everything you’ve got to capture people’s attention. After the shows, I go into the crowd of spectators to give out free downloads of my songs.”

“In the end, it’s my name and my face we see on posters. I want the decisions to be in line with who I am.”

The artist makes no bones about it: “The whole seduction game requires great discipline. I don’t have time to play rock star. When I’m on tour, I drink a lot more lemon water with a touch of honey than I do alcohol. I try to go to bed early whenever I can. I don’t want to be onstage and fear that my voice won’t make it ‘til the end of the show.”

Barely 25, Bazini does come across as a high performance race car surrounded by a team of engineers. Chief among them are Larry Klein (Joni Mitchell, Madeleine Peyroux, Melody Gardot), who produced Where I Belong and signed him to his Strange Cargo imprint before convincing Capitol to launch the album in the U.S. ; his international agent, Rich Isaacson, who’s also behind Mika’s career; Universal Canada; and, last but not least, his close entourage and local management team: Geneviève Gélineau and media personality Mike Gauthier.

Barely three years ago, following the immense success of his debut album, Better In Time, Bazini had to completely rebuild his career and team following a stormy breakup with his previous manager. (See Turning the Page, below.) “When I started my career,” he says, “I had no idea how the business worked, but now, I get involved in all the decisions about my career and marketing strategies. I get involved a lot more and I chose my team according to this philosophy: I want to know where I’m going, and I have a veto on all decisions concerning my likeness and my music,” explains the songwriter who, admittedly, finds this approach a bit difficult at times. “Sometimes, it means I get information that artists don’t always need to know, such as the offers and counter-offers during a contract negotiation, but in the end, it’s my name and my face we see on posters. I want the decisions to be in line with who I am.”

According to Bazini, a good example of this is the fact that not a single producer (besides Larry Klein) was allowed in the studio during the recording of Where I Belong. “Larry sent them the record once it was completed, and that’s I,” says Bazini. “It was like night and day compared to my first album, where management was constantly looking over my shoulder to make sure I was writing hits. This time around, I did what I pleased, such as leaving folk behind and incorporating more soul.”

This new musical direction started to germinate even as Bazini was still touring for Better in Time –  thanks to Larry Klein, who gave him the leeway to do so. “By writing my new songs on an acoustic guitar, I knew they’d take on another dimension once the soul arrangements did their thing. I’ve always loved soul music, and thanks to Larry’s rolodex, I had the incredible chance to play with soul legends, such as Booker T. Jones, who played organ for Otis Redding, percussionist Jack Ashford, who played on many Marvin Gaye records, and, above all, my favourite drummer, Jay Bellerose (Diana Krall, Robert Plant & Alison Krauss, Bob Dylan, Elton John). I was like a kid in a candy store.”

Quite obviously, his producers had nothing to worry about: the platinum-certified Where I Belong was the biggest selling record in Canada made by a Canadian in 2014 and is nominated at the JUNO Awards in the Album of the Year and Fan Choice Award categories. Even though he answers our questions with the voice of a kid, his album displays a newfound maturity, and his singing voice is as powerful and emotionally-charged as ever.

Turning the page
In 2012, Cesar Boestein, Bobby Bazini’s manager, filed a lawsuit against his protégé, claiming breach of contract and asking for $108 000 in damages. “I won, since he didn’t even show up in court, but after auditing his financial records, turned out it was he who owed me money. He went bankrupt and I lost a lot of money, but it’s all behind me now. I surrounded myself with a new management team, on the same wavelength as me. Our relationships are simple and very human; no one’s playing a game. During my concerts, it’s my manager Mike Gauthier who tunes my guitars backstage and hands them to me. I get a definite impression that we’re all working towards a common goal.”

“If my album had been released by a Francophone white person, it’d be called electro music. If it had been released by Beyoncé or Kanye West, it’d be called pop or hip-hop,” says Pierre Kwenders, smiling wryly.

The young Congolese national, who arrived in Québec when he was 16, couldn’t be more right.

Following two critically acclaimed EPs – he was especially embraced on college radio and Radio-Canada, where he was consecrated as one of the musical discoveries of 2014-2015 – he launched his first full length album, Le dernier empereur bantou [The Last Bantu Emperor], a thoroughly unclassifiable album. 

“One must not be afraid to shake things up.”

His electro rhythms are not really danceable. His African roots show, but in his lyrics rather than through typical world beat arrangements. And despite an ever-present desire to push boundaries, his songs rally listeners without ever sounding like pop songs.

That’s not to say, however, that the album – composed with beatmakers Nom de Plume (the brains behind the beats of Radio Radio), Samito and Poirier – is devoid of a common thread.

With his brassy voice, his incantation-like delivery and the themes he touches upon in French, English, and the Bantu dialects of Lingala and Tshiluba, Kwenders’ work has an unmistakable and unique identity.

“When I work with a producer, I don’t impose any stylistic constraint on them,” he says. “I like surprises and being carried away by sound. Where we’re in the recording studio, Nom de Plume and Samito play tracks for me and as soon as I fall in love with one, we start working on it together. That way, things are less predictable.”

One thing’s for sure, though: Kwenders knows that what he wants to avoid at all cost is to use the clichés of world music.

“I don’t mean that Québec world artists aren’t good, most of them do excellent work, but many creators have a hard time leaving the realm of their upbringing,” he says. “They reproduce what they’ve heard throughout the years without ever trying to move things forward. One must not be afraid to shake things up.”

Thus, his collaboration with Nom de Plume and Jacobus from Radio Radio on the track “Ani Kuni” seems totally natural. Just as Kwenders did, that Acadian rap group has turned its back on purists and camped itself firmly in a vigorous modernism.

“That’s not what united us in the first place, but it’s still true”, says the artist, who met Radio Radio after attended one of their concerts.

“Predictable” is a word to be avoided when describing both the Montrealer’s music and his journey. Raised by his single mother until she moved to Québec to prepare her family’s immigration, José Louis Modabi – alias Pierre Kwenders – had to wait a full year before he could join her on this side of the Atlantic Ocean. Today, he cites his mom as his main source of inspiration.

“She taught me what it means to be hard-working, to be a winner,” he says. “All my life, she’s given me her full support, no matter what the undertaking. But it needs to be said that Bantus have extremely strong family values.”

Spanning a large swath of Africa between Cameroon and the Comoros, and from Sudan to South Africa, the immense Bantu Empire was fragmented during the colonial era of the 19th Century.

Now, 200 years later, the title of his album and the costume he wears on stage are not totally unrelated to a certain urge to unite his people once more.

“I want people to know about this empire that we never hear about, compared to the Ottoman and British empires, for example,” says Kwenders. “Wherever they are in the world, the Bantu people have common traits: they are open to culture, they have great values and an unabashed joie de vivre. I hope to touch people with my songs that are about Bantu history and the current situation in Africa. The song ‘Ali Boma Ye’  is a reference to Muhammad Ali’s 1974 fight in Kinshasa. ‘Kuna Na Goma’ is about women who, still to this day, are raped on cotton plantations. ‘Cadavere’ is a denunciation of war and child soldiers. But through all this, I also strive to changes people’s perception of Africa. My song ‘Popolipo’ explains to Westerners that their knowledge of the African continent cannot be limited to what they hear on the news.”

Just like Pierre Kwenders’ album, the Bantu people cannot be reduced to a few clichés.

Turning the Page
“I’ve had to turn the page often throughout my life, but there was one situation that was particularly difficult. I ended up disappointing not one, but two entire families: mine and that of the girl I was supposed to marry, at the time. The big day was drawing near. Everybody was excited and happy, except me. I broke up with her not long before the wedding. I took me a year to get over it. I submerged myself in my studies because I was totally unable to engage in any kind of relationship.”

He’s the mau5 that continues to roar.

And rule. If the maxim “he who has the most toys wins” needs a living example as proof, then EDM superstar deadmau5 – a.k.a. Niagara Falls, ON, native son Joel Zimmerman – is it.

Zimmerman’s recent relocation from a pricey downtown Toronto condo to a gargantuan, custom-sized mansion on an 118-acre rural farm, about 45 minutes from the city, is one such extravagance.

Presumably, “Maus Mansion” is also the location where Zimmerman intends to build a 45,000 sq. ft. recording studio for what he calls “real musicians.” Though this could be bluster, considering he’s also publicly expressed an interest in buying Marineland, an amusement park attraction in his hometown. 

deadmau5 is the first Canadian musician to headline and fill Toronto’s cavernous Rogers Centre.

Another sign of his immense success is his growing collection of six- and seven-figure-priced cars. His McLaren 650S (or are there two of them?), a BAC Mono, which deadmau5 told the BBC “is kind of like a street-legal Formula 3 car”; a McLaren P1; a Bentley Continental GT Supersports; a custom Jeep Rubicon; a Range Rover; a Honda Fit; and a signature model Ferrari that Zimmerman had transformed into a “Purrari,” which he drove in the transcontinental Gumball Rally race.

But bling accumulation is only one measure of deadmau5’s popularity. The 2012 Rolling Stone magazine cover boy is easily the most recognized figure in electronic dance music (EDM) history, both for his music – a multiple Beatport and JUNO Award-winning, Grammy-nominated mix of progressive house, techno, trance and repetitive beats – and for creating a memorable visual presence in a usually faceless genre.

Zimmerman performs in his electronically-illuminated mau5head, a piece of headgear that remotely resembles a blissed-out Mickey Mouse. When the folks at Disney noticed, they requested that the United States Patent and Trademark Office investigate its stature as a trademark.

Laced with LED lights that react to the music he’s performing live, this ingenious signature has enabled Zimmerman to bridge the gap between underground and mainstream recognition. He’s hip enough that EDM lovers hunger for his next release, and cool enough that a cameo in a mainstream TV series like Gossip Girl or CSI doesn’t damage his street cred.

He’s certainly not averse to courting mainstream attention. “It’s fun to play along,” Zimmerman told Resident Advisor in 2008. “And if playing along means it’s gonna get you exposure to a six-million-wide audience that might have, by chance, been blissfully ignorant to the music you make, or to electronic music in general and then, in turn, tune in two million new fans… who are going to support new acts and new talent…”

In fact, playing along has found deadmau5 transforming himself into a dancefloor superstar that reportedly no longer performs for less than $100,000 USD a night. The first Canadian musician to headline and fill Toronto’s cavernous Rogers Centre (capacity 54,000), he’s rocketed to the top of his game in an impressively short amount of time, as per the title of his current compilation, 5 Years of Mau5.

How did he do it?

In his Niagara Falls hometown, Zimmerman took piano lessons, but the tide turned when he first became immersed in computers. “My uncle, who was more or less the black sheep of the family, was into all things technical,” Zimmerman told Resident Advisor. “He did some university stuff with computer programs when they were only a little bit more powerful than a pocket calculator. He was always the guy that the family would call to fix the computer.”

Weaned on Skinny Puppy and Steely Dan, Zimmerman began to toy with gadgetry – pulling things apart, putting them back together, and absorbing it all like a sponge. “Clocks, appliances, all that shit. I had a whole graveyard under my bed,” he told Rolling Stone in 2012.

According to Toronto Life, Zimmerman’s grandmother introduced him to video games, and that magic combination of technology and music helped set him on his way. Deadmau5 music has since appeared in DJ Hero, the Grand Theft Auto series, FIFA 13, Need For Speed: Most Wanted and even The Sims 3.

As a teen, he dabbled in computers and digital music tools and started attending raves held in secret locations, a period of time that Zimmerman longs for nostalgically. “The only bad taste left in my mouth is that there’s no more grey area with electronic music anymore,” he told Resident Advisor. “You buy your ticket to the big ‘rave’ at SkyDome [Rogers Centre] through TicketMaster and Live Nation. Dude, I really miss the meet-up points at Union Station and going to some dodgy thing that will very likely get shut down by the cops.