Draper Street in downtown Toronto runs for just a short block, but it’s loaded with history: The majority of the street is made up of beautifully preserved Victorian row houses that date back to the 1880s. Brendan Canning has been living in one of them for the past 22 years, the lone constant resident in an abode he cheekily describes as “The House That Rock Built.”

His list of former roommates and regular couch surfers could fill up a JUNO Awards telecast. Members of Sum41, Esthero, Danko Jones, and a pre-Land of Talk Liz Powell are among the many musicians who’ve enjoyed Canning’s concierge services. And in his living room – where a piano abuts his sizable vinyl collection, and where there’s always an acoustic guitar at the ready on the sofa – he’s etched out the rough song sketches that get blown up into indie-rock epics with his band, Broken Social Scene.

But these days, when Canning walks his two dogs around the block, he sees a neighbourhood that’s changed dramatically since he and BSS co-founder Kevin Drew first joined forces in 1999. Where Draper Street was once a quaint sign of life in an otherwise desolate area dominated by warehouses and manufacturers, today the street feels like a fortress warding off the relentless influx of condo towers and charcuterie restaurants.

“Look at all the shit that’s happening around here,” says Canning as his dogs do their business. “Everything is getting torn down and built up. Ah, the sweet sound of cranes,” he adds, with sarcasm. It’s almost enough to make Canning feel like a stranger in his own town – which is sort of how his band feels re-entering the game after a six-year layoff.

“For this new album, we needed to have a fresh launch, see how we can make things a little different.” – Brendan Canning of Broken Social Scene

When Broken Social Scene first broke out with their second album, 2002’s You Forgot It in People, its success provided a signal boost to its numerous affiliated acts, which include synth-rockers Metric, art-pop chanteuse Feist, and psych-jazz ensemble Do Make Say Think. These days, when homegrown artists like BADBADNOTGOOD can swiftly parlay YouTube buzz into worldwide festival bookings and celebrity collaborations, it’s hard to remember how disconnected Canada’s independent music scenes were from the global music apparatus at the dawn of the 2000s.

Brendan Canning

Brendan Canning. Photo: Erin Simkin Photography

Alongside peers like The New Pornographers and Arcade Fire, Broken Social Scene helped smash the barriers that once prevented Canadian bands from crossing over to international audiences, while – through the formation of their Arts & Crafts imprint – carving out a space in the domestic music industry for artists operating in between DIY self-sufficiency and major-label beneficiary. It’s hard to imagine institutions like the Polaris Music Prize or Toronto radio station Indie88 existing without that surge.

But where Broken Social Scene were once touted as Toronto’s musical ambassadors, today the phrase “Toronto sound” has come to mean something very different – the austere hip-hop and R&B of Drake and The Weeknd, and after-hours future-soul of Majid Jordan and Charlotte Day Wilson.

Likewise, indie rock in general has drifted away from the collectivist orchestral chaos that BSS patented, toward more minimalist, synth-driven sounds attuned to contemporary Top 40 trends. In some respects, BSS helped lay the shifting groundwork for this evolution on tracks like “Pacific Theme” and “Hotel,” which loosened up indie rock to absorb dub, soul, and R&B influences. Still, Canning admits to some trepidation over where his band fits into the current musical landscape.

“We’re definitely a pre-Drake era band,” he muses. “And we haven’t released any new music in so long. Your friends say, ‘You guys, will be fine!’ Well, how the fuck do you know we’ll be fine?! For this new album, we needed to have a fresh launch, see how we can make things a little different.”

Having seen friends like The National and The War on Drugs rise to the top of indie-rock A-list over the past half-decade, Broken Social Scene have, for the first time, signed on with management – New York-based Red Light – outside the Arts & Crafts umbrella. And while the new Hug of Thunder re-unites all the key players that made You Forgot It in People a classic, it also re-formulates their chemistry with some new blood.

The album was recorded with veteran, Grammy-winning producer Joe Chiccarelli, whose credits include everyone from Frank Zappa and Journey to The White Stripes and The Strokes. And after filling in for the absent Feist and Emily Haines on tour after 2010, Ariel Engle – the wife of guitarist Andrew Whiteman – makes her proper BSS vocal debut with two of the album’s standout tracks: the stirring, celestial ballad “Gonna Get Better” and the delirious, tropical funk of “Stay Happy,” about which Canning is particularly enthused.

“Ariel grew up on ‘90s R&B,” he says, “and she just brings so much power and passion. She and Andrew brought ‘Stay Happy,’ but it definitely grew into something much more. Everyone added something really interesting, whether it’s as subtle as Kev’s [Kevin Drew’s] piano line, or Charles’ [Charles Spearin’s] guitar line, which got turned into a flute line. There’s reggae bass, there’s horns, and Ariel delivers a really great vocal. It’s a real nice leap for the band, because it sounds like Social Scene, but there’s just no fat to be trimmed.”

That concision is ultimately what distinguishes Hug of Thunder from its predecessors. On earlier BSS records, you could hear the sound-sculpting happen in real time – that process of seemingly random ambient motifs gradually coalescing into melodies and grooves. The songs on Hug of Thunder are as overstuffed as ever – “Vanity Pail Kids” manages to pack in an industrial drum groove, soul-revue brass stabs, dissonant guitar fuzz, a disco chorus, chopped-up house-diva vocal refrains, and background chatter – but they’re confined to tighter spaces, less a jumble of sounds than an orderly Tetris board of interlocking elements.

Take the lead single “Halfway Home,” for example. “That song got laboured over an awful lot,” Canning says. “The chorus goes into a first verse that doesn’t repeat, which goes into a refrain that doesn’t repeat, and another verse that’s based on a different idea than the first verse… The song sounds ‘single-ish,’ though I think Broken Social Scene’s idea of a single is different than a lot of radio programmers’ ideas of singles.”

But if BSS seem genetically incapable of ever conforming to the sounds of the times, they have a preternatural ability to tap into their emotional tenor. Their music doesn’t so much directly address the politics of the day as reflect our personal responses to them: anxiety and fear, yes, but also the fragile hope that we’ll make it through to better days. Certainly, a big reason why You Forgot It in People connected so deeply with fans was the environment into which it was released: a post-9/11 landscape fraught with looming threats, both local (SARS) and global (the Iraq war). The ensuing years have only further entrenched their belief that music is the only social media you need.

It’s that therapeutic quality that inspired Kevin Drew to corral BSS back into the studio following the November 2015 terrorist attack at the Bataclan in Paris. And their purpose became even more evident on May 23, 2017, when the band performed an emotionally-charged show in Manchester the night after Ariana Grande’s concert was bombed just a few blocks away. Whether the changes they’ve made, both musically and behind the scenes, lead to next-level success remains to be seen. For now, Canning is grateful that Broken Social Scene can still provide sanctuary for unsettled souls.

“It’s nice that we can still be relevant in some way, without being overly political about the hardened times we’re living in,” he says. “We can be the call-to-arms band you turn to for inspiration and joy… but doing our best to not pander to an anthemic, feel-good, Coca-Cola-ad vibe.”
Words & Music contributor Stuart Berman wrote the book on Broken Social Scene. Literally. You can buy it by clicking on the book cover below.

This Book Is Broken

We have liftoff! Bob Bouchard and Lou Bélanger are in orbit! Six months after launching their first dancehall fusion album under their project named Di Astronauts, the two prolific producers from Québec City are charting their course, in the hope that their songs will circle the globe. First the FrancoFolies, then the Festival d’été de Québec, and tomorrow… the whole universe!

But wait… Who exactly are Di Astronauts? Hunched over a speakerphone in their hotel room in Saskatoon, where they’re slated to accompany singer Marième , the three musicians talk over each other: Bouchard and Bélanger – veterans of Québec City’s rap/groove scene, and members of the Movèzerbe and CEA collectives – as well as Papa T, Québec City’s most well-known Jamaican.

Di Astronauts

Di Astronauts singers at FEQ 2017. Left to right: Dah Yana, Marième, Sabrina Sabotage (Photo: Marième)

“A polymorphous collective? I guess that’s pretty much it,” says Bouchard, adding that this first album, Lova Notes & Outta Space Poems, also features King Abid, Sabrina Sabotage and Marième. A bona fide tribe, as it were.

“Di Astronauts is our lab,” says Bélanger. “It’s our excuse for doing what we’d been meaning to do for a long time, now.” Which is to say, an agile mix of French, English, Patois and Arabic pop (thanks, King Abid!) in a dancehall and Jamaican new roots style, with accessible electronica sauce. This tasty, multi-chef melting pot is cohesive despite, or thanks to, the wide variety of musical ingredients that go into it.

“We love the idea of a collective project,” says beat-maker Bouchard. “Stuff like Major Lazer or Bran Van 3000 – you have no idea how big fans we are of Bran Van! That’s the concept: a core of in-house producers, who’ve given themselves the leeway to invite anyone to sing along. It’s a process that we’re comfortable with, the whole notion of giving a project a global musical direction, while incorporating the talent of a multitude of artists who bring their own flavour to the songs.”

Their project might’ve been lifted straight from Major Lazer, but it’s still quite bold for the Québec music scene. Reggae and dancehall aren’t exactly staples of popular music in the province, except on the rare occasion where a pop artist will dip a toe in that relatively exotic pool. Making what’s essentially an entire album of that sound – and managing to make it so catchy – is a tour de force that can only be fuelled by true passion.

“Like everyone else, we liked reggae after hearing albums by Bob Marley, Peter Tosh or even Gainsbourg,” says Bob Bouchard. “Marième is a huge reggae fan, and she got us to explore more of it. We were more attuned to hip-hop, through contact with the guys from Alaclair, Movèzerbe, etc. Then, as the rap scene grew whiter and more nihilistic, we realized that reggae was what we identified more with, the whole idea of changing the world together through a positive message… Which is what we initially liked about rap, in the end.

Di Astronauts

Di Astronauts singers at Francofolies 2017. Left to right: King Abid, Papa T. (Photo: Mathieu)

“But props need to be given where they’re due: Québec City’s ‘Captain of Reggae’ is King Abid. When he got here, he wanted to create a reggae scene.” And he pulled it off: there are now several community and college radio stations with dancehall-reggae themed shows, as well as several events organized around the genre. As Bob says, “there aren’t that many people supporting the reggae scene in Québec City, but those that love it really fucking love it!

We love reggae and we play it in a very contemporary way. We try to avoid playing in a nostalgic or ‘tourist-y’ way. And now, since music is being consumed through streaming platforms, our strategy is to create music that can travel and acting accordingly, such as going to Jamaica with Papa T to shoot our video and build relationships with local singers.”

Di Astronauts’s trick is to be active on all fronts: radio, thanks to an electro-pop ditty, “Feelin’ Better,” sung by Sabrina Sabotage on one hand, and on the other, streaming platforms and YouTube with the sunny dancehall grooves. Time and time again, the two studio rats will come up with a good groove, then shop it around to various vocalists so that it can see the sunshine.

“To us, it’s a long-haul project,” says Bélanger. “It allows us to launch singles whenever we want, EPs, videos, but always with that collaborative approach. Right now, we’re thinking about an all-female project that would be called Di Astronettess. We also plan on an all-French project, simply because we’re signed to Coyote Records. We believe that Di Astronauts is a platform which can easily carry us over the next five to ten years. It can be very poppy, but it’s very cohesive, specific, niche. It affords us that kind of freedom.”


Photo: Fany Ducharme

It’s often said that in 2017, songwriters are faced with a massive challenge because everything has been said already, especially in the folk realm. Re-inventing the wheel is nearly impossible. And 15 years as a music journalist seems to point in the same direction. As a matter of fact, critics tend to abandon their quest for originality in favour of a quest for authenticity. In that case, and artist stands out from the lot by spilling their guts. This occurs as much through their sound as it does through the dynamics of their playing, their energy and their sensitivity. When all those elements coalesce, even the most discerning ear will feel like it’s hearing something fresh.

It took all of one minute and thirty-four seconds for Beyries’ first album, launched in February 2017, to have that effect on this journalist. Sombre and fragile up to that moment, Alone, the album’s opening track, begins spreading its wings melodically in a goosebump-inducing way. It’s as if a beam of light pierces through melancholy, taking the piano, guitar and voice of Amélie Beyries to another dimension. The singer-songwriter replies with a very personal and touching resilience and strength to the adversity that informs her songs.

And then, a piece of information is revealed that’s the key to the puzzle. The 38-year-old musician has had 1,001 odd jobs before mustering the courage to share her songs. Then, an aggressive breast cancer and its relapse acted as game-changers, and pushed the musician to her extreme limits, whence she responded with Landing, a magnificently cathartic album.

“I let go of what I can’t control. I’m not as hard on others and myself as I was before.”

“The media abundantly covered the fact that I had cancer, that I went through a very rough patch,” says Beyries. “But suffering people are everywhere. It can be disease, death, a divorce, a depression… For me, the most important question remains: what will you do with your pain? My album is a post-event process, a post-traumatic growth.”

Beyries makes no bones about it: it’s not just what she does for a living that changed after she received her diagnosis. “I now go to places I would never have dared to go before the illness,” she says. “My vision of failure has completely changed. I let go of what I can’t control. I’m not as hard on others and myself as I was before. I absorb bad news and unexpected things with a much more zen attitude. On the flip side, I realized I have much less patience for people who constantly complain about the same damn stuff. At a certain point, we need to stop victimizing ourselves; it’s useless and prevents us from moving on.”

By transforming her pain into wisdom, Beyries burst onto the music scene with the life experience a 20-year-old can only dream of. “Starting a career in music with some life experience allows you to better see shit coming,” she says. “When I play showcases in Paris, London or New York and there’s barely anyone in the room listening because they’ve been drinking the open bar dry for the last two hours, I manage to remain focused, and to tell myself that I only need one attentive person for it to be worthwhile. When you’re my age, you’re more analytical. You’ve learned to not take yourself too seriously. It becomes easier to ask yourself the right questions and remember why you do what you do.”

But despite her hard-earned maturity, Beyries still started her life as a musician filled with a sense of being an impostor. “I feel strange, but super-happy at the same time,” she says. “I took the recognition of qualified people [including Alex McMahon, who produced Landing, and Louis-Jean Cormier, who duets with Beyries on “J’aurai cent ans,” a song that was nominated in the SOCAN Songwriting Prize] for me to start believing I had my place. I’ve not had a single negative comment since the album came out. In the end, I think that regardless of age, if you offer something personal, you’ll make a place for yourself.”

Folk music might be several Centuries old, but everything remains to be seen for an artist who spills their guts. Landing demonstrates that every time it plays.