Quake Matthews

Quake Matthews

No one will ever deny the impact Aubrey “Drake” Graham – at 8.7 billion streams, the most globally streamed artist of 2016 – has made on hip-hop, nor the amount of Toronto-centric talent he’s mentored or seeded (like 40, Boi-1da, Majid Jordan, PARTYNEXTDOOR, Nineteen85, just to name a few) on the way to their own international success stories.

But it’s also important to remember that Drizzy and The Six aren’t the only game in Canada: there are rappers from East to West across the country who are making their own noise, creating their own buzz – and not necessarily contemplating a T.O., L.A., or NYC re-location to further their careers.

Quake Matthews is one such individual, who feels that life in Halifax, N.S., is good enough to forego the city where the majority of the rap music-industry machinery is based. “I definitely don’t feel compelled to move to Toronto,” says Matthews, a two-time East Coast Music Award winner. He recently dropped his new Classified-produced single “Just Another Love Story,” featuring Reeny Smith, in anticipation of his forthcoming six-song EP Celebrate the Struggle.

“A big example to me was Classified, who’s undoubtedly one of the biggest hip-hop artists in Canada,” says Matthews. “He never made the move, so it showed me that it was possible.” It’s a strategy that seems to be working. “I’ve seen my show price rise – almost double in the last year,” he says.

Rollie “Cadence Weapon” Pemberton – the veteran, Polaris Prize-shortlisted rapper and poet who’s put out two albums and two mixtapes since the dual releases of 2005’s Cadence Weapon is the Black Hand and Breaking Kayfabe – now calls Toronto home. But during his formative years in Edmonton, that city’s lack of a strong, central rap scene did him a big favour.

Cadence Weapon

Cadence Weapon (Photo: Coey Kerr)

“I think it was beneficial because there was no history,” says Pemberton. “There was no pressure or expectation of how music has to sound. If I was making a rap song with an electro beat, or rock drums, there was no historical precedent to make me feel like, ‘Oh, that’s not how people do it here.’ In a lot of ways, it was very freeing.”

Pemberton, who also called Montréal home for six years before settling in Toronto for personal reasons, feels a long-held loathing of the T-Dot helped strengthen the Edmonton indie music scene. “Back in Edmonton, the vibe was very dismissive towards Toronto,” says Pemberton. “When I would play Toronto, and tell people I’m from Edmonton, they’d go, ‘Oh, I’m sorry to hear that.’

“That makes you really competitive. A lot of people in Edmonton pride themselves on just being able to build their own music community without any help from the other side of the country, or any kind of exposure elsewhere. It’s a very insular scene.”

“When I would play Toronto, and tell people I’m from Edmonton, they’d go, ‘Oh, I’m sorry to hear that.’ That makes you really competitive.” – Cadence Weapon

The Lytics

The Lytics

The Lytics can relate. The absence of Toronto’s shadow, and the long distance from the music establishment, enabled the Winnipeg-based, brother-heavy quartet to discover its own sound.

“Being away from the noise sometimes, you get to hone your skills and your own sound without the scrutiny of the industry,” says The Lytics’ Andrew “Andrew O” Sannie. “So early in your career, you’re not really thrown to the lions. If you’re good at what you do, you rise to the top a little quicker in a smaller town. It becomes more obvious that you may have something.  Plus, the competition isn’t as fierce. If I end up putting on a show on in Toronto, I’ve got to wade through a lot of noise to draw attention.

“But without Toronto, in a lot of ways, Canada isn’t as available to you,” he says. “What we’ve had to do is find a path that led us to more eyes, finding the industry from different routes – like doing the [2016 Allan Slaight] JUNO Masterclass – because I really had no idea how to get in front of these people. Our strategy has been, ‘I’m going to throw myself in front of you as much as I possibly can. Eventually, you’re going to have to respond.’

“What we’ve done, also, is to look outside of Canada. We manage to sustain things because we’ve been able to, in the last two years, go over to Europe and tour as much as we can.  Without having the industry at your fingers, you really need to find a different way to operate.”

Dead Obies

Dead Obies (Photo: German Moreno)

Some territories have their own challenges. Québec has such a cultural distinction from neighbouring Ontario that Jean-François “Yes McCan” Ruel of the six-member, Franglais-rapping, experimental hip-hop collective Dead Obies says Toronto doesn’t even register on its radar.

“What’s happening in Toronto, to me, is as relevant as what’s happening in New York or Houston,” says Ruel. “To me, it’s not related to our culture, like how we live and talk. We do have huge love for that scene – the XO [The Weeknd] and OVO [Drake and crew] – but here, it’s another world. Either you try to make it in English, so you aim for the world, or you try to make it here, so you aim for the French.”

Ruel says Québec’s dual ability to solely support self-contained artists and distribute “a good bunch of money that comes from government funding” ensures their survival. Although sales of their 2016 album Gesamtkunstwerk aren’t enough to buy them mansions, the band is selling concert tickets and merch in Québec like hotcakes. But that doesn’t diminish their feeling of isolation.

“If you’re good at what you do, you rise to the top a little quicker in a smaller town.” – Andrew O of The Lytics

“[Québec is] like this island, and you’re trying to make it, and there’s a lot of initiative to promote French cultural endeavours and creativity,” says Ruel. “But as far as we’re concerned, we’re a mixed bunch of French and Anglo people working together, so we’re kind of outside of that, too.

“We don’t even dream of going outside of Québec, except maybe France, because there’s a huge rap market over there,” says Ruel. “We just want to be able to make a living off it, which is not easy, because you don’t have enough local people listening to rap in French.”

SonReal (Photo: Lee Watkins)

Cadence Weapon’s new single, the Kaytranada-produced “My Crew (Wooo),” finds him rapping about the Montréal after-hours underground scene – an experience quite different than that of Dead Obies. “It was amazingly inclusive and very tight-knit,” says Rollie Pemberton, whose upcoming album chronicles both his Edmonton upbringing and his Montréal residency.

Pemberton found that the economic realities of the now-375-year-old city made life more conducive to creativity. “In Edmonton, the cost of living could keep you from spending more time being creative,” he says. “In Montréal you don’t have that problem, because the cost of living is insanely low.”

On the West Coast, Vancouver-based Aaron “SonReal” Hoffman decided to bypass Toronto and directly tackle America. He’s making serious inroads into the U.S. with his current NoWarmUp tour, playing in New York, Boston and Chicago. “It’s safe to say this is my first headlining tour where every show’s been good,” Hoffman explains.  “This is the first time we’ve sold out more shows on this tour than I’ve ever sold out, ever. These shows in America are poppin’.”

Humourous videos for such songs as “Can I Get a Witness” and “No Warm Up” have been his chief icebreakers in the U.S. market, thanks to the Internet. “I just separated myself from everybody else by doing what I thought was cool,” says SonReal, who’ll drop a new album called One Long Dream this summer. “That’s been the biggest vehicle for me, leading my fans to understand and know my whole catalogue and me. What I’m trying to do is capitalize on not being afraid to tour America. It is do-able.”

Ashleigh Eymann

Ashleigh Eymann

But at least one Vancouverite is contemplating a move to Toronto’s greener pastures. Ashleigh Eymann says that she’s gone about as far as she can go in Vancouver’s rap scene. “The more that time passes, the more that sounds quite appealing,” she says. “I love Toronto… It’s hugely inundated with the culture, and when I was there, I found it really, really inspiring, with all its availabilities and possibilities. Same with L.A. and New York; all of those places are looking pretty good.”

Eymann, who’ll be dropping a new EP in a few months, says she’s ready for the next step in her career. “[Vancouver has] been a nice incubator for me to find, and thrive in, what it is I’m doing. It’s been a close family, with so many circles that cross over, like a Venn diagram. If I’d left early, I wouldn’t have felt confident in my own stuff.”

Maybe she’ll end up in T.O., maybe she won’t. But Eymann has made it this far – and maybe one day in the near future, another city in Canada will loom large as a fresh talent hotspot for rap.

To call singer-songwriter Amelia Curran prolific qualifies as an understatement. Her new album, Watershed, released March 10, 2017, is the eighth full-length release in a recording career that dates back to her 2000 debut album, Barricade.

“I write a lot of songs,” she explains in our interview at the Toronto office of her label, Six Shooter Records. “I had almost 100 songs written since the last album. I picked through them, then ditched all of them. I felt I needed something fresh, so I spent five days at a friend’s house in Nova Scotia last May. I wrote morning, noon and night, and eight of the songs on Watershed came from that. I thought of naming the album Five Days In May, but the title was taken.”

Amelia CurranTo Curran, all those unused songs still had a purpose. “You can practice writing like you do anything else” she says. “The practice is like training for the Olympics, which is those five days.” She acknowledges that “every time I write a song I think it’s going to be a hit, but I’m a folksinger, so I don’t have hits. That’s fine,” she laughs.

She may not rack up commercial hits, but the eloquent songs she writes have earned the St. John’s, NL-based artist serious peer and critical respect. In 2010, Curran won a JUNO Award in the category of Roots and Traditional Album of the Year: Solo for Hunter Hunter. She’s won several East Coast Music Awards, including Songwriter of the Year in 2016, and also won first prize (in the Folk category) of the prestigious 15th Annual USA Songwriting Competition.

Watershed was recorded in Toronto last year, with Chris Stringer (Timber Timbre, The Wooden Sky, Jill Barber) co-producing with Curran. In the past, she’s worked with such noted producers as John Critchley and Michael Phillip Wojewoda, and she explains that she keeps switching to keep it fresh. Curran did bring over the same musicians that played on her last album, 2014’s They Promised You Mercy: guitarist Dean Drouillard, drummer Joshua Van Tassel, and bassist Devon Henderson.

“I’ve never had the same band before, and I can hear the camaraderie there,” she says. “They’ve worked so much with Chris Stringer that when we got together in a room, we knew exactly what we were going to get out of it. We were familiar with each other’s sound and habits – and grumpiness! They’re amazing players and they feel like family… It was definitely a team effort, and I wanted that so badly.”

Curran is looking forward to bringing the band for some of her touring. “They’re a great support system for me, as often I’m on the road by myself, and that can get very difficult,” she says. “What can be very unhealthy living turns into a positive experience.”

“It’s a completely different culture of songwriting in Nashville, writing towards a goal. For me writing has always been so exploratory, so I struggle with that.”

In April, Curran participates in the Writes of Spring Ontario tour, alongside fellow songsmiths Tim Baker (of Hey Rosetta!), Donovan Woods, and Hawksley Workman, and there are many more tour dates (click on “tour”) after that. Stripping down the recorded versions of her new songs is a challenge Curran terms “tricky, but really fun. You come up with completely different vibes of the song. For instance, ‘No More Quiet’ has big ‘70s horns, electric guitar, and Shakura S’Aida wailing at the end, but I’ll make it really soft now.”

Curran is continually challenging herself to extend her range as a songwriter, as shown by recent visits to the SOCAN House in Nashville. “I was there last November, and in the February before that,” she says. “I consider myself to be dipping my toe into that [Nashville] world. It’s a completely different culture of writing there, writing towards a goal. For me writing has always been so exploratory, so I struggle with that.

“The jury is still out on the relationship between me and Nashville, but what a great world it is there. Every other person you see is a songwriter, and that’s a fantastic thing.

To coincide with the release of Watershed, Curran is publishing Relics & Tunes (via Breakwater Books) on March 17th. She explains that “this is a songbook, with all the lyrics and the guitar chords from my five Six Shooter albums. I see it as a humble offering – ‘if you’d like to take these songs and give them further life, here you go.’” The book will also include an original essay by Curran.

Outside her deep commitment to the craft of writing, Curran has, in recent years, devoted plenty of energy to her newer role as an advocate for mental health. She founded the St. John’s-based organization It’s Mental, designed to provide education, service and support for those battling mental illness.

She explains that “our role as an advocacy group is to rally people. We have to say we’re tired of waiting for bureaucracy and legislation. Our role is to try to inspire and empower people, to show we can be there for our communities and to remember that our communities are there for us.”

Curran has been courageously candid about her personal battle with mental illness. “People with whom I have worked directly have always been aware of my own issues,” she says. “I’ve never kept that a secret, but my first and largest surprise was how much it meant to people when I actually said it in a very public platform. I completely underestimated how important that was.

“One of my life’s goals is to see attitudes to mental illness change in my lifetime. I want to move the pendulum as much as I can and help change that system.”

Yves DaoustIntroducing kids to music by letting them get their hands on, and create contemporary tracks; such is the challenge to which composer Yves Daoust has committed himself for the past decade. It all started with Musicolateur, at first an actual wood plank, which morphed into a mobile app, both based on a unique principle: using pre-recorded sounds, which the user can modulate them at will, thus liberating their inner John Cage or Gordon Mumma.

First launched in 2005 by Daoust and his multi-disciplinary artist friend Alexandre Burton, the project made the educational circuit throughout Québec, and was highly successful with audiences of all ages – who were allowed to discover a rich universe too often reserved for a relatively closed coterie of initiates.

“There’s no doubt that its ease of use is a great democratizing tool,” says Daoust. “Anybody can do it, and its access is limitless. That allows it to become part of people’s lives to the point where kids won’t even be surprised anymore… I remember this young girl, at the end of a workshop who told me: ‘I’ve discovered that it’s possible to make music with any sound, even with this!” she said while clapping her hands. That’s precisely our fundamental mission, our goal. We never mention any label when we talk to them, we don’t talk about electro-acoustic or contemporary music, we just create,” says Daoust , over the phone, on the day after the launch of his tool’s most recent incarnation, the fonofone, at Montréal’s Centre Phi.

The Result of a Long Process

FonofoneAs the outcome of 15 years of research, and partly financed by the SOCAN Foundation, the fonofone is both an electro-acoustic music studio and a digital chamber-music instrument.

Obviously, Daoust is conscious of the fact that targeting a young audience is especially relevant because of that audience’s capacity to absorb new information. “Young people are still relatively ‘pristine,’ and are therefore a rich soil,” he says. “Each workshop is an occasion of wonderment. Besides, it’s based on a technology that this new generation was basically born with, so we gradually left the hardware behind to focus solely on the software… We see how kids are perfectly comfortable with these technologies on a very instinctive level. Adults are hesitant to touch it, but kids are fearless and dive right in! They’re incredibly fast, and have impressive manual dexterity! Might as well make the most of it, and introduce them to something educational and interesting.”

And Music for All

To fulfill their desire to meet ever more curious, open minds, Daoust and his team made the fonofone available to everyone through the App Store last week.

So far, so good. “We got a lot of reactions, people are passionate about it,” says Daoust. “I don’t think anyone has seen anything like this before on iOS. It was initially designed with educational intent, but as far as creating music goes, there’s nothing else like it. What draws people in is its purely intuitive side: everything is in real time! But it’s also a performance tool. The beta versions were purely educational, but when we developed the current version, it became just as interesting from a creative perspective, and Kid Koala is a great example of that. It’s a tool that anyone can use!”

From school to stage, there clearly is only one app. Despite delivering his tool, which he uses for his own professional compositions, to a wider, less homogenous audience, the breadth of his commitment towards future generations is unimpeachable. “I believe the best way to discover a medium, and introduce young people to music, is to invite them to create some,” says Daoust. “It develops their imagination to an unbelievable degree, and that is not important, it’s essential! All one needs to do is come at them with respect and intelligence.”