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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It’ll soon be 2:00 p.m., and the crowd is slowly gathering in front of Osheaga’s Valley Stage, under a glorious sun and sweltering heat. A surprise show is about to begin, offered by someone whose name is  on everyone’s lips lately: Kallitechnis. Despite a few technical hurdles, she’s about to play her biggest gig so far. “Half of my band wasn’t there, and we had to rehearse that very day,” she says. “It was quite stressful, but in hindsight, I wouldn’t change a thing; all of those hurdles were great learning experiences,” she says a few days later, on her way to her gig at Manifesto, in Toronto, a cultural festival organized in collaboration with Moonshine.

KallitechnisBut exactly how, in merely a few months, did Kallitechnis manage to climb to the top of the list of emerging Canadian artists who are working with some of the best international producers?

Born Cassandra Kouremenos in Montréal, Kallitechnis was born to Greek parents. Her artistic life began when she was four years old and took ballet lessons. Fascinated by all art forms, she also oversees the visual aspect of her productions. And as with many of her contemporaries, her career was launched in large part with the help of social media networks. Powered by “an undeniable urge to create,” she started sharing her creations online, as an outlet to express herself, including experiments and her “deep self.” Her stage name came from this artistic process. Kallitechnis is a Greek word that means “master of his art” and harks back to her origins, but also to her personality and passion for the arts.

In 2015, producer Rami Bizzle (Planet Giza) discovered her on SoundCloud. “That was my first real composition and writing experience,” she says. A few months later, Lou Phelps offered to work on her first single, “Average,” produced by none other than Montréal’s own international star, Kaytranada. “I just couldn’t believe it,” she says. “Kaytranada is someone I’ve always wanted to work with, so hearing my voice on one of his productions was an accomplishment.”

Kallitechnis found herself faced with a tough decision, typical for many young artists: should she pursue her burgeoning career, or stay in school, to eventually land a stable, well-paying job? Thinking about her future, she chose to graduate in psychology at McGill University and embark on a Master’s degree in Music Therapy at Concordia University. But before she started that, she had to complete one year in the Arts program at l’Université de Québec à Montréal. That year would prove to be pivotal. Surrounded by like-minded, talented people, she discovered sculpting and other art forms that only solidified her passion. In March 2017, her Master’s project fell through when her application was turned down. It would prove to be the turning point of her young life. And far from feeling discouraged by that rejection, she felt relieved. She took it as a sign from The Universe and decided to devote herself entirely to music.

Wet Paint, her first EP, came out a few months later, in October of 2017. At the crossroads of R&B and soul, she was inspired by luminaries like Sadé, Anderson .Paak, and Kendrick Lamar. “If I had to qualify the music I do, I would describe it as soul searching,” she says. “I write about what I know, about what I’ve gone through and – after thorough introspection – about who I am and what I feel. I love passionate people who deeply love their art form, people who are in touch with their artistic soul.”

Nowadays literally indispensable, social media networks have completely changed the music landscape by turning it into a sort of playground where explorations and unlikely collaborations happen. A true child of the online generation, Kallitechnis uses that resource to collaborate with foreign producers like Intellect (U.K.), Andrew Void (L.A.), and Evil Needle (France). As a matter of fact, it’s the one piece of advice she has for emerging artists: “Don’t wait until it falls on your lap. Be pro-active, use the resources at your disposal, and above all, be patient. One thing at a time.”

Far from wanting to give lessons to her audience, Kallitechnis sings about her perspective on life, her love of humankind, and about the strength of being vulnerable. She defines herself as a feminist in her daily actions, and doesn’t hesitate to talk about her experience as a woman, of the hurdles she faces on a daily basis, but she doesn’t associate herself with the common definition of feminism – which she believes has taken on a negative connotation.

We’re eagerly anticipating the release of Chromatic, her upcoming seven-song EP, set for release at the end of September 2018. In the meantime, she’ll put out a two-song release, Complementary, produced by fellow Montréalers Chase Wave and Jay Century. She’s also working on a surprise, a single to be released in a few weeks where she worked with one of the planet’s biggest rappers. Kallitechnis doesn’t do half-measures.

“I’m ambitious, but realistic,” she says. “I’d love to collaborate with producers like Timbaland or Pharrell, or even BadBadNotGood, for their jazzy touch.” The invitation has been extended…


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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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