Florence KWhile vacationing in the rocky inlets and hillsides of Southern France with her beau, musician Ben Riley, and her kids, Florence K agrees to talk to us about Estrellas (stars, in Spanish), her latest album, released June 1st. The nine songs, co-written with Alex Cuba, demonstrate a constant back-and-forth between elation and sadness, and her capacity to surf on the waves of either state.

“Obviously, my previous record, Buena Vida en concert, was the next musical step in the wake of my biography [published in 2015], which was a door to the darker side of my life, and it was all a bit heavy…”

Florence K has recently experienced a great deal of change. That includes a profound life change at 35; a diagnosis of bi-polarity six months earlier; a change of record labels (she left Universal, where she was licensed, and founded Florence K Music); a new manager, Andrew Turner; a new publisher, Ad Litteram; and, to top it all off, her contract as a host on ICI Musique wasn’t renewed. But then she was put in charge of a new radio show titled C’est formidable !, airing on CBC Radio 1 and Radio 2, where she steps into Jim Corcoran’s role as the person in charge of introducing Anglo-Canadians to Francophone music. Estrellas is like a sunrise over this foggy landscape.

“Once you’re diagnosed and have the proper treatment, things really change, especially when it comes to concentration,” says Florence K about being bipolar. “It’s like day and night. It’s proof that there are solutions, resources, and that a better life is possible. But there’s a lot of therapy behind it, too. Estrellas is a Spring record that reminds me of the Beatles’ ‘Here Comes the Sun,’ as if saying: OK, Winter is over now! Get your head out of the water and get on with your life. It’s refreshing music. That’s how I think of it.”

I work with (the software) Garage Band or (the application) Voice Memo for all of my production. It allows me to save a lot of money before actually investing in studio time. I can add percussion, or modify a tempo. In other words, it allows me to work on my own.”

The pianist and somgwriter’s six new pieces are sung in Spanish, and three of those also have their French version. “Alex Cuba only had four days off, we worked like crazy,” she explains about their collabioration. “Being directed by him was good for me. You can’t always fly solo; someone else’s perspective is necessary – unless your name is Mozart! Cuban music has rhythms that can be both simple and complex. There’s something going on between the bass lines, the percussion, the harmonic and melodic layers, and it all works perfectly.”

She starts snapping her fingers to illustrate said tempo aloud: “One, two, three, four; one two three four…”

One only needs to listen to Estrellas once to be convinced that elegance never dies. Her instantly endearing melodic sense, her wide emotional range that comes straight from the heart, her finely crafted arrangements, and her languid melodies, all make one thing abundantly clear: Florence K has yet to run out of the style she’s created for herself since her debut in 2005.

The creative kettle in which her shivers, delights, and raptures simmer allows her to cook with any ingredient. In her state of play, language is part of the momentum, yet it lets the heart of her compositions beat freely, and each song is intricately linked to an emotion. “Music allows you to dream, she says. “We all need that outlet to dream a little, to get carried away, otherwise we explode! We explode!”

She recently took a stance concerning the music industry, royalties, and streaming, and she’s doubling down. “For twenty years now, we’ve been giving music away [online] on a silver platter,” she says. “Some people take it for granted as much as they do water and air, and that’s not a bad thing, inasmuch as it gives music back its place. But I don’t want music to be freely accessible to the public. There should’ve been a clear understanding 15 years ago between the governments, the middlemen, etc. The streaming platforms and cable companies have to recognize that music has a price, people need to become aware of the value of music. It’s expensive to make. Artists are not just poart-time strummers; it’s a trade, a profession.”

Florence K on stage.

Meg Remy recently broke up with the love of her life. No, we’re not talking about Max Turnbull, who is still very much her husband and collaborator in her Toronto-based art-pop project, U.S. Girls. We’re talking about a muse that’s been embedded in her consciousness ever since she was a child growing up in Illinois.

U.S. Girls, Meg RemyRemy was raised Catholic, in a conservative Republican household, but one where “the radio was always on,” she says. And Bruce Springsteen was the formative Top 40 favourite, whose impact resonated far beyond other early obsessions like Billy Joel and Elton John. Even as Remy got into punk as a teenager, and began questioning everything about the world around her, she kept Bruce close to her heart, recognizing a kindred underdog spirit. And even when U.S. Girls first emerged from a tangle of tape loops and effects pedals, as a Suicide-inspired, do-it-yourself recording experiment, she managed to work in a brutalist, beat-damaged cover of the early Boss standard “Prove It All Night” on her 2008 release, Introducting… Now that U.S. Girls has evolved from the sort of noisy, droning act that might challenge a room into the sort of crack disco-pop crew that can fill a dancefloor, you can more easily detect Remy’s E Street DNA in the cinematic, sax-powered jams that course through U.S. Girls’ stunning 2018 release, In a Poem Unlimited.

But these days, the ability to separate art from the artist’s personal life is a luxury that conscientious music fans are no longer willing to entertain. And while Springsteen is by no means guilty of any R. Kelly-level transgressions, there’s something about him in particular that just doesn’t sit well with Remy. “I recently looked up his net worth,” she says over a morning coffee at her west-end local, “and it’s just not right. Nobody needs 400 million dollars!”

Of course, Remy was under no illusions that rock’s foremost working-class hero wasn’t also a filthy rich celebrity. But at a time when our economy has come to resemble a football game where the dominant players keep sadistically running up the score, Remy is finding it hard to root for even good-intentioned beneficiaries like The Boss. As such, In a Poem Unlimited is a series of requiems for the disadvantaged souls who’ve been left to die on the field, steamrolled by the crushing forces of patriarchy and late capitalism. For women trapped in abusive relationships; workers forced to inhale pollutants at their low-paying factory jobs; and voters continually let down by their country’s political apparatus, even when the person they vote for wins. (The album’s divine, mirror-ball-twirling lead single, “Mad as Hell,” takes aim at a U.S. President, though not the one you think – it’s Remy’s exasperated attempt to reconcile Barack Obama’s nice-guy image with his formidable drone-strike record.)

But as much as it’s an indictment of the modern condition, In a Poem Unlimited also doubles as a coronation of the Toronto music community that’s supported her efforts over the course of this decade. After bouncing around underground scenes in Chicago, Portland, and Philadelphia, Remy re-located to Toronto in 2011 after meeting – and quickly falling in love with – Turnbull, who was conducting his own avant/pop experiments at the time under the name Slim Twig.

“Max was someone I was comfortable enough to work with, and sing in front of, which I’d never done before,” says Remy. “I recorded my first couple of records all in the red – I thought it if it was in the red, that meant it was working! I thought the stuff I was making was much clearer than it was, but when I listen back to it now, I can’t believe that stuff came out on record, and people bought it, and liked it! Max had the technical skills to take my ideas and make them come out clean. He was basically my engineer, cheerleader, and translator, and still is.”

However, in Turnbull, Remy found more than a romantic partner and creative foil.  She was also absorbed into his expansive, eclectic network of musician friends, which include everyone from power-pop revivalist Michael Rault to dance-punk duo Ice Cream to shadowy beat-maker Mark Roberts (a.k.a. Louis Percival, a.k.a. Onakabazien). All of them would contribute to, or perform with, U.S. Girls as she cycled through the surrealist ‘60s girl-group flashbacks of 2012’s GEM, to the dubby R&B de-constructions of 2013’s Free Advice Column EP, and the lustrous pop-noir of 2015’s Half Free (which earned Remy a spot on the Polaris Music Prize short list). But on In a Poem Unlimited, Remy opens up the guest list to 20-plus contributors, most notably The Cosmic Range, the Toronto psych-jazz ensemble that serves as her backing band on the record. “They’re like the Wrecking Crew,” Remy raves. “They can just go in, and read charts, and map things out, and play things so proficiently.”

“I’d much rather confuse or surprise people than satisfy them.”

As Cosmic Range ringleader Matthew “Doc” Dunn tells it, the process of adapting his band’s improvisatory instincts to Remy’s resolute auteurist vision was effortless. “Not to sound like a big-headed asshole, but we can play any kind of music,” he says with a chuckle. “We could do classical music, jazz, funk, country music… we can tighten up when we have to. But the reason the record is so good is, Meg is so organized. She’s the most professional person I’ve ever dealt with at this level. She’d probably be appalled to hear me say that, but she really is the film director – she’s in the control room, guiding us with a very light hand. The fact that she can’t, quote-unquote, ‘play’ an instrument, but is able to do all this, is even more impressive.”

But for Remy, In a Poem Unlimited’s communal spirit extends beyond human resources to the song selection. Among the album’s highlights is “Rage of Plastics,” a sly, sultry reworking of a backwoods dirge originally written by her friend Simone Schmidt, a.k.a. Fiver, about a woman reckoning with the infertility brought on by her work in a pollution-spewing refinery. It’s the album’s lone cover, but it’s the song that best illustrates Remy’s vision for the album: to lead unsuspecting listeners toward difficult, topical subject matter via the shiny allure of pop music.

“That song just means so much to me, and I’m so inspired and in awe of it as a piece of work,” Remy says. “The original arrangement on the Fiver record appeals to me because I’m into dark, dirge-y, hard-to-take stuff. But the message is something I think everyone needs to hear, so I always wanted to do it in the style of ‘Black Velvet’ – that’s a hit, everyone loves that song. So I was like, let’s do it like ‘Black Velvet’ and get people to listen to these lyrics!”

So far, that sort of indoctrination process seems to be working. In a Poem Unlimited recently earned Remy her second Polaris short list nod, and this year has seen her accumulate all the telltale markers of a breakthrough indie-rock success: bookings at high-profile festivals around the world, steady satellite-radio play, and profiles in Rolling Stone, The New Yorker and – much to Remy’s disbelief – the Wall Street Journal. But if In a Poem Unlimited represents the pristine sculpture that was always embedded in the wall of noise Remy has been chiseling away at for the past decade, don’t be surprised if her next move is to smash it all down.

“I’m going to make another record that will probably be totally different,” she says. “It’s all about not getting bored. And it’s also a little bit of a punk thing of wanting to mess with people – like, don’t put me in a box or think you’ve got me figured out. I’d much rather confuse or surprise people than satisfy them.”

Gavin Sheppard, seated in Public Records’ basement bunker headquarters in downtown Toronto’s Parkdale neighbourhood, is discussing urban infrastructure. Specifically, urban music infrastructure. Although the city’s spending another year with its highest-profile hip-hop and R&B exports topping charts, collecting awards, and headlining festivals, these internet-fueled global successes have been accomplished despite the domestic industry’s long-standing lack of investment in urban music.

“The argument for a long time has been that [urban music is] a smaller market and, at this point, we know it’s undeniably the largest market across the country and beyond,” says Sheppard. “There’s a larger conversation here about Canada’s inability to admit how racist it is. Doesn’t mean every individual within the country is a racist person – that’s why it’s called institutionalized racism. But the first black A&R in this country was hired in 2005. That’s insane.”

Sheppard points out that for years Canadian urban music was relegated to “street marketing,” until Universal finally established a department. He says that there’s still an overall “lack of label infrastructure, in terms of people that can recognize the talent at the very beginning, and develop it, market it, and promote it.” He also cites how few people of colour are booking agents, club promoters and in management companies. “I don’t mean any disrespect to very few people that do occupy these spaces – but in terms of an institutional level, it’s almost non-existent.”

Sheppard has spent his career trying to change this.

He’s been in the music game for two decades–first as a high-schooler hawking mixtapes, then as a fledgling manager for friends, including Toronto rapper Rochester – and in the community development game for about as long. In 2000, he co-founded a hip-hop youth program called Inner City Visions that began as a community centre drop-in, with breakdancing, MC battles and DJ lessons, before adding free studio access that attracted lines of young artists who couldn’t afford recording time.

Pilla B

Pilla B

In the wake of 2005’s Summer of the Gun, this grassroots effort got funding to evolve into the now-internationally renowned Remix Project to bring more urban music-based business opportunities to Toronto’s marginalized communities. Boasting the slogan “get money, make change,” this nonprofit incubator has fostered such talents as Jessie Reyez, who Sheppard still works with as a consultant, as well as wunderkind beat-maker WondaGurl, and JUNO-winning rapper/producer Rich Kidd.

“About a year ago, I was thinking about what my next steps were, given the reality that I was aged out of being a young person,” Sheppard says, noting Remix prides itself on being a youth-led initiative. “I wanted to continue to have an impact. To continue to be involved in music and culture. To complement the work that we’d been doing, by adding to the infrastructure, and becoming yet another exit strategy for young people looking to change their scenarios and get into music full-time and actually make a career of it.”

Public Records launched last spring as a partnership with Universal Music Canada to specifically address these industry gaps and develop new urban acts. The label’s first rap release was Pilla B’s album 1 Year to The Day, produced by Harley Arsenault, and executive produced by Noah “40” Shebib as his first non-OVO project. The title references the release date, a year after Pilla was shot, and his best friend/musical collaborator Yung Dubz was killed.

“It follows a very traumatic experience and outlines his perspectives and his mental and emotional state,” Sheppard explains. “The content is very raw, but it’s also an entry point to start creating a new reality, for not just himself, but his immediate family and his immediate peers. One of the most important things when you’re dealing with a lot of trauma is to be able to talk about it, and talk about it in a healthy way, and be able to say things that are even outlandish sometimes to get them off of your chest.”



Public has also signed charismatic 21-year-old R&B singer-songwriter Surauchie from Toronto’s North York who, Sheppard says, “really accurately represents where a lot of young people’s heads are at – she authentically embodies ‘now.’” And their first non-local signing is Tiara Thomas from Indianapolis, a singer who first made waves with a feature on Wale’s 2013 hit “Bad,” and signals the label is also seeking talent beyond Toronto.

Public Records wants to find and nurture “emerging world-class” artists in need of opportunity. But Sheppard says he doesn’t want to tie them down with long contracts and options like the majors might. Instead, it’s geared primarily toward propelling these artists to the next level. Then they can decide if they want to stay on, sign directly to Universal or another major, or go totally independent and leverage corporate partnerships.

“It’s a label setup that is very much a launching pad for careers, to get people into that international space,” he says. “So it’s still get money, make change.”