Releasing a record is rarely easy, even at the best of times. But amidst a pandemic where touring isn’t an option, musicians have faced unexpected challenges.

Ron Hawkins: Creative live-streaming, supporting causes

Ron Hawkins, Do Good Assassins

Ron Hawkins with/avec the Do Good Assassins. Photo: Robert Ciolfi

Ron Hawkins’ latest album, 246, was set for release on Warner Canada, but the pandemic had other plans.

“Warner had signed on to release it, which was a surreal thrill due to the fact that the record was made on a four-track cassette recorder from 1985,” explains the longtime singer-songwriter, perhaps best known for his early work fronting Lowest of the Low. “I just loved that weird contradiction – a major [label] releasing a very scrappy DIY record made in our drummer’s living room. [But] because we couldn’t do support shows or make physical copies – factories were closed down due to COVID at that time—we decided it made more sense to release it as the truly independent beast it was.”

The prolific musician – who’s been consistently releasing music since 1991 – figured that this surreal time was actually the perfect moment to launch the album. “I figured it would be interesting to see what would happen with a ‘captive’ audience,” he says. “Would people be too distracted and bummed out to pay attention? Or would they be even more eager to get something new, that felt at least in part like our normal pre-COVID lives?”

There have been drawbacks, and fans still want the hard copies – particularly vinyl – but with the complete support of his team, he’s forged ahead, promoting the album via live-streaming on his “Tommy Douglas Tuesdays” since April.

“It’s been an opportunity to plug the new record, but early on in the pandemic, I was using it as a means of activism,” says Hawkins. “Directing people who were attempting to send me money via a ‘tip jar’ or PayPal to instead send their money to different causes: from PPE drives at hospitals, to alternative policing methods like the Bear Clan Patrol in Winnipeg, Black Lives Matter, women’s shelters. Many women found themselves isolated, and even trapped, with their abusers due to the pandemic. I would hold up homemade cardboard signs with the causes on them.

“Live-streaming has also been a way to tell stories about the songs and ‘making-of’ stories about albums… I spent the first 11 weeks doing a ‘no repeat’ trip through my entire catalogue. I think it ended up around 220 songs, or so. So not only have I leaned into the weirdness of the live-stream world, but I wonder how I will replace that intimacy once we get back to doing live shows in bars and venues.”

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Hannah Georgas: Twitch & Zoom

Hannah Georgas

Photo: Vanessa Heins

“Touring is a big part of promoting an album for me, so without that piece of the puzzle in place, things do feel strange,” admits Hannah Georgas, weeks after releasing All That Emotion. “I felt like it had been so long since I put out my own material that it was time, [and] I do think people want to listen to music right now more than ever.”

Georgas has leaned into virtual music-making. on Oct. 20, she collaborated with Amazon on Twitch. She’s live-streamed a show with her band, making it her first proper 2020 concert. She’s also enjoyed Zoom chats with fans. All of this has pushed her creatively.  “I’ve gotten savvy, and created a lot of video content on my own,” she says. “It’s felt rewarding to take things into my own hands, and also challenging.”

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Dione Taylor: Video snippets, social conscience

Dione Taylor

Photo: Crillaphoto

On the heels of her latest release Spirits in the Water, Dione Taylor, got creative as well.

“I have never done TikTok,” Taylor says with a chuckle. “Probably the biggest thing we’re doing is live-streaming. We [also] spent last week handing out, and creating, packages of CDs. We’ve created a video for every single track on the record. We couldn’t do the videos that we wanted to because of COVID, so we made really fun, tiny little ‘snippet’ videos. People really seem to dig it, and they love the songs, so it’s another way to connect with people.”

Behind the drive to get Spirits into fans hands is that even though the “energy exchange” that live performances bring is absent, the album’s theme’s addressing Black Lives Matter, Women’s Rights, and equality, are ones Taylor believes people need to hear right now. “Now that we’re all kind of stuck at home and forced to deal with these issues,” she says, “I really feel that the lyrics to a bunch of the songs I’ve written have really, really resonated with people and what’s happening globally. What’s happening personally. And what’s happening collectively.”

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Daniela Andrade: YouTube visuals, mirroring the world

Daniela Andrade

Photo: Jean François Sauvé

“At first I really didn’t think it was a good time to release a project,” says Daniela Andrade, who’s just released Nothing Much Has Changed, I Don’t Feel the Same. “Things got so heavy for everyone and it felt indulgent to promote anything other than useful information to get by. However, I started to feel like I needed to put something out for my own sanity. I always hope my music can be of some respite. Music continues to be a space I come back to, and feel safe in.”

Andrade, who boasts nearly two million YouTube subscribers, says that the visuals remain her most direct route to fans.  “Tying my work to visuals has been really important from the start,” she explains. “I try to bring my audience into the world of the project through [the] music videos. And it seems to be working.”

In spite of this social media success, it’s the music she still hopes leaves the biggest impact. “What stands the test of time are things from honest places,” says Andrade. “I think as artists our job is to process and mirror the world around us, and say things that need to be said.”



On Spectrum, his first solo EP, Zach Zoya dares to “re-visit the idea that an album should be limited to a single atmosphere.”

Zach ZoyaAnd haters beware: the challenge the Montréal – by way of Rouyn-Noranda – singer and rapper has set for himself isn’t presumptuous. It’s actuallyhonest and, dare we say, humble.

“I wanted to establish that people need to know me as someone who does many different things,” he says. “As someone who’s just as comfortable doing rap as I am doing sentimental R&B. I don’t want to have to convince everyone again on another album. I want to avoid a rift from happening.”

With versatility as his “primary musical value,” the 22-year-old artist is staying true to his family’s musical background, rooted in both North America and South Africa (his father’s country of origin).

“My big sisters listened to Beyoncé, Drake, and a bit of ‘90s R&B like Usher,” says Zoya. “I think his very rhythmic way of singing perfectly in sync with the drums had a big influence on me. My parents listened to Elvis and African music. On a subconscious level, I think the super-rich and textured African harmonies have also influenced me.”

Zoya makes no bones about one thing: Québec music has very little place in his own work. Having grown up for the better part of his life without a computer or TV, the young man had very limited contact with Francophone music, which is why he chose English as his mode of expression, even though he was raised in French.

“All I had was the radio, so every now and then I’d hear Marc Dupré or Marie-Mai… Shout out to them, but it wasn’t really my vibe,” he says politely. “At a time when everyone was watching the WordUp! Battles, I was discovering Kendrick Lamar’s Section.80. I knew the lyrics by heart, and my friends and I would sing them out loud just for fun. Then, around the age of 15, I started doing that at parties, and the way people reacted really gave me confidence. That’s when I said to myself: ‘I’m doing this for real!’”

The next year, Zoya arrived on the North Shore of Montréal to complete his high school diploma, and it turned out his best friend had a contact in his family for a sound engineer and a studio. The result was his first mixtape – that Steve Jolin heard on Souncloud in 2017. The head of Disques 7 ième Ciel, a hip-hop label based in Rouyn-Noranda, saw in that a natural and almost pre-destined alliance. Luckily for both of them, so did Zoya.

Alongside the Laval-based producer High Klassified, the up-and-coming artist launched Misstape, his first official release on 7ième Ciel, in 2018. Several high-profile international labels liked what they were hearing, notably Universal Music Canada, and the label’s most famous A&R rep, Toronto rapper Kardinal Offishall. “We sent demos to a lot of labels and it’s Kardi who was the most enthusiastic,” says Zoya. “Everything happened really organically with him.”

These demos are part of a library of 200 songs created over a period of three years, alongside the Parisian producer Bougo – Zoya’s “go-to guy” – and a few other talented composers, like Ruffsound, NeoMaestro, Gary Wide, and the aforementioned High Klassified. With only six songs, Spectrum was born of a careful listening and sorting process.

“Instead of trying to compile a bunch of similar beats, I chose instead to go with a vocal common thread,” says Zoya. “Sure, there are different vibes, but it couldn’t sound like it was two different guys, one who sings and one who raps. It needed to sound like it’s a single guy with different emotions.”

The opener, “Le Cap,” sets the table over a vigorous trap track, the perfect playground for Zoya’s percussive flow. It’s a convincing show of strength, the only equal of which is the epic, heavy closer, “Slurpee,” a hard-hitting first single that was released last summer, accompanied by a remarkably off-the-wall video.

Between those two poles, the artist stays closer to his emotions, as on “Pillz,”, his favourite song on the EP. “I used specific moments from my break-ups of the last five years and gathered them in one song,” says Zoya. “I wanted to create a narrative that truly demonstrates my vulnerability.”

Whereas he proclaims his independence on “In Da Way,” where he slays all the superficial friendships that have littered his musical journey, on “Stick by You,” Zoya delivers an amorous “statement of intent.” “I was in a pretty closed state of mind about two or three years ago,” he says. “I felt like I wasn’t able to get involved or invested in a romantic relationship because music was my priority. Things change, though, and that song is me promising to my lover that I will try anything for her. ‘This is gonna be fucked up, I can’t predict the future, but I’ll give you the best of who I am.’”

Elsewhere, on “Patience,” the singing rapper reflects on his relationship with happiness, with surprising philosophical insight. “Every time I think of joy, I lose a little,” he confesses on the song. “I rarely have a good feeling when I experience a good moment,” he says. “It’s like, as soon as I realize it’s a good moment, I start enumerating everything that’s wrong about it.”

Even though Zoya is aiming for an international career, he’s careful to avoid chasing instant happiness or success. To him, the road to glory or, as he puts it, “maximum fulfillment,” is more important than the end itself. “I was always looking forward to the plane ride when I’d visit my family in South Africa,” he explains. “Once there, the excitement subsided, and my destination became my new normal.

“I want my career to be that exciting ride before I get somewhere, no matter where that is.”

 



TOBi’s music has a knack for speaking directly to the times in which we find ourselves.

Earlier in 2020, the 27-year-old, Brampton-based hip-hop artist released a star-studded remix of his song “24,” that featured Shad,  Haviah Mighty, and Jazz Cartier unapologetically addressing systemic racism, stereotypes, and racial profiling. Released in early May with a powerful, thought-provoking video in tow, it arrived just weeks before the world was rocked by the brutal death of Black man George Floyd under the knee of a Minneapolis police officer. The song’s lyrical exploration of the precariousness of Black life was a sobering affirmation of a prevailing reality.

Likewise, TOBi’s latest release of ELEMENTS Vol. 1, his latest, 10-track mixtape project (released Oct. 21, 2020) is palpably urgent and relevant, following on the heels of the deluxe version of his 2019 debut STILL, which conveyed the cultural dissonance he experienced after moving to Canada from Nigeria as a child. (The STILL+ remix project now boasts a combined total of 17 million streams across all platforms.)

“[ELEMENTS Vol 1] is more about my approach to my artistry, and exploring different sounds, and exploring the depth of my artistry,” says TOBi, stopping short of calling the project his sophomore album – instead  aspirationally likening it to Lil Wayne’s Dedication mixtape series. “Whereas STILL is a concise autobiographical story from start to finish. Boom, there it is. And [ELEMENTS] is more, like, for the mood, for the music, for experiencing different parts [of me] and seeing what comes up.”

The loosely exploratory approach on ELEMENTS Vol. 1 only underlines the impressive versatility and adaptability of TOBi’s vocals, which oscillate between singing and rapping with melodic ease, and lyrically draw on the poems or journals he writes before he enlists any musical accompaniment. While TOBi looks to Toronto collaborators like producer Harrison and singer Loony on the project, the connection with producers like London, U.K.-based Juls on “Dollars and Cents” is more emblematic of how the project sonically connects the global Black diaspora.

“I had these songs for a little while, and I wanted to get them out, but not in a traditional album format because they’re more experimental, you know, I’m trying different things on there,” says TOBi. “You know, there’s the grime record, the Afrobeats record. There’s the more contemporary R&B joints on there, too. But, you know, the overarching theme of the project is Black joy as a form of resistance. It’s been a lot of year for everybody, but especially I think the struggles of Black folk have been pretty evident this year. Even with COVID, compounding that the [George Floyd] protests going on, and with the [#EndSARS] protests in Nigeria, it’s just a lot going on. And I was just like, I gotta get to work. I’ve recorded so many songs in the past few months, it didn’t make sense for me to just keep it to myself.”

“We want to change the narrative without being martyrs”

“Made Me Everything” crystallizes the resilience that TOBi is talking about. While the song possesses an infectious energy, and is accompanied by a joyfully effervescent and eye-popping video, the song is ultimately about persevering to overcome the depths of despair.

“I definitely took heed from the sample at the beginning,” says TOBi, referring to Words of Wisdom-Truth Revue’s 1971 vintage soul track, “You Made Me Everything” which underpins the track. “In the song, [the lead vocalist] is lamenting, but it feels so spiritual, and it takes me into this ethereal space,” says TOBi. “I was reflecting on what pain meant to me, and not letting it keep me down, and acknowledging that it exists, but being better for myself, and being better for the people around me, and envisioning a brighter future. That’s what it’s all about.”

While intensely personal, TOBi’s music has wide resonance. The lines “Well-spoken for a Black man / That’s how you serve a compliment with your back hand,” that open the second verse of “Made Me Everything,” offer a perfect example.

“It seems every time when I talk to a Black man who’s heard the song, that line always comes up, because it’s just such an interesting phenomenon that you just can’t escape. You know what I mean?” says TOBi. “The fact that so many people have experienced it, it just means that it’s indicative of something that we can’t escape, which is white supremacy… It’s just what it is. And sometimes when I put the line like that in the song, I’m not even trying to make a point. I’m just being honest about what’s going on and how I feel. And I feel like, if so many people can resonate with it, there’s got to be truth to it, right? It’s not fabricated.”

The approach speaks to a larger goal in TOBi’s creativity. Not only does he want his music to be timely, he wants it to be timeless. “I wrote it [“Made Me Everything”] in 2019, before the protests this year really took off, right? And whether I wrote it in 2019, or 1996, or, like, 1984, the sentiment would still be the same, you know, it carries over through time,” he says.

“I think like so many other people in this world we’re, like, tired of re-living the same tropes, the same narratives, and we want to change that without being martyrs, or sacrificing our own inner peace and inner sanctity in the process. So, that’s, that’s really how the song makes me feel. It makes me feel motivated, it makes me feel empowered, it makes me feel validated. And I think a lot of people feel validated by certain lines in there. But this is just strength, man. Like, I’m grateful for the things that are going well, and the things in my control.”