Live music is back! The Osheaga festival in Montréal celebrated its return to a “live-in-person” event with performances from Haviah Mighty, QCULTUR, Faouzia, DVSN, July Talk, Zach Zoya, Souldia, Valence, Geoffroy, The Damn Truth, Les Shirley, and AXLAUSTADE. Check out our photos from the event below, all captured by SOCAN’s Marie-Michèle Bouchard.
There’s a moment in “Keep the Light On,” the new single from Toronto’s James Baley, where you expect the heavens to open up. It’s a Gospel/R&B ballad, after all. But Baley doesn’t need a dramatic orchestral crescendo to make you feel all the feels. Instead, for nearly five minutes it cradles the listener in his voice, with subtlety, emotion, and grace. It’s a gorgeous example of what can happen when you let a song simply… be.
Baley’s voice has been heard on a variety of tracks in recent years. He’s collaborated with such diverse Canadian artists as rock groups July Talk and U.S. Girls, electronic artist Azari, and jazz/R&B experimenters Badge Époque Ensemble and Zaki Ibrahim. And now he’s turning this spotlight on himself.
This fall, Baley releases his debut solo album, A Story. It’s a story that many will know, but few have told so boldly, about the search for belonging, and the pride of discovering one’s true self.
Raised in a family where singing was encouraged, he discovered the power of his voice early on. “Ever since I knew what music was, that I could make sounds with my body, I was hooked,” says Baley. “Myself, my older brother and my younger brother can all sing, and my mom taught us how to sing in harmony. It was kind of one of those things to keep us under control, especially in church, when she was leading praise and worship. But it became a really fun challenge for me.”
He cites ‘60s Motown, ‘90s R&B and hip-hop, and alternative female singers such as Tori Amos and Björk as early influences. But the one constant musical thread in his life has been Gospel. As a queer Black man, however, he admits it hasn’t always been easy to be part of that musical community.
“Let’s just say, for a long time I didn’t want to be put into that Gospel category,” he explains. “Knowing that I was gay, I’m like, ‘I don’t want to be gay and be a Gospel artist.’ ‘Cause that just feels so wrong. And I don’t wanna feel wrong in my body, with those labels attached to me. I feel like nowadays it’s not so much an issue, ‘cause I know that music really does bring me joy.”
“House music is like the church music of the dancefloor”
That complexity of emotion is captured beautifully on “Banishment,” another single from A Story. The driving dance track, in which Baley imagines what it would feel like to be Eve, banished from the garden of Eden, fuses gospel vocals with house music. Baley says the song went through several iterations over the years with different producers, from an “I Feel Love” disco vibe to one more inspired by the contemporary ballroom scene.
“I really love ballroom music,” he says. “[It’s] rooted in house music, and house music is like the church music of the dancefloor, of that nightlife,” he explains. “It’s like those Gospel tracks where people are catching spirit in the aisle. People are thrashing. People are singing ‘Hallelujah!’ That’s the feeling [house] brings up in my body.”
“Banishment” also features guest vocalist Twysted Miyake-Mugler, co-founder of the Toronto Kiki Ballroom Alliance, where Baley regularly performs. He says walking the runway is where he feels like his best self, and that the ballroom community has also been a place of healing. Like so much of A Story, the song honours Baley’s musical roots in the church, but leaves behind what he no longer needs.
“It’s like saying we would never go back to those ashamed, fearful selves when we were a part of communities that were so good for us at some point, but so dangerous for us when it comes to realizing that you are gay,” he says. “It’s saying, ‘You are amazing, you are important, you’re beautiful, you’re talented. Don’t be ashamed of yourself.’”
On Oct. 22, James Baley will take over The Great Hall in downtown Toronto with a multi-media exploration of his multitude of communities and creative worlds, and a conceptual live experience with two performances, produced by somewherelse.
Besides their longstanding and successful careers as singer-songwriters and recording artists themselves, Kish (who is Anishinaabekwe, and a member of the JUNO Award-winning duo Digging Roots) and Rheaume (Métis Nation and a Canadian Folk Music Award winner) have busy lives as activists in their Indigenous communities.
They first met onstage at the Ottawa Folk Festival in 2003, and in 2017 they got together to launch the International Indigenous Music Summit, now in its fourth year. It was while working on the Summit that they first considered the idea of launching a record label of their own. Their partnership proved to be bigger than the sum of its two parts. According to Rheaume, “It’s sisterhood, like family. The connection and the alchemy is just that much stronger.”
Ishkode Records (pronounced, ish-KOH-day) – the first major-label-distributed (by Universal) Canadian record company created and run by Indigenous women – is the end result. On a three-way conference call, Kish explains that “As we were looking at the ecology of indigenous music here and abroad, we came to realize some of the big gaps” that existed and had to be filled.
Launching the label, which references its name from an Anishinaabe prophecy, wasn’t motivated by frustration with the music industry in general, nor a determination to make a statement of their own. “It was mostly inspiration,” says Kish. “There’s just so much extraordinary talent – these incredible voices and human beings that you want to work with, that you want to be a part of amplifying to the world.”
Just as their own music is completely distinctive from each other’s, the music to be found on Ishkode promises to be unpredictable. “Indigenous people and our nations, we’re so diverse,” says Rheaume. “It’s not all just the same.” The label, she said, will be “focusing on authenticity and truth telling. There are so many artists who are courageous, and are defining their own space, instead of trying to fit into a space that already exists.”
The label’s primary goal isn’t to create an umbrella definition for Indigenous music, but to provide a space devoted to narrative sovereignty. “Narrative sovereignty is really about self-determination,” says Kish. “How we tell our own stories – it’s a core thing that Indigenous people are fighting for. It’s an inherent right.”
While COVID-19 may have created the right space in time for both of them to embark on a new journey, “It would have happened inevitably,” says Kish. “Given everything that has happened in the world, it felt that to be engaged in really meaningful work, and make a real contribution, was very important to us at the time.” The label’s first release was the Digging Roots single, “The Healer,” on Aug. 5, 2021. Kish said they’ll have, “new offerings, new signings to announce In the upcoming weeks and months.”