Few bands today have been exploding quite like Austra. From Jay-Z’s tweets of approval to European tours that have sold out 1,000-seat venues, these Toronto-based purveyors of shadowy electro-pop can’t be stopped. Austra began as the brainchild of Katie Stelmanis. At 10, she was singing in a children’s opera chorus, and began crafting moody synth-pop in her teens. Originally recording under her own name, Stelmanis released her first album, Join Us, in 2008 and contributed her distinctive vocals to Fucked Up’s Polaris Prize-winning Chemistry of Common Life. With the addition of drummer Maya Postepski (Trust) and bassist Dorian Wolf (ex-Spiral Beach), Austra was born. The band’s dark-yet-danceable ’80s sound spread like wildfire, finding fans worldwide. Austra’s debut, Feel It Break, produced by Damian Taylor (Bjork, Prodigy), has already become a smash hit, featured on hundreds of blogs and making many critics’ Best of the Year lists.
There was a time when Toronto rapper D-Sisive felt people would want to hear goofy rhymes about sodomizing chickens more than about deeply personal issues, like the loss of his mother.
His shows included the chicken bit, a Colonel Sanders costume and a Remy Shand impersonator. That’s going back almost a decade before the man who won SOCAN’s 2009 Echo Songwriting Prize (along with co-writer Muneshine) started writing more seriously and poignantly, on such releases as 2008’s The B.O.O.K. and 2009’s Let The Children Die. He was signed to EMI Music Publishing Canada back then and landed on the cover of Toronto weekly Now magazine, which named him 2001’s Best Unsigned Artist.
“I was the court jester at the time,” says D-Sisive, whose real name is Derek Christoff. “[EMI] saw potential through the plush mascot costumes, but that’s who I was then. I was more interested in making people laugh or trying odd theatrics… Looking back now, I think it was the result of having nothing to say.”
Then his life took a tragic turn, leading to a seven-year creative drought. “It started when my father’s drinking took a turn for the worse,” he says. “It used to be beer only; it became hard liquor, no eating. It affected his health. I was the only person taking care of him. I had no interest in writing songs between trips to hospitals or drunken fights. Very draining.”
When his mother died, he was able to stay creative because he had his father to keep everything together. “When he died? I didn’t have anyone,” says D-Sisive. “I feel like I had to go through what I went through in order to evolve into the person and the songwriter I am now.”
His inspiration was restored one night after he returned to live in the Oakwood neighbourhood where he had grown up. Listening to the Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds, he wrote the first verse to his song “Brian Wilson,” which would appear on his eventual comeback, The B.O.O.K.
“From there, I wrote ‘Knee Caps,’” says the twice-Juno-nominated rapper. “I just dove into the more personal side of writing, which was weird for me at first because I always felt that nobody would want to hear my story. Then once I started doing it, it was non-stop.
“Everything that I talk about in my songs is 100 percent truthful. I don’t exaggerate anything and I don’t hold anything back… I’m just grateful that I stumbled upon that style of writing because that’s what has separated me from the rest of the Canadian hip-hop scene.”
D-Sisive’s new album, Run With The Creeps, is out in November. One hundred percent truthful? He’s running with creeps? “Yes,” he laughs. “There are a bunch of creeps running a marathon.”
• D-Sisive has started a blog to document the creative process of his next album at runwiththecreeps.com
• A planned collaboration with Buck 65 called The Ricardo Christoff Apparatus “will happen”; the pair released “The Night Before Christmas” in December 2010
• His Hijack Series includes a mash-up of Deadmau5’ “A City In Florida” put to his “Graffitti Wall” and “If I Live To See Tomorrow” written to Sigur Ros’ “Festival.”
Nathan Ferraro doesn’t seem the least bit bitter – which is surprising, given everything he’s been through. In fact, the affable, afro-haired frontman exudes all the serenity of a Buddhist monk, as he sits in a Toronto café and calmly recounts the rise, fall and rise again of his band, The Midway State.
Ferraro and his bandmates were teenagers from Collingwood, Ont., a small ski resort town two hours north of Toronto, when they became the subject of an intense bidding war from 13 record labels. After being flown around the world, getting wined and dined by industry executives, they eventually signed a deal with the legendary Jimmy Iovine’s Interscope label. The record company was excited about the band’s emo-rock sound and touted the prolific young Ferraro as a gifted pop songwriter.
Then the bloom fell off the rose. Despite a video recorded with then-rising star and labelmate Lady Gaga, The Midway State became victims of the A&R shuffle: the man who had championed the band was gone and the group became the proverbial football, kicked around from one label person to the next. Although the group had recorded a promising debut album, Interscope never released it. Next came a two-year battle to terminate the contract and win back their recorded masters. “The whole process really put Nathan and the boys through the wringer,” recalls Midway State manager Mathieu Drouin.
“I started writing songs when I was 14 and had over 500 by the time I was 18,” says Ferraro. “I liked the feeling – I could walk down the hall in school knowing I had that up my sleeve.”
There was, however, a silver lining. The association with Interscope got the band on several high-profile tours throughout North America and Europe, opening for the likes of Jimmy Eat World and Death Cab for Cutie. Meanwhile, the band’s debut album, Holes, was released in Canada through EMI and made a significant impact. Produced by Gavin Brown (Billy Talent, Three Days Grace), it earned the band a pair of MuchMusic Video Awards and two Juno Award nominations: Pop Album of the Year for the group and Songwriter of the Year for Ferraro and his compositions “Unaware,” “Change for You” and “Never Again,” the group’s gold-selling single.
“That meant a lot to me,” admits Ferraro, also a singer, guitarist and pianist. “I’d written those songs in my parents’ basement when I was 17, so it was a really nice affirmation.” He adds: “I started writing songs when I was 14 and had over 500 by the time I was 18. I liked the feeling – I could walk down the hall in school knowing I had that up my sleeve.”
Confidence also came from performing at a young age. Before he finished high school, Ferraro’s father bought him a van so that he and his teenage bandmates could tour during the summer months. They logged thousands of miles across Canada, playing everywhere from bars and community centres to fans’ living rooms.
Drawing on all its past experience, good and bad, The Midway State is embarking on the next chapter of its already well-established career. Armed with a strong new album, Paris or India, Ferraro and the band – guitarist Mike Wise, bassist Mike Kirsh and drummer Daenen Bramberger – are touring widely across Canada this fall. The album, produced by Thomas “Tawgs” Salter (Lights), is a mature step forward for the group, featuring a mix of commercial songs like “Atlantic,” a sweeping, Coldplay-style epic, as well as such adventurous numbers as the driving indie-rocker “Fire!” and the haunting, dream-like “Hartley Salters Kite.”
For The Midway State, maturity is a direct result of their personal and collective growth. “We’ve already put in our 10,000 hours,” Ferraro says with a laugh, citing Malcolm Gladwell’s bestselling book, Outliers, and its theory about diligence being the prerequisite to success. “In fact, we’re probably up to about 25,000 hours now. But there’s still plenty more to learn.”
In particular Ferraro, who co-wrote with Salter and Simon Wilcox for Paris or India, is focusing on the craft of songwriting and lyrics in particular. “I’ve been reading a lot of poetry by e.e. cummings and studying the writing of Peter Gabriel and Bono,” he says. “Like all the best songwriters, including Leonard Cohen and Neil Young, they’ve found ways to do more with less. That’s why their songs stand up over time. There’s so much depth and so many layers, yet their words are very concise.”
Ferraro’s songs, thoughtful and reflective, often express a yearning and wisdom well beyond his years. For manager Drouin, this is the quality about Ferraro that impresses him the most. “With everything he’s been through, he could’ve easily gone off the rails, given up or become extremely jaded,” he says. “Instead, he took all that experience and channeled it into a really positive place.”
Publisher: Remedy Music Publishing
Discography: Met a Man on Top of the Hill (EP, 2007), Holes (2008), Paris or India (2011)
Member since: Nathan Ferraro (2004), Mike Wise (2008), Daenen Bramberger (2008)