Ajay Bhattacharyya hopes he doesn’t have a signature sound. The B.C.-born (now L.A.-based), Grammy-nominated songwriter and producer – who goes by the name Stint – has been making music for almost a decade. And with some of the biggest names in the business, too, from Demi Lovato, Carly Rae Jepsen, and Lana Del Rey to Gallant and NAO. But that success, according to him, is because of his ability to grow, adapt, and continually experiment.
“As soon as I notice myself doing one thing too much, I try and squash that, because I never want to become predictable or boring,” he says. “I’ve made a conscious effort over time to try and shed any ego when going into sessions, because I want to be there for the artist to fully realize their sound and style. If I’m bringing too much of who I am into the room, it stops being as much about them, and I’m not into that.”
Bhattacharyya’s malleability can be traced back to his origins, when he attended Vancouver Film School. Originally, his goal was to “get a job working in audio at a videogame company doing sound effects,” but music soon found its way into his career, when he was asked to soundtrack a friend’s film. “From that point, I just kept tripping and falling into more music gigs,” he says.
Stint’s work now spans songwriting, producing, mixing, re-mixing, and engineering – an all-in-one package. But songwriting seems to be the part he’s most passionate about, because “it’s the area I’m still the weakest at.”
So far, he says the biggest lesson he’s taken, from working with others, is that less is more. “Creating a sense of expectation and then surprising the listener,” he says. “And making sure there’s connection between the vocals and the listener, like the feeling that they’re singing directly at you. Most of my favourite pop music has that quality to it.”
Photo by Philippe Renault
Foreign Diplomats: Sounds and Songs
Story by Philippe Renault | October 2, 2019
“I really enjoy reading album credits when there’s a ton of guest musicians and collaborators alongside the band members,” says Élie Raymond, the chief songwriter for Foreign Diplomats. The indie pop-rock band, from the Laurentian mountains of Québec, has just returned from a European tour and will hit the road in La Belle Province to promote the songs on Monami. It’s their latest album, launched last summer – and it has plenty of those musical encounters so dear to the singer-guitarist.
There is, indeed, a lot to read in the credits of Monami, the band’s second album since Raymond founded the band in 2010. There are friends a-plenty, starting with Elliot Maginot, who officially does backing vocals on four songs, “but he’s all over the album,” Raymond says. Choses Sauvages’s Marc-Antoine Barbier and Philippe Gauthier Boudreau also appear. “They’re very good friends, we’ve even been ‘studio roommates,” says Raymond. The Therevox synthesizer, which offers the very first note on the album opener “Road Wage,” is played by Besnard Lakes’ Jace Lasek.
Inviting so many friends into the studio “gives the whole thing a collective feeling,” says Raymond. “One of my favourite bands is Broken Social Scene, and there’s so many members in that band, plus all their friends that pitch in during the recording of an album. I really dig that. It adds different colours of voice and instrumentation.”
It lends a project more of a festive spirit, which is something Raymond and his Diplomats colleagues – Thomas Bruneau Faubert, Tony L. Roy, Charles Primeau, and Lazer Vallières – insisted on, in order to broaden the horizons of the band’s sound.
Raymond considers Monami “much more luminous than our first album [Princess Flash, 2015], which was a total breakup album. It was dark and bitter from beginning to end, but this one is considerably lighter.”
Monami was written on the road, Raymond says, adding that it’s about “being in love or wanting to find love, yet being afraid of being in love. We sought a more dynamic sound, because Princess Flash was very claustrophobic. We opened ourselves to poppier choruses, and opened the studio doors to our friends, so that they can come and play with us – so that people would hear that we had fun recording this.”
Monami is indeed the complete opposite of their first album. There’s an obvious smile in Raymond’s voice when he sings the band’s shameless pop songs, with catchy choruses. There are brass, strings, and synths peppered throughout the groovy rock numbers; they were written to please, but manage to avoid clichés, even though that’s what the singer-songwriter was aiming for.
“Sometimes, you can’t over-think things when you’re writing a song,” he admits to have finally understood. “Increasingly, I try to write in a simpler way, and stop looking for deep metaphors,” citing “Fearful Flower” as an example, the album’s closer – which ends with a French verse: “Ma fleur/Oh oh/Je t’aime à la folie/Mais tu as peur de ton ombre…” (My flower / Oh oh / I love you like crazy / But you’re afraid of your own shadow).
“That’s one of the first songs I wrote, fully intending to keep things as simple as possible,” says Raymond, who adds that he found inspiration in Québecois folk tales, such as Chasse-galerie, which is referred to in the song’s English lyrics (“Flying boat, where will you land?”). “I love the work of artists such as Bill Callahan, his lyrics are so simple, yet so well crafted. I also love Silver Jews,” he adds, referring to the band of singer-songwriter David Berman, who died suddenly in August of 2019, saddening Raymond. It’s obvious even to an untrained ear that he’s a big fan of the Beatles, his voice even sounding like that of Paul McCartney.
“I make demos of the album’s songs that I then send to the rest of the band, and the whole team,” he says. “We’d then go over them to fine-tune [the songs], and find what each song’s hook would be. The whole album was a quest for striking melodies, and we even re-worked the lyrics the find the right word to sing in the right spot.
“Lately, we’ve been composing together, because we feel like creating sonic experiences rather than well-crafted songs. We’re trying to do new stuff with our instruments so that we have a better direction when the time comes to write new songs. It’s tinkering, major tinkering!”
When Benita Prado was gifted a guitar as a young teenager, her mom wanted her to play classic rock. But rock took Prado to a whole other place: hip-hop. “The way the legends sampled those rock and funk records, that’s a big part of who I am and how I grew up,” she says.
From there, Prado, a B.C. native, started making music using GarageBand, and posting the results on a SoundCloud page – which drew the attention of high-profile acts, including artists on the Owsla record label.
For a while, Prado ghost-wrote for rappers under the name AlienKanye, but soon felt the urge to write her own music. “It felt a little oppressive to have men sing your words,” she says. That led her to shed her handle in favour of just using her surname: “It all happened on some caterpillar-to-butterfly shit.”
Prado’s music isn’t hip-hop or rock. Instead, it’s a collection of sounds and influences coalescing to make something sonically mesmerizing: woozy beats and hi-hats fuse together to create a launching pad for Prado’s R&B melodies, casting an intoxicating spell on listeners.
With Prado prepping a debut EP release in 2020, she has big goals for the coming year: “Uhh, world domination.” But as she sets her sights on the world at large, she wants her journey to inspire those most local to her.
“I don’t feel responsibility as much as I feel a sense of care for those kids and communities,” she says, of the young people of colour in her East Vancouver neighbourhood, in which she’s established a co-op space for them that includes a dance studio and recording studio. “I know what they’ve been through, and are going through, so I want all my future successes to reflect onto them, and create opportunities for them.”