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!”
Photo by courtesy/courtoisie. Left to right/De gauche à droite : Kimmortal (by/par Samuel Stevens), Han Han, Casey Mecija (by/par Tanja-Tiziana)
Three Filipinx SOCAN members discuss making music on their own terms
Story by Chaka V. Grier | September 27, 2019
“As an artist, my role is not to conform to what the audience wants me to do. It’s me showing them my world,” says Haniely Pableo, better known as Han Han. It’s a Friday afternoon and the operating-room nurse is enjoying a well-deserved day off. Her voice is raspy with fatigue, but her words are far from weary. “I’m quite aware of what their world is,” she continues. “Especially being in North America, being an immigrant, being a person of colour, and someone who grew up in the East, I’m already immersed here. I know their world, but they don’t know mine.”
In 2014, HanHan released her eponymous EP. It was fierce and honest, rooted in cultural pride, in both the languages in which she exclusively rapped – Tagalog and Cebuano – and its use of traditional instrumentation. Her vocal style defied the stereotype of the sweet, passive Filipina, and her lyrics called everyone out: misogynist, destructive colonial legacies, and divisions among the diaspora. Yet from the beginning, the emcee’s path to music was rooted in an urgent need for self-expression and community.
In 2008 – two years into re-uniting with her mother in Canada – Pableo began taking a poetry workshop. A serendipitous string of events unfolded, guiding her to an artist-rooted community of like-minded poets, musicians, performers, and activists. Her new artistic family helped her create a career in music that she never imagined. Today, even with growing recognition, and her debut full-length album, URDUJA, slated for 2020, Pableo remains unmoved by suggestions she become more “mainstream” and “accessible” by performing in English.
“I read this article somewhere that said crossing over to the Western audience shouldn’t be considered the highest privilege, because the Western audience are the ones missing out on a lot of creative culture beyond the borders of the West,” she says. “I’m different than most of the female artists I’m usually lined [up] with in festivals, but I never feel that I don’t have the power. When I’m on the mic, I have the power.”
And the community she found a decade ago remains her greatest source of power. “I’m grateful that I have [this] community, and it’s primarily women – we do different things, but our values are aligned.” ________________
In her Toronto home, Casey Mecija, the multi-disciplinary artist and new mother, is pondering how integral community and collaboration have been to her own artistry, most notably as the lead vocalist and songwriter for orchestral-pop band Ohbijou. “I’m energized by collaboration,” she says. “Much of my work with Ohbijou was about what music can produce [when we’re] in collaboration with each other.”
Nonetheless, in 2016, Mecija went solo with the release of her contemplative debut, Psychic Materials. “It was an opportunity for me to focus and reflect inward, prioritize my songwriting voice in a way that I hadn’t. It was a channel of autonomy.”
Music as a space for personal exploration and revelation has driven Mecija for much of her life. At first a strategy of integration by her parents, to help their Canadian-born children weave into the fabric of the larger community, it soon became Mecija’s sanctuary. “Music as a form didn’t insist that I knew how to say the things that I wanted to say,” she says. “It’s poetic. It’s about emotion. And for me, sometimes expressing my feelings through words was difficult.”
But as a second-generation Canadian, in a society that often ignores or flattens people of colour in order to fit pre-conceived ideas, she’s faced inherent challenges.
What does Filipinx mean? The term Filipinx is born out of a movement to create space for and acknowledge non-gender-binary members of the formerly “Filipino/Filipina” diaspora in the white-centric, binary places to which their parents decide to move (e.g., Canada, the United States, etc.). The gender-neutral “Filipinx” is also seen as a way to de-colonize identity, since the gendered terms were brought about by Spanish colonization. It’s one way to be more inclusive and respectful of that community.
“There’s often conflations of the colour of one’s skin to the sound of one’s music,” she says. “It’s easy to say that someone who’s Filipino, or Filipinx, plays Filipinx music. I don’t displace that affiliation – because I am Filipinx, and what I produce is from my embodied experience – but sometimes I think that that association can be lazy. And, I’m not from the Philippines, so being second-generation can have a disorienting impact on [my] relationship to a geography that I don’t particularly know.” Mecija incorporates what she calls the “messiness” by surrendering the need for neat, easy conclusions about self and society.
“The songs [don’t] arrive at any concrete conclusions about who I am and where I’m from, [or] who I desire,” she says. “My lyrics are in process, they’re in search of something that I know I’ll never find an answer to, which is much like my quest for what my cultural identity means here in Canada. I don’t deal with issues of gender, sexuality, culture, in ways that are too explicit, either. For me, those are nuanced conversations, nuanced experiences.” ________________
For Vancouver-based, multi-disciplinary, gender-fluid singer-emcee Kimmortal, making music that explores identity, dismantles colonialism, and transforms society is a bold mission. And lyricism is their tool. Starting as a dancer, Kimmortal grew to revere hip-hop culture, one founded in resistance and hard-earned self-love.
“I grew up in the suburbs of Surrey, where all the white kids around me listened to Christian rock,” they say. “I saw hip-hop and rap – Black music – as the antithesis to this. I found my style and self in hip-hop. I also learned about my Filipinx community through the lens of rappers like Blue Scholars, Bambu, Rocky Rivera, and Kiwi Illafonte.”
Rap’s insistence on, and even veneration of, authenticity also felt right to them. Their candid, vulnerable music brings an intimacy to hip-hop that’s reminiscent of Lauryn Hill. In 2019, their stellar release X Marks the Swirl showcased a voice impossible to ignore.
“You can tell a wack rapper apart from an awesome possum through [your] honesty, owning who you are, and how you hold your self and story,” they say. “I focus on whatever I’m going through at the time – reflections on my community, on radical love with self and others, [on] doubt and anxieties, as well as the magic and possibilities.” Most importantly, their music is a space for those who’ve long been oppressed. “I speak to the queer and Filipinx and POC community, which is the same community that speaks to me,” they say.
When asked if having the prefix “Filipinx” preceding discussions about their music is inhibiting, the answer is a resounding no. “It’s important to note, because I am who I am: queer, Filipinx, “Canadian” on unceded Indigenous [Coast Salish] land. More Filipinx artists [are] speaking about our diverse experiences, and further complexifying the single narrative. We’re not just [going to] be homogenized as Asian – we have a distinct history.”
And it is these distinct voices that all three artists want championed, while also being cautious about the “new voices” trope. “It’s important to question the rhetoric of ‘emergence,’” says Mecija, who cites an industry that, to this day, prominently focuses on white, hetero-normative artists. “People have been creating music in this city and Canada for a long time – Maylee Todd, Phèdre. There all of these artists that understand themselves as being Filipinx.”
Kimmortal agrees, and finds it heartening that many are looking to each other, not the purported “mainstream” for appreciation.
“Recognition is fleeting,” they say. “Filipinx in the diaspora are tuning into each other through the internet, and our ancient wisdom. De-colonization is something many POC communities are coming to. Many of us are on land that is not our ancestors’. We begin to question our own cultures – like, who the fuck is King Philip, anyways? And what [does] it mean to be Filipino outside of our colonial history?”