“I’m a late bloomer,” says drag queen Tynomi Banks of her burgeoning music career. “But now I’m in attack mode.”

Banks – real name Sheldon McIntosh – has performed on stages across Canada, and graced billboards and TV ads for Spotify, Netflix ,and Hudson’s Bay. She got her big break as a contestant on the inaugural season of the Canada’s Drag Race reality-TV competition.

Now, she’s carving out time in her busy schedule to follow one of her first loves: singing. As a kid in Pickering, Ontario, Banks grew up listening to a variety of genres, from Canadian icons like Celine Dion and Shania Twain, to R&B and Jamaican music. In high school she took music classes, and performed big numbers from Les Misérables, Joseph and The Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat and West Side Story. “I was the only boy in the class, so I got to do a lot of the leads,” says Banks. “And this was pre-puberty, so I was hitting Mariah Carey notes.”

Although her passion for music was put on the back burner while she became well-known as a dancer and drag queen, Banks would continue to sing on her own and sometimes, even incorporate it into her drag performances for comic relief. “People would tell me after shows, ‘You have a voice. You can sing for real,’” says Banks. “But I was so afraid of pursuing it.”

That changed this year. “When COVID-19 hit, I realized you only live once,” says Banks. “I thought, ‘Let’s get over this fear.’”

She’s spent the last few months in writing sessions with other musicians, working on original songs and exploring genres. “A lot of the songs are R&B and poppy, but one of the songs has a cool island vibe. It’s like a kaleidoscope of different sounds,” says Banks. “At first it was really scary to put my personal thoughts on paper. But after I recorded my first song, I was on fire.”

This fall, British Columbia-founded, Toronto-based duo Once A Tree –  Jayli Wolf and Hayden Wolf – released their new EP Fool’s Paradise, the follow-up to their 2018 Indigenous Music Award-winning album, Phoenix. On the new release, they explore loss, trust, and love that heals, and frees. For the couple, and creative partners, these themes — once resigned to love songs on the radio — became reality when they met.

Raised in B.C., each grew up in the Doomsday religion — an apocalyptic belief system that proselytizes disasters that will destroy Earth and humankind. Both young, aspiring, multi-disciplinary creatives — Jayli is an actress, Hayden a photographer —were forbidden from pursuing their artistic dreams. But a virtual chance meeting changed everything.

“We started communicating long-distance, through social media,” explains Jayli. “We were both doubting the doctrine of our community.”

After bonding online, Hayden decided it was time to do so in real life, jumping on a Greyhound bus for a 13-hour ride to Jayli’s hometown. The pair spent their first night together writing music, and the next month making art. All of the art-making eventually led to love. Realizing that they had something special, they wasted little time.  Excommunicated from their community by family and friends, they took off to Toronto with just their suitcases and guitars.

“I won a songwriting contest through APTN,” says Jayli. “They were going to just fly me out to Toronto to shoot a music video.  I asked them if instead of getting me a return flight, they could get us two one-way tickets. We had no money, we didn’t really know anyone here at first, and we were on-and-off homeless. But then Hayden was accepted into a non-profit arts program called The Remix Project. That’s when he started to really focus on his beat-making, and experimenting with different production styles.”

Hayden grew up with a camera in hand. Once in Toronto, he used every opportunity to forge new connections, doing gigs whenever the opportunity arrived. Then an angel, and Canadian music icon, by the name of Gord Downie, popped up.

“I was offered a gig doing BTS [behind the scenes] photos for a short film,” says Hayden. “When I got to set, I realized that the lead actor was the Gord Downie. During a break for lunch I thought to myself, ‘Man this is your chance to share your music with someone big in the industry.’ I got the courage to go ask if I could show him some of my stuff. Gord was one of the most down-to-earth, gentle souls. He sat with me and listened, while giving me some great advice. That’s when the writer of the short film overheard the music and approached us. His name was Gavin Sheppard. He told me how he helped start a program called The Remix Project, and that I should apply.”

“We had no money, we didn’t really know anyone, we were on-and-off homeless” – Jayli Wolf of Once A Tree

Hayden was accepted into the program, opening doors that may never have happened otherwise, including their first indie record deal, music management, and a job working for Drake’s OVO brand. Working with the OVO team gave him a rare, much-sought-after education in making art.

“I [became] Senior Photographer at OVO for over four years.” says Hayden, “getting to produce and direct visual content for the brand. It taught me an extreme work ethic. The whole team around Drake are dedicated visionaries, and it was an incredible experience to work alongside them.”

Today, the pair are taking their vision further. Once A Tree – described by Hayden as the circle of life, “knowing that energy doesn’t die, it transforms” — fuses organic folk instruments with electronic beats, to tell stories of resilience and loyalty against all odds. Their song “Born for This” was selected for a 2018 Nissan KICKS national TV ad campaign. The stunning pair also create all the visual content around their work ,and they’re each working on solo projects – Jayli on a debut solo album (which promises to be raw and personal), and Hayden producing cover art and music for various Toronto up-and-comers (including Jayli).

Looking back, they both marvel at their fortuitous connection. Hayden says it’s allowed them to access lives they may not have had, if not for each other: “I think these themes [love, sacrifice, and healing], we never fully experienced before we met each other and started a new life together. We now experience unconditional love from the people in our lives. We’ve made friends that love us for who we are, not just the God we pray to. We feel like underdogs in a lot of ways, but we’ve never given up on ourselves or our dreams. We keep aiming to bring more love into our everyday lives, more joy, more freedom.”

Songwriting: Sharing the Dream

  • “Make sure to listen to the world around you. You never know what line someone will say that could inspire a song. Or what sound could ignite ideas for production on a song.”
  • “Write with other songwriters [as the duo did at the 2018 SOCAN Kenekt Songwriting camp]. We just started collaborating more, and bringing in new energy to our writing spaces. It’s good to riff off of others.”
  • “Always write with your voice recorder on. You never know what little melody will come out in the most perfect way.”
  • “I think for us, writing about personal experiences, or things with which we have a deep connection, allows us to create intimate and more vulnerable lyrics.”

The added anxiety caused by COVID has many feeling helpless, unable to sleep and concentrate, but it’s also helping others to further appreciate the importance of stillness, and even boredom. Ace jazz drummer/composer Larnell Lewis, who’s always placed a premium on mindfulness – the practice of focusing your attention on the present moment – falls into the latter category.

Larnell Lewis, Snarky Puppy “Practicing [mindfulness] has definitely becoming a bigger part of my day since the pandemic hit,” he says from his Toronto home. “Awareness, stillness, being in the moment really helps me focus my energy and intention. COVID has forced many of us to look at what’s in front of us. My family is what’s in front me. As someone who tours a lot, I’m home now, so I’m seeing my children grow, I’m getting to know them.”

Living in the moment is so important to the incredibly innovative and in-demand drummer that he christened his first album In The Moment. In the liner notes of the record, which came out in 2018, Lewis wrote, “The compositions on this album are based on a collection of moments and memories that I’ve kept with me over the last 15 years. As I start this new journey, I’m reminded of a very important rule that can apply to many things in life: Strive to be In The Moment at all times.”

Lewis has enjoyed many mindful moments: as a member of triple-Grammy-winning Brooklyn band Snarky Puppy (nominated again for 2021); touring the world with jazz heavyweights like Pat Metheny, John Scofield, and Gary Burton; being Musical Director during the Toronto International Film Festival’s premiere of the critically-acclaimed documentary of Quincy Jones, QUINCY, where he led the performances from the likes of Chaka Khan and Mark Ronson; playing Carnegie Hall alongside David Crosby; earning the 2004 Oscar Peterson Award for Outstanding Achievement in Music (from Humber College), and the 2017 Toronto Arts Foundation’s Emerging Jazz Award (2017).

Lewis was first introduced to drums in church at a very young age. Mindfulness, he says, manifested itself during the services. “It was there that I realized the importance of being still, of being thankful for what you have, and appreciating the process of moving from the outside world to a place that centred me,” he says.

​He confesses that whether it was playing in church, or in venues around the world, performing is a religious experience. “You can definitely affect how someone is feeling when they come to your show if the goal is to return to centre,” he says. “My hope is that their day is a little bit brighter after seeing me.”

In November of 2020, Lewis released Relive The Moment, comprised of six re-imagined compositions from his debut record that feature new, live drum performances. “I approached this record from the perspective of a drummer,” he says, adding that when he made In The Moment, he was “project managing.” Considering that the debut record featured nearly 20 Toronto jazz musicians, you can get an idea of what his job entailed.

“This one has a different flow,” says Lewis. “It gave me another chance to appreciate the music. and a new way to tell the stories behind each song.” “Coconuts” is one of those songs, a piece he calls “my version of talking about finding that Holy Grail.” At a show in Toronto last year, Lewis relished telling the story of the search for that perfect coconut. With a laugh, he tells me that he actually bought a special hammer that helps him pick just the right one.

The analogy he draws between coconut hunting and his approach to his craft is lovely. “It’s about taking your time,” he says. “You’re constantly studying, you’re persistent, and you keep going. There’s always that journey of learning something, and how amazing you feel when you get to that moment.

“The best advice I can give is, keep cracking more coconuts!” he laughs.