“Admittedly, the timing of this release isn’t optimal, because I’ve always considered this music to be best suited to cold weather,” says cellist and composer Justin Wright. This seasonal mishap can easily be forgiven, because with warm weather being fashionably late, his Music for Staying Warm doesn’t seem all that off-season.

Following experiments in amalgamating analogue synths and strings – both with the band Sweet Mother Logic and his solo EP Pattern Seeker – the Montréal artist is now exploring new avenues on his first album recorded as a quartet. The music falls somewhere between contemporary music and post-rock – fans of Godspeed You! Black Emperor should totally dig it. Falling, also, between the strictest codes of composition, and improv, Wright’s sound is part of an instrumental music movement that’s gathering more and more momentum.

“Early on, I knew I’d most likely never be the best cellist or the best composer in the world, so I knew I had to find a new angle, a very personal way of being creative with my instrument,” he says. “That’s why I like to give myself limits and challenges. For this album, I wanted every sound to come from a stringed instrument. People would be amazed at the strange sounds we can extract from these instruments.”

“With this project, I’m really putting myself out there, and it’s making me nervous!”

Inspired in part by Brian Eno’s Music for Airports, Wright also chose a utilitarian title that refers to the project’s initial spark. At the invitation of an art gallery that wanted a soundscape for the 2016 edition of Nuit Blanche, he composed a few melodies that would act as a sonic tapestry for people who would literally walk in to warm up during the event, which takes place in the middle of winter. Lo and behold, passers-by stayed longer, and paid attention to his work.

Those initial compositions later evolved into a dense and complex body of work that’s simultaneously cerebral and sensitive. The album comprises four “drones,” minimalist pieces built around sustained, trance-inducing notes. “I listened to a lot of tizita music from Ethiopia,” says Wright, “which usually only uses two chords, and I was fascinated by these pieces that seem to have no beginning or end… As an instrumentalist, there’s something fascinating and hypnotic about playing minimalist music. The number of variations you can apply to a single note is amazing.”

The album was recorded at the Banff Centre for the Arts, where Wright went for a third stay. If you close tour eyes while you listen, you can easily imagine being at the heart of this idyllic environment. “It’s hard to not be impressed and inspired when you work there,” he says. “The studio has windows on all sides, and no matter where you look, you see those majestic Rocky Mountains. Sometimes, it’s mind-blowing, but creatively, it’s good to be reminded how small we are in comparison to the universe.”

Maybe the fact that he studied molecular biology in university taught him to pay close attention to nature, but one supposes that this modesty also comes from being a serial accompanist. If you follow the Québecois underground scene, you’ve probably seen him play alongside artists such as Common Holly, Krief, Raveen, and many more. His talent as an instrumentalist and arranger can also be heard on recent albums by Jeremy Dutcher, winner of the Polaris Prize, and Mich Kota, two unique artists that are redefining contemporary First Nations culture.

“I honestly think I don’t have a grand message to champion through my music,” says Wright. “I try to touch upon universal themes, because I don’t believe that the story of this white dude who grew up in a posh environment is that interesting,” he says with a chuckle. “For First Nations artists, however, it’s different: their voices were repressed for so long that it’s crucial that they be heard today, and I’m happy to lend my talent to artists who have so much to say.”

And no matter what its creator thinks, Music for Staying Warm has a lot to say, even without words. One can definitely hear the personality of an artist we hope to follow throughout his whole career. “I admit that being an accompanist is somewhat comfortable,” he says. “You don’t need to make big decisions, you just put yourself at the service of someone. With this project, I’m really putting myself out there, and, honestly, it’s making me nervous! I didn’t expect all this to be so big, but as the project moved forward, I learned to appreciate my own work.”

Notifi is no different than a five-star chef who’s picky about their ingredients, and what they serve their discriminating guests. Listening to the North Toronto-based rapper and singer talking about beats, it becomes abundantly clear that he doesn’t just place a premium on them. He speaks about them with such passion and relish that we sense he considers beats sacred.

Not any beat, mind you. “When I hear a beat that really moves me, I’m in a state of bliss, or euphoria,” the 24-year-old says. “I feel like, ‘I can’t let this thing go to waste.’ And sometimes, I don’t want to do anything with it, ‘cause I feel I won’t do it justice,” he adds. “I feel like it needs to be left alone for a while before I get to it.”

Kinda like letting chicken pieces marinate in Jamaican jerk seasoning overnight before chucking them on the grill? “Exactly!” he says, laughing. “The beat is everything, the beat is king! When I hear a beat, it dictates what I write, and how the song will turn out. The beat always comes first, and the better the beat, the easier the song comes.”

Notifi received a huge confidence boost three years back when he won Slaight Music’s It’s Your Shot competition, the national songwriting and artist development contest launched in 2000.

“I don’t usually enter contests,” he says. “But I did, and two months later, I got a call saying, ‘You won!’ Winning that contest really let me know that the work you put in and the talent you have is being acknowledged.” After that, world-renowned, Toronto-based DJ Charlie B – the official DJ for Drake’s annual OVO Fest – began managing him. The wordsmith has also been tagged as a “soon-to-be rap star” and “Toronto’s next supernova,” and been written about favourably on tastemaker blogs like Complex and Noisey/VICE.

Cue up his latest track, “Won’t Get Lonely,” and you’ll hear Notifi – sounding very much like a young Drake – spitting rhymes and singing over a stark, eerie beat. To date, the video has been viewed nearly 100,000 times on YouTube, and streamed more than two million times across all platforms. It epitomizes what’s known as the Toronto Sound, that nocturnal, emotional sound that sits somewhere between R&B and rap. The video, equally moody and dark, was shot by Zac Facts, a Toronto-based director who’s made videos for Tory Lanez, Jessie Reyez, and U.S. heavies like Future and Wiz Khalifa.

“When I hear a beat that really moves me, I’m in a state of bliss, or euphoria.”

It’s no surprise that Notifi lists Torontonians Drake, Tory Lanez, and The Weeknd as influences. “My connection to the 6ix God got tighter when Charlie started managing me,” he says. “[But] the Toronto Sound is up for debate. It’s like half the rappers in the city are on that [Philadelphia-based] Lil Uzi Vert-trap-autotune vibe, and the other half are on a more clean, mainstream tip. Like your Drakes and Weeknds. I have bigger aspirations,” he says confidently. “I want to go global.”

Writing “Won’t Get Lonely”
“Won’t Get Lonely” will appear on an EP he’s planning to drop this summer. We ask Notifi if “Won’t Get Lonely” was inspired by recent newspaper reports that loneliness is growing in our country, and that one in five Canadians identify as being lonely. “I wasn’t aware of those statistics, but it’s not hard to believe,” he says. “It was just another day in the studio, and when I heard the beat, it made me remember the feeling I got from relationships I’d been in, the feeling that you don’t have to feel lonely,” he says. “We’ve all been in relationships where either you or the other person felt excluded or taken for granted. You don’t see it at that moment. You have to get out of [that situation] to recognize it.”

In an interview with Complex magazine, Charlie B raved about his young charge: “He’s multi-faceted in terms of songwriting, producing, as well as performance. His music is universally appealing, whereby he can easily cross over to various genres all the while, but remain true to himself. I’ve been in the industry for a while, and around A-listers at that, and I’ve identified musical qualities that Notifi has that nobody else has.”

Does the critical acclaim offer a fair bit of pressure to deal with? “I don’t feel any pressure,” says Notifi. “I love making music. And I feel blessed to be surrounded by all this amazing energy – whether it’s from my team, who believe in me, and my music, or from people like Charlie B, who’s been around Drake and The Weeknd and has played in clubs around the world.”

Notifi’s family moved to Toronto from Montréal when he was a few months old, and played drums in the church that they attended. He says a few high school friends suggested they “lay down some tracks” in their home studios, and Notifi obliged. He realized he had a gift for rapping and singing, and hasn’t looked back.

“You can’t block inspiration,” he replies when asked where he finds material for his songs. “I mean, I could be inspired by birds chirping. It’s how you take it in and put it into words.”

Clearly, he’s striking a nerve with listeners and putting us on notice. “I think one of the reasons my music goes over well,” he says, “is because people can relate to what I’m saying.”

There’s a scene, early in the 1951 animated film version of Alice in Wonderland, where the protagonist, her skirts ballooned out around her like a parachute, takes a tumble down a rabbit hole and falls into a dark abyss. As Alice descends, she pauses to turn on a lamp, later picking up a book, reading in contemplation as she drops. Eventually, while musing about whether she’s falling to the other side of the earth, she flips and lands, upside down, in Wonderland.

For Rich Aucoin, working on his third full-length album Release (due May 17, 2019), the film provided the perfect inspiration for the existential angst he’d been grappling with. “I wanted to use Wonderland as a metaphor for how we form our beliefs and our world-view,” he says, musing about Alice’s descent into self-awareness, “and about how we deal with existing in the universe.”

The resulting album, which Aucoin admits he almost called Death, combines electronic beats and soundscapes in songs that feel contemplative, but far from dark. With titles like “The Mind,” “The Self,” and “The Fear,” each song is to be read as something to be released (as in “release the mind,” “release the fear,” etc.). Fittingly, the album kicks off with a short song, “The Base,” in which Aucoin samples American neuroscientist Sam Harris leading a guided meditation.

And as with many of Aucoin’s previous albums, The Release is designed to synchronize with film: in this case, to a version of Alice in Wonderland that he’s edited to give it a narrative flow better suited to explore his chosen themes.  “Everything I’ve written so far has synced up to a film,” says Aucoin, who’d always planned to go to film school, but instead completed a degree in contemporary studies and philosophy.

Indeed, it was near the end of that formal education that Aucoin, a classically-trained musician who taught himself music recording and production as a 13-year-old, first decided to try his hand at creating a new soundtrack for an existing film. The result was Personal Publication (2007), his debut EP, which was written to synchronize with How the Grinch Stole Christmas. Unknowingly, he’d also charted a course for this career.

“The first shows were me sitting on the side of a stage playing keyboard while people watched the movie,” he laughs. Aucoin’s version of the animated film, with its original soundtrack, amassed more than a quarter million views on YouTube before he received a cease-and-desist letter from the copyright holders ordering him to take it down.

In the years that followed, Aucoin, began making music only after setting parameters within which to work – a practice he maintains today.

“For every project I work on, I make a list of rules, and of those rules, one of them needs to be doing the opposite of what I did the last time,” he explains. He wrote an album designed to sync with a film he made by combining three films starring Jimmy Stewart (Pubic Publication, 2010), and later made another to match up with an edited version of The Little Prince (2014’s Polaris Prize-nominated Ephemeral).

“For every project I work on, I make a list of rules.”

At one point, to honour a rule about not making his next album alone, he travelled across the country making recordings with more than 500 people, including three choirs, incorporating them all into an album that eventually became 2011’s We’re All Dying to Live. While each artist would play a song verse or a chorus, many contributions were reduced to eight-second samples.

When he began performing that album, however, Aucoin realized that he was unable to re-create its collaborative sound on his own. Unable to afford to hire a band to back his gigs, he began encouraging active participation from his audiences, who he would ask to sing song choruses and other song elements. That experience evolved into Aucoin’s trademark high-energy, interactive approach to performing, popular on the festival circuit, which he refers to as “dance floor-style, with confetti and parachutes.”

Two-wheeled Touring
Aucoin did his first cross-Canada tour by bike in 2007 to support his debut EP, Personal Publication. It was a journey that took him 81 days, during which time he also raised money for Childhood Cancer Canada. At that point, he’d already crossed the country once, while performing in his brother’s band, the Hylozoists. “I felt like it was a whirlwind,” he says, deciding that he wanted to take in the country at a more leisurely place. Aucoin allowed himself a week to travel between cities, carrying his keyboard, projector and laptop, along with his camping stuff. More than a decade later he did it again, traversing the United States on two wheels to promote his 2018 EP Hold, and to raise money for the Canadian Mental Health Association. Though he’s quick to admit that he’s not a serious cyclist, Aucoin enjoyed his time on two wheels. “I really wanted to see the States in a slow way.”

While his approach to making music has enabled him to follow his own curiosity, and to continue learning, Aucoin – who’s been nominated for 10 East Coast Music Awards over the years – laughs at how time consuming his creative process can be. Particularly his fascination with syncing music and film. “It’s one of the reasons I’m almost 12 years into making music, and have only released two full-length records,” he says. “These things take time.”

But that, he says, is going to change. Aucoin admits he’s been feeling frustrated with the pace at which his career has been evolving. “I feel like I’ve been up to bat forever, and have been hitting impressive but foul balls, but there’s been no home run,” he explains. As a result, he is now intent on putting out music more quickly: at least an album a year, if not more, in the years to come, “so that I can never have a break in releasing music until my career is done.”

One almost hears an echo of Alice, thinking about her place in relation to others as she falls into Wonderland, or as Aucoin puts it, “contemplating whether she exists as an ego or just as a series of conscious experiences.” Whatever happens next, Aucoin says he’s happy with what he’s produced so far, is also ready to take his career to the next level.

“I think that if it does happen for me, I’ll have a lot of things to talk about and show someone,” he says with a smile. “I’ll be able to say, ‘Here are all the things I’ve spent 10 years doing, while you haven’t heard of me.’”