Kid Koala

Photo: Corinne Merrell

“Utilitarian” is not exactly the type of description artists long to see as a description of their music. But according to Montréal turntablist and composer Eric San, a.k.a. Kid Koala, that’s the exact word that best describes his most recent album, Music to Draw to: Satellite. The project’s intended goal could not be clearer, as expressed in its title: it’s designed as music to draw – or perform any other calm and solitary activity – to. With its slow tempos and layered synths, the album feels light years away from the eclectic, syncopated collages to which we’d grown accustomed from this ace turntable artist. Yet, to Kid Koala, this is one of his most personal projects, and a natural extension of his  creative output. “The turntable is still there, but it’s not being used as an instrument for solos, more like a production tool that can add texture to the compositions,” says San. “For the live show, I’ve created an orchestra of turntables that are manipulated by the audience, and the result is astonishing!”

The idea behind this unique project was born from DJ sessions where the Kid invited a small audience in sometimes unusual venues (a Vietnamese restaurant, for example) to listen to calm records while doodling in their sketch pads (“music for introverts”, says San, laughing). Those events were so popular that the DJ decided to create his own “music to draw to.” “I think it’s absolute genius to associate certain functions to specific types of music. The Ramones are great for a quick clean-up of the house, EDM is great for the gym, and so on!”

San, who’s been busy with his graphic-novel and animated-movie projects, also has his go-to albums when he sits at his drawing board, and his top two are quite surprising: “Spaklehorse’s It’s a Wonderful World, a somewhat twisted album that has me discovering new details in it even after hundreds of listens, and Lucky Cat by Sian, a rather ambient electronic album that Radiohead’s Colin Greenwood gave me, and which helps me lose all sense of time.”

The latter is definitely the one that comes closest to Satellite. Apart from its ambient nature and slow tempos, the most outstanding aspect of Satellite is the presence of a female voice – that of Icelandic chanteuse Emiliana Torrini, by whose work San has always been awestruck. Following their first long-distance collaboration in 2014, on a song created for the soundtrack of Jason Reitman’s Men, Women and Children, San invited Torrini to spend a few days in Montréal so they could work on his “petite winter music.” Torrini being the type to take her time when writing, she immersed herself in the DJ’s “cerebral labyrinth” while San whipped up lyrics that talked about two lovers slowly drifting apart in space. “Eric is really annoying: everything he does is successful,” says Torrini. “Creativity flows through his veins, it’s his very nature, whereas I have to struggle really hard to get to that level.”

The project is in fact the first of a series of three “winter records” Kid Koala will produce for the Arts and Crafts imprint. The few constraints he’s imposed on himself are simple: he’ll only work on them during the winter, and they must involve vocalists. Did he feel it was important to involve a Nordic singer for this first chapter? “I do believe it facilitated my understanding of certain things,” San explains. “At some point, Emiliana asked me why the rhythm of one of the songs, ‘Adrift,’ was so slow. I told her it has the tempo of someone who’s been shovelling snow for three hours, and she totally got it! To be honest, I’m still wondering how someone who lives in California will be able to appreciate this record!”

Whether you choose to do yoga, paint-by-numbers, or simply go for a walk while you listen to Satellite, it’s the kind of record that will find a place in your life, if you feel the need to withdraw from the daily hubbub of life. “I meet all kinds of people when I do my Music to Draw to DJ sets,” San explains. “The other day, I met a biologist who builds protein chains on his computer, and a woman who’s studying 3D models of the human brain. Maybe I should’ve titled my album Music to build proteins to or Music to do Neuroscience to. But it’s not as sexy!”

Urvah Khan wants to build an army. The singer-songwriter from Toronto calls her blend of rock, rap and world rhythms “scrap,” and the Pakistani-Canadian has plans to spread her music and message of independence to “brown girls all over the world who want to get involved in rock music.”

Born in Karachi, Pakistan, raised in Dubai, UAE, and having immigrated to Canada with her parents at age 12, Khan, now 31, recently returned to her birthplace for what local press called the first shows by a female Pakistani punk artist. (She assembled a band of local musicians via Facebook video, looking for “like-minded rock ‘n’ roll warriors,” who she has since dubbed The Scrap Army.) With her bleached-blonde mohawk, tattoos, and piercings, she caused quite a scene before even setting foot on stage.

“I was riding in a rickshaw and got stuck in traffic” she recalls. “When I stuck my head out to see what was happening it turned out everyone was stopped to take photos of me. After my show, I couldn’t get backstage for all the people wanting selfies.”

It’s not just her wild looks that command attention, it’s her whole personality. Khan is decidedly high-energy. She speaks quickly, and with the confidence of someone who is their own manager, agent, and publicist. In 2010, she convinced guitarist/producer Ruben Huizenga (Glueleg, Edwin, David Usher), who she met at a gig, to help her transition from rap to rock.

“I had been writing rap lyrics, but was still experimenting with my sound,” she says. “I met Ruben and said, ‘I want to make a rock song.’ He was, like, ‘Hey, you can’t just make a rock song. You have to study rock, and understand what it’s about.’

“I thought, ‘I’ve never heard of a Pakistani woman making rock music.’ And I really want to be that woman.”

“I invited him to one of my shows,” she continues. “He was impressed with my onstage energy, and gave me an opportunity to write a rock song with him. But the first song we made was super Western. I found it hard to relate to it. At that point, we decided to use rock music as a base, but incorporate more world instruments. A form of rock music that would appeal to other South East Asian kids.”

Khan’s first recording, 2011’s Universal Rhythm Venture EP, showed a young artist boasting, “I am me, I’ll always be!” while still experimenting to find a sound of her own. By the time of her first full-length, 2013’s cheekily titled The Wrath of Urvah Khan, she’d taken Huizenga’s advice and had become a student… of Black Sabbath. In between her original rap-rock, punk, South Asian bhangra, and calypso songs of empowerment and independence, the album features a cover of the metal band’s “N.I.B.”

“When I heard Black Sabbath, I was so impressed,” she says. “Tony Iommi’s riffs, Ozzy’s singing – one in a million, right? In my heritage, we have a lot of Bollywood songs, Indian music. And I find Black Sabbath has a cinematic feel. They totally won me over. I thought, ‘I’ve never heard of a Pakistani woman making rock music.’ And I really want to be that woman. I don’t want to be the second of anything. I want to be the first of something.”

We ask if by “second of anything,” she’s talking about M.I.A. Comparisons to the British-Tamil superstar are somewhat easy to make, even if that’s more the fault of limited exposure and references for South East Asian women in Western music than any true similarities between them.

“When I started rapping and doing live performances, working with electronic producers, right off the bat I was getting comparisons to M.I.A.,” she admits. “Don’t get me wrong. She’s a total inspiration. But I didn’t want to be the next M.I.A… I wanted to make something original, something that represented my journey.”


And thus began the full-throttle drive to create a Scrap Army. Inspired by her gigs in Pakistan, Khan has just started writing the follow-up to 2015’s Rock Khan Roll, this next one an EP aimed squarely at her new-found Pakistani audience, with material in both English and Urdu. She continues to partner with Huizenga as a co-writer and producer (he also plays guitar in her live band) but Khan has also been working with renowned Pakistani composer/songwriter Sohail Rama, who now lives in Mississauga, ON. When complete, she’ll take it back to Pakistan, where she wants not only more gigs for herself, but to create a live music series that encourages female-fronted punk and rock acts.

“There are no female punks there,” she explains. “The freedom that allows me to rock that look, boldly, when I travel there, was given to me by Canada. So I want to take everything Canada offers me and create a platform for more women who come from where I come from. It feels good to have big dreams. And to chase them like a mad woman.”

When Ian Janes was trying to come up with a title for his latest album, he didn’t have to look far. The Dartmouth, Nova Scotia-based singer-songwriter landed quickly on Yes Man, the name of a catchy song with a groovy beat that he’d co-written for the album with Joel Plaskett. “Let me be your yes man/if anyone can do it I can,” Janes sings in the chorus. “Let me be your yes man/I’m never gonna say no.”

For Janes, it was a sentiment that he felt evoked something of his own attitude going into the making of the soulful album, his fourth in nearly 20 years. “‘Yes Man’ is a song on the record, but it’s also who I’m trying to be,” says Janes. “Not in a spineless way, but in having positive energy, and an open-to-whatever attitude.”

Janes released his first album, Occasional Crush, to critical acclaim in 1998, when he was 20. It even landed him a spot on Maclean’s magazine’s annual list of 100 Canadians to Watch. Looking back, Janes gently criticizes his younger self for being afraid to take risks, and for missing out on opportunities as a result.

“I used to get too caught up in trying to control outcomes, or too rigidly plan and direct things,” he recalls.  “The younger me might have said ‘I’m not sure’ to opportunities. Now I’ve just started saying yes.”

“Songwriting is a muscle. The more you use it, the better you get at it.”

But it’s not just his attitude that has changed. While Janes, who grew up in Nova Scotia’s Annapolis Valley, has been making music for most of his life, he hasn’t always been driven to make it the focus.

It was just after releasing his second album, 2002’s As It Seems – nominated for two East Coast Music Awards and named Record of the Year by Music Nova Scotia – that Janes met the woman who would become his wife, and shifted his attention from music to growing his family.

“Music is a huge part of who I am, but it’s not the only thing I am,” says Janes, now a father of three. “It was important to me not to miss out on those parts of my life in blind pursuit of music, or of reaching some sort of level of achievement. I always wanted to balance the two.”

It wasn’t until the release of his third self-produced album, Piece of Mine, in 2010, that Janes, who was making part of his living doing carpentry work and renovation projects, started feeling the pull to return to making music, full-time.

“I realized I needed to try and focus 100 percent of my vocational energy on music,” he says. “Your ‘B’ plan can all of a sudden take all of your energy, at the expense of your ‘A’ plan. So my wife and I decided to make it so that I could spend all of my energy on the music.”

For Janes, who cites Joni Mitchell, Carole King and James Taylor among his many musical influences, it meant both pro-actively seeking out new opportunities to get heard, and opening himself up to more co-writing.

Indeed, it was after participating in Music Nova Scotia showcase that he connected with Los Angeles-based songwriter Andy Stochansky (Goo Goo Dolls, Ani DiFranco) and soon found himself in California for a writing session. He later collaborated with Lee Ann and Daryl Burgess (Irma Thomas, Colin James) in Nashville, a city he’s since visited six times in the last two years for co-writing sessions. In both cities, Janes was thrilled to have the chance to stay at the SOCAN Houses. “I wouldn’t have been able to do it without that,” he says gratefully.

In the end, two-thirds of the songs on Yes Man are co-writes, recorded in hotel rooms, studios and homes from Nashville to St. John’s, NL. Most were produced in Janes’ home studio in Dartmouth, Nova Scotia, while final overdubs and mixing were done at Joel Plaskett’s New Scotland Yard studio.

Janes has also had some success writing for others, most recently when his country ballad “Can’t Remember Never Loving You,” co-written with Byron Hill, was featured prominently in the TV drama Nashville – where it was performed by lead characters as part of the show’s mid-season finale. At least two Canadian artists will also be releasing songs written by Janes in the coming year.

“It’s a muscle,” Janes says simply of the writing process. “The more you use it, the better you get at it.”

Ultimately, he’s thrilled to see that his commitment to making music full-time is starting to pay off. “Certainly, I’m still pedaling the bicycle up a hill, but I’m further up the hill now,” he laughs. “I guess it’s all about trying to keep the positivity and the pursuit going, while still trying to enjoy the process as much as you can.”