Laurence-Anne’s debut album Première apparition will turn one year old on Feb. 8, 2020. Mysteries, ferns and tyrannosauruses punctuated her album release party, while a very different setting served as a backdrop for the singer-songwriter’s multi-genre gems when she played her last gig of 2019 at Montréal’s Katacombes. From a tropical jungle to the night of the living dead, she’s cultivating a garden pf which we were all dreaming.

 Laurence-Anne“It’s like a coded message,” she says. “It’s based on daily events, but everything is described with images and metaphors. I might be the only one who gets its, in the end, but it’s still a universe into which anyone can dive.” The songs settle inside her when she herself settles down for a moment, and when her band plays them, beautiful accidents occur. “I like to leave things as raw as possible to give space for sparks to fly,” she explains.

Listening to her album is as calming as a stroll through a forest, yet her stage show is nothing like a yoga class. “The songs take on a new life onstage,” says the artist who, during her December concert, emerged from a chrysalis after being liberated by a giant, scissor-wielding crustacean. “It’s more ethereal on the album. The rock side comes out onstage. There’s more noise. I think we embody it more when we’re on stage.”

From one gig to the next, Laurence-Anne’s band lets itself be carried away by the costumes and themes. And the setting is largely botanical, it remains dependent on the spontaneous impulses of the musicians. “The songs are full of imagery, and that’s why I find it interesting to bring up visual elements to keep that imagery ever-present,” says the singer. That can mean dressing up as a sports team, or a zombie lifeguard, or something inspired by vegetation.

“We’re all hyper-creative and we each have our own colour,” according to Laurence-Anne.  “I give them [the band] a lot of freedom. I’m not the type of musician who’ll give you specific directions. The people who work with me inspire me.” One would indeed be hard-pressed to try and box in musicians with such flamboyant inspirations. Naomie De Lorimier, who sings and plays synths, is also known for her solo project N Nao. David Marchand (a.k.a. zouz), on bass and guitar, among other instruments, is everything but a newcomer. Laurent St-Pierre’s drums and Ariel Comptois’ sax are constantly renewing themselves, and Étienne Côté’s percussion unravels before our very eyes like a surprise menu: we never know quite how it’s done, but it’s always delicious.

Laurence-Anne cultivates a sound that’s more firmly rooted each day, and her second album is already sprouting. “We’re going to give ourselves more time to work on it over several studio sessions this spring,” she says. “We still record live, all of us together, in order to preserve the organic dimension of it.” After greenery, Laurence-Anne will eventually tell us about storms and outer space. “I’d like to try new instruments that are seldom heard in Québec pop music,” she says, tempted, among others, to use ondes Martenot, an instrument resembling the theremin.

For Laurence-Anne, songs can originate from everywhere and nowhere. “‘C’est un virus’ is my song that’s the most different from all the others on Première apparition,” she says. “I wrote that song differently from the others. I used an old Yamaha keyboard with pre-set beats, the kind you often get as a kid. I plugged it in my effects pedals and I selected the bolero beat. I used my reverb pedal, and that’s where it started! It was the first time I composed without a guitar. I had no idea where I was going with it. I didn’t think much of it, but in the end, after jamming on it for a while, it turned into something.” A framework is nothing but a constraint, and the same goes when defining her style, which borrows left and right without ever staying long enough in one spot to be defined by it.

So what’s the recipe for a good song, according to Laurence-Anne Ricardo? “You need to choose the right beat setting, it’s like the oven temperature,” she says. “Between 1 and 100. The melody is really important. You have to nail it, otherwise your recipe is a disaster,” she jokes. “And you can’t forget about textures. It’s 2020, everything has been done, musically. It’s the only way to re-invent oneself.”

For Bhagya Ramesh and Priya Ramesh, making music is weighted with responsibility; one that the politically astute sisters from Calgary – who call themselves Cartel Madras – not only take seriously but embrace heartily.

Bhagya, a.k.a. Eboshi, and Priya, whose stage name is Contra, formed the trap group two years back. Since then, their hyper-kinetic sound has been earning them glowing reviews from far and wide, including the Indian editions of Rolling Stone and Vogue, which called them “a Tamil Pulp Fiction-meets-MIA” who deliver “bad-ass, no-fucks-given, brown girl anthems.”

And last June, the sisters signed with Sub Pop, the legendary label that was home to Nirvana and Soundgarden. “It was a dream scenario being signed by (Shabazz Palaces’ and former Digable Planets member) Ishmael Butler,” Bhagya says from her home in Calgary. “It was crazy validation!”

In a press release, Sub Pop said, “Contra and Eboshi enter the world of trap loudly, abrasively, unapologetically – signaling to their growing fan base that they intend to bring something entirely new to hip-hop.”

That “something new” is a sound informed by the duo’s different identities. Contra and Eboshi are queer, South Asian women operating in a Black genre that’s predominantly male, and that’s been criticized for its misogynistic and violent lyrics.

The sisters agree that these layers manifest themselves in their music. “Definitely,” says Priya. “We’re two brown women coming into this space and trying to figure out how we lean into this sub-genre of hip-hop, that’s associated with sex and a gangster lifestyle, while saying something new. All these different layers bubble up into Cartel Madras.”

Adds Bhagya, “There are also so many important conversations we’re having with all the communities we represent. There’s definitely a responsibility to participate in them, and to speak to – and not just on behalf of – those communities. Just within [those communities], there’s so much diversity.”

Talk inevitably turns to the Hindu nationalism that’s sweeping India – the sisters were born in the southern Indian city of Chennai, which was formerly called Madras – and their tweet urging “Diaspora Indians to be angry and raise hell to tell everyone the truth about the rising fascism in your motherland.”

“Goonda Rap was a right fit. It’s scary and disruptive and gangsta.” – Priya Ramesh of Cartel Madras

“You have to be very vocal about what’s happening at home,” Bhagya insists. “It seems like some diaspora Indians don’t give a shit! They’ve used their culture as a building block for their platform, and it’s shocking to me that they don’t speak out. I mean, what else is your platform for?”

Goonda Rap – goonda is a Hindi word for thug or trouble-maker – is Cartel Madras’ platform, a furious hybrid of Indian sounds and languages, rib cage-rattling beats, and rapid-fire verses. “Goonda Rap was a right fit,” says Priya. “It’s scary and disruptive and gangsta.”

The Cartel Madras Discography
* Age of the Goonda (EP, 2019)
* “Goonda Gold” (Single, 2019)
* “Lil Pump Type Beat” (Single, 2019)
* Project Goonda Part 1: Trapistan (Mixtape, 2018)
* “Pork and Leek” (Single, 2018)

They say that hearing various Indian languages and music styles while growing up inspired them to pursue a career in music. “It was obvious from a young age that we weren’t going to be doctors or lawyers of engineers,” says Priya, laughing. “We faced the same pressure from our parents that other young South Asians face, but we kind of bent their will. In South Asian homes, the choice is either ‘I’m going to listen to my parents’ or ‘I’m going to stand my ground.’ We stood our ground.”

Bhagya and Priya say they have a deep respect for the origins of hip-hop, “a sound that traditionally doesn’t belong to us. We’re in our own lane, this is our take on the genre.”

When it comes to making music, Priya and Bhagya say they sit in separate rooms, “writing our own verses but collaborating on the hook. We do a good job balancing everything. As sisters, we know each other’s skills and talents, and that makes it easier when something works or doesn’t. If we do have any disagreements, they might be about beat choices.

“On the other hand, the first time we heard the beats for Age of the Goonda, we were like, ‘Oh yeah! This is it, this the beat we’ve been looking for.’ “We’re all about pushing the envelope sonically.”

As another decade in music comes to an end, entertainment headlines are filled with winner stats – Drake’s the most-streamed artist on Spotify, while other famed Canadian pop stars like The Weeknd and Shawn Mendes also find themselves on top, with mammoth, endlessly stream-able, and promoted, pop albums.

But what about the artists making Indigenous, global, or other music outside of the mainstream? Those whose diverse sounds don’t capture streaming algorithms as easily as pop music’s powerful machines do. As National Canadian outlets play less and less of their music, and spaces such as MTV IGGY (shuttered mid-way through the decade) disappear, an undeniable calibre of artist, who perform in genres too diverse to categorize, are trying to navigate the new spaces of music in hopes of finding wider audiences. Here’s a cross-section of four.

Celeigh Cardinal

For singer and radio host Celeigh Cardinal, the struggles that come with making non-pop/mainstream music have never been a surprise. “I never thought I would be a Lady Gaga type. I just never created that kind of music, so I didn’t have the expectation that I would be on commercial radio,” says Cardinal, whose sound ranges through soul, blues, and folk genres. “Most of my success is with Indigenous, community, and college radio stations. I think as an independent artist, having realistic expectations is a must.”

A self-proclaimed singing “diva” since the age of four, who’s performed music for 20 years, it was in 2011 when Cardinal released her first, self-titled EP, recorded in her partner’s kitchen. The release allowed her to tour, promote, and sell her music. Since, she’s released 2017’s Everything and Nothing at All, and 2019’s Stories from a Downtown Apartment.

Besides realistic expectations, Cardinal’s key to independent artistry is adaptability. “I’ve learned from my years playing bars to folk clubs [and] reading rooms, [to] constantly adapt to the crowd in front of me.” She’s taken those skills and transferred them to how she markets her music.  It means knowing that a YouTube-er listening to her may utilize platforms in a very different way than one discovering her on Spotify. It’s also meant not assuming everyone consumes or finds her music online. Cardinal creates monthly newsletters for those who aren’t on social media at all. It’s been key in building a fanbase.

“It means extra work for me,” she says. “But it means that I’m actually really plugged in with the people listening to my music.”


Kiran Ahluwalia

Though music platforms are everywhere – promising unlimited access to listeners around the world – reaching audiences can still be a major challenge, explains Kiran Ahluwalia, especially since some outlets have notably narrowed their music focus.

“CBC radio has pretty much stopped playing any music that isn’t in English or French,” says Ahluwalia. “They used to have dedicated shows playing world music, and used to record live concerts.  This [was] a great way for non-mainstream musicians to reach a national audience, but now it no longer exists.” And while CBC has diffused world beats into speciality channels, she says it’s only served to further niche sounds that are already struggling for wider attention.  “They don’t have the same kind of national reach as radio itself,” she adds.

It’s particularly challenging for artists like Ahluwalia, whose music, such as 2018’s 7 Billion, resists easy genre labels. “Journalists and fans don’t know what to make of it until they actually listen to it,” she says.  “And that’s the catch – sometimes they don’t listen to it until you call it something.  I don’t do traditional Indian music, but I don’t do club/dance Indian music either, such as Bollywood.  I write original songs in Hindustani and Punjabi, but I can’t call it singer-songwriter because I [have] an extended band – electric guitar, drums, tabla, bass ,and organ.  I describe my music as modern Indian song, influenced by West African desert blues and jazz.  But for most people that doesn’t generate an aural image.

“If someone says they do rock, or folk, or R&B, you get an idea of a sound.  But since I’ve created a hybrid genre – taking my Indian roots and blending them with Western and global sounds, there’s no neat category.  This makes it harder to sell, which brings about more challenges in marketing the music.” Though touring is where she makes the most income, community radio, a space not beholden to easy labels, remains a saving grace for Ahluwalia’s work.  “I’m a big fan of community radio. It is definitely an important factor in getting my music out [there],” she says.



If not for Indigenous and community radio, many may not have discovered the deep, moving blues of Yellowknife’s Digawolf. Digawolf himself calls community radio essential for many Canadian musicians.

Releasing music since 2003’s solo project, Father, and currently touring his latest release, Yellowstone, Digawolf sound has been compared to those of Leonard Cohen and Tom Waits. He believes artists today must become business-savvy in order to make, and make a living from, their music. Particularly remotely located artists, who face extra hurdles – like weaker internet connections, less access to festivals, and expensive flights when travelling to shows.

“I think it’s really important as a musician [and] artist to diversify your income,” says Digawolf, explaining that touring and streaming are equally important. “To make it as a full-time artist [and] musician, no matter where you live, you have to understand where your money is. Finding those royalties, and making sure every song is properly registered, so you’re able to make a living.”

Singing in Tlicho and English, when asked if he was ever tempted to switch to a more mainstream sound, it’s a simple no. “I just write music,” says Digawolf. “If I like it, I like it. And that’s what I put out.”



When it comes to mixing up one’s musical style for the ever-coveted mainstream attention, it’s also a flat “no” for Mali-born, Montréal-based Mamoutou Dembélé, better known as EMDE (pronounced “EM-day”). “I compose [the] music that I play. I would not change it to fit in any mold or standards,” he says.

Playing music since he was a child, and professionally performing from the age of 13, in 2013 the singer-songwriter and multi-instrumentalist released EMDE Djeliya, and then its 2017 follow-up, Dasio. Now working on his third release, EMDE says finding a musical home in Canada has been an admitted challenge, particularly for global beats.

“Performing and touring is how I sustain my career,” he says. “There are just a few radio stations that are playing world, African music. If you don’t get played, it becomes harder.”

Despite the challenges EMDE is finding success. In 2019, he became the winner of Montreal’s Festival International Nuits d’Afrique’s People’s Choice and The Syli d’Or prize. It’s bolstered his resolve. Today, he’s taking the steps to get his music onto streaming platforms, and searching for a label. He believes patience and perseverance are the tools that will help his music find a broader home. “[It] takes a major investment,” he says. “[And] that will come in time.”