Hip-hop is experiencing a golden age in Québec, but another scene is developing at a breakneck speed in Montréal, and it has yet to generate the same level of enthusiasm in the media and the industry at large. Here’s an overview of some of the more prominent artists of Montréal’s R&B scene.
Far from the organic soul of the 2000s – mainly represented by Corneille and a few of his disciples such as Gage and Marc Antoine – the current wave of Montréal-based R&B sound marries electronic explorations with strong funk and trap influences. The so-called international French language has been ousted, and most of the successful artists in that scene sing in English, even when French is, for some, their native language. What’s even more interesting is that it’s mainly women at the crest of this rising tide.
Yet, despite these remarkable trends, one can’t really say that Montréal’s R&B music has its own well-defined sound, akin to that of The Six in the first half of this decade. Defined by its explicit lyrics, and a cold and reverb-heavy sound, the Toronto scene had a huge impact on American pop sound thanks to luminaries like Drake, The Weeknd, Roy Woods, and PARTYNEXTDOOR, to name but a few. “I can tell in a few seconds if a song is from Toronto, even if I’ve never heard that artist before. That’s not the case with Montréal’s R&B,” says Mind Bath.
But to Shay Lia, this lack of a signature sound is tantamount to a strength. “It allows for a less formatted and more diversified scene,” she says. “Sure, having a signature sound is good for exporting our music, but we need to avoid sounding like we’re just copying one another, as was the case in Toronto.”
Kallitechnis couldn’t agree more. “This scene is too young to have its own sound yet,” she says. “It’ll take time, but it’ll happen, I think. All we need is for one of us to make it internationally, and then the sound will start to define itself.”
But for all of its lack of a specific sound, Montréal “definitely has a common vibe,” according to Mind Bath. That vibe is mainly defined by the closeness and solidarity of that scene’s artists. Janette King agrees. “We have a very strong sense of community,” she says. “We gig together, we talk to each other, we help each other out… We do all that to push ourselves because we’re aware of our tremendous potential.”
Kallitechnis, however, believes that degree of complicity can sometimes lead to a kind of hermetic bubble. “We get comfortable,” she says. “There’s a danger that all those compliments and pats on the back end up making us believe everything is OK, that our careers are progressing, when in reality we’re stuck in a scene that’s not on anyone’s radar, as opposed to markets such as Los Angeles or London, U.K. I think our music would be known more widely if we were a little hungrier.”
For Sara Diamond, this lack of visibility is at least in part due to a lack of support from the media. “I think we don’t recognize the immense amount of talent in this scene enough,” she says. “But the time will come when we can no longer be ignored.”
“Right now, we have a scene, but no industry,” Shay Lia adds. “A lot of local artists need to work twice as hard to be heard, and that’s why they’re tempted to re-locate.”
The language barrier plays an important role, here. Anglophone R&B artists have very little financial leverage because the’re isolated in an industry that largely favours Francophone projects. “If there’s no French in your lyrics, you basically can’t be played on the radio, and it becomes very complex to apply for a grant. That’s why labels show little to no interest,” Janette King explains.
This state of affairs upsets Kallitechnis. “It’s my biggest dream to represent Québec on the international stage, but just because I’m Anglophone, I’m told that my music does not fit in the right boxes,” she says.
“I feel like I will never fit in the mold of Québec’s industry, but to tell the truth, I don’t mind,” says Mind Bath. “Sure, Anglo musicians have a hard time making it in Québec, but almost anywhere else in the world, the reality of a Franco musician is still very hard. All I can do about this is to play as many gigs as possible, broadening my audience, and connecting with more and more people.”
It’s obvious that their main weapon to achieve this is the internet. Yet the situation is very different now than it was just five years ago, at a time when someone like Kaytranada could pop up out of nowhere and become a phenomenon, simply from the millions of streams he gathered on Soundcloud.
“That kind of unexpected success has become more difficult to achieve. On Soundcloud, I’ve noticed that the number of streams are sometimes six times less than they used to be,” says Shay Lia, who began her career as a collaborator of the star producer. “Now, you need more contacts in the industry in order to get on Spotify or Apple Music. We need teams to support us, and network on our behalf, in various markets.”
In short, there’s no shortage of challenges, but the international popularity of R&B – think of Daniel Caesar, Kali Uchis, or even Ariana Grande – means that Montréal can have high hopes.
At 24, Sara Diamond already has an impressive resumé. Launched in the music industry when she was just five, the young prodigy sang for KIDZUP, a children’s music record label owned by her mother, before recording her first eponymous album in 2008, a “very, very pop” affair.
Thanks to this calling card, she moved to Los Angeles in her teens to join the ranks of Clique Girlz, a pop-rock band created by the producer Jimmy Iovine, better known as the co-founder of Interscope Records. That, however, came to a halt after a mere three months. “It was too intense. I missed home,” she readily admits.
Her career caught a second wind in 2013. She was invited to sing the national anthem before a Montréal Canadiens hockey game, and she reconnected with the raw energy she felt from the scene. “That made me want to sing again,” she says.
After awhile, and many trials, the singer-songwriter ended up with “Just Give In,” the single that would launch her into the R&B realm in 2016. Two years and many new acquaintances later, inspired by Daniel Caesar, she was back in full force with Foreword, an EP created with producer Brody Gillman. He’s now working on a follow-up EP with her. “I’m in no rush,” she says. I’ve learned to take my time.”
Born in British Columbia, Mind Bath started as a film and TV actor before moving to Berlin in order to meet new people and evolve in a new artistic realm. “I needed to be more stimulated artistically,” he says. “As an actor in BC, I was always waiting for people to offer me projects and I wanted to be more autonomous.”
Eighteen months after arriving in Germany, Bath moved to New York City where he wrote and recorded I Was Young, a daring indie R&B EP that’s both experimental and catchy. “But times were tough financially,” he says. “I felt like moving back to the West Coast, but I had friends trying to convince me to move to Montréal,” he says about the producer Project Pablo, and singer Forever, with whom he frequently collaborates.
For nearly three years now, the artist has become an integral part of Montréal’s R&B scene. Thanks to his fruitful acquaintance with Ouri, which was immortalized on a three-track EP in 2017, his popularity is on the rise, and his first album, Baby You Can Free Your Mind, came out in June of 2019. “I wanted my voice to be at the front of the mix rather than buried under a ton of instrumentation,” says the die-hard Janet Jackson fan, who talks about his homosexuality on his album. Bonus songs from those sessions will soon be released.
Janette King’s first love, in her teens, was dancing. Between a contemporary dance class and a hip-hop dance class, the Vancouver-born girl wrote poetry in her bedroom, and was slowly growing more passionate about music. After graduating, she joined the popular soul band The Boom Booms, with whom she had her first stage experiences. “It was quite an epiphany. It’s what led me to write my first songs, and study jazz composition at the Vancouver Community College,” she explains.
During her studies, King revealed herself with Electric Magnolia, her first EP, with an organic R&B sound deeply influenced by soul and the blues. It was while touring Canada in 2016 that she decided to move to Montréal. “Life is so expensive in Vancouver, and I was looking for a more stimulating place, artistically and creatively,” she says. “I chose Montréal because it’s so vibrant, culturally.”
There, she met Jordan Esau, with whom she gave a more modern spin to her sound. Launched last April, her second EP, 143, is the result of several other stimulating collaborations. “I wanted to open myself to others, and come up with a more electronic project, instead of working on my own as I’d done on the previous one, she say. “It was warmly welcomed, and that made me want to carry on in this direction,” says the multi-instrumentalist, currently working on her third project.
Kallitechnis has, for the longest time, pushed music to a corner of her mind, convinced – or at least, trying to convince herself – that life had something more stable in store for her. A ballet dancer and music lover, with a wide, diverse taste in musical culture, she’s a fan of Sadé, Kanye West, and Radiohead, and she had to graduate in Psychology at McGill University to realize that she wanted art to be at the centre of her life.
In 2013, after failing to be accepted for a Master’s Degree in art therapy at Concordia University, she understood that she owed it to herself to try and reach for her dream. “I had to wait a full year before applying again to be admitted in the program,” she says. “So I decided to dive in, instead of lying to myself. Instagram was just starting to become popular back then, and there were a lot of artists posting videos of themselves singing covers. That’s what I did and, lo and behold, I was warmly welcomed,” she remembers.
Among her newfound fans, a young producer named Rami. B, of Planet Giza fame, recognized her talent, and Kallitechnis burst onto the Montréal scene through the main entrance, as “Average,” her 2017 collaboration with rapper Lou Phelps and producer Kaytranada, clearly demonstrates. Since then, the singer and producer has launched several singles on various streaming platforms, and she’s been fine-tuning her lively R&B signature style with tinges of various influences such as blues and soul (“Honesty”) and even drum ‘n’ bass (“Running”).
Her fertile period of exploration is far from over: “I want to try as many things as I can, and release tons of songs,” she says. “A lot of artists pour a lot of time and energy in a complete project, but they don’t necessarily get the attention they deserve from the audience and the media. That’s why I feel like releasing singles is less risky when you’re an independent artist who pays for everything.”
Born in France, Shay Lia grew up in Djibouti, and she chose Montréal to study communications. Ever since she arrived in 2012, she was interested by Montréal hip-hop scene which, back then, was undergoing a period of effervescence: the beginning of the Art Beat events, mythical gatherings of beat-makers that saw the emergence of Vlooper, High Klassified Da-P, and Kaytranada.
The latter took Shay Lia under his wing after seeing her sing in a video on Facebook. “The first song I ever wrote, I wrote with him,” she says. “My first time on a stage was with him at Coachella in 2017,” remembers the singer who sang “Leave Me Alone,” one of the best songs on Kaytranada’s 2016 Polaris Prize-winning classic, 99.9%.
However, after completing her studies last year, Shay Lia wanted to show the whole world that she was much more than the talented South Shore producer’s muse. “A lot of people thought Kaytranada wrote all my songs, so I wanted them to realize what my contribution was,” she says. “I did sessions in L.A. with Mr. Carmack and tapped several producers, including Jordon Manswell and Pomo.”
The result of this musical quest is the funky R&B bomb Dangerous, an EP launched earlier this year that managed to make it to the Polaris Prize long list. With all that wind in her sails, she’ll undertake her “first serious tour” this fall, notably opening for popular soul singer Omar Apollo in England.