The year 2019 will mark the 15th anniversary of Montréal’s “transmusical” rap group, Nomadic Massive. The event will be celebrated with the release of a new album of original material simultaneously in Québec and France, where the talent of the six founding members has found some footing. In the meantime, the band – impatient to showcase their new material – released an EP, Miwa, on Nov. 23, 2018. To mark the occasion, we had a chat with members Meryem Saci and Waahli.

Nomadic MassiveWithout the slightest need to confer with each other, Waahli and Saci concur on one thing: the cement that bonds the six members of Nomadic Massive is hip-hop. Waahli has just released his first solo album, Black Soap, replete with touches of Haitian Creole and Afrobeat and Afro-Caribbean rhythms.

“I grew up with ’90s American hip-hop,” says Waahli. “That’s the rap music that has shaped my appreciation of that culture and the way I express myself musically,” says the singer and rapper, who expresses himself in French, Creole and, mostly, English. “As a teen, I didn’t speak very good English,” he says, “but I chose to go to an Anglophone school so I could understand the language of rap, and become more familiar with hip-hop culture. As for Creole, it’s natural: I was born here, but my parents were born in Haiti.”

As for Meryem Saci, the only difference is that she emigrated to Montréal from Algeria, about 20 years ago. “I was already into rap before I got here,” she says, “but in Montréal it became serious. I was into R&B at first – I wasn’t sure rap was my cup of tea – but when you’re a fan of R&B, you’re in phase with hip-hop. Besides, my passion for rap music was crucial in my learning of the language (French and English), and that’s not counting the whole culture, the history of black people in America, and the way this music evolved around the world. And then, rap became a tool to protest, take a stand, and advocate. Rap is a space for free expression.”

Rap and multi-culturalism are, clearly, the two cornerstones of Nomadic Massive’s creative powerhouse, a bona fide melting pot of ideas and influences. Waahli raps in Creole, Meryem sings in English and Arabic, “then there’s Tali and his Jamaican Patois, and the Spanish influence of Lou [Piensa, rapper and composer],” as well as Ali Sepu, a multi-instrumentalist with Chilean roots, Rawgged MC, who also has Haitian origins, and producer/composer/studio rat Butta Beats. All of them form the core of the group, around which gravitate a number of regular collaborators, notably singer-songwriter Vox Sambou.

“That’s what’s so great about it,” says Saci, who launched her own solo album, On My Way, in the spring of 2017. “We agree on a set of fundamental values that inform our social and political stances. Some of the themes we talk about are closer to the heart of this or that member of the band, but in the end, we all share similar points of view. If there is a level of criticism or a debate among us, it shows up in the lyrics, but the message is unified.”

This is especially true for Miwa, a collection of new songs that sets the tone for the upcoming album. “We created this album differently than the previous ones,” says Saci. “This time around, we had the opportunity to really work, all of us at once, in the same place, in a context where we could create the music and the lyrics at the same time, at our own pace.”

This collective way of working – instead of each on their own with their own ideas, demos and backing tracks – was fostered during the band’s summer 2017 tour of France. “We wanted to start working on an album from scratch, all of us together,” says Saci. “We put everything on the table: our ideas, our instrumental tracks, our jams, and then we picked what inspired us. When we all agreed on an instrumental track, we’d work on it to come up with new arrangements as a group, and then we worked on the melody and the lyrics. It was mostly a chance to jam together, find sounds, re-arrange things, develop themes, and then move on to post-production and calibrate everything in the studio, tweaking drum sounds or song structures. The goal was to achieve a perfect harmony between recording organically and digital post-production.

“We don’t set out with a clear concept when we start working on an album. Take the new EP, we didn’t set out thinking it was going to be titled Miwa [which means “mirror” in Creole]. But once we decided that ‘Miwa’ was going to be a single, and that we were going to make an EP, we naturally started focusing on related themes: introspection, a reflection of the world around us. It came naturally. As for the upcoming album, we’re still working on the theme.”

That surprise will come next spring. In the meantime, Miwa is just out now.

German playwright Bertolt Brecht invented the word verfremdungseffekt to describe the feeling of coming into contact with something strange and unknown. Even though the word wasn’t uttered during our interview with Thus Owls’ Simon Angell, it was obvious that’s what he was trying to convey about the desire he shares with his musician wife Erika to break through the “invisible barrier” between the audience and their band. Brecht called the process“breaking the fourth wall.” This idea – simple, yet difficult to execute – turned out to be the fuse that kick-started the creation of their current, fourth album, The Mountain That We Live Upon.

“We’d been working on this for 18 months,” says Angell, referring to the conceptual concert Thus Owls gave last month at Montréal’s Centre PHI. “It’s kinda weird that we worked on the show before working on the album,” he says, before adding, “one feeds the other, as they say.”

People usually write new songs before recording them, and then taking them to the stage. But here, with no other songs than the ones from their three previous recordings (the last one, Black Matter, came out in late 2015), while thinking about their live show, an album manifested itself.

“Generally, for a concert, the band plays on an elevated stage, with the audience in front of them,” says Angell. “We wanted to break that. We wanted people to come into our world, just as we’re in theirs. A level playing field, if you will.” Centre PHI was the perfect place for that. A lab. The band in the middle of the venue, with the audience all around them. “We couldn’t ask for a better venue,” says Angell. “We were six musicians: the core of the band, Erika, myself and drummer Samuel Joly, plus three additional guitarists dispersed in the audience. In another room was an installation with a typewriter and mic hooked up to delay effects, as well as Karl Lemieux, who was in charge of projections during the show. And a contemporary dancer. It was quite the multi-disciplinary performance!”

It was awesome, says Angell. Even the sound was optimal, despite the technical challenges of having guitarists and their amps in various spots of the venue. “It was the best sound I’ve ever experienced in my career as a musician – it even changed depending on where you stood in the room,” he says. But what would Brecht, a well-known aficionado of tortured indie rock, have thought about it? He probably would’ve said, it’s nice, but what’s the point? Breaking a wall is fine, but what do you have to say?

“Good question,” the musician admits. “It all comes back to the concept of the album, which was mostly developed by Erika, since she’s the lyricist. So, Erika and I are a couple, and we were considering the project of having kids and starting a family. It took us years before deciding we were going for it. That’s the concept of the album. The time it took for us to make that decision. The album’s lyrics talk about our concerns, especially from her perspective, a feminist point of view. How it changes everything in the life of a couple, how it impacts work, creativity. It’s an album about our rapport to the concept of family.”

The doubts that underscored their conversations can clearly be heard on The Mountain That We Live Upon. As is the habit for Thus Owls, greys win over light, and Erika’s voice pierces through foggy guitars and drums. Even the brightest melodic spells are clouded over by Angell’s guitar playing.

“That’s us, basically,” says the musician. “It’s the expression of our personalities, even though we’re not gloomy people. Life isn’t black or white, there are grey moments; we’re all humans in the same way. We’re only trying to express that musically. Sweet and chill moments, with weirder times… That’s life!”

As he explains, even their writing method is strange. Each on their own. They rarely work together on a song. “We’re both quite solitary persons,” he says. They each come up with song ideas, then share them with the other, and a game of creative ping-pong ensues. It’s in the studio, with the full band, that any given idea gets embodied.

“We’re not the type of band who’ll spend a year in the studio to fine-tune the result,” says Angell. “We recorded this album in four days, because we love the live vie of things. All the songs were recorded with three takes or less. We love this… I don’t want to say ‘jazz,’ but we do chase the energy of the moment. I believe this energy vanishes after three takes. If you don’t have it, the energy isn’t there, so we throw everything out and get back to it some other time.” Everything was recorded live at the Hotel2Tango studios; the sound is raw, “the drums ‘bled’ into the piano.”

As for the concert that’s the genesis of this project, Erika and Simon Angell want to perform it again in that multi-disciplinary format. In the meantime, the couple will have a few great opportunities to perform the songs from The Mountain That We Live Upon: on Nov. 30 at Bar Le Ritz PDB where they’ll open for Marissa Nadler (and again on Dec. 1 at Toronto’s Baby G), on Jan. 18, 2019, at Théâtre Outremont, back in Montréal, guesting for CHANCES, and on the 24th at Sala Rossa during the young and new festival Lux Magna, also in Montréal.

Since 2016, AHI has been on an amazing winning streak.

The soulful, folk-pop singer-songwriter, born Akinoah H. Izarh (he goes by his initials, AHI, pronounced “I”), initially found his way onto a Spotify Top 50 folk playlist in 2016. Then in 2017, he won the Singer-Songwriter/Folk Award from the Canadian Songwriting Competition, and the Stingray Rising Star Award (for his song “Ol’ Sweet Day”) at the Folk Music Ontario (FMO) conference. The following year, he won the FMO’s Recording Artist of the Year Award.  Early in 2018, he was invited to play the prestigious NPR Tiny Desk Concert for National Public Radio, broadcast across the U.S. Since then, he’s been signed to the U.S.-based record label Thirty Tigers (home of songwriters extraordinaire Jason Isbell, Patty Griffin, and Sturgill Simpson, among others). He was also signed to a booking agency, Paradigm Talent, which arranged for him to open a live show for legendary soul singer Mavis Staples at Toronto’s Massey Hall. He recently performed “Made It Home” live on the national U.S. television show CBS This Morning. And he’s had his current album In Our Time submitted for consideration at the Grammy Awards. As AHI sings on the album’s opening song, “Breakin’ Ground”: “Since the blessings started pouring down / See, I’m already losing count.”

“When I wrote that, I probably wasn’t in as optimistic a situation” says AHI. “I was probably struggling, probably having a hard time in the music industry. But you’ve still gotta write those things that inspire you… You know it’s gonna come. I always knew, in my career, that when it rains, it’s gonna pour. I always had that mind-state: It’s gonna happen, and when it happens, it’s gonna happen fast.”

It couldn’t happen to a nicer guy. AHI is so guileless, genuine, and charming, — whether in his songs, onstage, or in his personal interactions with listeners, and without being too saccharine about it – that he seems to win over everybody he encounters. He’s so unpretentious that his choice for an interview location is a Tim Hortons in the Jane and Finch neighbourhood of Toronto, near where he lives.

AHI followed a unique path toward his career in music. Before he was earning a living with it, he was something of a traveler, backpacking everywhere from Ethiopia to Trinidad to Thunder Bay. It was in a small town outside of the latter, in a now-shuttered truck stop, where he broke down – then realized his life’s destiny. “It was a revelatory experience,” he says, “at that moment, where I came to grips with the fact that I’m gonna do music for the rest of my life. I was dabbling in music, playing around with it, I wasn’t taking it seriously. I wanted to travel the world. I was soul-searching. Having that breakdown moment just changed my life… [to] pushing forward, and focusing on what you can accomplish.”

“I always knew, in my career, that when it rains, it’s gonna pour.”

Propelled by his acoustic guitar, distinctively raspy voice, and an occasional “whoa-oh” choral chant, or string quartet, AHI’s music on In Our Time celebrates life’s joys, even as it acknowledges the daily struggles. He writes songs about moving forward with firm conviction (“Breakin’ Ground,” “Straight Ahead”); about social conscience rooted in daily experience, and the need to stand up for equal rights and justice (“We Want Enough,” “In Our Time”); and about how love and family are worth more than gold (“Made It Home,” “Five Butterflies”).

Family is crucial. “Every time I back-packed, the theme that I found was, stay put, go back home,” says AHI. “Stop searching, the answers are on the inside… That was always the re-occurring message that I got. So home will always be an important thing to me. Whatever home means to different people, I know we all have some sense of home. Or some sense of not having home.”

What do AHI know about writing songs?

  • “Write everything. It doesn’t matter if it feels uncomfortable, doesn’t matter if it’s outside of your genre, just write everything that comes to you.”
  • “If people don’t respond to what you’re creating, keep creating. They will respond, at some point, if it’s honest.”
  • “Before you write your songs, have ideas written down, and make sure you’re editing, and editing, and editing… You can always write something better.”

Trying to maintain his own home – with his wife/co-manager Ashaten, and their three young, home-schooled children – AHI is starting to navigate the process of touring without them. On the road at his level, bringing them along would erase any of the living that he’d make to sustain the family after the tour ends. So he’s feeling out the situation for now.

Happily, he can take the family along for songwriting trips, and write mostly at home. “I have a book of titles,” he says of his writing process. “One day I went through the dictionary and I wrote every word that I thought sounded cool. On my computer, I have a folder of, just, lines. I’ll just write a line, or a sentence that sounds cool. I have another folder of melodies, and I dream a lot of melodies. At some point, some of these things should all fit together somehow. Mainly, I’ll pick up my guitar and play… If I have a melody, I‘ll try to figure out where it is on the guitar. Or I‘ll start strumming my guitar and something will just come out. It used to be rare for me to have lyrics, and then write music to them, but now I’m more open to doing it that way.”

Working in Nashville changed his songwriting perspective, too. “I always say, before going to Nashville I was writing songs, but after coming back from Nashville, I became a songwriter… [They write with] efficiency, creativity, everybody’s working fast, go-go-go, but they’re also creative, and willing to try things… and it’s not just country. Every person who goes, and plays on country albums, has a passion for some other kind of music.”

Having already accomplished so much, what’s next for AHI? In early 2019, he’ll be the opening act for Lauren Daigle and Scott Mulvahill, on a national tour of soft-seat theatres across America. Like the song says, he’s still breakin’ ground.