Story by David McPherson | Thursday January 5th, 2023
Growing up in a one-stoplight town, Sacha’s love of country music – and rural life – was natural.
“That tends to rub off on you,” she says of her upbringing in Warkworth, Ontario, a quaint village in the rolling hills of Northumberland, 90 minutes East of Toronto.
We catch up with the rising Canadian country star via Zoom, on a Monday afternoon. She’s on a high following an industry showcase at Toronto’s El Mocambo (where her parents’ band The Arguments once gigged) the night before. A framed Gold record for the single “What the Truck,” a million-plays-plus viral hit she co-wrote with The Reklaws (more on that later), hangs on a wall nearby. Albums by some of her influences – Loretta Lynn’s Van Lear Rose and Stevie Nicks’s Bella Donna – hang on another.
Besides these legendary artists, Patsy Cline was one of Sacha’s earliest influences. “My mother played her records all the time,” she says. “Her voice was the first one that left an impression on me… just her soul, and the way she makes you feel when you hear her on the other end of the speaker.”
Since Sacha’s parents played in a band, during her childhood every instrument imaginable was available to pick up and try. Musicians constantly stopped by to rehearse. And often, impromptu backyard gigs happened around the bonfire. This was all part of her informal musical education.
“We had this old, beat-up upright piano with missing keys,” Sacha recalls. “That was my first instrument. I just learned how to play on my own, reading notes and singing songs.”
Later, the songs, stories, and especially Taylor Swift’s journey to pop stardom, inspired the musician. If Swift could find success in Nashville by approaching potential leads until one listened, maybe that same approach might work for her.
“I read Taylor’s diaries [that] she shared, and learned how, early in her career, she went to Nashville and hustled, by knocking on doors up and down Music Row,” Sacha says. “I said, ‘I’m going to do the same thing!’”
During Sacha’s first visit to Music City, the artist visited many of the same places Swift had, decades ago. “I gave my card and my demo EP to everyone: record labels, PR firms, and songwriter associations,” she says. “Not a lot of doors opened that first time, but I started co-writing.”
“I just chased my dream really hard”
Sacha kept returning. Each time, another door opened. She set up songwriter’s showcases, and played throughout the city at locales like Opry Mills, The Hotel Indigo, and The Bluebird Cafe. This hard work and perseverance eventually paid dividends.
Fast forward to 2021, when Sacha joined the Reklaws for their viral TikTok hit,“What the Truck.”The song had more than 450,000 streams in its first week alone, eventually becoming the Canadian country song in history that was the fastest to reach a million domestic streams.
“That was hilarious!” recalls Sacha of this happy accident. “I was just sitting at home scrolling through TikTok and saw the Reklaws had posted a sample of ‘What the Truck.’ I watched others jump on and do a duet. I was writing something at the time that I felt might fit. I almost didn’t do it, but I jumped on and did my part. I turned around to wash the dishes and before I knew it I got a DM from Jenna [Walker, of The Reklaws] asking me to be a part of the song.”
In 2022, Sacha kept the momentum going. She released a four-song EP (We Did) – her second after The Best Thing in 2020 – that showcased her growing maturation as a songwriter and country-pop singer. A few more of 2022’s highlights include meeting Carrie Underwood backstage at the CMT Music Awards; winning her first CCMA Award and SiriusXM’s Top of the Country Competition; and touring with Maddie and Tae on the CMT Next Women of Country Tour. Of all these experiences, the biggest thrill was standing in Times Square, looking skyward, and seeing her video premiere for “Pretty Please.”
“I remember going to New York City on New Year’s Eve in 2012,” Sacha recalls. “I was out of a job and thinking, ‘How am I going to get from A to Z?’ That’s when I really picked up a guitar and started writing seriously. I figured I had a runway to go after my dreams. Those first songs written in my bedroom became my debut EP.”
That EP (Stix N Stones) led to an international fan base, thanks to the title track – an anti-bullying anthem that became a viral hit.
“I just chased my dream really hard,” Sacha adds. “It was all sparked from that New Year’s 10 years ago, looking up at the lights, and thinking, how on earth would I ever get on one of those billboards? Fast forward to May 2022 and there I was… it’s a testament to never giving up on your dreams.”
In the Fall of 2022, Sacha achieved another dream by teaming up with Jade Eagleson – the 2022 CCMA Award winner for Top Selling Canadian Album – on “Call it Country,” a song written by Allison Veltz, Seth Mosley, and Brooke Eden.
These days, Sacha divides her time between Ontario and Nashville. With a pair of country EPs to her credit, there’s much more to come. She writes constantly, and is ready to share more new songs and what she teases as some “fun collabs” in 2023.
“I’m working to get a collection of songs together that best share my story,” she says, “and every facet of what I’m capable of as an artist.”
Photo by various. From left to right/de gauche a droite: Izuku (by courtesy/par courtoisie), Joseph Sarenhes (by/par Victoria Juliette), Sloan Lucas (by/par Lou Semble), Guessmi (by/par Danny Pen) and Chung (by courtesy/par courtoisie)
Five Québec rap rookies to watch in 2023
Story by Olivier Boisvert-Magnen | Wednesday January 11th, 2023
Now firmly entrenched as a tradition, here are this year’s Québec rap artists who’ll surely reach a greater audience in the coming 12 months.
“If it becomes work, I’m not down for it,” says Guessmi over the phone. On its own, this sentence says a lot about the artistic journey of the rapper, born in Laval – one of the province’s hotbeds of hip-hop talent for the past few years.
That’s because nothing seems to require Guessmi to expend any kind of effort. It was in late 2019 that the rapper, of Tunisian descent, followed a friend in a studio and went into the booth “just for fun.” She rapidly developed a taste for it. “Before that, I freestyled in chillings. I’d written texts, but I’d never read them out loud,” says the young woman who first became known on Instagram when she published 30-second excerpts from her first studio sessions.
Shortly after, Lebza Khey – a key player on Laval’s rap scene, and founder of the Seiha Studios indie label – heard about the talented young Guessmi and reached out to her on Instagram. “When I hooked up with Lebza and his entourage – Cupidon and Boutot, most notably – I felt like we had a common passion a common goal. We could all go places together. I don’t believe you can go places on your own,” she says, de facto distancing herself from one of the most tenacious myths of American rap: the self-made man/woman myth. “What’s truly important [to succeed], is to charge ahead… and have a solid team.”
Released in March of 2022, Guessmi’s first single, “Rafales,” is a perfect example of her ikewide range of influences – which include French rap legends l Booba and La Fouine as much as stalwarts of American rap of the 2000s and 2010s, like 50 Cent, Lil Wayne, and Nicki Minaj. With her debut EP 45 degrés – a collaboration with now-inseparable Lebza Khey – the 23-year-old rapper reveals an entirely new side of her musical palette, where she lays her harmonious flow over melodically sombre dancehall and Afro-trap rhythms. “My only technique in the studio is to not over-think things. I never want to force my state of mind. I just go with the flow,” she says.,
In 2023, Guessmi will release excerpts from her studio sessions on her socials. “Each session will correspond to a song, and we’ll let the people decide if we release the song or not,” she explains. “Except they won’t really have a choice: they’ll love them for sure!”
Sloan Lucas is a latecomer to rap, having started in her late twenties. “Rap happened at a time where I needed deeper roots,” says the young woman, who was born in Québec’s Eastern Townships, but has lived in Montréal for over a decade.
Her roots previously grew in extreme left-wing activist circles, and in theatrical creation. Splitting her time between Québec and France, Lucas was involved in projects of collective – mostly militant – living arts for a decade. But ultimately, she found collective creations cumbersome. “Collective modes can be exhausting,” she says. “They’re stimulating, but co-ordinating schedules, rehearsals, and political beliefs can be exhausting. I needed to find myself in a more solitary approach.”
To give her artistic process a new impetus, Lucas started writing lyrics, in 2018. Greatly inspired by France’s new wave of rap around 2010, spearheaded by acts like L’entourage and La 75e Session, the rapper used the pandemic to fine-tune her flow and prose. Released in 2020 and 2021 respectively, her first two EPs—Oh Shit OK and Oh Shit Sorry—masterfully reveal her potential, thanks to her smooth flow and biting lyrics. “I might be less militant than I used to be, but I still have that rage in me,” she says.
Although her rap sometimes falls into the standard trap trappings, Lucas keeps her left-field mentality alive, and remains a relative outsider to the local rap scene. “It’s not so much motivated by a desire to remain underground, as by a refusal to be mainstream or famous at all costs,” she says. “But if I can increase my visibility [while respecting my limits and priorities], I’ll do it.”
For 2023, Lucas wants to open her horizons to others, a process she’s begun, alongside Montréal-based producers Ramzi Blue (a.k.a. Bill Noir) and Nicky Savage, who collaborated on Oh Shit Sorry. “I want to start doing more collabs and features,” she says. “The period of isolation I needed to re-centre myself is done. Initially, I thought I could do everything on my own, but now I have a much better idea of what I’m able to do on my own.”
Even though he’s only 22, Izuku is already fully self-confident. “There’s no limit to what I can create,” proclaims the Montréal-based rapper. “I listen to all kinds of stuff. What motivates me is getting outside of my comfort zone.”
Izuku’s childhood and teens were defined by his love of words. The artist, with origins in both Martinique and Mali, first became interested in literature while attending a renowned French school in Montréal, before turning to music. After finely dissecting his favourite artists’ lyrics, he began rapping in 2018 alongside a friend. “We created a first sound together, and I played it to people in my entourage,” says Izuku. “It was well received, but I couldn’t get back in the studio! Nothing happened for four months. I didn’t want to be like everyone else… I needed to take a step back.”
His first two full projects – Hagra Vol. 1 and Izuku 2.0 – are the result of that step back. Izuku displays his raw talent through his organic, fluid way of combining singing and rapping. Far from completely leaving behind rap tropes, the winner of the 2020 edition of the rap competition Rentre dans le live isn’t afraid to let his vulnerability shine through his lyrics. “Music defines me,” he says. “I’m not someone who opens up to people in everyday life. I don’t talk about my life to others – I hate that. But through my music, people can discover who I am from another perspective.”
On Pour elle, his latest EP, released in November of 2022, Izuku ponders love and relationships with great lucidity. The creative process allowed him to better understand human nature, and, more specifically, the sometimes deceptive ways in which we present ourselves. “Whether it’s love, friendship or family, I’ve come to understand that we love people because we have a certain perspective on them,” he says. “We [create this idea of a person] based on what we like about them… but that’s not necessarily who that person is [deep down inside].”
Throughout 2023, Izuku will carry on his poetic and musical explorations with a series of singles, culminating with the release of his fourth project sometime before the Summer.
Chung sure attracts a lot of attention, thanks to her uncompromising flow and hard-hitting rhymes. “I’m the flavour. I’m bringing back the substance, the essence,” says the Lasalle rapper.
She’s doing it with the help of some of the most talented local beat-makers (Cotola, Mike Shabb, Nicholas Craven), who create powerful beats based on very raw sampling, often devoid of any additional rhythmic elements – squarely in the tradition of drum-free hip-hop. Chung’s lyrics express her ambitions as a rapper, as well as her unique artistry. “It’s death to the bimbo rap when Chung step in,” she says, condemning a style of rap that’s more superficial, based on the appearance of the rapper, rather than on what she has to say. “I want to represent the regular Black queens with love and aggression,” she says. “I’m bringing back militancy and a message to this shit!”
Without going as far as saying Chung does militant rap, she energetically embodies her authenticity on her first two projects, Chung Shui (2021) and See You, When I C U (2022). Those two releases are the climax of a decade of exploration, during which the rapper remained rather discreet. Inspired by Chun-Li, a character in the famous video game Street Fighter, her stage name reflects her no-holds-barred attitude and struggle-filled journey. “At first rapping was a form of passing time, freestyling with family and friends,” she says. “I loved flexing my pen and my word game. My oldest brother taught me as a young’un, and I ran with it. Now, here I am.”
Her first Instagram videos in 2019 even earned her a compliment from New York rap legend Havoc, one half of iconic duo Mobb Deep. Later on, figureheads of the recent resurgence of American East Coast rap, like Conway The Machine and Roc Marciano, got in touch after discovering her music. There are worse ways to start a career, to say the least…
Chung will release three new projects in 2023. “More upbeat music. More fly and sick talk,” she says, without any further details, “Art shouldn’t and can’t be explained, though. Just look and learn when the time comes.”
Joseph Sarenhes developed his musical identity at a very young age. His Guinean dad and Huron-Wendat mother gave him “a very solid rhythmic base.” Raised amidst powwows and West African music, the Wendake (a reserve near Québec City) native was born “with a djembe in my hands.”
In high school, he followed his professional dancer father’s footsteps and enrolled in a program focused on classical and contemporary dance, while also being a member of hip-hop dance troupes. But at some point, dance was no longer enough. “I don’t want to denigrate that discipline [dance],” he says, “but it just was no longer enough for me. I needed [to express myself more], to get things off my chest. I harboured a lot of frustration… about Indigenous and Afro-descendant peoples and their history in Québec, and in the Americas. . . Changing disciplines came naturally to me.”
It’s with a mission of representing his plural identities, and denouncing the injustices around him, that Sarenhes approaches his music – an R&B-tinged rap that also integrates musical elements from the cultures that nurtured him. After timid beginnings at the end of his teens on home (and very confidential) recordings using GarageBand, the rapper, singer, producer, and multi-instrumentalist revealed himself on “The Burden,” a song he released during the winter of 2021.
Barely a few months later, he launched his first EP, Pride & Chains, created as part of the Échelon project – an initiative co-founded by rapper Webster to develop the careers of artists from the racialized and Indigenous communities of Québec City. That project was home to his anthem “Stand Up,” in which Sarenhes talks clearly about the socio-economic situation of North American Indigenous peoples. “I got a lot of feedback [from that song] and a lot of offers for shows,” he says. “I don’t consider myself to be on rap’s map yet, but that’s the song that got the ball rolling for people to notice me.”
Recruited to compose music for films and stage plays in Québec and the U.S., the 24-year-old artist couldn’t devote much time to his rapping career, and only managed to release two singles, “Staring at Me” and “Bruises.” “But trust, I’ll be back in full force in 2023. I feel much more confident in my art,” says the rapper, a big fan of Tory Lanez and J Cole. “I already have about a dozen shows booked in Québec City and Montréal next summer. I’m lucky, because I can earn a living from my art, even though I haven’t had a hit yet. That’s magic to me.”
Photo by What I Like Studios
Dylan Sinclair presents No Longer in the Suburbs, deluxe edition
Story by A. Harmony | Thursday January 5th, 2023
“Life comes at you fast” is an adage that has certainly proven true for Toronto singer-songwriter Dylan Sinclair. In the last six years, he’s gone from fledgling high school slam poet to one of Canada’s most promising R&B stars, racking up millions of streams, glowing critical acclaim, and a JUNO nomination for his 2020 effort, Proverb. The accolades were welcome — but also set an impossibly high standard, as the songster set out to write his follow-up.
“I felt a bit of pressure,” says Sinclair of his fast success. “But I think people tend to fall under pressure when they focus on it too much. I’m focused on growing as a person, and as an artist, and on being as consistent as I can be without killing myself over it. I’m not gonna drown in the pressure.”
That determined attitude underpinned Sinclair’s approach to the writing on No Longer in the Suburbs, the amorous, pensive effort that finds the 21-year-old grappling with everything from his newfound fame to burgeoning adulthood, and complicated relationships. Compared to his peers, Sinclair’s sound on Suburbs is markedly nostalgic, bringing to mind such veterans as Jon B and Musiq Soulchild. Sinclair says that’s due to the soundtrack he played during the writing process.
“I was listening to a lot of R&B from the kings, Usher and Chris Brown, non-stop,” says the Filipino-Guyanese crooner. “I listened to albums like Confessions and women’s groups like 702 and SWV. All of the feel-good, Black romance music.” The influences shine through heavily, especially on tracks like the pleading, affectionate “Open,”, or on “Suppress” – where a clear-eyed Sinclair reflects on his romantic relationship with the self-awareness of a young Donell Jones.
Beyond the very obvious old-school thread in Suburbs are other ingredients that distinguish Sinclair from his peers, among them a sincere and consistent tenderness that he credits to his church beginnings. Regardless of the lyrical subject matter, there’s something uniquely mellow and soft-hearted about Sinclair’s approach to this album, a holdover from the praise and worship sessions he fondly remembers form childhood.
“I want to build a world that brings people peace. The goal is to make beautiful music, and the church is filled with beautiful music and singing,” says Sinclair. “I never really gravitated toward [more aggressive] music because I came from a space where there were singalongs, and harmonizing, and real instruments. The [Gospel] influence just creeps into my music somehow, I don’t consciously do it. I do whatever feels good, instinctually. I automatically do my three-part harmonies because that’s what we did at our worship sessions at home. And the melodies I choose are about singing together. It’s so much more beautiful that way.”
“I want to build a world that brings people peace. The goal is to make beautiful music.”
A solid team of collaborators was also a requirement for Sinclair’s process on Suburbs, and his teammates are more than just industry colleagues — they’re his actual friends. “Jordon Manswell, he’s my right-hand guy,” Sinclair says, referring to the Grammy-nominated producer whose credits include Proverb, Daniel Caesar, and Mariah Carey. Musician and producer Alex Ernewein (Caesar, Charlotte Day Wilson) also gets a shout-out, as does Zachary Simmonds, a producer and close friend who happens to be Caesar’s younger brother.
The friendship — and musical partnership — between Sinclair and Simmonds dates back to before either person was born (four days apart at that). Their fathers, Kevin Sinclair and Norwill Simmonds, released a Gospel album back in the early aughts, and the two families have continued to bond in the decades that followed. Now, their children are picking up where the two patriarchs left off.
“Zach and I are the same age. He’s the producer, I’m the songwriter. This has been our story; our come-up together,” says Sinclair. That journey includes making music, of course, but also ample hangouts, and frequent trips out of town for a change of scenery. While they worked on Suburbs, the crew went everywhere from Fort Erie to Montréal, with the aim of getting out and seeing the world. The goal was to live life, then bring those experiences back to the studio to recount them in song. The trips also gave Sinclair a break from the pressures of mounting fame.
“It really is a group effort, and it’s more fun that way. I’ve locked myself in my room to try to work, and it’s not fun. [I need] that work-life balance,” says Sinclair. “I think a lot of people kinda hibernate in the studio and search for anything for inspiration. The music loses its substance. My focus is on making sure we’re living, and doing things, so that the music feels full, and like it’s coming from a real place.”
That same authenticity was important when choosing features for the album. On the deluxe version of Suburbs, hot up-and-comers like Destin Conrad, Jvck James, and Joyce Wrice make appearances; all artists of whom Sinclair was a proper fan, before he could even fathom the collaborations. He says that such full-circle moments – like the transition from listening to Wrice in high school to singing alongside her on the slow jam “Never” – are what keep him inspired.
“My inspiration [fades] quickly,” says Sinclair. “When it comes back, it’s usually from a full-circle moment – like watching the JUNOs and the next thing you know I get a nod. Same thing with Joyce and working with her. That was a very big moment for me! That makes me want to go back in the studio and work so much more.”