TiKA SimoneTiKA is a woman of many talents, and entrepreneurship isn’t the least of them. Released in February 2020 on Next Door Records, her first album Anywhere But Here established her as a voice to be reckoned with on Canada’s soul and R&B scene. In parallel to that career, the singer-songwriter took her first steps into the world of screen composing and co-founded StereoVisual, a non-profit organization aimed at fostering the integration of BIPOC musicians into an industry that, even today, leaves them very little space for expression.

Her latest obsession: NFTs, or non-fungible tokens. Nearly two months ago, TiKA Simone and rapper Allan Kingdom auctioned a song, “Yebo Life,” via the Etherium protocol, whose token eventually fetched 4.4ETH, the equivalent of just over $14,000 at the time of the transaction. Tika has since followed up by offering tokens of songs from her recent album, limited editions of the .wav files, in this case, while retaining her publishing rights.

“I’m super-stoked by the potential of NFTs,” says TiKA on the phone from Toronto, where she spends her time when she’s not in Montréal. “I find the concept to be a source of progress, especially for artists who are under-served by the music industry.” In other words, they’re a way to generate new, autonomous revenue for artists who often work without the support of established structures or record labels.

These revenues count for a lot in the process, admits Tika, but “they’re also a way to build a community of fans around your project. A major part of the process is posting it on socials or, in other words, being self-confident enough in your own work to actively promote it. You can truly build a community that will, down the line, allow you to rely of a stable source of income. A lot of artists are going through rough times right now because they couldn’t tour. I believe NFTs can allow artists to make ends meet during this rough patch.”

And during said rough patch, TiKA added a new string to her bow: screen composer. Co-written with Casey Manierka-Quaile for Thyrone Tommy’s feature film Learn to Swim, her song “And Then They Won’t” is currently up for Best Original Song at the Canadian Screen Awards Gala on April 8, 2022.

“Composing for a film is a much more intimate and private experience than when I’m creating for my own projects,” says TiKA. “There’s a whole world of difference between composing a song for myself and watching a film, or a scene, to imagine what music would best underscore it, and deciding what instrument best fits that emotion; that’s why I find that process a lot more intuitive. It was especially true with this project, since the director hadn’t finished his movie when I started working on it. That meant we had to communicate a lot about the film’s message, and the emotions the song needed to express. I composed a song based on our conversations, so it’s like I channelled the director’s energy to be able to flesh out the music he was imagining.”

It was also an opportunity for TiKA to take measure of the hurdles she’s had to overcome to gain a foothold in the world of screen composing. It’s a world, she believes, that’s not conducive to the integration of people of colour, who are still very much a minority. As a result, she helped create StereoVisual, an organization that equips that minority to enter the business.

“This project was born out of a strong desire to help this industry change,” says TiKA, who enrolled in a screen composition program at the Slaight Music Residency of the Canadian Film Centre. “It was an awesome experience, but I was also told stuff like, ‘You know, TiKA, if you want to become a screen composer, you must learn to play a string instrument.’ OK, fair enough. But what about all those who don’t get the financial means, or the opportunity, to get such training? Why should they be excluded from that realm, especially since many marginalized people don’t have access to such training, and must learn to use music software on their computer, since that’s all they can afford. It’s the accessibility to that training that sparks a conversation, because if you’re told that to compose for film you have to know music theory, that excludes a whole category of artists who are very often people of colour.”

That’s what the people behind StereoVisual are working on, building bridges between musicians from cultural communities and the “very white and very male” world of film and television. “The whole movie industry needs to change, not just the screen composing segment,” TiKA firmly believes.

 



Brampton, Toronto-based singer-songwriter Astrokidjay recorded his breakthrough hit “Ibiza” in a closet. At the time, he had lofty ambitions of reaching 50,000 views with the video – a last-minute, DIY shoot in an Airbnb. Those visuals have over a million views to date, and a lot more has changed since then.

The 2019 single (recorded with Stenno) put Astro on a white-hot trajectory, earning attention from producers like Murda Beatz and Evrgrn, as well as Astro’s manager, Karma Jonez. “He’s the one who pulled me aside and told me to sit back and work on my craft. He felt like I had potential, and that I could do more,” says Astro. “I learned, and I practiced a lot. I read the dictionary, I read a lot of books to help my grammar and my lyrics. I sat back for a little bit [and] stopped dropping music, just to work on my craft. To get better flows, better melodies, and better lyrics.”

That diligence led to a big year for Astro in 2021. He dropped an independent album called Wizard Boy, earned a feature with Polaris Music Prize-winner Haviah Mighty on her single “Coulda Been U,” and landed a record deal with Interscope in November. “I’m more of a developed artist now,” he says. “I know better, I grew up a bit more. I’m signed to a major record label [and] I have way crazier music than [on] Wizard Boy. I just feel like my things are getting better and better.”

The youngest of six kids born to Tanzanian parents, Astro’s music aspirations started relatively late in life. As a child, he preferred soccer over songwriting, and didn’t take an interest in rapping until his late teens. Thanks to varying musical tastes across his large family, though, the 20-year-old does remember being exposed to a mix of genres at home; artists who would later influence his own work. His inherited an appetite for R&B from his siblings, and credits the genre with his distinct, melodic delivery.

“I sat back for a little bit, stopped dropping music, just to work on my craft”

“I listen to a lot of throwback R&B, like 2000s R&B – Keyshia Cole, Alicia Keys,” he says. “I [still] listen to a lot of R&B before my sessions, because it helps me with melodies. A lot of people my age don’t listen to throwback R&B. [But] there are different types of melodies in it that we don’t hear in today’s music. It definitely helps me.”

Andreena Mill

Astrokidjay mentor Andreena Mill

Now gearing up for his tentative April 2022 release, Guns and Roses, Astro – who turns 21 years old in May – is taking a different approach to his writing than his earlier music. He’s traded trap-leaning freestyles and small basement studios for heavier doses of R&B, big studios, and a production team. Seeing an opportunity for professional growth, manager Jonez paired Astro with singer-songwriter Andreena [Mill], who, in addition to her solo work, has collaborated with artists like Melanie Fiona, DMX, and Drake. She serves as co-writer for much of Astro’s upcoming music.

“She’s, like, the best in the world! I learn a lot from her,” says Astro about Andreena. “She helps me with my vocal training, helps me hit certain notes. [She] helps with my writing process sometimes. It’s great working with her and being around her. She’s definitely one of the mentors who help me with my sound today.”

Working with new collaborators like Andreena, OVO-signee Roy Woods, and Jamaican artist Popcaan (perhaps most widely known for his feature on Drake’s “One Dance”) means Guns and Roses will be Astro’s most versatile project yet. While he’s close-lipped about the full list of featured artists, he promises that his new album is sure to widen his audience, and leave a mark.

“I’m on a whole new wave. There’s everything on there for all audiences: children, grandmas, aunties, mothers, everybody,” says Astro. “A lot of people are going to be able to relate to it. It’s going to leave an impact on the city when it drops. I know that for sure.”

 



As a composer of music for multiple screens, Janal Bechthold is used to adapting her considerable talents to the different requirements of each film, TV show, or videogame she scores. And they are truly different, encompassing everything from a feature-length horror movie to a children’s animated web series and a slew of documentaries and games. But her latest project presented a whole new challenge.

The Choice is a documentary series about women’s reproductive health being made by director Joanne Popinska and producer Tom C. Hall. They’re using the virtual reality format, so instead of watching it in a theatre or on a laptop, viewers wear a headset that appears to bring them right into the action, creating a more immediate and intense way of experiencing both the visuals and the music.

“It’s very different watching a documentary in VR,” says Bechthold, “and the music fits differently. Joanne and Tom created new technology to capture the interviews, and it really looks like the person is sitting in front of you. It’s such an intimate experience, and I didn’t want the music to be too loud, or big, or manipulative. That was something I really had to watch for. My role was to help set the tone and guide the audience through their experience.”

Still, Bechthold says her process is pretty similar for every project. “There’s a period of going back and forth with the creator, to get a sense of what the story is and pick the right tone and palette with the musical tools,” she says. “And I’ll choose the instrument or the musical language to go along with it.

“One of the things I love about interactive projects is that I’m brought in earlier and have more opportunity to affect the final experience,” she adds. “For The Choice, we did a spotting session, where the director and the composer sit down together and go through the entire film to figure out where the music will go and what it’s going to say. In this case, what I was doing had to work well with the sound design, and having the team in communication was important to make sure we were supporting each other.”

“We’ve got a long way to go, but I think there’s more opportunity now than there was five years ago”

Bechthold’s musical style defies characterization, as she draws on radically different genres and instruments for each score, but its dazzling range might be partly explained by her musical background. She grew up in Saskatchewan, playing ‘50s and ‘60s pop, polkas, tangos, and Latin tunes on electronic organ before branching out into classical and jazz. She played flute in a high school marching band. and later joined a rock band for awhile, before earning a degree in music therapy at Wilfrid Laurier University.

“I didn’t think seriously about film composition until after university,” she says. “I’d taken some composition classes that really opened my eyes to what music is and how we define it, but I didn’t see how anyone could make a living from it. I was studying music therapy, and for me it was all about music and emotion, and how music can be a communication tool. So it felt natural to shift over to telling stories with music.”

She points out that instruments can trigger emotions because of the collective musical experiences we’ve had with them. “Sometimes it’s hard to hear a bassoon without thinking of ‘The Sorceror’s Apprentice’ in Fantasia, or a mournful violin without evoking sadness,” she says. “Even though I’m an organist, I rarely use organ because it has so many connotations, whether religious or hockey-related. But I like to find new ways of exploring how certain instruments make sounds, or new ways of presenting them.”

Bechthold’s music has been screened by networks and festivals around the world, and in 2021 she was nominated for three Canadian Screen Awards. Her music is mostly self-published, and she credits a stint working at SOCAN for helping her learn how to navigate the system. “Because of my time at SOCAN, I know a lot about music copyright and music rights,” she says. “If you retain your rights, it’s knowing how to make sure you’re getting paid for broadcasts.”

Through her positions as a board member of the Screen Composers Guild of Canada and chair of the Women Composers Advisory Council, Bechthold also works to promote gender equality in her field, where women still lag far behind men.

“We’ve got a long way to go, but I think there’s more opportunity now than there was five years ago,” she says. “I’m really excited that this year’s Canadian Screen Award nominations for best original score for non-fiction are all women. That’s thrilling, considering that when I spearheaded a research report in 2018, women were getting only five per cent of publicly funded opportunities. But there’s still a lot of work to be done. This is the second year in a row when no women were even entered in the best original score for animation. I have no idea why, but hopefully next year we’ll see some women in that category. It’s all about providing opportunity, and creating a community.”

The Choice has its North American premiere March 13, 2022, at SXSW in Austin, Texas.