Urvah Khan wants to build an army. The singer-songwriter from Toronto calls her blend of rock, rap and world rhythms “scrap,” and the Pakistani-Canadian has plans to spread her music and message of independence to “brown girls all over the world who want to get involved in rock music.”

Born in Karachi, Pakistan, raised in Dubai, UAE, and having immigrated to Canada with her parents at age 12, Khan, now 31, recently returned to her birthplace for what local press called the first shows by a female Pakistani punk artist. (She assembled a band of local musicians via Facebook video, looking for “like-minded rock ‘n’ roll warriors,” who she has since dubbed The Scrap Army.) With her bleached-blonde mohawk, tattoos, and piercings, she caused quite a scene before even setting foot on stage.

“I was riding in a rickshaw and got stuck in traffic” she recalls. “When I stuck my head out to see what was happening it turned out everyone was stopped to take photos of me. After my show, I couldn’t get backstage for all the people wanting selfies.”

It’s not just her wild looks that command attention, it’s her whole personality. Khan is decidedly high-energy. She speaks quickly, and with the confidence of someone who is their own manager, agent, and publicist. In 2010, she convinced guitarist/producer Ruben Huizenga (Glueleg, Edwin, David Usher), who she met at a gig, to help her transition from rap to rock.

“I had been writing rap lyrics, but was still experimenting with my sound,” she says. “I met Ruben and said, ‘I want to make a rock song.’ He was, like, ‘Hey, you can’t just make a rock song. You have to study rock, and understand what it’s about.’

“I thought, ‘I’ve never heard of a Pakistani woman making rock music.’ And I really want to be that woman.”


“I invited him to one of my shows,” she continues. “He was impressed with my onstage energy, and gave me an opportunity to write a rock song with him. But the first song we made was super Western. I found it hard to relate to it. At that point, we decided to use rock music as a base, but incorporate more world instruments. A form of rock music that would appeal to other South East Asian kids.”

Khan’s first recording, 2011’s Universal Rhythm Venture EP, showed a young artist boasting, “I am me, I’ll always be!” while still experimenting to find a sound of her own. By the time of her first full-length, 2013’s cheekily titled The Wrath of Urvah Khan, she’d taken Huizenga’s advice and had become a student… of Black Sabbath. In between her original rap-rock, punk, South Asian bhangra, and calypso songs of empowerment and independence, the album features a cover of the metal band’s “N.I.B.”

“When I heard Black Sabbath, I was so impressed,” she says. “Tony Iommi’s riffs, Ozzy’s singing – one in a million, right? In my heritage, we have a lot of Bollywood songs, Indian music. And I find Black Sabbath has a cinematic feel. They totally won me over. I thought, ‘I’ve never heard of a Pakistani woman making rock music.’ And I really want to be that woman. I don’t want to be the second of anything. I want to be the first of something.”

We ask if by “second of anything,” she’s talking about M.I.A. Comparisons to the British-Tamil superstar are somewhat easy to make, even if that’s more the fault of limited exposure and references for South East Asian women in Western music than any true similarities between them.

“When I started rapping and doing live performances, working with electronic producers, right off the bat I was getting comparisons to M.I.A.,” she admits. “Don’t get me wrong. She’s a total inspiration. But I didn’t want to be the next M.I.A… I wanted to make something original, something that represented my journey.”

 

And thus began the full-throttle drive to create a Scrap Army. Inspired by her gigs in Pakistan, Khan has just started writing the follow-up to 2015’s Rock Khan Roll, this next one an EP aimed squarely at her new-found Pakistani audience, with material in both English and Urdu. She continues to partner with Huizenga as a co-writer and producer (he also plays guitar in her live band) but Khan has also been working with renowned Pakistani composer/songwriter Sohail Rama, who now lives in Mississauga, ON. When complete, she’ll take it back to Pakistan, where she wants not only more gigs for herself, but to create a live music series that encourages female-fronted punk and rock acts.

“There are no female punks there,” she explains. “The freedom that allows me to rock that look, boldly, when I travel there, was given to me by Canada. So I want to take everything Canada offers me and create a platform for more women who come from where I come from. It feels good to have big dreams. And to chase them like a mad woman.”


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *


After leaving his stamp on more than 325 songs in the 50 years of his career so far – including four SOCAN Classics – Michel Robidoux was finally persuaded by Pierre Lapointe, two years ago, to revisit and record eight of his immortal songs, two new ones, and one that his mother wrote when he was three, “Petit Ange Blond.”

In the end, those 12 songs, produced by Lapointe’s invaluable collaborator, Philippe Brault, remind us all the extent to which Robidoux is a genius of melodies, composition and arrangements.

“I’m really enjoying this because I’m finally hearing those songs as I had imagined them when I wrote them,” says Robidoux. “Of course, arrangers will do what they please, and appropriate your songs once you let them go. I played Jean-Pierre [Ferland] Pierre Flynn’s superb version of ‘Le Petit Roi’ as well as the two stripped-down versions of ‘Le Chat du café des artistes’ [written by Lapointe and Ariane Moffat], and he said: good job, Robidoux!”

The Robidoux premier album also features Alex Nevsky, Bïa, Daniel Bélanger, Marie-Noëlle Claveau and Catherine Major, who all contribute to re-visiting Robidoux’s musical legacy and extensive track record: La Boîte à Clémence, L’Osstidcho, the Charlebois-Forestier classic where “Lindbergh” came from, Jean-Pierre Ferland’s classic Jaune, Leonard Cohen’s I’m Your Man, Renée Claude (“Ce soir je fais l’amour avec toi,” which is magnificently reprised by Major), the cult children’s TV show Passe-Partout (175 episodes co-written with Pierre F. Brault), and even a collaboration on Pierre Lapointe’s Punkt! (2013), not to mention his bass-plying duties in the country band Les ours.

And since Ferland was mentioned earlier, we had to talk about Jaune a bit, since two songs came from that album. Robidoux was part of the in-studio creative process until producer André Perry fired him and instead hired two Americans, Buddy Fasano (who came up with the piano intro for “Petit Roi”) and Art Phillips.

Once Jaune was released, Ferland hooked up with Robidoux and his touring musicians, who were part of the Bulldozer show at the Wilfrid-Pelletier hall (Guy Latraverse, the show’s producer, had authorized the onstage presence of a huge yellow bulldozer).

But no matter the nature of the adventure, Robidoux always was the figurative designated driver, the most sober one, in charge of keeping the brood under control in the studio or onstage. But once the job was done: party!

“Look at the Lindbergh album cover,” says Robidoux. “Next to my name, they wrote ‘Musical Connector.’ I was the link between all those out-there musicians, and I was in charge of making sure they’d get to the studio on time, and ready to play. We recorded part of it at the [now-defunct] Stereo Sound on Côte-des-Neiges [in Montréal] and the rest at André Perry’s studio. In 1967, Robert and I hung out at the Esquire Show Bar, which was the spot to hear American soul musicians. You can hear it on the album, especially the organ groove on ‘Engagement.’

“But by 1969, I was exhausted from being ‘Tout écartillé’ [the title of one of the songs which freely translates to “discombobulated”] in Paris with Robert. The big show at the Olympia, non-stop partying, I had to take a break, it was getting too heavy for me. That’s when I told Jean-Pierre I was available.”

Leonard Cohen is another one of Robidoux’s ex-bosses. Cohen had heard some of his work in 1988 and immediately hired him on for his I’m Your Man album, and Robidoux ended up as the album’s artistic and musical director, arranger and keyboardist.

“When the time came to record his vocal tracks, he was surprised that I was still there, while all the other musicians had left,” says Robidoux. “He said I was the first musician interested in sticking around for the vocal takes. He cut me three cheques for the three songs I co-wrote (two ended up on the album, ‘I’m Your Man’ and ‘Everybody Knows.’ And one of the three cheques bounced,” he says with a guffaw. “Cohen had access to an unlimited budget from Columbia (CBS Records) and he’d just gotten a Crystal Globe Award. But he still cut me a bounced cheque!” Turned out it had something to do with an overzealous bank teller. That infuriated Cohen and he immediately compensated Robidoux for his trouble.

Following an open-heart surgery and quadruple bypass, Robidoux now thinks of his health, first: “I smoked for 59 years. We weren’t exactly choir boys, back then. We basically abused every substance. But I’m an old Micmac, I’m tough…”

But why release an album now? “I chose to be a session musician and a composer,” he says. “But now is the time, man!” Robidoux plays on eight of the album’s 12 songs. “What am I proudest of? My Felix trophy for best arranger on the Passe-Partout Christmas album (Le Noël de Cannelle et Pruneau) ,because that award was voted by my peers. Let’s not forget François Dompierre was also in the running! That’s no small feat.”

Not bad for a musician who can’t read or write music. Does it make you want to record another album? “You bet!”


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *


Kid Koala

Photo: Corinne Merrell

“Utilitarian” is not exactly the type of description artists long to see as a description of their music. But according to Montréal turntablist and composer Eric San, a.k.a. Kid Koala, that’s the exact word that best describes his most recent album, Music to Draw to: Satellite. The project’s intended goal could not be clearer, as expressed in its title: it’s designed as music to draw – or perform any other calm and solitary activity – to. With its slow tempos and layered synths, the album feels light years away from the eclectic, syncopated collages to which we’d grown accustomed from this ace turntable artist. Yet, to Kid Koala, this is one of his most personal projects, and a natural extension of his  creative output. “The turntable is still there, but it’s not being used as an instrument for solos, more like a production tool that can add texture to the compositions,” says San. “For the live show, I’ve created an orchestra of turntables that are manipulated by the audience, and the result is astonishing!”

The idea behind this unique project was born from DJ sessions where the Kid invited a small audience in sometimes unusual venues (a Vietnamese restaurant, for example) to listen to calm records while doodling in their sketch pads (“music for introverts”, says San, laughing). Those events were so popular that the DJ decided to create his own “music to draw to.” “I think it’s absolute genius to associate certain functions to specific types of music. The Ramones are great for a quick clean-up of the house, EDM is great for the gym, and so on!”

San, who’s been busy with his graphic-novel and animated-movie projects, also has his go-to albums when he sits at his drawing board, and his top two are quite surprising: “Spaklehorse’s It’s a Wonderful World, a somewhat twisted album that has me discovering new details in it even after hundreds of listens, and Lucky Cat by Sian, a rather ambient electronic album that Radiohead’s Colin Greenwood gave me, and which helps me lose all sense of time.”

The latter is definitely the one that comes closest to Satellite. Apart from its ambient nature and slow tempos, the most outstanding aspect of Satellite is the presence of a female voice – that of Icelandic chanteuse Emiliana Torrini, by whose work San has always been awestruck. Following their first long-distance collaboration in 2014, on a song created for the soundtrack of Jason Reitman’s Men, Women and Children, San invited Torrini to spend a few days in Montréal so they could work on his “petite winter music.” Torrini being the type to take her time when writing, she immersed herself in the DJ’s “cerebral labyrinth” while San whipped up lyrics that talked about two lovers slowly drifting apart in space. “Eric is really annoying: everything he does is successful,” says Torrini. “Creativity flows through his veins, it’s his very nature, whereas I have to struggle really hard to get to that level.”

The project is in fact the first of a series of three “winter records” Kid Koala will produce for the Arts and Crafts imprint. The few constraints he’s imposed on himself are simple: he’ll only work on them during the winter, and they must involve vocalists. Did he feel it was important to involve a Nordic singer for this first chapter? “I do believe it facilitated my understanding of certain things,” San explains. “At some point, Emiliana asked me why the rhythm of one of the songs, ‘Adrift,’ was so slow. I told her it has the tempo of someone who’s been shovelling snow for three hours, and she totally got it! To be honest, I’m still wondering how someone who lives in California will be able to appreciate this record!”

Whether you choose to do yoga, paint-by-numbers, or simply go for a walk while you listen to Satellite, it’s the kind of record that will find a place in your life, if you feel the need to withdraw from the daily hubbub of life. “I meet all kinds of people when I do my Music to Draw to DJ sets,” San explains. “The other day, I met a biologist who builds protein chains on his computer, and a woman who’s studying 3D models of the human brain. Maybe I should’ve titled my album Music to build proteins to or Music to do Neuroscience to. But it’s not as sexy!”


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *