Prior to the release of their acclaimed debut EP, Studies in Grey, Super Duty Tough Work was a group that needed to be seen live to be believed. Relying on the potency of silky bass lines and honey-soaked horns, paired with exacting lyrics about sky-high ambitions, the eight-piece hybrid rap-jazz-R&B group channeled the beating heart of ‘90s East coast hip-hop into legendary performances across the country. When they finally got around to recording, the response was swift and gushing: In 2020, Studies in Grey was long-listed for the Polaris Music Prize, and nominated for a Western Canadian Music award.

The band is self-described as “golden era taste, current era based.” To constrict its social location to Winnipeg obscures the internationally-inspired influence that SDTW’s globally sourced players — drawn from American locales like Boston and Ohio, and as far as Argentina — bring to the group. “The city is a cultural hub for other things, but if we’re talking about ‘hip-hop’ or ‘Black’ music, Winnipeg isn’t producing those things in great mass,” explains the band’s lyricist and vocalist, Brenden Kinley, who performs as Brendan Grey.

“Winnipeg and hip-hop aren’t two enticing words that go together, but we have different experiences and world-views than what most people would associate with a group of people that are ‘from Winnipeg.’”

Grey grew up in a musical household filled with the music of artists as diverse as Bruce Cockburn, Grandmaster Flash, Prince, and De La Soul. He remembers falling asleep watching his parents make music together, his mom singing and playing the piano. “I was 10 and started to play instruments, then really never stopped,” he says.

Though Grey works professionally as a drummer, he crafts the lyrics for SDTW with an ear for how melodies can wrap around, amplify, and change lyrics; intentionally hanging them below the percussion on a song, or carefully placing them on the apex of a beat. “Everything is rhythmic,” he explains. “I’ve been drumming and writing lyrics for so long, it’s natural to think about [the relationship] to rhyming and sub-divisions; like taking a solo by using your words.”

Typically, Grey brings lyrics to the band, who come up with an arrangement. But, as we’ve all had to learn to adjust to a new normal of sheltering in place, the group’s songwriting process has become more collaborative, making use of this moment of pause to attempt a new approach to creating.

“[I have] one or two close friends that are producers. Essentially, I would make the demos and then bring those to the band, who would re-interpret them,” says Grey. “As far as lyrics, it’s just me sitting and writing; some of the stuff on the record is more than five years old, and some of it was written just a few days before going into the studio.

“When it’s all boiled down, it’s Black resistance music” — Brendan Grey of Super Duty Tough Work

“I have a few books, and a whole bunch of loose-leaf pieces of paper: I go through them, lay them out, look at them, and move stuff from page to page. Now we’re doing a lot more group writing, which means getting together and throwing ideas at each other, responding, recording, and then re-visiting.”

It makes sense that the group would be amenable to change. The melodic machinery Super Duty Tough Work have built into their sound pays homage to visionaries of ‘90s boom-bap — Gang Starr, Digable Planets, and A Tribe Called Quest — who were adept at capturing the spirit of the social zeitgeist with a single biting lyric. On “Bounty,” Grey slips in a Nas reference shortly before name-dropping Colin Kaepernick; on “Hypnotic,” he ruminates on success and drive with open-ended curiosity. It’s an intentional semantic decision, rooted in contributing to the legacy of the emancipatory expectation of jazz and the reclamatory ambition of hip hop.

“When it’s all boiled down, it’s Black resistance music,” he explains. “It doesn’t always have to be overt. You don’t always have to make a statement. Sometimes it’s just the act. So, you can either be like, ‘Fuck the police,’ or you can just have a party, or a gathering, where everyone’s having a good time and enjoying themselves. Those are both acts of resistance in my mind. That’s the tradition that Super Duty Tough Work comes out of.”

“FTP” is perhaps the clearest execution of the group’s exploration into the many manifestations of resistance music. Initially inspired by a version of J Dilla’s “Fuck The Police” (not to be confused with NWA’s “Fuck Tha Police,” written by Ice Cube and MC Ren) — that the band would perform during “Dilla Days,” a yearly tribute to the artist — now it rings with a new sense of urgency, as the alarm to defund the police is ringing internationally. Previously unrecorded, Grey wanted to elevate the aspiration of the original.

“Some of the lyrics [on the original] I agreed with 100%, some of them less,” he says. “Honestly, I felt that in some aspects he just wasn’t hitting hard enough.” It became a crowd favorite at their shows, and a contender for the album. “I wasn’t really sure whether to include that on the record or not,” says Grey. “But it needed a second verse, and I was stressed for a really long time.

“It took me over a year to write the second verse, because I wanted it to be fact-checkable; with points that couldn’t be argued easily, or could be taken as a matter of opinion. I tried to make it relatable so that many people can see their experiences in the music — when we can see that we’re all fighting the same thing, and that those issues cross, that’s power.”

“Against all odds, we made songs in French, and I’m proud of it,” says Jake PST, songwriter, singer, and producer in the quartet Ragers. The ex-punk, who delved into EDM before coming to rap, had an epiphany during the pandemic: “If we’re going to be stuck here, might as well do stuff in French and take advantage of the (Québec) market,” he says. La vie joue un tour (Life plays tricks on you), is the title of their first 100%-Francophone EP, to be launched in September of 2020.

Truth be told, the members of Ragers dipped a toe in the “Francocean” two years ago, by proxy, through the words of Rymz – who rapped on “Jeunes & fly and “All I Need,” two songs from their album Raw Footage; neither Jake nor MC Billy Eff had dared to work in French up to that point.

“We’ve always written in English,” says Jake PST. “I remember that, right from the get-go, we agreed on that choice: we would write in English because we couldn’t find ourselves in French. We never thought of making music in French – not because we didn’t want to, but because we weren’t confident enough writing in that complex language. And I needed to take a step back to make sure the lyrics were good. So after a few tries, we felt the time was right.”

The pandemic also afforded them some time, since the band – who made a name for themselves with its stage shows – was suddenly stuck at home (as we all were, starting in mid-March). “Ragers is an energy,” says PST. “It’s raw energy, a punk attitude, but with [Roland TR] 808s and a hip-hop vibe mixed with ‘chanson’ and pop. Yeah, ‘urban’ pop, but with a punk energy, especially onstage, which is where we really stand out. I always feel bad for the bands who play after us. We’re a very tough act to follow! We’re always striving to deliver a high-quality show, and surpass ourselves.”

RagersRagers had even planned on organizing their own outdoor festival, two days of camping and music with an all-local lineup, except for one band of friends from Italy. They were supposed to announce the even at the end of March… So, instead, they worked on the new EP, temporarily setting aside work on their fourth English album (now slated for 2021) to work on music carrying their newfound French eloquence.

“We had a lot of fun doing that, even though we had to go through a lot of trial and error before we felt like the songs were going in the right direction,” says PST. He believes that La vie joue un tour is Ragers’ poppiest project to date, one where pop sounds sometimes flirt with R&B (“Peekaboo”), trap (“Goût cerise, Ma fête”) or even tropical dance (“Hasta la vista”).

Ragers’ songs are either born in PST’s computer, or when the band jams. “About 90 percent of the time, it starts with a beat,” he says. “I compose the majority of them, and then Phil [guitar] and Jay [PST, his brother, the drummer] add their instruments. But when the vibe is more organic, the song will take shape in our rehearsal space, and then we add the other ingredients.”

For Ragers, it is a long process, “not so much when it comes to writing and composing as such, but because it takes us a while to take a song to a level we’re satisfied with,” says Jake PST. “A song often evolves so much over the course of this process, from the mix to the mastering. It can be tough. Mastering is important; it’s at that point that we detach ourselves from that project, and feel ready to move on to another one.”

Songwriting isn’t an activity that’s hazardous to your health, but for triple-JUNO-Award-winner Kiesza, who suffered a traumatic brain injury in 2017 – when her Uber was struck by another taxi – she has to really listen to her head and know when to take a break. “It’s a lot on the brain to write lyrics,” she says.

“The funny thing about brain injuries is they go forward and backward. I always think that I’ve crossed another line or another hurdle that it’s behind me, and then suddenly I relapse. I’m not crashing as much as I used to, then last week I crashed the whole week.”

Kiesza – born Kiesa Ellestad in Calgary and now living in Toronto – is just releasing Crave (on Aug. 14, 2020), the long-awaited follow-up to her 2014 debut Sound of A Woman — which sold a million copies and contained the ‘80s-inspired dance-pop smash “Hideaway” (now closing in on half a billion views on YouTube alone). But it isn’t full of introspective songs about healing, health, or struggle.  In fact, if one didn’t know about the accident that caused a shutdown of the electrical nerve pathways to one side of her brain, the dance-pop songs seem like a natural follow-up to her breakthrough from six years ago.

“I wasn’t ready to go back into what I’d just come out of,” says Kiesza. “It was this really dark, dark, dark time, and I’ve been literally climbing my way out of it just to see the light again. It’s been hard. It’s been the hardest thing I’ve ever gone through. So when I finally was in a place where I felt like I was ready to re-launch, I wasn’t ready to go into that again. I wanted positive energy, especially with the pandemic going on right now. I felt like that’s what the world needs, too. So I chose to make this album really upbeat and really positive.

“Honestly, my songwriting, in many ways, has gotten stronger”

“‘Love Never Dies’ is probably the closest one you’re going to get to start to scrape the surface,” she says of the second-last song on Crave, a powerful ballad that sounds like a James Bond movie theme. “There’s more coming. That’s tapping into that depth, and that pain, and those feelings. It’s a lot to go back to. I get overwhelmed. And with my recovery, just being stressed out or overwhelmed like that, it actually causes my head to relapse. So I’m just not even physically in a place where I can do that.”

Collaborating Carefully 
Kiesza has co-written for Rihanna and Jennifer Hudson, worked with Duran Duran, and collaborated with Skrillex, Pitbull, and Diplo, as well as with many people for her own songs. But now writing with others requires some ground rules she didn’t have before her injury:  no smoking, for one. She’s been writing with a lot of local artists and rappers. “I have to tell everybody that they’re not allowed to smoke weed,” she laughs. “Usually I would just put up with it. I’ve never done any drugs or anything, but I’m really strict. My head can’t handle being around any sort of smoke.” While she still writes quickly — “I’m actually still faster than the average songwriter” — concentrating on lyrics can give her a headache, so her partners must be understanding and patient. “Sometimes I’ll have to let people know when my head does swell up, or feels like it’s hurting, and that I’m too tired to finish, and just re-book for another time. Or I’ll just let them know that I’m unable to come up with new lyrics right now,  just because of how my head feels. I like to step away, maybe do them on my own time, and come back and record.”

That material will be “compartmentalized,” as Kiesza says, on her next album. “Honestly, my songwriting, in many ways, has gotten stronger, because it unlocked a lot of stuff going on internally while I was recovering,” she says. “My lyrics really expanded. I did begin writing a lot more personal stuff, going back to my youth. I’ve been getting as much of my own inner truth out as I possibly can, just out of my body, out of my soul, and on to some form of paper or digital notepad. There’s so much to decipher right now and to go back through.

“And then the next album is going to have a different sound and a different mood.  I like that because whatever mood I’m in, I select my playlist based on that. So I’m approaching my albums that way. I have some acoustic folk songs. How do I put out a guitar style [of music] after Crave?  I’m just going to do it. It’s little confusing, but to me it’s important to make sure that all of that gets out or else people are not going to know me.”

She says she writes in “so many genres.” Her very first album, written and released during her second semester at Selkirk College in Nelson, BC, with money from a grant she won from a then-new Calgary radio station, she told SOCAN in 2014, was “all over the place, very experimental. You get orchestra songs, a big-band jazz song, a funky song, a country song that goes into gospel, soft-rock mixed in with soul.”

This skill of adaptability has enabled her to write for a range of other artists, and also reveal more of herself. “It’s actually really confusing for people who work with me to try to figure out what to put out, but I’m really embracing that aspect about me,” she says. “That’s what makes me unique, is the fact that I actually can jump genres. So I’m trying to find ways to fuse all the styles that I write in.

“I definitely want to have lifelong fans. It’s way more important for me to really make sure that my music contains every aspect of who I am.”