By Tabassum Siddiqui - Friday, March 15, 2013 - 0 Comments
Folk trio sings the Brian Mulroney blues
In the flood of eulogies for Stompin’ Tom Connors in the past week, there was a common refrain: will we ever have another singer who chronicles our national tales? Canadian musicians do well the world over, but there’s often little that distinguishes their songs as specifically Canadian. Trent Severn, a new folk-roots trio from Stratford, Ont., aims to pick up the torch. Dressed in plaid shirts, singer-songwriters Emm Gryner, Dayna Manning and Laura C. Bates sing Joni-sweet three-part harmonies over folky fiddle and fingerpicked guitar, and the 10 songs on their self-titled debut album have titles like Bluenose on a Dime and Mulroney Times. By the time they get to their searing take on the Steven Truscott case, there’s a pretty clear sense of Trent Severn’s mandate.
The breezy take on Canadiana isn’t simply a gimmick: “It sounds premeditated, but it was so natural,” says Manning. “When you get a song like Snowy Soul in your email, you just have to send something back really great, you know?” (Snowy Soul, the first song Gryner wrote for the band, was inspired by a conversation in a bookstore where a man was talking about returning from the Arctic).
Trent Severn—named for an Ontario waterway—is new, but its players are not. Gryner, a singer and multi-instrumentalist with more than a dozen albums, has toured with David Bowie as a backing vocalist and keyboardist, and been lauded by U2’s Bono. Manning had signed to major label EMI in the ’90s, then carved out an independent solo career, opening for the likes of Radiohead. Bates, an emerging violinist, is in demand for her ease in crossing musical genres.
By Julia De Laurentiis Johnson - Tuesday, March 12, 2013 at 7:00 AM - 0 Comments
A new breed of artists elevates the cover band from midlife hobby to curated show
On a recent night, a small but rowdy crowd was packed into a bar in Toronto’s Dovercourt Park neighbourhood, watching Vanessa Dunn growl out songs like Def Leppard’s Pour Some Sugar on Me. In a leather vest and biker hat, Dunn channelled more Axl Rose than Rihanna, a snarl on her lips, her body slithering to the beat. The fans sang along and cheered each time the band started a familiar tune—which was every tune, since Vag Halen is an all-women cover band that plays Guns N’ Roses, AC/DC and other male-centric rock.
It’s no accident Vag Halen is all women. Dunn and her wife, bass player Katie Ritchie, were in a bar one night a couple of years ago when Van Halen came on the jukebox. They started to brainstorm fantasy bands. Dunn grew up with brothers who loved ’80s rock and she loved it, too, but had always felt a bit excluded from that culture. An idea clicked. Ritchie was the front woman of the Vancouver indie band the Organ and Dunn was an actor. They floated the idea of an all-women cover band to their friends, and Vag Halen was born. “I don’t want to be a baby-voiced female with a pigeon-toed persona,” Dunn explained. “I want to be Freddie Mercury meets Hedwig meets Iron Maiden. I want our performances to have power.”
Not long ago, a cover band was more likely to be a group of middle-aged guys singing radio hits to a drunk crowd in a fake Irish pub. Now a generation of young artists is redefining what a cover band can be: professional performers presenting a curated variety show. P.E.I.’s the Love Junkies covers oldies and garage rock. The Toronto girl band Sheezer covers Weezer. A group of Toronto all-stars calling themselves the Best throw monthly parties called Loving in the Name Of, with an ever-evolving set list. “There are so many awesome songs out there, we never perform the same one twice,” said Christopher Sandes, a member. “We want to give our audience a great, fresh show and we want to challenge ourselves as musicians.” Sandes once spent seven hours perfecting a keyboard sound for ABBA’s SOS— a part that lasted 20 seconds onstage. The band’s attention to detail does not go unappreciated: they often fill 500-seat venues to capacity.
By Rebecca Eckler - Tuesday, February 19, 2013 at 7:00 PM - 0 Comments
If you can’t judge the new generation of divas, teach them
“I started because I needed to make a living,” says Zack Werner of his “Idol school,” the two-hour group singing classes he offers to young singers who come to him, mostly through word of mouth. Fans of Canadian Idol will know Werner from his days as a judge on the show; he was our version of Simon Cowell. These days, five years after CTV cancelled the singing competition, a still suave but now grey-haired Werner spends his nights in the basement of a downtown Toronto restaurant, running his school for singers who want to be stars, most of whom were babies or toddlers when Idol was on air. “I want them to learn to be artists as opposed to someone who just sings,” he says.
Werner admits it was tough when Idol ended. “My notoriety got in the way of running my music business,” he says. And the industry had changed. “People thought I was a multi-millionaire because I was on television, which was definitely not the case. It was a bit of a shock from signing autographs every day to being virtually unemployable.” But now he has a plan. “There’s no better way of not making money than teaching kids to sing,” he laughs. “I don’t want to be a singing teacher for the rest of my life. I want to find the elite of the elite, the who’s who of the best eight- to 20-year-olds. I’m only attracted to the real deal.”
And the real deal is attracted to him. One dad drives two and a half hours each way to take his daughter to Werner’s Thursday-night lessons. “I love his way with kids,” says Becky Isenberg, whose daughter, Lauren, 10, has been attending the school once a week for a year. “It’s sort of like a co-op music program,” she says. “He’ll make them get real experience, like taking them into the middle of a street and making them sing.”
By Elio Iannacci - Monday, February 4, 2013 at 10:12 AM - 0 Comments
Why Canadians are going abroad for international recognition
Becoming an expat did wonders for Al Spx’s career. When the 24-year-old Toronto native—who performs as Cold Specks—realized her self-described brand of “doom soul” would be tough to launch in Canada’s Nickelback-and-Bieber-dominated music market, she took the advice of producer Jim Anderson and headed out of the country. His instinct was spot-on. After Spx took her bluesy, gospel-tinged tracks—some of which have been compared to Mahalia Jackson’s majestic body of work—across the pond, fame followed. In 2011, after her single Holland dropped, she was invited to sing on Later . . . with Jools Holland, a popular music TV show in the U.K. After her performance, artists on the show such as Mary J. Blige, Pete Townshend and Florence Welch tracked her down backstage. They became her first fans—a following that has grown into cult-like proportions overseas.
“Those U.K. audiences kept us going and made it happen for us,” explains Spx via phone after a sold-out show in Germany. (Spx is not her actual name; she keeps that to herself.) Her debut album, I Predict A Graceful Expulsion, followed, released in her home country by Feist’s label, Arts and Crafts, and outside Canada by the adventurous Mute Records label. Her stardom subsequently spread throughout Europe, where she’s shared the bill at music festivals with the likes of Björk and Bruce Springsteen. Last summer she was shortlisted for the Polaris Prize. “I had to leave the country to get recognized internationally,” she says—and so that she would be recognized back home.
By Elio Iannacci - Wednesday, January 9, 2013 at 9:30 AM - 0 Comments
Once more counterculture than pop culture, Calgary’s famous sisters chart a new course
For more than 10 years Tegan and Sara Quin have made music that, by their own admission, is more counterculture than pop culture. Steeped in acoustic and electric guitars and informed by punk and folk artists, the past six albums by Calgary’s famous sister act are classified by iTunes as alternative music. But after their 2009 album Sainthood, the 32-year-old identical twins decided to rethink their approach to songwriting. “We became known as kind of a Canadian cult band in some parts of the world,” Tegan says during a recent visit to Toronto, hours before hitting the stage to perform songs from the new album, Heartthrob. “It felt very limiting. The reality is indie rock just isn’t as popular anymore, especially in Europe. We used to be so opposed to sounding current. We were either a step behind or ahead.”
Save for a major international hit in 2004 called Walking With a Ghost (covered soon afterward by the White Stripes), their previous releases, which provided years of gigs and decent reviews, never had enough mass appeal to crown the Billboard charts or enough bass-line grit for major club play. The musical makeover began when the pair met the Dutch DJ Tiësto, whose beat-driven remix of Back in Your Head from their 2007 album The Con started reaching audiences they didn’t even know existed. “When he came along, he opened our minds and made us think about what kinds of opportunities we were shutting out,” Sara says. It led to another collaboration that produced an ear worm of a dance track called Feel It in My Bones—a song that ended up charting in Canada. The track pushed the duo to team up with electronic producers such as David Guetta for Every Chance We Get We Run and Morgan Page for a cut called Body Work. All three songs have received much more radio and club play than any of their rock singles since Walking With a Ghost. Continue…
By Brian D. Johnson - Wednesday, November 21, 2012 at 10:00 AM - 0 Comments
Exclusive: A candid interview with the new king of pop
Everyone’s waiting for Justin Bieber. It’s mid-afternoon in Washington, on the eve of the presidential election, but for the hordes of young girls gathered outside a downtown arena, there’s only one leader who can bring salvation. Hours before the 18-year-old Canadian pop star will hit the stage, fans have mobbed every entrance, ready to scream at any hint of movement. They shriek as one of 11 tour buses sits idling outside a garage ramp, as if sheer lung power could shatter the tinted windows.
Inside the arena, Bieber’s bodyguard, a soft-spoken man named Kenny Hamilton, shows off a party trick: he opens a door, revealing his face to fans on the sidewalk. They go berserk. In Bieberland, even Kenny is a celebrity: he has more than a million Twitter followers, which puts him neck and neck with Paul McCartney. Bieber has 30 million—second only to Lady Gaga—and gains a new one roughly every second.
The first superstar child of social media, Justin Bieber recently became the first to score three billion hits on YouTube, where an amateur video led to his discovery at 13. However, as his Believe tour burns across North America—he plays Ottawa, Montreal, Toronto and the Grey Cup in the next few weeks—being the world’s hottest teen idol is still not enough. In an exclusive interview with Maclean’s, he makes it clear he wants to be nothing less than the next Michael Jackson, the new King of Pop. “That’s where I want to be,” he says. “I don’t just want to be a teen heartthrob.” Continue…
By Michael Barclay - Friday, October 26, 2012 at 9:50 AM - 0 Comments
Book by Sam Sutherland
The world does not need another book about punk rock, full of self-righteous mythmaking, railing against mainstream culture and grossly exaggerating the importance of a three-chord song played with youthful fury in 1977. What the world does need, however, is this particular book. Canadian music of any genre rarely gets mythologized; rarer still is it done as well as it is here. Sam Sutherland strikes the balance between an enthusiastic fanboy, a meticulous researcher and a masterful magazine writer; each of his chapters conveys maximum information in minimum time—with plenty of vomit, violence, electrocution and decidedly dangerous characters to fuel the narrative—and dispels the myth of a conformist Canada drowning in dreadfully dull culture.
Sutherland also does what so many Canadian cultural histories fail to do: document scenes in every province without coming across as tokenistic. You think it was hard to be a punk in Toronto, Montreal or Vancouver in the ’70s? Try Edmonton or Fredericton or Meat Cove, N.S.; those stories are often more entertaining for their sheer absurdity. The country’s biggest punk names (D.O.A., Pointed Sticks, Teenage Head, Viletones) all get their due, but they’re never the whole story; Sutherland also points readers toward other essential books to flesh out the narrative, such as Liz Worth’s Treat Me Like Dirt. Now-unlikely players like k.d. lang’s manager, Larry Wanagas, and Liberal party attack dog Warren Kinsella are also paid respect.
Far too many rock books cop out with oral histories; Sutherland plays up his strength as a storyteller without ever seeming desperate to impress with academic analogies. Even if you’re a reader who will never track down the music discussed here, even if you’re tired of hearing 50-year-old rounders at the bar waxing nostalgic about their punk-rock past, Perfect Youth is still a fascinating read about making something out of absolutely nothing. It’s a crucial contribution to our cultural history.
By Brian D. Johnson - Monday, October 1, 2012 at 6:00 AM - 0 Comments
An exclusive excerpt from Neil Young’s new book, a mix of memoir, meditation and rant
Like Bob Dylan (Chronicles), Keith Richards (Life) and Patti Smith (Just Kids), yet another rock icon has been seduced by print. An intimate mix of memoir, meditation and rant, Neil Young’s Waging a Heavy Peace roams a world of music and drugs, wives and children, cars, guitars and model trains. At 66, Young has followed in the footsteps of his father, Canadian journalist Scott Young, whose laconic voice seems to echo through every page of the son’s spare prose. The book’s road stories jump from dressing rooms to emergency wards, with cameos from Dylan, Springsteen—and Charles Manson. Young explains how he missed the Junos after almost bleeding to death in a Manhattan hotel lobby and how he wrote Cinnamon Girl, Down By the River and Cowgirl in the Sand in one day while running a fever. But perhaps most captivating is Young’s newly sober infatuation with the writing life. “No wonder my dad did this,” he marvels. “I highly recommend it to any old rocker who is out of cash and doesn’t know what to do next.”
I have been clean now for seven months. That is a good long time. I still feel cravings. Maybe I’d like a beer, maybe a joint. I heard the Pistol Annies sing about reasons why they’re broke and so who would invest in their future? One’s drinkin’, one’s smokin’, one’s taking pills. Well, they are writing their asses off. I know that. I haven’t written a song in more than half a year, and that is different for me. Of course I’ve written over 90,000 words in this book, and that is different for me, too.
By Mike Doherty - Monday, September 24, 2012 at 5:00 AM - 0 Comments
Six years after she ruled the world with Loose, the pop star learns to say yes again
Impeccably coiffed and styled, a silk scarf wreathed around the collar of her jean jacket, Nelly Furtado leans forward on a couch in a Toronto hotel suite. “I’m still a bit of a s–t disturber.” She lets out a goofy laugh. “I’m still a little punk ass somewhere inside my soul. And I think I get off on confusing people.”
The 33-year-old pop star is referring, specifically, to her unpredictable new album, The Spirit Indestructible; some of its songs look back to her youth in Victoria, B.C., as a teenager with “a big chip on her shoulder [who] knows that at any party she can grab the microphone and everyone will listen to her sing.” But she could just as well be talking about her career. It’s indeed confusing that she’s taken six full years to make an English language follow-up to Loose, which sold more than 10 million copies worldwide.
What does it take for a star of her stature to stall the momentum of her success? “It took strength to say no to my manager,” she says. “It took a lot of repeated ‘no, no, no’s’ for people to understand that I wasn’t recording another [English] album anytime soon . . . What are they going to do—put a ball and chain around a microphone in the studio?”
By Mike Doherty - Thursday, October 14, 2010 at 3:40 PM - 0 Comments
‘Super-paranoid’ Taylor Kirk is the antithesis of the soul-baring introspective Drake
It was a banner summer for Canadian musicians: Arcade Fire, Justin Bieber, Drake and K’naan planted our flag proudly atop global charts. But if purveyors of anthems to arenas overwhelm you, may we suggest Timber Timbre. Their self-titled third album is a stark, eerie collection of off-centre blues and folk that sneaks up on listeners like a “night crawler crawlin’ out in the yard”—a typical image from one of singer Taylor Kirk’s songs. With European festivals ahead and a new album in the works, Timber Timbre are ready to bring their music to the world—in as self-effacing a way as possible.
“I’ve always been really shy,” says Kirk, over brunch at a quirky Montreal diner. “That’s amplified by doing something so revealing.” Having learned to play guitar as a child in a church basement in the hamlet of Myrtle, Ont., Kirk made his first recordings alone, while living in a timber-framed cabin in Bobcaygeon, in 2005. In the “scary” isolation, with crickets and the ghostly noises of rural Ontario bleeding into the microphones, he says he felt “uninhibited—totally at liberty to try whatever comes to mind.”
He overdubbed himself on guitar, piano, harmonica and hand-clap percussion, and packaged the crackly, lo-fi results as Timber Timbre’s debut, Cedar Shakes, selling the homemade CDs at Toronto’s indie oasis Soundscapes—the only store that would take them. In Toronto, where he’d found a job delivering kegs of beer, Kirk began to play shows and slowly attracted a cult following.