Review: Shane Ghostkeeper – Songs For My People

Shane Ghostkeeper
Songs For My People
Victory Pool
Calgary, AB
RIYL: Waylon Jennings; Margo Price; lounging in a smokey basement 

Before you are old enough to find music by browsing record store bins, reading blogs, through the burned CDs and playlists made by friends, or scrolling TikTok, the biggest influence on your music taste is your family. Car rides and meal times are soundtracked by the bands your parents love, the parental advisory stickers on your older siblings’ CDs dare you to listen to them, and when a cousin is aghast that “you haven’t heard [insert band name here]?!” you go listen to the band’s entire discography. 

Best known as the front person of GHOSTKEEPER, Shane Ghostkeeper grew up in the Northern Alberta Métis communities in Paddle Prairie, High Level, and Rocky Lane surrounded by country music. His debut solo record Songs For My People pays tribute to the honky-tonk tones that filled his childhood. It is, as Ghostkeeper tells the Calgary Herald, “a gift to my people [who] raised me and steeped me in country music.”

With rousing melodies that may inspire you to learn the two-step, songs like “Into the Night,” “I Know How,” and “Hunger Strike,” the latter an ode to Ghostkeeper’s grandparents, draw inspiration from country music circa the ’50s and ’60s. But Songs For My People is not a one-trick pony. The album also finds Ghostkeeper wading into cosmic country terrain, washing his songs with a psych rock haze. “Sunbeam,” “V. Chill,” and “Uncle John” are, yes, very chill sounding, and evoke the feeling of lounging in a smokey basement.

While Songs For My People is meant to be a present from Ghostkeeper to his family, it’s also a superb gift to general audiences. 

Laura Stanley

Review: Gawbé – ciseau zigzag

ciseau zigzag
Disques Dure Vie
Québec City, QC
RIYL: Snail Mail; Ada Lea; worrying about your iron intake 

On the cover of Gawbé’s EP ciseau zigzag, band leader Gabrielle Côté is slumped over a table that’s littered with a chaotic mix of items including: bits of paper, a party hat, and a pepper(???). She also holds a pair of multi-coloured zigzag scissors, a prized item for crafters of any age. 

Côté has had the six songs of ciseau zigzag kicking around for the past two years. The disjointedness of the items surrounding Côté on the EP’s cover is perhaps what this group of songs feel like to her: scattered. ciseau zigzag is a mix of pining, love, and memories. On one track Côté remembers as a kid cutting up a cherished picture her grandmother had (“zigzag”) and on another (“Deux fleurs”) she spends most of the day in bed and asks a question that is a constant in my life: “C’tu l’ennui ou c’est l’anémie?”

ciseau zigzag never sounds scattered though. Like the jagged blades of the scissors she holds, Côté’s songs are roughly cut pop-rock songs with sharp hooks and, like on tracks “Les misettes” and “zigzag,” a little bit of grunge. It’s a convergence of slick tones and, ultimately, the sound of Gawbé cutting out jagged hearts and handing them to you. 

– Laura Stanley

Aural Adventures With Castle If

A photo of Jess Forrest in her studio, seated, one arm up on a desk that has an open notebook on it. The photo has been cut in three blob shapes that are superimposed over loose sheets of lined paper.

Aural adventures with Castle If

Electronic composer and producer Jess Forrest on creative habits and her Imaginary Soundtrack series

By: Laura Stanley | Art by: Laura Stanley

For the last six months, my weekdays have started in the same way: to a soundtrack of drills whose high-pitched squeals evoke a dental procedure, the dull thuds of hammering, and earth-rumbling excavation. Beside my building, where a parking lot once stood, an enormous and unaffordable condo is being built and below me, a retail space is being turned into real estate offices—a true Toronto hellscape. 

To combat this symphony that continues to play as I start my workday from home, I listen to ambient and instrumental music, including YouTube playlists with titles like “it’s been a long journey, stop here and have some rest” and “you fell asleep in the car on a rainy afternoon.” Lately, my closest co-worker is the Imaginary Soundtrack series from Toronto-based electronic composer and producer Jess Forrest, also known as Castle If. 

Since the series began in October 2022, Forrest has written, recorded, and produced five full-length albums of themed instrumental electronic music using her trusted collection of analog synthesizers. The sound of these albums range from nautical hauntology (From the Sea) to futuristic synth-wave (Darknet) and many aural adventures in between. With such care taken to create the unique tenor of each recording, I’m apprehensive about admitting to Forrest that I have been passively listening to her music while I work or read. But to my surprise, Forrest is thrilled about my listening habits.

“I have a little bit of an obsession with music as utility and I really want to make something that can disappear for somebody else. It’s kind of hard to make that sometimes because I can’t separate myself from my music as well as I can from somebody else’s, obviously,” says Forrest from her Toronto home. “But the fact that you’re able to read to what I make is the biggest compliment. Making something that’s almost completely ignorable but not so chill that it puts you to sleep—that’s my favourite!” 

Born in Saskatoon, Forrest first felt a connection to music at around three years old. She remembers spending time at her babysitter’s house, playing her sitter’s piano and exploring her fantastic record collection. The first albums that Forrest fell in love with were Peter and the Wolf and the West Side Story soundtrack. As a teenager, Forrest started to write and record her own music and in 2008 she moved to Toronto with dreams of “reinventing krautrock.” In the early 2010s, she released a handful of albums as Castle If but she has since removed them from streaming platforms. 

Forrest’s interest in creating themed recordings has been a constant in her work. In 2017, she released Plant Material, a playful electronic record inspired by her houseplant collection. Her follow-up record, 2018’s Sector 03, was a synth-wave “sci-fi concept album exploring themes of addiction and techno paranoia in a bleak near-future.”

Although Sector 03 was released later, its tracks pre-date Plant Material. To Forrest, Sector 03 is a record that she took too long to write, but Plant Material was a turning point in her relationship with her art. “Plant Material was the first time where I just let go of my desire for it to be perfect, which has been really important for me,” Forrest explains. 

Forrest spent years playing shows and sharing bills with acts like U.S. Girls, Grimes, and Julianna Barwick, but after releasing Plant Material and Sector 03, she decided that live performances were no longer serving her. 

“At that time, I was trying to make a living in music work by playing a lot of shows. But I was really, really unhappy because I have terrible stage fright, so it was such an ordeal every time I played a show,” Forrest explains. “Knowing that I don’t want to perform has also been a huge leap.”

Since largely stepping back from playing shows, Forrest has shifted her attention to writing stock music (also known as library music) and composing soundtracks for film, television, podcasts, and video games. As Castle If, in 2019 she released what now feels like a preface to her Imaginary Soundtrack series: an unofficial score for the 1974 sci-fi/fantasy film Zardoz. On the next Castle If record, 2020’s Beyond!, listeners could blast off from the miserable pandemic present and boogie to Forrest’s “cosmic space disco.”

The idea for the Imaginary Soundtrack series came to Forrest during a year she spent working on a video game soundtrack she was commissioned to write. Over 2021-2022, she was writing around 40 minutes of music each month and had total artistic freedom over her compositions. The routine helped fuel Forrest’s creativity and her list of themed album ideas grew. Once she finished the game soundtrack, she dove head-first into creating the Imaginary Soundtrack series. “I didn’t want to lose momentum, so I just kept going,” she explains. 

Forrest’s original plan for the series was to release six albums in six months—but life got in the way and the timeline was disrupted. Nevertheless, from October 2022 to January 2023, she released a record each month: The Haunting (an eerie album inspired by Italian horror movies), From the Sea, The Verdant Realm (“it has a Mort Garson edge, but it’s spooky and mysterious,” Forrest describes), and Drivin’ Easy (“I imagine it to be the soundtrack of a ’70s thriller car movie”). In March, Forrest released Darknet, and on June 2nd she will release the sixth installment of the series, Exotic Sounds, which will be inspired by the “exotica” genre (jazz-influenced, often campy, lounge music that was popularized in the 1950s and ’60s). But will this be the end of the Imaginary Soundtrack series? “Why stop now?” Forrest says. 

During our conversation, Forrest flips through a notebook to look at her schedule or to jot down notes when I recommend an ambient playlist. She loves making to-do lists and enthusiastically admits, “Habits are my favourite!” In a follow-up email, she shares a photo of the log she keeps to track her daily routine. Tiny boxes filled in with green, yellow, red, or blue ink indicate how many hours she’s worked, glasses of water she drank, if she went on a walk or completed a workout. 

While Forrest’s concrete building in what she describes as a “really uncool” Toronto neighbourhood blocks out the majority of any external noise, a more pressing challenge when it comes to crossing items off her to-do list is drowning out the internal din. 

“I feel like internal noise builds throughout the day as my brain gets louder and meaner and full of more convoluted thoughts,” Forrest admits. “I’m one of those people who wakes up really early and I go to work as soon as humanly possible before a thought can come in.” 

On Forrest’s website, her work is described as “retro-futuristic instrumental music.” On paper it’s a clash of adjectives, but when you listen to a Castle If record, the description makes sense—Castle If albums evoke a future the past envisioned, but has not come true yet (where are our hovercrafts?). In the present, Forrest’s routine grounds her. Not every day is a good day, but she is committed to building the future that she wants.

“I definitely have lulls, but I have a very strong desire to not have a day job,” Forrest exclaims. “All of my days are the same: a third of them are good, a third of them are terrible, and the other third are just fine. Every third day is a lull day and every third day I don’t want to do it—but you have to. You have to do it!”

Yang Chen Is Cultivating Happiness


By: Laura Stanley | Photo by Evie Maynes | Art by: Laura Stanley

Over the wretched winter of 2020/2021, a pandemic period marked by lockdowns and loneliness, Toronto-based percussionist Yang Chen longed for community.

In December 2020, Chen conceived of a collaborative project that would allow them to reconnect with the friends they so dearly missed. By the new year, Chen decided to quit their job as an administrator at a music school to focus solely on writing a grant proposal that would fund the project. Chen sent what they characterize as “an infosheet” to friends who are musicians, composers, and improvisers that expressed how much they missed them and invited them to collaborate on a piece together. Chen also included an artistic prompt: “What are you longing for?”

Chen received the grant money, and the resulting project is their debut longing for _, a genre-blurring album of percussion-centric works, released this month via People Places Records.

“I think that this project could have only happened like this over the pandemic,” Chen says. “During that time I was also renegotiating with myself and asking, ‘How do I sustain relationships with anybody? I love seeing people in person, but now I can only see them on the screen. How can I connect with that?’ Sustaining creativity was right alongside sustaining friendships. At that time, these collaborations were like a lifeblood for me.”

Chen has always been drawn to how music facilitates community. In the early 2000s, Chen’s family immigrated to Toronto from Nanjing, China. Their family moved around a lot because of Chen’s dad’s work, and while living in Texas, Chen joined the school’s marching band. As a self-described “quintessential marching-band nerd,” Chen loved the structure and the camaraderie it provided. Later, when the family moved back to Toronto, the city may have lacked a marching-band culture, but that passion for percussion still helped Chen form relationships. These days, Chen spends their time gigging with orchestras and ensembles, playing taiko with RAW (Raging Asian Womxn) Taiko Drummers, and is the drummer of folky R&B/pop band (and “pioneers of soft mosh”) Tiger Balme.

“Playing music really helped me to not feel lonely,” Chen says. “I could connect with other people in a group—or even if I was playing solo, I could connect with the composer in some way, which I think is a theme that is still central to the music that I make today.”

With longing for _, Chen exemplifies the breadth of their friendships. Over the course of about a year, Chen and eight artists scattered throughout North America and across disciplines exchanged ideas, experimented, and grew as artists. While grant requirements meant that the project had some hard deadlines, Chen ensured its timeline put the artists’ well-being at the forefront.

“There was a lot of trial-and-error to accommodate growth, but I also wanted to tell people that if what we record on the album is a recorded iteration or version of your piece, that’s okay. I really believe in investing in artists,” Chen says. “I really value—especially in this project—people’s personal joy and what they are proud of showcasing. If that means they need an extra two weeks to master their electronic track so it sounds exactly like how they want it to sound, then that’s okay. That was time that was built into the project. When we’re happy, we’re happy, and then we put the piece on the record.”

“I wanted to give people the opportunity to work on a project that was by their design and to fulfil their artistic goals,” Chen adds. “I was seeing a lot of musicians and artists burn out during the pandemic, and I just wanted people to find something in the project that could compel them to continue to be artists because that’s what I was looking for myself, too—something to keep driving me.”

Multidisciplinary artist Andrew Noseworthy is one of Chen’s collaborators on longing for _ and he mixed and mastered the record. Chen gave Noseworthy, who previously had only mixed and mastered a few EPs as well as his own recordings, the opportunity to develop his audio engineering skills. With the grant money, they helped Noseworthy upgrade his home studio set-up and gave him the time and encouragement to learn.

“Something that I really appreciate about Yang is how fluid, multi-faceted, and sensitively they approach everything they are involved with,” Noseworthy says. “No matter what the situation is, they’re very good at giving people the space to be who they want to be and do what they want to do.”

The process of composing each piece varied with each artist. “It’s hard to talk about this album as a whole because each one of the pieces really exemplifies a very unique relationship that I have with the composer,” Chen explains. “crank/set,” a collaboration with composer Stephanie Orlando, a textured mélange of sounds that includes the whir of bicycle wheels, was a pretty standard commission. Chen asked Orlando to write a piece of music set for five minutes, and she delivered it. 

“Silt,” a piece by flautist and improviser Sara Constant, was, as Chen describes, an entirely unique creative exercise. “Sara is a really dear friend of mine, but she was like, ‘I’m not really a composer.’ I know that she has a background in improvising, so she gave me 15 or 20 little cards with grey watercolour images on them that she had created, and she said, ‘I want you to interpret each one of these cards as a graphic score and record something from that, and we’ll go from there.’ That was the beginning of a process of discovering each other through improvisation.”

The other side to longing for _ is each track’s short film. From conception, Chen wanted to include a visual component to provide multiple levels of engagement. “I don’t want to call them accompaniment because they really are one unit—the video and the audio,” they emphasize. After seeing videos that other contemporary classical artists were releasing, Chen set out to make something different.

“I kept watching these livestreams of concerts that were trying to get as close as possible to a concert-hall experience. For me, it’s nowhere close to sitting in a concert hall with other warm bodies in an acoustic space. I kept watching them because I was supporting my friends, but then [came] away feeling dissatisfied,” Chen says, adding with a laugh, “kind of like when you eat chips, but you really want steak.”

To help facilitate a different approach, Chen turned to friend and filmmaker Serville Poblete. Mirroring the creative process of the music pieces, the videos were rooted in experimentation. Poblete ended up producing three of the videos and producers Christy Kim and Michelle Ngo developed the others. In the dizzying Poblete-directed video for “EUPH0RIC,” a collaboration between Chen and interdisciplinary artist Yaz Lancaster, a dancer moves gracefully among tulle that hangs from the ceiling until finally they stand free under a warm light as the words that Chen speaks at the beginning of the piece still ring in your ears: “I am worth more than my labour.”

“I really felt that in the wider artistic community people were suffering financially and that was something that was driving other factors, like people that I really admire quitting the music field or mental-health stress. So I was like okay, I want to involve more people in this project, and I thought if we’re going to produce all of this digital art, we’re going to do it in a way that’s actually meaningful,” Chen says. 

Given that each track is a collaboration with a different artist, it follows that the pieces on longing for _ are tonally disparate. “All Good Pieces Have Two Things,” a joint effort between Chen and Noseworthy, contains some of the record’s harshest moments, thanks to his outbursts of distorted electric guitar. “til the dam breaks,” on the other hand, is an R&B track that features Chen playing the steel pan and Sarian Sankoh warmly singing an urgent-sounding melody. 

What ties the pieces together, of course, is Chen. Although they admit that any aesthetic cohesiveness of longing for _ was unintentional, when each piece is built with the same foundation of love, friendship, and joy, the end products share an inherent connection.

“I realized in the pandemic that I don’t have to do music as a career,” Chen says. “I could go be a baker, an electrician, or a paramedic—but I didn’t go and do any of those things because at the end of the day, music is what makes me happy. I am driven by happiness, and I hope to cultivate that in others, too.”

Daisy Garland – Open Country

Daisy Garland
Open Country
Strawberry Coffin Records
Vancouver, BC
RIYL: Hank Williams; Lee Hazlewood; Ghost stories

The songs of Open Country roll into one another like a tumbleweed moving across the plains. The 20 country tracks of Daisy Garland (E.S Peters)’s double-album mix outlaw country with psychedelia and surf-rock to make one long strange trip for listeners. It’s an album full of cavernous twangs, hymnic vocals, love, and ghosts. In all of its run-on glory, you will also hear:

There’s forty-five hundred channels of shit on my tv Clem’s Creek she carries with her a bag of yarn the constant state of forward motion PRAISE THE LORD I SAW THE LIGHT it’s a horizontal cross I’ll stay up writing till Christmas passes I’m left to the bottle alone and so blue greener pastures for every light must come to an end.

On the way out of Open Country is the 13+ minute long closing track “Midnight on the Farm.” The full moon is shining on two dancing lovers, except they are not there – it’s just the swirling fog at midnight, and Daisy Garland and accompanying band the Thick Silver  transform the track from a lulling lament into sweaty, fevered chaos. It’s an electrifying conclusion to a thrilling journey. 

– Laura Stanley

Malaika Khadijaa – 18

Malaika Khadijaa
Toronto, ON
RIYL: Daniel Caesar; Cleo Sol; blowing out birthday candles

At the end of “Let Go,” the boldest track from Malaika Khadijaa’s 18, the voice of collaborator Alexander Gallimore emerges from the echoes of a ripping guitar solo and outlines the heart of the EP. Gallimore says:

You ask me big questions
“Why are you leaving?”
“Where will you go?”
“How will you get there?”
But I can’t tell you
I can’t tell you because I don’t know
Isn’t that beautiful?

Khadijaa’s 18 is full of the excitement, fear, curiosity, and beauty that’s coupled with becoming an adult. “Let Go” and opener “Need Me,” an outstanding R&B track that begins with a lone piano before drums and strings kick the song up a notch, are about setting relationships and expectations free. On the former, Khadijaa repeats “gotta let go” like she’s shredding pieces of paper. But within the warm rhythmic currents of “Nyota,” she is her own guiding light, and by the final song, “R4C (afterword),” Khadijaa embraces the uncertainties of the future: “I’m ready for this change.”

Khadijaa has a powerful presence on 18. Her voice is so dynamic that it’s in the EP’s quietest moments when the songs often shine the brightest. “Olive Tree” is a blissful acapella song where her vocal control is on full display, and when she welcomes change on “R4C (afterword),” Khadijaa is accompanied only by a simple guitar melody that allows her words to ring even louder. 

Laura Stanley

Tunic – Exhaling

Artoffact Records
Winnipeg, MB
RIYL: METZ; KEN mode; White Lung

Within the last year or so, I have spent a lot of time reflecting and I have come to recognize how angry I am. Now I am forced to reckon with how to put down all of this anger. Exhaling is the sound of Winnipeg noise punk trio Tunic putting down their anger. In press materials, lead singer and guitarist David Schellenberg notes, “I need that catharsis of screaming about these things over and over again. These are all things that have unfolded in my life and I use Tunic as a coping mechanism.”

Exhaling is a deep breath out, but instead of a quiet flow of air it’s a frenzied expulsion of squealing guitars, pummelled bass and drums, and ragged yelling. The album’s 23 songs come at you fast and are unrelentingly loud and energetic. Just when I thought Exhaling couldn’t become any more chaotic, the closing track “Frontal Lobe” comes teeming in and makes all of the other songs feel like easy listening music. Here Tunic gives one final tug at their tightly knotted emotions, rip themselves free, and find, I can only hope, clarity.

If you are the type of person who drapes themselves in din, Exhaling has everything you are looking for.

Laura Stanley

Thierry Larose – Cantalou

Thierry Larose
Bravo musique
Montréal, QC
RIYL: Gab Bouchard; Joel Plaskett Emergency; the smell of popcorn

On occasion, I will become obsessed with a small detail in a song. Often the delivery of a word or phrase is the cause of my fixation, but when it comes to the self-titled track of Thierry Larose’s debut LP Cantalou, I am obsessed with a noise. It’s a high-pitch whiney sound that arrives a few seconds into the song. I think it’s a squealing guitar coming to life, but it sounds like a balloon when you slowly let the air out. It’s a weird and funny moment, and it’s probably a very annoying noise if it stood alone, but it doesn’t; it acts as the welcoming committee for the rest of the band to arrive and pulverize their instruments to emphasize the word “Cantalou.”

The pleasure that this sonic detail gives me aligns with the delightfulness of Cantalou as a whole. It’s a playful pop-rock record full of drama and unexpected moments. “Chanson pour Bérénice Einberg” is a moody love letter to the main character of the novel L’Avalée des avalés, and the raw energy of “Rachel” and the nostalgia-fueled “Club vidéo” make me long to hear Larose play these songs live and to move in unison with a sweaty crowd. But for now, I will sway in my increasingly worn-out desk chair to the lively guitar melody of “De la perspective d’un vieil homme” and dream of a brighter tomorrow.

– Laura Stanley

Laura Niquay – Waska Matisiwin

Laura Niquay
Waska Matisiwin
Musique nomade
Trois Rivières, Québec
RIYL: Lisa Leblanc; Jeremie Albino; Julian Taylor

There’s a steady energetic hum woven through the grungy folk-rock of Laura Niquay’s Waska Matisiwin. It reminds me of the din of the beginning of the summer in the city orchestrated by ramshackled air conditioners and cicadas: it’s exciting and charged with possibilities. 

Instead of a booming greeting, we wade into the powers of Waska Matisiwin with layers of Niquay’s vibrant and gravelly voice rumbling beneath our feet. Eventually, the rumbling gives way to the thunderous stomps of “Moteskano (Les sentiers de nos ancêtres).” On tracks like the tightly delivered “Kinoce Ickwecic (Petite fille Kinoce),” the stormy “Icpimik (Le sommet, vers le haut),” and the reggae-influenced “Nicim (Mon petit frère)” featuring Shauit, the moods differ but the hum remains. 

Across Waska Matisiwin, Niquay—who sings in Atikamekw—meditates on family, love, loss, and nature. There is grief present on the record, but there’s also hope and so much strength. On “Aski (Terre),” Niquay is revitalized by the four elements, and the relief that she feels, like all of the emotions she expresses on the album, transcends language. As does the vitality of Waska Matisiwin.

– Laura Stanley