Earlier this fall, we sent No Joy’s Jasamine White-Gluz a disposable camera with the vague instructions of documenting whatever she felt inspired to. She returned 19 colourful snapshots filled with props, cats, and instruments. Turn on Motherhoodand take a peek into how the musician is passing pandemic life in Montréal.
“As fall was quickly becoming winter, I started documenting my daily “get-outside-while-you-still can” walks through Montréal, always aiming to find locations that I wouldn’t likely encounter another person. That included Montréal construction sites covered in trash and the hills around a man-made pond. The rest are mostly photos of my cats and I at home and some of my attempts at being a musician during lockdown. BYE 2020!”
Like many things in 2020, the Saskatoon music scene is undergoing a transformation. The pandemic has put a halt to many artists’ plans, but there are some who have managed to lean into the isolation, exposing previously unseen and wonderful sides of their craft. The rise of the solo project is strong. Perhaps there’s more time at home to hone your craft, or maybe it’s one final ditch effort to let it all out and leave it all on the table. Either way, there is a lot of musical rebirth and growth happening on the prairies, and Saskatonians are luckier for it. From lo-fi electronic music to bedroom folk and even franco-pop, here are 10 artists doing exciting things in Saskatoon.
Ellen Froese has come to be known as a musical staple and sense of pride in Saskatchewan for her infectious brand of singer-songwriter country-folk music. Whether solo or backed up by her incredibly fun band Hot Toddies, Ellen will always steal the show. With what can surely be presumed to be a side effect of social distancing measures, Froese has recently been experimenting with drum machines and synth tracks that are equally endearing and unexpected.
Gus Davidson, a.k.a. Angus Dickenson, has slowly but surely established himself into the Saskatoon electronic scene over the past year. His recent self-titled debut album released by Pop Quiz Records is beyond its years in feel and composition. Gus’s recent online cassette release event hosted a fantastic bill with some of the best audio and video quality you can expect from a livestream concert.
Emilie Lebel, a.k.a. éemi, has proven herself to be one of Saskatoon’s most innovative and hard working musicians. Her infectious brand of franco-pop is simultaneously raw and polished. The honesty in éemi’s music is so tangible, it transcends beyond the language barrier. Her debut EP Honey was released as a glass jar full of Saskatchewan Kitako Lake honey. I can tell you that receiving it in my mailbox in late March at the beginning of a lockdown was very sweet, indeed.
Dylan Jules Cooper
A multi-instrumentalist who wades into more genres than most Saskatoon musicians, Dylan Cooper’s recent album Summer brings a much needed dose of fun. With a strong mix of soul-burning, R&B infused love songs and fast driving politically driven soul-rap, Summer falls somewhere between Marvin Gaye and M83. A difficult artist to pin down, Cooper’s genre-defying music will impress and surprise anyone previously familiar with his sound.
Originally hailing from Île-à-la-Crosse, Taylar Belanger a.k.a. Sōhka has been establishing herself as one of Saskatchewan’s most exciting R&B/hip-hop artists over the past year. Coming from a spoken word background, Sōhka brings a tremendous sense of strength and wisdom to her writing. Her new music video, “Protector” shines the light even brighter on the already vibrant scene of Indigenous female hip-hop artists in Saskatchewan.
Zann might be one of Saskatoon’s most unassuming artists. Their talent is multilayered, impressive and humbling. Everytime I listen to or watch Zann perform, I think to myself, “Joni Mitchell would love those guitar chords and vocal lines.” Living naturally at the crux of acoustic folk and accessible jazz, Zann makes it all look so easy, akin to watching Elvis Stojko land a quadruple axel in 1991. You know an artist is good at something when they make the execution appear effortless.
Bicycle Daze have been making a unique blend of mellow psychedelic shoegaze for the past couple of years. Word on the street is they have a new self-titled album in works, as a welcome follow-up to their 2018 single, “Upside Down”, slated for release later this year. Bicycle Daze was also behind one of Saskatoon’s coolest music events to happen in 2020: Albertfest, a socially distanced block party music festival.
Taylor Jade’s musical specialty lies in a dark and brooding sense of acoustic sedation. Her most recent release, the single “Lamb to Slaughter,” was recorded on her phone during the middle of lockdown in May 2020. More than once, I’ve found myself listening to this track on repeat. One of her best songs, and remarkably candid.
One of Saskatoon’s most unique artists across all media, respectfulchild has been working recently in the realm of visual arts, but not before releasing a simply amazing video performance which includes them dressed up as a baroque bourgeois white-hair dancing and fanning themself to a remix of “Starships” and Pachelbel’s “Canon in D.”
If you are a musician in Saskatchewan who has experienced any form of success, chances are you are heavily indebted to Kaelen Klypak in some form or another. Kaelen has long been an essential part of the province’s music scene, relentlessly advocating for local artists on behalf of SaskMusic, a non-profit that promotes and develops the artists and music industry of Saskatchewan. He’s recently jumped the fence to the dark side (from advocate to artist) unveiling his electronic project, June Thrasher. Any fans of Daft Punk and Kavinsky will thank themselves for checking it out.
It’s 2017, and I’m sitting on the floor at a noise show at Toronto DIY music and art venue Double Double Land. The night of the fall equinox, the black-painted linoleum is sticky with residual summer heat, and even if you aren’t peeling yourself off the floor with every slight gesture, Alexandra Brandon has you pinned in place. Her electronics generating an abrasive wall of static from the side of the room, the Baltimore-based artist better known as TRNSGNDR/VHS is pacing the sparse, majority white audience and turning the apartment venue into an inverted microscope.
She has questions, and she wants answers: how much can we really call these venues community spaces if the people living in the neighbourhoods they’re located in don’t show up for the parties? How many people spent money in neighbouring businesses before the show? Since our scenes thrive on cultural individualism, and individualism is essential for free-market capitalism, how are our scenes beneficial for the communities that facilitate them as they are being displaced and gentrified by capitalism? Does anybody here have a trust fund?
Brandon’s shows recently became more about creating open forums for scene dialogue than more (relatively) traditional concert performances. After a quick introduction at the top of the set, establishing some safer space rules, and requesting audience members answer using collective pronouns (“we,” “us,” etc.), she says we’re going to talk about this. If people don’t start volunteering to take the mic, she’ll start picking people to speak.
It never comes to that, but they’re questions that simultaneously locate the performance, the audience, and the venue itself in relationship to the neighbourhood they’re occupying while putting a question mark next to the scene’s socio-economic bubble. It strikes me that this is easily the most confrontational gig I can remember attending, and I wonder what that says about this scene that often gestures toward community building. Three years later, I’m still wondering what opportunities we’re missing out on by approaching the informal creative environment we call the underground in centralist, individualist terms. Can we really keep talking about DIY and independent music if we truly wish to further the goals that initially attracted us to it?
It’s a bit of a colloquial trip how commonly DIY and independent music are spoken of in the same breath as – and often in conjunction with – community, espousing virtues like accessibility, inclusivity, equity, collaboration, resource sharing. Underground music culture has often – perhaps always – benefitted from inter-scene care and intervention, even since DIY and indie rock became vogue parlance in the 1980s and 1990s. So it’s even stranger how rarely this tenuous relationship goes under a critical lens.
From those early days, DIY and indie were purposefully codified as grassroots alternatives to corporate-major label hegemony, artists eschewing the bureaucratically byzantine formal structural elements of the recording industry (A&R, PR, distribution, publishing, tour managers) while leaning on brass tacks resourcefulness. Their activities necessitate a nurturing zone of communal support that ranges from word-of-mouth good will to informal tape and zine swapping networks.
Marathon van warriors like Black Flag and Hüsker Dü relied on the advice of fellow touring bands in their scene, and Vancouver hardcore pioneers D.O.A. played a pivotal role in connecting them with gigs in the Pacific Northwest.
It’s a scene tradition that’s sorely taken for granted about artists operating outside of the major system: budgets for booking research are minimal if existent, so bands and solo artists naturally turn to peers within the networks they’re embedded in.
When Mark Milne, Sandy McIntosh, and Tim Poctocic of Tristan Psionic formed Sonic Unyon as an independent record label based in Hamilton, Ontario in 1993, it was simply a means to release their own music, but soon began promoting other local bands. The basement of their headquarters has often held shows and their business was eventually augmented with a distribution arm that represents over 200 non-majors like Jagjaguwar, Matador, Secretly Canadian, Thrill Jockey, and Warp.
For Godspeed You! Black Emperor and their label homebase Constellation Records (est. 1997), you’ll be hard pressed to find a history of either that fails to mention the continued role Mile End enterprises like La Sala Rosa, Casa del Popolo, the Suoni per il Popolo festival, or the Hotel2Tango studio play in its existence. From 2003 through 2015, Toronto’s Blocks Recording Club provided a utopian outpost for locals operating outside the heteronormative guitar rock world, producing classics like Owen Pallett’s He Poos Clouds next to mini-CDs from anticommercial MC gangs that screamed over iPod “drummers.” It was about as “DIY” as you could imagine, but it thrived on mutual labour, including communal “make-days,” where labelmates came together to hand-assemble packaging for each others’ physical releases. They eventually incorporated as an artist-owned cooperative.
The energy and material flowing through these separately understood undertakings are intricately woven into narrative tapestries of cooperation. They’re not islands, so why do we talk about them like they are?
In function, the DIY/indie monikers seem to serve little more than a fetishization of the individual, their mythos virtually erasing entire networks of support and care. Furthermore, the groups most frequently erased from these ahistorical myths are too often their marginalized support givers, and artists themselves, even when the projects they contribute to are celebrated for their collectivism: the influences of Haitian and Jamaican music are largely overlooked (or written over with placeholders like “exotic”) in narratives surrounding Arcade Fire; Karen Ng has collaborated with Broken Social Scene on numerous occasions but still can’t get a mention in the seemingly endless list of members attached to their bios.
How do we flip that?
As an alternative, Rosina Kazi – one half of grassroots Toronto electronic duo LAL and a member of the artist-activist collective operating Sterling Road community art space Unit 2 – has been offering that we should extend our understanding of DIY to a DIT (Do-It-Together) ethos for years.
“[W]e realized very quickly that we didn’t really do things ourselves. Often it was a group effort, as friends, community members, artists, chosen family, organizers, and activists. It is not really project-based, but rather an ongoing negotiated understanding that we can, and are, building and making things happen together to create a new collective future,” Kazi told Toronto Arts Foundation in a recent interview. “As a group of artists we have been collaborating for over 25 years. Without the support of our community we would not have survived.”
For Kazi, a DIT vision serves a larger intersectional, anti-colonial, anti-capitalist project, placing emphasis on collective contribution and consequences. Unit 2 has informed its programming accordingly with community dinners for QTBIPOC (queer/trans/two-spirit folx who are also Black/Indigenous/people of colour) and friends. They have also played host to Bricks & Glitter, an arts festival celebrating talent, ingenuity, caring, anger, and abundance within the same communities. When the pandemic hit, Unit 2 shifted the focus of their community dinner program to a food-delivering support program for street involved communities.
“We want to dismantle colonial and capitalist ways of moving in the world, and so we must do this together,” Kazi says.
A similarly decentralized notion has informed much of writer Liz Pelly and artist/researcher Mat Dryhurst’s writings on so-called independent music.
Having spent the past five years critically examining the streaming economy as a writer for The Baffler, Pelly has frequently questioned the adequacy of “independence” as it is articulated in relation to cultural production, especially in the context of Spotify’s monopolisation of the streaming landscape.
In a 2018 article comparing Spotify’s branding practices to Uber’s, Pelly warns that (1) there is nothing independent about attaching recorded music to an enormous consumer tech platform, and (2) that companies like Spotify co-opt notions of independence in their branding to instill trust in artists and capitalize on their precarity, meanwhile “bind[ing] these artists more tightly to the industry’s new centre of power.” This twist of irony (3) further allows them to create more bleak conditions for independent music as we have previously understood it.
“You can’t record music once every three to four years and think that’s going to be enough,” said Ek. “The artists today that are making it realize that it’s about creating a continuous engagement with their fans […] It is about putting the work in, about the storytelling around the album, and about keeping a continuous dialogue with your fans.”
The “continuous engagement” Ek is talking about reads a lot like new content all of the time, and for Spotify’s purposes, that spells a workforce of around-the-clock free labour. Arriving months into a pandemic that decimated live music, these comments gave Ek’s suggestions an especially tone deaf flavour, and many offered where he should go.
“Another suggestion might be to look deeply into the darkest corners of existence, accept the inevitability of death as a lifelong companion, and pull notes like tendons from the corpse of false hopes until [the] universe resounds with uncontrived joy,” Charles Spearin tweeted in response to Ek’s comments. It was a bleak and glib reply, but The Happiness Project artist expressionistically articulated a relationship between labour and wellness that Ek sidestepped all too conveniently in his comments.
Increased labour resulting in monetary gain that is so miniscule it cannot even begin to approach the cost of project upkeep often leads to burnout. That’s not a complicated calculus. We might additionally consider that a culture which centres the success of the individual alienates them from their peers, simultaneously overcomplicating their access to wellness while reinforcing precarity.
In a 2019 Guardian op-ed, Mat Dryhurst argued that we should cease romanticizing independence, offering a vision of interdependence in its place.
“We need technical and economic concepts that reflect what working artists have long known to be true: an artist creating challenging work is dependent on resilient international networks of small labels, promoters, publications and production services to facilitate their vision,” Dryhurst wrote. “A vision of interdependence acknowledges that individual freedoms thrive in the presence of resilient networks and institutions.”
For Dryhurst, shifting from a culture of independence to one of interdependence would establish norms around investing in collective organization, allowing artists to pool resources and pursue cooperative-scene wealth initiatives or collectively bargain with corporate brands to invest in infrastructure within their scenes rather than supporting individual artists.
An artist and researcher who teaches at the New York University’s Clive Davis Institute of Recorded Music, the Strelka Institute, and the European Graduate School, Dryhurst has turned the subject into an ongoing conversation with the Interdependence podcast he and his partner/collaborator Holly Herndon record with guests from their studio in Berlin, and frequently lectures on the subject.
In a slide Dryhurst uses to articulate some of the distinctions between understanding non-major-supported music as independent versus interdependent, he juxtaposes an independent music paradigm where “LISTENERS RENT MUSIC FOR PENNIES ON STREAMING PLATFORMS” next to an interdependent music ideal where “LISTENERS PAY ARTISTS DIRECTLY ON BANDCAMP/PATREON/MIXCLOUD/CURRENTS.FM.”
This is not to suggest the Bandcamp, Patreon, Mixcloud and Currents.FM are perfect embodiments of the interdependent music virtue, but that an interdependent music culture would value listener patronage and establish it as a norm. (Also, Canadian streaming royalty rates – some of the worst in the world – might require the former to more accurately read “FRACTIONS OF PENNIES,” but that’s another issue.)
As a culture writer predominantly entrenched in emerging and experimental music, I have to consider how meme-level colloquial placeholders like “DIY” and “independent” can contribute to honest, diligent, and ethical journalism – but of course, there’s an intensely ironic conflict of interest wrapped up in all of this, too: the rise of streaming has coincided with a gutted music media, so how do I continue to employ the use of terms that have been co-opted by brandings that have been responsible for the dismantling of my own field? As Dryhurst suggested in his Guardian op-ed, Spotify “threatens to displace criticism as a source of music discovery. You could be forgiven for wondering if the elimination of the very institutions that lent credibility to the concept of independence is a core design priority.”
But maybe there’s room for change. Utopian as it might seem, the tour-stopping, world-flattening effect of the pandemic has already galvanized musicians and music workers around the world to engage with intersectional activism, banding together to unionize and form cooperatives. After their formation in July, the Union of Musicians and Allied Workers (UMAW) launched a campaign for justice at Spotify at the end of October, demanding the streaming giant “deliver increased royalty payments, transparency in their practices, and to stop fighting artists.” Meanwhile, Bandcamp has adopted a practice of waiving its revenue share for album and merch sales on the first Friday of each month. On Juneteenth, Bandcamp held a fundraiser that ceded 100% of their share of sales to the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, all simultaneously encouraging listener patronage.
A new culture is emerging, so maybe I’ll write about that instead.
HOW LIVING AMONG SCULPTURES AT THE TREE MUSEUM KEEPS THE ARTIST ‘GREEN’
By: Katerina Stamadianos | Photo by: Yves Jarvis
As with most online discoveries, I can’t pinpoint the pathway of taps that brought me to the Tree Museum’s Instagram account. There, I saw a skeleton carved into a pre-Cambrian shield. A mirrored outhouse. A wreck of cars stacked upon themselves, with grass and thin branches grown over and through their windows and tires – all somewhere in Gravenhurst, Ontario. I wanted to go, but I was as motionless as the wreck – not only did I lack the wheels, I wasn’t allowed to rent any, either, given a long-held (and recently squashed) resolve to never get my driver’s license. But my friend Harrison had a car and the legal authority to operate it, and we ended up making the trip in early September.
Hiking through the Tree Museum was a highlight of 2020’s warmer months. Founded by EJ Lightman and Anne O’Callaghan over 20 years ago, the Tree Museum’s open air gallery holds a history of sculptural works by Canadian and international artists, interspersed and integrated within Gravenhurst’s foliage, wildflowers and towering rock formations. The Museum is a year-round home to “projects [that] explore concepts of identity, memory, and territory in respect to nature and natural processes, while underscoring the imbalance that characterizes our current relationship to the environment.” Visitors not only view, but touch, climb next to, and place themselves within these structures.
Close to the end of my visit, I noticed the unmistakable likeness of Yves Jarvis setting up a drum kit in front of Badanna Zack’sMound of Cars,filming what would become the video for “In Every Mountain”, a single from his most recent release, Sundry Rock Song Stock. Jarvis has become a mainstay of the Tree Museum, having lived in the site’s solitary cabin for the last three summers with his partner, musician Romy Lightman. I didn’t expect to see Jarvis there, but he seemed to fit right in as a human embodiment of the space’s off-kilter artworks and their desire to communicate a message.
As with Mound of Cars, Jarvis has wholly integrated the Tree Museum’s natural and manmade landmarks into his visual output. His Instagram is rife with images of the museum’s exhibits, clips of outdoor sessions, and photos of himself looking up at the camera, grounded in the site’s porous earth. Sundry Rock Song Stock is, unsurprisingly, full of nods to the natural world, due in no small part to the Museum’s impact on the artist.
Curious to know more about both the space and his experience within it, I chatted with Yves Jarvis over the phone as he entered Toronto for a couple days in the city.
Katerina Stamadianos: What is the Tree Museum, and what is the Tree Museum to you?
Yves Jarvis: It was founded by EJ Lightman and Anne O’Callaghan in 1998. They were, until recently, having site-specific sculpture events once a year centred around a particular artist or group, and hiking trails to view them. It’s all public and free, open year-round except for when it’s snowing. Up to just three years ago, they were doing that yearly – and [the Tree Museum] is still active, there are more people coming now than there ever was – but they don’t really have shows anymore.
My partner and I did do a show there last year, which was supposed to be its last event, but I think that [the Tree Museum] is being a bit revitalized by the fact that we’ve been spending the last three summers there. It basically maintains itself because it’s so open. I’m glad to hear you came across it on Instagram, because that was an initiative of ours… because it wasn’t on that platform.
KS: It does seem like it used to be this really insular thing, reading a lot of the descriptions of the artworks, a lot of artists almost referencing it as some sort of pilgrimage.
YJ: I think it’s always been like a haven for Ontario artists. International artists have worked there a few times, but for a pretty fundamental group of Ontario artists, it’s been a haven for them to go back to and work with nature.
KS: You came to just spend the summers there…
YJ: I’ve been able to do that because EJ Lightman is my partner’s aunt. Since it’s been inactive the cabin is vacant. I feel like it’s very symbiotic to be there; we’re able to keep stock of things, lightly maintain things, and keep the vitality of it. I’ve got like three albums that I’ve made there, so it’s still very active now.I feel lucky and like the Tree Museum is benefitting from it too.
YJ: There isn’t much documentation of that show in particular, but on my Instagram, I’ve posted a lot of the sessions that I’ve had outside. I’ll bring my own studio outside and record a lot of those sessions, and a lot of those are the bare bones of basically what we did. All we did was set up outside and experiment all day, recording and processing the nature sounds and working with all that.
KS: Are there natural sounds on the record? “Notch” sounds very outdoor to me. Are there outdoor elements that are incorporated across the album?
YJ: In the past, in order to broaden the sonic spectrum, or just open it up, I’ve always been drawn to field recordings. Since I’ve been in Montreal I’ve worked in apartments, so it feels so constrained, and while I’ve always been able to express whatever in that context, it was important to open it up to the reality of sound and add the textural things – the traffic, the birds.
On this record, I didn’t do that, I basically recorded all of it outside. A lot of the sounds from outside I was trying to hide, which is like the opposite – being at the whim of the wind is so disruptive to a recording. The fact that I was in open air influenced the playing a lot, but a lot of those sounds are still present. Like you said, I think the open air worked its way into the production.
KS: I went back and listened to “Notch” and couldn’t even pinpoint where I was getting that impression from, which was cool.
YJ: Yeah, because I was recording outside and playing the sounds back into the open air without the reflection of the walls, the reverb, no room sounds. I was really kind of working with that openness, for lack of a better word, trying to make sounds that fit into the sonic landscape of not being in a dead, controlled studio.
KS: I read this one essay from the first Tree Museum Catalogue – it spoke about how you leave the city and think you’re exposed to silence, but nature is actually quite loud. But I also read this other quote in it by Bill Viola: “Contemporary urban spaces talk to you incessantly… removing all cues from outside, the voices of the inner state become louder, clearer.” Has being at the Tree Museum changed your internal voice at all?
YJ: I started my life in the country but all my foundational experiences were in the city, so I’ve always had a tendency to close off and build walls in order to keep a consistent sense of self. Being removed from the city, it allows me to be more meditative… coming into the city today, I was complaining a lot … the imposition of everybody else, when I’m not used to it, I’m very critical. That ability to get out of the space and get to a place where I’m healthier and I actually love society… in the city I often hate society, but when I’m out there I can see it for what it is, and not be at the whims of it.
A lot of what came out of working in this context is the confrontation of ego and the acknowledgement of being one consciousness with the universe, one with all life. So that’s a really important practice for me out there, being with the trees and really communicating in a way that allows me to feel grounded with all being.
KS: Is “Fact Almighty” about this? “Every reckless view decreed; I depend on you and you on me; from insular growth one will bloom.”
YJ: That definitely hits the nail on the head. And that’s how I work lyrically. I like to have lines picked out, because the song as a whole tries to evoke something that I can’t really articulate. But when you pick out a line, that is really what I was getting across.
KS: Bringing it back to the Tree Museum, which pieces are your favourites?
That line… it’s one of the few times where the line was floating around much before. I must have written “In Every Mountain” five years ago before I ever went to the Tree Museum. It’s one of the few songs where I was like: this is relevant to my life now, this line… that really did come up because of that one universe idea of just feeling like nature is a mirror. And wanting to express that.
KS: You must feel somewhat protective of the space now. Opening up the space, do you ever worry about people engaging incorrectly – people not finding value in the way you do? I can see how that would mirror with your artistic output as well.
YJ: It’s such a common thing for me to see. I feel like a lot of the time, when people bring kids along, you see it go over a lot of people’s heads. It’s a long walk, and there’s not much infrastructure, there’s no shop or anything like that. A lot of people who expect an infrastructure that’s not there are disappointed in that. But a lot of people are obsessed, they come all the time. There’s a good balance to where I don’t think it’s being overlooked by the right people. I think that being so public and being so open of a space, it’s bound to have a bit of both.
KS: I visited at a point in time, and you over a period. Have your ideas surrounding the artworks changed, or have you developed any sort of apathy?
YJ: I’m very adaptable… where I usually would have gone up there in the spring, I was in Montreal because of the pandemic. I was in a room that was so small I couldn’t even stand up straight for four months, and I can make myself comfortable anywhere. But being there, it felt like a bit of both. I don’t really take it for granted because everyday I try to acknowledge it, just actively be with the life there and really appreciate it.
KS: What does that look like for you in a day?
YJ: Well for me, I started taking my shoes off and starting to ground to the earth.
KS: There’s so much great moss!
YJ: Being barefoot in the moss feels amazing. Really, it’s just breathing exercises with the trees and mindfulness. The only way for me to really connect is through music, so that’s my focal point, what I spend most of the day doing. I don’t spend as much time outside as you’d think, unless the studio is outside, I’m kind of over it – I’ve destroyed my back setting up outside every day.
KS: You’re clearly feeding off of the environment. A lot of the literature/descriptions there relate to this idea of reliance and exploitation, and I’m curious how you see it with regards to your life. Do you ever see it as a pernicious relationship? You’re not like… extracting resources from the earth, but sometimes it’s interesting to think a bit more about what you’re really doing.
YJ: This crossed my mind yesterday because the power went out, and I was thinking about the impact of the network of power and having to rely on that so heavily. But in terms of the experience and trying to funnel that experience, it definitely does feel like a kind of extraction, but maybe it’s not depleting. It’s beneficial to both of us in the same way that I would call the relationship symbiotic… I guess it’s a bit more metaphysical, the energy I’m feeding off of.
KS: One of the Tree Museum’s policies is as follows: “Some of the works are permanent and others are of a transitory nature with the elements and nature determining their lifespan. We tread very lightly on the land.” You’ve featured much of the Tree Museum in your visual work, especially Mound of Cars, but you’re transcending that rule. You’re actually rewriting its lifespan in a different way than the average person taking a picture on the phone could, because you just have a way wider reach. So I’m curious about whether you think about that idea of permanence and impermanence.
YJ: That’s very relevant to a conversation I was having today related to this notion of legacy when one is creating a body of work. And this doesn’t just go for me, but obviously, the Tree Museum is being documented in a way that, as long as there isn’t a permanent collapse of society, will be permanent until then. I feel lucky that I have the opportunity to document the space in that way and through those formats because I feel like it hasn’t been really explored by the Tree Museum in particular. And, you shouldn’t have to go there to experience it.
KS: It’s two hours away by car. There’s a huge accessibility issue.
YJ: In the city I feel so restricted by all the red tape. I don’t know if I can shoot anywhere because of private property, etc. I’ve never felt like I had the energy to go down those roads, whereas being at the Tree Museum, any time I get an idea, I am confident to try and get some traction on it. I’m lucky that I can have an outside shot in my mind and I don’t have to go to a park to do it. Documenting it in that way, for photos or just outside of the energy exchange we’re talking about, being able to just document the space for people is important to my time there.
KS: I read in an interview that colour is like a language to you, and obviously Sundry Rock Song Stock is centred on the greenness of it all.
YJ: For me, the natural element of green being so prevalent in nature was an afterthought for me. For me it was a personal thing, and maybe this ties into being mirrored in nature, and that oneness with everything. For me, I feel green, I’ve always felt green, I’ve always said this and identified with it.
This record was supposed to be an exploration of self in a way that my other records have been more situational and more directional, and this was more of a confrontation of self. The green was more initially that. The idea of going back, syphoning energy of being in the open air, feeding off of that and working with that, I feel like it really bookended the project for me really well, because I could really one-to-one directly work on a sound that blends with the elements as much as possible. After the foundational beds were laid down, I was given a good direction of where to go because of this meeting with nature itself. So that pastoral [feeling], the breeze, the smell of grass or flowers, all of that being a beacon to put a lid on this project when it really began as a personal confrontation.
KS: It feels really green to me.
YJ: I’m glad it evokes that.
KS: I read in an interview that nights can be very difficult for you, and they’re difficult for me as well. I’m curious whether the transition from summer to fall impacts you too. Has living at the Tree Museum changed your routine or your feelings at all, or maybe amplified them?
YJ: I feel like I’m almost more negatively affected by it out there. I’ve never been a very social guy, but I had plans every night – I never put myself socially out there like that, but when I lived in Montreal, there were shows every week, almost every day, so I would find myself with people every night and then you get home and just crash. But now, at night, it’s a question of – do I work? If I don’t, I feel restless, and if I don’t, do I entertain myself? There’s just a lot of existential dread in the night, I’m always trying to stay awake in case I get an idea, because that will be the most fulfilling way to end my night, but I’m also trying to relax…
It’s been happening again really recently, now that Sundry Rock Song Stock is out… I want to keep working, but I feel like I deserve to relax, these days I’ve just felt like… more troubled by that. But I do feel rejuvenated by the fall personally. While I say that, it’s a personal sense of invigoration, but I’m met with that same feeling…
KS: I’m curious if the external has influenced your internal environment.
YJ: I’m such a control freak about space, it never gets away from me. Even the fact that I could go outside and roll around and feel like everything is perfect… when I go inside, I’m still very concerned with the cleanliness and the flow, and I’ve always been that way. It’s exhausting to be in such a picturesque environment and still concerned about dust.
KS: Would you be what they call a minimalist?
YJ: No, organized chaos.
KS: I want to get on your level of cleaning.
YJ: No, you don’t. I feel like that’ll be my one regret on my deathbed, how much time I spent fucking cleaning.
KS: I assume you’re there a lot of the time with one person. I’m curious, without asking for any details, if this changed your experience with companionship.
YJ: It didn’t really cross my mind about what that would do to our dynamic and how we relate to the rest of the world, but after doing it for six months at a time over the last three years, it definitely changes the dynamic. A lot of people feel like it’s you and your partner against the world, but it really gets to be that way, and that can be good and straining. I’m getting to a place where I realize how important it is to balance that, outsource some of that energy and not impose it on who you’re living with. We go weeks at a time just seeing each other.
KS: And she’s working on stuff too?
YJ: She’s a musician as well, and she’s a perfumist.
KS: Woah – can I get a Tree Museum fragrance?
YJ: We’re not that big of foragers yet, despite being surrounded by all that mushroom and moss.
KS: What’s next for the Tree Museum? I saw on your Instagram that when things get safer, you want to reclaim the space for BIPOC and financially undervalued artists.
YJ:This was a huge priority for us in taking the reins. Of course, the land itself makes certain elements of the hike inaccessible physically. But in terms of just being welcoming and really encouraging that exposure to everybody… These things are so niche and precious, and a lot of people see something like it and think they don’t belong there. Even me – a lot of people see me and think I don’t belong there. You know. So, having to confront myself and realizing how it may make other people feel left out, it’s important – not that there’s an overwhelmingly active initiative here – it’s important to paint the picture that it’s somewhere people can go.
In early March, a tweet did the rounds: “Just a reminder that when Shakespeare was quarantined because of the plague, he wrote King Lear.” As most posts getting the viral treatment do, people responded with a mix of humor and criticism, highlighting the absurdity of the suggestion that a global pandemic would catalyze their own version of producing a seminal text.
And as with the ‘memeification’ of every idea, debates over productivity have since skyrocketed. Whether straightforward or tongue-in-cheek, the question of what we’re supposed to be doing when the world as we know it drastically changes has remained central to the COVID-19 discourse. Industry and government suggest that we do what we’ve always done, albeit on a smaller, safer scale (that is, if you’re privileged enough to benefit off the labour of those without the opportunity to stay home, or have housing to begin with). Do your job, create, pivot – how inspiring!
This suggestion hasn’t sat right with many – this group tends to appeal to the concept of wellness, individual or collective. The concept of self-care is not novel but has definitely experienced a renaissance among friends, internet acquaintances, and brands alike. Others argue for the imperative of community care, pointing to our failures to prevent – and our roles in exacerbating – disparities across race, class, and gender. These responses centre on economies of affect rather than economies of output, and ask us to take a look inward at our shared experience as humans.
Except it is not always so clear-cut. Wellness is not only a concept or lifestyle but an industry that can capitalize on personal vulnerabilities and traditional, cultural healing practices. Further, it’s not often clear what wellness actually entails for you. Catch-all remedies, suggestions and products are not always sensitive to the personal aspects of hurt and healing, and often minimize the importance of community care.
With the end of 2020 in sight, we’d like to thank everyone for their continued support since our launch in September. This will be our last issue for the next little while – we’ll be taking a step back to build out our practices as a cooperative organization and contemplate how to best achieve our goal of supporting Canadian music communities. You can read more about this decision and our reasoning here.
How do you summarize the music made in a year like 2020? The act of ranking artists or describing a short list of releases as “the best” of any given time period has always been an exclusionary task, and doing so in a time when the world has been completely upended by a global pandemic simply feels impossible. Instead, we’ve decided to celebrate our favourite songs handpicked by seven different New Feeling writers with the intention of being as subjective as possible, while raising up a multitude of voices that you might not hear about anywhere else. This is the music that soothed us during countless moments of anxiety, channelled our anger, and pumped us up when we needed to push back. Read on and press play through an unordered list in reverse alphabetical order followed by our personal top 10s.
Zoon – “Landscapes” (Paper Bag | Hamilton, ON)
Repeating, dazed guitars are the amber holding “Landscapes” together, as if the song were a moment of saccharine stillness that glimmers over and over. Songwriter Daniel Monkman emphasizes the restlessness within that inertia to craft a sense of tension and unease that never quite gets a release, fading out before it ever finds a resolution. (Michael Rancic)
I don’t think a music video has affected me more than Jonah Yano’s “shoes.” Its accompanying single is a collaboration between two generations, with Yano supplying vocals over a recording of his father, Tatsuya Muraoka, playing a Japanese bar in the late ’90s. Soundtracking their reunion after 15 years (footage of which is placed at the end of the video), “shoes” is a tender, hopeful, and generous look into the complexity of a late-blossoming father-son relationship. (Katerina Stamadianos)
WUT – “White Walls” (Self Released | Vancouver, BC)
An eviction crisis always looms over Vancouver’s DIT venues, but the threat felt imminent at the beginning of 2020. A groundswell of crowdfunding campaigns rose up as grassroots artist-run centres struggled to cover the costs of surging property taxes. Among those organizations was the Toast Collective, which WUT bassist/vocalist Tracy Vath helps run. The gummy, deceptively twee “White Walls” sums up anxieties about losing arts spaces to sterile coffee shops. In Low Tide Properties‘ new utopia, community comes at the cost of libraries, food banks, artist centres, and social housing. Fending off real estate vultures is a daily chore, but through song and organizing, WUT are up to the task. (Leslie Ken Chu)
Wares – “Tall Girl” (Mint | Edmonton, AB)
Like all of the songs on Survivor, “Tall Girl” is a beautifully mixed cocktail of instrumentation. Each time I listen, I find myself isolating all of the different instruments and tones, while appreciating how perfectly they work and interact with one another. It’s mixed very well. Cassia Hardy has assembled the perfect band to communicate such a beautifully written song. “Tall Girl” is a gut wrenching gateway to a larger, cohesive album, which is easily her best work yet. (Lenore Maier)
TiKA – “Sideways” (Next Door | Montreal, QC)
“Sideways” opens with glistening chimes and vibrant acoustic guitar chords. But thunderous drums blow through dissonant sirens and sax, threatening to sink the levity like a sonic manifestation of the insecurities that plagued TiKA when she wrote the song. Stemming from a period of confusion and shame over a friendship she felt she ruined, the title refers to feeling lopsided without the other person. “Sideways” is a creative watershed for TiKA and a monument to her life changes: rebuilding her confidence; learning to love herself, including coming out as queer; and relocating from Toronto to Montreal. She initially feared “Sideways” was too emotionally raw, but as her current path shows, if she continues to follow her instincts, she can only find herself in high places and in even higher spirits. (Leslie Ken Chu)
sydanie – “Purple Carousel” (Self Released | Toronto, ON)
“Purple Carousel” is a blink-and-it’s-over drum and bass hit that has not gotten its due respect this year. sydanie twists and turns through a relationship of urgent intimacy, celebrating a love “hyperactive” and “reactive.” But instead of falling into the wormhole typical of a passionate love story, she narrates a course toward self-assuredness: “I’m seeing what you see in me/ Put your lips on my body when I say yes.” Coupled with Casey MQ’s energizing production, “Purple Carousel” deserves to be played loud. And while it may not have gotten the chance to blare out of club speakers yet, it’s time to replicate that feeling from the comfort of your home. (Katerina Stamadianos)
Scott Hardware – “Joy” (Telephone Explosion | Toronto, ON)
“Joy” lifts off in its opening seconds and never stops rocketing skywards. The soaring centerpiece of Scott Hardware’s Engel is propelled by the relentless disco hi-hats of drummer Jonathan Pappo, cresting into peaks of sublime strings and hammered keys from the palette of piano house. Scott’s vocals are filled with both a sense of awe and a pleading desperation, revealing that his arduous search for personal passion is one aimed inwards: “I dig my hands into the dirt/ And my hands to the centre of the earth/ In search of my joy.” (Jesse Locke)
Cedric Noel – “Nighttime (Skin)” (Self Released | Montreal, QC)
Cedric Noel’s “Nighttime (Skin)” is a celebration. As he told Aquarium Drunkard, “It’s a reminder for me that I’m Black and to be proud of that.” Cyclically, a mighty wave of distorted guitar chords carries you to deep waters where you float, blissfully, while your ears ring because of your mode of transportation. In the song’s quiet verses, Noel’s words feel even louder than the preceding instrumentation. Filled with tenderness and gratitude, he meditates on his identity and sings, with awe-inspiring results, “But I am still in love with how I parade my worth around/ The nighttime sinks as I come out/ Skin so black!/ I am proud!” (Laura Stanley)
LXVNDR – “Purple Punk” (Self Released | Charlottetown, PEI)
Fusing a tinny, distorted guitar hook with hypnotic bass and drums, “Purple Punk” is an edgy groover that LXVNDR gracefully, confidently dominates. The lyrics take stock of great personal challenges, using them as an opportunity for growth. LXVNDR cuts through these trials and deceptions with an unyielding focus, at once charming and compelling. (Michael Rancic)
Juniper Bush – “Hindsight” (Transistor | Winnipeg, MB)
“Hindsight” embodies everything I love about so many Manitoba bands: unassuming, instantly classic, and seemingly indifferent to whether or not the world takes notice. Juniper Bush gives the assurance that the torches once held by bands like My Bloody Valentine and Garbage are burning bright in Winnipeg. (Lenore Maier)
Foisy. – “Mémoires II” (Nord Est | Montreal, QC)
On the closing track of Marc-André Foisy’s debut LP, he shakes off the album’s worth of dust that has accumulated. In the nine preceding, shyly delivered songs, Foisy. is haunted by the ghosts of his past. He spends much of his time hiding, watching, and figuring out how to set them free. But the Montreal musician stands up tall on “Mémoires II,” shaking his head and opening the windows. He is not fully free – “Je partirai sans que tu vois/ Je partirai mais je reste ici avec toi,” he admits in the final verse – but something feels different. Foisy’s voice remains soft, but a cacophony of jubilant screams and the winding frenzy of a repetitive piano melody ignite him. The sense of urgency is electric and may inspire you to let go of your own ghosts. (Laura Stanley)
Marie Davidson & L’Œil Nu – “Renegade Breakdown” (Ninja Tune/Bonsound | Montreal, QC)
Marie Davidson introduces a bold about-face on the title track from Renegade Breakdown. While its pumping beats and burbling bass may be familiar to fans of the Montreal musician’s steely electronic productions, she reinvents herself as a theatrical glam-rock chanteuse guided by the guitar pyrotechnics of longtime collaborator Asaël Robitaille. Davidson’s sneering, sloganeering lyrics make it clear how disinterested she is in being pigeonholed into a single sound: “I’ll tell it to your face, once and for all/ My life is anti-strategic.” (Jesse Locke)
Dressing the stage with the distant howls of a pack of wolves, a sampled chant from Zambian singer Angela Nyirenda, and a narcotic hook from Devi McCallion (Black Dresses), hearing Backxwash bound across it all to serve a battle-ready protection spell against colonial snake oil magic is so sweet. “I told my mama that the devil got a place for me,” she raps, but then flips the Christian scripture: “I’m going to hell and then I bet you I’ll be safe for weeks.” Everything’s black and white here, but Backxwash fucks with that binary to underline its persuasive function and the way that’s used to control and subjugate (“my only option is devoting myself in minstrel”). That’s one hell of an exorcism. (Tom Beedham)
Floating in on a lazy river, the title track from Aquakultre’s debut album basks in sun-dappled introspection and starts spiralling: “I haven’t learned to fly,” Lance Sampson sings, “but the damage is done/ I’m trying to provide.” As responsibility dawns on him, the ensemble he’s built around himself – Nick Dourado, Jeremy Costello, Nathan Doucet – starts climbing to glorious heights, kicks off, and drifts back to earth with ecstatic style and grace that cushions its own landing. And then they’re right there ready to do it all over again. Aquakultre is family, and if this is Sampson’s legacy, it’s already a gift. (Tom Beedham)
New Feeling Members’ individual lists:
Laura Stanley The Weather Station – “Robber” John K Samson “Fantasy Baseball at the End of the World” Foisy. – “Mémoires II” Dana Gavanski – “Small Favours” Cedric Noel – “Nighttime (Skin)” Marlaena Moore – “I Miss You” Jennah Barry – “Roller Disco” Thanya Iyer – “Always, Be Together” Kathleen Edwards – “Glenfern” Yves Jarvis – “Victim”
Katerina Stamadianos sydanie – “Purple Carousel” Prince Josh – “The Joy” EX POM – “Allowed Here” Shababson, Krgovich and Harris – “Tuesday Afternoon” Pansy Boys – “Heart Shaped Silver Charm” Jonah Yano – “shoes” Blue Hawaii – “Not my Boss!” Ciel – “Hope Breaks” Yves Jarvis – “Victim”
Michael Rancic cry out – “Your Shame Not Mine” Backxwash – “Into The Void” crisis sigil – “away” Zoon – “Landscapes” Untradition – “40” LXVNDR – “Purple Punk” Ferrari Garden – “Currency” Dijah SB – “Just Be Cool” Aquakultre – “Wife Tonight” (Remix) Thanya Iyer – “Alien”
Lenore Maier Aladean Kheroufi – “Sorry if I Hurt You” Wares – “Tall Girl” Marlaena Moore – “I Miss You” TiKA – “Sideways” Matthew Cardinal – “Mar 12th” The Sadies – “The Most Despicable Man Alive” Hot Garbage – “Easy Believer” Lamb to Slaughter – “Taylor Jade” Juniper Bush – “Hindsight” Witch Prophet -“Musa”
Jesse Locke Aquakultre – “I Doubt It” U.S. Girls – “Four American Dollars” Shababson, Krgovich and Harris – “Friday Afternoon” TiKA – “Sideways” Marie Davidson – “Renegade Breakdown” Backxwash – “Stigmata” Scott Hardware – “Joy” Cindy Lee – “Heavy Metal” No Joy – “Nothing Can Hurt” Teenanger – “Straight To Computer”
Leslie Ken Chu FSHKLL – “Run-Out” Aquakultre – “Legacy” Alpen Glow – “DJ of Your Dreams” Hiroki Tanaka – “Snowdrops” TiKA – “Sideways” Le Couleur – “Silenzio” SBDC – “Every Drunk in the World” WUT – “White Walls” Zoon – “Help Me Understand” Sadé Awele – “Take It Easy”
Tom Beedham Lido Pimienta – “Nada” Backxwash – “Spells” Nap Eyes – “So Tired” Aquakultre – “Legacy” Nyssa – “anybodys” Jessica Moss – “Opened Ending” Jessy Lanza – “Anyone Around” Indweller – “Vessel” E-Saggila – “Cellygrin” Matthew Progress & Joel Eel – “General Motors”
By: Daniel G. Wilson | Photo by: Aphiwat Chuangchoem via Pexels
It always surprises people when I tell them that I don’t smoke weed. I’m a rock musician, Jamaican, Black, and I have a personality that some have said comes off as “high” sometimes. I check all of the boxes, and that provides me with a unique perspective about cannabis culture. Because as much as I don’t partake, I still experience a lot of the stigmatization and assumptions that have arisen out of the prohibition of cannabis, and I still have a reverence for the medicinal and religious ways in which cannabis is used, something that I see is becoming gentrified as the Canadian cannabis industry emerges.
Since legalization, the culture around marijuana or cannabis usage has become co-opted in a fashion that is unfortunately all too familiar to marginalized communities. As with various forms of “ethnic” or generally non-European cuisine, hairstyles, fashion, and forms of speech, the industry that has formed around the consumption of marijuana and related-products strips it from its original religious and medicinal contexts, a process that is driven by the very same groups who once persecuted its use.
Long gone are the days of films like Reefer Madness where the plant was presented as a type of boogeyman that threatened the stability of a polite and predominantly white society or the days when classic rock acts such as the Band or Jimi Hendrix would get arrested at airports for possession. Cannabis has been growing steadily in popular acceptance and now is treated as an almost miracle plant. In a recent moment of weakness, rocker Bif Naked went so far as to make wildly untrue claims that the CBD products she markets through her company Mona Lisa Healing “help your body defend against COVID-19 Coronavirus.”
This shift in the public perception of weed is ever more apparent here in Canada as the plant has been legal, with various caveats and some restrictions since 2018, when we became the second country in the world to fully legalize recreational use of it. Unfortunately, this acceptance does not always appear to respect or properly acknowledge the roots of that culture, the work put in by BIPOC activists to push for the decriminalisation of the plant as well as the expunging of records for those still incarcerated on cannabis-related drug charges, or even involve these communities in the development of these new products.
It is not hard to find a lifestyle publication, a social media influencer, or major corporation cashing in on cannabis culture in some shape or form. This commodification is often at the expense of the BIPOC folks who not only birthed cannabis culture but who were also demonized for it by the legal system. The modern image of the highbrow weed dispensary or marijuana paraphernalia company that celebrities lend their names to or promote on social media stands in large contrast to the old image of marijuana as an illegal substance that was associated with only the lowliest of people in society.
Despite this disconnect between the industry and culture, the cannabis industry has a purposeful and unspoken reliance upon music as a way to feign cultural legitimacy. Before legalization had even been finalized, companies like Aurora were sponsoring music festivals and events, though The Cannabis Act quickly put an end to that. Then, unable to outright endorse products thanks to the same legislation, musicians like The Tragically Hip and Drake began partnering with companies like Up and Canopy. The Hip’s strains were intended to be medical in use, though that partnership ended when parent company Newstrike was sold to HEXO. Drake’s More Life Growth Co. was to be centred around “wellness” but now that partnership is also up in the air with Canopy’s CEO David Klein telling BNNBloomberg in August that “when I looked at the IP that Canopy has on its plate, I will admit that More Life was pretty far down the list of things to get to.”
Drake’s brand being a low priority doesn’t come as a shock in an industry where the largest companies like Canopy Growth, Cronos Group, Aurora, Tilray and HEXO are all owned and operated by predominantly white executives and management. The makeup of these boards offers a glaring dissonance from the people who are still currently incarcerated for possession, trafficking and production charges, which in 2017, made up some 53% of all drug-related arrests in the country. Though companies like Aurora and HEXO have put money toward programs for cannabis amnesty, the expunging of criminal records is not enough if the laws are still unfairly stacked against particular groups.
While many people and organizations over the decades have worked to both decriminalize marijuana and to remove its negative connotations, it seems the most startling difference between the image of the cannabis user in the public mind today is the shift from its association with often poor Black and brown people to more economically privileged white people while also becoming more socially acceptable. In contrast to the more corporatized partnerships, many in the music community work at a grassroots level to foster acceptance of the plant that’s inclusive of and acknowledges the deeper history of its use. In the Greater Toronto area cannabis paraphernalia store Culture Rising was started by punk musicians in 2006. Others such as Damian Abrham of Fucked Up and Witch Prophet have acted as advocates of sorts for cannabis’ destigmatization by describing the positive experiences they have had with the plant.
Though the use of cannabis for health and “wellness” reasons may appear to be a modern trend, the use of the plant for medicinal and recreational purposes has an old and complicated history. Different cultures throughout the world use marijuana and related plants for a variety of practical, medicinal, and spiritual purposes and have for thousands of years. In ancient China, the plant was used for its anesthetic qualities while the related hemp plant was often used as raw material for every item such as clothing or rope throughout in numerous countries such as in the Americas. In Jamaica, marijuana, also known as “ganja,” has been used as a type of medicine for everything from stomach aches to the common cold since the plant was introduced to the island in the 1800s by East Indian labourers. Many adherents of the Rastafarian faith would also recreationally smoke marijuana as part of their religious practice. This would extend into musical expressions as one of the biggest links between cannabis culture and music is reggae. Reggae as a musical genre has its origins in the integration of Rastafarian philosophy and musical elements such as Nyahbinghi drumming with other forms of Jamaican music such as ska and rocksteady. Some of the most prominent reggae artists around the world have been adherents of the Rastafarian faith or have been directly influenced by its ideals.
Who is benefiting and who is punished through this industry today belongs to a long history of the way in which settlers have shaped and defined what is or is not acceptable. In the 19th and 20th centuries psychoactive substances that had roots in Indigenous cultures and religions were specifically targeted by governments in both the United States and Canada. A report by the 2002 Senate Special Committee on Illegal Drugs In Canada details that: “the strictest controls were placed on organic substances – the coca bush, the poppy and the cannabis plant – which are often part of the ancestral traditions of the countries where these plants originate, whereas the North’s cultural products, tobacco and alcohol, were ignored and the synthetic substances produced by the North’s pharmaceutical industry were subject to regulation rather than prohibition.” Thus beginning the rise of drug policy as a form of social control, policies that still inform drug policy and legislation today.
For decades in the United States and Canada, cannabis prohibition was used as an excuse to demonize, harass, and incarcerate countless BIPOC individuals. Black, Latinx, and Indigenous peoples have been particularly targeted at higher rates than other groups despite comparable statistical usage. And despite the work of advocates and the acceptance of cannabis culture, numerous individuals remain incarcerated on cannabis related drug offences such as possession. Processes to give people pardons under the new system have been unfortunately slow. In September 2019 only 44 people were noted as having been pardoned for minor possession related charges and in August of 2020 that number increased to 257 with thousands more left waiting in a bureaucratic backlog.
Even with recreational use legalized, the establishing of a formal industry and regulations means there are plenty of ways for Canadians to still get busted for pot, which coupled with the fact the rates of arrest for Black folks is disproportionately higher in this country, the enforcement around these new laws still single out one group while privileging another. This shows that there is much more left to be done in terms of the public discourse around cannabis culture, but it seems to have taken a side-step to the industry itself.
Reggae artists have been some of the most vocal opponents of these injustices and proponents for the decriminalization of the plant globally. Numerous reggae songs were written both about the health and spiritual aspects of the plant as well as in protest of its criminalization during the ’70s by artists such as Peter Tosh in his song “Legalize It” and Inner Circle in their song “Healing of the Nation.” This extended to musical groups in the diaspora as seen in the song “Arrested” by Jamaican-Canadian reggae band Messenjah in 1982. This song’s lyrical content speaks to the context of the unequal ways in which cannabis is policed in Canada and how Black folks in particular are often singled out by these laws and those who enforce them.
The song goes into detail describing an incident where a person is profiled and arrested for possession. The second verse of the song narrates the incident in question with lyrics, “I was a-sitting in the back of a police car, oh yeah,” painting an all too familiar picture to many BIPOC Canadians placed in custody for possession or suspicion of possession. The closing statement in Jamaican Patois, “Don’t u badda babylon, babylon cyan badda u,” (translation in English, “don’t bother the police and the police can’t bother you” ), acts as a haunting message to be mindful of police presence so as to avoid a similar fate. The image of the Black “drug dealer” who would corrupt the youth and destroy the fabric of society still permeates our culture today. Many Black musicians, including myself, have had experiences being mistaken for dealers when moving through white spaces and facing increased scrutiny that our peers would not be subject to.
With very few of the entities profiting from the plant’s growing acceptance acknowledging its history or making space for BIPOC folks in positions of leadership that are more substantive than mascot or corporate spokesperson, it is clear that the cannabis industry has moved away from the plant’s roots in BIPOC religious and medicinal practices. Framing cannabis consumption within the amorphous concept of “wellness” is a part of a campaign to legitimize the drug in a way that obscures and distances the actual medicinal and cultural practices of folks like Rastafarians, and the many Indigenous people who have built entire customs around it, after hundreds of years of demonizing those same practices and forms of knowledge. The cannabis corporations who are profiting from the change in legislation need to put more work into not only engaging with the original communities in which the plant was first used but to advocate for the release of those still incarcerated.
MOSHE FISHER-ROZENBERG CREATES HEALING THROUGH MUSIC
HOW THE ABSOLUTELY FREE DRUMMER’S EVOLVING CREATIVITY LED HIM TO MUSIC THERAPY
By: Leslie Ken Chu | Photo by: Colin Medley
“In terms of the music industry, I definitely have had to rejig my relationship with that whole pursuit of success. I’ve kind of abandoned that.”
Whether drumming with experimental rock trio Absolutely Free, making ambient electronic music as Memory Pearl, DJing, remixing, or dabbling in criticism, Moshe Fisher-Rozenberg’s relationship with music is constantly evolving. “I go a little crazy if I feel that I’m not going forward in certain ways,” he tells me over Zoom. This curiosity and restlessness has led him to his current vocation, music therapy.
Fisher-Rozenberg is in the second and final year of his master’s degree in music therapy at Wilfrid Laurier University. “I’ve been touched by so many people who have had difficulties navigating their mental health,” he says, before adding that he has faced similar obstacles. “Music therapy is not just for addressing mental health,” he points out, “but that was the draw for me… I wanted to deepen that relationship [with music], and music therapy seemed to be a good direction.”
Music therapy can treat an array of cognitive, communicative, and motor symptoms related to dementia, schizophrenia, autism, depression, aphasia, Parkinson’s, and more. Exercises like clapping hands, tapping feet, and singing can improve breathing, heart rate, and blood flow. “It’s pretty all-encompassing,” Fisher-Rozenberg says. “The important thing is it’s not a one-size-fits-all. You have your patient, together you create goals, and then the music therapist will approach the music therapy sessions in a way that is specific for those goals.”
Prior to his studies, Fisher-Rozenberg volunteered for two years at Toronto’s Centre for Addiction and Mental Health. There, he worked with individuals with schizophrenia. “My intention was to help them feel a little bit of control. They’re so powerless in so many ways, so to create an atmosphere where they can feel empowered was really important, and then also to create that sense of community, because it’s a fine line between feeling you’re at a hospital and feeling that you’re maybe being held prisoner.” To achieve this, he led interactive group sessions that mostly involved group drumming, but also individual singing and poetry. “Depending on the approach, a lot of verbal processing can really help to digest some of the things that come up in the music.”
Although he used music therapy techniques in his volunteer work, Fisher-Rozenberg clarifies that his practice was informal. “I was kind of just feeling it out and experimenting, whereas now I’m reading a lot of literature and learning a lot of official approaches.” Without certification, one cannot call their practice music therapy. “They’re not going to get as deep,” he says, “but they can still use songwriting or music listening, for instance, with patients.”
To this point, he notes that we use music therapeutically every day. “Even just going dancing can manipulate your emotions, or it can give you energy.” But what’s the difference between casual conversation and psychotherapy, he asks? “Speaking with a psychotherapist is going to be very different, because it’s going to be guided; there’s going to be clinical goals associated with those conversations. And there’s a potential for things to really deepen and for unconscious material to come to the surface in a way that’s not going to happen necessarily if you’re chatting with a friend over a beer. It might not have that same safety.”
That lack of distinction between formal and informal practice isn’t the only misconception about music therapy. “The whole fuckin’ field is built upon misconceptions,” Fisher-Rozenberg replies without missing a beat when I ask for examples. “Some of the misconceptions that are bothersome would be that music therapy is showing up with a guitar and playing tunes, like entertaining. If you Google music therapy, probably the first thing that comes up is somebody with a big smile on their face playing acoustic guitar to a group of elderly people or a group of children,” he presumes accurately. But he states firmly: “It’s not about entertainment at all. It’s about collaborative and interactive experiences.”
“I do group sessions, and my biggest fear is that I will be expected to be an entertainer. But in those instances, you come up with group goals.” Referring back to his work with individuals with schizophrenia, who can feel particularly isolated in a long-term care facility, he explains his approach: “I’m gonna be trying to create engagement and relationships between them so they can feel a sense of home in an atmosphere where they do not feel that they’re at home… So me just standing in front of them and playing Elvis is not gonna do that. All that’s gonna do is entertain them for five minutes.”
Fisher-Rozenberg also takes exception to the conflation of music therapy and the wellness industry. “A lot of people claim that they can heal you with vibey music. I think maybe they call it sound therapy. But from what I know, that’s a little rogue, because so far in my studies, I haven’t read much about using drone music to heal a person.” He does acknowledge that every person responds differently to music. “The cliché, corny relaxation music is not gonna work for everybody. It may be relaxing for one person, but for another, it can be extremely aggravating,” he says, reiterating his point that one size does not fit all. “For music to actually help a person, it has to be their preferred music. For one person to relax, yeah, okay, maybe [it’s] the sounds of the rainforest and some harp, like you’d hear at a spa. For another person maybe it’s Black Sabbath, which is counter-intuitive.”
Misconceptions exist among music therapists, too. Although he’s relatively new to the field, he’s observed a spectrum of thought. “On the left side is expressive therapies, so that’s your catharsis, like getting out emotions and things like that. And then on the right side is brain stuff, like, what does music actually do to your brain? How do you use music to rehabilitate somebody’s speech? How do you use music to rehabilitate somebody’s fine motor skills? And those two sides don’t seem to get along very well.” Fisher-Rozenberg straddles the middle. “If you’re a therapist, you gotta be able to hold both [views]. That’s the whole beauty of therapy: it allows people to hold two totally disparate thoughts or feelings at the same time and then integrate them. So as therapists, we should be doing that.”
Music therapists work out of various settings. In private practice, patients go to the therapist. Contracted therapists move between facilities, like clinics, hospitals, and group homes. In-house therapists are stationed in one facility. Fisher-Rozenberg is currently limited to Zoom sessions from his home, but in a way, they’ve expanded the possibilities of his practice. “It’s actually good for me because I have a lot of electronic leanings. I like to use lots of electronic music technologies, and I can integrate all of those. I don’t know if you can see behind me” – he points to a collection of consoles in his background – “there’s some big, old synths. I can’t bring those with me, but now I’m able to use them.”
He’s also been using electronic technology to explore his possibilities as a musician. Over the last two years, Fisher-Rozenberg worked on his debut solo album as Memory Pearl,Music for 7 Paintings. Its seven electronic instrumentals cascade between calming, luminous ambience, with sweeping sonic immersions and cosmic journeys built upon percolating, comet-tailed synths. The compositions incite the sort of astral projection that might occur when gazing at the Abstract Expressionist paintings each track is named after. These references include Jackson Pollock (Number 28, 1950), Lee Krasner (Untitled, 1948), Helen Frankenthaler (Natural Answer, 1976; Red and Brown Scene, 1961), Joan Mitchell (Sunflower, 1969), Franz Kline (Cupola, 1958-1960), and Robert Ryman (Untitled #17, 1958).
“It was very personal,” Fisher-Rozenberg says of Music for 7 Paintings. “There’s some music therapy theory that would apply to my process.” He began by observing a painting, then journaling and translating that writing into compositions. “By going from one modality to another to another, a lot of unconscious material surfaced. And that’s one way that people use music therapy: they go from drawing to writing to singing to talking, and jumping between all those different modalities helps them to uncover this top secret unconscious information about themselves that helps them to be a more integrated individual.”
The album’s electronic aesthetic was straightforward, though, derived from music he enjoyed, like Laurie Spiegel, Tim Hecker, Wolfgang Voigt, and obvious minimalist touchstones Brian Eno and Steve Reich. “It’s so basic,” he laughs. “I cannot help but be influenced by the music I love, and especially as this is my first substantial work as a solo artist, I felt I needed to honour and represent this aesthetic that I’ve had brewing for so long… This was like a freedom where I was really trying to honour this vibe that is so important to me, but I’ve never had a project where I could express that aesthetic.”
Fisher-Rozenberg’s work as Memory Pearl echoes what he loves about abstract art. “It allows for interpretation, which is a beautiful thing, because the last thing you want is to listen to a piece of music and to be told exactly how to listen to it, exactly what it means. I think it’s much more important for a viewer or a listener to be able to insert themselves and insert their own history into a work.”
However music is experienced or applied, Fisher-Rozenberg marvels at its mystical power to evoke memories and emotions. “If you’re sad and you’re listening to sad music, that’s because the music is validating your feelings… But then on the flip side, we use music all the time to manipulate our feelings: maybe I’m feeling sad, but I don’t want to feel sad, so I’ll put on some kind of sunshine record.” Moreover, music can provide a safe distance from one’s own trauma, a baby step towards being able to confront that trauma. “If I have trauma in my life, maybe I’m not quite ready to confront that trauma. But if I hear something similar in a song, I can just talk about the song. I don’t have to talk about myself.”
Though we’ve all been using music in these ways our whole lives, “It’s a little chaotic, and we can’t quite put the words to it,” Fisher-Rozenberg says. “We don’t even think about this stuff. We just do it because intuitively, it feels safe, and it feels right.” Music therapy, he summarizes, is “making a science of it and then using those tools to help people reach [rehabilitation] goals in an organized way.”
If we all take a moment to think about how we use and experience music every day – how safe and right it makes us feel – then like Fisher-Rozenberg, our relationship with this mystical force will deepen, too.
HOW SHE FOUND COMFORT THROUGH MOZART ON REQUIEM AETERNAM
By Leslie Ken Chu | Photo by Taylor Geddes
If you’re a fan of experimental music in Vancouver, you’ve likely seen Anju Singh perform in one of her numerous musical projects or been to an event she’s organized. One of those projects, powerhouse death metal quartet AHNA, are self-proclaimed worshippers of death. In her solo work as the Nausea, she confronts mortality from a place of not only fascination but also fear.
As a teen in Toronto, Singh began organizing her own shows because no one would book her bands. She admits those bands were young and terrible, and thus opportunities were scarce. “Ever since I’ve been really young, I haven’t really waited for people to give me a chance. I just start doing things. I wanted to play a show, and I put on a show.”
She carried that determined spirit with her when she moved to Vancouver in the early 2000s. Since then, Singh has organized a lot more shows with a lot more success. In 2011, she resurrected Shitstorm Vancouver Noisefest as Vancouver Noise Fest, to facilitate experimentation that places a high focus on texture and volume. She’s given rise to A Night of Death and Doom, the banner under which she promotes death metal shows. And along with Bill Batt and Jeremy van Wyck, she curated Fake Jazz, a night of experimental music that occurred weekly, then later monthly, depending on which of the decade-and-a-half-old series’ various iterations was active at the time. (Due to other commitments, Singh has not been involved in Fake Jazz’s latest revival in 2018, though she gave her blessings for it to continue without her.)
There is no doubt that these shows shaped young minds, but Singh’s formative musical experiences came from sneaking downstairs after her bedtime as a teenager and seeing bands on TV. She remembers seeing Black Sabbath, GWAR, Venom, Kreator, Megadeth, and Corrosion of Conformity on Beavis and Butt-Head and MuchMusic’s hard rock and heavy metal show The Pepsi Power Hour, which was later shortened to The Power 30. She wasn’t a fan of GWAR’s music, but appreciated how outlandish their music and costumes were. And she was drawn to Ozzy Osbourne because he was like a cartoon character. “I’d look at his record covers, and I’d go, ‘Oh my god, it’s a monster! This is so cool!’”
GWAR and Ozzy in particular served as jumping-off points for her: she wanted to create something similarly far out but less cartoonish. “Even when I was younger, I wanted to play serious music. I’ve always loved classical music.” She worshipped B.B. King and jazz greats including Miles Davis and John Coltrane. And the thing she loved most about Ozzy, she clarifies, was his classically trained guitarist Randy Rhoads. Despite her gravitation towards the experimental, challenging, and loud, she describes her position in music firmly: “I always correct people whenever they decide they want to call me a metal musician or noise artist or this or that. I am a musician first. It doesn’t matter what I’m doing. I come from a musician perspective.”
Although trailblazers like B.B. King, Miles Davis, and John Coltrane set Singh on an exploratory path, she has set boundaries. “I realized what I didn’t like was being weird for weird’s sake, being good at guitar for the sake of being good at guitar, being experimental for the sake of experimentation […] I want to create things that are good experiences and/or musical.” Striking that balance has been a struggle throughout her artistic practice, but when in doubt, she always returns to the central question: “What is the goal?”
One of her goals is to strip classical instruments of their cultural cachet. She’s perhaps best known as a drummer, in AHNA and other death metal bands including Ceremonial Bloodbath, and Grave Infestation, but she began playing violin at least a decade before she picked up a pair of sticks. Unable to devote enough time to it, she plateaued. “Other than fiddling, like in the culture of bluegrass or Celtic music, the idea of having your own way of playing [any given instrument] is accepted,” she observes. “But the violin, typically, people expect you to have a certain level of skill in order to play it, whereas the guitar or drums, you can have very little skill and play and have fun.”
Frustrated by that double standard, she formed the band i/i in the late 2000s, to dismantle assumptions about what instruments musicians can engage with and how. The four-piece, which also featured drums, guitar, and bass, served as an outlet for her to explore the darker, rawer possibilities of the violin through pedal distortion and delay. “The reason that I really wanted to do that band was I wanted the violin to be able to have the life that a guitar would. It was beautiful sometimes, and other times it wasn’t.” Citing one of her favourite composers, she points out an approach that inspired her. “Mozart wanted to write for everybody, and when you write for everybody, you’re also telling everybody that they can write […] I didn’t want to have these particular instruments behind a piece of glass. I wanted to break that glass.”
Singh has done plenty of schooling. On top of a philosophy degree, her background includes art history – “I had to learn the Bible to understand paintings” – contemporary music, performance, music theory, and electroacoustic music. She’s also taken several Latin classes. “I went really far with it, and I was like, ‘Why the hell am I studying Latin?’” she says with a laugh. “It was so ridiculous. I just loved the class and so I kept going. And then one day I was like, ‘This makes no sense.’”
However, it ended up being more useful than she could have expected. Singh’s love of Latin was one of three key influences behind her album Requiem Aeternam, which she released as the Nausea via Montréal label Absurd Exposition in 2017. Across six tracks, she uses her violin to explore medieval Roman Catholic funeral music. The phrase “requiem aeternam” is a prayer used to hasten departed souls’ ascension to Heaven.
Another influence was Singh’s long standing fascination with death, specifically how we engage with it. “I’ve always been super interested in the concept of death. Ever since I was really, really young, I was afraid of death.” Her curiosity is partially rooted in her experiences at funerals as a child. “I didn’t know what to do. I didn’t want to cry. And I didn’t understand why I didn’t want to cry […] I was always really confused. And I think I still have that. I’m not entirely sure what is supposed to happen at a funeral.”
She was particularly concerned about laughing at funerals, even out of nervousness or awkwardness. “As a kid, I was really badly behaved. I was so afraid of laughing at a funeral.” As she says, they are a weird experience of being forced and trapped into ideas of how to celebrate someone’s life. “So what I really liked about requiems is they start to open up the subject […] [T]here are rules around requiems, and so I can start to work with death in that context.”
The most important influence was Singh’s grandmother. The two shared a very close, special bond: She grew up with her grandmother in the same house and was basically raised by her when Singh’s parents were at work. She wrote Requiem Aeternam while her grandmother was on her death bed with a lung infection. For two to three weeks, Singh spent every possible moment in the hospital until her grandmother died.
During that period, Singh was also listening to one of her favourite pieces of music, Mozart’s “Dies Irae.” The composition was based on a 13th century Latin hymn of the same name, originally sung as a Gregorian chant during requiems. Its title, “The Day of Wrath,” refers to the day Catholics believe God judges the living and the dead and decides whether they go to Heaven or Hell. Interpretations of the musical sequence have since appeared in an ever-expanding list of popular films including Star Wars, The Lion King, The Shining, Lord of the Rings, It’s a Wonderful Life, and even Groundhog Day. The titles of Requiem Aeternam’s songs “Nil Inultum Remanebit” (“Nothing Will Remain Unpunished”) and “Per Sepulchra” (“Through the Sepulchres”) are phrases from the hymn.
Singh’s spin on “Dies Irae” was purely based on mood, because her favourite aspect of Mozart’s composition was that he, too, played with the requiem’s mood; unlike standard interpretations, his was vivacious and playful. “I was really confused by that, but that was the confusion that felt familiar since I was a child, whenever it had to do with funerals or someone’s sick or someone’s dying.” She tried to bring some of Mozart’s playfulness into her interpretation, but she ended up in a wholly ashen, doom-laden place. Regardless of how her version ended up, though, listening to “Dies Irae” during her family’s difficult time brought her comfort. “I really felt like I could make sense of what was happening to her and what was happening everywhere.”
Requiem Aeternam is a bit of a cultural mash-up between Roman Catholicism and Sikhism, Singh explains. “In the Sikh temple, you say ‘God,’ ‘Lord,’ over and over again.” Her grandmother did so in praying for mercy. That’s why the album track “Elaison” (“Have Mercy”) has a reprise. “She would do this several times in a day, so I felt it was appropriate for it to come up twice, but to be different because she didn’t chant in the same way all the time.” The piece emphasizes repetition and drone, because religious music is often very droning. “In the temple, it all feels like a giant drone.”
Without knowing any Latin, one can likely guess “De Morte Transire” connotes transition, passage, crossing over. “The idea of being stuck in a state of death is really horrifying to me, not passing into something else, not going anywhere else, not being released from it. I’m a little bit claustrophobic, and the idea of being trapped in a state of death is really scary to me. So that piece was written to tell her to move from death, to whatever, I don’t know.”
A moment of passage comes two thirds of the way into the song, when a storm of static and pummeling distortion swallow her lamenting violin. “‘De Morte Transire’ is probably the most difficult piece for me to listen to because it was the main piece that I was speaking to my grandmother through.”
No one knows what comes after death, or even what happens the moment we pass. But like Anju Singh, maybe we can all learn to accept death or navigate its rituals with less fear and confusion.