Demystifying Sound Healing: Alysha Brilla on her album Circle


By: Tia Julien | Art by: Michael Rancic

When I first listened to Alysha Brilla‘s latest album Circle all the way through, the concept of balm immediately came to mind. There’s a softness to the instrumental tones and mantra-like lyrics that act like a salve for thick skin, renewing what’s been weathered by hostile climates. In a phone interview with Brilla, we discuss the concept of sound healing and its place in the making of Circle. Beyond exploring the layers of instrumentation, vocal tone, rhythm, creative intent, collaboration, and production that all affect the listening experience, our conversation addresses Brilla’s desire to create healing music for herself and the broader public that is both accessible and moving.

Brilla is an incredibly thoughtful, self-produced female artist on a mission to promote healing through music. She is internationally active, producing “Overcome” in 2020 with four other international female artists, representing Canada in Midem Artist Accelerator in Cannes, France in 2016, and winning UK Songwriting Contest Co-Writing prize for her song entry “Never Gonna Get Me Back” in 2015. Brilla is a three-time Juno Award nominated composer, writer, multi-instrumentalist, and participating member of Keychange, an international movement advocating for an inclusive and equitable music industry for all genders. Circle is the latest of four full-length albums since 2014, and several EPs and singles since her teenage years. Unique within her rich discography, “[Circle] has been the most rewarding one because I created it with the least amount of thought or concern about its outcome[…]beyond it just coming out and that being the goal,” Brilla says. The stress of the pandemic contributed to a uniquely difficult time for artists who could no longer perform or collaborate, which contributed to the process of introspection and experimentation that went into Circle

Healing was part of the intention behind Circle, “prominently in the mixing process, as well as informing the instruments that were used,” Brilla says. Collaborating with bansuri player Hasheel and veena player Radhika Baskar, she incorporates traditional Indian instruments known for their therapeutic tones. The bansuri is a side-blown flute made of bamboo. Its rich and breathy tone has an enchanting quality that can be heard on “Healing.” Similar to sitar, veena is a traditional zither or lute instrument used in Indian classical music that can be heard interacting with the vocal melody on “Love.” This ancient instrument’s construction and use varies depending on region but is generally known for its use in spiritual music. Using live veena in the mix was among Brilla’s goals as a producer, representing a connection with her ancestral history. “Those instruments naturally live within a sound healing realm,” Brilla reflects, “and so integrating them is how I brought that into the music.”

Circle also involved collaboration with Lavanya Loganathan on violin, Sarah Thawer on tabla and drum kit, Gerima Harvey on djembe, and Sammy Duke on cajon. Brilla says, “the spirit of collaboration for a lot of this record was everyone’s incredible patience, devotion, and investment to making art during what was a very difficult time to make art.” The blending of genres on Circle is part of what makes it so inviting. The rhythmic presence grounds the mix while the softer instruments and vocal embellishments wander through melodies.

Beyond the arrangement of instruments, Circle is rich with frequencies that Brilla attributes to sound healing. “A lot of it was by ear based on what I felt was therapeutic sounding,” Brilla states. “I wanted to feel certain things when I was creating the music and give that feeling to the listener when they receive it.” 

There’s a line that artists often straddle between creating art for the purpose of self-actualization and creating art for an audience. Both angles have value and ultimately only limited scope considering that works of art are living entities. In the case of Circle, Brilla made this album with her sisters, friends, family, musician peers, and young listeners in mind, “people that [she] thought this record would feel like one place they could go to when they need some soothing.” On the other hand, it was her own judgment with the magic of collaboration producing sounds that she determined to be therapeutic for herself. While there is an element of universality in how music can affect the human brain, Brilla expresses that it is “subjective because all kinds of music are healing, [and] it’s so vast and varied for each person.” 

Brilla has an ear for drawing together stylistic influences and balancing a variety of tones and timbres. Reflecting on her production process, Brilla says, “I’m pulling threads from my background and tying them together into a language that I feel will similarly be accessed by people I know.” With a mixed background of Indo-Tanzanian and Canadian heritage, Brilla celebrates the musical influences of her upbringing in the lyrics and aesthetics of her music.

Many of the sounds found on Circle are also similar to those found in a lot of meditation music. After hosting combined yoga and music workshops with fellow Canadian artist Desiree Dawson, Brilla has been experimenting with synthesizers and manipulating vocal and breath sounds to achieve a lullaby-like quality. Drawing attention to the somatic relationships at work in her music, Brilla says, “Although this music might not necessarily put people to sleep[…]all those [sounds] were used with the intention of bringing a soothing energy to the nervous system of the listener.”

Part of what makes projects like Circle so important in the canon of music healing is that it’s a commonplace way for listeners to begin thinking about the role of sound in their own lives. Many of the songs are mellow, with affirmational lyrics, while also being rhythmic and danceable. Brilla shared Circle for free on YouTube in addition to her website with the intention of bypassing financial barriers for listeners. A cynical but legitimate concern is that capitalism is doing its thing by co-opting music healing by institutionalizing, privatizing, and gatekeeping services. Sound baths, guided meditation, and music therapy often come with a high price tag and limited resources. Like a lot of holistic healthcare, such resources only reach a fraction of the people who most need them. For Brilla, the goal with sharing music is to subvert capitalist essentialism and draw attention to the ways humans experience sound healing naturally in our everyday interactions. “It’s something we can all engage with and offer each other in small ways,” Brilla says. “As we talk more about sound healing and music as medicine, we will start to appreciate just how potent those more accessible, smaller interactions are.”

Part of broadening the conversations around sound healing involves partnering with other leaders in the field, including neuroscientist Dr. Kulreet Chaudhary. Brilla partnered with Chaudhary for a workshop on sound healing in 2021 through her online Frequency Portal, where members of an online community could connect through her website to learn about sound healing, songwriting, and music production. As a result, Circle emerges from a point of intersection between the scientific, spiritual, and social approaches to music as medicine. Brilla’s goal is “to cross pollinate with people who do have what the western world would look at as credentials, and then take the findings and the knowledge and again, subvert, reiterate, and strip away the pretense and what could feel intimidating about it, and bring it back to what it is.” 

“What it is” can be interpreted in boundless ways, as we are knowingly or not engaging in forms of sound healing all the time. “Even if we’re not cognitively reacting to the song,” Brilla explains, “our bodies do naturally, whether it’s just lifting a single finger and tapping it or even less visible, the waves of energy and pulsation actually going through our bodies and naturally making ourselves respond to rhythm.” The fact that sound affects us in invisible and inaudible ways really deepens the waters of not only sound healing but more generally our relationship to vibration. A few commonplace examples Brilla provides include “when a mother sings to their child[…]when someone is upset or anxious and another human uses a calming or dulcet tone to reassure them[…]when a cat’s with a human and the cat’s purring.” As a devoted dog person, I’m skeptical of that last one, but the takeaway is that everything that occurs in nature serves a function, and by the nature of life on earth, that function is relational. 

The nuance and generosity Brilla brought to our discussion reminded me of the importance of having these conversations. There is power in making music not only for healing but for accessing joy. “In every iteration of the world when there’s been extremely challenging moments including where we are now,” Brilla reflects, “we always find artists, and humans who use art regardless of whether they call themselves artists or not, who find meaning [in processing life’s challenges].” I believe that the process of interpreting, creating, and sharing meaning is a large part of what makes music healing in the context of everyday life. Music moves with us through life, affecting our senses and taking on different forms and contexts. In celebration, worship, mourning, protest, and entertainment, music is a tool for processing the human experience.

The healing properties of music have long been known, studied, and practiced in many cultural traditions around the world. More recently, neurologists of the colonial western world are joining an international conversation about the psychological and physiological benefits of therapeutic sound practices. Music’s role in medicine is gaining momentum with the development of standardized Music Therapy in Canada, a discipline in which certified music therapists use music to address cognitive, communicative, emotional, musical, physical, social, and spiritual human needs. It is now commonly accepted knowledge that certain frequencies affect the brain in ways that can treat conditions including Alzheimer’s, anxiety, depression, and others. Several studies published in the academic journal Music & Medicine have determined the controlled use of sound to be effective in improving relaxation, comfort, and connection among patients in palliative care as well as healthy individuals in randomized controlled trials. The Healing Forces of Music: History, Theory, and Practice is another great resource for understanding the scientific principles of music and sound healing.

In many ways, this research is catching up with and confirming what Indigenous knowledge systems have known for thousands of years. While the clinical applications of sound healing are incredible, sound and music are also being used to process emotions, soothe stress, and promote relaxation which can improve overall mental health. In my experience, interim healing from the demands of late capitalism is made possible by connecting with body, mind, self, others, and environments, and music prompts those connections. By observing environmental sounds, listening to music, or playing my own music, I’m able to slow down racing thoughts and process the busy world around me. Brilla hopes that by listening to Circle, “you are able to enter the space and the meaning that [she] found during that time.” Circle is a sort of placemaker for feelings and experiences that are phased out of social spaces, for both the artist in the process of making it and in turn for the listener. In this instance and many others, music is a portal to a world where we can express and observe what is naturally occurring. As Brilla recommends, “we should be dancing, crying, laughing, [and feeling] all the human emotions.”

People (plant, animal, human… extraterrestrial) are constantly inputting and outputting sonic information. Without digressing too far into what is and isn’t sound, I’ll suggest that sound is a naturally occurring constant in a precarious world. There is no one way and no right way to tune in. Sound can be received without perception, sensed through touch and sight as much as hearing, and has served a therapeutic role in civilizations long before western medicine caught up. However, as more research is being done to investigate the causal relationships between sound and wellness, scientists, artists, and listeners can all benefit from joining the conversation.

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.”


Archival images of Dur Dur Band, Iftin, Waaberi and Shareero Band on a purple background, with headshots of OBUXUM and Poolblood in the foreground, underlined by two solid black lines.


By: Sun Noor | Art by: Michael Rancic

For the Somali diaspora, exploring our roots through art has become a way to pay homage to our history. As a tight-knit community, connecting with other Somalis and creating chosen family is a natural process—including coming together through music. Unearthing the roots of our musical history has been incredibly affirming, especially when it comes to understanding why we express ourselves in certain ways.

When it comes to anything artistic, the Somali community often overlooks the depth to which our culture inadvertently impacts our vision. Recognizing the rich and influential artistic culture of my Somali heritage during adulthood, yet not having the privilege to fully explore those elements, often leaves me with a hollow feeling and a sense of deprivation.

Like most Somalis who live in the West, my family fled the country in 1991. Somalia was divided into territories by British, Italian, and French colonizers, creating instability within the country. Tensions mounted between the territories during a particularly unstable period from 1967 to 1990, sparking a civil war when dictator Siad Barre, who entered office in 1969, was forced out in 1991.

Along with Somalia’s geography, the war disfigured the country’s artistic landscape, too. Artists were among the primary targets of Barre’s oppressive regime. Not only were the arts an extension of our oral tradition, their proliferation became the ultimate means of decolonization following Somalia’s independence on July 1, 1960. Artists used their voices to revitalize lost history, marking Somalia’s rebirth and the dawn of a golden age of art. 

This crucial era between the early 1970s to mid-1980s captured a lot of pioneering sounds and techniques both within the music and poetry highlighting pre-and post-civil-war Somalia. Poetry (gabay) is the oldest form of communication known to Somalis and was only recited and memorized until the early 1970s, when orthography and transcription was introduced. Though this golden age lasted a little over a decade, it truly captured what Somali culture consisted of. The tragic turn of events contributed to an erasure of an important part of our history, as many artists fled the country while others were forced to destroy their work because it challenged the oppressive regime.

I still remember my mother’s description of pre-war Mogadishu. The country’s largest city sits along the coast of the Indian Ocean and was once characterized by its bright, beautiful beaches, minimalist yet picturesque stone architecture, and serene aura—the complete opposite of how the country has been portrayed post-war.

I also remember my family’s collection of worn-out VHS and cassette tapes filled with movies and live recordings of musical performances. I remember my dad’s briefcase packed with tattered yellow notepads of poetry he wrote, now faded and illegible as the years have passed. A wide range of music played around the house, from the legendary sounds of Ahmed Ismail Hussein Hudeidi’s oud to the iconic Dur-Dur Band’s intricate, rhythmic compositions and infectious grooves.

Like many of my generation, music from the country’s golden age in the 1970s and ’80s was my introduction to Somali music. It fascinated me, leaving a lasting impression. Although I went on to discover music outside of what my parents introduced me to, I often thought about the music that sounded like an amalgamation of funk, disco, and reggae music coming from those grainy, pixelated tapes.

So too have artists like Muxubo Mohamed, a Somali-Canadian DJ and producer based in Toronto who performs as OBUXUM (their first name spelled backwards). Mohamed is the first in their immediate family to pursue music, though after reconnecting with their father a few years ago, Mohamed discovered his involvement with Somalian reggae. “My dad was a huge reggae fan and claims that he used to write music and collaborate with artists such as Augustus Pablo, who is one of my favourite producers.”

Delving further into their family history, Mohamed emerged with their earliest project, the three-part series of instrumental EPs, The Metaphor. “Essentially, what I wanted to do with that was do a lot of work about my roots—where I come from—and share those stories because it’s intrinsic to who I am. It’s what’s going to influence what I do and how I do it.”

For Somali-Canadian indie songwriter Maryam Said, who performs as Poolblood, Somali music was the first music they remember hearing. “My cousins in the U.K. would drive us around to different spots,” Said recalls. “I remember being seven or eight, and we were in the car, and she was playing some Somali music. I think it was probably the early 2000s—very new generation of Somali music.”

Like Mohamed, over the past few years, Said began exploring their family history. “When COVID hit, I feel like everyone kind of got closer to family, or just started to really look inward,” Said says. “I started following lots of these archival accounts like Dhageeyso. There are a lot of archival Instagram pages that were doing a lot of great, honest work for Somali history, and I was just deep-diving into that.”

Archival photo of Mogadishu

With physical media not always standing the test of time, having access to digitized versions of Somali art has enabled us to reconnect with our cultural history despite the deteriorated sound quality. Online databases, Somali media, and beloved social media profiles like Dhageeyso account for most of the knowledge we carry.

Although reminiscing about Somalia’s golden age of art brings back fond memories for younger generations like myself, Mohamed, and Said, it often leaves our elders unsettled. Those who undergo traumatic events often look towards religion for salvation, leading many to believe that music and Islam could not coexist. Those who choose to look to resolve their trauma through religion also tend to forget about their roots. 

“When we think of Somalinimo [being Somali], music is something interesting because it is incredibly influential,” Mohamed explains. “Culturally, you see how music is important, but then it kind of challenges religion. You have people who aren’t for it.”

Hearing my parents’ stories about growing up in Somalia confirmed how conservatism was something that was adopted later on by Somalis who have assimilated to extremist rule in Somalia. These restrictive values greatly impacted our decisions to pursue artistic endeavors—and thus the preservation of music—as we were unsure of the response from our community. 

“Deciding to put yourself out there and make music is a struggle. If you’re a woman or queer on top of that, it’s a bigger struggle. I mean, I’ve never asked for acceptance because I’m not gonna go anywhere that doesn’t celebrate me, but it’s interesting to see the dialogue around it,” They add, “You can be Muslim and still love music and still be a musician and still be Somali. I make this [music] for me and for the other Somalis that are like me.”

Post-colonization, art flourished because it was such a natural extension of self-expression. Poetry proliferated. Folkloric dance troupes emerged and began touring adjacent to the beloved musicians who began experimenting with sound. The most popular genre of music at the time was called qaraami, a style once characterized by a primary instrument such as the oud or Somali drum. Records like the early output of Waaberi, a music, dance, and theatre group boasting over 300 members that was active from the early 1960s to 1990, captured the complex yet minimalist sound. The introduction of soul, jazz, bossa nova, funk, and rock through artists such as Michael Jackson, James Brown, and Bob Marley transformed the genre without diminishing its roots. One group that merged rock and funk was Shareero Band. And then there was Iftin, whose ambient synth-driven sounds were Afrofuturistic.

Women led the post-colonization musical revival. Cultural developments during this period birthed buraanbur, the pairing of epic poetry with drums and interpretive dances, mostly performed by women. This artistic tradition has since become a part of Somali wedding ceremonies, where women gather in a circle, clapping and singing as they take turns dancing in the centre, similar to Soul Train.

Since the nomadic lifestyle meant moving around frequently, singing became a mode of communication and expression. Having theatre troupes consisting of women or bands fronted by women only made sense. Their vocals, strikingly high-pitched and often experimental, tied everything together, and performance became a way to celebrate women. Legendary singers such as Hibo Nuura and Maryam Mursal, who were once part of Waaberi and remained active in music after fleeing Somalia, as well as Saado Ali Warsame, paved the way with their unique voices and inspired an entire generation, including Fadumo Qasim and Sahra Dawo, who would lead Dur-Dur Band.


Using music to convey truths became an underlying tradition of modern Somali music. Farxiyo Fiska’s 2015 song “Wadada Ku Qul Qul” (“Hit the Road”) in particular resonates with Mohamed. “It means a lot to hear a woman not singing a love song, basically saying that men need to take accountability. And the fact that she centres the stage? I’m still living for it!” she gushes.

As pre-war tensions began to build between Barre’s oppressive government and Somali civilians, music took a turn from poetic, introspective love songs to a medium in which prominent musicians could mobilize and uplift their fellow citizens in an earnest manner. Women were integral to the resistance movement and still managed to address ongoing issues amid censorship. The shift can be heard in the catalogues of many influential groups such as the 40-piece Somali/Djiboutian collective 4 Mars. Their later works captured the sentiment of loss, uncertainty, and despair leading up to the war. 

Not only does traditional Somali music resonate with younger Somalians simply given the language, it often inadvertently influences our artistic ideas on a deep level. Listening to how these compositions are structured, the instrumentation and storytelling leave me with a warm feeling. The way that musicians layer different sounds together, creating an elaborate soundscape, is unmatched.

“When Cumar Dhuule [the late Somalian singer dubbed “the king of Somali music”] plays his oud, it’s beautiful. It’s so meditative,” Said says. “Even in some of my music I was writing in my room, I [realized] the strumming patterns kind of sit the same. It feels so comforting.”

Surrounding ourselves with like-minded Somalis who are just as invested and curious about lost artforms became our newfound way of building a strong community. Somali-led archival projects such as Waaberi Phone and Dhageeyso and the stories from our elders that we hold on to provide us with a better understanding about the evolution of Somali music and history through sound and subject matter, highlighting key musical figures and traditions.

While few Somalian artists have broken through the modern mainstream, musicians such as Toronto’s K’naan and Ladan Hussein (formerly known as Cold Specks) have galvanized the younger generation by not shying away from drawing on their Somali background in their art. Emerging in the mid-2000s, K’naan (aka Keinan Warsame) in particular continued the tradition of poetic and political Somali music in his mashup of hip-hop, soul, and R&B. While Somali parents found his music to be overly nostalgic, diaspora kids saw him as a source of inspiration and pride as he pointedly described life in Somalia under extremist rule in early songs such as “Soobax.”

For the next generation, taking that initial step of sharing art becomes less daunting around like-minded and supportive people. “I found a lot of my community through Somali Twitter when I started making music,” Said recalls. “I found people who are genuinely looking for community, solidarity, and connection with both identities of being an artist and being Somali.”

Building this newfound community has created spaces that enable us to freely explore our artistic endeavours. “You find your people—and I feel like I found that within the artistic Somali community of playwrights, directors, poets, and other art forms. The people I am around are generally open,” Mohamed notes.

There are many spaces in which Somalis feel a sense of belonging, but when it comes to artistic spaces, making room for ourselves has been a constant challenge. “I feel like for so long, we’ve been invisible, and any representation about Somalia in the West has always been so negative,” Said says. 

Looking at the past and what Somalia’s once-prolific music scene could have become will not undo the circumstances that led to the demise of its golden age. By piecing together our music history, we started the process of continuation. The fact that the Somali diaspora has been creating plenty of meaningful art that connects us only indicates that we are on the right track. 

“There are a lot of people who genuinely enjoy their craft and use their Somalinimo in order to navigate their art, which is great,” Said insists. “It really is sort of a rewrite of our history in a diasporic way. We just literally need to exist and allow ourselves to have that existence.” 

We have already come to terms that dealing with unwarranted backlash or having our art deemed as inaccessible is a constant struggle. We recognize that we cannot allow the art to become diluted in search for widespread acceptance. 

“Never compromise what you’re visualizing,” Mohamed declares. “Bring it to life and make it deep. You’ll find your people along the way.”

Group Chat: Wallgrin; Quinton Barnes

Art by: Galen Milne-Hines | Wallgrin photo by: Mackenzie Walker; Quinton Barnes photo by: Rahel Ellis

Welcome to New Feeling’s Group Chat. In this feature, we invite a panel of writers to give their takes on two songs selected by our editorial team, with the goal of offering a variety of perspectives on each track and discovering common threads of interest, analysis, and interpretation.

In our latest edition, Leslie Ken Chu, Jordan Currie, and Laura Stanley declare their devotion to Vancouver violinist Wallgrin’s avant-chamber pop composition “PseudoReligion.” Meanwhile, Tia Julien, Chu, and Jesse Locke wax animated about the viscerally conflicted and disorienting “Dead” by Hamilton-born singer-rapper Quinton Barnes.

Check out the takes below!

Leslie Ken Chu: Melodic drops of harp pool around salt-lamp synths and Wallgrin’s operatic voice like water in a pristine underground pond. Yet, counter to that tranquil imagery, the Vancouver composer lyrically wades through murky existential waters. “Am I a fool for seeking clarity / When I know that nothing will ever be clear?” they ponder. An electrical storm guitar solo rages, mirroring their inner conflict. Wallgrin’s skepticism that an unequivocal universal truth exists inspires feelings of insignificance. But light always breaks through the surface of even the darkest waters—as long as Wallgrin keeps swimming, they’re bound to reach a revelation and break through their uncertainty.

Jordan Currie: Wallgrin’s “PseudoReligion” is a cosmic, magical melting pot. If the poetry of Florence and the Machine, the whimsical vocals and delicate harps of Joanna Newsom and the rousing 1970s rock guitars of Yves Tumor had a baby, this song would be it. But make no mistake—the Vancouver artist spins all of these eclectic sounds into their own original creation. Confusion, faith, a search for meaning in life—these are all themes explored in the song. “Am I a fool for seeking clarity / When I know that nothing will ever be clear?” Tegan Wahlgren ponders. The track’s simmering build leads to an epic finale that can only be described as utterly mystical, like the image of Venus emerging from the ocean.

Laura Stanley: On “PseudoReligion,” Wallgrin (Tegan Wahlgren) steps up to the pulpit and lets loose. If Elisa Thorn’s twinkling harp is heaven and the face-melting rock opera-like guitar solo from Tristan Paxton is hell, then Wahlgren is caught somewhere in the middle trying to understand their life’s purpose and, as they write on Instagram, “surrender to absurdity.” Wahlgren’s striking avant-garde pop track twists and turns unexpectedly, but the weighty unease at the heart of “PseudoReligion” (and Wahlgren) is a steady conductor and a very relatable touchpoint. Light a prayer candle in preparation for Wallgrin’s second album, Yet Again the Wheel Turns, due out in September.

Leslie Ken Chu: It’s difficult to parse reality from paranoid fiction on “Dead,” the lead single from Quinton Barnes’ upcoming sophomore album, For the Love of Drugs. A harsh, jarring electronica beat undergirds the rapper’s innate swagger, revealing his inner turmoil. One moment, he’s boasting that no one can ever be on his level; the next, he’s crumbling completely: “Got a feeling I deserve something more / ‘Cause ain’t nothing working here at all / I got voices in my head telling me I’m better off dead.” That Barnes swings from flaunting confidence to wrestling with self-doubt in the same verse evinces one sure reality: it’s too easy for our disparaging internal voice to invade our thoughts.

Tia Julien: Quinton Barnes leans into the dark on the first single “Dead” from his upcoming album, For the Love of Drugs. The accompanying music video provides a chilling visual aid to the horror behind the narrative: “I got voices in my head / Telling me I’d be better off dead.” Consistent with his discography, “Dead” is a bold and stylized statement on a socially stigmatized dilemma—the temptation to succumb to your vices: “I’m liable to lose my mind at any time / Stop treating me crazy.” We know Barnes from his previous works, including As a Motherfucker (2021), as a multifaceted artist who isn’t afraid to be truly vulnerable in his songwriting. Laughing in the face of evil on “Dead,” Barnes shows his willingness to work and play with intense emotion through his music.

Jesse Locke: The devil on Quinton Barnes’ shoulder is laughing so loudly that he can’t be ignored. On his new single, “Dead,” intrusive thoughts bubble up to the surface and spill over like an oozing evil that refuses to remain bottled inside him. The young Kitchener-based rapper and producer revealed feelings of vulnerability under the leather-clad exterior of his 2021 debut, As A Motherfucker, but on this song he shines the spotlight directly into the darkness. Like his former Grimalkin Records labelmate Backxwash, Barnes speaks openly about the temptations to obliterate himself either temporarily or permanently, tearing down the stigmas that surround these very human conditions. When he laughs back at the devil, weakness becomes strength.

Group Chat: Ariane Roy; A La Una & Kimmortal

Art by: Laura Stanley | Ariane Roy photo by: Kay Milz; A La Una photo by: Lorenzo Colocado; Kimmortal photo by: Iris Chia

Welcome to New Feeling’s Group Chat. In this feature, we invite a panel of writers to give their takes on two songs selected by our editorial team, with the goal of offering a variety of perspectives of each track and discovering common threads of interest, analysis, and interpretation.

In our latest edition, Kaelen Bell, Megan LaPierre, and David MacIntyre do a triple-take of Ariane Roy’s swaggering piano-driven francophone track “Apprendre encore.” Tom Beedham, Jesse Locke, and Laura Stanley stare down the court at A La Una & Kimmortal’s thunderous anthem “On My Way.”

Check out the takes below!

Kaelen Bell: “Apprendre encore” immediately opened a wormhole to ninth grade, the kind of thing that I’d replay to death on many an early morning bus ride. Whether that’s a good or bad thing—I had pretty solid taste as a tween! Being 14 kinda sucks!—is still up in the air, but what’s certain is Ariane Roy’s refreshing disregard for the ticks of today’s pop music. A bit of ’60s Yé-Yé, a bit of Brill Building bombast, and a healthy dash of winking 2010s blog pop, “Apprendre encore” would be right at home between Grizzly Bear and Purity Ring on a 2011 BIRP! playlist. It’s certainly not anything new, but when “new” can be so uninspired, it’s kinda nice to look back for a couple minutes.

Megan LaPierre: “Encore” is a fun French double-entendre: in addition to “again,” it can translate to “still,” which semi-dramatically changes the song’s titular concept. (I had a great relatable anecdote about going to the dentist and being told I’ve been brushing my teeth wrong.) But “still” makes more sense sonically, since “Apprendre encore” suspends itself in mid-air with a bubble bath of guitar fuzz. Roy’s use of the ’50s doo-wop progression and a steady piano bounce give the song a retro-tinged aesthetic familiarity, like you might be hearing it encore—perhaps it could have played after “Operator” by Shiloh on a MuchMusic VideoFlow of yesteryear.

David MacIntyre: On this tune, the so-called queen of “sad dancing” muses about recognizing her character flaws and admitting she’s a work in progress. “Apprendre encore” (French for “still learning”) is a piano-driven, fairly straightforward indie-pop tune by the Quebec City native. Its sprightly instrumentation complements her higher register, and traces of indie, pop, soul, and jazz—she counts Ella Fitzgerald and Billie Holiday among her influences—can definitely be heard, with a sprinkling of electric guitars in between. This song is pretty standard singer-songwriter fare, but it’s nonetheless a pleasant one that deftly showcases Roy’s talents, and it’ll feel right at home for fans of other francophone artists like Ariane Moffatt, Lydia Képinski, and Hubert Lenoir.

Tom Beedham: Living in the same city as producers Romeo Candido and Lex Junior, I’ve followed their evolution since retroactively happening upon the Santa Guerrilla project they belonged to and tracing their work through DATU. Abandoning that name for its patriarchal connotations (datu means “tribal chieftain”) and starting fresh (the group’s website explains A La Una means “back at one”), it’s exciting to hear the pair return with a track that channels kulintang gongs, distorted beats, and sirens for a sound that could fill blocks in the process, but it’s guest feature Kimmortal who steals the spotlight here. Rapping from a perspective of underestimation, flows like “Imma punch up, up, up / Underrated, underdog / I’m under the radar, above / I’m up and down and all around” roll off their tongue and land like a self-actualizing verbal Konami Code, begging to be contended with and disorienting challengers in the space of one breath.

Jesse Locke: A La Una were formerly known as DATU, a group fusing traditional Filipino instrumentation with modern pop flourishes. They maintain a hint of that sound in the beat for their latest song, “On My Way,” embedding chiming kulintang percussion within thumping drums and wailing sirens. Rapper Kimmortal joins the duo on this aspirational jock jam, entering the pantheon of songs about playing basketball when you’re not very tall (slide over, Skee-Lo and Aaron Carter). They sound ready to dunk on the competition with their first burst of braggadocio: “Small package, but I’m sicker than your average / Spitting fire, I’m inspired by the alchemist.” It’s unclear if the pint-sized MC is shouting out another beatmaker or writing bars about transforming base metals, but either way the result is gold.

Laura Stanley: I first heard “On My Way” because of SHORTY, a short film made for the NBA’s 75th anniversary celebrations and whose trailer aired regularly during Toronto Raptors broadcasts. The pounding tenacity of A La Una and Kimmortal’s track is the teammate of a father-daughter story about a girl who’s driven to make her school’s basketball team (even though she’s shorter than everyone) and motivated by her father and his stories about the best short NBA players of all time. The determination of the film’s story is mirrored in that of “On My Way” which is flooded with focused confidence: “Tell my competition quiet on the set,” Kimmortal raps.  

Whereas I gave up my basketball career in grade 7 when a 5 foot me (I somehow made my school’s team!) saw the height of my competition, the track’s looped siren sound and thunderous energy feel like a sold-out Scotiabank Arena has my back and makes me regret not pushing myself to be a better player. As you persevere through whatever challenges you’re facing, throw on “On My Way” and be reminded that you’ve got this.

Joseph Shabason and André Ethier come out of the kitchen with Fresh Pepper

Joseph Shabason and André Ethier come out of the kitchen with Fresh Pepper

The collaborators compare restaurant industry resumés, and the grind that connects music and service workers

By: Tom Beedham | Photo by: Colin Medley | Art by: Tom Beedham

Rattling off a handful of restaurant gigs he worked on College Street and Queen Street West, André Ethier is filling in a personal map of Toronto’s downtown when he lands on the time he quit a job to tour with the Deadly Snakes and ended up barbacking the original Silver Dollar Room through venue talent booker Dan Burke.

“I was complaining that I didn’t have a job, and Dan was like, ‘Come down to the Silver Dollar.’ That was horrific,” Ethier recalls. Before it was demolished and rebuilt to exact specifications as a sanitized cocktail lounge on the same site, the venue spent the best part of two decades enduring an era of sticky-floored underground guitar music and the occasional onstage brawl—not to mention the notorious after-hours party space downstairs. “My training shift was like, ‘The northwest corner is run by this gang, so don’t go in there; don’t clear any drinks.’ The previous busser had left because he had been given a concussion by some criminals that had picked him up and dropped him on his head on the cement floor.”

As Ethier offers his side of the Silver Dollar Room, Joseph Shabason is having trouble holding back his exasperation. Speaking over the phone from Shabason’s kitchen after lunch at Ossington falafel joint the Haifa Room, the pair is on the line to chat up Fresh Pepper, a band they assembled with peers between pandemic restrictions. The core members are rounded out with Kieran Adams on drums, Thom Gill on keys, and Bram Gielen on bass—familiar names for fans of Shabason’s solo records and work in DIANA; as well as vocalists Robin Dann and Felicity Williams, two more locally in-demand performers perhaps best recognized at the front of Bernice, which also features Gill. 

Like Ethier, Shabason has also put in his time in the service industry, waiting tables and working in kitchens. “I’ve also worked in so many wedding bands,” Shabason says, “[which is also] somewhat service industry—we’d be eating in closets and working with all of the servers.” In fact, Ethier and Shabason report, everyone on Fresh Pepper’s debut self-titled album has spent time supplementing their music careers in restaurants and kitchens.

“They’re very related,” Ethier reiterates. “Two perhaps enjoyed industries in Toronto, but underappreciated for how they grind people down and how difficult it is to grow up [around] and within those industries.”

Fresh Pepper provides a summit for service and music workers alike, toasting their interdependencies and challenging the conditions they bump against with metaphor-rich vignettes. “Dry your eyes Susie Q / An actor’s face at the window when it’s raining,” Ethier sings over a glassy set of keys before an upward saxophone swirl uproots the action and tosses it into glistering dream-like suspension on opening song “New Ways of Chopping Onions.” In the space of two lines, the song calls to mind film, music, and kitchen traditions and trade secrets; the antipsychotic drug Seroquel; even Rutger Hauer’s “tears in rain” monologue from the end of Blade Runner—a bouquet of gestures to some untold obstacles and indignities commonly endured in entertaining. 

On a similar tip, “Seahorse Tranquilizer” features a guest appearance from Destroyer‘s Dan Bejar, stepping in to sing about the meticulous, extravagant lengths restaurateurs will go to provide a comfortable dining experience—”We harvest insane roses,” Bejar sings, Dann and Williams echoing him before Ethier joins in: “Every table gets a rose / Every table gets a candle.” It all gets lost in the busy dining-room chatter that pervades the track, playing off like a floor staff’s collective fantasy. That invisibilized verisimilitude is baked into the Fresh Pepper project.

“It does relate to the pandemic,” Ethier says, though he and Shabason are reluctant to ascribe too much of the album’s influence to its pandemic origins. “Playing live shows and being a band took a hit during the pandemic—[we] more or less couldn’t play shows, and restaurants couldn’t open.”

Writing a record was all they could do to nourish themselves.

“We’d call each other every day and just talk through things in a really nice way, and the rest of the band was very much integral to the record being done, but at the end of the day it was André and I just in the weeds day in and day out—and it felt nice to be there with somebody because it had just been me by myself or with my toddler for so long that to sort of feel like an adult again was doing something meaningful,” Shabason reflects. “Not that raising a child isn’t meaningful, but it’s also fuckin’ monotonous and crazy-making sometimes. And this was just pure joy for me.”

“The time flew,” Ethier adds.

Time figures prominently across the record: screaming into the foreground at the close of “New Ways of Chopping Onions” as an alarm clock telegraphs the opener was all a dream, some ungodly non-billable overtime; closing in with mounting intensity on the jazz noir Davis nod “Walkin'”; sloshing through a lazy river of woozy guitar bends and hungover flotsam and jetsam on “Waiting On”; swirling down the drain after blasting drum skins and assorted percussion implements like so many dishes with hot, vaporous sax fumes on “Dishpit.” On “Prep Cook in the Weeds,” the titular narrator watches flies slowly accumulate on the hands of a kitchen clock—time appearing to slow so much the future erases itself, life disappearing under the weight of agents of decay, the kitchen’s very biochemistry under threat. 

“It’s a horrible thing to be at work,” Ethier says about his lyrics. “The flies have taken the wheel and they’re driving time.”

This could be pretty oppressive imagery, but the band diffuses the atmosphere with a sublime lightness, collectively conveying a kind of zen you could only arrive at through repetition, distance, and mutual support.

“For me, this record was the first time since the start of the pandemic where time kind of dissolved,” Shabason enthuses. “This was maybe the first time we had been allowed to be in a room together in a full year, so I think everyone was really excited, too. It felt joyful and fun and easy and like this kind of collective exhale of just being like, ‘Oh, this is so nice.'”

That’s felt in everything from the loose physicality to the folk wisdoms they elevate to oneiric guiding light. Shabason’s studio consists of one room, so to accommodate Adams’ drums, he and Gill recorded scratch parts on an MS-20 synthesizer and an early 2000s Yamaha MOTIF for the beds but ultimately kept them intact; Ethier’s guitar parts ring out without needing to be resolved. “Congee Around Me” builds itself up into an atmosphere of collective care and nourishment, its characters finding abundance in the elemental simplicity of pantry staples. It’s a dynamic that’s central to the song itself, Dann and Williams supporting Ethier’s vocals while the rest of the band patiently add their parts in brushes and swells.

“I hear it, and it makes me well up,” Shabason says about the song, though he might as well be talking about the album. “It’s everyone working in concert to make this thing that feels so emotional.”

Fresh Pepper‘s self-titled debut is out June 17, 2022 via Telephone Explosion Records.

Group Chat: Hotel Dog; SÜRF

Art by: Michael Rancic | SÜRF photo by: Marcus; Hotel Dog photo provided by the band

Welcome to New Feeling’s Group Chat. In this feature, we invite a panel of writers to give their takes on two songs selected by our editorial team, with the goal of offering a variety of perspectives of each track and discovering common threads of interest, analysis, and interpretation.

To kick off Group Chat, Jordan Currie, Karen K. Tran, and Jesse Locke answer the call to offer their thoughts about the runway-ready “Telephone” by Winnipeg’s Hotel Dog, taken from the band’s bedroom pop collection, the Isolation Inn EP. Meanwhile, Reina Cowan, Sun Noor, and Tom Beedham dive into deceptively deep waters on Toronto rapper/producer SÜRF’s “Bunda,” one of six minute-long riptides from his EP, Project.wav.

Check out the takes below!

Jordan Currie: Hotel Dog’s “Telephone,” from their debut album Isolation Inn, is a jovial blend of bedroom pop, electronic, dance, and house sensibilities. The offbeat track’s lyrics show singer Charlie Baby breaking free of their anxieties and celebrating their authentic “non-binary and hot” self. “I don’t do this for you / Not even if you’re my boo,” they sing. Light and tinny vocals contrast with the meaty bass line and clanging key chords in the background. “Telephone” is the type of song that could easily be played at either a late-night house party or a posh fashion runway show.

Jesse Locke: Hotel Dog’s Charlie Baby has a gently stoned sing-song quality to their voice that immediately disarms. On “Telephone,” they reach out for affection and assurance but never sound stressed out. Riding sputtering synth grooves reminiscent of Chad VanGaalen’s DIY dance music, the non-binary singer explains that it’s all for fun: “I don’t do this for you / Not even if you’re my boo / Not a guy or gal / Just write the songs with my pal.” Like Palberta’s Lily Konigsberg, Hotel Dog makes bedroom pop that could be a bona fide hit, if the world wasn’t so crummy.

Karen K. Tran: “Telephone” is a notable addition to the bedroom pop genre. It has it all: teenage lamentations, hypnotic vocals, and a pretty groovy bass line. Hotel Dog make good use of the tools they have available and possess an attentive ear for adding the right amount of production, without overthinking it.

Hotel Dog reinforce the telephone theme not only with the sample of the “This number is no longer connected” message but also with those ’90s phone keypad tones incorporated into the beat. The key change at the end gives the song an eerie edge reminiscent of a home dial-up internet service connecting.

Tom Beedham: SÜRF was only serving up a self-described appetizer with the November release of his Project.wav collection on Bandcamp, but he’s already weary of the tedium of hip-hop’s eternal self-marketing. Summoning a scratchy violin sample and room-shaking bass to boom and weave through high-pressure systems, on “Bunda,” the artist draws a line in the sand and washes away any notion of talent scarcity, insisting they can turn it on and off like the Human Torch: “I’m so done giving out my handles / I’m like an eternal candle / Johnny Storm in this bitch like flame on.”

Reina Cowan: You don’t often hear this type of instrumentation on hip-hop songs, but it works. The strings and percussion on “Bunda” give this track an international funkiness that refreshingly breaks out of the moody, dark, sing-rap sound that Toronto has become known for. Production-wise, “Bunda” has an demo-esque rawness to it. On a track with a 1:11 runtime, this style fits perfectly. Lyrically, lines like “Only ever here to raise the bar higher / Turn up, make the girls go, ‘Ahh yeah’ / Sauce like this is hard to come by, eh” feel like a good dose of solid (if a little simple) hip-hop bravado. There are some cleverly placed comic book, video game, and film references on this track and throughout SÜRF’s whole Project.wav record. See if you can catch ’em all. The punchy energy on “Bunda” makes it a strong introduction to SÜRF’s catalogue, making me want to hear more from this intriguing new artist.

Sun Noor: Fusing new sounds with the old and being open to new approaches during the creative process enables the creation of timeless music. SÜRF encapsulates that energy through his track “Bunda,” off his eclectic first release, Project.wav. With all six songs amounting to a minute or less, SÜRF redefines what an artist’s initial release should capture. “Bunda” is undoubtedly one of the stronger tracks off this project, given the beat’s infectious, violin-heavy instrumentation that is reminiscent of Sudanese jazz. SÜRF captures how letting go of a perfectionist mentality allowed him to embark on his newfound musical journey with ease.

Cadence Weapon’s Year of Radical Thinking

Cadence Weapon’s year of radical thinking

By: Tabassum Siddiqui | Photo by: Mat Dunlap

Given the ongoing interminable grind of the COVID-19 pandemic, few of us will likely look back on 2021 as a banner year—but for veteran Canadian rapper Cadence Weapon (aka Rollie Pemberton), the rollercoaster of the past several months included some career-topping moments to balance all the uncertainty facing artists during this strange time.

Winning the Polaris Music Prize after more than 15 years of making music—and two previous Polaris shortlist nods, including in the very first year of the prize in 2006—certainly tops that list, but his critically acclaimed, tough-and-tense fifth album Parallel World wasn’t the only breakthrough after years DIY-ing it within a ruthless industry. Always a wordsmith at heart, the former Edmonton poet laureate (now based in Toronto) drew on his sharp pen for more than just lyrics in 2021, starting a Substack newsletter and working on a book due out this spring that’s part memoir, part deep dive into hip-hop history.

Turns out Parallel World, with its unflinching examination of systemic and societal breakdowns set to moody electronic beats, was only a glimpse into what Pemberton had on his mind last year. In July, he wrote a revealing essay about the financial and artistic fallout from signing a 360 deal with an independent label at 19—a common enough agreement in the record industry, but one few artists talk openly about. The deal, he explained bluntly, allowed the label to profit off not only his music, but every other revenue stream, for years afterwards—an exploitative model that pushed him to the edge of nearly quitting music altogether.

His honesty resonated with musicians, other artists, and fans around the world—and reminded us that Cadence’s secret weapon has always been telling truths, no matter how uncomfortable.

It’s perhaps no surprise his output over the past year landed him on several year-end lists of the best in music in 2021—during a time when we all were trying to wade through the fog, his words and sounds offered much-needed clarity.

As 2021 wound down, New Feeling checked in with Pemberton about landing some big wins in mid-career after playing the long game, how community lies at the heart of what he does, and why coming together might just be the answer to so many of the questions that underpin where we find ourselves today.

Tabassum Siddiqui: You had quite a 2021, with a critically acclaimed album and the big Polaris Prize win—what were some of the highlights of the year for you?

Winning Polaris was the major highlight obviously, but also my first show back at SAT [Société des arts technologiques] in Montréal was a significant moment for me. Signing with Kelp Management was big because I had been doing everything mostly on my own for the past eight years. Getting the vaccine was really emotional for me and my partner. In April, I threw a virtual album release party on Twitch with my fans and that was surprisingly memorable.

TS: The Polaris win in some ways felt very full-circle, given that you were one of the very first nominees of the Prize early on and have been nominated several times over the years—what did it mean to you to win the award, especially now?

CW: It was extremely meaningful to win Polaris at this point in my career. I can’t help but compare the inaugural Polaris in 2006—where it was mostly white indie-rock bands—with this year, where the field was so much more diverse. After Hope in Dirt City was nominated in 2012, I didn’t release an album for six years. I had to rebuild my whole career after my former managers bailed and the label I was on collapsed. I worked tirelessly for years to make it back to this point, so it was incredibly gratifying to win this year.

TS: You mentioned after the win that you hoped to use some of the prize money to organize some voter registration events in the municipal/provincial elections. You’ve been very vocal, and also written about, your thoughts on our political policies and systems in recent years—why has it been important to you as an artist and a person to raise awareness of these issues?

CW: As we’ve seen throughout this pandemic, we’re all more connected than we realize. A world where artists are afforded the space to create is a world where everyone benefits. I started thinking more about the institutional forces behind inequality and gentrification—the deeper reasons for why it’s so hard to live in the city these days. Learning more about civic politics was empowering.

Seeing the power of collective action through the Encampment Support Network, Black Urbanism TO, the George Floyd protests and other initiatives really encouraged me to think about what kind of impact I could make by using my personal platform. These upcoming elections are rare opportunities to show our displeasure with the status quo and make a difference. I want to get to the end of 2022 and be able to say that I did everything I could to help improve life in Toronto and Ontario.

TS: As you know, New Feeling is a new music-journalism initiative centred in community-based values, so we’re keen to get your take on what some of the pressing issues are that we should all be mobilizing around. People can often feel a bit helpless to do anything to help foster change—what are some of the steps they can take?

CW: Canadian music publications need to actively seek out young BIPOC writers. Representation really does matter. I didn’t know what to expect going into this album run, but I was heartened to see so many amazing BIPOC journalists on the other side of the virtual screen. They routinely had the most thoughtful questions out of all of my interviews and I don’t think that’s a coincidence. I also think it’s important to chart your own path as a magazine and not feel obligated to cover what the American publications do. I find that I lose interest when I see Canadian publications trying to keep up with the Americans because they think it makes them look more relevant.

TS: One of the many compelling aspects of Parallel World is the collaborative approach—there are so many fantastic producers contributing, not to mention the few guest spots. Did you have a sense of what sort of production you wanted going into making the record, given that its overall sound is so hard and urgent, or did that sound come about more organically as you went along?

CW: The only songs on the album that were written before the pandemic were “SENNA” and “On Me”—the rest of it was recorded remotely in the summer and fall of 2020. That involved me reaching out to producers and artists around the world, discussing themes with them online and sending files back and forth. The beats I gravitate to are usually hard, minimal and futuristic. These were words I used when I talked to producers about what I was looking for. We would also discuss the overarching concept of the album. There were a couple examples where I would receive fragments of ideas that producers already had but mostly the beats were made specifically for this album.

The thing with me is that I’m always making songs and not always thinking in terms of whether what I’m making will end up on a record. But I’ll notice when songs start to have similar themes and maybe I’ve locked into a particular rhythm, and suddenly I know that it’s Album Time. That happened in a strangely intense way when I made Parallel World. I felt a deep sense of urgency to speak to what was happening in the world.

TS: Your essay on your experience with the music industry and being exploited as an artist went viral—particularly among fellow artists/musicians, who have been dealing with these issues for so long, but many were afraid to speak up. What made you want to write about that topic so frankly, and what did you find interesting about the response?

CW: It’s something that has weighed on me for years. I just woke up one day and decided to write about it—it felt like the right time to speak up. Seeing Britney Spears and her conservatorship drama inspired me a bit. I felt like I had survived what happened, and had gotten to a stable enough place in my career where I could openly speak about it and maybe help other younger artists so they could learn from my mistakes. I also rarely saw artists publicly discussing their contracts. I wanted to demystify that side of things because the secrecy allows the cycle of exploitation to continue.

The response really took me by surprise. I had dozens of artists in my DMs saying that similar things had happened to them with labels. The response was almost totally positive, too. People were really surprised that this kind of thing happens with small indie labels, not just the majors. I think it got folks thinking about the exploitation of musicians in Canada.

TS: Among all the other inequities the pandemic has shone a spotlight on, it’s also revealed many of the issues artists/musicians are facing in terms of everything from the ability to make a living to working conditions—what lessons can the music industry, and individual artists, take from this time?

CW: The number-one thing that needs to change is streaming. The system needs to be overhauled. Personally, I would like to organize a protest where as many Canadian artists as possible remove our music from every platform until things are fairer. The last thing these tech companies want is for us to organize, and I think that’s something I want to remind my fellow musicians of. These corporations are worthless without our labour—we’re stronger together.

TS: After live music was shut down for so long, you played two local Toronto shows right after the Polaris win, went on tour with Fat Tony, and were supposed to play a few shows back in Alberta to round out the year—how was the experience returning to the stage, but also then dealing with restrictions once again?

CW: The July Talk shows in Alberta were postponed because of COVID, which goes to show you how tenuous things are right now. It was amazing to play shows again and share that experience with the people. That’s what I wished for most during the early part of the pandemic, just to be able to play the Parallel World songs for a live audience.

Playing festivals over the summer and the tour with Tony was so cathartic and really fun, but the protocols were exhausting. Touring is hard enough, but it’s just another layer of uncertainty on top of everything else. Now with Omicron, I don’t see how a U.S. tour like the one I just did [this past fall] would even be possible.

The future looks unclear. I had a lot of cool shows planned for February and March [2022], but who knows if they’ll actually happen? It’s really just about carefully monitoring the situation and taking everything one day at a time.

TS: As if you’re not busy enough, you’re also writing a book, due out this year. Can you tell us a bit about your writing process, and what made you decide to take on more of a long-form writing project?

CW: I’ve finished writing the book! It’s called Bedroom Rapper and it comes out with McClelland & Stewart in May 2022. I started working on it in late 2019, but wrote the majority of it during the pandemic. My process involved a lot of getting up early, filling up a pint glass with ice water, and just letting it rip before my typical everyday obligations started knocking on my door. I’d be writing the book in the morning and afternoon and then recording Parallel World at the studio at night.

Writing this book was probably the most difficult thing I’ve ever had to do. It involved a lot of research, going through emails from a decade ago, retracing my steps. It was interesting to take inventory of my entire career at a moment when the whole world felt frozen in time. I’m used to the flow of making a record after doing it for over a decade, but writing a book requires an intense level of sustained focus that’s unlike anything I’ve ever had to do before. I’m excited for people to read it!

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