Don’t call it a comeback. In 2010, Bonjay released their first EP Broughtupsy, a genre-defying blend of dancehall, soul and electro-pop. It stood out at the time for its statement-making sound, which seemed to sum up a moment in time in Toronto. Though it’s taken years for their new album Lush Life to take shape, Alanna Stuart and Ian “Pho” Swain say their commitment to making music has never wavered. As Stuart puts it: “A break usually implies rest, but we were working.” In the years since their last release, she and Swain entered what the vocalist calls “a self-imposed creative boot camp.”
That’s where they listened to various artists (including Talking Heads, Feist and Beenie Man), sharpened their skills and ultimately learned how to craft something that truly sounded new. “You can have all these influences,” says Stuart. “But we still had the goal of creating something that was uniquely us.” Not only were they aiming to record something that sounded unlike anything else, but to share lesser-known stories about city life.
“I’ll take the idea of writing about the night bus, and distill it down,” says Stuart. “Who are the kinds of people who sit on this bus at 4 a.m.? It’s not just the drunken party kids trying to get home. It’s also the service workers who just finished their late-night shift. What does that feel like? What does that sound like?” Ultimately, the Toronto-based artists are fascinated by the challenges of living in a city, and the people who come together to help them flourish. Just like those who discover themselves and find their community amid skyscraper-lined streets, Swain says one of the reasons why he makes music is to bring people together, and create “an identity that everyone can be part of.”
Shortly before they dropped their full-length debut, Lush Life (and before the album landed on the longlist for Canada’s prestigious Polaris Prize) , Bonjay joined us for a conversation about all of the work that’s led to their anticipated return. We got inside the minds of this duo for a crash course in how to make an album that combines broad themes with intimate stories of what they call the “vivid everyday.”
A. Side: You’ve said you spent the last few years in creative boot camp. What does that entail?
Alanna Stuart: We were all over the place, absorbing, stretching, learning and making mistakes. Ian was studying Minnie Riperton and Chilly Gonzales arrangements. I went back to voice lessons. I wanted to expand my range and strengthen that muscle memory. I went to Montreal to learn dance and movement with choreographer Dana Michel. After all that, you need some time to let all these ideas percolate. We had to distill all those down into Bonjay, so that took some time. It was fun.
How does it feel to come through the other side of that?
Ian “Pho” Swain: It’s great. It really is the process of creating something original and new. If you want to make a record that sounds like dancehall-meets-St. Vincent or Kate Bush – how do you create that? There’s not really a standard for it to be judged by.
AS: There’s no template to follow.
IS: So, it’s kind of beautiful to finish and share it with the world. All it takes is the first few people who are moved by it, or can see themselves in it for it all to feel worth it.
When there’s no template, how do you know when the album is complete?
AS: We surround ourselves with people who are really honest. [They’re] people who we trust, who know us well and aren’t concerned with niceties. But that was also part of the training, finding new sources of information to trust, to inform your gut reaction. Your instinct isn’t just a fleeting moment … It’s based on all the things you’ve absorbed.
IS: It’s true that you exist among other people and we could not have done it without them. But I do feel like if you’re trying to make something that does not sound like anything else – I think about scientists, entrepreneurs or anyone who’s trying to do something that’s different and not just riffing on something else – it ultimately comes down to one or two people in a room, having crises of confidence, talking through it.
If you are coming here to be an artist and the rent is jumping up, what does it feel like to believe in this creative vision that you feel could touch people, if only you could reach them?
Has the way you two work together evolved or changed over the years?
IS: I think it started out more conventional, like I would make the beats and Alanna would sing on top of them. It became a lot more collaborative. I’m probably the lead on writing the music and Alanna is lead on the song and vocals and so on, but we dip in to one another’s stuff now.
AS: There are things that have stayed the same, which are the differences between us. Ian is more intentional with his production. When we are songwriting, he’s the one who tends to come up with the universal themes. Whereas I will produce based on gut reaction or vibes, which I think is my Jamaican-ness coming through. When I’m telling stories, I want to convey a moment. I think that those differences will always remain, where Ian’s more intentional and I’m more intuitive, but they complement each other.
How do you think the album reflects Toronto?
IS: Outside the studio, I work as an economist who studies cities. I think that one of the great challenges of the 21st century is building these cities. We’re trying to make them places of opportunity, and places where everyone feels like they can belong. If you look back over thousands of years, we’ve never really achieved that in a meaningful way. Toronto – for all of its faults and challenges – [is] one of the places that’s starting to achieve that goal. And so that was the inspiration. There have been lots of records about the city as a ghetto, and those have been true. Or, records [describing] the city [as] a playground for artists. We wanted to take a broader view, and tell the stories of all of the different kinds of ambitious people pursuing new identities, new ideas and making new things.
AS: And the vivid everyday that reflects those opportunities. Not everybody is privy to those opportunities or in the position to take advantage of it. As beautiful as Toronto is, it’s hard. If you are coming here to be an artist and the rent is jumping up, what does it feel like to believe in this creative vision that you feel could touch people, if only you could reach them? Those are the stories that Lush Life tells. We talk about the beauty and the opportunity, but also the chaos and frustration of trying to make it work. We just wanted to share that vivid everyday.
As artists, what do you think of the music coming out of Toronto right now?
AS: I feel like I’m still establishing my truth in response to that question. I feel like I exist in between so many different sounds. I love dancehall, that is my foundation and that’s had a huge influence in Toronto. The indie community is where I really found myself as a songwriter. I grew up singing in the church, but I’m not an active member of the hip-hop and R&B community in Toronto. So I don’t feel like I can represent any particular genre, sound or speak to what the sound is that evangelizes Toronto – and I think that’s very Toronto.
IS: I think if there’s a characteristic Toronto sound it’s probably that it exists in between [genres]. We make music that’s influenced by dancehall. I’ve never been to Jamaica. And no one’s ever questioned me about that because we’ve always felt that we give something back to it. We take these influences and then we add on to them.
I read that “Chelsea” was in part about empathizing with other people. What do you hope people take away from hearing that song?
AS: I feel like I’m still processing that song. What I thought it was about when I wrote it, I don’t know if that’s still my perspective now. I hope that it’ll start a conversation about empathizing with people who don’t necessarily look like you, and to question the assumptions we make about people based on our own experiences. I hope it invites conversation, including with us.
Now that the album is done, what’s next for Bonjay?
AS: We’re going to make more music. We have a bunch of songs that didn’t make it to the album, and I’m excited to finish those. I’m excited to go back to Jamaica and absorb some stronger dancehall influence. We’re also going to tour. These stories about cities aren’t just about Toronto or Canadian cities. They’re about the different ways that these narratives translate from place to place. We’re going to enjoy being musicians. I think we’ve done enough training for now.