Music/Features

Deconstructing the story of Toronto’s ever-evolving backing band

How a sprawling group of collaborators are redefining the city’s approach to community and music making.

Illustration by Michael Webster
February 22, 2019

“I think that the best opportunities for me have always come through friendship,” says Robin Dann, vocalist and songwriter in the Toronto-based alt-pop outfit Bernice, over coffee in the Chinatown location of Sam James Coffee Bar. “Rarely is it ever just a cold call from some producer saying, ‘I heard you guys on this thing and I want to hire you.’ You make a connection and it sticks.” Dann’s referring to the guiding principle of personal connection that’s led to her becoming one of Toronto’s go-to collaborators. Although 2018 was an important year for her band Bernice, who released their first album of new material in seven years, and their first full-length on the record label Arts & Crafts, look closely and you’ll see her name in the liner notes of a broad range of other albums, including those by electronic producer Ryan Hemsworth, singer-songwriter Bahamas, and ambient jazz composer Joseph Shabason.

In fact, her bandmate Thom Gill says that even though the band is a top priority for the 5-piece, the members of Bernice likely spend more time outside the band than they do in it. “I like that there’s no main thing that I get lost in,” he explains. “I’d be happy if it was Bernice, but I don’t think it would ever be that. We all really thrive off of doing something different every day, it’s so fun.” Supporting the music coming out of their community is such an integral part of of the band that it’s not uncommon to see the entire band backing another performer as a group, like they’ve done for singer-songwriters Devon Sproule and Martha Wainwright.

While collaboration has long been a hallmark of any healthy DIY music scene, the scale of the collaborations in Toronto right now seems like it is on another level entirely. From the boom of the Yorkville club scene with acts like Joni Mitchell and Neil Young in the late 1960s and early 1970s, to the endless offshoots of post-rock pop outfit Broken Social Scene in the early 2000s, to Drake’s habit of pulling from the talent pool of his own label, OVO Sound, for his next big single, Toronto has always been a city of songwriters. It’s exactly that history and attitude that Gill identifies as the reason why there’s been such an explosion of collaborations. “There isn’t any pretension around genre, everyone’s willing to cross pollinate. It’s kind of thoughtless,” Gill explains.

In 2018, Dann and Gill, along with Bonjay’s Alanna Stuart, DIANA’s Kieran Adams, and Victoria Cheong, aka New Chance, all had their hands on a staggering amount of projects, from Bernice’s Puff: In The Air Without Shape, Bonjay’s Lush Life, New Chance’s It Says New Chance, U.S. Girls’ In A Poem Unlimited, Queer Songbook Orchestra’s (QSO) Anthems & Icons, Jennifer Castle’s Angels Of Death, Ryan Hemsworth’s Elsewhere, Bahamas’ Earthtones, and Joseph Shabason’s Anne. That’s nine albums released within the span of a year alone with just one degree of separation from the five musicians named and that doesn’t even include the work musicians like Gill and Cheong do respectively, backing artists like Beverly Glenn Copeland and Chandra as they experience career revitalizations after long hiatuses from performing. Last year, five of those aforementioned albums made the Polaris Prize longlist (six if you count the QSO’s first EP with Vivek Shraya, Part Time Woman). These collaborations are significant for more than their staggering numbers and national recognition: each work speaks to a unique section of the city’s vibrant, multi-layered music ecosystem.

But maintaining the functioning community of independent music requires being cognizant of Toronto’s economic landscape. If there’s a single determining factor that’s shaped Toronto into the loose, collaborative town it is today, cost of living would most certainly be it. According to information from the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation and Stats Canada, average rent costs in Toronto have gone up by 37% since 2001, while wages have only increased about 10% in that same period. While Toronto remains the centre of the Canadian music industry, few musicians can afford to live here without supplementing their income in some other way, be that in the food service industry, retail, or otherwise. Due to the reality where both apartments and rehearsal spaces come at a financial premium, musicians have become both willing and able to perform on other’s records or live acts as a pragmatic way to survive in an otherwise untenable situation.

Yet, speaking to bands like Bernice or Bonjay makes it clear that the impetus for collaborating extends beyond sharing resources and skills, it’s about bringing the imagination of big projects to life as a way to affirm their role in the music community. By collaborating these musicians are keeping their skills sharp, learning new modes of songwriting, and production, while also contributing to their community by adding to its body of work in a way that enriches and strengthens it; growing from a community into a culture.

Brandon Speakman

For Bernice, the bedrock of their immediate community of musicians was formed in university. Dann, Gill, and bassist Dan Fortin all met while at the University of Toronto’s jazz program in the early 2000s. The program was so small it was easy for the students to all know each other and even those in similar streams at other institutions (fellow Bernice vocalist, Felicity Williams, studied at York and percussionist Phil Melanson went to McGill). “We basically became best friends,” recalls Dann on the program’s lasting influence. Though Gill and Dann were in different years, the small, four year program allowed for plenty of blurring between cohorts.

“They’d put us into bands and we had a really good time with that. We’d give the bands names and play more than the required recitals,” Dann says. “The department head changed around that time, so I think there was a lot more looseness around allowing people in their ensembles in jazz school to actually try stuff,” remembers Kieran Adams, who, along with his future DIANA bandmate Joseph Shabason, attended the same program starting in the late 1990s. Though Bernice have departed from the jazz world, the program undoubtedly had a hand in normalizing splitting off into collaborative combos as an integral and often amusing part of their creative process.

Bonjay’s Alanna Stuart honed that same reverence for collaboration in another environment altogether. “My church was a Jamaican Pentecostal church, and every other year we would have youth gospel competitions,” she explains of her time in the Ottawa Church of God. “It was essentially musical bootcamp. From ages eight to nineteen I learned how to train my ear singing in choir and choral groups.” Along with Gill, who also guests on Bonjay’s gloaming “Devil’s Night,” Stuart now performs with the Queer Songbook Orchestra, a 12-piece chamber pop collective made up of queer and allied musicians, formed in 2014 by trumpeter Shaun Brodie. The QSO play new arrangements of queer pop music standards, songs like k.d. Lang’s “Constant Craving,” meaning their whole m.o. is interpreting other’s songs.

“Alex [Samaras], a fellow vocalist from the QSO, identifies himself and I as musical interpreters. Not just in our technical ability, but the ability to interpret an arrangement and adapt our voices to suit that arrangement,” Stuart explains. It’s a skill she credits to her formative years spent singing in church. “In Jamaica, there are reggae versions of pop tunes and, within that tradition, there’s no limit to the artists and the genres they cover,” she says. “It’s whether you catch a vibe or not, and then you can just apply a different aesthetic.”

Though the QSO released their debut album of queer pop standards last year, the project’s real function comes alive in their concert performances, where they marry storytelling of queer narratives with interpretations of the pop songs that inspired them, like Light Fires’ “Last Of His Kind.” “That’s the real spirit right there, that’s really active community making too,” Gill beams of the project. “Going on tour just to meet people in Swift Current [Saskatchewan] who are queer and want to engage with you and tell their stories to you, it’s so cool and really important. It’s ingeniously profound and was easy for us to go and be present.”

Though musical skill and chops are at the forefront of each collaboration—whether it’s Stuart recommending Bernice’s Felicity Williams as a vocalist to sleepy pop folk, turned slow-burn funk, artist Afie Jurvanen (aka Bahamas) after working together for idiosyncratic pop songwriter Ben Gunning of Local Rabbits; or Shabason making the connection between Stuart and QSO’s Shaun Brodie based on their collaboration in the proto-DIANA, late-2000s synthpop outfit Everything All The Time—the connective tissue that holds this network together is deeply social.

If the Toronto scene seems a bit nepotistic now, the city’s dwindling number of venues only undermines its ability to challenge that insularity in any fundamental way.

Victoria Cheong was a friend of Jennifer Castle’s long before moonlighting as the mercurial producer and DJ New Chance, or singing alongside Williams on Castle’s latest record, Angel Of Death. “My community and my world of friends were musicians. Music is just the world that opened up to me, even though I was trying to work as a visual artist,” Cheong explains over the phone. Wanting to get closer to and support her circle of friends is what inspired her to co-found Healing Power Records, which for nearly 10 years became a home for a dynamic group of artists like Colin Fisher, Brandon Valdivia, Isla Craig, and Matthew “Doc” Dunn—whose Discogs entries are just as overwhelming and interconnected as those of Gill or Stuart. “That was a way for me to be involved with music without being a musician yet,” she says. “The community I had around me after doing the label made it so much easier for me to transition into playing music because people knew me. I wouldn’t have to seek out and find where I could fit in, because I already had that community.”

The immensely social nature of the scene now is enough to recall the Toronto’s early 2000s indie rock optimism when bands like Hidden Cameras, Barcelona Pavilion, and Final Fantasy were thriving alongside labels like Blocks Recording Club and Arts & Crafts. “In the early 00s, there was an almost celebration of unprofessionalism,” explains Owen Pallett who in 2009, was one of the first high-profile musician to spot Gill’s talents before recruiting him for his touring band in support of Heartland, his first album after dropping the Final Fantasy moniker. Pallett doesn’t see what’s happening now as an expression or iteration of the same ethos of “Torontopia”—a brief cultural moment in Toronto’s history where music, literature, and theatre were all fuelled by a conceptual, cooperative ethic to reimagine what their city could look and sound like. Instead, he calls attention to the fact that the scenes at the time weren’t exactly harmonious. “Torontopia and what was going on in the early 2000s was a very splintered thing. There were a lot of different scenes, which isn’t to say people weren’t all friends with each other and collaborating with each other,” Pallett explains.    

Though fractured, Gill insists that early exposure to acts like musical polymath Sandro Perri and ineffable singer-songwriter Alex Lukashevsky that encouraged him to make music on his own. “When I moved to Toronto, that’s what was happening in the early 2000s, Blocks [label and artist cooperative] and Wavelength [concert series] and all those bands—I was so, so into it. I went to all of those shows and was really inspired by it.” Now he’s in a scene where he regularly mingles with his early inspirations: Perri mixed Bernice’s latest album and he performs with Lukashevsky in groups like the Holy Oak Family Singers.

For many like Gill, Holy Oak, a small cafe and bar in the city’s west end which opened in 2009 and closed in February 2017 due to an aggressive rent increase, was the catalyst for that social glue. “Holy Oak was an explosion of crazy creative programming with something every night, twice a night, in the tiniest room,” Gill recalls. Other venues that are still open, like TRANZAC and Burdock, both off of Bloor Street, cater to similar crowds but don’t share the same freewheeling vibe that the Holy Oak once did.

In fact, Holy Oak owner Justin Oliver’s previous experience working at TRANZAC was responsible for the overlap between the experimental and more pop-oriented musical communities that his venue fostered. As a place where experimental jazz nerds could go to work out a set of Joni Mitchell songs or for a solo artist to test out some new material to an attentive audience, Holy Oak and its memory sits at the centre of this constellation of connections as a place where collaboration that celebrated an apathy towards genre distinctions prevailed. “It’s nice and necessary and very positive to have [had] a place like the Holy Oak where you could have a cover set or DJ some weird dance party,” Adams explains. Having a space like Holy Oak where low stakes collaborations could happen in public is central to creativity within the scene as well as increasing its membership.

If the Toronto scene seems a bit nepotistic now, the city’s dwindling number of venues only undermines its ability to challenge that insularity in any fundamental way. One of the forms this insularity takes is in just how predominantly white the membership is. Being one of a handful of Black women in the scene, Stuart has become mindful of how she’s had to navigate her position. “My voice was something I could offer as an entry point, a way of being accepted,” she recalls. For Stuart, inclusion means questioning the capacity collaborators want to work with her. “How much am I contributing and how much am I an accessory?” Stuart explains. “Before I work with anyone I want to get a sense of the people I’m singing with, because I have a soulful voice there are many assumptions made about me. People want that church sound not knowing the church I went to, not knowing Feist is the greatest influence on my music after the Local Rabbits and dancehall.”

I want to try to keep exposing myself to places and musical situations that are outside my community, in order to foster friendship with musicians I haven’t met.

Robin Dann

Dann agrees that even though she and her bandmates have long left jazz school, developing a social circle in that environment came with baggage they’re still figuring out. “The weird thing about jazz school [is that] the kids there were white, and that’s where I met my closest musical friends,” she explains. Being conscious of the way her schooling framed her collaborations today, Dann says she’s purposefully working to expand the community in ways that ensure it’s less exclusive. “I want to try to keep exposing myself to places and musical situations that are outside my community, in order to foster friendship with musicians I haven’t met.”

Cheong says she’s lucky that New Chance allows her to have one foot in the DIY scene and another in dance music. Fittingly, Cheong’s It Says New Chance EP was released by Bedroomer, a rising local label devoted to illustrating just how much more there is to the city than techno. “The dance music realm is a bit different,” she describes of the city’s electronic culture. “It’s very queer, inclusive, and I don’t feel like a minority all of the time,” she shares, though she points out that with her immediate friends in the DIY scene there’s a lot of “love, awareness, and consideration” which results in feeling a lot less alienated.

For these musicians, collaboration is the antithesis of insularity, and continuously adding new members to this musical community is crucial for its survival. For Stuart, being able to call upon musicians like Gill and Adams during the recording of Bonjay’s 2018 debut LP, Lush Life, meant being able to push against the musical limitations of her partnership with Swain. “[Bringing in collaborators] introduced me to new processes that could help us in areas where we bottlenecked. And it just took us outside of ourselves.” Dann sees the process for collaboration as just as enriching to her own songwriting. Working with other people is the central part of music making for me. I definitely write songs alone, but I don’t think of them as being songs until I’ve played them with other people. That’s my favourite thing to do.”

Adams also sees the process as a sort of balancing effort, thriving in environments when he’s working with a musical foil as strong-willed as himself. “I love to collaborate but I can also be overly controlling, so it’s good to be around people whose vision is clear enough that you don’t need to control every aspect. Meg Remy [of U.S. Girls] is so incredible in that way,” he admits about his experience in psychedelic jazz outfit The Cosmic Range, who who backed Remy on her most recent record, In A Poem Unlimited.

The spirit of collaboration isn’t new, nor has it happened out of the blue. Rather, it’s the result of years of community cultivation, musical education, and ample venues with bold visions that have allowed a scene like this to flourish. In each instance, these musicians are more than just hired guns, they’re a fundamental part of the songwriting process.  

It’s too early to tell if what’s happening right now is an anomaly; the result of a change in department head at a university jazz; program; a venue with an open culture that was reflected in its programming as well as patrons; or a new era of Toronto’s DIY scene that’s here for the long haul. The dwindling of venues capable of taking up the mantle of these kinds of activities runs the risk of impeding the growth of future scenes like this one.

Adams predicts that the level at which his bandmates and he are collaborating at is just the beginning of a shift in the way that people work together. “I feel like musically we live in an era where you can’t really just be focused on one project. The way the industry is, it’s just not financially responsible or profitable. Meanwhile the methods of music production have gotten a lot easier, and it’s easier to reach out to people. I think all those things dictate the new norm,” he says.

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