Image: Flickr, S.L.M.
Wavelength has always distrusted generical orthodoxies, and the integral local music series, which celebrates its 12th anniversary this weekend, is marking the occasion with four typically motley shows. Tomorrow night, for example, a dancehall group will open for Toronto’s emblematic hardcore band. But headliners Fucked Up eschew purist notions of punkishness, and Bonjay, the duo preceding them, aren’t just trying to simulate a Kingston street party in worse weather. Although the stuttering riddims on their 2010 EP Broughtupsy sound recognizably West Indian, producer Ian “Pho” Swain gives his beats an idiosyncratic sense of moody atmosphere; as the other half of the pair, Alanna Stuart’s vocals often break from sultry, patois-inflected toasting into a belted soar.
That can partly be ascribed to their mutual love of ‘90s R&B like Aaliyah and SWV — Stuart actually had a nascent career singing it in her teenage years, until learning that the label wanted to change her image and name (“Donna Boogie”). She went to university instead, becoming a fan of other women who go by one name: Feist, Bjork, St. Vincent. Stuart’s hypnotic charisma remains its focus, but Bonjay plan to unveil a new live show with more live instrumentation on Friday, a prelude to their debut LP later this year. The main theme will apparently be urbanity, and it’s a natural one. Even their name is multilingual, Grenadian slang for “bon Dieu!” that Stuart heard her mom’s side of the family use. Or, to phrase that half-stunned, half-excited awe in English: Good God.
What did you guys grow up on, in terms of what you listened to and I guess also what you started performing or playing eventually?
Alanna Stuart: I grew up on many different kinds of music, because I have so many siblings and many of them are older than I am. Italian dance music in the ‘80s that my brother used to listen to and blast in his gold Camaro, and then he would play a lot of Prince and Michael Jackson. Another one of my brothers was a hip-hop dancer who danced for Maestro Fresh Wes and Kish, and we’d listen to — well, a lot of hip-hop. My sister listened to everything from Smashing Pumpkins to Mary J. Blige to Makaveli to dancehall reggae. She’d listen to weird combinations of pop music. That was my upbringing, pretty much. And then I was always in church singing gospel music, so that gospel experience segued into doing pop R&B as a teenager. But when I first discovered music on my own and not from the influence of my siblings or anybody else, I started working at campus community radio and listening to a lot of what has become Canada’s indie scene. Broken Social Scene was just coming out then. Basically anything on Three Gut Records, or anything on Arts & Crafts or early Paper Bag [Records] or Murderecords pretty much reigned supreme.
Which radio station was that?
AS: CHUO 89.1 FM at Ottawa U. I did a lot of interviews — I did many bad interviews. I just wanted to meet people [laughs], I was enthralled by these musicians, and that was kind of how I built my community.
Ian Swain: For me…I started really getting into my own music when I was starting in high school, and I did co-op at the other campus station in Ottawa, CKCU.
Is that Carleton?
IS: Yeah, exactly. So I did a co-op term there for a class. And they gave us an overnight radio show, and because we were really young we had a mentor that they assigned to us, who was this Jamaican student named Hubert. So I got to listening to rap music and dancehall and then drum-and-bass stuff as well. He was really open-minded, I think he saw the connection between dancehall reggae and then stuff like Roni Size or whatever was exciting about bass music coming out of the UK. I’ve always been into all those things. I think since that late ‘90s era, that same era, I’ve been super into Timbaland the entire time, and all the weirdo symphonies that he put together. It’s been well over 10 years since he started hittin’ and I still buy old urban-movie soundtracks that have one Timbaland song on them.
What’s the one that “Are You That Somebody?” is from?
AS: Dr. Doolittle.
Oh my god [laughs].
IS: The next time we’re in Los Angeles, I want to visit — there’s this one park in northern LA where they shot that video.
Oh, really? That’s a good video.
IS: That’s one of the best songs of all time, I think.
AS: Yeah. “Let’s shoot this in an ice cave and put a hawk on her arm, and then at the end we’ll segue into a nice little salsa merengue number.”
“And the main hook is gonna be a baby.”
IS: Is the choreographer that did all those videos–
AS: Fatima [Robinson].
IS: Is she from Toronto?
AS: I don’t think so.
IS: No? Okay. There’s one choreographer who did that whole wave of music videos. So…it’s all those things mixed up. And then my dad was a big classic rock fan, so I would listen to the Rolling Stones and stuff like that. Actually, from listening to rap music that’s based around samples, I listened to a lot of the originals, as you start to collect those as a DJ. I’m really into the orchestral soul stuff. As we start to make more, I guess, harmonically complex music, I’m less into the indie stuff that has lots of changes and things, but I can really draw on Curtis Mayfield or Donny Hathaway records, because I kind of connected to that continuum. If DITC was sampling those old records, then I’d really feel that stuff, and it’s just drawing more on the original records rather than the ones that sample them now.
It’s funny how a certain generation of rappers — like, Jay-Z, he’d grab stuff from his dad’s soul collection. And now people are sort of taking it in the other direction and finding the original sources of the samples from rap records.
Yeah. There’s also — did you hear that DJ Quik & Kurupt album? It’s really good, and there’s a song on it called “Hey Playa! (Moroccan Blues),” which has this Moroccan song sampled as the main hook, and apparently they heard that on some Food Network show, in the background.
S: That’s the same way — I think DJ Quik produced “Addicted,” by Truth Hurts, it’s early 2000s shit, and he videotaped some Hindi TV show that was on in his hotel room or something. But then they totally caught him and he got in trouble and had to give up all publishing.
AS: Another influence from my childhood was — my mom loved the oldies radio station in Ottawa, she’d listen to the oldies and country all the time. And that’s the only thing that I think accounts for my tendency towards things that are melancholy, because of all the heartbreak songs in country music.
Melancholy and also…there’s a lot of sin in there, I guess.
AS: Yeah [laughs], a lot of sin.
Good people doing bad things.
AS: Mm-hmm. “He did a bad thing but he’s a good man! He cheated on me but I know he loves me deep down inside, I’mma stand by him no matter what!”
IS: You were telling me that country music is really popular in Jamaica, or the West Indies.
So is Celine Dion, apparently.
AS: Yes. Yes.
There’s an article about that by a writer that I know in the Montreal Mirror, and there were some really good quotes from–
AS: Erin MacLeod?
IS: Yeah, we know her too.
AS: When they were saying — when she was singing “I’m your lady, you are my man,” and this guy’s like, “yes I am!” Oh my God. I saw some photos, because a friend was down there with her — just a sea of people dressed to the nines, hands up, singing to Celine Dion and her sparkly pants. I think she’s real chick, though. As cheesy as she is, I think that’s just who she is, and you get a sense of that.
She’s self-made. Like, she grew up in this really poor working-class Quebec family. And she has a ton of siblings–
AS: 12 or 13?
Yeah. And then, you know, she married her creepy manager, but… How did you guys meet up and begin collaborating? I heard there was an awkward dance-party encounter?
AS: There was a very awkward encounter where my enthusiasm was not met by Ian. I by chance had gone to this party called Disorganized that Ian started with two DJs who went on to become Jokers of the Scene, and I was enthralled as soon as I walked in, because I was working for campus community radio at the time, I’d just moved out of pop R&B and was looking for something different, and a lot of the punk kids that I saw at the quote-unquote indie shows were dancing hands up to N.W.A., going crazy, and then dancing together to dancehall reggae. So I knew that right away I’d found my scene. But this guy played — it was Bugz in the Attic’s cover of Fela Kuti’s “Zombie,” and I had never heard Afrobeat, I’d never heard breakbeats. I ran up to him and tried to introduce myself, tried to explain that I’m an R&B singer and I’m really good and I want to work — I didn’t even know if he was a producer. I was just really excited about what he was playing and I just wanted to connect with this person. And he’s like, “Huh? Here’s my card,” [CR laughs]. It was kind of a brush-off–
IS: I was in the middle of mixing in the next song!
AS: This is true, this is true. And I know the rules of DJing now. But yeah, it was a pretty shaky first encounter. Then I guess we bumped into each other at some point, but I’m pretty sure I emailed him and followed up, and he said, hey, I’ve got some beats if you want to come by and listen.
IS: And then we made a song — this was probably, like, a couple of years before Bonjay. We made a song that is…really horrible. But then luckily we started — every month at the same party Alanna would come and sing some song or some different re-edit or thing that I produced. We kind of figured out our style from that. It was nice to be able to develop out of the spotlight. Nobody was ever really going to be in Ottawa and try to bring us to prominence. Sometimes it totally bombed–
AS: Oh, yeah [IS laughs]. And for me it was really awkward, because up to that point I’d primarily sang in church and at high school assemblies. I’d never really had a public performance except for my gig singing Christmas carols at the Bay in the dining room furniture section. That was pretty much the only time I’d sung outside of church. So I was a confident performer, I’d been singing for 10 years and training, but I would sing and then I would just hide for the rest of the night. My hands would shake because I didn’t know how people would receive the performance, I didn’t know what to do with my hands or my body to perform for a party crowd. So we were very fortunate to have that time to develop over the years into that Bonjay show you see today.
My sense is that you guys have…how should I put it…markedly different but complementary musical tastes? Is there a particular genre or other place where you basically agree about everything?
AS: And the thing with dancehall is, listening back to the songs that we’re working on for the album, we realized — not that we incorrectly tagged ourselves as a dancehall act, but I don’t think we stress enough that we love dancehall music to dance to, but in terms of us as music-makers it’s the dancehall ethos of “anything goes” that we draw on, less than actual song structures or even necessarily production values. It’s the idea of dancehall, where they will do a reggae cover of Celine Dion and not give a fuck. And a man can sing it, and they’ll be homophobic, but then they’ll sing one of the most feminine, emotionally…you know what I mean? They’re not afraid to tread on any territory.
Or do an entire song about shoes? And then a sequel to the ridiculously successful song about shoes?
AS: Yeah [laughs]. There’s one — what is it? Talking about wearing protection. “You have to wear a rubber, because you have to protect yourself. AIDS kill.” There are many messages sown throughout the dancehall world.
What is you guys’ typical working process like? Do you start with a riddim, or some lyrics, or a concept…?
AS: We used to have an answer to that.
IS: Well, yeah, we used to start out with a rough loop and then Alanna would add the lyrics. But more recently you write a rough song, just as vocals, and then I start to shape the instrumentation around that. It’s much easier to get out of the box of making a beat, where elements come in and out, if Alanna has a soulful song written first. It’s like writing the arrangement of an orchestra. We need these things to happen to complement the lead-in to the chorus.
AS: Yeah, but the process has changed so many times. We’ve tried to grow as songwriters and Ian as a composer and a producer. You have to try different things to shake up the process of working on music for 8-12 hours a day. The same process may not work, but you can’t really leave the studio because the songs have to be done. If there isn’t a beat for me to write on right away, then yes, I will start with a vocal. Or if he doesn’t have a vocal to write to, then yeah, we’ll start with the beat. It changes all the time.
That record company fuckery with “Donna Boogie”–
AS: Oh, yeah. God, I forgot about that.
As the frontwoman, how do you approach your own stage persona? It amazes me, but somehow there are still people who think that performance can happen without artifice, or who believe that pop stars must be interchangeable, as I guess was true of the label you dealt with. And I know you’re a fan of St. Vincent, who very consciously plays with and refracts her public image.
AS: That’s actually something that I struggle with, and I was thinking about this the other day — as a songwriter, I’m a very selfish artist. I’m not usually concerned with what people would think. That’s sometimes for better, sometimes for worse. As a performer that’s absolutely my compromise, where I just sort of go and my body reacts to what the music brings out. So you’ll see different characters onstage. If I’m singing a song like “Creepin” that’s a sad love song, then my body’s very calm, standing in one place. If I perform a song like “Frawdulent,” it takes a lot of physicality and energy to get that attitude out, so you’ll see a ferocious or angry side. I’m still not 100% what my stage persona is, but I actually just received a grant from the Ontario Arts Council, and I’m going to do a theatre course at the University of London’s School of Speech and Drama, to try to explore that and discover what my true performance side is and committing to it, because I think onstage I’m a bit too much in my head, trying to figure out “what do I look like” or “how does this appear” or “who am I in this song,” and I feel like my performance can be taken to the next level by having a clearer idea of who that character is. I’m okay with people coming up with stage personas and characters, because I really do think that it’s just a magnification of a certain side of yourself. I don’t think that it’s always false. If you see something that appears to be theatrical, I don’t think that it means someone’s not being themselves. It’s just a certain character that they relate to, that they’ve committed to during the time of the performance. But that’s something that I’m still exploring personally and still figuring out.
You never really spoke patois until working with Ian, right?
IS: You spoke it, but–
AS: But not regularly. Yeah. My — sorry, did you want to continue? [all laugh]
I guess I was going add — not to get deep into academic jargon about code-switching or whatever — but do you find that, at least outside of the West Indies, or among people not descended from West Indians, that patois is almost more associated with dancehall than even a particular sound, or…
AS: Um…I’m not sure I understand the question. Outside of the West Indies, do I feel like…
That people don’t — some random white guy in Canada, he wouldn’t think of a certain style, it would just be the language, I guess.
IS: I can answer that, as odd as that may sound. In the U.S. I definitely got that impression. When we started touring in the U.S., after the EP came out. Living in Toronto, you could talk about dancehall as an influence, and people would understand that you can do it at any tempo, and the beat structure is interesting and varied, but always syncopated. Whereas in the U.S. I think they think it’s like Ras Trent, basically.
AS: Sean Paul is — if you mention Sean Paul, then people will know. If you say “I play a form of reggae music,” then: “I love Bob Marley.” That’s the reference. Whereas in the UK Jamaican culture is so [intertwined] with British culture that patois slang is a part of everyday language.
IS: Actually, people in the UK were super interested in Toronto — we found this fascinating, because in the U.S. they weren’t really interested in Toronto, they’d be interested in the music, let’s say. But in the UK they could understand the influences, I guess? I got the impression they felt like what we do couldn’t really come out of the UK in the same way, so there must be something interesting going on in Toronto that you could come out with this music that draws so heavily on dancehall, and UK traditions as well, but it’s not about dancehall subjects, really. Just hearing about the fact that you were into Feist and stuff like that, they were fascinated by that, I was surprised.
AS: I try not to focus too much on, you know, what is people’s knowledge of this music, or does dancehall belong alongside this genre or anything like that. I like my naivete, because then you’re open to more possibilities, you don’t overanalyze it into oblivion.
It’s also kind of weird with patois how people sometimes feel like they’re entitled to do this gross caricature of it. I mean, that’s what “Frawdulent” is about, right?
AS: Basically, yeah. About the American — sorry, did you finish your question? [laughs]
No, yeah [laughs].
AS: Yeah, that’s what it’s about, about America’s music culture — or not even music culture, just Americans in general having this idea of what Jamaicans are and not having a true sense of the country or its culture at all. And it being a caricature, and the fact that they never hire real Jamaicans to play Jamaican roles, so they think they can’t read a script or something, I don’t know the reasoning, really. They’re just so disconnected from the Jamaican community that they can’t even get a Jamaican to play Jamaican, I mean, that right there speaks to their ignorance.
This is a really short question, for once. What can you guys tell me about the new live show?
AS: Ooh, excited.
IS: This is kind of like just getting our feet wet for the new live show, this [Wavelength] show. But yeah, it’s more of a live band. We have Kieran now, who’s our drummer, so it’s more of a trio format, and I’m starting to bring the keyboard out and playing more stuff live. It really does feel like a live band now. But the way that we write music is very much like composition, we work in the studio, so we kind of have to finish the record before we focus on realizing it live. If there’s 50 or 60 tracks in a song, all these different things going on, it’s a whole other task to figure out how to turn this orchestration into a compelling live performance. But we get a bit of a trial by fire with a couple of joints, to tease out some of how we’ll perform the new record.
AS: Yeah, and then when the album is done, by the time the album is done, we’ll have had steady rehearsals, and we have a really great visual team that’s gonna help us come out with visuals that match the music. And after the theatre course I’m hoping to have a better idea of who I am onstage, so I think there’ll just be a greater cohesion in general.
[a friend of the band enters Mexican Salsa and says hello]
AS: But yeah, there’ll be a bit more cohesion, and my personal goal for the live show is to have the spontaneity and the raw emotion of, say, a punk show, but then have the refined ideas of an orchestra or something.
Was the new material — did you develop it concurrently with the new live show, or…
IS: No, it’s two separate things, really. We kind of write like composition, almost, we structure everything and lay it out, but then different songs have different parts as the focus of being performed live. So at this show I’ll play keys on some songs, but in other songs, alongside Kieran playing percussion, I’ll play the MPC. For some of the songs, old and new, you’d need, like, 15 people onstage if everybody was doing one thing, just because that’s the production tradition that we come from. Some of the Timbaland stuff, which is pretty sparse, you’d still need 12 people onstage. You would need one guy just to do the dog bark in SWV.
AS: Or the baby [laughs]. One baby onstage.
[imitates baby sample from “Are You That Somebody?”]
AS: Or one Chris doing the baby sound [laughter].
I heard one recent interview where Ian said that he and some producer friends were semi-seriously trying to come up with a successor to the airhorn effect. Have you settled on one?
IS: Well, periodically at my house we have these producer Sundays, where I invite a mix of producers over to do different kinds of music, make beats, and then we all share new things we’re working on or a trick that we’ve learned, and then afterwards my girlfriend makes us dinner and we all hang out. Because we’ve been working on the album, I haven’t had one of those in ages, so that competition is still in progress, and I will report back once we’ve come up with a successor to the airhorn. It’s a challenge, though, because what really matters about any sound is its social context. There’s other dancehall sounds, like — I forget what song this is from, but the “di-di-di-dunnnn” that was famously used by Kilimanjaro sound system, that everybody uses now. But it’s not cool at all, it’s just cool because Jaro sound system used it. So we can have the competition, but then we have to use these sounds in songs to try to give them this energetic, tough feel or whatever, because a sound on its own doesn’t really mean anything until it’s associated with something.
Bonjay is playing with Fucked Up, Catl, Silver Dapple and Hut at 9pm on Feb. 17 at the Steamwhistle Brewery for Wavelength.