11 unconventional Canadian singer-songwriters you need to hear
by Greg Bouchard
February 25, 2014
Boyhood (via Facebook)
When Bob Dylan went electric at the Newport Folk Festival in 1965, he was doing more than changing his instrument of choice. He was knowingly destroying a set of rules that his fans and peers had set for his music. Forsaking acoustic folk songs, he moved onto a much wider variety of styles, but remained every bit as much a singer/songwriter. That spirit exists today in many Canadian artists who avoid taking the traditional route.
Still, we still tend to think of a singer/songwriter as an acoustic guitar and a pretty voice. Nothing against anyone who fits that description, of course, but it leaves out the numerous artists working with other instruments, creating different sounds, experimenting with noise, deviating from traditional song structures, and singing a little differently. In short, it leaves out a lot of musicians doing new and interesting things.
Here are 11 Canadian singer/songwriters who aren’t only breaking rules—they’re making some of the best new music out there.
Montreal’s Ari Swan is a solo violinist whose songs have a dark theatrical quality, as she tell stories by squeezing an uncanny variety of sounds out of her instrument and voice. Before releasing her debut EP, Symphony Plastique, in the fall of 2013, she had cut her teeth playing in the backing bands for artists like Little Scream and Gabrielle Papillon. Since going solo, her work has received much-deserved praise and intrigue.
Boyhood, experimental pop project of Ottawa’s Caylie Runciman, plays sludgy, noisy songs that flit between chaos and singalong melodies. Her debut full-length LP, When I’m Hungry, consists of 10 short songs that come together in fits and spurts like a fever dream. She gives off the impression of a songwriter with an endless well of good ideas and no time to waste on filler.
Starting with her Songs EP, with songs like “Question:” and “Shut Eye Blues,” Kingston, ON’s Dorothea Paas established herself as someone who could write soft, beautiful songs with insightful lyrics. Since then she has picked up an electric guitar, brought in a backing band, and started writing the same quality songs with more noise. Now she sounds unfettered and more willing to take risks. Her two most recent releases, A Thirst and Strange Times / Just The Same / Drought, show her breaking new ground and not looking back.
Montreal’s Elliot Maginot sings like a haunted angel. His layered vocal lines float above his sparse, finger-picked guitar, with shades of grey that occasionally give way to immense, bright sunlight. His debut self-titled EP, released last June, contains seven songs that work like perfectly enclosed moments. Now that he has signed to Indica Records, we can expect more soon.
Isle of Pine
Montreal’s Tim Beeler, who goes by the monicker Isle of Pine, is the kind of artist who makes songwriting look easy. His lo-fi recordings use cheap production techniques to strip the music of everything but its most essential elements—that is, the songs underneath. As artists like Bon Iver and Postdata showed before him, this only works when the songs are damn good. Take this together with Beeler’s prolific output of five LPs and EPs since 2011 and you know he’s the real deal.
A fixture of Montreal’s lofts and dusty churches, Kieran Blake writes ghostly pop music with a DIY anti-sheen. His prolific output has ranged from ethereal acoustic music to jazz to doo-wop, all tied together with his high-pitched, Wayne Coyne-like croon. His most recent album, What Vicious Glow, saw him create a full band behind his complex compositions, while Songs From a Tunnel was literally recorded solo in an abandoned tunnel. A prolific artist, it’s always a joy wondering what Blake will do next.
There’s a lot of punk in Kris Ellestad’s songwriting, even if his polished vocals would suggest otherwise. There’s a certain momentum when he digs into a melody that holds more force than all the distorted guitars and drums could offer. On his last LP, No Man Is Land, he dabbled in dark celtic and orchestral tones, while his more recent Live at the Engineered Air Theatre asserted the mastery of his craft. Watch out for the Calgary native’s new recordings under the name Faebles.
The monicker of Calgary’s Leslie Markus Overland, Lucid 44 is a self-described “sad bastard death folk” artist. That means a lot of growling, crunchy guitars, and howling choruses. His debut EP, Sweep, which came out less than a year ago, contains a mixture of slow burning and driving songs that will burrow their way deep into your eardrums.
Michael Rault, an Edmonton native who now resides in Toronto, plays catchy power pop that simultaneously sounds old fashioned and fresh. His Whirlpool EP contains six impeccably crafted songs with all the hooks and adolescent quirkiness of an old Weezer album, while his scratchy, reverb-soaked guitars recall The Kinks and Them.
After playing in the bands Clues and How Sad, Montreal’s Nicholas Scribner recently released a solo EP called Wroclaw. Its four songs fall somewhere between edgy folk and vintage soul, with disarmingly honest lyrics over tastefully minimal grooves and composition. Songs like “Berlin Story” and “You Remind Me” offer a short glimpse into a deep and promising songwriter.
Montreal’s Tamara Sandor sings as if she has never listened to another singer/songwriter—in a good way. Her vocal style is intermittently frenetic and calm, as if she speaks through her songs and her true voice only comes out when she’s holding a guitar. Her forthcoming debut LP, A Bower in the Arsacides, sees her stretching out her compositions to include a lush array of instruments and percussion. All of it, however, remains tied to her endlessly unique way of singing and playing guitar.