thu 18/08/2022

Q&A Special: Electronic Musicians Bonjay | reviews, news & interviews

Q&A Special: Electronic Musicians Bonjay

Q&A Special: Electronic Musicians Bonjay

Canadian electro/indie/R'n'B duo talk influences, from Aaliyah to Talking Heads

A potent combination of growling electronics, sub-bass frequencies and expressive vocals seems to have moved back to the centre of the UK's pop landscape in recent months, whether via the likes of James Blake, Magnetic Man or even the unlikely sound of Britney Spears appropriating dubstep signifiers on her new record. All of which makes the arrival in the UK of Canadian duo Bonjay seem very timely indeed.

Having met at a Toronto club night in 2006, vocalist Alanna Stuart and producer/instrumentalist Ian Swain (aka DJ Pho) acquired a kind of inadvertent cult status through a succession of inspired covers of indie hits (“Maps” by the Yeah Yeah Yeahs and TV on the Radio's “Staring at the Sun” among them) setting Stuart's assured yet playful vocals against Swain's bit-crunching electro-ragga edits. After a couple of years treating music as what Stuart calls “a serious hobby”, they shifted their emphasis to original material in 2009 with the release of “Gimme Gimme”, and late last year came the six-track Broughtupsy EP, the most smartly realised example yet of their signature blend of bass-heavy dancehall futurism, post-Aaliyah R'n'B and indie introspection.

UK indie One Bird Records has plucked two tracks from Broughtupsy, “Stumble” and “Creepin'”, for a digital-only release on 6 June, while the band, now augmented by a drummer, made their UK debut in London last month. Thanks to the largesse of the Ontario Arts Council, they're currently in Berlin working on their debut album for a planned 2012 release before returning to the UK for further live shows in London and Manchester next week. theartsdesk met them in a café in Berlin's Friedrichshain district

"Creepin'" by Bonjay

PAUL McGEE: So, how exactly did two Canadians come to be recording their debut album in Berlin?

ALANNA STUART: It's all thanks to the wonderful Canadian granting system. We both got Arts Council grants to work out here, our drummer Kieran and his wife, who does our photos, also got grants, so it's turned into a kind of international Canadian arts camp. We're here to work on the record, but being so close to the UK gave us the perfect opportunity to introduce ourselves to audiences over there, because we've always felt an affinity with the UK. Also I didn't actually know before we came here just how important it is to have that mental freedom from the familiarity of home, to be able to put day-to-day things like email to one side and just focus on writing and being productive.

There are a number of common characteristics between your music and the styles that have emerged from what you might broadly call the UK dance underground over the last few years, such as dubstep, grime, garage and so on. Have you noticed British audiences responding to this?

IAN SWAIN: Oh, yeah, definitely. To give you an example, our second show at the Great Escape in Brighton was in the basement of a hotel a little off the beaten track. We were on first, and about 10 minutes before we were due to go on there was no one there. So we thought, OK, this is going to be one of those shows we do for ourselves. But five minutes later the place was full and there was no one on before us, so we figured they must be here for us which is encouraging, especially since we're coming to a place where no one really knows who we are.

AS: In some Canadian cities and some US cities, they might say before the show, “You guys are gonna hear some dancehall, some soul music...” and we're like, you know what? You may as well just say reggae, because a lot of people may not know what dancehall is. Yet in the UK, people will come up to us and say things like, “I love the way you mix up dancehall and soul.” There's less of a need to explain ourselves there. We feel more understood.

There's a different kind of energy in a live show. It doesn't have to feel like a wild party all the time

IS: When we started putting out real records and came into contact with the wider music industry, we realised there's a need for people to be able to classify you, which I suppose can be a challenge. But we've sort of made our own lane, so we're not really in competition with those artists who others may see as doing a similar thing. As much as dancehall is an influence on what we do, all of that UK stuff is an influence as well. When I was a kid, I was listening to Massive Attack and stuff like that, and what was so exciting about them was the way they mixed up different styles. When it comes to dancehall and a lot of these UK styles, it isn't just some cool foreign thing - it sounds like the music we listened to when we were growing up.

Even the people who know you may not realise that it's Alanna who brings the indie element to the table, with the cover versions of Feist, Caribou and the Yeah Yeah Yeahs...

IS: People assume that it's me being clever, but I'm more responsible for the dancehall side of it. I'd be like, oh, this beat is great, and I'd do a re-edit of it, and Alanna would come up with the idea of putting a song over it. I'd never even heard the original version of “Maps” until after we did our version.

When I first heard your version of “Maps”, it was when there was this trend for slightly arch, coffee-shop singer-songwriter versions of songs like "Straight Outta Compton", and you turned that on its head a little bit with those early covers. But there were some lengthy quiet periods in between, and at one point I wondered if you'd signed to a major and been lost in development hell somewhere. Then over the last year or so, you became a lot more active.

IS: It's funny because we didn't realise people were paying us that much attention. I was still at school and I was in the library all the time.

AS: We had time to develop by accident in a way, because we had day jobs. I was finishing university and had started a job, but I'd already been involved in the music industry since I was a teenager, so I knew I wanted to have a career in music. At that point, Bonjay was more like a serious hobby. We didn't really start to treat it like it could be a career until we got a manager. Then I lost my job, so that gave us an opportunity to see where we could go with it – give it six months maybe, see what might happen.


So there was never a five-year plan?

IS: Are you kidding? No, in hindsight there was all kinds of exciting stuff we could have done back when we were putting out those bootlegs, but we weren't taking it seriously at that point.

You met one another at a club night in Toronto called Disorganized which sounds like the kind of thing you find in many big cities; it starts life as a party, but ends up becoming a jumping-off point for all manner of things.

AS: Ian was one of the DJs there, and I remember hearing him play this Bugz in the Attic remix of "Zombie". I'd come from the R‘n’B world and had started to get exposed to a lot of other things like indie stuff, and I was just hungry for anything different. I was really excited by the things Ian was playing and I said to him, “I really wanna work with you, I'm an R‘n’B singer and I want to make forward-thinking music,” and he just said, “Uh, here's my card...” because he was in the middle of a mix. But there was still this immediate trust in his taste, and when we began working together, he trusted my ideas. And Disorganized was the perfect place to try out those early songs we did because it was so open, one of those places where the crowd trusted the DJs' judgment.

IS: Yeah, there are great parties in every city, but Disorganized kinda typified that mid-Noughties period where you'd run lots of different styles and tempos and, to someone like me who grew up on things like Ninja Tune, it felt like a successor to that kind of aesthetic. I was talking to a friend back home recently about doing a kind of “sit-down” club night where the music you play is still adventurous, but isn't so dependent upon stimulating a crowd of people who are just there to dance and wave things about. And one of the things that's fun about what Bonjay has become is that when we play live, there's less of a need to constantly stimulate people in that way. There's a different kind of energy in a live show, more of an emotional connection. It doesn't have to feel like a wild party all the time.

Adopting more of an indie approach was kind of a rebellion against being seen as just that black, soulful diva type of singer

I suppose the nature of your current set-up limits you to doing things on a small scale for the time being, but are there any long-term ambitions to expand upon how you present your music?

AS: We'll keep it small for now, especially because Ian's production is so complete that it's hard to imagine where another instrumentalist would fit, although Kieran adds a lot to the sound and complements it without changing what we are. But at the same time I grew up singing in the church, and there'd be all these revival-time singing competitions which would be held in huge theatres with upper balconies. I loved feeling the expanse of that space, of feeling small and looking out into a sea of people. There's something about being on a bigger stage with more people that makes it feel less like all eyes are on you and more like you're in a giant playground, and I'd love to have a moment like that with Bonjay.

IS: I think that the next stage of the live show will involve just getting better as a trio, but I once read about someone performing grime at the Royal Albert Hall or somewhere like that, only with a full orchestra. And I can actually write charts, so something like that wouldn't be beyond us. Maybe a better example would be the show that Portishead did with an orchestra. We don't sample like they do, but there's lots of elaborate detail in their arrangements, and it was great to be able to hear it performed on that kind of scale. But right now I couldn't see what would be between something like that and the trio set-up. We're still kind of at the junior level.

I'm interested in hearing more about Alanna's musical background; you mentioned gospel and R'n'B.

AS: Yeah, I started singing when I was eight, and sang in a lot of teen gospel competitions. Most R'n'B singers eventually move from the church to writing and singing their own songs, which is what I did. I started working with different producers, but the turning point was when I was working with a production and management team who were following the American teen R'n'B starlet template. They changed my name, my age, my bio, and I didn't want to do any of that. Then I discovered they'd released my single to an urban radio station in Toronto under a pseudonym that I hadn't approved.

Everything about it was shady. There were clauses in the contract which said that if you got pregnant or sick you had to pay them a certain percentage, and they had me singing all these shitty R'n'B songs with lyrics like “I bought you that cell phone and you won't call me”, that kind of thing. So I decided I didn't want to make that music any more, and when I went to university and encountered all these DIY singer-songwriters, I decided to take my R'n'B voice and try to apply it to that template. I was always influenced by singers like Monica and Aaliyah, where the delivery isn't so evangelical and is more evocative and emotionally driven, but adopting more of an indie approach was kind of a rebellion against being seen as just that black, soulful diva type of singer.

"Stumble" by Bonjay

When you mention Canada, it's probably fair to say that “multicultural society” isn't the first thing that would come to mind for most people. Have you been able to use that to your advantage?

AS: Well, Canada's a diverse country, but because its cities are so far apart you don't necessarily feel the blend of cultures across the country. There are still pretty distinct cultures in each province. The mentality is different in a place like Toronto, where there are lots of different cultures alongside one another and there isn't that kind of separation among the neighbourhoods that you might come across elsewhere. Growing up in a city like that has been good for us because it means that, like London, our music is understood.

IS: I guess there hasn't been a wave of music from Toronto that's shown that side to the world, so maybe that's where we come in. From what I understand, Toronto was kind of a dull place before the immigration explosion at the end of the Sixties. Since then – between, say, 1970 and now – there's been a dramatic change. About 80 per cent of the city's population is now either first- or second-generation immigrant, and it's gone from there being no non-white people in the city to about half non-white in about a generation. One of the things that drives me is this exciting mix of cultures that goes on at ground level which hasn't necessarily been represented to the world yet. As we're touring more, we're beginning to understand more of what's distinct about ourselves. In the UK there was that mixture of sound-system culture and the early house movement, and all the things which grew from that, and I think maybe our unique contribution might be to combine dancehall and that bass-heavy sound with the more esoteric singer-songwriter thing that Alanna loves, like Kate Bush, St Vincent or Björk.

Sometimes your average listener or critic can have a hard time placing us

Is that the kind of ballpark you're working in with the album?

AS: We're a bit more deliberate with writing the album, so we have these three main influences that are guiding our efforts... [To Swain:] Can I reveal what these are?

IS: Well, can I add something first? Part of what we've realised from touring and getting a lot of positive response is that sometimes your average listener or critic can have a hard time placing us. We're starting to realise that we need to define ourselves, even for our own benefit, so we decided to boil it down to a few key influences that we'd use as reference points whenever we were stuck for ideas...

AS: ...and one of those is Talking Heads's Remain in Light album. I only found out about them by accident about two years ago. I was at a dinner party where this album was playing and I kept interrupting the conversation, asking, “What is this, who is this?” When we were mixing the Broughtupsy EP, the engineer was always saying, “You guys have too much stuff, you need to strip it back,” and I was like, “Forget that, I like all those parts, let's keep them.” And a song like "Born Under Punches" helped us put into context the idea of this dense instrumentation where all the sounds have their own distinct space.

Listen to Talking Heads's "Born Under Punches"

There's also the Timbaland/Aaliyah collaborations, which is really forward-thinking pop music and a big influence on Ian's production, and then there's Feist's album The Reminder. Feist is someone really dear to my heart musically, and I think the vocal performance on that album is amazing. That's the kind of thing I want to get across. I don't want the vocals to sound too affected and I don't want to be afraid to sound like a singer. So we're trying to combine all those elements...

IS: ...and filter them through the lens of dancehall, which ends up in everything that we do. Even if it isn't dancehall in the strictest sense.

AS: There's a lot of syncopation in the stuff we've written for the album, so as much as we might say it isn't really dancehall, if I don't hear that sub-bass and that really hard kick it doesn't feel right to me. So all these things are kind of our spirit guides for this record.

A key moment for many performers, I think, is reaching the point where they go beyond simply sounding like their influences and begin to develop their own musical personality.

IS: I suppose that if you were to compare us to something like, let's say, Ms Dynamite, then we'd be kind of a pale imitation of that. Alanna's not really interested in portraying herself as that kind of superwoman figure, because it doesn't suit her style of singing. In the same way, if you were to hear Aaliyah and then us, you might think our music doesn't have that kind of mystical quality. But I hope that, by being influenced by these things and trying to create our own thing, we come up with something fresh.

AS: I've never wanted to sound like someone else, but there were two records, one by this band from Montreal called the Local Rabbits – I don't even know if anyone outside Canada knows who they are - and the Feist record. They were two things I tried to emulate in the sense that I wanted to come across more naturally as a performer, because before, when I was doing R'n'B, everything was done beforehand, the vocal riffs and ad-libs would be played on a keyboard and I was expected to just mimic it. It never felt like I was really singing. There was no real emotion involved – even the cracks in my voice were things I'd been told to put in there technically.


IS: When it comes to the production side, I'm just as strident as Alanna in not wanting to copy a particular style, but rather to do something new. And I don't know if that's necessarily the quickest path to success, but sometimes things come together and there's a moment where something fresh comes along that resonates with a lot of people, so who knows?

AS: I've never been nervous about people's reaction to our music, but then we've never made an album before, so I'm interested in seeing how people perceive it. People come up with so many different names for what we do and if they can't quite figure it out, maybe it'll make it easier for them to accept it as it is.

Will the album be just a collection of songs, or is there some kind of unifying theme?

IS: There's definitely a theme to it, and the plan is to pick the songs that work together as an album and as a cohesive statement.

AS: The lyrics and the stories complement that theme, and we'll be working on the visual aspect with Hanna Hur, who did the artwork for our last two records. I'm excited to have the time to be a bit more conceptual, and to try and bring all these different aspects together.

IS: Until a few months ago, I worked at the University of Toronto for an institute that studied cities. This involved looking at the history of cities, what made them economically or socially successful, that kind of thing. When we were starting to write the record we noticed how so much pop culture nowadays has kind of an Eighties/Nineties view of the city – in the centre, there'll be a ghetto that's surrounded by green, leafy suburbs - and these tropes get held up again and again. First of all, the centre of a city is rarely a ghetto nowadays. There's a more varied mixture of people living there. So we wanted to make a record about the way we live in cities today, and at least one of the songs is about this dream of being able to make a living from your creativity, and how it's becoming harder than ever, even though the tools are becoming more and more accessible.

Over half the world is living in cities, and we want to look at the contradictions of that, the beauty of it, the dark side of it

This is actually a very Talking Heads/David Byrne kind of theme.

IS: Well, I tend to be the one who thinks along these lines because that's my background, but Alanna is good at making the emotional connection and putting more of a human face on these ideas, so you get that push and pull, but I hope that very few of the songs will be things you'll need to break down intellectually in order to understand what they're about. Over half the world is living in cities, and we want to look at the contradictions of that, the beauty of it, the dark side of it.

AS: Ian's done all this research with his job, and so he has a pretty accurate picture of the way people live in cities. For me, I'm a people person, and much of the evidence I draw on is anecdotal. My parents came to Canada from the West Indies, so I've learnt about the city through their experience as well as my own, and I'm trying to incorporate these things into stories. It's not political and it's not heavy, but I hope audiences will connect with it because it's about people's experience and people's stories.

It's interesting, then, that you should be making the record in Berlin, because it's not really a sprawling urban metropolis in the recognised sense, although there are a lot of familiar metropolitan tensions. There's lots of open spaces, lots of green spaces, lots of room, but there's also the resentment amongst locals over creeping gentrification and how that pushes up rents and prices and so on.

IS: It's like that in almost every city in the Western world. In Berlin, previously there's been so much beautiful space for people to move into, and there was a lot of supply so the demand was satiated and there weren't the same tensions. But in London I get the sense that this gentrification process has taken up much of the central city, and the places that you'd call the equivalent of the projects are often in affluent neighbourhoods, with the supporting-service underclass living alongside the professional classes. On the other hand, Toronto was a smaller city that didn't start to expand until after WWII, so a lot of the early public housing is nearer to the centre of the city and there's more of a mix of people. But for the most part, the newer immigrants are in the inner suburbs, and if you want good Asian food, for example, you'd go to all these 1950s strip malls in these neighbourhoods because the newer immigrants are living in the concrete towers out there. I think that if you listen to, say, a lot of rap music, you might end up with a certain perception of what city life is like, but I don't think that tells the whole story. I don't think anyone's tried to make a record about all these forces as they are right now, all of the emotions, the struggles, the beauty, the happiness and the dark side of it.

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