Noise Makers: The Canadian Musicians Who Are Turning Heads
While the following artists represent just a small portion of our effervescent music scene, their star potential is undeniable, and it’s only a matter of time before others catch on. Take notice now because soon you'll be able to say "I knew them way back when."
by : Patricia Karounos- Mar 23rd, 2021
BRENT GOLDSMITH (Shay LIA)
To love a Canadian musician is to, at times, walk a fine line. There’s the spine-tingling thrill that comes with discovering an exciting and underrated new talent—someone who feels like they belong wholly to you. Then comes that exhilarating rush when you get to tell a friend, made all the better when they end up loving your discovery as much as you do. But as you watch the artist grow and continue to put out stellar work, the frustration settles in. Why aren’t they getting wider recognition? That’s why we’re rallying behind our Canadian performers—the unbelievably talented multi-hyphenates making waves in the industry. While the following artists represent just a small portion of our effervescent music scene, their star potential is undeniable, and it’s only a matter of time before others catch on. Take notice now because soon you’ll be able to say “I knew about them way back when.”
One of the first things that Montreal-based musician Shay Lia will tell you about herself is that she’s shy. It seems like an absurd contradiction—a shy musician?—but she says it with genuine conviction. She has always loved music but hid her voice from everyone, even her family, until she was about 18. Growing up in Djibouti (on the northeast coast of the Horn of Africa), a place where not many big-name international artists make tour stops, she never considered a career in the industry. But that changed when she moved to Montreal to study and became friends with some of the city’s brightest music creatives, including celebrated Grammy-winning producer and DJ Kaytranada. Eventually, he asked her to collaborate, and the rest, as they say, is history. The pals dropped their hit track “Leave Me Alone” back in 2014, and Lia has been navigating the industry as a blossoming indie artist ever since, winning a Polaris Music Prize nomination and a coveted nod on Michelle Obama’s #BlackGirlMagic Spotify playlist along the way. Her latest EP, last year’s Solaris, was her most daring move yet. Instead of sticking to her slick R&B roots, she pivoted away from a collection of songs she says were good but not exciting and went for a global, Afropop-inspired vibe. And that is what’s most intriguing about Lia: Rather than succumb to that self-proclaimed shyness, she isn’t afraid to push herself out of her comfort zone to see what will happen.
When OVO Sound—the record label co-founded by Drake—signs a new act, it sends a (figurative) alarm blaring through the streets of Toronto. Who better to vouch for an artist, after all, than the King of the 6ix himself? That’s not to say that dvsn, the critically acclaimed R&B duo made up of vocalist Daniel Daley and producer Nineteen85, needed the extra boost: The pair were already on their way to stardom before officially joining OVO in 2016, having gained recognition for their soulful crooning backed by understated production. The duo released their third album, the emotional and meditative A Muse in Her Feelings, last spring, joining the boom of local artists, like Jessie Reyez and The Weeknd, who were doing the same despite a bevy of pandemic-related delays. The LP garnered critical buzz, landed them on best-of-the-year lists and on the long list for Canada’s prestigious Polaris Music Prize and led to seven sold-out drive-in concerts. They launched 2021 with a brand-new EP, Amusing Her Feelings, which they describe as “a continuation” of their most recent LP. The lead single off the sultry four-track compilation is an eyebrow-raising, genre-bending mash-up of seminal Kings of Leon hits “Use Somebody” and “Sex on Fire”—an indication that dvsn has no interest in adhering to any established music “rules.” Consider Toronto conquered. Next stop? The rest of the world.
Like many aspiring musicians before her, Alex Porat got her start by uploading song covers to her YouTube channel. The videos were clearly a passion project for the then teen: visibly homemade, unfussy—just a girl standing in front of a microphone, putting her own spin on recognizable pop songs. But then came the unexpected: Shawn Mendes reacting to Porat’s cover of his sweeping ballad “In My Blood” in a 2018 video for Glamour. The Toronto native’s videos were already doing well on their own, but a shout-out from one of Canada’s biggest homegrown pop stars was on a completely different level. Her channel exploded, and today it sits at more than 900,000 subscribers and more than 130 million views. But that was just the start for the now 23-year-old, a helpful endorsement on the path toward a full-fledged career in the music industry. Emboldened by the boost, Porat started writing and putting out original songs—dreamy indie-pop tracks with lyrics that hit deep. Her debut single, the delight- fully cheeky “Only Hanging Out Cause I’m Lonely,” landed her on Amazon Music’s list of artists to watch in 2020, a year that culminated for the singer-songwriter in the release of her debut EP, Bad at Breakups. To mark the occasion, Porat hosted an intimate livestream concert and Q&A on—where else?—YouTube, a sign of unflappability during a chaotic year and a promise of the potential she has yet to unlock.
In recent years, it hasn’t been unusual to see Toronto singer-songwriter Ralph on lists of local musicians to watch. She has built a fan base across the country for her glossy disco-pop tunes and ultra-trendy (but completely distinct) aesthetic. Her sound is modern yet still a throwback to an era of vintage pop (she counts Cher, Donna Summers and Sade among her influences), so it makes perfect sense that the Juno-nominated artist has toured with the likes of Carly Rae Jepsen. Now, with two EPs and a full-length album to her name, Ralph is ready for her next big move. The song-stress recently launched her own label, Rich Man Records, initially as a way to carve out space for Canada’s booming indie-pop scene. Although the pandemic has forced her to temporarily pause some of her plans for the label, one thing remains unchanged: It is a way for Ralph to take greater control of her own music. Through Rich Man Records, she will own her masters, plan her own releases (keep an eye out for plenty of new work this year) and sit comfortably in the driver’s seat of her own career. Soon we’ll be saying “It’s Ralph’s world; we’re just living in it.”
Toronto rapper DijahSB has been quietly prolific for years. They have been on the scene for a decade now, consistently dropping raw tracks with whip-smart lyrics. The MC—who started out under a different name in 2011 as part of a duo—doesn’t shy away from anything. They can transition from punchy pop-culture references to earnest, revealing moments about everyday struggles with life and mental health, all while maintaining an appealing air of cool confidence. DijahSB aims to be inspirational without being preachy, using their music to grow, soothe and express hope. The indie artist dropped their debut full-length LP, the relatable and catchy 2020 the Album, last summer and quickly followed it with an EP, Girls Give Me Anxiety. And DijahSB isn’t slowing down: They have more singles planned for release throughout the year plus yet another full-length album set to come out in April. But don’t think for a second that their non-stop output is affecting the quality of their work. They have won spots on a number of critics’ lists and a shout-out from personal inspiration Kid Cudi, and they’ve been named an artist to watch by Complex, Amazon and Spotify (on which they rack up over 120,000 listeners each month). People are finally starting to notice. DijahSB puts it best on their Facebook page: “Catch a ride on the DijahSB bus before it’s too late.”
“I just wanted to do something that is truly me because I am truly me,” Toronto-based musician Lido Pimienta told BeatRoute magazine about her most recent album, last year’s Miss Colombia. It’s that sentiment that best sums up the Indigenous Afro-Colombian artist’s entire career. Originally from Barranquilla—where a cousin introduced her to the lively sounds and vibrant aesthetic of different Afro-Latin groups—Pimienta immigrated to London, Ont., before eventually landing in Toronto. She hit the mainstream with her second album, the empowering, defiant and entirely self-produced La Papessa, and took home the Polaris Music Prize in 2017, firmly planting her flag in her corner of the industry. Miss Colombia, the singer-songwriter’s third LP, somehow topped it. The title is a hilariously pointed reference to Steve Harvey’s infamous Miss Universe blunder, a moment Pimienta says caused her to reflect on the anti-Blackness she experienced as a child and re-examine her relationship with her home nation. The result is a loudly lauded musical journey that confronts authority while somehow being gentle and ethereal at the same time. The album also happened to put her on the international stage, garnering her a Grammy nod for Best Latin Rock or Alternative Album. Regardless of the outcome, one thing is certain: Pimienta is here to stay.
If you’ve spent any time on TikTok in the past year, you’ve heard JP Saxe’s voice. His melancholy duet with singer-songwriter Julia Michaels, “If the World Was Ending” (which was produced by Billie Eilish’s brother, Finneas), debuted in late 2019, but the apocalyptic love song took on a new life last spring during the first phase of COVID-19 lockdowns, playing in video after video on the app. “The song is making people feel closer to themselves and closer to the people they love because of the emotion that’s in the song,” the Toronto-born artist told Billboard about the tune’s new-found resonance. But make no mistake: Saxe is more than a viral meme. He and Michaels got a 2021 Grammy nod for Song of the Year, and amid all the attention, he released his highly anticipated debut EP, Hold It Together. The journal-like six-track compilation is a true showcase of talents, combining both his heart-wrenching lyrics and his surprisingly rich voice. Although Saxe hasn’t been on the scene long, he can already count A-list talents like Sam Smith, Demi Lovato, Maren Morris (whom he teamed up with for a new single back in January) and fellow Canadians Shawn Mendes and Alessia Cara among his fans. And that’s all before we’ve even heard his debut full-length album, which is expected to be released sometime this year.
Mustafa is no stranger to the public eye. Throughout his adolescence, the Torontonian was known as “Mustafa the Poet,” beloved for his brutally honest and powerful spoken-word poetry even at a young age. (A performance he did of his poem “A Single Rose” went viral when he was just 12.) He was the poet laureate at the 2015 Pan Am Games and was appointed to the Prime Minister’s 2016 Youth Council. His poetry was even embroidered on pieces in Valentino’s fall/winter 2019/2020 collection. But the artist took his time transitioning to music, starting behind the scenes by writing for industry powerhouses like The Weeknd, Camila Cabello and Usher. Now, at 24 years old, it’s time for Mustafa (“the Poet” has been dropped from his moniker) to step into his own spotlight. He released his debut single, “Stay Alive,” last year; it is both a delicate plea to his friends to stay safe and a mourning of those he has lost to violence, and it almost feels too raw in its grief for public consumption. When Smoke Rises, his first LP, is expected to continue in the same vein as “Stay Alive” when it drops this year; a rousing dedication to lost loved ones, it’s an exploration of loss and the complexities of his experiences. It’s deep, thoughtful music, and Mustafa did it his own way—just as he always has.
During a year in which most of us non-front-line workers were forced to stay still, 18-year-old renforshort (née Lauren Isenberg) did the opposite. Last March, the Torontonian released Teenage Angst, her personal alt-pop debut EP, to critical acclaim. Plans for a whirlwind press tour may have been stymied by the COVID-19 pandemic, but that didn’t stop momentum from continuing to build around the teen, who hails from a family of musicians. She got to work on songwriting sessions over Zoom as a way to keep busy while self-isolating, which led to her dropping more atmospheric singles throughout the rest of the year. Teen malaise rings through her bubble-gum-pop-slash-grunge bops (the perfect hybrid of Billie Eilish moodiness and early Avril Lavigne punk that we didn’t know we needed), creating music that speaks specifically to her gen Z cohort while also being transporting for older listeners. That trademark vulnerability has caught the eye of some big names both in and outside the industry (she’s well on her way to becoming a fashion darling thanks to a brand partnership with Balmain), including that of Linkin Park co-founder Mike Shinoda; he teamed up with the artist to remix her pop anthem “I Drive Me Mad” after it stood out to him on a playlist. She wasn’t done yet, though. Last fall, her gentle and melodic tune “afterthoughts” was featured on the soundtrack to Disney+ teen tearjerker Clouds, enabling the artist to reach a different place with her music. And that’s exactly what this year is about for renforshort, who is expected to keep releasing new tracks in 2021: experimenting with and embracing her ever-transforming sound.
Anachnid—Oji-Cree artist Kiki Harper’s stage name, which is derived from her totem, the spider—had only a handful of songs out when she won SOCAN’s prestigious Indigenous Songwriter of the Year award in 2019. But it was a clear indication to the Montreal-based artist that she was on the right path. Anachnid started composing as a teenager but felt like she and her talents weren’t being seen while she was attending a non-Indigenous high school. She stepped away from music for nearly a decade but was lured back into it when she attended a workshop held by a Montreal-based Indigenous-music non-profit, Musique Nomade, a couple of years ago. She then got to work on her debut album, the haunting and innovative Dreamweaver, which dropped last year and landed her on the long list for the Polaris Music Prize. Her music is a fascinating, sensual blend of trap, indie, hip hop and electropop that draws on her Indigenous heritage and explores themes of injustice, race, colonization and capitalism. For the young artist, it’s just the start of the beautiful, evocative web she’s weaving.
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