The Hip. They were the only two words on everyone’s lips when I arrived in Canada late August 2016.
A nation-defining band like no other, The Tragically Hip had just performed their final concert following the announcement of frontman Gord Downie’s terminal cancer. Watch any footage from the bars and music venues streaming the gig and you’ll see the bloodshot, tear filled eyes of thousands of Canadians.
Back home, around a third of Canada’s population sat down to watch The Hip’s final farewell on live television. In a nation better known for its beavers and bare-chested Prime Minister, just what exactly does Canadian music have to offer? 2016 seemed like the perfect chance to take a closer look, especially after The Hip’s goodbye and Leonard Cohen’s passing.
…the lifeblood of Canadian music right now is in the veins of indie rock and electronic artists.
The fire of Canadian music has burned long and hard, spawning out legends like Neil Young, Joni Mitchell, Celine Dion, Alanis Morissette and, well, Michael Buble. Meanwhile few would deny that Justin Bieber and Drake, like it or not, will go down as era defining pop artists; that’s all I’ll say on the matter. There are a few contenders who could join that list in the coming decades. Canada has produced several major breakthrough artists over the past few years, The Weeknd topping the lot. With the endorsement of Drake, The Weeknd emerged head and shoulders above the rest of Toronto’s famous hip-hop and R&B scene. The 2016 Juno’s saw The Weeknd scoop three awards and right now Abel Tesfaye sits top on Spotify’s most listened-to artists across the globe. Canada’s pop world is in good hands it seems.
That being said, the lifeblood of Canadian music right now is in the veins of indie rock and electronic artists. Cœur De Pirate, City And Colour, Bob Moses, Andy Shauf, Bahamas, and the list goes on. There’s three artists in particular who have been hallmarked for long and impactful careers. Grimes has turned more than a few heads since 2012 and her late 2015 record Art Angels slots in neatly alongside the likes of Tame Impala and CHVRCHES. As obscure as it is musically precise, Grimes’ sound rings sharp and distinct in an increasingly saturated market. Art Angels secured top three album of the year positions from Rolling Stone, NME, and Pitchfork in 2015.
Keep your eyes on Half Moon Run. Their latest album Sun Leads Me On is an absolute stunner. Laden with thick harmonies, synths and acoustic guitars in equal measure, and a deep space atmosphere, these guys are the real deal. Comparisons with Radiohead are only natural but there’s an indie-rock playfulness present both in their shows and records. Having seen HMR live a couple of times I’ve witnessed their phenomenal live performance and musicianship. Watch this space.
With a total landmass larger than the United States but a population a tenth of the size, Canadian artists are up against it.
The Arkells are the last of my picks. As soon as I arrived at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario, I was continually asked whether I’d heard of Arkells. Named after a street not far from the University, the band hails from McMaster. They’re about to tour Canada with Frank Turner and you can hardly walk into a store without hearing ‘Leather Jacket’ on the radio. For sure their musical market is the teenage girl’s hairbrush and heartbreak, but their first of three records has a certain classiness to it.
It’s not an easy ride for Canadian musicians though. With a total landmass larger than the United States but a population a tenth of the size, Canadian artists are up against it. There’s the small matter of 5,000km between Vancouver and Montreal—two of the major music scenes—and it costs upwards of $500 just to enter the US for tour dates; it’s free for US artists coming to Canada.
Take a band like The Wooden Sky. They’ve released three records in 10 years, have a unique sound and put on a vibrant live show, but when I saw them they were performing to about 150 people in a bashed up basement bar. All the while the Canadian weather can soon shut down a tour, and cities of suburbia like those that litter Ontario lack a historic cultural punch that draws in bands and fans. All of that considered, the fact that Canada’s music scene has produced some of the top artists in the world right now is pretty remarkable. 2017 is Canada’s 150th birthday and that’s focusing eyes on the True North’s art and culture. With a firm stake in the pop, indie, and electronic scene, Canadian music is something a proud people can be proud of.
Essential Canadian playlist:
Grimes – Flesh Without Blood
City & Colour – Lover Come Back
Daniel Caesar – Death and Taxes
Half Moon Run – Turn Your Love
The Wooden Sky – North Dakota
Arkells – 11:11
Bahamas – Stronger Than That
Joni Mitchel – Help Me
Leonard Cohen – Chelsea Hotel #2
Homeshake – Call Me Up
Mac Demarco – Blue Boy
Alex Calder – Light Leave Your Eyes
Andy Shauf – The Magician