From punk-infused hip-hop to dance music creating its own space – who’s setting the tone for the city’s music scenes?
There is no Toronto Sound. Instead, there are many – as diverse and vibrant as the city itself.
That might be a surprise to those who’ve come to associate Toronto with the dark, emotional hip-hop and R&B template set by Drake and the Weeknd at the beginning of this decade and by their imitators and successors throughout the 2010s. But the attempt to define the Toronto Sound stretches much further back – back at least to the R&B and soul singers of the 50s and 60s and the rootsy rock bands and folk singers who followed in Yonge Street bars and Yorkville coffee shops. Then came the Queen West punks and goths, the alt-country songwriters, the sprawling indie rock bands with the populations of small townships.
The truth is, there was no Toronto Sound in those days or today – only the sound of Toronto right now.
It’s not found in sweeping trend forecasts or on the pages of international music magazines harvesting the fresh crop of New Drakes, but at underground raves in grey-market warehouses, on pop-up DIY radio, in new-school queer ballrooms and at punk record shops – even in Hamilton and Burlington, where many musicians have retreated due to untenable rents, to live and to work while travelling back to play.
While it’d be impossible to represent the full scope of music being made here, here’s a collection of what’s exciting at this fertile moment in time. Below, you’ll find snapshots of seven musicians, bands and collectives defining Toronto, each in an overlapping lane of creativity. They’re pushing the limits of genre, creating their own spaces, making room for marginalized communities and setting the tone for scenes to come. Plus: 21 more musicians to watch in 2019 and beyond.
On any given night of the week, you can spot Chippy Nonstop at the club. The Toronto-by-way-of-Los Angeles DJ, producer, rapper and singer is often the one performing, but when she’s not, she’s out supporting other artists and trying to make electronic music more diverse, inclusive and safe for everyone.
“There are so many talented people making and producing music in Toronto right now. There’s a lot of visibility for us and more community support,” she says. “But it all boils down to infrastructure.”
Chippy contrasts the dance music scene here to cities like London and Berlin, where 24-hour radio stations like Rinse FM are equipped with CDJs – equipment used to play digital music – for club DJs to broadcast live on air at any time. Meanwhile, music venues here can barely stay open and safety remains an issue at large clubs.
“The good thing is there are people who really do care and want to make nightlife a better place,” she adds. Many artists and promoters, especially those who are women or identify as LGBTQ+, have gotten creative with finding new spaces and forming new communities.
“I think more DJs are playing the music they actually like and listeners’ minds are opening to more interesting sounds,” Chippy says. “People used to just stand around when there was a song they didn’t know, but now they’re receptive to unique sounds that aren’t just OVO, especially if it’s a diverse crowd.”
When Chippy is behind the decks, she’s always pushing the envelope. Refusing to categorize herself into any one genre, she describes her sound as a mix of techno, juke house and world sounds. “But I feel like I get influenced by a lot of things and every time I play a set, I progress,” she adds.
Chippy’s other creative project is Intersessions, a workshop series that provides a safe environment for women and queer-identifying folks to learn how to DJ. All workshops are free and are taught by industry professionals. In 2019, Intersessions is launching a three-month residency in the backspace of Lululemon’s Queen West shop so that DJs can drop in to practice playing on CDJs. Monthly workshops, panels and a dance party are also planned.
As for her own shows, she’ll be DJing a lot and starting a bi-monthly night at a yet-to-be-named venue. “It’s going to be a diverse electronic music event with lots of communities, hopefully, coming together.” MICHELLE DA SILVA
Since launching her EP Pressurize in 2016, Edna King’s star has been on the ascent with performances on the main stages at MUTEK Montreal and Mexico last year. Her brand of unassuming techno blends pulsing industrial beats, dissonant harmonies and fuzzy, synth-driven vocals. She’ll join Rrose on home turf for a show at 500 Keele on March 2 (see listing).
Sexton rides the line between techno and house, which gives her energetic live sets wide appeal. And in the past year, she’s been playing for wide audiences, opening for buzzy acts like Yaeji, DJ Seinfeld and Nathan Micay. She’s a regular at clubs in Toronto and Montreal and hosts the monthly show Thirst Club on n10.as radio.
When he’s not curating bins at June Records, the DJ and producer is laying down the funk at clubs across the city. With his latest release, Moods From The Multiverse, Reza flexes his keyboard skills as he continues to develop his signature future disco sound.
Just John and Dom Dias are moving at warp speed.
The rapper and producer only met last February (via a sponsored Instagram post, because 2018) and already they’ve put out two EPs full of bass and energy and fire. Don 3, the third in the Don trilogy, is on the way, with the first single, Drippy, set to drop in February – and there’s plenty more where that came from.
“We got so many tracks we’re sitting on that we just want to let fly,” says rapper Just John. “Like, let’s get this fire out there.”
Before they met, both artists had already been making a name for themselves in Toronto – Dom Dias in the club scene and Just John, first as the head of the Blank Canvas art collective and then as a soulful, politically astute MC. But working together pushes them both into an intense new gear that seems to surprise even them.
“It feels like we just unlocked a bunch of cheat codes,” says Dias, the producer. “It’s so easy and it feels vital.”
Just John comes from what feels like a punk background – Blank Canvas is about unapologetically taking up space for BIPOC and marginalized artists – but working with Dias gives him a hard-edged sound to match. “It’s mosh pits and elbows and water being thrown.”
The first song they recorded together, Soundboi, might as well be their all-caps MO: “BASS. BOOMING OUT THE SPEAKERS.”
There’s plenty of thought behind the visceral music, too. Dias, who is a UX designer by day, says they both read a lot and trade books and songs – disco, metal, hardcore, baile funk, samba, jungle, dancehall and grime – then mesh it all into a trap format so you can hear the 808s.
Scarborough-raised Just John has a poetry background, so he has the lyricism to back up “the cheeky bars that I add here and there,” but he also comes from dance, which means he’s focusing first and foremost on “how can people vibrate to these records.”
Their hunger matches a spirit taking over the local hip-hop underground, which is breaking out of the numb and subdued Drake-and-Weeknd-influenced “Toronto sound” the city’s become known for. Similar to the UK underground that gave birth to the punchy drive of grime, forward-thinking artists in the hip-hop and electronic party scenes are intermingling to create a much broader palette.
It’s all backed up with a DIY grind – in a large part out of necessity – which is somewhat ironic because the duo recently signed to the major label Warner Music, which released their last EP.
“Those cats are super-supportive of what we’re doing, never want to change us and never have changed us,” says Just John. “They’re just giving us more access. So in 2019 we’re just going to grow within the city, keep applying the pressure and then just explode.” RICHARD TRAPUNSKI
The city’s hip-hop scene is often criticized for being too male, but right now, some of the most exciting voices are women’s. Sydanie – who proudly represents for queer rappers, working mothers in music and her southside Jane neighbourhood – brings serious fire over forward thinking electro beats. Last year’s exceptional mixtape 999 is disarmingly versatile and ear-catching. She can’t stay under the radar for much longer.
Beatmakers from Toronto and its surrounding cities – like FrancisGotHeat and WondaGurl – are all over the international rap charts if you check the credits. But Murda Beatz, who scored big hits with artists like Drake and Nicki Minaj last year, is also breaking out as a featured artist in his own right: he put out a collaborative album with SmokePurpp last year, he’s nominated for a handful of Grammys and he’s playing Coachella. But he’s kept his connection to Toronto, with production on local projects like the new posthumous Smoke Dawg album, Struggle Before Glory.
We’ve given the promising 17-year-old rapper some shine over the past year, and he’s already getting a ton of buzz internationally, but it feels like his ascent is still just beginning. Last year’s melodic, come-up-centric Icebreaker mixtape came out on New Gen, which made him the first Canadian featured on UK label XL’s imprint for rising future stars. He’s been vague, but promised big things for the next year. In a Regent Park scene that’s getting a lot of notice, you believe him when he says it.
Whenever Linnea Siggelkow plays Frostbite live, she introduces it as “the song about the worst night of my life.” Over a shimmering guitar melody cutting through a thick layer of distortion, she wistfully sings, “Begging you ‘please don’t go,’ running barefoot in the snow.”
Siggelkow says it’s about a real relationship she had, in which she felt like she was losing control. “I really got frostbite on my feet,” she says. “It’s a humiliating story, but I’ve made it into something that I think is beautiful.”
Deeply personal storytelling is the backbone of every song of Siggelkow’s new solo project, Ellis, but it took her a long time to embrace her vulnerability.
“I’ve been playing music for as long as I can remember, but it took me a long time to be able to call myself a musician. I grew up in dude-heavy scenes with a lot of agro-masculinity,” says Siggelkow, talking about her high school days in London, Ontario. “I had this fear of being labelled a singer/songwriter or a ‘girl playing guitar and singing about her feelings.’ It felt weak and silly. But now I feel powerful doing that.”
Frostbite is the song Siggelkow credits as helping her find her voice. That sound? Autobiographical meditations on heartache, self-sabotaging relationships and loneliness over woozy pop.
It all comes together on her debut EP, The Fuzz, which she self-released last year. “The fuzz is this concept I came up with that’s like a metaphorical abyss that you get lost in or like the noise of a TV. The EP comes from feeling stuck in that place,” says Siggelkow.
She moved to Hamilton a year and a half ago – for a “change of pace, scenery and housing prices” – and she recorded the EP in her new city. She still feels connected to Toronto, though. It’s where she wrote her first Ellis song, and where she started playing solo. (So, sorry Steeltown, we’re still claiming her as partially our own.)
“I always had imposter syndrome about being a musician. Playing in Toronto helped me break out of that. I found the confidence and the headspace to start putting out songs that I wrote on my own,” says Siggelkow.
She’s headlining her first American tour this spring and plans to release a debut full-length later this year. Like The Fuzz, her latest songs continue to be rooted in personal experiences, but she’s experimenting in the studio, incorporating new instruments like horns into the mix.
Right now, it feels like the new guard of indie rock – once the domain of angsty white men and guitars – is dominated by women like Mitski, Soccer Mommy, Snail Mail, boygenius and Japanese Breakfast who come armed with fresh perspectives both musically and lyrically. In 2019, Ellis is at the forefront of that awakening locally and beyond.
“I hope this isn’t just a moment,” says Siggelkow. “I think we should feel badass being that vulnerable.” SAMANTHA EDWARDS
As Luna Li, classically trained pianist and violinist Hannah Bussiere melds her honeyed voice with twinkling dream pop. She spent 2018 playing alongside fellow indie rockers Born Ruffians, Mauno and Michael Rault, and will play Wavelength’s Winter Festival at the Garrison on February 17 (see listing).
Disguised in a fringed mask and cowboy hat, singer/songwriter Orville Peck writes lo-fi country songs with a speck of shoegaze and a virtuosic, Roy Orbison-indebted voice. He’ll be releasing his debut LP this year on Royal Mountain and Sub Pop in the U.S., and judging from his debut single, Big Sky and just released follow up Dead Of Night, we’re in for some gorgeous, atmospheric campfire tunes. He’s at Longboat Hall of April 13 (see listing).
Born and raised in Toronto, Seth Nyquist – better known as MorMor – writes, plays and produces nearly every one of his bedroom psych-pop songs, including Heaven’s Only Wishful, which has racked up over 3 million views on YouTube and is all over Spotify. He plays Longboat Hall on April 24 (see listing) and you should get your tickets now. There’s no way he’s playing a venue that small again.
Clockwise from top left: Myst Milano, Max Mohenu, Blip†or, Casey MQ, Victoria Long
Raven’s Vision see the future and it’s gleaming with potential.
Cheekily named in reference to the 2000s Disney TV show That’s So Raven, the local club music collective formed when friends Casey MQ, Myst Milano and Blip†or came together to showcase their various talents in a group setting. All three have solo projects: Milano is a fierce rapper/producer, Blip†or produces dark “urban rave” while Casey, who recently released his debut EP, is a multi-instrumentalist with ethereal pop sensibilities and an in-demand producer.
They started hosting parties under the Raven’s Vision banner a few years ago at the queer nightlife hot spot the Beaver on Queen West. The venue provided a safe space where the queer-identifying artists could express freely and bounce experimental ideas off of each other and the audience.
If you’ve ever attended one of their shows, you know they bring personality and colour to their sets. “You’ll often hear many pop tracks ‘flipped’ or ‘freaked,’” Blip†or explains. “Experimental club music and genre-clashing is inherently queer and from people of colour. Those who show up to our parties know this is what they’ll get along with the freedom to dance to bizarre and interesting sounds.”
To date, they’ve hosted several parties, and while they look to continue them this year, they also want to expand the possibilities of what Raven’s Vision can be. In an effort to create a sense of community and show off different facets of the underground, they’ve recently added writer/promoter Max Mohenu and visual artist Victoria Long. “We really want to put a spotlight on the amazing artists we’ve come to know over the years,” says Casey.
For Raven’s Vision, the “club” is not merely about drinking and partying, it’s a space where new ideas, sounds and identities can be explored.
They’re somewhat secretive about their plans, but drop a few hints. “More live sets and day parties are definitely on our agenda,” Casey says.
Giving back to the community that fostered their creative spirit is clearly a priority. As their family grows, Toronto’s queer dance culture does, too. GRIFFIN MARTELL
When techno DJs Kehdo, Ceremonies and Efemmera launched the party series On Earth last January, it felt like a godsend for the underground dance music community. Fast forward 12 months and the three women in the group have 15 top-notch bookings under their belt plus an exciting one-year anniversary with Discwoman’s Akua as well as Toronto’s KTANA this Saturday (January 19) at Bambi’s (see listing).
They launched in 2016, but 2018 was the local queer collective’s most active year. The group – “by and for queers of colour” – presented the opening party for community arts festival Bricks & Glitter and held panel discussions and parties, including a massive second anniversary celebration with TT The Artist. Their influence on Toronto’s queer culture seems to extend farther with each passing year.
KARIM OLEN ASH
A workhorse DJ and promoter, queer scene staple Karim Olen Ash spent 2018 destroying dance floors across the city. He’s played the new ballroom music party OVAH!, is a regular with Yes Yes Y’all and is playing at Intersessions’ residency at Lululemon. Next on the horizon for what should be a big year: Thursday (January 17)’s Unity hip-hop charity party at Revival (see listing) and the Black Liberation Ball at Longboat Hall on February 2 (see listing).
If there’s an underrated upshot to the city’s unchecked suburban sprawl it’s that Toronto musicians often produce great driving music.
Adria Kain is no stranger to long commutes. Born in Oakville, she’s moved between Mississauga, where her mother lives Toronto, where she’s pounded the pavement as an indie musician for over eight years and the Burlington home of her immigrant Trinidadian grandparents, where she recently retreated to escape the city’s perilous rental market.
“I was on the train today reflecting and I realized most of my music comes from the experience of moving through life,” she explains during an interview at a downtown coffee shop. “Where I’m going, whatever I see and hear, how that makes me feel, all the little details.”
Kain has been on our radar for the past two years, but hit a new creative stride with Still In Love, the first installment in an EP triptych that will form her upcoming album When Flowers Bloom.
She drifted between producers for years, before settling into a fruitful collaboration with Jack Rochon, whom she met through rapper Sean Leon – her closest artist friend. Her assured, dusky vocals and knack for mining widescreen drama from reverby soul and R&B has drawn local media and industry attention, but a lack of sustained institutional support – not unusual when it comes to local R&B talent – almost discouraged her to the point of quitting.
“It was like I was signed to the label of life,” she says. “When I encountered someone who was willing to help me creatively, I always moved by their rules. I felt stuck.”
So Kain retreated to Burlington and regrouped.
“Nowadays – and I say this in the nicest way possible – I care about nothing,” she explains. “Whatever lane I end up in is the lane I’m supposed to go down.”
Warm and optimistic, Still In Love is the first music she’s made without trying to please anyone else. She likens the feeling to “standing on a mountain yelling.”
Opener L.I.M.B. (Liquor In My Brain) playfully incorporates a wrong take to draw the listener in deeper. The moment is typical of her newfound confidence.
“I didn’t think too much about how I wanted to structure this music,” she says. “I’m not rushing into anything.”
Her lyrics linger on love and heartache, but without malice. In the Still In Love video, Kain drives east from Parkdale. As the sun sets, the lights in Yonge-Dundas Square take on a disarming romantic quality not typically associated with that part of the city. The video cuts a few times, repeating the same route from new angles.
“Life is a repetitive circle,” she says. “Regardless of what I go through in relationships – even if it breaks my heart – I’m still in that place of love. I haven’t left there yet.” KEVIN RITCHIE
The spate of hip-hop and R&B artists breaking out of Toronto has mostly been men – until recently. Somalia-born singer/songwriter Amaal, who has steadily built a following on YouTube and social for a few years, just released a strong first single for major label Universal. Not What I Thought is an airy, understated ballad with an addictive pop beat that nicely showcases the subtle power in her voice. An EP is on the way in 2019.
Tilting toward the neo-soul end of the R&B spectrum, LIZA (pronounced Lee-za) was a regular presence on Toronto stages last year: she warmed up the crowd at Lauryn Hill’s Bud Stage show last summer and performed for the chilly masses at City Hall on NYE. Graceful vocals and bright instrumental touches throughout her arsenal of downtempo slow jams create humidity in any season. The single Morning Glory is out in February and watch for an EP in late March.
Singer/songwriter Staasia Daniels continues to refine her minimalist mid-tempo R&B with each new release. Last year’s EP Mood Roulette was her most cohesive to date, full of confident melodies and sly, multi-tracked choruses that evoke the classic hallmarks of the genre while remaining firmly in the present. A video for Peanut Butter and the six-song EP Whatever Happens, Happens are due out this year.
Devi (left) and Rook have yet to make their live debut in Toronto, but their messages of resilience have resonated here.
Devi is describing what she looks for in a musical collaborator.
“Someone who’s doing their own shit, [who’s] very definitively on their own path,” she says wryly. “And I’m always interested to interfere with that.
“I look for the smell of death on people and then become their friend.”
“Yeah, I feel like that’s how we know each other,” echoes her Black Dresses bandmate Rook. “‘Hey, that person’s almost dead!’”
In late 2017, Devi put out a request on Twitter for “internet weirdos” to send her beats, and the two self-taught musicians started DMing each other synth loops, drum loops and vocals.
That quickly turned into Black Dresses’ debut album, 2018’s WASTEISOLATION – 13 staticky noise pop songs that unflinchingly confront trauma and their experiences as trans women. On the frenzied, half-rapped standout Thoughts And Prayers, they flip the oft-used stock phrase used by politicians following tragedies into a rallying call to arms.
Much to their surprise, that self-released record and the follow-up EP, HELL IS REAL, have resonated with an audience who identify with the messages of resilience in the dark but danceable music.
“It’s not something I go back to listening to and it’s honestly not something I want to perform in front of a group of people,” admits Devi. “It’s really fucking cool when other trans girls tell us, ‘This album made me feel less alone,’” says Rook. “That gives me so much hope.”
Rook relocated from Vancouver to Toronto last year, and the now-roommates are currently finishing up work on their sophomore LP (due out February or March), which they describe as “poppier but in a messier way.” “It’s really intense but maybe a little less so, so personal,” notes Devi. “We’re trying not to trigger ourselves.”
While they’re not shy about their love of nu-metal groups like Linkin Park and Slipknot, they also cite Canadian art-rock collective Yamantaka // Sonic Titan, no-holds-barred rappers Rico Nasty and JPEGMAFIA, and chameleonic Atlanta MC Young Thug as influences.
Spend any amount of time with them and it’s clear they’re each other’s biggest fans, whether they’re effusively praising recording techniques or other collaborative albums (Devi put out Some New Form Of Life with Australian experimentalist Katie Dey in 2018, Rook is one-half of duo Rook & Nomie, both have solo projects).
Though they frequently share gear and DIY studio tips with their followers on social media, the self-described “hermits” are still gathering their impressions of Toronto’s music scene and where they might belong in it. They’ve yet to perform live as Black Dresses, Devi pointing to a solo show of hers that was cancelled after the venue’s owner discovered gay, trans and Black acts were on the bill, as an example of the discriminatory attitudes many artists still encounter while navigating spaces in the city.
Regardless, the duo have found strength in one another and no matter what uncertainties the upcoming year throws at them, they’re ready to face it together.
“I feel worse about 2019 [than 2018],” confesses Devi.
“I try not to think about it as a year,” Rook chimes in. “I’m taking it week by week.” MAX MERTENS
You might know her from her work in Toronto warped pop heroes Hooded Fang or as one half of experimental electronic duo Phèdre, but April Aliermo’s performance at the Music Gallery’s Emergents concert series on January 19 (see listing) is her first large-scale project as a solo artist. Titled Artemis Of Colour, the meditative synth-and-samplers soundscape will reflect on a “woman’s independence and autonomy through self-pleasure,” and feature kaleidoscopic audio-responsive visuals designed by Sahar Homami and performed by Kat Estacio.
Speaking to NOW last year, glam-pop singer Nyssa said, “I listen to a lot of old rock and roll, and I’m still very much influenced by it, but when I’m writing I flip the perspective to sing from my own standpoint, or from the standpoint of the women in the songs.” Following her excellent debut EP, Champion Of Love, and rumours of big rock co-signs, she’s not going to be one of the city’s best-kept secrets for much longer. See for yourself when she opens for Juan Wauters on Wednesday (January 23) at the Horseshoe (see listing).
After 2018’s pulverizing Manor Of Infinite Forms – which received glowing reviews from metal and non-metal publications alike – death metal band Tomb Mold aren’t planning on taking their foot off the gas any time soon. The four-piece are working on their second record for the label 20 Buck Spin, due out this summer, and they’ve got a slew of European and North American tour dates. As to what fans can anticipate from the new LP, drummer and vocalist Max Klebanoff tells NOW, “Expect complete and utter cosmic death. Prepare for ceaseless revulsion and purgatory illumination.”
Alex Wood (left), Kat McGouran, Adam Bernhardt, Shelby Wilson and Ryan Hage
WLMRT went from an idea sparked at a S.H.I.B.G.B’s show in the spring of 2015 to a fully fledged band faster than you can say Lube 2.
The band – formed by vocalist Shelby Wilson and bassist Kat McGouran and filled out by guitarist Adam Bernhardt and drummer Ryan Hage – accepted a spot on a gig at the now-defunct punk venue that summer before they even had a song written.
In the two weeks leading up to their first set, they came up with five songs and found quick commonality despite their varied levels of experience – Hage had classical piano training, McGouran previously played in a Rush cover band, while Wilson and Bernhardt had never written or performed music before.
WLMRT are products of the city’s fertile DIY scene, where venues like S.H.I.B.G.B.’s encouraged people to start bands and made space for musicians at every level.
Their sound solidified when Hage approached the group with what McGouran calls a problem and a solution. He didn’t want to play drums anymore, but knew just the person to fill the role. With Alex Wood coming on board behind the tubs, it freed Hage up to jump on keys, giving the band a melodic counterbalance to their distorted guitar-driven noise.
“The guitar and bass in WLMRT are meant to sound like hardcore, and then I’m just trying to make it sound more like pop music,” Hage says.
That tension creates a carnivalesque void of noise that Wilson’s vocals live in. Her dry delivery seems off the cuff, borderline stream-of-consciousness, and only adds to the deadpan humour of her words.
“Shelby’s the layer on top that makes whatever song our own,” says McGouran. “Instrumentally if I’m ever doubting whether a song works for us or sounds like WLMRT, she comes in with her vocals and it’s like, ‘Yup, we can make this work.’”
Three years later, WLMRT are held together by more than just an idea – they found chemistry along the way.
In January they’ll embark on a tour that takes them through most of southern and eastern Ontario and into Montreal. They have three EPs, the latest being Lube 2 on Pleasence last year, and February sees them return to Stephen Pitman’s studio in Little Italy to record their next record.
Though they’re hesitant to say whether it’ll be an EP or an album, they like the urgency that being a punk band affords them and are pushing for a release sooner rather than later. MICHAEL RANCIC
This hardcore quartet were the talk of 2018’s Not Dead Yet. They’ve got two tapes and a slew of gigs under their belt, so they’re tight and riding some major momentum. Their songs barely break the minute mark – they’re all passion and pure turbulence.
Rickety, jerky, stopgap punk with an intense, often bizarre edge to it. Hugh Man draw inspiration from everyday frustrations, warping and distorting them to lampoon modern life and the anxiety that hangs over it.
The word “slurry” is often used to describe a viscous mix of solids and liquid. While the sound of Slurry is certainly more defined than the grey smoothie that their name conjures, there is an arresting quality to their pliant, resilient post-punk.
Listen to a playlist of artists from this feature below: