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Courtney Barnett’s a very needed musician

There’s something to be said for a musician with an incredible onstage presence and something new to bring to the table. With the recent release of her second album, Tell Me How You Really Feel, Courtney Barnett is still crushing the music scene.

Nestled in the balcony of the Danforth Music Hall, a girlfriend and I went to go see Barnett perform last night. She’s come to Toronto before, but I was one of the many unfortunate souls in the past to only watch her through someone else’s Instagram story.

Before things went underway, Barnett left the stage to her opener, Vagabon (Lætitia Tamko). I’m sorry to say that the half-hour set was a disappointment. It was pretty obvious that Tamko’s performance left many concertgoers uninterested and the chatter of the music hall was almost as loud as her music. It’s unfortunate that so few people came out to see someone with such a huge voice, and someone who’s making waves in the indie scene. But, she performed a few tunes and headed backstage where everyone waited in anticipation for the main act.

Barnett, on the other hand, is someone to take note of onstage. Her presence and charisma radiate offstage and onto everyone lucky enough to see her. She has this innate ability to mesh mellow tracks like “Depreston” and “Dead Fox” with more amped tunes like “Pedestrian at Best” that bring out the raspy tones in her voice and a rockstar presence. Being able to indulge in such a character only highlights her talent.

Accompanied by only six lights, kept relatively dim throughout half the set, and her band members, Barnett came out in a pair of jeans and t-shirt to show off her low-key attitude she’s best known for. But, it’s her personality and lyrics that tell tales of her modest fame, insecurities, and struggles with confidence; ironically, these personality traits are what make her stand out from the rest.

The first half of her set included songs off her new album and I appreciated how she quickly informed the crowd that “this song is about depression” before jumping right into a track. She doesn’t give you any time to think about what she said or dwell on it, she just gives you a quick description, so it lingers in the back of your mind as she performs and makes the music more powerful and relatable.

When she comes back to town I would recommend going to see her. There’s something to be gained in seeing a musician parade around onstage and shower you with honesty, not only in her person but in her lyrics.

Gordon Downie of The Tragically Hip dies

Wednesday morning, Canadians woke up to heartbreaking news. Gordon Downie, lead singer of rock band The Tragically Hip, had passed away.

The band confirmed his death in a statement, saying “Gord knew this day was coming – his response was to spend this precious time as he always had – making music, making memories and expressing deep gratitude to his family and friends for a life well lived, often sealing it with a kiss… on the lips.”

Downie’s music was quintessentially Canadian. His lyrics connected all parts of this great nation, from the prairies to the maritimes. While most bands wrote songs about relationships, The Tragically Hip wrote about issues that really mattered to them. Wheat Kings, for example, was about a wrongfully convicted murder from Winnipeg called David Milgaard. The group put a small Ontario town on the map in the song  Bobcaygeon and often sang about uniting the many cultures and regions of Canada. It didn’t matter where you came from or where you were at that moment, Gord Downie and The Tragically Hip made you feel like you were home.

But Downie wasn’t just a musician. He was also a strong advocate for Indigenous reconciliation and the protection of water rights. He sat on the board of Lake Ontario Waterkeeper and was part of the Swim Drink Fish Club, which brought musicians together to help protect the environment. Downie and his brother helped found The Gord Downie and Chanie Wenjack Fund to support reconciliation between Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples. He often spoke publicly about the hardships and challenges Indigenous youth must overcome. 

In 2016, Downie was diagnosed with terminal brain cancer and decided to tour the country one final time. Tickets sold out in minutes. The band’s final concert in Kingston was broadcast live on CBC, with over 11 million people tuned in.

While Canadians knew this day would come eventually, news of Downie’s death is still having an impact. Many grew up with his music, and many others were introduced to it over the last two years. Downie made us proud to be Canadian — and for that we will forever be grateful.

Rest In Peace.

 

Featured Image: The Tragically Hip play during a stop at the Orpheum in Vancouver, June 22nd, 2009, on their tour supporting their new album “We are the same.” (Scott Alexander/Pressphotointl.com)

Woman of the Week: Jazz Kamal

Jazz Kamal’s boxing name is Jazz the Inferno, and as a musician she is known is Nari, meaning fire in Arabic. Both names define this fiery Egyptian, a woman who has the ability to create, destroy, and rise from the ashes renewed.

Kamal destroys the boundaries of what it means to be a repressed woman, and instead lives a life of truth and integrity. Her story is reminiscent of the fiery phoenix renewed, rising from the ashes stronger and ready to help others find their own light in a time of darkness. Kamal is a boxing coach and helps create a space for women to embrace their power and strength at Newsgirls, a women-only boxing studio in Toronto. She is also a profound lyricist and musician, creating political word-spins worthy of the hip hop greats.

I first encountered Kamal as a boxing coach at Newsgirls, a women’s boxing studio that runs classes and a program called Shape your Life to help women who have experienced violence. It turns out that Kamal found her passion at the boxing club two years ago. “I started boxing at Toronto Newsgirls and I hadn’t boxed anywhere else. I’ve always been a fighter but for the last two years I had gloves on,” Kamal says. “Newsgirls is a place where you don’t understand what you are there for until you still step through the doors.”

Kamal fell in love with boxing right away and wanted to make it a permanent part of her career. She began coaching and now helps run the ‘Shape your Life’ program. Before she committed to Newsgirls full-time, she was a technician for a theatre company, a job she really disliked. “My soul was drained and I didn’t see a way out,” Kamal says. “Savoy, the owner of Newsgirls, showed me all the steps to become a boxing coach. I specifically enjoy her coaching style and I told her I wanted to quit my job. It was at the point where I was crying everyday coming home from work. I didn’t want to turn 30 and still be at my job.” In May of that year, Kamal took a leap, quit her job and moved to Newsgirls full-time.

Kamal is also a musician and is a lead emcee/rapper of the group, Phatback, a soul and hip hop group that discusses important political issues. “The idea of the band was born just before I started boxing,” Kamal says. “I’m the lead MC and the lead singer is also a queer woman of colour. We are dedicated to making music that uplifts and our stuff is pretty political.” Phatback is starting a monthly residency in February 2017 every last thursday of the month at The Burdock (1184 Bloor St. W.).

Along with being a lead emcee of a band, Kamal is also a spoken word artist and independent musician going by the name Nari. Her early music reflects a lot about her journey coming out in the LGBTQ community. “I was a late bloomer when I accepted myself as a queer person. Coming from a country where it is very rough for gays in Egypt, I am definitely in danger if the wrong people find out. People go to jail for that,” Kamal says. “Not that North America is the beacon for LGBTQ, I am still allowed to live with my wife in a house we own here.”

Kamal’s journey to accepting herself has not been easy and she has overcome great struggle in order to reach a happier place in her life. “I was going to commit suicide, and I tried twice. My sister walked in and I didn’t want her to see. That ignited something in me that said how are external factors in my brain telling me I have to commit suicide? The answer isn’t to just end it. I had a difficult 10 years ahead of me, but I am able to deal with them differently,” Kamal says. “It doesn’t feel like the end of the world anymore. I have more ammunition, and more energy. I’ve gone to a lot of schools and talked about it.  Without fail, a kid will reach out to me and say it is good to see a queer Egyptian woman being loud and proud about who she is.”

Kamal strongly believes in helping others and nurturing people through their own personal journeys. Her courage and confidence is incredibly moving. She also shared her story in the 2011 PFLAG campaign and speaks to kids at schools advocating for the LGBTQ community. Furthermore, Kamal speaks up about domestic abuse in same-sex partnerships and violence against women.  “Some people didn’t believe I could be in an abusive relationship with another woman. It was psychological warfare and it took me a year and seven months for me to say no,” Kamal says. “I have learned to separate aggression from violence. Aggression is being able to push forward when someone is trying to push you back. Violence can happen without someone even touching you, they can break you down psychologically. You always have a choice, get mad.”

Kamal brings so much passion to her boxing classes and helps many women lift themselves out of the damaging and debilitating world of abuse. Kamal teaches women how to get angry and embrace their strength as a form of empowerment. “My advice to any woman is if you are mad, get angry. Anger is temporary,” Kamal says. “It is much easier than to repress it for years and years. Otherwise, it will turn into violence against yourself.”

Kamal changes lives everyday with her confidence, her comedic skills in the middle of boxing session, and her absolute selflessness when it comes to helping others. Above all else though, I would say the most inspiring lesson that Kamal represents is how far you can go as woman and a passionate person if you refuse to back down. Through her journey in accepting herself as queer person, Kamal faced seemingly insurmountable obstacles and fought hard to live honestly by who she is inside. She didn’t stay in an abusive relationship, and she didn’t stay in a crappy job. She found her passion, and strived towards becoming a person who helps others. Furthermore, she finds peace and power in teaching others to do the same. Whether in the ring or out on the street, Jazz has taught me to have your arms ready and never back down, and to the fight for what you love in this crazy and beautiful life.

Leonard Cohen through a millenial’s eyes

How do you encapsulate the life and career of a Canadian icon that defined generations of poetry and music lovers?

Pouring over years of interviews, poems, songs and cultural tidbits, the task of writing an ‘Ode to Leonard Cohen’ becomes overwhelming. As a millennial writer, how could I possibly do the poet and singer-songwriter justice? I struggle to find the proper words to express how culturally defining and life-changing Cohen was for aspiring Canadian writers and singers. But then again, once upon a time Cohen was a young man too before he captured the world with his magical words.

Cohen was a young aspiring writer who graduated from McGill with his B.A, just an aspiring poet, like so many I sat and dreamed with in my own poetry classes in university. He was a dreamer who had a gift — and he changed the world. Suddenly, the man behind the song ‘Hallelujah’, which has been performed by over 200 artists, doesn’t seem so difficult to write about after all.

Cohen approached the world with fearlessness, pursuing his writing career despite other paths he may have taken. His first book of poems, Let Us Compare Mythologies, was published one year after he graduated from university in 1956 and didn’t fare very well. He pursued studies at Columbia and a variety of temporary jobs until publishing The Spice Box of the Earth that was well-received. Cohen could’ve given up after his first attempts at being a successful writer, but persevered. Imagine a world where he would’ve chosen otherwise and the likes of his novel, Beautiful Losers, or the poems from Book of Longing may have never been produced.

Cohen was a Canadian icon because he continued despite all obstacles. Moreover, he was described countless times throughout the years as a humble man. To be humble and successful is definitive of a cultural genius in my mind, and this sets a fine example for millennial writers looking for an example to follow. When asked about his own work, Cohen famously said, “I never had a plan. I had a certain kind of faith…if the work was good enough or, more specifically, if the work was appropriate to move into the world, it would move into the world…”. His persistent conviction allowed Cohen to create freely without being bound to a sense of greed or power.

Many Cohen fans were surprised with his move into music, and he was even discouraged from pursuing a career as a singer because he was getting into his 30’s (noticeably older than other first-time performers of the time). Again, Cohen ignored criticisms and followed his passion for music, leading him to produce hits such as ‘Suzanne’, ‘Bird on a wire’ and ‘So Long, Marianne’. His singing career spanned 50 years beginning in 1966 with Songs of Leonard Cohen to his album You Want it Darker released before his death on November 7, 2016.

Cohen teaches Canadian millennial writers and musicians to never stop believing that your passions and dreams can come true. With dedication, focus, passion, persistence, and stamina, anyone can achieve greatness. Cohen came out of a generation where Canadian singers and songwriters were often pushed aside by American contemporaries, but he never let that stop him. Instead, he used his Canadian identity as an emblem of greatness and even had a brief love affair with Janis Joplin along the way.

Cohen described his love of Canada often, and he really led the way for other Canadian writers and musicians. “I do love Canada, just because it isn’t America and I have, I suppose, foolish dreams about Canada. I believe it could somehow avoid American mistakes, and it could really be that country that becomes a noble country, not a powerful country,” he said.

If you are ever stuck for inspiration in the creative process, I urge you to follow a series of simple steps. Grab any Cohen volume, plug in New Skin for the Old Ceremony on vinyl, make a cup of coffee and open your heart to the world through this rare man’s eyes. Cohen will be missed by many, but he truly lives on in the hearts and minds of young Canadian writers and music lovers everywhere.

Women of the week: ILana Tarutina

Music has always been a big part of ILana Tarutina’s life. She started singing in choirs at the age of 8, then started taking private vocal lessons and piano lessons at the Royal Conservatory of Music. With the knowledge gained from this, she started composing and creating tracks.

“By the age of 14 I was writing my own songs and at 16 I got my first set of music production equipment and started dabbling with arranging and beat making,” she says.

Now, she owns ILE Records, a company that offers songwriting, composition, production, recording and mixing.
“I’m proud of myself for building my production studio from scratch,“ she says.

As a female producer, she is an oddity in her field. She is quick to recognize this fact, yet remains hopeful for change.
“Unfortunately in my industry, men still heavily dominate the role of a music producer. I’m sure that will change within time, as there are more and more female producers on the rise.”

Despite this amazing accomplishment, she is still incredibly humble and is quick to recognize that she is not a perfect fit for everyone.
“As far as me producing for other artists goes, it’s all about what the artist is looking for, sometimes I may be a good fit sometimes someone else may be a better fit. I know what I bring to the table, I know my sound and production styles and I am aware that it doesn’t suit everybody.”

Although her producing venture has been a success, she hasn’t given up on her writing, and cites that her goal “is to write great songs, be it for me or other artists.”

And, yes, she is still a singer—and an original one at that.

“I’ve been told that I have a unique sound, perhaps it’s because I use original sounds in my production, perhaps it’s because when I sing I have a Russian accent!”

As a female producer with a unique sound, it is safe to say that ILana Tarutina is one of a kind. She is also a fighter, which is why she made it in her industry.

“Anybody entering the music industry has to be resilient,” she says. “Expect lots of pit falls and disappointments and forget overnight success. To make it in every industry requires lots of determination and hard work, in music industry that is especially true since it’s 1000 times more competitive than other industries. A song can be an overnight hit, but the legwork to make that song can be years.”

Sound advice from someone who has spent her entire life in the field.