Each year, countless Canadian bands make the long trip down to the Lone Star state for SXSW, and for good reason: The Austin festival’s nothing if a tastemaker, and careers can be made on its dusty outdoor stages. As with each year, the Canadian convoy in Texas is a mixture of old and new, but we’re not worried about how Solids, Walter TV, or Yukon Blonde will fare—they’re already acts well-established beyond the Canadian border. Instead, we’re tracking these emerging acts.
Samantha Savage Smith
Even on Canadian soil, this Calgary-bred singer-songwriter is firmly underrated. That’s because she’d been sitting on her excellent sophomore LP, Fine Lines, for a full calendar year, before it was finally released by Pipe & Hat in early 2015. It was a revelation, too: Smith has matured as both a singer and a songwriter, adding twisting post-punk guitar lines and twee melodies to her indie-folk base. She won’t be Alberta’s best-kept secret much longer.
Music biz execs may be salivating for the next Mac DeMarco, but let’s be clear: Calvin Love, despite hailing from the same Edmonton circles as the Salad Days singer, isn’t the next Mac. Still, Love released an ear-pleasing, synth-laden album with the nocturnal New Radar which earned him plenty of buzz, and he ended 2014 by moving to Toronto and inking a deal with indie behemoth Arts and Crafts. We expect him to unveil new songs—and drum up plenty of hype—at SXSW.
Plenty on the internet have opined that Toronto’s Tory Lanez should be the next addition to Drake’s OVO Sound, and understandably so: The young producer-MC is one of the brightest lights in Toronto’s exploding hip-hop scene. More to the point, though, the Toronto rapper feels like he taps into the 6’s zeitgeist: On mixtapes like Conflicts of My Soul and Lost Cause, Lanez draws upon dusky R&B and soulful hip-hop to create something that, yes, could easily be at home on OVO. But you shouldn’t watch him because of the Drake comparisons—check him because he’s one of Canada’s best.
Like Tory Lanez, Michael Rault is drumming up fistfuls of accolades in Toronto—although he doesn’t trade in soulful rap. Instead, he dabbles in mid-fi AM gold, and his compositions are so flawless, you’d swear they were products of the 1970s rockosphere. And while Rault’s always been a solid performer, there’s the sense that he’s taken a palpable step forward: He ended last year with a bang by releasing the Ben Cook-engineered Nothing Means Nothing cassette on Burger Records, and we can’t get its two tracks—the B-side is “Still Not Sad”—out of our head. A riser? You bet.
After two promising EPs, London-based punk outfit Single Mothers exploded with their Dine Alone-released LP, Negative Qualities. Known for a blistering live performance, the bombastic outfit proved that they could hack it in the studio, too. Pairing overdriven, stop-start punk with spoke-screamed, hyper-sarcastic lyrics—which recalled Craig Finn losing his mind—Single Mothers were one of Ontario’s breakout acts last year. Austin, surely, is next. English Lit grades, start with the “Marbles,” and revel in the self-loathing.
Our vote for the best Canadian record of 2015 so far goes to Viet Cong, the ice-cold post-punk band featuring ex-members of Women. The brainchild of Matt Flegel, Viet Cong strips the pop tendencies of his previous act, leaving behind sprawling, ear-destrying harshness. Consider it the guitar-based equivalent of a decaying Soviet Bloc-era building: Frigid, grey, and undeniably brutalist, it’s equal parts austere and beautiful. Their January concert in Toronto sold out instantly, so if you have the chance to catch them play a smaller club venue in Austin, it’s highly recommended.
If Viet Cong represent Calgary’s established presence in Austin, Hag Face are the next wave of Albertan miscreants at SXSW. Blending punk, garage, and all-out noise into a caustic blend, they’ve already toured significantly, hitting up a West Coast swing with proto-punk legends Death and hit up the U.S. with Soupcans. Their cassette is an all-out frightening blend of doom punk laden with surprising hooks—check Isolated Now Waves 305, their split with Vancouver noise stalwarts Shearing Pinx, for proof of their hypnotic power.
Eschewing techno’s decade-long obsession with German minimal fare, Edmonton’s Ghibli trades in a brand of hook-heavy beat music that’s decidedly gauloise. Indeed, Tom Mike absolutely adores French house, and Ghibli is his outlet for it, and it’s impossible not to get enraptured by his crisp disco-inflected tracks like “U Need a Manicure,” dropped on his Soundcloud last month. It’s worth exploring, as is his digital label, Manicure Records, which, he explained to me in an interview with Fast Forward Weekly, was about “embracing things that have been shunned by mostly straight white males, like manicures, nail polish, lipstick, makeup, etc. There’s too much crazy bro energy in dance music today — I want to make a queerer, more femme-friendly space in the Internet.” Preach.
Yes, we know it’s obvious to name last year’s Polaris Music Prize winner as someone to watch at SXSW. But while we’ve been rightfully obsessed with Tagaq’s music for the last few months—largely her highly emotive throat singing style could equally evoke feelings of serenity and horror more than lyrics ever could—we’re excited to see how an Austin crowd receives Tagaq. Her music and politics are often classified as regional—she’s Inuit, and has been vocal about northern issues like the seal trade—but, after spending hours listening to the singularly excellent Animism, we’re of the belief that her music is universal. Let’s put the theory to the test.