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An interview with RÁJ

An interview with Raj

In September 2013, Zane Lowe on BBC Radio 1 debuted a track entitled ‘Ghost’, performed by LA-based singer-songwriter, RÁJ; in April 2014, the artist followed up with the song ‘Let Me Love You’. Both tracks are notable for their stark lyrical honesty, otherworldly atmosphere, and combination of traditional folk aesthetics with various degrees of brooding distortion. The artist has previously been lips-sealed on personal details of his life, background, and music, choosing instead to deliver somewhat-cryptic Twitter messages. That is, until now…

 There has been a scant amount of background information available on you. As such, would you be willing to provide some of the most elementary of these details? Perhaps your name, birthplace, or birth date?

Of course, my name is Raj, I was born in Westlake village, California, on July 22, 1993.

 To what extent has the hiding of your personal details been deliberate? Why might this be the case?

It hasn’t been important at all for me and the initial campaign. When I put out my first song “ghost” we released my name, my location, and a photo of myself. I’m fairly open actually, and pretty much willing to answer anything. My twitter is @rajnoise, ask away.

How important has social media and online distribution (including uploading and streaming services) been to the establishment of your own ‘identity’? 

I think that in today’s entertainment world, it is the only way for artists to stay relevant. Social media is SUCH a beautiful thing. I can let the world know everything I want you guys to know, when I want you to know it, and it’s coming right from my mouth. We “the entertainers” are controlling the information that is given out about us. Before social media existed we were being spoken for by companies and brands, like TMZ, who go out of there way to manipulate a situation for their benefit, regardless of what is the truth.

How did you become a musician?

I always knew I could sing. I would be sitting in the back of my car with my mom when I was little and would sing along to what was playing and I always remember her looking back smiling at what was coming out of my mouth. She’s an incredible singer, so I think I got a little bit of her gift.

Are there any non-musical influences that have had an impact on your attitude to being a musician?

Yes. Anyone, in any field, who is considered “the best”. Woody Allen is first who comes to mind. I don’t know a TON about Woody, and I haven’t seen all of his films, but what I do know is Woody sticks to his guns. He has such a distinct taste and style, and it wins. Seeing someone “win” time and time again by doing exactly what they want is so inspiring. And Woody is SO himself. It’s really amazing. Also Johnny Depp. He definitely isn’t the most well rounded actor, but what an amazing guy. Every role he takes, he makes his own. Everything he does is just an extension of Johnny Depp. That’s how I want to be. I want to go play and sing on old blues songs, and you guys can hear ME. I want go feature on Kanye West hooks and I want you to still hear ME. I want everything I do to just be an extension of the core of RÁJ.

How would you describe your sound? What other music was perhaps an influence on you, and would you be able to provide any comparable artists for those who may be unfamiliar with your work?

I’m still finding that out. It’s becoming much clearer to me these days. The only thing I can say I strive for is to be tasteful. It’s such a vague word but I think if you understand it, you know exactly what the word means. I’m really inspired by darker sounding music generally. Oasis is my exception there, but they even have their dark moments (“Wonderwall”, “Talk Tonight”, “Morning Glory”). Radiohead, Lana Del Rey, Sidney Betchet, Jeff Buckley and Burial are my go to influences. They’re all such amazing artists.

Your music is quite open-hearted and introspective, and implements interesting usages of more typical folk instrumentation with heavy effects of distortion and reverberation. What is your approach to songwriting? What guides you in this process?

I don’t know anymore. There isn’t really a process these days, I just let it happen. In the past, I would generally start on guitar, write a melody, throw a couple words together, and then take it to the studio.

I had previously described your two tracks with some of the following terms: dark; minimalistic; brooding; ethereal; and melancholic. Yet, I had still referred to them as ‘pop’ tracks, atypical as they may sound for such a designation. Where might you stand in your approach to ‘pop’ music? Would you see yourself as a pop artist?

Yes, 100%. It is my goal, and I’ve just came to this idea recently, to be a pop artist. Not in the sense of production, but in the sense of being popular. I’m not saying I’m going to compromise my vision for what I think will do well, that’s the opposite of what I’m saying really. I’m here to take my abilities and write music for the entire world. For everyone’s home. I’m interested in writing songs your mother will love, and your super hip elitist brother or sister loved 6 months before you found it (classic art elitist). I want to make art that I like and in return the world likes. That’s my goal.

The video for ‘Let Me Love You’ contains some heavy symbolism of spirituality and religion. How central are these concepts to your songwriting? (And, perhaps by extension, your life?)

Songwriting? Not so much. I haven’t gone there yet. But in my life, heavily. “GOD” is an English word, and the concept seems Western to me. But the concept of “GOD” is rather worldly, or at least it should be. I believe there is a higher power that created all man. I believe Buddha, God, and Allah are all the same person (I know I’m missing a few). But it’s really been butchered. I don’t go to a specific church, and I don’t practice a specific religion. But I believe and respect in a higher power.

What was the impetus for having the video for ‘Ghost’ be one of a cinematic breed? Would you see it as being any less ‘personal’ than that made for LMLY (which is composed entirely of amateur footage of RÁJ walking around various areas of France)?

It was just fitting. I don’t know if it was so thought out to not have me in it. It just felt right though. In hindsight,  maybe it’s less personal to the viewer (me not being in it), but it’s still a moving video. I don’t think it lacks passion at all.

What can we expect from you in the near future? A full EP or LP release? A continuation of your current touring? 

I’m just writing right now. It’ll all come out eventually, I’m not sure if it will be an EP or LP, but I’m working hard at making it the best it can be. That’s my main focus. What comes after it, I have no clue.

And, finally… Have you caught World Cup fever?

YES! Love the World Cup. I don’t pay attention SUPER closely, but I have seen majority  of  the games. Predicting  Netherlands win.

RÁJ has most recently performed as part of KCRW’s Chinatown Summer Nights series on Saturday, June 14, in Los Angeles. 

-Tim Nicodemo
Katuwapitiya.com Contributor

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Megan Bonnell: An Album Review and an Interview

Megan Bonnell

Toronto songstress Megan Bonnell makes a convincing statement from the outset of her debut album, Hunt +Chase, that she aims to distance herself from the many female solo artists performing today: on ‘Coming Home’, she immediately calls attention to her own distinctive style with a low, raspy voice, replete with unique inflections. This voice helps carry forward the song’s slow, intense pace, with both feeling as if they are wanting to ‘burst’ forth, and the lyrics juxtaposing life and death, bloom and decay—“Six feet underground and down below/I am all you know”… “My heart is tangled up in vines/And I’m going down”—combine to give the listener an inclination that Bonnell may be taking us to the dark recesses of our heart which we may otherwise want to avoid.

This tendency for slow-burn crescendos, melancholy, and open-hearted honesty travels through the veins of nearly every track on the album, making for a potentially emotionally-exhausting listen, yet one which is truly beautiful and original all the same. Folk-oriented ‘Stars’ follows this buildup-and-release method with vivid, imaginative lyrics which extend deep-seated emotions into the realm of the fantastical, contrasting the natural and the supernatural: “Explosions in the sky, they/Fell on my head/And I bled and I bled/‘Til I was just a ghost”.

Her ability to strike the heartstrings of the listener not only comes through by way of her touching words, but through very atmospheric sonic aesthetics. ‘We Are Strangers Now’ features successive layers of sound overlaid on top of acoustic guitar chord strumming, and great depth to the drums, the bass sounding like a cannon going off, while the snare whips in and out, akin to a pistol being fired.

The only instance in which this aesthetic is broken is on the album’s title track, which marks a large digression in tone from the rest of the album: a blaring, rapid drum loop introduces the song, which is quickly followed by a piano loop, multiple layers of instrumentation and vocals overlaid atop one another, all propelled by the album’s fastest tempo. Arguably the most ‘upbeat’ track, its frenzied pace and multifaceted instrumentation strays markedly from Bonnell’s otherwise sullen, emotionally-charged album.

Megan Bonnell appears to be trying to break some new ground. Rather than succumb to the charms of electronic pop or folky saccharine sweetness found in much of today’s female-driven music, Bonnell instead takes the route most of us would try to avoid: going down the dark, desolate pathways to one’s most inner and fragile emotions, erring on the side of gloom and melancholy over joy and optimism. What results is an outstanding debut album that becomes cathartic as Bonnell’s vibrant, candid lyricism is matched by its potent, moody sound.

Sybille Baier – Colour Green (2006)
Vashti Bunyan – Lookaftering (2005)
Joanna Newsom – Have One On Me (2010)

We also had the pleasure of speaking to her about her album and her current tour:

Could you try to describe the tour with Emilie Mover so far?
It’s been very special!  I feel like the past year I did a lot of touring, but some of it was in Europe, and some in the States, and then a lot of it was flying to, say, Halifax, or Québec. It was nice this time to just kind of be playing a little bit closer to home at some of the smaller cities. And they have a real kind of a…heart to them. And then one of the most special parts was just getting to do it with somebody. You know, I’ve been playing solo, and lots of the time the band can’t come with me, and to sort of have a partner-in-crime in Emilie, it’s been really fun, and especially, just another girl in a similar situation, it’s been great to sort of share that together.

Following from that, you have played in “larger” cities, such as New York, Los Angeles, and San Francisco. Do you feel any sort of difference when you’re playing in a big city as opposed to, say, Waterloo, or Guelph, or London?
Yeah, I think it’s a little bit more intimate, and there’s also kind of a built-in appreciation. I do think that people that live in smaller towns and cities actually are really excited. They kind of plan nights around music that they like that come into town because it doesn’t always. Sometimes they have to go to bigger cities to hear the music, so, I think that I felt that for sure, just a real appreciation and excitement.

You grew up in a rural area in Caledon, surrounded by wilderness, and the themes and emotions in your songs are largely influenced by nature. How have you handled this fairly rapid transition to touring and playing in such large locations, and living in Toronto?
I think I was really keen not only to play shows abroad, but also just to travel, and so it felt like the perfect way to kind of take me there. It was extra satisfying seeing these beautiful, beautiful countries and cities, and knowing that it was what I’ve been working on my whole life. Being given that opportunity, it felt extra special. So I think there was just a deep appreciation and excitement that there wasn’t room for many other thoughts other than just being really, really happy.

In the past, you’ve commented that you feel many female musicians are disinclined to show too much emotion or intensity, especially toward men, and that you believe it’s perhaps out of a fear of seeming “crazy” or “needy”…
Well, I’ve found it’s a term that gets thrown around, like…it’s so dismissive to say, “Oh, she was crazy.”  I have totally been called “crazy”, and, personally, I think ‘crazy’ is good, better than ‘boring’, but I also think it’s kind of unfair. With Hunt & Chase, I think I kind of let it all hang out, and I’m glad that I did. I guess I feel like I kind of honed all the emotions that might be seen as a little bit much.

Do you feel that female artists, today, continue to struggle with feeling pressured to conform to certain values or images?
Yeah, I think so. Like in anything [when] you’re putting yourself out there, you leave yourself vulnerable. You’re kind of at the risk of being judged. But I also think that, in Toronto, there’s such a community of musicians, and you feel supported. There’s a real connectedness. You know, for a bigger city, it feels very small—in the music industry, at least—so I appreciate that. I couldn’t have done the last album without the support of my co-producers, Josh Van Tassel and Chris Stringer.

Is creating music, and the process of writing and putting together Hunt & Chase, a way for you to hold onto nostalgic memories and feelings?
I think so. Unintentionally, but…I just want to forever remember it. Most of my songs are kind of a remembrance of something I’ve encountered, and so it does kind of slip into my music since it’s a huge part of me. And I also just kind of love, like, if nostalgia had a sound, I love that sound, or what I imagine that sound should be. There’s a peacefulness, but also this hazy, haunting darkness in it, too. And I also think, when you remember things, you don’t remember them exactly the way they were, they’re kind of glorified without you even being aware of that, they’re sort of romanticized.

Does that also hold true for the painful memories? When writing Hunt & Chase, you had went through a break-up that set a lot of these feelings in motion, so was that album a way to be accepting of letting go?
For sure. It’s the cheapest form of therapy.  Making a song about something like that…it’s a way of processing and putting pieces together.

You have also referred to Hunt & Chase as being like a “dream sequence”, saying that it kind of “weaves in and out of the place you are, and the place you imagine to be”. So, where were you when writing the album, and where did you imagine to be?
I think a million different places as far as imagining to be. Some would involve time travel.  But where I was, physically, was usually either in Caledon, at my parents’ house, where I grew up. And then the other place would have been in my loft in Toronto where I was living at the time. A cavernous loft where my ex-boyfriend no longer lived—it was just me and my sad songs.  But it was for the best, because I got songs out of it. I won.

Final question, and it’s a timely one: If you could become a gold medalist in one Winter Olympics event, which one would it be?
I think hockey would be cool. I was watching [HBO’S] 24/7, and that kind of got me better-acquainted with the players, and now I’m really into it.

Were you into hockey much beforehand?
I like it. Again, I think that sound of the game reminds me of my dad and my grandpa, so, I like it for that.

Megan Bonnell’s debut LP, Hunt & Chase, is available now on Nevado Records. Megan will be performing in Toronto at The Drake Hotel on Saturday, February 15, with labelmate Emilie Mover. Doors @ 7PM, $10. 19+.

-Timothy Nicodemo
Katuwapitiya.com Contributor

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Concert Review and Interview: Jeff Barkman (Nov, 19 2012 @ Horseshoe Tavern, Toronto)

Jeff Barkman @ Horseshoe Tavern

Jeff Barkman @ Horseshoe Tavern

There’s something amazing about shows at the Horseshoe Tavern. As one of the most historic live venues in Toronto, its atmosphere is rarely matched. Jeff Barkman and his brand of indie singer-songwriter music did not disappoint in maintaining that atmosphere. His set consisted almost entirely of new songs that will be on his next album, tentatively titled Ghosts. With his talent for songwriting on display, Barkman presented the crowd with some of the most emotional songs in his repertoire. In our last review, we said that the lyrics behind his first album Assembly Line Surgery were sincere; if this show is any indication of how his second album will sound, it will be nothing short of mesmerizing. The soulful approach to his new set of songs was captivating. With a stripped down set including just Barkman’s raspy voice and acoustic guitar, it was a moving set.

The opening acts started the night off on a high note. Exceptionally talented Montreal band The Damn Truth, fronted by the charismatic Lee-La, opened the night with an awesome hard-rockin’ blues sound that is rare in today’s music. Local band Tomahawk Love also brought an entertaining set with a good mix of covers and original tunes. The crowd was dancing through the whole set, right from the opening riff of their cover of Jet’s “Are You Gonna Be My Girl?”.

Compared to the high-energy opening acts, Barkman’s set was quite intimate, something that works well at the Horseshoe. The audience was engaged as soon as Barkman’s voice was heard at the start of the first song “Chains.” With a setlist full of meaningful songs, Barkman kept it light by joking with the crowd and doing shots of whiskey in between songs, ending one of his most emotional songs with the comment “It’s really hot up here. I’m pretty sure I can smell every band that’s ever played here. Seriously, it smells like the Rolling Stones.”

Barkman capped the night with some of the most popular songs from his first album, including “Safe from Hell,” “Without You Within,” and the soulful “Assembly Line Surgery.” With much of the crowd singing along, it was a perfect way to end the night.

We got the chance to speak to Jeff about his first album Assembly Line Surgery, and how he has been influenced as a musician:

The first thing I noticed when I listened to Assembly Line Surgery was that every song really feels like it has its own personal story behind it. Is this how you always approach song-writing?

Yeah, when I write, I can’t write anything that’s just mindless or meaningless. Every single song that I will ever take the time to record and promote and play live will have a story attached to it. Some of them are snapshots of certain moments in time. I’ve had guys jam with me that say “Man, I like how all your songs are about something.”

Watching some videos from your old shows at The Drake Hotel, I thought it was really cool that you started every song with a story about where it came from. Do you always try to have that connection with your audience?

Well that was a really cool gig. I definitely find that it’s something important, and something I want to do more. The Drake really lends itself to telling stories because the sound in there is so beautifully crisp that the audience can actually understand every word that you say. You can connect with your audience on a very real level.

Who has had the greatest influence on your music?

It’s hard to pick a greatest influence. I’ve had so many different influences at different times in my life, but my first big influence was probably Kurt Cobain. I got Nirvana’s MTV Live Unplugged record when I was about twelve. Man, I killed that record. I played it absolutely to death, then I put it down for a couple of years, but I still go back to it. It’s definitely one of my favourites.

With the state of the music industry today, what do you think is the best way for prospective musicians to gain exposure?

Write your ass off. And play shows. Play all of the worst shows you possibly can, where you’re playing for a completely empty room, and just learn to play regardless. Believe it or not, I’ve played something like 200 shows. A lot of those were some of the most heartbreaking shows you can imagine. Seriously, just me and the bartender. And the worst is afterwards when the bartender says “Dude, you’re amazing!” and all you can say is “Thanks… Glad you enjoyed it… Kill me now…”

So do you have any plans for recording and releasing the new album?

I haven’t really even hit the production stage yet. I want the next one to be a lot more low-fi and dirtier sounding. With Assembly Line Surgery, the songs are just a collection of stories. A lot of times, with first records, you end up having a collection of all the songs you’ve ever written. You pick the best ones and make a record. With the second record, the theme is a lot more coherent. I hit a writing block a little while ago and started talking to some friends about it. I had a really rough childhood and my friend said that maybe I should try writing from there. I was really daunted and intimidated at writing from those really horrible places, but they turned out to be real songs with real emotions, and that’s something I care about. I want the production to match that feeling.

Lastly, if you were stuck on a desert island with a CD player, a ton of batteries, and one album, what would it be?

I’ve got this record by Ari Neufeld. It’s called Old Man Songs By A Boy (For A Girl). Seriously, my opinion of this album is like “you’re welcome for telling you about it.” I got a chance to see this guy perform at someone’s house, and I got the chance to make friends with him. It’s amazing. This album is seminal for me.

-Micheal Vipond
Katuwapitiya.com Contributor

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An interview with The Bright Light Social Hour

The Bright Light Social Hour

The Bright Light Social Hour

The Bright Light Social Hour seem like one of Austin’s proudest exports. Their self-titled debut was the winner of numerous Austin Music Awards last year, including band and album of the year, and their hometown shows seem to constantly expand in magnitude. However with that in mind, they also appear to be Austin’s best kept secret as their extensive touring schedule still contains gigs at smaller venues in places like London and Kingston. Regardless of the venue, their throwback brand of classic rock and southern blues seem to be gaining fans across the continent. There’s something instantly gratifying about their long instrumental interludes and singalong choruses. I was able to interview Jack O’Brien (bassist/vocals/moustache) from the band in anticipation of their Thursday show at London’s Call The Office.

How are you enjoying Toronto so far?
We looooved Toronto! Such a busy and big city but with the friendliness of a small town. We didn’t want to leave. We’re in Peterborough now spending a day off. Brian Byrne has put us up here and been endlessly gracious, hospitable and all around totally excellent.

You guys opened for Canadian alt-rock legends I Mother Earth during one of your Toronto dates, how did that get arranged?
The show was unreal, such a special night and we were so glad to be a part of it. We were putting our CMW shows together and they were looking for support and we submitted; very excited they chose us.

What Canadian bands are you a fan of?
MSTRKRFT, Monster Truck, Death From Above 1979, Chromeo, Sheep Dogs, Arcade Fire, The Band, Godspeed You! Black Emperor, Great Lake Swimmers

Austin is an incredible place for live music, how do you feel like it’s shaped your sound?
There are just so many quality bands in Austin that we really had to work hard to stand out and get a little attention. It forced us to work hard at evolving our sound and live show. Being around such great bands and an ultimately very supportive music community has definitely helped us grow as musicians and songwriters.

You guys play some big venues (like Audtorium Shores last week at SXSW), is there any difference in approach when playing to smaller venues/crowds?
Honestly, not so much. We still pretty much always forget to write out a set list. The goal is to share an experience with the entire audience, but the approach really isn’t too different whether the crowd is huge or just a couple bartenders.

It seems like the the old-school rock-and-roll revival is in full swing, what do you think brought that about?
There’s always an old-school rock-and-roll revival currently in full swing. It’s hard to tire of good old rock instruments played with some booty.

Your music video “Back And Forth” seems pretty popular, are there any other plans for upcoming videos?
Yes, once we finish some of the heavy touring in the next few months, we would definitely like to do more music videos.

How would you describe the personality of your moustache?
Classy as fuck. (CAF)

Freestyling is an important form of expression in hip hop. If you had to freestyle four lines about your LP, what would you say?
We only freestyle haikus… I hope that’s ok.

luscious summer love
get everyone together
work has just begun

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