Toronto has had enough shine. The dominance of Drake has done wonders for many Canadian artists, but the country has far more talent beyond The Six.
With cheap rent and a diverse musical community, Montreal has a reputation as a creative mecca for aspiring artists. It’s a small big city, one that is easily navigable via bike or transit, making it an ideal location for young people with a flair for adventure.
The city is also one of the few major markets within the United States and Canada in which English isn’t the dominant language. This puts French-speaking artists in a position to flourish – many are able to tour year-round throughout the province of Quebec alone. The situation gives anglophone musicians a unique underdog stance, one they can often use in their advantage for engaging with the tightly-knit scene – not to mention the potential to gain government grant money for recording, due to their minority position.
In the mid to late-2000s, the city broke indie rock favorites like Arcade Fire, Mac DeMarco, and Grimes. More recently, producers such as Kaytranada, Lunice, and High Klassified have made electronic-heads keep a close eye on the city, with bubblings of hip-hop poised as the next scene to blow in the imminent future.
But what about R&B?
There isn’t a The Weeknd of Montreal. With no definite leader of the city’s R&B scene, experimentation runs freely. Artists tend to be more supportive of each other, adopting the mindset that they are stronger together than apart. Their hope is that if one act can achieve considerable notoriety, the world could start paying proper attention to the city’s musicians.
With the whole world at a standstill, now is the time to discover new music. We’ve handpicked some of Montreal’s brightest R&B stars in the making.
Remember the girl dancing uncontrollably throughout Kaytranada’s infamous Boiler Room set? Turns out she is also a talented vocalist, not to mention one of the producer’s most frequent collaborators. Born in Djibouti and raised in France, Lia moved to Montreal in 2012 for school, quickly creating connections with the right people to jump start her career.
She first made waves for her feature on Kaytranada’s “Leave Me Alone”, the first single of off 2016’s 99.9%. Since then, Lia has been working hard. She has released two standout EPs, Dangerous in 2019 and Solaris in 2020. The former project was longlisted for the Polaris Music Prize, one of Canada’s most prestigious music awards.
Lia’s soft-spoken voice works wonders over the beatmaker’s sultry soundscapes. It is rare to find such a perfect pairing of singer and producer dynamic in this day and age. The early rumblings of Lia and Kaytra dance-daze can be likened to an energy found in the ‘80s via Donna Summer and Giorgio Moroder. However, she is more than just a Kaytranada collaborator. Lia used her two solo projects to diversify her bonds and prove she is a bankable act in her own right.
Everybody loves a dark horse story. Who would’ve thought that one of the city’s top talents would hail from a small town, five hours away from Montreal?
Born in Rouyn-Noranda, Québec, Zach Zoya popped up on the scene in late 2017, seemingly out of nowhere. Since then, the crooner has been quick to dominate any tune he touches. Zoya takes a slow jam vocal approach over high octane beats, serving up an exciting fusion of hip-hop and R&B.
For years, there hadn’t been a local track to ring off quite as poignantly throughout Montreal nightclubs and festivals as “1919.” Produced by High Klassified, the sinister song feels like the theme music for taking over the city. The two were quick with a follow up, dropping a collab EP, Misstape, for summer satisfaction.
Zoya is equally as talented at singing as he is at rapping. His talents earned him a label deal with Universal Music Canada, which national legend Kardinall Offishal helped him secure. His debut major label release, Spectrum, features flows upon flows and an array of collaborators. Boi-1da, Angel, and Matthew Burnett are just some of the seasoned producers that appear on the project.
We all love a late bloomer. Yonatan Ayal first stepped on the scene under the alias xSDTRK in the late 2000s. He built up an impressive portfolio of production credits, including a hand in tracks by Usher, Jennifer Lopez, and Chloe x Halle.
In 2017, Ayal decided to take the artist route. It took trips around the world establishing his artistry to come home and connect with guitarist Pierre-Luc Rioux to form Chiiild. (Rioux has played guitar for the likes of Katy Perry, Lady Gaga and Quebec’s reigning Queen Celine Dion.)
The duo’s lyrics are beautifully unconventional. “If there’s a God, I hope she’s Black, And when I die she brings me back, back to life, back, back to life,” are lyrics on “Back to Life”, the second single off of their recently released EP, Synthetic Soul.
The duo look to keep their momentum going into the new year. They will soon drop their debut album, Hope For Sale. They have also collaborated with Emotional Oranges on their track, “Bonafide.”
Clerel has been likened to both Sam Cooke and Leon Bridges, with a voice as warm as a fireside on a cool winter night. He brings the soulful taste of the aforementioned artists into his own realm, incorporating sparse acoustic backing for minimalistic delight. He first rose to prominence last year when appearing on La Voix, Quebec’s version of The Voice, where he stunned crowds with renditions of Al Green and Les Respectables alike.
Despite the ongoing pandemic, Clerel has managed to keep busy performing virtually. The singer has been in heavy rotation on the online touring circuit. He has performed everywhere from the Montreal International Jazz Festival’s Jazz Is in the Air event, to the Toronto-based Wavelength Winter Festival. Clerel’s virtual icing on the cake? A performance of “Blackstone” as part of The Late Show with Stephen Colbert’s #PlayAtHome series.
A hidden gem in Montreal’s R&B scene is MINOE. Her stage name is a nod to her Nova Scotian roots, a play on words with “minnow.” The musician made the move to Montreal to study at Concordia University.
MINOE is not as prolific as others on the list, having only released three singles thus far. Despite the low-profile, the artist always delivers content as meaningful as it is pleasurable. Her voice is a commanding presence yet maintains a smooth gentleness through and throughout.
Her latest single, “Crazy”, earned her a spot on Apple Music’s Best New Music list on the week of February 19th. The song is a vulnerable reflection of a toxic relationship she experienced a year ago.
Many of the Montreal music scene’s harshest critics are in fact the artists within it. The term “crab mentality” is often thrown around, others feeling as if they are big fish in a small pond.
Looking to explore her full career potential, a then 21-year-old Zeina packed her bags to Los Angeles earlier this year and never looked back.
“I slept on the floor for a whole year. I wasn’t at all in a good neighborhood — I was in the hood,” she said of her first year in LA.
If her 2017 breakthrough EP, Odd One Out, is any indication, Zeina has a fruitful future ahead of her. The singer is a master of vibes, with many of the project’s tracks feeling ready to shop around to pop princesses like Rihanna or Ciara. Zeina is yet to release another project but has put out tons on stellar singles. It’s tunes like “Consequences” and “Suburbs” that have further cemented her strong aesthetic as one of the city’s strongest R&B forces.
Black Atlass music brings R&B back to the bedroom, with lush production soundscapes sure to set the mood.
Atlass, who is signed to The Weeknd’s XO imprint, also holds many ambitions beyond music, with fashion also a top priority to him. The energy has been reciprocated by the industry — Fleming’s songs have been used in commercials for the likes of Saint Laurent and Louis Vuitton, along with earning modeling gigs for Alexander Wang and Dior.
His XO debut, Pain & Pleasure, was nominated for a JUNO Award, the Canadian equivalent to a Grammy. His follow up, Dream Awake, is just as brilliant bedroom music. With four eclectic acts signed to the XO label, none match head honcho Abel Tesfaye’s sound or aesthetic better than Black Atlass.
Kallitechnis is good for the soul. Representing the Mile-Ex area to its fullest, the singer’s name is Greek for, “master of his art” Her sound is a throwback to the neo-soul era, as conscious as it is endearing.
Kalli is a true “work smart” type of artist; her next move is always her best. Her three most recent accolades? A performance at Osheaga (often dubbed “Coachella of Canada”); a guest feature on Innanet James’ “Better Without You” alongside Pusha-T; and a week in Los Angeles being mentored by the legendary Babyface.
“He’s really shaped the type of music that I do, the entire genre of soul and R&B. It was really an honor to be in his presence,” Kallitechnis explained of the experience.
Shortly after the trip, the singer released her debut EP, Chromatic. The project is a colorful soundscape that paints a picture of Kalli’s elaborate artistry. With a couple of handfuls worth of singles since its release that are just as warm, expect a new project from Kallitechnis in no time.
Vulnerability is a gift when expressed appropriately. For Emma Beko, such a quality in their lyricism is one of the most compelling reasons to give her a listen. Relationships and heartbreak are a common theme for this artist, with select songs raw enough to feel like an open invitation to a couple’s therapy session.
Beko earned her stripes as one half of Heartstreets, a duo that garnered notoriety across the province with a heavy touring itinerary over the years. Backed by the sounds of some of the city’s most brilliant beatmakers — Kaytranada and Ryan Playground, to name a few — Heartstreets knew the strings to strike listeners’ emotional cords. Beko’s solo career continues such a journey in brilliant fashion.
Many of Montreal’s finest R&B acts have their own histories before moving to the city. Born in Ghana, Kae Sun spent time exploring the world before finally settling in Montreal towards the end of 2016. The singer, born Kwaku Darko-Mensah Jr., takes his cross-cultural experiences as a large source of inspiration.
“In Ghana, creativity is something that you live and experience. In North America, you have to figure out how to live first before the creativity comes. There’s a clear separation,” he told Red Bull Music in 2018.
Kae Sun recently released Midnight & Other Endings, an EP backed by the singles “Bright Lights” and “404 Errors.” The project doubles as a short film, with Mensah taking the concept of “visual storytelling” to a new level. With Montreal offering a plethora of collaborative opportunities, Kae Sun is a perfect example of capitalizing off of the city’s tight-knit community.T
This piece was originally published in 2018.
Mr. Wavvy was born and raised in Montreal. Legend has it that his ghost still haunts the city’s Olympic Stadium, waiting for the day that the Expos will return. You can follow him on Twitter and Instagram.
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