Hill Kourkoutis live!

Being around the Canadian music scene for some time, I feel that I have seen enough “…to know that I have seen too much.”

Trying to wrap one’s head around all of the music that is now so readily available is a daunting task, and no matter how much any expert thinks they know, they will never know the half of it.

While commercial music reaches the broadest listener, every true music zealot requires something that speaks to them more directly. To this end, I embarked on a quest for talent that required looking no further than my own Canadian “backyard”.

I hit parties, bars, and parties at bars to absorb as many sounds as I could. Whisper campaigns, flyers stuck to lampposts, on-line dialogue, and YouTube activity led me to unearth a community of professional artists that are daring, visionary and for the most part, unpretentious.

I listened to the music of 100 artists, some of which, while a little too glaringly derivative, were still relatively impressive. Others, despite all their rhythmic prowess, have yet to find their true direction(s).

My objective was to acquaint readers with acts that know themselves artistically and are hence poised for breakout success by virtue of professionalism, originality and quality. What I found was a fellowship of alchemists attempting to fashion gold from a heap of stones.

The following artists are the ones I found to be the most exemplary. They are not bar bands, or friends jamming in mom’s basement (not that there’s anything wrong with that). Every name on this list has or is producing original material. Some have created entire concepts, complete with CD cover and video on extremely limited budgets. They have all done their part, and it is now up to the consumer to decide their fates.

This is my list of 10 contemporary Canadian artists of which you should at least be aware:

Automatic Toys: This Toronto-based group consists of 2 excellent musicians; Nachum Peterseil and Yaakov Gruzman, who write good rock songs with electronic enhancements to create a vibe that is almost palpable. Their new CD, Sinking Ships, is set for release before the end of 2012. Inspired by the likes of Radiohead and Beck, Nachum informed me of an interesting project by the latter, whereby Beck releases the sheet music for his upcoming songs before he releases them. This allows other artists to interpret his work unbiased by his own stylistic idiosyncrasy. The boys took a 1 minute song, added a verse and a bridge, and made it their own. Enjoy, and keep your ears tuned for more. Do we? We Do!

Emma-Lee: A professional photographer who shoots album covers for many, this musical chameleon writes prolifically for, and with musicians of all genres. In fact, she is about to join Jesse Cook as guest vocalist on his upcoming national tour. Emma-Lee’s newest album, Backseat Heroine, was inspired by the styles of Bobbie Gentry, Linda Ronstadt, and Laura Nyro, but younger fans may liken it to works by Feist or Norah Jones. The CD features collaborations with Nicole Atkins, Jill Barber and Luke Doucet. Emma-Lee’s music can also be heard on episodes of Saving Hope, Degrassi, and Teen Wolf, as well as Tyler Perry’s Why Did I get Married Too. Her newly unveiled video, Shadow of a Ghost delves into the macabre just in time for The Zombie Prom, her live Halloween show at the Drake on October 30th.

Erin Hunt: This smooth soul singer sounds like the love-child of Al Jarreau and Minnie Riperton, except that she’s white, and didn’t grow up listening to R&B. Erin says she preferred the Beatles and Allman Brothers, and yet her album, The Woman I Am, evokes more Chaka than Duane, and more Flack than McCartney. Erin says she set out to make “real” music with honest, expressive lyrics she hoped would strike a personal chord in her listener; something that would resonate beyond the moment. She literally put everything she had into this CD, emotionally and financially. Friends praise her courage for following her heart in the face of much resistance, but Erin says she’s never been happier. The result is a collection of soul-baring tracks guided by vocals that are paradoxically strong, sweet, sexy and vulnerable. Sometimes all at once. 

Hill and the Sky Heroes: This is not so much a group, as the collaborative brainchild of singer/songwriter/filmmaker Hill Kourkoutis. The album entitled 11:11 is what she calls a “revolving door artist collective about searching for truth within this alien reality.” It initially conjured images of vintage B-52s-meets-Florence and the Machine, but Hill refers to this eclectic style as “alien surf-rock”. Hill’s genuine humility is in sharp contrast to her on-stage charisma, and her extraordinary combination of skill, vision, and dedication complete the package. This album features writing and/or musical collaborations with; Martha & The Muffins, Serena Ryder, Damhnait Doyle, Saidah Baba Talibah, Donna Grantis and Doc. To top it off, she designed the artwork herself… in 3D! (Glasses not included) This CD rivals any of the top-selling albums of the day, and it would be a crime if, in 2 years time, Hill were not working among the very elite in the world of music.

Jeremy Fisher: This guy looks like the 17 year-old slacker boy next door, but his current release, Mint Juleps, is already his 5th project! Sources close to the 2 time Juno nominee will tell you that his music is the result of a lifetime of faithful dedication. The music of this Hamilton-born singer songwriter is not complicated. He’s a natural on stage using his voice, and an acoustic guitar to tell stories that are whimsical and melodic. His sound is occasionally familiar, but decidedly authentic, and at times, I daresay, Dylanesque. His resume boasts a project with Hawksley Worksman, opening for the The Proclaimers, Great Big Sea and Sarah Slean, as well as appearances on The Late Late Show with Craig Ferguson. Mint Juleps is a mix of original tracks and well-tailored covers that speak for themselves.

Kai: This 22 year-old Toronto native first caught my attention with her single, I Choose Me, but that seems to be just the first step for this musically precocious singer/songwriter. Fresh off a win at the Toronto Independent Music Awards, and armed with a Warner Bros. recording contract, she is currently cultivating “The album I have always wanted to make”, she says. Kai, whose name was chosen for it’s majestic definitions in various languages, has recruited the talents of numerous compatriots to make this dream come true. That’s not the only thing she has in common with Hill (of the Sky Heroes). Her last album was entitled 11:11. Her new CD, Here We Go, is  set to debut in 2013, and this kid’s future is so bright, she might want to include sunglasses.

Liam Titcomb: Older fans may remember his performance at the Junos in 2004. Others will know him for his role as Jones on CBC’s Wild Roses, but it’s his music that’s put his name on people’s lips once again. His new album, Cicada, has already spawned the hit single, Love Don’t Let Me Down, but the CD is as much a journey for the listener as it seems to have been for the artist himself. The stories he tells reveal more about himself than many young artists would dare, and this endeavour is all the better for it.

Marc Joseph Band: There’s a movement happening on YouTube, whereby popular songs are covered in a completely different style and tempo. These guys do it better than most, and it earned them such a following that when it came time to produce their own tunes, the fans were already waiting. Their EP, Breathe, is all-original, and launched at the Hard Rock Café in Toronto with a live performance before a uber-hospitable crowd, this summer. I just wish they had come up with a more interesting name like maybe; Marc and the Machine, Marc Joseph & Sons, or Marc Lovato. Oh well.

 MonkeyJunk: One might call them the poor man’s Black Keys, but it would be the other way around if their borders were juxtaposed. They refer to their sound as Swamp R&B, Soul Boogie and Bedroom Funk. Steve Marriner, Tony D, and Matt Sobb were already an award-winning band when their latest album, To Behold, won the Juno for Blues Album of the Year 2012. Their music is simple enough, and they don’t have a bass, but their tracks are catchy, diverse, and real. It’s the type of music equally enjoyed in a bar as in a large concert hall or in your car. Funky costumes and fancy lights not required. I expect big things for these boys. Mother’s Crying

Tia Brazda: On stage, Brazda is colorful, sassy, and energetic, diverting attention from the fact that she’s also extremely vocally skilled. She’s a throwback to the Andrews Sisters and Peggy Lee, but with a little more rock n’ roll threatening to emerge at any time. At the launch of her Cabin Fever EP, Tia actually handed out cupcakes that she had baked herself. Much like her album, they were colourful, tasty, and home-made (in both chocolate AND vanilla). CBC listeners know her well and would all recommend seeing her live, but for those who don’t get out much, this is Cabin Fever.

On you mark, get set, start googling.

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