Written by Tshepo Mokoena
04 Monday 04th July 2011

But that planted the seed. I started singing live at Disorganised over Ian’s re-edits of different kinds of beats. We did songs like a dancehall version of 'Maps' by the Yeah Yeah Yeahs and a bass-heavy take on 'Staring at the Sun' by TV on the Radio. When we played alongside a few big American DJs they started to spread some of the bootlegs we’d made.

Ian: Then I moved to Toronto for school – something completely unrelated to music. Alanna finished her undergrad so she moved home to Toronto and we kept on doing music as a hobby. People have since told us that we blew a big opportunity then but to be honest with you, I never noticed because I was working so hard at school. And having that extra time to hone our ideas helped us develop a style of our own.

A couple years ago we began writing original material and Bonjay started to take off to the point where it became impossible to have a day job. So today we’re sitting in Berlin writing our first full-length album.

What have been some of the best Bonjay moments so far?

I: Performing in Baltimore when the crowd spontaneously started beatboxing the Baltimore club beat. Club is still very much a part of the local culture there – it never left.

A: Playing a music festival in the Yukon, far in the north of Canada. It took us longer to fly from Toronto to there than to fly to London. And it was minus 50 celsius when we landed! We went on after this amazing rockabilly band and we were a bit worried we’d be completely out of place. But they loved it, made us curried moose with rice and peas and took us dogsledding.

I: We played a festival in Sacramento earlier this year and that was a classic. The promoter was top-notch and it was the first time that we couldn’t hear ourselves from all the screaming.

A: And of course in Toronto, our home.  From a sweet-16 soca party to the Wavelength music series to a massive queer dancehall party.


What did you make of the UK tour? How did the crowds compare to those back in Canada?

A: I think in the UK there’s a long tradition of taking ideas from Caribbean music to new places. All the shows have been fun – we don’t fit neatly into a particular scene but people seem to understand the music we’re making.

I: We had a gig in Manchester that reminded us of some of the best Toronto shows. The openers, Organ Freeman, did an 8-bit punk rock thing that included dancing through the crowd grabbing everyone’s balls. And the headliners were MEN, who obviously do their electro-rock thing.  So the crowd was a mix of punks and queers and randoms. We went on to do our bass and soul ballads thing and – I dunno – there was just a special feeling. Like it was a night we’d all remember. I think music – at its best – isn’t just about stimulating people. It’s about sharing something and making people feel a certain way. That’s what that night felt like to me.

A: Also: afterwards the crowd got Ian drunk – which NEVER happens – and he went to bed sleep-chewing the Tylenols we fed him to ward off hangover.

Speaking of which, that monolith country of yours has been spewing out so many strong 'indie' acts of late. How much of an influence do you think Ottawa and Toronto have on your sound?

I: I think being next to America might have something to do with all these new acts out of Canada. When you look at groups like Austra or Azari & III, they’re both creating something artistically unique and meaningful, but they also have the work ethic and persistence you need to make a broader cultural impact.

In Canada – in the big cities anyway – I think we have the artistic drive of Europeans but mixed with that American skill for making a sound or a style accessible to a broader audience. I don’t mean that we dumb it down. I mean that we’re willing to make the personal sacrifices to devote ourselves to spreading it far and wide. Arcade Fire are a good example of that. Their work ethic is crazy and they’ve always maintained total control over everything they put out. Also Canada didn’t start generating much fresh and unique culture until pretty recently, so we don’t feel weighed down by anything. I feel bad for bands from New York sometimes because the 70s and 80s were so incredible – how could you possibly live up to that?

Shotta by Bonjay

A: We got our start in Ottawa, but it was when we went to Toronto that we really started to put together a unique sound. Toronto used to be dull in the 1960s and since then it’s exploded. Four-fifths of Toronto is either an immigrant or the child of one – can you imagine that? So I think that’s had a big impact.  Toronto is a city full of people who’ve bet everything on a fresh start in a new place. It’s also a place where the storied heydays haven’t happened yet. So we have a say in creating them.

We've read a little about Alanna's pop-oriented r'n'b past as a teen singer. Care to tell our readers more?

A: I sang in the church and in youth gospel competitions when I was a kid, and then I starting doing teen R&B around age 14 or 15. I moved through different producers and managers until a family friend offered to manage me. They thought they had the American pop R&B template down - from styling, to name changes to songwriting. It was all aimed at the commercial American market.

I would take my homework to the studio on weekend and in evenings and between shifts as a cashier at the grocery store. It felt exciting to be building a career in music, but it never felt quite right. I didn’t have much say in the music I was making. Eventually, they released my song on FLOW, the Toronto urban radio station. But, without my knowledge they released it under a stupid pseudonym, Donna Boogie.

I need to find a way to dead this question though! I hate coming to the part of the story when I have to reveal that name.

It did push me to go away to university though, where I found a community of independent Canadian artists who were into making forward-thinking music. It also made me demand tighter to control over my career. And it taught me patience. I think early I was so eager to ‘make it’ that I didn’t speak up for myself or take the time to build the right team. Because I was listening to so much Aaliyah, Monica, and Brandy I thought that 18 was my ceiling for making it. Once I turned 19 I’d be too old. It’s such a ridiculous way to approach your music career because you end up depending on other, older people to make all the important decisions! But lucky for me it gave me a chance to grow. I don’t think I’d push myself in Bonjay the way I do if I hadn’t gone through that nonsense.

It's interesting to hear about that r'n'b influence, given the dancehall/electro elements that your music straddles now. Why do you think the Bonjay sound comes together the way it does?

I: I think it comes together because Alanna’s a big fan of experimental pop and soul sounds like St. Vincent and Wildbirds & Peacedrums. And Björk. While if you asked me to name my top three musicians they would all be off-kilter beatmakers like Seiji, Timbaland and Jah Snocone from Jamaica. On paper those two streams might look like a horrible combination. But we don’t have much of a choice because that’s what we’re into! So we work hard to channel those disparate sounds into meaningful songs.

A: The r&b thing comes from my voice, and the fact that I grew up singing in the church and listening to 90s and 2000s r&b. Something that soul does much better than dance music – from Stevie Wonder to D’Angelo to Brandy – is make albums that cover the full range of human emotions. Not just “jump up!” or “wallow in your own melancholy”, but albums that really go from joy to pain to and everything in between. The full spectrum.

You wouldn’t call our music straight soul but it’s definitely not straight-up dancehall or “electro” either. We use dancehall as a touchstone because it has this whole no-rules ethos around tempo, arrangement, and subject matter. But I think in the end we’re probably closer to leftfield pop acts like Massive Attack or Labi Siffre – trying to write all different kinds of songs about different topics.



How did your signing to One Bird Records come about?

A: Natalie at One Bird wrote something about us online, calling us “one to watch for in 2012”. We reached out to her about doing a single and she said “let’s do it”. So a lot of the credit should go to Google Alerts for leading us to her. And to us for picking such a unique name. If we were called something like “Diamond Rings” it’s unlikely we’d have been effortlessly monitoring our name online, panopticon-style.

And finally, what's next for the Bonjay team?

In Berlin right now, hard at work writing our first album. I hope you like what we’ve done so far because we’re taking it much further down the rabbit hole.


Bonjay's single set for Stumble/Creepin' is out now on One Bird Records. You can grab it as a limited edition custom notebook (with mp3 download code) here, and keep up with the band's news and new releases on their site.

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