Published Jul 14, 2020More than nearly any other profession, musicians have a tendency to become closely associated with the tools of their trade. After all, who can imagine Jimi Hendrix without his signature upside-down white Stratocaster, Bootsy Collins without his star-shaped Space Bass, or the White Stripes without Meg's peppermint-coloured kit.
Our favourite Canadian musicians are no different — which is why we reached out to a few of them and asked them to share their favourite pieces of gear. From free Kijiji finds to a "nearly unplayable" acoustic guitar to a software plugin, these instruments are often humble and quirky, but there's no denying the way they have shaped the sound of modern Canadian music.
How do Ottawa-bred/Toronto-based duo Bonjay create their futuristic soul sound? It's all thanks to samplers, which form the bedrock of their production, as heard on 2018's Lush Life. Vocalist Alanna Stuart and producer Ian Swain employ a variety of samplers, and they're posing here with Ableton.
The gear is modern, but the approach is decidedly old-school, as they manipulate unconventional sounds to become instruments that can be played on a keyboard. They tell Exclaim!, "Almost every Bonjay song turns a sample into a new instrument: dolphins, airhorns, Richard Pryor coughing. It's hard to get stuck in a follow-fashion rut when you're making up new instruments."
Clairmont The Second
Clairmont The Second is known for his fearless independence, as the Toronto rapper writes and produces almost entirely by himself; last year's Do You Drive? was created alone, while the brand new It's Not How It Sounds features just one guest slot (from Cola H.).
He cites Keyscape (from the software company Spectrasonics) as the source of his signature piano and keyboard sounds. "It'd be much better to have the actual gear, but I haven't made enough money off of music yet, so this will have to do until people give me more money," he says. You heard the man — go buy It's Not How It Sounds on Bandcamp now.
Songwriter Hannah Georgas — who launched her career in Vancouver and is now based in Toronto — is so attached to her instruments that she couldn't pick just one. Here she is posing with a few of her faves to write on, including her Roland VR-09 synth and an upright Cameo piano that she found in an East Toronto antique shop in 2016.
Anyone who has seen her perform live will recognize her go-to six-string, a Harmony Stratotone. "I really love writing with it and I love playing it live," she says of the guitar. "I have had it for years and it feels so comfy and great to play." Hear it on her upcoming fourth album, the Aaron Dessner-produced All That Emotion.
Troy Junker's path to The Path has already been an eventful one. A high school dropout who worked as a uranium miner, he moved moved from Prince Albert, SK, to Toronto to pursue his music dreams. Junker has put a new lyrical focus on positivity and personal growth, inspired by a promoter at Opaskwayak Cree Nation who encouraged him to be a better influence on young listeners.
When working on his inspiring songs, the Métis rapper favours a Maschine MK2 beat production tool. "What I like about Maschine is that it gets your head out of the computer and you actually play the beats you're creating," he says. "With software being as advanced as it is, I'm able to design and manipulate audio with endless possibilities." He also gets bonus points for wearing what is undeniably the best shirt of this photo series.
"When you have very sus technique and a not great sounding voice like I do most days, finding a flattering mic is helpful," claims Aidan Knight. Perhaps he's being overly modest, since his voice sounds lovely on the new single "Rolodex." The Vancouver Island songsmith cites this Electro-Voice RE11 microphone as his favourite piece of gear. Considering the poignant quality of Knight's atmospheric indie rock ballads, there's no question that his mic preferences are paying off. His self-titled album arrives next month.
Lukas Cheung of Mother Tongues
When Lukas Cheung isn't playing guitar with psych luminaries Mother Tongues, he works at the Toronto used instrument store Paul's Boutique (read the rest of this feature for more finds from that beloved store). It was there that he picked up his signature axe: a Baldwin Baby Bison from the '60s.
"It's got so much character and all these really strange and ornate details," he says. "I also think it might be enchanted. The headstock is shaped like a scroll, something you'd usually see on a violin. At some point someone covered the pickguard in sparkles." The guitar is all over the band's upcoming EP, Everything You Wanted.
Somali-Canadian beatmaker OBUXUM isn't showy or ostentatious — just consider last year's Re-Birth album, which packs a dizzying array of syncopated beats and spacious electronic textures into a modest 10-song/21-minute package. The Polaris-nominated producer's small-scale humbleness extends to her taste in synths, as she tells Exclaim! that Re-Birth was created with the compact microKORG. "I particularly love this synth because of its simplicity and how user-friendly it is," she says. "This piece of gear is really important to me as it is the first synth I've ever bought. I've seen some of my favourite producers use this all the time."
When you think of East Coast hero Joel Plaskett's music, you probably think of the raw rock drumming of the Emergency's Dave Marsh, or possibly Plaskett's dalliances with floorboard-stomping folk. You might not immediately think of the Roland Rhythm TR-55 drum machine — but that's the treasured piece of gear that he uses when mapping out tracks when working without his band. It's one of three instruments on this list from Paul's Boutique in Toronto. "If you push two buttons in at once you get cool cross-rhythms: rock'n'roll meets mambo, et cetera," he says. "I've heard similar sounds on Lee 'Scratch' Perry's productions and J.J. Cale albums."
As a songwriter, producer, studio operator and animator, Calgary's Chad VanGaalen is known as a musical mad scientist who creates his own instruments, circuit bends his electronics, and tinkers with all sorts of electroacoustic wonders. So what, out of all of his quirky noisemakers, is his favourite? It's this Yamaha D-85 Electone analog organ, which he picked up for free on Kijiji. Its three keyboards allows multiple people to play it at once, and the mini keyboard on top makes a sound resembling "a drunken kitten." It has caught on fire — at least twice.
VanGaalen says, "I opened it up and, through some not-so-safe trial and error, busted out the filter and clock and built an input/output bay! It has also lit on fire at least twice that I know of. I do not recommend or condone anyone opening up an organ from the '70s with caps the size of Red Bulls!!! Just don't."
Out of all the instruments on this list, Jonah Yano's Kay N-1 acoustic guitar is the only one that's "nearly unplayable." Acquired for "dirt cheap" at Paul's Boutique in Toronto, the R&B/folk explorer admits that it's "frustrating," but he still used it to write most of the recent album souvenir. "The neck is all warped and the intonation is terrible, but I like the way it sounds so much that I struggle through playing it," he explains. "Imagine a guitar that when you're playing it, it constantly feels like you're trying to open a tightly shut jar of pickles."