Gordy the Moose’s 11 favourite discoveries of 2020 from the Roots Music Canada virtual mailbox
It’s that time of the year again! The time when Gordy the Moose shares his favourite new discoveries from all of the submissions sent to the Roots Music Canada virtual mailbox this year. Every month or so, Gordy goes through the mailbox, listens to everything that’s come in, and chooses the most interesting, most promising and sometimes just plain best stuff to feature in his column. From those, he has picked out his favourites of 2020, republished here in the approximate chronological order in which they appeared on the site.
Raina Krangle – “My Beautiful Dear” (Release date: Mar. 20, 2020)
My god this woman has a beautiful voice, and this song is a total tear-jerker about the loss of a life-long partner. It’s got beautiful instrumentation and harmonies too. It’s not hard to see how Raina won the Newmarket Arts Council Songwriting Competition in 2016 or why she was nominated for a Colleen Peterson Songwriting Award. Raina was raised in a folk music family and is a veteran of Toronto venues such as the Free Times and the El Mocambo, but she didn’t release her debut album until 2012 and doesn’t appear to have done a big festival tour yet. If this song is any indication of the quality of her repertoire, that’s a little quizzical to me. How have promoters not discovered her? If you’re a promoter, you should really listen to this.
“My Beautiful Dear”
Bill Bourne – “Hunker Down” (Release date: Apr. 15, 2020)
“Hunker Down” is the first single from Bill’s forthcoming album, <em>Love & Art</em>, which is due this fall. It’s not clear if it was inspired by COVID-19-related lockdowns, but it certainly is a propos of the times. It’s a stunningly beautiful track with a very easy-going feel that sees Bill’s voice soaring to soulful heights. And while it is a solo track, it has a Malagasy vibe that evokes his collaborations with Madagascar Slim and Lester Quitzau in Tri-Continental. If this was indeed written during lockdown, then I selfishly hope Edmonton stays locked up for a while so we can hear more like this from Bill. I’m absolutely dying to hear the new album.
Kristen Martell – Coming Home (Release date: Apr. 24, 2020)
Raised in a musical family in northern New Brunswick, Kristen Martell mastered guitar, fiddle, piano and trombone in her youth and began writing songs as a form of mediation and a means through which to understand and express her emotions. She played the local singer-songwriter circuit as a young adult before settling into a career as an environmental scientist and a mom. Now, I don’t want to discourage anyone from leaving a career in environmental science because goodness knows we need environmental scientists more than ever these days. But damn, the world also needs Kristen Martell’s music. For someone who only just reentered the music scene, she’s got the sort of clear-eyed musical identity that usually only comes from having spent a long time figuring out who one is as an artist. Perhaps it goes back to her having used music as a form of meditation in her youth. I don’t know. But this EP is the musical equivalent of walking through a field on a warm, sunny day in a state of contended reflection. Kristen possesses a sweet, airy, mezzo soprano (I think; it’s a bit hard to place her range), and her arrangements are earthy and homespun and dappled at times with close harmonies. All in all, this is a gorgeous quasi-debut, and I hope that lockdown is freeing up some time for Kristen to write more songs like this.
Gisun – Fin (Release date: March 25, 2020)
If you’re a fan of artists like Sade and Norah Jones, you’ll love this new EP from Gisun, an artist of Uruguayan and South Korean heritage who sings in English and Spanish (at least, I think it’s Spanish) and whose minimalist music is inspired by jazz and soul. She released her debut EP, Suspiras, in 2017 and followed it up with Partes the following year. Since then, she’s been performing at venues in Spain, Toronto and Vancouver. Her sound is absolutely captivating and charming, and I can’t wait to hear more.
Rob Murphy – “Ghosts” (Release date: May 20, 2020)
I’m a pretty big fan of the stuff Rob’s been sending to us at Roots Music Canada, and this one is another winner. “Ghosts” is a song about forgotten mining towns on Cape Breton, and the story is one that resonates in depressed former resource towns across the country: business closures, poverty and addiction. They say “write what you know,” and you can tell that Rob, whose dad was a coal miner, really feels this song when he’s singing it.
Ian Gill – Morning Embers (Release date: Jan. 24, 2020)
Ian Gill spent his young adulthood listening to the giants of the Canadian singer-songwriter scene: Stan and Garnet Rogers, James Keelaghan and Stephen Fearing to name a few. And it comes through loud and clear in his work.
This stirring and deeply introspective collection of songs, inspired by midlife, would not sound out of place on a playlist of their classics.
It’s at once beautiful and sad, celebratory and melancholy, paying homage to people whose wisdom has guided Ian through hard times and reflecting on what remains when the “glint of youth” has been traded away, to quote a phrase from “Towns Left Behind.”
Like many of the great Canadian songwriters before him, Ian at times draws us into his emotional world by evoking a physical one – in this case, northwestern Ontario, with its rocky Lake Superior shorelines, its sometimes-ominous skies, and its faded old resource towns dotted along the highway.
The arrangements are pure traditional folk, featuring Joe Phillips on double bass, Jeff Korkola on percussion, Damon Dowbak on mandolin, Sean Mundy on guitars and Pierre Schryer on fiddle. Megan Nadin adds a lovely backing vocal to “Teacher.”
The Ottawa-born, Thunder Bay-based Ian, who has some 20 years of professional music-making experience under his belt, released this album back in January but didn’t get a chance to tour it due to COVID-19. He sent it to us this summer hoping we could help him get the word out.
With pleasure, Ian. What a beautiful album.
Mimi O’Bonsawin – “Tug O War” single (Release date: July 19, 2020)
Originally from Sudbury and now based in Toronto, Mimi O’Bonsawin makes music that evokes the northern Ontario landscape and reflects her French Canadian and Abenakis roots. She has already earned Best Pop Record honours at the Indigenous Music Awards and shared stages with Buffy Sainte-Marie, Crystal Shawanda, Francesco Yates, Tom Wilson and others. And her songs have been heard on Showtime’s Ray Donovan TV series and on APTN’s Mohawk Girls.
This single comes from Mimi’s brand new EP, Elle Dance, which just came out last Friday. It’s a lovely, airy collection that showcases Mimi’s distinctive vocal style – one that has the understated, girlish quality of popular modern francophone singer-songwriters like Chloe Sainte Marie and Carla Bruni. If Mimi sounds this good in her mid 20s, I can’t wait to see where she goes from here.
Me:she – “Nebulous Cloud” (Release date: July 23, 2020)
Is it roots music? What is roots music? I don’t know sometimes. All I know is this is one of the coolest things that’s showed up in the Moose’s inbox in a while. This song pairs Me:she’s seductively deep voice with some bubbly, bassy synth; evocative horn; what sounds like Middle Eastern percussion and some other Middle Eastern sounds in the background. The overall impression is arty and captivating, and so is this video, which is Just. So. Cool.
Me:she calls herself “a free-spirited gypsy musician with the soul of a jazz singer and the playfulness of a burlesque performer.” Sounds about right to me. I can’t wait to hear more from her.
Angel Baribeau – “Wish We Were Older” (Release date: July 24, 2020)
Goddam does Angel Baribeau ever have a compelling voice. The queer, non-binary Cree sing-songwriter originally from Misstissini, QC has an immense versatility as a vocalist, shifting from the vulnerable, fractured delivery of “Wish We Were Older” to the distinctive, power pop of “Need” and the ethereal melancholy of “Going Home.”
And “Savage” is as pointed a protest song as has ever been written about colonialism and the hypocrisy of white supremacy. It perfectly samples MP Romeo Saganash telling Parliament that the Prime Minister doesn’t give a fuck about Indigenous rights.
Angel’s been performing solo for more than six years now, and they’ve been playing music since their youth. It’s a mystery to me that they weren’t all over the festival circuit before COVID shut it down. ADs, if you’re taking notes for your post-pandemic productions, add Angel to your lists.
Danny Bell and his Disappointments – Songs for the Town (Release date: Dec. 11, 2020)
Accordion-playing folk-punk singer-songwriter Danny Bell released a debut album two years ago that sounded to me like the second coming of Geoff Berner with its delightfully irreverent jabs at the well-to-do elite. Only Danny’s version of it came with a particular northern, working class, mill-town sensibility. Songs for the Town is appreciably less Bernerish and spends less time taking shots at white Liberal hypocrisy. But it spends more time capturing everyday life in the unglamourous north, with its garbage-strewn sidewalks, its strip-mall shops and restaurants, and its rotting leaves littering the streets in the fall – to say nothing of its beleaguered sound men, its dog-lovers – “The Longest Walks” is a fantastic track – and its bands just tryin’ to book tours. It might be hard for people who have never lived in a northern resource town to understand how all of this adds up to an homage, but when you live miles from the corridors of power in a place dragged down by administrative neglect, there is a cynical camaraderie one develops with one’s hardy fellow travelers. Danny is their artist, and the industry should take note. This album is great by any measure, and it’s a voice we need to hear more of.
Zachary Toigo – “My Satellite” (Release date: Nov. 6 2020)
Damn. This is beautiful. Zachary cites among his influences the Beatles and Radiohead, and you can hear those coming through on this lushly orchestrated number, on which Zachary plays nearly all the instruments. But the real stars here are the soaring melody and Zachary’s breathtaking vocals, which execute it perfectly. Be prepared to hit “repeat” several times.