Each November, a bunch of international industry pros brush up on their French and head to Montréal to brave the Canadian winter while being treated to four days of showcases from acts from across Canada, and a few beyond. While this year saw unseasonal warmth (“summery,” as one festival staff member described the ten-degree torrential rain on Friday afternoon) the artists on show were predictably génial. Here are five favourites from across the festival.
Like if Dream Wife’s raw early sounds had taken in French pop, or Bikini Kill were less punk and more new wave, this Montréal supergroup of sorts take the scratchy, belligerent side of post-punk and imbibe it with gnarly guitars and unbridled fun in equal measure. Their mid-afternoon set turns L’éscogriffe into a sweaty basement, a simmering energy propelling them on as vocalist Éliane Viens-Synnott channels Wednesday Addams’ dance moves while stabbing her synth erratically.
One hint to Les Shirley’s musical lineage comes courtesy of the fact that two of them - bassist Sarah Dion and drummer Lisandre Bourdages - also play in NOBRO; another, that the trio (completed by vocalist Raphaëlle Chouinard) supported Foo Fighters back in the summer. With the relentless pummel of hardcore punk, Lisandre barely breaking a sweat while making it happen, cues are taken from all corners of rock - a Green Day-like chord shuffle here, a Smiths guitar lick there. With big choruses and Raphaëlle’s vocal uncannily like Carrie Brownstein turned up to eleven, their set is a riot.
Ontario newcomer Billianne may have gone viral for her Schitts Creek-inspired cover of ‘Simply The Best’ - her studio release of the song currently has over 35 million streams on Spotify - but during her all too brief set at NOMAD, it’s her own material (standout, ‘Towers of Sequin’, her ode to Toronto) that shows why she’s been the name on most Canadians’ lips all festival. The headline is, naturally, her one-in-a- million voice; velvety and soaring, think early Adele videos for a similar likeable, unassuming presence. Her skill, though, lies in knowing precisely how to use it, not afraid to retreat to a speaking whisper when her songwriting - itself whipsmart and with a fine way around a chorus - demands.
For those of us unaware of Mattmac’s credentials going into his opening night set at Ausgang Plaza, his intro, with sampled audio of others extolling his musical virtues, does the job. “You’re beautiful,” he says, addressing the crowd, with a wry smile. “And that’s coming from a blind person.” On the surface, the Oji-Cree artist, who grew up on the Garden Hill First Nation in Manitoba, showcases a solid set of commercially-viable trap and emo-pop; it’s not a long shot to predict a huge hit in his future. But delve deeper, and the producer is also using his songs to share his stories: “When I wrote this I was walking on the reservation / Now they can’t say that we not up in the conversation,” for example, goes ‘Isolation’.
It’s no easy feat to go full-pelt on stage when the majority of the audience is keeping themselves to the balcony bar area on opening night at Théatre Plaza, but Innu singer-songwriter Kanen manages to do just that, eventually dragging audience participation out of the assembled industry types to boot. The most immediate number of her set, which veers between alt-pop and folky indie while always remaining excitingly off-kilter, comes via ‘Fuck That Shit’, on which she makes full, spiteful use of the English titular phrase for added oomph.