A Conversation With Bonjay | On A Quest For The Perfect Sound

by Claudia Galal - Published on 05/01/2019

When Lush Life, the debut album of the Canadian duo Bonjay, came out last spring, I fell in love with it straightaway. I was captured by the sound research that, drawing from current urban stimuli, renewed the dancehall vibes which marked the beginning of their career and opened up their sound to bass music genres. Crossing a musical spectrum, with soul and R&B at one end and electronica and indie music’s new trends at the other, Bonjay offer a fresh sound with each song exploring different feelings.

I immediately started following Alanna Stuart and Ian Swain, respectively lead singer and producer, to interview them and find out about their journey since the release of their first EP, Broughtuspy (2010). After months of chasing, time zones’ struggles and postponed meetings, I finally managed to do it.

Griot: It’s been a while since you released your debut EP, Broughtupsy. Why did it take so long to produce a new album? It feels like your were on a quest for the perfect sound… I guess a lot has happened in all these years, where did you get the inspiration for Lush Life?

Alanna Stuart: The last few years have been a sort of creative training camp: it’s very weird to think about all the challenges we had to go through for our own will. I’ve been studying drama with professional actors and I felt like when I had to prepare for my final dance course exam! I was so clumsy and insecure… It was these kind of experiences: attending movement lessons with Dana Michel, learning the secrets of audio engineering with Feist’s sound engineer… all these things took time and it took time to understand my weaknesses, to find the courage to face them and, above all, to go over the limits of my knowledge. It was amazing to stay in many different places, from London to Montreal, from Hamilton to Berlin, and even Kingston, Jamaica. All these places contributed to the atmosphere of the album, to its energy and the construction of its world.

Ian Swain: The best inspiration came from the things we saw and the people we met travelling the world. We look for inspiration in the fullness of the real world and we try not to succumb to the temptation to just mix influences from the songs we love. Apart from my musical influences, Jane Jacobs (American naturalised Canadian anthropologist and activist who studies the urban development of cities) is a sort of intellectual guide. She’s an autodidact, the first woman to write about how wonderful places naturally evolve and about how they can be ruined by those who want to “fix” them. She’s an avid reader, but the roots of her work can be found in the strolls around the New York’s neighbourhoods that she used to go on between the Fifties and the Sixties to observe what was happening; and she wasn’t scared to say things for what they were.

Who are your favourite bands and artists? What are the songs you consider fundamental for your musical education?

I.S.: The version of Do not Stop The Music by The Playa with Timbaland is one of the most important for me, because it brings together a lot of musical elements that I love. Then Aretha Franklin’s album, Young, Gifted and Black, which is a wonderful example of artistic collaboration. Aretha wrote half of the record, but she also turned into songs some contributions by Nina Simone, Weldon Irvine, who is inexplicably underestimated, Otis Redding, Lennon and McCartney, Elton John and Bernie Taupin. And a lot of great musicians play in there, like Donny Hathaway, Bernard Purdie from James Brown’s band, Dr. John, Aretha’s sisters, Erma and Carolyn, whom I love literally, the mother of Whitney Houston, Cissy, and Billy Preston. They all worked together to create a timeless album. Obviously, I like listening to electronic stuff, like the productions of B.I.G. Joe, Seiji and Lenky, that is unusual and weird dance music with crazy rhythmical structures. It’s a source of great inspiration for me.

A.S.: Dancehall was my first big love. The crudity of those syncopated bass gives me a sense of adventure. But only now I realise how strong its influence has been on me, in fact, when I’m in the studio, I always try to do things “the wrong way”, I venture into things I don’t know. Sometimes I use my voice to create sounds that I can’t find in synths or in the drum machine presets, or I change the vowels to mess up the language and invent some rhymes that wouldn’t exist otherwise. And I do it with bravado, as a Jamaican!

What are you listening to at the moment?

I.S.: I’m listening to a lot of old stuff from different periods to look for unusual influences, but I like to find new people, like Michael Uzowuru and Jeff Kleinman, who produced Anderson .Paak’s piece Til’ It’s Over, or DJ Dahi, who produced a good part of the Summertime ‘06 album by Vince Staples and Drake’s Worst Behavior. I really like Vince Staples, both for his personality and for his music. I think most good music is born when people say “fuck the previous generation” and he is just like that, he makes fun of gangsta rap, he makes funny videos, he likes to ridicule anyone who tries to chase him. We both love Kadhja Bonet’s album, Childqueen, and L CON’s album, Insecurities in Being – in fact we have just mentioned You Were Right as the songs of the year in a ranking we did for a radio station. And then all those Los Angeles’ people! I think that’s the heart of so much fresh music coming out today, or at least of the things that come to me.
griot-mag -bonjay-intervistaWhat’s your creative process like? How do your song come to life?

I.S.: I think the only common thing, from time to time, is that everything starts with a simple idea. It can be a vocal riff, a chord ring, a rhythmic structure or a concept. Each song is born from a seed and develops from it.

Alanna, the song Medicine For Melancholy is very moving and touching, it can reach the soul of a lot of young people who no longer live in their home country. When you wrote that song were you thinking about someone in particular or about yourself?

A.S.: I wrote Medicine for Melancholy for Barry Jenkins, the director of the film of the same title. When I saw the two main characters, two African-americans living different experiences, a lightbulb went off in my head. I felt poised between the tension and the connection between the two characters, I was surrounded and enveloped by their lives. Black, undoubtedly, but also interested in shapes and sounds not properly considered “black”, erroneously. Who can define what is black and what isn’t, apart from each one of us as individuals? I’d never thought about it before working for Jenkins. We can consider Medicine for Melancholy an emotional snapshot of a time when I was looking for a sense of belonging. But when I write a song, I want it to leave the space in which it was born and to reach other people, those we meet at the concerts, which send us their messages and make me realise that there are so many people out there creating the personal space they need.

Alanna, Ingenue also sounds very personal. Is it painful for you to expose yourself in your songs? Or do you find it liberating?

A.S.: I believe that if I were aware of what I really expose in our songs, none of them would have ever seen the light! It’s this unconsciousness that made Lush Life so liberating, in a sense. But it’s true, it can be painful to share one’s truth. I like to treat my vulnerability as a training ground. Flexing emotional muscles can be painful for me, but it is the sign that I am pushing myself beyond my limits. Not all the songs talk about me, but I still have to draw from my true feelings for these songs, so that I can connect with people. So, every time I write a song that hits reality, it’s like I’m improving my strength, my resistance and my agility to become more intimate and direct.

What did you use to do before Bonjay? When did you meet and how did you begin making music together?

I.S.: I was just a DJ and I used to make music, but with Bonjay I started producing seriously.

A.S.: I’ve been making music since I was a teenager. In my previous life I was a little R&B star, a very pop R&B, with a single on the radio. But my team chose a very bad stage name and I had a horrible experience with my manager, so I decided to quit when I started university. I met Swain there, I had just been convinced to join the campus’ radio. My eyes and ears were very open and I wanted to be part of that new, weird musical scene which I was discovering. Canadian Indie music was about to explode. Right then, while I was going upstairs to reach the attic at a busy party, I heard that Swain was a DJ. I didn’t know he was a producer, but I decided to trust someone who made rap, house and punk lovers dance together on the same dance floor. I followed that gut feeling and now we are Bonjay.

griot mag -bonjay_intervista
Bonjay live (2010) via facebook/bonjay

You live in Toronto: do you think the album reflects the sound of your city? Has it changed in recent years? And what does it mean to be a band in Toronto?

I.S.: Caribbean sounds have been in the air since the 70s, when a lot of people arrived here from the Caribbean, so radios always play dancehall and there are big soca parties in suburban neighbourhoods. During the making of the album, the nearest take away was a place run by a Rastafarian family, all the dishes were delicious and prepared with fresh ingredients. It’s something that runs in the blood of the city. On the streets we hear more and more Afrobeats, especially now that many Nigerians are coming, at some point we will immerse ourselves in this music. Being a band in Toronto means having the aspiration to finally find a distinctive sound. People come from all over the world, from China, Korea, South-East Asia, the Caribbean, East Africa, West Africa, Europe, Latin America and the Middle East. New York is the only other place in the world that makes me feel the same way. So Toronto should create its own story, but that story hasn’t been written yet. We are writing it all together.

Last year, you organised and took part in the Diversity Tour. What was the meaning of that event?

A.S.: We went on tour with the band Too Attached by Vivek Shraya. The idea behind the Diversity Tour was a sort of mockery of the Canadian fixation for diversity. By now it has become a sort of medal of honour of the country, a positive trait that the Government loves to promote. But there is a difference between talking about diversity and making integration really work. It’s very easy to put a nice set of different faces in advertising, but it is much more difficult to transform the networks of people and the ruling classes, they are two totally different processes.
griot mag -bonjay-intervista-We understood the concept, but not how hard it could be to put into practice. We wanted to make fun of the fact that we were two non-white people together on the same tour, which then became “ethnic” or “different”. Why couldn’t it simply be a tour? There are no “white tours”! We can talk about folk, rock or electronic music, but we identify ourselves by sound or genre, not by color or ethnicity! We had fun putting ourselves together on the tour poster, that says a lot!

What are you up to these days? What are your future projects?

I.S.: Making more music! After doing so many gigs this summer, going back to the studio makes us feel free.

A.S.: Yes, we’re excited to make music inspired by the people and the cities we discovered by going on tour with Lush Life. Our sound is more bubbly, as if the album release has given us new energy and we need to let it out by creating new songs. And, obviously, our audience can’t wait to hear the result of these stimuli and various influences, wishing not to wait eight more years. Even though, we have to admit it, it was worth it.

– Claudia Galal

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Claudia Galal

Half Italian, half Egyptian, I was born in Marche, I lived in Bologna fora while, and I’ve been adopted by Milan. I work in the field of communication and media. I write about music, street art, counter-cultures and I’m deeply fascinated by cultural contamination at any level.