Manila Grey may have only surfaced two years ago, but their musical relationship started nearly a decade ago. Childhood friends Neeko and Soliven grew up with their eyes glued to their television screens, as they soaked up the sounds of Outkast, Maxwell, Usher and Musiq Soulchild while watching RapCity and Vibe on MuchMusic. Then, in the summer of 2009, they began making music together. “There were definitely a lot of takes, a lot of laughs and a lot of hours online looking for beats,” Soliven remembers. “It was a time of discovery.”

But Neeko and Soliven took their musical ambitions to the next level in 2016 when they officially formed Manila Grey, an act that paired modern hip-hop production with Neeko’s rapping and Soliven’s singing. Much of this new chapter in their musical career, the duo notes, is thanks to collaborator and producer Azel North. “He not only produces the beats, but he also pushes the sound design for Manila Grey,” Neeko explains. “The man is very dedicated to his sounds, and that really pushes us to cross some boundaries and dive deeper into these records.”

The resulting songs are some of Canada’s most polished and confident in current hip-hop, at times reminiscent of The Weeknd and Majid Jordan. But, of course, there’s one difference that makes Manila Grey stand out from their R&B contemporaries: their unabashed embrace of their Filipino culture. Neeko and Soliven aren’t afraid to admit that their culture informs their approach to their music — in fact, it fuels them more now than when they first got into songwriting.

“As we got older and the music started progressing, there’s always been a duality between the stories of our past life in the East, and our current life in Vancouver, that we just had the constant urge to tell – but couldn’t tell until now,” says Neeko. Soliven adds, “We realized that this is a big opportunity and outlet to introduce the people to something very unique.”

In Québec, there exists an entity called “rap québ” that’s more or less hermetically sealed, encompassing a considerable number of popular artists. There’s also a movement of women trying, through various means, to make sure that all musical genres allow them to put their music in play. Those two groups might seem contradictory, yet both characteristics exist in Random Recipe.

Random RecipeThis month, the band celebrates a decade of existence by releasing its third album, Distractions. This time around, the group is reduced to a trio, comprised of Frannie, Fab and Liu-Kong. The eight songs on the recording know no bounds, thanks to the musicians’ eclecticism, and a fresh sound. It was co-produced by Philippe Brault and Marie-Hélène L. Delorme (FOXTROTT). “I’ve never met a producer [Marie-Hélène] with such care for sounds,” says Frannie. “She truly is a sound sculptor!”

Following Kill the Hook (2013) and Fold It! Mold It! (2010), Frannie, Fab and Liu-Kong felt the time had come to re-affirm themselves, for the sake of both the audience and themselves. “We knew it had been awhile since we’d released anything,g and artists nowadays really live in a culture of the ephemeral,” says Frannie. “You don’t want to come across as an old band who just won’t retire.”

Random Recipe isn’t under the impression they “won the music lotto,” and they’ve had ups and downs, but they wanted to re-kindle the energy of their first album. “Two years ago, we tried making a record, but we told ourselves that if we were going to release something, it better be well thought-out,” says Liu-Kong. “The second album was done under pressure,” says Frannie. “Everything was overwritten, and the raw product got lost.”

So, moving on, Random Recipe chose differently this time. “It’s a bit like deciding to have another child. You need to make sure you’re happy together first. Being in a band isn’t easy,” says Frannie. Adds Fab, “Ten years ago, we had to create new songs every time we got booked for a gig, because we didn’t have an album, and if we recorded one, we wouldn’t have enough time for gigs. We wrote our songs in the car, and it was pure ‘us.’ On the second album, we went for the cerebral side of music, and that wasn’t us.” This third album sees them going back to a more physical interpretation of music: Random Recipe express music with their bodies. “It would’ve been a shame to end our career with that second album, which was so difficult,” says Liu-Kong.

UFO Music

Over the last decade, hip-hop has become mainstream in Montréal, but people who used to pigeonhole Random Recipe as a “female rap” group have now realized that not everything deserves to be classified. “We’re still something of a UFO,” says Frannie. “We borrow from hip-hop as much as we borrow from funk. We’ve played more with Canailles than we have with Dead Obies these last few years! [laughs] We’re the thing that’s beside everything else.”

Although women in music are demanding their place in the business, it’s even harder in hip-hop, where female role models are rare. “There are a growing number of female rappers,” says Frannie. “It’s in no one’s interest to compete against each other. What Sarahmée does and what we do have nothing in common, so we’re much better off helping each other out. We’ve become the big sisters for artists searching for their identity,” she says, before reminding us that Betty Bonifassi and Beast, Ariane Moffatt, and Pierre Lapointe, among others, took Random Recipe under their wings when the band started out. “Marie Gold calls me, like, once a week, panicked about her career, and I have answers for her,” says Frannie.

But beyond genre, musical diversity on the scene in Montréal deserves the means to expand. In the city, musical styles are rich and diversified because they have the tools to build bridges between themselves. “Musical talent in Montréal is not located strictly near metro stations, and at the Jazz fest,” says Fab. “You need to go to Hochelag’ and NDG, and listen to stuff you’ve never heard before. It’s important. That’s what the local mosaic is all about.”

Inspiration flourishes all over the city, just as it does all over the world. The band draws the broad strokes of their musical development from their travels, influencing their culture as much as piquing their interest. “It’s quite rich to travel to Brazil after we just played Côte-Nord,” says Frannie, laughing.

Leaving Home

Independent and crowd-funded, Distractions sees Random Recipe leaving their musical home, record label Bonsound. The trio now manages itself as it sees fit. “It was scary, at first,” says Frannie, “especially the crowdfunding part; we didn’t want to come across as beggars. But all the money we collected allowed us to validate that this album was meant to be.”

“We’re not hating… We just needed to understand what it’s all about before we could do it ourselves,” adds Fab. “Questioning what we do is important, too. You don’t know what pain is if you never fall down. Now we have three good heads on our shoulders, and we’re even more aware, because we’ve already made our mistakes.”

Group Therapy

The decision to fly solo wasn’t made lightly. During the summer of 2016, the band stayed at the Los Angeles SOCAN House to create the first drafts for this third album. “We used that trip mainly to touch base, and realize we had no idea where we were going,” says Frannie. “We questioned ourselves on the social responsibility of having a mic in your hand. What is cultural appropriation, to us? What’s our relationship with hip-hop culture?” Those questions directed all of the ensuing creative process. “We know we have a style that’s unlike any other,” she continues. “We’d always thought it was fragile because of that, and that we therefore shouldn’t be open to others. But we realized that it was actually the opposite, that we wanted to explore, and see what other women could bring to the table.”

“We also did group therapy, like Metallica,” says Liu-Kong, laughing. The result? Making a band last is hard work. “When we were young, we wanted to be cool, but the truth is, there’s always someone younger and cooler than you,” says Frannie. As far as Random Recipe’s new approach to music, the main thing, from now on, is to focus on human relations. Marie-Pierre Arthur, Rhonda Smith (Prince), Ladybug Mecca (Digable Planets), Lisa Iwanycki (Blood and Glass), Heartstreets, Tali Taliwah (Nomadic Massive), Giselle Numba One, Sunny Moonshine (Sunny & Gabe) and Emily Lazar all contributed to the album, and the magic happened. “We don’t have many role models when it comes to getting older as a musician who does something wild like we do,” says Liu-Kong. “There’s one band in Québec that’s older than ours with a front woman, and that’s Duchess Says. Being in a band is hard, and we want to set the example.”

“Where do we go?” That’s Random Recipe’s constant question, ever seeking adventures abroad. “We want to go places we’ve never been,” says Fab. “Eastern Europe, Japan, the South of Africa. There’s a lot of Latin American vibes on the album, yet we’ve never been there as a full band. We’re gonna go there to experience what we need to create the fourth album. In 10 years, we’ve proven to ourselves that we still don’t have a single style. That’s gold. It’s always alive, just like kombucha.”

Welcome to the first in a new quarterly series, Upstarts, profiling very young SOCAN members who are making some noise with their original music. First up: Moscow Apartment.

Moscow Apartment, the young Toronto duo comprised of 15-year-olds Brighid Fry and Pascale Padilla, has already piled up the accolades in just a year of existence.

The Rosedale Heights School of the Arts-attending besties were named Best Young Songwriters at the Toronto Music Independent Awards and Best Young Performers at the 2017 Canadian Folk Music Awards. They were a recent hit at the city’s 16th annual Winterfolk Festival, and spent last summer touring the festival circuit across Canada – performing at The Winnipeg Folk Festival, Guelph’s Hillside Festival, and the Shelter Valley and Summerfolk fests.

In September of 2017, the duo released a Samantha Martin-produced, self-titled, five-song EP that has garnered them nationwide attention, as original songs like “Francis and Isolde,” “Annie” and “The Things You Do” reveal an innate maturity, and a sweetly beguiling vocal balance that sounds simultaneously demure and bold.

“Mostly, our musical bond comes from us being really best friends,” says Fry. “We’re really close, and that influences our dynamic in the band a lot.” Adds Padilla, “It had never been so easy to write with somebody before. I think we have a familiar vision as to what we want to put out there.”

Moscow Apartment formed when, after losing touch for a few years, Padilla attended the release party for Fry’s Fox Hat EP in October 2015, and the former “carpool choir buddies” re-connected.

As songwriters, Fry started earlier than Padilla, bitten by the bug “in Grade 1 or 2. I had this really mean substitute teacher. I got really annoyed and I just wrote a song about how mean she was,” Fry recalls.

Padilla needed a bit of coaching. “In Grade 5, I started working with Girls’ Rock Camp and songwriter Kritty Uranowski,” she says. “I was always writing songs, but I didn’t have guidance on structure or how to be creative. She really teaches people, especially young girls, and fosters that creativity.  I felt like I wanted to write even more, [just] so I’d have stuff to bring to her.”

“We fought quite a bit over the summer, but I think that made us closer.” – Brighid Fry of Moscow Apartment

Padilla also said she learned a lot about personal growth from producer Samantha Martin. “She taught me to be a kick-ass person,” she explains.

The professional and personal mettle of their friendship was tested during last summer’s folk festival run, especially since they decided to drive to Winnipeg through Northern Ontario. “We’ve learned [that] it’s not good to camp for two weeks straight with your best friend— because you fight,” Fry says with a chuckle. “We fought quite a bit over the summer, but I think that made us closer.”

Padilla agrees that even frequent arguments can be galvanizing. “You get into fights because you don’t have that professional distance,” she admits. “It makes us work together and get through tough times.”

And both young women found the festival circuit to also be inspiring, both personally and creatively. “You go to all these festivals and you find it’s like a community – this miniature town,” says Padilla. Fry also found the experience educational. “We got to meet a lot of amazing people and learn a lot in the songwriter programs,” she admits. “‘It made me want to do even better. I really want to feel like I deserve a place in these festivals. I feel there’s still a bit of an imposter syndrome, although obviously we work hard.  But it makes me want to work even harder to be successful, and really feel confident being there.”

Moscow Apartment started out simply at first, with influences ranging from Joni Mitchell and Kendrick Lamar to Brooklyn indie rockers Big Thief. “When we both started, it was ukulele and acoustic guitar,” says Fry. “We’re still definitely rooted in folk, because that’s what we grew up with, and that’s still a big part of our music.  In the last six, seven months, Pascale and I started listening to indie-rock stuff, and that’s influenced us, because we’re teenagers – our personalities change really quickly, and you can see that in our music from song to song. It’s more reflective of us creating our own style as teenagers. Both folk and rock feel really natural for us right now.”

Padilla agrees. “I think I’m a completely different person than I was three months ago , and I feel our music is completely different than it was three months ago,” she says, adding that the duo recently started rehearsing with backing musicians to expand their sonic palette.

For now, Moscow Apartment is setting sights on recording new music and reflecting upon a wildly successful first year.  “Honestly, I don’t think we expected to do this much in a year,” Fry admits.  “We just started. We want to keep growing as a band and have stuff occur organically.”

Padilla says they’re in this partnership for the long run. “I can’t imagine my life without working with Brighid,” she says. “It’s cool working with someone who I love so intensely.”