“Pantayo was born out of a necessity to learn about our roots,” says Katrina Estacio, one of the founding members of the all-women, Filipina music collective – whose eponymous debut album was just recently short-listed, on July 15, among the 10 finalists vying for the 2020 Polaris Music Prize.

Pantayo, which means “for us” in Tagalog, formed from kulintang workshops in late 2011. Traditionally played by Indigenous groups in the southern Philippines, the kulintang is a percussive instrument made up of a rack of knobbed gongs that are hit with wooden mallets.

The songs that they learned in the workshops eventually became the basis for the tracks of their album, which mixes kulintang instrumentation with modern pop, R&B, punk, and electronica. The group – comprised of Estacio, Eirene Cloma, Michelle Cruz, Jo Delos Reyes, and Kat Estacio – worked on the album from 2016 to 2019, de-constructing and re-building songs by playing with various components like raw gong hits, textured vocals, and layered samples.
“We would jam for hours to find a groove,” says vocalist Cloma, who also plays keyboards and bass. “I love re-visiting early versions of songs and hearing how our sound changed, and how we became more confident as performers as we grew closer as a band.”

While workshopping songs, the band recruited Yamantaka//Sonic Titan’s alaska b to produce the record; she also guided the group in recording, arranging, and mixing.

The resulting album’s influences are diverse and vast: the pulsing “Heto Na” riffs on OPM (Original Pilipino Music) disco songs from the 1970s, while the vocals for the ballad “Divine” were influenced by Blue Rodeo’s “Try” and kd lang’s “Save Me,” songs that Cloma loved in her childhood.

Yet each song remains grounded in kulintang music from the perspective of the FilipinX diaspora.

“The Philippines has been colonized by the Spaniards, Americans and Japanese. One of the results of colonialism is erasure of culture,” says Cruz. “We’re privileged to be able to play, learn, and share our version of kulintang music. I’m happy the traditions live on.”

Uptown Boyband straddles multiple worlds. The Toronto-based trio is equal parts dancey K-pop,  infectious rap, and catchy trap beats.

Named after the area of Toronto where they grew up, UBB is singers Joe Rascal and Roc Lee, who first met in their high-school breakdancing club, and rapper Justin Trash, who they later met through a mutual friend.

The band’s duality is well-represented on their debut album, Club Ubb, which will be released later this year. Split into two sides, on Heartthrob the trio embraces their poppier sound, while the other half, Heartbreak, is full of hard-hitting trap anthems, like their latest single “Kult Freestyle.” “We wanted to create a record that was a blend of all of our influences. We didn’t want to restrict ourselves sonically,” says Lee.

In 2016, they added the word “Boyband” to their name as a way to reference and subvert the image of K-pop. The trio, who all have Korean roots, grew up listening to K-pop groups like Big Bang and 1tym, and were heavily inspired by H.O.T.  But unlike perfectly-coiffed groups like BTS, they also have facial piercings and tattoos, and bring “sprinkles of grunge and punk” into their music.

Although K-pop is one of the most popular genres in the world, there aren’t a lot of homegrown bands in Toronto – at least not yet. “From our experience there doesn’t seem to be a big scene, but it’s slowly growing, and we’re honoured to be a part of it,” says Rascal. The trio didn’t have a lot of other mainstream Asian-American and Asian-Canadian artists to look up to while they were younger, an experience that now pushes them creatively.

“The lack of representation helped us create our own path without any restrictions,” says Trash. “There was no rule book, so we want to be the role models we never had.”

Pierre Blondo and John-Adam Howard know the codes of pop music like few others in Québec. Operating under the name House of Wolf, the two independent musicians have set their sights on the international market and their ambitions are well measured.

Their catalogue of productions includes R&B, hip-hop, country, and soul, and reflects the innate versatility and ease of its creators. “The common thread in all our influences is our love of pop music,” says Pierre Blondo, the duo’s official spokesperson. “And nowadays, pop has morphed into a melting pot that can include a lot of different things. Initially, we’re guided by our feelings, and then we embark on a quest to find that unknown algorithm that may help us reaches the masses.”

Far from getting lost in an illogical, overloaded mish-mash of genres, House of Wolf has a signature sound that’s in synch with the times. Their aesthetics might appear simple, but they devote countless hours to crafting and fine-tuning their work. “We try to be spontaneous and err towards removing layers rather than multiplying them,” says Blondo. “We want the vocals to take all the space they need. It’s a lot of work, however, to arrive to the right amount of guitars and pads. We start our sessions with a discussion, and as soon as we feel we’re drifting away, we re-centre ourselves on the initial feeling. It’s a fine line to find the right emotion, and each time is almost like torture. It’s as if we forget how to produce!”

The two Québec City musicians know how to find the through line in their human and artistic chemistry. A businessman at heart, Blondo is the more analytical half of the duo while John-Adam Howard is the more creative one. “His only focus is creation,” says Blondo. “Every morning he looks at new plug-ins and the latest tutorials… He has a hardcore love of music, whereas I’m unable to think about music without thinking about the business side of it. So when he drifts too far in that direction, I can reel him back, and he does the same for me when I become too robot-like. Our opposites match.”

Blondo started producing music after his studies at L.A.’s Musicians Institute, and he’s always dreamt of living from his passion. In 2016, A&R businessman and consultant Mike Goldfarb tapped him to set up a creative branch for his production company Talent Nation. “He wanted me to compose three songs for like eight artists,” says Blondo. “There’s no way I could do that on my own! I started looking locally for people to collaborate with, and that’s when I found John-Adam and Vincent Carrier (a producer who left the group a few months later). My goal was to set up a songwriting mini-camp for three in an Airbnb in Toronto, and take charge of all the expenses so that we could keep whatever profits would materialize down the line from those songs. But four months in an Airbnb in Toronto is incredibly expensive, so it turns out I didn’t make any money at all,” he remembers, laughing.

During that time Blondo discovered a young singer from Wisconsin. Revealed through a contest organized by iHeartRadio that involved sending a video of yourself singing a Zayne Malik song in order to win tickets for his show, Carlie Hanson was spotted by Mike Goldfarb on Instagram. “She was like this young, female Bieber with the perfect American dream story,” he says. “She’s from Wisconsin, she works at a McDonald’s, her mom has three jobs, she’s super-humble… We asked her mom if she could come to Toronto. The meeting was very cool and we rented another Airbnb in L.A. in the fall of 2016 so we could work on a few songs.”

With the help of American lyricist Dale Anthoni, House of Wolf produced the song “Only One,” which launched Hanson’s career in March of 2018, most notably through its inclusion on a list of Taylor Swift’s favourite songs. The duo is still reaping the benefits of meeting Hanson, and their relationship has solidified with the production of the single “Daze Inn” last spring. “It’s obviously good to produce for established artists, but developing the career of a specific artist is very helpful to gain a reputation within the industry,” says Blondo. “It shows you can develop a specific sound.”

Last June, the duo added another feather in its cap wth a placement for California trio Cheat Codes. Co-written with the popular songwriting collective The Six and Dan Smith, of British indie pop group Bastille, “Heaven” racked up more than a million plays within a week. “Initially, we didn’t even know it was Bastille’s singer who penned the melodies!” says Blondo. “As a matter of fact, we also didn’t know that we were competing with other producers, and in the end, we turned the song around so much that the label flipped.”

Spurred on by this unexpected opportunity, which led them to produce for R&B singer Jeremih and singer Anna Clendening, the two acolytes are thinking about moving back to the American West Coast. “We’ve done a lot of long-distance songwriting, and now we want to spend some time in L.A. so we can fully benefit from our contacts,” says Blondo. “Our strategy is still to remain independent, because we want to avoid signing a bad deal with a publisher who doesn’t give a fuck about us. We want to make sure we fully show what we’re capable of before signing any kind of deal. We believe in the long game.”