Jesse Mac Cormack isn’t the self-centred type. Far from the continuous, calculated speech of a politician, he saves his words for when it really matters. After three EPs showing constant evolution, he releases Now, his debut full-length album, on May 3. It’s a recording that’s as highly anticipated as is a solution to climate change. It’s called Now, as in “now or never.”

Jesse Mac Cormack“The longer it is, the better,” goes the saying that seems designed to describe precisely what Mac Cormack was working on all these years. “It’s been about three years since I started placing the tracks, recording, making demos,” he says, like someone who’s just arrived home from a long journey.

And now, everything’s ready. The table is set, the waiting is over. Now is both the album title, and its fourth song. “The cover art is Death Valley National Park in California,” he says.  “In it, there’s a place called Badwater Basin, and everything around you is salt. It’s a truly moon-like place, a gorgeous end-of-the-world inspiration. There was life there, once; there was an ocean, a jungle.”

How does one describe today when tomorrow becomes a utopia, when one is unsure of everything? Mac Cormack thinks of things to come. “We took my kid there, she was about 18 months old, and we took a picture,” he says. “I told myself that I put someone on this earth and when I was born, the world was ongoing. But when she gets to first grade, teachers are going to tell her that the world will end. But it’s also a Now that’s open to interpretation.”

A need for rhythm

It was once he got back from touring the songs from his EPs (Crush, Music for the Soul and After the Glow) that he knew what he was going to create next. “I felt I needed more rhythmic songs,” says Mac Cormack. “It’s more fun to play live. I needed catchy hooks.” Which is how uber-catchy songs like “No Love Go” came to be written.

“It wouldn’t be humble to say I found the recipe,” he says, still unsure of what will happen. He’s managed, throughout the years, to build himself an army of fans that are waiting for this Now, this momentum, his record.

A debut album matters a lot. “That’s why I did three EPs over a long period of time,” says Mac Cormack. “It’s pointless to record an album no one is anticipating.” And the people anticipating this album are here, there, everywhere. All ages: “During my shows, the young ones are in front of the stage dancing,” he says, “and the older ones are at the back sitting on stools.”

What he writes and composes comes to him “just like that.” These songs only have one thing in common: their creator. They range from heady pop rhythms, to intimate moments where nothing’s left but Jesse, his piano, and us. In a bubble. “I did write drum-less songs, but it’s never calculated,” he says.

As far as the production goes, “it started as something totally bare, and ended up with a full orchestra.” The topics range from personal relationships, to the ins and outs of choosing a new beginning, to drugs, and social anxiety.

Becoming one with the artwork

Backing up Jesse, and at the service of the artwork, are Francis Ledoux, Étienne Dupré and Gabriel Desjardins “They have this ability to forget everything else and produce exactly the song you want them to do,” says Mac Cormack. And just as these guys can become one with his work, the man himself has, for many years, become one with other people’s work. He’s produced albums by Helena Deland, Emilie & Ogden, Rosie Valland, and Philippe Brach, to name just a few. “It’s really important for me to be able to do that,” he says. “The busier I am, the more creative I get, I have less time, and that means I know I need to wake up. Other people’s projects nourish me. I’m constantly learning. I love music that isn’t my own.”

Mac Cormack has never been afraid of pop music – James Blake, Travi$ Scott, Drake, and Rihanna are all on his playlist. “I’m not afraid of clichés,” he says. “I believe clichés are clichés for a reason. One needs to play with them. I love big, monster beats. I also listen to a lot of techno, for a side project I want to release soon.”

Changing lives

“Hey, I put a kid on this earth since the last time we chatted about music,” Mac Cormack says, almost as if he’s surprised himself. “I wanted to finish this album before my child was born. The label, Secret City Records, asked me to keep working on it. I did, but a year after she was born. It’s been quite a challenge to juggle all that. It’s a life-changer, as they say!”

Things have changed since those days when he would get inspiration mainly at night, while riding his bike, or wandering downtown. “Now, I’m running a 9-to-5 schedule,” he says. “A friend told me, ‘I went to the woods to create, I got lost, and that’s how my music was born.’ I barely have time to go to the pharmacy!”

Despite his visits to there, Mac Cormack is creating constantly, even if it’s subject to an office-hours schedule. “I try to have one guest a day in my studio,” he says. “A day is successful only if something happens.”

There’s a scene, early in the 1951 animated film version of Alice in Wonderland, where the protagonist, her skirts ballooned out around her like a parachute, takes a tumble down a rabbit hole and falls into a dark abyss. As Alice descends, she pauses to turn on a lamp, later picking up a book, reading in contemplation as she drops. Eventually, while musing about whether she’s falling to the other side of the earth, she flips and lands, upside down, in Wonderland.

For Rich Aucoin, working on his third full-length album Release (due May 17, 2019), the film provided the perfect inspiration for the existential angst he’d been grappling with. “I wanted to use Wonderland as a metaphor for how we form our beliefs and our world-view,” he says, musing about Alice’s descent into self-awareness, “and about how we deal with existing in the universe.”

The resulting album, which Aucoin admits he almost called Death, combines electronic beats and soundscapes in songs that feel contemplative, but far from dark. With titles like “The Mind,” “The Self,” and “The Fear,” each song is to be read as something to be released (as in “release the mind,” “release the fear,” etc.). Fittingly, the album kicks off with a short song, “The Base,” in which Aucoin samples American neuroscientist Sam Harris leading a guided meditation.

And as with many of Aucoin’s previous albums, The Release is designed to synchronize with film: in this case, to a version of Alice in Wonderland that he’s edited to give it a narrative flow better suited to explore his chosen themes.  “Everything I’ve written so far has synced up to a film,” says Aucoin, who’d always planned to go to film school, but instead completed a degree in contemporary studies and philosophy.

Indeed, it was near the end of that formal education that Aucoin, a classically-trained musician who taught himself music recording and production as a 13-year-old, first decided to try his hand at creating a new soundtrack for an existing film. The result was Personal Publication (2007), his debut EP, which was written to synchronize with How the Grinch Stole Christmas. Unknowingly, he’d also charted a course for this career.

“The first shows were me sitting on the side of a stage playing keyboard while people watched the movie,” he laughs. Aucoin’s version of the animated film, with its original soundtrack, amassed more than a quarter million views on YouTube before he received a cease-and-desist letter from the copyright holders ordering him to take it down.

In the years that followed, Aucoin, began making music only after setting parameters within which to work – a practice he maintains today.

“For every project I work on, I make a list of rules, and of those rules, one of them needs to be doing the opposite of what I did the last time,” he explains. He wrote an album designed to sync with a film he made by combining three films starring Jimmy Stewart (Pubic Publication, 2010), and later made another to match up with an edited version of The Little Prince (2014’s Polaris Prize-nominated Ephemeral).

“For every project I work on, I make a list of rules.”

At one point, to honour a rule about not making his next album alone, he travelled across the country making recordings with more than 500 people, including three choirs, incorporating them all into an album that eventually became 2011’s We’re All Dying to Live. While each artist would play a song verse or a chorus, many contributions were reduced to eight-second samples.

When he began performing that album, however, Aucoin realized that he was unable to re-create its collaborative sound on his own. Unable to afford to hire a band to back his gigs, he began encouraging active participation from his audiences, who he would ask to sing song choruses and other song elements. That experience evolved into Aucoin’s trademark high-energy, interactive approach to performing, popular on the festival circuit, which he refers to as “dance floor-style, with confetti and parachutes.”

Two-wheeled Touring
Aucoin did his first cross-Canada tour by bike in 2007 to support his debut EP, Personal Publication. It was a journey that took him 81 days, during which time he also raised money for Childhood Cancer Canada. At that point, he’d already crossed the country once, while performing in his brother’s band, the Hylozoists. “I felt like it was a whirlwind,” he says, deciding that he wanted to take in the country at a more leisurely place. Aucoin allowed himself a week to travel between cities, carrying his keyboard, projector and laptop, along with his camping stuff. More than a decade later he did it again, traversing the United States on two wheels to promote his 2018 EP Hold, and to raise money for the Canadian Mental Health Association. Though he’s quick to admit that he’s not a serious cyclist, Aucoin enjoyed his time on two wheels. “I really wanted to see the States in a slow way.”

While his approach to making music has enabled him to follow his own curiosity, and to continue learning, Aucoin – who’s been nominated for 10 East Coast Music Awards over the years – laughs at how time consuming his creative process can be. Particularly his fascination with syncing music and film. “It’s one of the reasons I’m almost 12 years into making music, and have only released two full-length records,” he says. “These things take time.”

But that, he says, is going to change. Aucoin admits he’s been feeling frustrated with the pace at which his career has been evolving. “I feel like I’ve been up to bat forever, and have been hitting impressive but foul balls, but there’s been no home run,” he explains. As a result, he is now intent on putting out music more quickly: at least an album a year, if not more, in the years to come, “so that I can never have a break in releasing music until my career is done.”

One almost hears an echo of Alice, thinking about her place in relation to others as she falls into Wonderland, or as Aucoin puts it, “contemplating whether she exists as an ego or just as a series of conscious experiences.” Whatever happens next, Aucoin says he’s happy with what he’s produced so far, is also ready to take his career to the next level.

“I think that if it does happen for me, I’ll have a lot of things to talk about and show someone,” he says with a smile. “I’ll be able to say, ‘Here are all the things I’ve spent 10 years doing, while you haven’t heard of me.’”

Growing up in Kitamaat Village – Haisla Nation, childhood friends Quinton “Yung Trybez” Nyce and Darren “Young D” Metz, aka Snotty Nose Rez Kids, were budding writers and athletes. Their chemistry started on the high-school basketball court, years before the stage – Metz was a starting point guard, and Nyce was the small forward.

The duo also shared a connection to hip-hop culture. Nyce and Metz were unwittingly exposed to offensive caricatures and stereotypes of First Nations people via everything from Walt Disney and Looney Tunes cartoons to the evening news. Because of that, hip-hop culture resonated powerfully – particularly rappers Dr. Dre, Lil Wayne, Eminem, and Jay Z, who, like them, resisted society’s denigration of who they were. But living in a distant enclave, a 1,400-kilometer drive from Vancouver, meant that hip-hop tours never made it to their town.  It was through VHS tour tapes that they were able to access a world to which they’d eventually contribute, however unlikely it appeared at the time.

The duo has come a long way since then. They made the Polaris Top 10 in 2018, and toured Canada, the U.S., and Australia, while their single “Savages” spent more than 20 weeks on the Indigenous Music Countdown. They were nominated for Best Hip Hop Album at the 2018 Indigenous Music Awards, won Best Hip Hop Artist at the 2018 Western Canadian Music Awards, and earned a 2019 JUNO nomination for Indigenous Music Album of the Year, for The Average Savage.

It was a grassroots community of local change-makers, encountered during their college years in Vancouver, that inspired them to bring their personal identities to their sound. “It was just empowering people,” says Metz. “So many Indigenous people. Not just Indigenous, but our allies, too. Everyone we were hanging out with was either finishing their undergraduate or masters [degree]. We knew people that were leading those marches that you see in the streets here in Vancouver, and that influenced us heavy.”

Nyce, who was still dealing with the loss of his older brother in 2013, felt transformed personally and creatively. “The people we were surrounded by changed the direction of our music,” he says. The open mic nights that the duo began casually playing in 2012 began attracting large crowds, and this led Nyce and Metz to a revelation. “We realized how important it was for us to write and put out music that meant something to us,” says Nyce.  “How important our voices were for other people as well. Music came first. The message came once we figured out who we actually are.”

The pair began drilling down creatively. They spent long nights writing tracks like “Clash of the Clans” and “Northern Lights” until the wee hours of the morning. Weeks of swapping demos and beats, bouncing ideas off each other, followed. And the pair, who most often write their verses separately, would come back together to form concepts track by track. When a track didn’t work, they’d scrap it, but more times than not they were on the same page. “We’re very like-minded in terms of beat selection, content, and rhyme schemes, “says Nyce.

“We’re really coming into ourselves… nothing can hold us back.” — Quinton “Yung Trybez” Nyce of Snotty Nose Rez Kids

In 2017, they landed on their band name, Snotty Nose Rez Kids, a reference to children that “are just running around the rez freely,” says Nyce. It reflected their story and gave affectionate acknowledgement to the people they wanted to empower.  Their 2017 self-titled debut balanced both stark realities and humour. “We wrote about the beautiful things that we experienced on the rez, [as well as] inter-generational trauma,” says Nyce. That same year they dropped The Average Savage.

“On Average Savage we really exposed the kinds of things that we grew up around, like racial stereotypes drilled into our minds,” continues Nyce. “They wanted us to hate ourselves, and wanted the rest of the country, in this colonial society, to hate us. We called it out for what it was.”

Honouring Women’s Wisdom
Trapline also stems from the wisdom endowed to them by powerful women in their lives – Nyce’s mother eloquently opens the album, in her own words, on “Wa’wais (Skit).” Metz’s grandmother tenderly recalls his grandfather’s oft-spoken advice, “don’t act crazy,” on “Granny Kay (Skit).” “They are the women that shaped us into who we are,” say both. “Without them we wouldn’t be the men we are today.” This tribute to the strength of women is also clear via dynamic female MCs featured throughout the album, like Kimmortal (“Lost Tribe”), Cartel Madras (“Aliens Vs Indians”), and The Sorority (“Son of a Matriarch,” itself a proud celebration of the matriarchy experienced in SNRK’s daily lives). “These [artists] are all people we met along the way that share the same struggle. We all have the same message; we’re just saying them in different ways,” says Metz.

The Average Savage grabbed ears and garnered media coverage way beyond their city. Its unabashed honesty and razor-sharp rhymes were hard to ignore, and its empowering content reverberated. Historically derogatory terms like “red man,” “savage” and “rez kid,” used to malign and demean, were stripped of their vitriol, re-stated and reclaimed with power, purpose, and pride. The album made the Polaris Music Prize 2018 short list, and earned a JUNO nomination for Indigenous Music Album of the Year. .  The duo say that the major recognition silenced many non-Indigenous members of their home community who initially spurned the album.

“Before the Polaris happened, there were a lot of people from our community that felt like we weren’t being fair with our message – about what we were saying. That didn’t matter to us, because we knew that [they] often didn’t share our values anyway. And it was really overshadowed by all the positives,” says Metz.

On Trapline (out May 10, 2019) the pair return even more assured, frank, and unapologetically celebratory. It’s a hard-earned, collective sense of pride that SNRK wanted to recognize this time. “[On Trapline] we’re really coming into ourselves and showing the world that we’re proud of who we are and where we come from, and nothing can hold us back. [It’s] an album full of anthems for this generation on the rise,” says Nyce.

From “Rebirth” featuring Tanya Tagaq, to “Boujee Natives,” Trapline reveals, and revels in, the rich diversity of their Indigenous roots.  “When people think of ‘boujee’ they think of rich, fancy things,” explains Metz. “And for us, ‘boujee’ is rich in culture. Educated – you know your traditions.” (Both Metz and Nyce are learning their native tongue.)

The message is unity. “Trapline is a reminder for people across Turtle Island [North America], and people of colour, that we all come from the same struggles, and that we’re going to come out of it through unity and the knowledge that we hold,” says Nyce. “We tried to put this album together so that we could talk to more than just our own community, and at the same time show our community that these people are just like us.”

They also recognize that they are now the voices influencing a generation. “As kids, we never had artists like us to relate to, so that’s why we listened to all the West and East Coasts rappers from back in the da,” says Metz. “But now with the internet, kids can hear music from different communities, different parts of Canada. These kids are listening to our music and they’re able to relate.”