The added anxiety caused by COVID has many feeling helpless, unable to sleep and concentrate, but it’s also helping others to further appreciate the importance of stillness, and even boredom. Ace jazz drummer/composer Larnell Lewis, who’s always placed a premium on mindfulness – the practice of focusing your attention on the present moment – falls into the latter category.

Larnell Lewis, Snarky Puppy “Practicing [mindfulness] has definitely becoming a bigger part of my day since the pandemic hit,” he says from his Toronto home. “Awareness, stillness, being in the moment really helps me focus my energy and intention. COVID has forced many of us to look at what’s in front of us. My family is what’s in front me. As someone who tours a lot, I’m home now, so I’m seeing my children grow, I’m getting to know them.”

Living in the moment is so important to the incredibly innovative and in-demand drummer that he christened his first album In The Moment. In the liner notes of the record, which came out in 2018, Lewis wrote, “The compositions on this album are based on a collection of moments and memories that I’ve kept with me over the last 15 years. As I start this new journey, I’m reminded of a very important rule that can apply to many things in life: Strive to be In The Moment at all times.”

Lewis has enjoyed many mindful moments: as a member of triple-Grammy-winning Brooklyn band Snarky Puppy (nominated again for 2021); touring the world with jazz heavyweights like Pat Metheny, John Scofield, and Gary Burton; being Musical Director during the Toronto International Film Festival’s premiere of the critically-acclaimed documentary of Quincy Jones, QUINCY, where he led the performances from the likes of Chaka Khan and Mark Ronson; playing Carnegie Hall alongside David Crosby; earning the 2004 Oscar Peterson Award for Outstanding Achievement in Music (from Humber College), and the 2017 Toronto Arts Foundation’s Emerging Jazz Award (2017).

Lewis was first introduced to drums in church at a very young age. Mindfulness, he says, manifested itself during the services. “It was there that I realized the importance of being still, of being thankful for what you have, and appreciating the process of moving from the outside world to a place that centred me,” he says.

​He confesses that whether it was playing in church, or in venues around the world, performing is a religious experience. “You can definitely affect how someone is feeling when they come to your show if the goal is to return to centre,” he says. “My hope is that their day is a little bit brighter after seeing me.”

In November of 2020, Lewis released Relive The Moment, comprised of six re-imagined compositions from his debut record that feature new, live drum performances. “I approached this record from the perspective of a drummer,” he says, adding that when he made In The Moment, he was “project managing.” Considering that the debut record featured nearly 20 Toronto jazz musicians, you can get an idea of what his job entailed.

“This one has a different flow,” says Lewis. “It gave me another chance to appreciate the music. and a new way to tell the stories behind each song.” “Coconuts” is one of those songs, a piece he calls “my version of talking about finding that Holy Grail.” At a show in Toronto last year, Lewis relished telling the story of the search for that perfect coconut. With a laugh, he tells me that he actually bought a special hammer that helps him pick just the right one.

The analogy he draws between coconut hunting and his approach to his craft is lovely. “It’s about taking your time,” he says. “You’re constantly studying, you’re persistent, and you keep going. There’s always that journey of learning something, and how amazing you feel when you get to that moment.

“The best advice I can give is, keep cracking more coconuts!” he laughs.

“I’m a late bloomer,” says drag queen Tynomi Banks of her burgeoning music career. “But now I’m in attack mode.”

Banks – real name Sheldon McIntosh – has performed on stages across Canada, and graced billboards and TV ads for Spotify, Netflix ,and Hudson’s Bay. She got her big break as a contestant on the inaugural season of the Canada’s Drag Race reality-TV competition.

Now, she’s carving out time in her busy schedule to follow one of her first loves: singing. As a kid in Pickering, Ontario, Banks grew up listening to a variety of genres, from Canadian icons like Celine Dion and Shania Twain, to R&B and Jamaican music. In high school she took music classes, and performed big numbers from Les Misérables, Joseph and The Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat and West Side Story. “I was the only boy in the class, so I got to do a lot of the leads,” says Banks. “And this was pre-puberty, so I was hitting Mariah Carey notes.”

Although her passion for music was put on the back burner while she became well-known as a dancer and drag queen, Banks would continue to sing on her own and sometimes, even incorporate it into her drag performances for comic relief. “People would tell me after shows, ‘You have a voice. You can sing for real,’” says Banks. “But I was so afraid of pursuing it.”

That changed this year. “When COVID-19 hit, I realized you only live once,” says Banks. “I thought, ‘Let’s get over this fear.’”

She’s spent the last few months in writing sessions with other musicians, working on original songs and exploring genres. “A lot of the songs are R&B and poppy, but one of the songs has a cool island vibe. It’s like a kaleidoscope of different sounds,” says Banks. “At first it was really scary to put my personal thoughts on paper. But after I recorded my first song, I was on fire.”

A few hours before our online appointment with Sophia Bel, Bonsound’s friendly spokesperson informs us that the Montreal label’s new recruit loves answering questions on her work as a music producer, and that she actually co-produced every track of her new EP, Princess of the Dead, Vol.II.

Sophia BelOf course, absolutely, we’d love to: we’ll be sure to ask her to talk about that. Still, when the press relations officer has to point out to reporters that you are one of the main sound architects of your own songs, does that mean that there are still people out there who find it hard to believe that a woman can take on such responsibilities?

“Apparently yes,” Bel replies, live from a moving car, as she was returns from a few days off in the countryside. “The other day, someone asked me, ‘Was “Voyage astral” [a piece on which Choses Sauvages band member Félix Bélisle worked] done by Félix? I wouldn’t want to take credit away from the people I’m working with, I’m not all by myself. But I sometimes feel that people assume, because I’m a woman, that I stay away from that [production].”

In order to create music that sounds as much as possible like what she was hearing in her head, and in her heart, it was imperative that the Princess of the Dead get involved with that crucial aspect of the creative process.

“I needed to have some control,” she says. “In the past, when I wasn’t producing, I would write on guitar, or on piano, and be at the mercy of what some of my collaborators wanted to do with my songs. Now that I’m playing a more active role in the creation of the instrumentation, of the musical vibe, I feel that I can go deeper into my vision. In spite of the fact, well… I do realize that seeing your vision through is a lifelong work.”

After getting nearly 600,000 views on Spotify with Vol. 1 of the Princess of the Dead diptych (released in April 2019), on the eagerly anticipated follow-up Bel recorded a zillion different references borrowed from the 1990s. They ranged from the trance/drum’n’bass beat of “Paralysis,” the first instrumental piece entirely produced by the artist herself, to “You’re Not Real You’re Just a Ghost” – in which she gives a brazen finger to a man she used to love, who suddenly disappeared without trace or explanation. The song boasts an unapologetically pop-punk chorus, for which we would have voted enthusiastically on when Avril Lavigne was the reigning queen there.

“When I’m fooling around behind a mic, I often try to sound a bit like Blink-82,” says Bel. “I love the relatable, honest side of pop-punk. But I’d never dared to sing like that for real before,” she says, as she remembers the family car trips, when her big brother took control of the radio with his Good Charlotte albums. Sophia herself went through her own emo period later on, which caused some mean boys to call her the Princess of the Dead, a title she’s reclaimed today. She’s the one who is going to have the last laugh.

“When we wrote You’re Not Real…, I’d just come out of a relationship, and I was going through a period of serious frustration,” says Bel. “That’s when CRi [one of the EP’s chief collaborators] handed me his guitar and said, ‘Play.’ Instead of answering, ‘Forget it, I’m not a good enough guitar player,’ I just started playing, he started adding percussion, and that became the perfect vehicle to help me overcome of my frustration.”

And to help her poke some fun at herself, by over-playing the anger she was feeling at the time, perhaps?  “Yes!” she says. “I always like to bring in an element that shows that I’m not taking myself too seriously. The song also is a criticism of the fact that I don’t know how to communicate. It was like being 15 again, I felt rejected, and I was listening to teary-eyed Fall Out Boy songs.”

The same mixture of glowing sincerity and sweet irony is at work on her first attempt in the Ten Zen language, “Voyage astral,” a vaporous trip-hop meditation on the primal state to which the esoteric practice of the astral journey helps one return. The closest tie between the 1990s and Princess of the Dead, Vol. II likely is, in fact, the kind of foraging exercise that spans music genres that was mastered by Beck and Bran Van 3000.

“‘Voyage astral’ is a song dealing with the many lives one can live during the same lifetime,” says Bel, “but I thought it would be fun to talk about it while slightly over-emphasizing everything that can bring to mind the New Age Revival we’re witnessing with the Millennials and Generation Z.”

Bel herself becomes part of that revival when she reads her girlfriends’ Tarot cards. “In my book, the Tarot doesn’t have to be an esoteric thing,” she says. “It doesn’t mean you’re reading into the future. It’s not the cards you draw, but the way you interpret them that will tell you something about what’s going on in your life, about your subconscious, about what’s troubling you. What I like about the Tarot is that it gets discussions going. It’s therapeutic.”

Just like music.