The Toronto duo mixing up dancehall influences and reworked r'n'b are set to play this week's party at east London's Shacklewell Arms
Born out of the basements of Toronto’s parties, the duo best known as Bonjay mix a unique brand of dancehall that fools around with rattling pop twists and hooks of R&B grandeur. This unlikely jump around of genres is partly explained in the importance of two contrasting members. Ian ‘the beat maker’ manages to create an illusion for listeners, presenting us a chronic taste of Otis Redding dance blasts that are almost hidden by the strength of Alanna’s vocal delivery. What we are left with is a ‘good god’ expression that is fittingly appropriate seeming as their name Bonjay derives from the Spice Island slang for exactly that. The impressive single 'Stumble/Creepin' was released last month on One Bird Records allowing us to feel their innovative sound. Having opened for acts like Twin Shadow and Glasser, they're now headlining their own tour, including a date at The Shacklewell Arms alongside super-bloggers Slutty Fringe this Saturday, July 23.
Dazed Digital: How did you guys hook up and start making music together?
Ian: We started out performing songs together at a monthly party I threw with some friends. Alanna would jump on a pool table and sing an indie or soul cover over dancehall and bass re-edits I'd make. When we moved to Toronto to go to school, we started writing original songs as a hobby and last year we began releasing them. It's taken on a life of its own, to the point that now we have a drummer and we've become a live band. We actually appeared in Dazed years ago when we were students – it's funny to look back at those days.
DD: Your sound has been described as a mishmash of dancehall, pop and r'n'b, was that accidental or did you plan all of those elements in your music?
Alanna: Well it’s definitely not planned – I think if we’d planned it out we’d have come up with something much more clever! Growing up and living in Toronto, the neighbourhoods are really mixed so you get exposed to a lot of different stuff, a lot like London. But Toronto is a much newer city so things are still fresh and kind of endearingly awkward.
Our sound is probably a culmination of our experiences. Mine as a teen gospel and r&b singer and more recently as a backup singer for Canadian indie & folk musicians, and Ian as a DJ who plays forward-thinking dancehall and dance music. I mean we both learned some music theory growing up so we can write songs and charts and stuff. But we didn't learn enough to know how to do it the "right way".
Ian: I always hated the word "pop" because to me it meant stuff like Taio Cruz and Katy Perry. But since the EP came out in October what I've learned is that to most people, anything soul is pop. I always separated the two, but mainstream pop has borrowed so much from R&B and gospel that in the eyes of most listeners they're basically all the same thing. And I'll never tire of doing unconventional things to soul music, so if people are going to call us "leftfield pop" then so be it.
Pop as a label also gives you some valuable freedom. Because if you're a dancehall or R&B or garage then there's always rules about what sounds you can put to work and what you can write about. But if you're some kind of weird pop thing then you can do exactly what you want to do and they can't stop you.
We’re writing our first album right now and I was trying to explain to my Dad what it sounds like. In the end I told him that we’re bringing the Talking Heads approach to the golden years of futuristic dancehall and R&B. All that late 90s early 2000s stuff that we love is so underappreciated musically. I guess in part because those songs are largely about partying or sappy romance or killing people. But sonically they're so dense and fresh and exciting! There are new places we want to take those sounds, including some songs about some deeper subjects.
Alanna: I discovered the Talking Heads pretty recently and I fell in love with their freedom. I love how they took the dance music of their time – the disco, the post-punk, the Fela – and they weren't afraid to take it away from the dancefloor and write songs with different emotions and different stories... Bonjay is a way of reinventing some of the music that I love on my own terms. To show there's no shame in aiming to write smart, meaningful music.
DD: What tracks are currently getting played on your iPod?
Alanna: To be honest, I haven't listened to much music since we've been here writing. I've been watching music documentaries instead. The Bill Withers one Still Bill, the Feist one, and all the Kate Bush interviews on Youtube.
Ian: The last month I've taken a break from DJing and I've been listening to lots of old stuff – dancehall instrumentals from 2003, Timbaland B-sides from movie soundtracks that bombed, and this orchestral soul composer named Labi Siffre who I've loved ever since Streets Is Watching.
Whenever we feel like a new song might be going off the rails, we listen to the Feist's The Reminder because it's one of the only albums we both love and never get tired of. We both have such different tastes but I think dancehall and Feist are in the middle of our Venn diagram.
DD: What do you like about the Toronto music scene and which artist/s do you rate that are coming out of that scene?
Alanna: I like that there's no "Toronto sound" that musicians feel compelled to latch onto or reject. The strongest scenes are probably the indie scene, the detroit-y rap scene and leftfield dance music – people who take it into song territory. There's lots of talents but as far as bands reaching the UK I rate Austra, Allie Hughes and all the guys from Azari & III.
Ian: Basically everyone whose name starts with A. On the dance side I rate XI, Egyptrixx, Nautiluss. There's a rap producer named Rich Kidd who is starting to do great things. Toronto is about the same size as Philly – it's a big city but not too big. So if you're doing interesting music then eventually you meet everyone.
DD: What are you currently working on now?
Alanna: Right now, we're writing our album here in Berlin. The loose theme is "the way we live in cities today". No nostalgia – there are so many beautiful and ugly stories happening right now, and they’re ready to be told.
Bonjay play with Slutty Fringe at The Shackwell Arms, London this Saturday June 23rd.