Canada's Got Soul?
Why Our R&B Artists Get Left in the Cold
There was a recent flurry of media activity surrounding the release of Jamaica To Toronto, a compilation that exposes the "lost” history of R&B and soul music in Canada. The CD, released on American indie label Light in the Attic, collects recordings by Canadian-based R&B singers in the ’60s and ’70s. Toronto had experienced a wave of Caribbean and West Indian immigration that resulted in a highly charged music scene, and straight-up soul was the order of the day. Current press has marvelled at the fact that these soul artists even existed and how much they influenced the contemporary Canadian sound. The music was fresh and vibrant, but didn’t translate into sustainable success — Canadian soul detoured into a cultural cul-de-sac while Canadian rock became a well-paved road.
The struggles faced by a domestic R&B/soul scene remain an intricate mix of fear, prejudice and conservatism twinned with an inferiority complex when held up against American counterparts. R&B and soul artists in this country are afforded more limited opportunities — in terms of media exposure, touring opportunities, radio play and major label backing — when compared to Canadian rock. Despite a smattering of Canadian success stories both at home (Jacksoul, Ivana Santilli, Massari) and in the U.S. (Tamia, Deborah Cox, Glenn Lewis), the Canadian music industry still seems mystified what to do with them.
The number of active, successful Canadian soul artists can be counted on two hands with fingers to spare — but not for a lack of talent or ambition. Toronto-born vocalist Jully Black is a good example; she was a well-known commodity (at least to the industry) for more than a decade before she finally unveiled her debut album. The fact that it was released after she had a Top 40 radio hit (1998’s "Rally’n”), a Juno nomination and an American major label deal underlines the challenges she’s faced. After signing a deal with now-defunct affiliate MCA Records, which evolved into a joint deal with Universal Canada and U.S., her album was reworked, renamed and re-jigged before finally being released last summer.
Black remains upbeat about the situation, saying "I’m happy because I wasn’t really ready anyway. The people who run the industry only know what they know so you can’t really fault them for not being willing to take the chance.” What those industry-running people don’t know is what to do with an artist like Black — is she R&B, soul or pop? How will she be received in Medicine Hat?
Generally speaking, the industry hasn’t bothered to answer those questions, leaving it to the artists themselves to break ground and build a DIY touring circuit all their own. "I’m the person I am today because of the grind,” Black continues. "I got stronger and better at what I do. I sold 40,000 [records] and no one expected me to sell even five or ten [thousand].”
"There aren’t a lot of outlets out there,” says Haydain Neale, front-man for Jacksoul, arguably the most successful R&B/soul outfit in the country. He describes the band’s decade-long career as a "beautiful struggle” that, despite nationwide recognition, moderate record sales and inevitable Juno nominations, remains a challenge each time out. "There’s no circuit,” he continues. "You’ve got to create it yourself. It’s real easy to say that people don’t want to show us love, but you’ve got to demand that respect.”
Ivana Santilli is another Canadian success story; her early ’90s rise came at a time when there was some buzz around soul, R&B and hip-hop hybrids. "There was a genuine excitement at the time. Live music on the road was still a doable concept — whereas now it really is about making your band smaller.” Downsizing your artistic ambitions to keep your overhead low is one solution, but it doesn’t solve the problem of having nowhere to play. "If you’re playing rock, you can play 30 dates across Canada within a two month span,” Santilli says. "As an R&B artist, you’d be done in two weeks.”
Vancouver-based soul artist GreenTARA agrees, "It’s about finding that pocket of people that relate to your music. You have to be able to shave down all your extras and just go.”
ooking again at Jamaica to Toronto, it’s acutely ironic and wholly Canadian that it took an American label to recognise and legitimise the music before Canada took notice. This, more so than any other musical genre, relates to the perception of R&B and soul in this country.
"The Americans are laughing at us because Canada doesn’t have a system,” says Toronto’s Melanie Durrant. The R&B vocalist knows all about the U.S. system. Once signed to the legendary Motown label, Durrant suffered countless delays to her American debut project and was ultimately dropped. She came back and her reworked album was released by Koch Canada. Still, Durrant says the experience was valuable, if only to highlight the differences between the American and Canadian approaches to the music. The American approach is soup-to-nuts — producers, studios, writing staff and labels work in conjunction. "It’s a whole package, Durrant says. "Here someone will play a beat for you and demand five grand. There are only scraps to win.”
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