A Mighty New Force In Hip-Hop: Haviah Mighty Raps To Empower

Photo by Yung Yemi

After a fiery performance at the NXNE festival stage in downtown Toronto, Haviah Mighty is still in constant motion, waving to fans and chatting with photographers, all while assisting her crew with equipment takedown. The rising hip-hop star has performed four times throughout the week, including at halftime at a Toronto Raptors outdoor viewing party in her Brampton hometown, and her energy hasn’t diminished. On top of that, Mighty’s most ambitious album to date, 13th Floor, was released a month ago to acclaim, earning her a spot on the recently announced 2019 Polaris Music Prize Short List.

Mighty is a commanding presence on stage. Her raps are dexterous and her movements are athletic. Though only a small number of people were present at the start of her show, her electric performance turned passersby into a captivated audience. And by the time she played her last song, the crowd stretched down Yonge Street for more than half a block.

When Mighty jumps from the stage to greet her fans after the show, she speaks with the warmth and enthusiasm of an artist who genuinely appreciates her audience. She says one of the most consistent aspects of her live shows is the “upbeat energy I’m getting back from the audience, no matter where the show happens or what the audience is like.”

Even when she plays to a large audience, which she is doing more often, Mighty aims to connect with individuals: “It’s important to connect with people by looking at them, by being in the same space as them, by sharing the experience with them and creating less of a separation,” she says backstage after her gig. This sense of connection creates a “more rewarding” experience for her audience and for her.

In conversation, Mighty is engaging and self-assured. “I feel more confident in what I’m saying,” she says, when she finally sits down to relax. Her confidence is evident in the type of music she included on 13th Floor. On “Blame” and “Fugazi,” Mighty’s swagger and production quality rivals that of some of hip hop’s biggest names.

Her growing acclaim has also given her the platform to address meaningful subjects. “Thirteen” is a moving song about slavery in North America and the ways it reverberates in the present as systematic oppression of Black people. She released the song now because “the social climate was ready to hear it and I was ready to say it,” she says. “I wasn’t going to release an album with a bunch of songs that were fun but not speak on something I feel passionate about.”

Her passion is evident in her performance of “In Women Colour.” She performs the song so her audience will learn more about her and understand her “very personal experiences” as a Black woman in Canada.

“There are many young women just like me who need to hear this,” she says. “I feel triumphant that I have overcome the things people have said. Had I let it change who I am as a person, ‘In Women Colour’ and 13th Floor wouldn’t exist.”

As Mighty’s star continues to rise, she says, “I’m hoping that what I add to the industry can continue to push hip-hop in the direction of being more accepting so more people will understand the music women are making and enjoy it.”

This article was originally published in BeatRoute Magazine.

Vic Mensa Gets Up Close and Personal With The Autobiography

Four months after the release of his debut LP The Autobiography and two months into supporting Jay-Z’s 4:44 tour, Vic Mensa sounds more content with his career than he ever has. “It feels phenomenal. I love it. I had a point in time when I was performing music that was not as honest and I just felt phoney on stage, I just felt like I wasn’t me. Just saying ‘Turn up!’ every other song. ‘Turn up!’”

Part of the reason why Mensa feels more authentic when he performs is because The Autobiography is a very personal album. He describes the recording process as cathartic. “It was a process of unearthing repressed memories and drawing connections from the past to the present and the future.” He draws on childhood and adolescent experiences on “Memories on 47th St.” and recalls the impact of crime and gun violence on his community on “Heaven on Earth.”

Since Mensa first started to record as a solo artist in 2013, he has aimed to be more forthcoming in his lyrics. He says, “I try to be honest in my music.” While he uses his platform predominantly to speak honestly about his own life, he is a vocal critic of social inequalities in America. “Police brutality, mass incarceration, I know the information, I know the truth. So I think along with that comes the responsibility to vocalize.” Though he admits he doesn’t love using social media, “I do at times try to use social media to talk about the things that are important to me.”

Among the topics important to Mensa is mental health. He says that when he first started talking about it, “It felt like I was being real with myself first and foremost. I never set out to be a spokesman for mental health.” When he wrote “There’s Alot Going On” for his 2016 EP of the same name he says, “I just told the truth about my own experience. I said exactly the shit I was going through. I talked about how I was addicted to drugs and depressed and suicidal and shit at points in time.” With the EP and with that record in particular, “A lot of people reached out to me to say maybe that song saved their life or got them through a tough time. I just started to realize how silent so many people are about those types of issues. I realized I could help people as a writer who really speaks candidly about mental illness.”

It was Mensa’s intention from the outset to speak candidly about his self destructive tendencies on “Wings,” his collaboration with Pharrell Williams and Saul Williams. It is an unflinching look at depression, infrequently depicted in hip hop.

“I knew I needed to make a song like that, something that spoke about those things in my life. And so I tried a couple times and when I ended up getting with Pharrell that day, it just clicked. The lyrics kind of just wrote themselves,” he says.

The future Mensa envisions on The Autobiography is not without hope. “‘We Could Be Free’ [is] an imagining of what freedom could look like in the future,” he says. “Having a broad, wide angle view of pain and privilege as they present themselves.”

Having struggled with and overcome addiction and depression, Mensa is grateful to be where he’s at today and is already excited to get back into the studio. As for the audience response to his self-reflective music he says, “People appreciate it in a different way. It hits you in a different way.”

This article was originally published in BeatRoute Magazine.

Chad VanGaalen Masterminds a Science Fiction Vision

Chad VanGaalen’s myriad artistic vision is manifested in his music and visual art. Residing in Calgary, Alberta, he is a multi-instrumentalist who plays and produces all the music he records. His recently released sixth album, Light Information, is an immersive musical experience.

His label Flemish Eye describes his music as “living maps in songs, drawings, modified instruments, animations and performances – shifting forms pointing to another world.” VanGaalen’s albums are universes unto themselves. He says, “My alternate worlds [are] just an expanded universe of the 1970s heavy metal science fiction culture. I’m trying the best I can to bring my childhood inspirations to life through my own animations.”

Since the release of his first album, Infiniheart, VanGaalen says, “My studio has changed, my mind has changed, my gear has changed.” Across his discography he says, “Each album will have a similarity because it’s my work but what I sing about will change.” Whether creating music or visual art VanGaalen says, “Everything connects because it’s created from my mind.” This is especially apparent in the animation he did for “Pine and Clover,” in which the two main characters transform together in a show intimacy or perhaps solidarity. Though the sounds and images initially seem as thought they are in stark contrast, the visual shifts are in keeping with the tonal variation within the song.

While his arts work in tandem, he says they all require different approaches. “[In] music it’s more difficult to convey the end product quickly because the nature of the medium needs to be assembled more delicately and takes much more time to achieve the end result. There are more moving parts to making a song [whereas] I can draw an image pretty much right away and you can see the end result much faster.” Moving parts is an apt description for VanGaalen’s song composition. How he begins his composition process “is different for every song,” though he admits his voice is the instrument with which he is most comfortable.

Throughout his six albums VanGaalen delves into themes of “feeling integrated with nature.” He asks, “What is natural? Why?” and explores these concepts on tracks like sunny, jangling “Golden Oceans.” On “Host Body,” he couples spaced out synth with a science fiction narrative. Lead single “Old Heads” is about technological obsolescence with an upbeat melody and reverberating vocals at odds with the disconcerting image of replacing old heads with new ones. As rich as the narratives and imagery on Light Information are, VanGaalen calls atmospheric instrumental “Pre-Piano / 770” his favourite track and style of song to create. Rather than create narrative through direct lyricism, he tells an evocative story through tolling bells and dissonant synthesizers.

VanGaalen is touring throughout Europe in October, with a Vancouver stop in November to open his North American tour. At this stage in his career he says, “Live shows are great. I feel totally comfortable and free on stage, finally.” Though he plays all the instruments on his albums, he plays live with a full band. He says of his band, “These are the same friends I have been playing with for over a decade, they tour with me and are some of the best people I know.” After more than a decade of touring, his live shows still engage his audiences. On his albums and in his live shows and visual art, the alternate universe VanGaalen creates continues to captivate.

This article was originally published in BeatRoute Magazine.

Catching Up With Psymon Spine

Psymon Spine’s sound is nothing short of euphoric. Though they have only released an album’s worth of material, they have already masterfully created a sound that defies conventional genre classification. Founded in 2013 by Peter Spears and Noah Prebish, the Brooklyn, New York band currently has a five member line up that includes Devon Kilburn, Nathaniel Coffey, and “Brother Michael” Rudinski.

To call their music electro pop – or more generically, EDM – is to risk classifying Psymon Spine alongside the genre’s least interesting and paradoxically most popular acts. In contrast with the repetitious sound of mainstream electro pop, Psymon Spine’s debut album You Are Coming to My Birthday is intriguingly unpredictable. The album’s sound is a seamless meld of synth beats and melodies, subtle instrumentation, resonant chants and choral harmonies.

You Are Coming to My Birthday is a multifaceted album with a complex soundscape to compliment the band’s pop sensibility. Album opener Separate leans towards maximalism without being overwhelming. The song pairs choral vocals with an up tempo guitar driven melody.

Shocked builds steadily from layered West African style percussion and a whistled melody. Atonal vocals sing in a round, “I don’t understand why you think / Nothing in your life is changing,” over a chorus of melodic chants. The prominent synth in the latter half of the song makes for a seamless transition into YoanaYoana drives towards a climactic beat drop in its final minutes. Herein lines their ability to make excellent electronic music: the beat drop is a perfect culmination to a danceable track rather than the sole pay out of a drawn out build.

Predominantly instrumental track Eric’s Basement and Secret Tunnels is a rapturous addition to the album. Eric’s Basement and Secret Tunnels is lighter and subtitler than the preceding tracks, with soft guitar woven through the track alongside the heavier electronic elements.

Even when Psymon Spine adhere more closely to an indie rock formula, like they do in the latter half of the album, the sound is never routine. With layers of strings and vocals instead of synth, Crown a King showcases a different side of the band without sacrificing the depth of their sound. It pairs fittingly with Dad Country, which appears a few tracks later. Dad Country is reminiscent of the ethereal progress of Sleeping Lessons by The Shins. It makes stunning instrumental progress over the course of its six and a half minutes.

Speakers deviates even more substantially from the rest of You Are Coming to My Birthday. Its guitar riffs are heavier than the guitar work on Eric’s Basement and Secret Tunnels or Crown a King, with shouted vocals and a heavy beat on the chorus to match.

Experience Machine melds West African drumming with the heavier guitar and vocal styles of Speakers and – unexpectedly but not unfittingly – the melodic chants heard throughout the first half of the album. Transfiguration, too, returns to the chanting of the half former half of the album. Its instrumental progression is stylistically comparable to Dad Country – though this time I thought more of Meet Me in the Basement by Broken Social Scene – with the addition of a rapped verse.

Penultimate track Lines and Lines and Lines End soars through its six-minute runtime in technicolour exuberance. It is the album’s most popular track for good reason; it makes an effective summation of You Are Coming to My BirthdayGears brings the album to a softer conclusion while still exhibiting the range that makes Psymon Spine’s debut so compelling.

You Are Coming to My Birthday is a stunning introduction to the band’s musical sensibilities. With the range they have showcased, there is so doubt they have the abilities to make fun, interesting music for a long time coming.

After listening to their album, we were able to ask Psymon Spine some questions to find out more about what went into You Are Coming to My Birthday.

How has Psymon Spine changed since the band’s conception in 2013? Has your creative process changed since you started working together? How does working on Psymon Spine differ from working on your solo efforts?

Psymon Spine underwent, like, 30 member changes before evolving into our final/current form. It’s a pretty intense band to be in and so definitely requires a particular type of person.

In the beginning, Peter [Spears] and Noah [Prebish] wrote everything. It’s become much more collaborative since. Working in Psymon Spine requires a lot of communication and teamwork because we all have such different interests and musical backgrounds. Our ability to communicate and compromise effectively is definitely enhanced by most of us having other creative outlets.

What was your writing process for You Are Coming to My Birthday?

Being that it was our first record and that some of the first versions of these songs existed before we had even met, there wasn’t really any one process in the beginning. As the album progressed the process became more collaborative and streamlined. Our main struggle initially was finding continuity while still doing whatever the fuck we wanted. Working with our producer Graham Dickson (Crystal Fighters / Axis Mundi Records) and using a lot of the same gear on each track helped with that.

What mood is You Are Coming to My Birthday meant to evoke? In the liner notes for Atwood Magazine, you said that album opener Separate is meant to “feel inviting but also a bit dangerous, like walking into a jungle.” What sort of tone does Separateset for the album? How does it compare to the sound of, say, Crown a King?

The goal of the record was to conjure up a range of moods, with the outcome feeling optimistic overall. We made a conscious decision early on to make our first record so all over the place that no one would ever expect any one particular thing from us in the future.

Separate sort of represents that goal on a micro-scale. We thought it’d be cool to have the first song on the record be pretty over-the-top and weird so as to give people a better idea of what was in store and ward off those that weren’t interested in that kind of thing.

How would you describe your sound? Has your sound changed since you first started collaborating?

Our music is like an ever-expanding party playlist for people who overthink shit. Our sound has always been changing, but as time goes on a character definitely has emerged throughout all of it.

We heard you spent time in upstate New York recording the album at William Dafoe’s Rubber House. Could you please tell us about your experiences recording there?

The Rubber House is this dreamy, sorta surreal house in upstate New York surrounded by beautiful snowy woods. I believe the story is that Dafoe had built it with his wife’s dancing career in mind, so it has this giant dance studio that we recorded everything in. This was where we first started tracking the record with Graham, and where we first met most of the Axis Mundi Records family.

Which track best represents Psymon Spine off You Are Coming to My Birthday?

It definitely depends on the listener. That being said, Shocked probably has the widest range of influences within it. It took so long to write that it became sort of like a timeline for the music that we had been listening to throughout the process. We can go through and be like, oh, we were listening to this for that bridge and this other thing in that verse.

What kind of energy do you want to convey in your shows?

Ideally, people leave our shows feeling all wobbly and peaceful and relieved like they just left a sweat lodge or did something really physically exhilarating.

How do you hope to evolve as a band?

Our influences and goals are constantly changing, which is pretty much what makes us sound like us, so it’s hard to say what the future will hold. There’s always room for improvement though.

What do you think of today’s pop and electronic scenes? Where do you think your band fits relative to mainstream pop bands?

There’s a lot of really incredible pop and electronic music coming out right now, especially out of Brooklyn, where we now live. The underground house and techno scene here, in particular, has had a big impact on our sound in the last couple years.

Our sound has been influenced by a lot of different artists, some of which could be classified as “mainstream”, others not; the line gets finer all the time, which is awesome. We’re just trying to go on this fun, freaky adventure, and should the mainstream choose us one day then that’ll just be a new reality, with aspects great and not-so-great. It’s not something we think a lot about.

Is there a story behind the band name how did you decide on the name?

Psymon Spine was the nickname of a friend of ours from school. We just liked the way it sounded. Or maybe we just wanted to make it incredibly difficult to tell people what the name of our band was while in loud venues.

Listen to Psymon Spine on SoundcloudSpotify and Apple Music.

Francis Arevalo and The Lions We Are: Making Good Things with Good People

Francis Arevalo has been busy this past year. As the de facto founder of The Lions We Are, a Vancouver-based arts and music collective, he has been making music under his own name and collaborating with local artists who he is lucky to call friends. In his art and writing, Arevalo talks openly about living with bipolar disorder and his recovery process over the past year. Today, he defines himself by his decision to live intentionally and to make music that communicates a message of love. Discorder Magazine talked to Francis about TLWA, his creative process and what it has been like to heal out loud and through music.

Discorder Magazine: You are the founder of The Lions We Are. How do you define your role within the collective?

Francis Arevalo: In a sense, it doesn’t feel like I’m the founder of The Lions We Are. It honestly just feels like I named and acknowledged something that’s been here the whole time, these talented and generous friendships.

My role so far within the collective has been to facilitate others’ creativity and passions by organizing events, and encourage people to follow their passions, develop their craft, and collaborate with others.

DM: How do you define yourself as a musician?

FA: I used to have a stage name, Allo. It was short-lived however as I realized I wanted my music and messages [to] represent me honestly as a person. There is no separation between my life and what I make.

In my lyrics, there is love at the core: for self, for others, for life, and for my craft. In my performances, I want to welcome, move, and uplift people.

The Lions We Are || Photography by Bryce Hunnersen for Discorder Magazine

Photography by Bryce Hunnersen for Discorder Magazine

DM: Your Facebook page describes The Lions We Are as “A diverse, cross-disciplinary artist collective, aimed to create visible and interactive art for the city of Vancouver.” How does TLWA function? What is your intention behind creating visible art?

FA: Within TLWA, there are so many talents and skills at work: instrumentation, singing, rapping, producing, photography, videography, graphic design, painting, dancing, cooking, and more. For any one event or project, we assemble the know-how as needed. Our intention behind making and sharing art and music is to make the world we live in a beautiful place, and hopefully inspire others to do the same.

The Lions We Are is rooted in a sense of family. We aim to spread positivity through art, to hold a non-judgmental space for creative expression, to engage our communities, and to seek fulfillment through group and individual passion projects.

DM: Why did you name the collective The Lions We Are?

FA: The Lion King has always been my favourite movie. This narrative of a young person going through trials and tribulations, finding friends along the way, and coming back home to play their role in their community always resonated with me.

To be lionhearted is to be brave or heroic. I believe there’s a certain kind of bravery and audacity in each person becoming the person – the hero – that they need.

DM: How does The Love & Basketball Mixtape compare to The TLWA Mixtape?

FA: [They] are very different. Love & Basketball is a seven track project that I recorded in seven hours in one day, and TLWA is eighteen tracks that I worked on over the course of six months! The tracks on L&B are held together by the title themes, but for the most part are a collection of singles. TLWA has a narrative arc through it. TLWA is the sound of a community coming together to make something beautiful. For me, it’s the sound getting back on my feet after getting sick. TLWA is my way of thanking everyone who helped along the way.

The Lions We Are || Photography by Bryce Hunnersen for Discorder Magazine
Photography by Bryce Hunnersen for Discorder Magazine

DM: What other projects do you have on the go? You have mentioned ‘A Night with Friends’ arts get-togethers, ‘Arts & Crafts’ sessions with Roya Bennett, and the TLWA blog you write with Irving Chong.

FA: I’m tending to a couple of EPs right now, but for the most part I’m trying to spend my time helping out on other people’s projects where I can.

‘A Night with Friends’ started as an annual summer-time jam session back in 2011, a night that our friends could look forward to every year to share in each other’s talents. Recently, it’s become an informal monthly hangout to share time, space, food, and good vibes, and make art and music together. ‘Arts & Crafts’ is what Roya and I call the time we set aside to create duo pieces. The blog [is] a way for Irving and I to highlight our friends’ work, archive events, and explore conversations sparked by the art we made and shared in.

At the core of The Lions We Are [and other projects] is making good things with good people.

DM: In your blog post “On Time and In Rhythm” you write, “Now I don’t know what else to do but heal out loud and in the open.” How does it feel to talk openly about bipolar and your experience with mental illness? How has healing out loud helped your healing process?

FA: I’m very lucky that for the most part people inside and outside of my community have been receptive to my publicly sharing my experience with bipolar disorder. There have been some people in my life that have distanced themselves from me, and I’ve come to accept them leaving.

Healing out loud through conversation, interview, and song has helped me come to terms with my reality. Bipolar disorder isn’t something that goes away, but is something that I can get better at managing. And I’m happy that sharing my story has helped some folks in their own personal struggles with mental illness. As much as I didn’t believe it when I was in the depths of the depression, there is light at the end of the tunnel, and I had to trust I’d get there if I kept walking every day.

DM: What were you doing with music prior to getting sick? How are your goals then different and similar to your goals now?

FA: Prior to getting sick, music was simply this thing that I did for fun with my friends, and I didn’t actively consider the role it could play in my life, career or community. After getting sick and spending that time reflecting, my efforts have definitely become more focused. I’ve realized the deeper intentions and impacts that making music can have for myself and others. It’s how I best make sense of my world and connect to others around me.

DM: You said in “On Time and In Rhythm” that the experience of getting sick and working through the recovery process has given you intention and agency. How does this agency come into play in your creative outlets?

FA: During that year of depression, I felt what it was like to have no impact on the world around me. As I begun to tell my story, reconnect with people, and write music again, I remembered the effects that art could have on my own well-being as well as my community.

I was reminded so deeply through the experience of getting sick and recovering how important my loved ones are to me. If making and sharing my music can bridge gaps between people the way that it did for my loved ones and me, I feel like I have to encourage it.

The Lions We Are || Photography by Bryce Hunnersen for Discorder Magazine
Photography by Bryce Hunnersen for Discorder Magazine

DM: What are your goals for TLWA?

FA: My main intention for The Lions We Are is to commit to spending meaningful time with meaningful people making meaningful art. As long as we can continue to do that, that feels like success. And I’m excited for wherever and whatever the path leads to. I hope that over time people feel empowered by TLWA the way that I did.

Watch Jon Chiang’s documentary about Arevalo’s recovery through music.

This article was originally published in the Discorder Magazine website in July 2017.