Many of the greatest songs were written a bout a particular moment in time. If you go back and listen to timeless musical classics they are all about a specific time. That detail and nuance is what translates over to a truly universally relatable song. Vague songs about nothing will always be about, well, vague and about nothing. This is the philosophy that Alanna Stuart and Ian Swain of Bonjay have about their music. The Toronto based duo have recently released a well received album, Lush Life, that is all about life in cities as it is right now – in 2018. Their musical approach blends intricate dancehall inspired production with real and honest lyrics. The combination sounds like it shouldn’t work. How can raw emotional lyrics ever work with a club banger? I don’t know – but it really really does work. Bonjay’s music is fresh, exciting and real. The best example of this is their latest single Medicine for Melancholy which is like an anthem for anyone who has ever felt ‘in-between’ not enough of that or too much of this. I feel it deeply as an immigrants anthem but it is also a song for anyone who feels trapped between places.
There is no pretense or thing you have to get. Every song on Lush Life is perfectly constructed to make you feel something and to also make you move. The music succeeds on both levels. It is incredibly refreshing to hear R&B music that doesn’t sound like something The Weeknd would have cast off (as so much of it does these days), or something that sounds like a church hymn. Bonjay are in their own lane and are crafting their own sound.
I had a chance to speak to Ian and Alanna about this fantastic new album and more.
Q – Lush Life is your first release in 7 or 8 years. Can you tell us how this album came together?
Ian: It doesn’t seem like a long time from the inside; when you’re in it. We had to teach ourselves a lot of new skills to create this album and for it to live up to what we imagined. We had to find a way to merge dancehall with songwriting. A lot of trial and error was involved until we got it done the way we liked it.
You know the slow-food movement? Well we think of this as the slow music movement, sort of. As in, we intentionally made it this certain way and we think it was worth it. So much music these days is like sonic wallpaper – background music in a way. Lush Life is purposely NOT like that. We want people to actively listen to this, to feel something, and to move their bodies.
Alanna: We wanted to capture stories of how people live in cities today. I wrote about human stories that I’ve heard and stories from my life. There are a lot of nostalgic or futuristic R&B records – but we wanted to go a different way and capture this present moment. I wanted to share the more personal side of societal issues.
Q – Medicine for Melancholy and the accompanying Medium essay tell a story of you, Alanna, struggling to find belonging between a suburban Ottawa town and an urban Toronto neighbourhood. This tale sounded very familiar to me as a first generation immigrant even though that’s clearly not what the song is about. What’s your approach to sharing personal stories?
Alanna: I really wanted to be real and convey rawness of emotion with these songs. I want to always present nuance and the human side of these issues. I’m glad to hear the song resonated with you – that’s all I was hoping for. Medicine for Melancholy is definitely the most personal I’ve gotten lyrically. The specifics are taken from my life but I think the song speaks to a universal need for belonging.
At the end of the day we’re not out here trying to make people sad. The lyrics are backed by a dancehall beat which is hard to miss growing up in Canada and especially in Toronto. We want people to catch a vibe.
Q – Can you tell us a bit about Ingenue?
This is another song that is about a specific person’s story that relates to a larger issue. Ingenue is about a girl that moves out of her small town to a bit city to explore who she’s always wanted to be, her sexuality and everything else. It’s a specific story but it relates to a broader issue of wanting to push yourself and see who you might become. We’re all more connected and more similar than we think. I try to keep this connection in mind but also tell nuanced stories.
Q – How does a typical Bonjay song come together?
Ian: They usually start on a piano with Alanna and then move on from there. I handle the production and orchestration and Alanna handles the song writing and vocal production, although we have a lot of crossover.
Alanna: When you’re a duo it can be really hard to break a tie and decide democratically. (laughs). We figure it out and we both tinker in each others work quite a bit. We had to learn how to speak eachothers languages to make this album work.
Ian: I taught myself about orchestration to make this work but I also wrote a few lyrics. Similarly, Alanna would jump on the synth to create the exact sound that she was imagining.
Alanna: A lot of collaborative work is just working through insecurities and that can be a hard thing. We were two people in a tiny studio with no AC. Swimming in a pool of uncertainty. It was a difficult but incredibly fulfilling process. It can be hard but is totally worth it.
We were two people in a tiny studio with no AC. Swimming in a pool of uncertainty.
Q – How did you guys meet and start making music as Bonjay?
Alanna: We met at a party in Ottawa. Ian was DJing above an Italian restaurant in Chinatown. The place was packed.
Ian: Alanna came right up to me and interrupted me and started talking about how she’s an R&B singer but she doesn’t want to be a typical R&B singer and wants to do something different (laughs). We ended up seeing each other at monthly parties and she would eventually get up on the pool table and sing over instrumentals. She sang things like Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ ‘Maps’ over a dancehall beat.
Q – Alanna, how did you learn to sing so well?
Alanna: I started singing in church when I was young. I went to a Jamaican Pentecostal church that had a youth gospel that would travel and compete. Those summers especially were like 30hrs/week musical bootcamps. I learned so much about music and touring at that time. We trained how to walk on stage, hold our hands, present ourselves and of course sing. I spent many long days on the bus driving between Ottawa and Toronto to perform and that prepared me for touring. It was a great experience and it taught me so much.
Q – How did you end up working with Hamilton-based legend Jeremy Greenspan?
Alanna: It was Caribou that brought us together, actually. I love Caribou’s album Swim and I looked up on Discogs.com to see who worked on it and saw that it was Jeremy Greenspan. We ended up working a lot in his studio in Hamilton and it was an amazing process. Jer loves Hamilton so much and he took us everywhere and showed us a lot of cool spots – everything from the Brain to the waterfront. This was a few years ago back when things were just kicking off in Hamilton. It was an exciting time to be spending a lot of time there and on James Street. We felt a sense of freedom being there. I actually made a documentary about Hamilton because I was so moved by it.
Ian: I’d love to know what you, as a local, think about what’s happening in Hamilton. Certainly a lot of the stores and chocolate shops popping up seem to cater to a certain kind of person and a certain kind of lifestyle.
Ian: The thing about gentrification is that the places get so boring that even the rich people want to leave eventually and the cycle just repeats itself. The thing (art) that drew people in in the first place gets tossed aside.
Q – Can you recommend a song or two that you’ve been really into that we can check out?
Alanna: The whole Frank Ocean Blond album. I didn’t listen to it when it came out and I waited for some of the hype to die down before I heard it. It’s amazing. He’s so interesting and talented and sexy. Anything by William Onyeabor – a funky Nigerian pre-disco artist who only made a few albums.
Ian: “Nature Boy” by Nat King Cole. This song was actually written by these pre-health proto-hippies called ‘nature boys‘ and was given to Nat King Cole. It’s a weird song that I’ve recently discovered and I’m obsessed.
Thank you both!