On Monday night, the energy in downtown Toronto swelled, as industry folk poured into The Carlu on Yonge St, in anticipation of the first in-person Polaris Music Prize Gala in two years (and eager to breathe the same air as Canada’s most promising musical talent). The venue was bathed in a seasonal orange hue as large, dried cornstalks accented the reception and various garden-themed installations decorated the space. Specially designed posters representing each nominated artist peppered the showcases. It was evident music fans from near and far were excited to witness a proud Canadian tradition of recognizing outstanding, local talent. Record sales metrics and streams deemed irrelevant, each year meticulous discourse takes place between the Grand Jury team as the merit of each shortlisted album is discussed and considered. Once a decision is reached, the winner walks away with the Polaris Music Prize Winner title and $50,000 to further their artistic endeavors.
With every shortlisted nominee slated to perform that night, RX Music was happy to catch up with Lisa Leblanc (nominated for Chiac Disco) and Kelly McMichael (nominated for Waves) pre-show for a quick chat about the experience. We caught up with Lisa Leblanc and she breaks down the musical significance of her Acadian roots and evolution of her disco-influenced album. Kelly McMichael details the essence behind her album’s lyrical message and the power of producing from the city you call ‘home.’
Lisa Leblanc Interview
Laura MacInnes-Rae: Congratulations! This is not your first nomination for a Polaris Prize— you were nominated back in 2017 as well. How does it feel this time?
Lisa Leblanc: Incredible, it’s amazing, you can’t take for granted being on a shortlist for Polaris. I think it’s incredible to be here, I have much respect to all the artists that are here tonight, everybody deserves to be on this shortlist and everybody deserves to be the winner, you know—it’s very humbling. It’s a beautiful award and I’m very, very happy to be here.
Laura MacInnes-Rae: Your record that was nominated Chiac Disco, has such a strong base of funk and rhythm. It’s such a feel-good record!
Lisa Leblanc: Thank you!
Laura MacInnes-Rae: Who was the inspiration for you?
Lisa Leblanc: It was a fun experimentation to do this record. I guess lyrically speaking, “Chiac” is our kind of slang in Acadia in Southern New Brunswick, it’s sort of how I speak French, it’s called “Chiac,” basically a mix between English and French very mixed up and we have our own little thing going on, so a lot of inspiration sort of small-town, coming up in a small-town and all these interactions everybody had, like mixing that kind of rurality with something that was glamour, that was disco, to me just fit really well. Then I listened to a lot of disco, and a lot of funk and a lot afro-beat, a lot of modern psych…so many influences, so it was kind of like a bubble of just like “Let’s try and do this for fun just because I love the genre, I love funk and disco so why not?”
Laura MacInnes-Rae: So would you agree that disco and funk is on the rise again with new record releases?
Lisa Leblanc: Oh absolutely! For sure. We’re hearing it a lot, there’s definitely a disco revival right now that started in the last two years, we’ve been seeing it more and more so it was a coincidence like completely, but at the same time it came in a time that people just wanted something feel-good, so it’s normal. I can see why it’s coming back and because it so feel-good and dancey and it kind of becamebecame a caricature of itself you know disco, there are some great disco and to me the real disco artists like the pioneers like Bee Gees and Chic and Nile Rogers–
Laura MacInnes-Rae: Chic!
Lisa Leblanc: Yeah Chic! There you go! They’re virtuosos, they’re incredible musicians and composers and arrangers and it’s actually really complex, but you don’t really realize because it’s a 4 on 4 beat and you’re dancing to it. That’s kind of what I kind of loved about the genre. It’s interesting that it’s coming back.
Laura MacInnes-Rae: So if you were to describe this record to the fans who’ve been with you since the start, what do you think is the biggest smack-in the face difference?
Lisa Leblanc: Uh, everything! (laughs) probably. I mean I used to play banjo and I had more of a folk-rock, folk-trash I would call it, kind of a folk-punk whatever thing going on and then this one I really wanted to explore something else and I really wanted to go and deep dive. I produced this record, I co-produced with my partner.
Laura MacInnes-Rae: Yeah, congrats!
Lisa Leblanc: Thank you! Yeah, so I really wanted to just dig into something I hadn’t really done before and that’s how I went and collaborated with other people. I’d never really written with other people, but this time was cool because I went to see two other people that were into the genre and that I knew could have a band song because I knew I couldn’t write disco songs by myself on a guitar or a banjo. It was a really fun experience to do.
Laura MacInnes-Rae: Where did you produce it?
Lisa Leblanc: In Moncton!
Laura MacInnes-Rae: Ah, I have relatives there!
Lisa Leblanc: Lisa Leblanc: Oh awesome! Well there you go, nice! Our studio is in Moncton, we recorded everything over there.
Laura MacInnes-Rae: The burning question— on future records, will the titles be in English or French?
Lisa Leblanc: I have no idea (laughs). Honestly like this wasn’t thought out really, I just felt like disco to me in English I really had nothing to say. But in French, and really assuming the language and my accent, and really going far in that and really going…I finally just kind of—not being afraid of talking the way I talk and just writing that in lyrics was to me, was interesting because all of a sudden there was like— as I was saying earlier, to me the whole rurality versus glam. I really love that blend of the genres and like I said it wasn’t thought out like last records were, the last two ones that were in English, the last was in French. I have no idea, it really depends on how I’m feeling at the moment and who knows what will happen next.
Laura MacInnes-Rae: Love that. Out of curiosity, are there any other fellow Canadian nominees that you’ve thought about collaborating with?
Lisa Leblanc: Yeah, I mean obviously I know Pierre Kwenders and Hubert Lenoir because it’s more like the Quebec gang and I live in Montreal so obviously I see them more. But I would love to collaborate with both and I mean everybody. We were at the ECMA’s with Kelly McMichael, who was awesome too, I love her and she’s incredible. So yeah, that would be for sure.
Laura MacInnes-Rae: Awesome, well best of luck to you and congratulations again!
Lisa Leblanc: Thank you so much.
Kelly McMichael Interview
Laura MacInnes-Rae: First of all, congratulations on the nomination.
Kelly McMichael: Thank you.
Laura MacInnes-Rae: How do you feel about tonight— your debut record got nominated for a Polaris!
Kelly McMichael: Yeah! Wow, it’s just so exciting (laughs). Yeah, I’m just so grateful, happy, and excited to see everybody else play as well.
Laura MacInnes-Rae: You’ve written music for a while, what was your introduction to deciding that you wanted to produce a full-length record?
Kelly McMichael: I wanted to do it for a really long time, I just didn’t really have the organization, bandleader, grant-writing happening for myself, so I had a lot of experience playing in other bands— I was writing new songs the whole time, but I just had a friend who was a grant writer who helped me get some grants and I found someone who I loved working with in the studio, Jake Nicoll, who also co-produced and engineered the album. He has a cool, DIY, retro-gear, super small studio, and it was just like the perfect place for me to do my album. I was kind of waiting, I really set the bar high and didn’t really want to do it unless the right things all kind of came together, so maybe that’s why it took me so long to finally make a full-length album, but yeah, I just found the right band and right recording opportunity and I was really happy to find that in St. John’s Newfoundland after playing music in Toronto for years, just seemed like everything kind of—the planets aligned in St. John’s somehow and just all of a sudden, the doors were open.
Laura MacInnes-Rae: So, Polaris Prize as a nomination is a huge opportunity for recognition as we all know— how would you describe this record or what is the message you were hoping to get across with Waves?
Kelly McMichael: I think my favourite song on the album that represents the sort of themes sort of all coming together would be “Love Is On Now” and it is sort of about overcoming different challenges, overcoming depression and being able to feel good and joy and love again and like embracing that that’s just the way life is, there’s always going to be difficult things, but there’s also a lot of beauty and joy to be seen. If you can just get through the hard moments and come up and enjoy the good stuff while you can, know that there’s more difficulties, more challenges coming soon and that’s just life.
Laura MacInnes-Rae: What are you most looking forward to if you were to take the title tonight?
Kelly McMichael: Wow, I am looking forward to finding some ways to expand my collaborations with other artists and some things that I’ll be able to do in the community, in my community in St. John’s, Newfoundland. We can be really isolated out there, so sharing this with a community that’s been so amazingly supportive and giving to me would be high on the list. Just being able to prioritize my own music, I’ve loved playing with some of the other bands that I’ve played with but haven’t really had a chance to really prioritize my own project, so getting to get a bit more time and not feel rushed and just making another album would be my goals, I guess.
Laura MacInnes-Rae: Lastly, I know you’re from Peterborough, but based in Newfoundland and you’ve obviously experienced Toronto as well— on the record you have a track called “Montreal” — where would you consider in Canada in your experience so far, your favorite place to either get inspired or produce?
Kelly McMichael: Yeah, St. John’s is my favourite place in the world. Montreal was sort just like this city I that had a crush on. I wrote that song a long time ago and I haven’t been able to spend any time in Montreal in like years and years and years, so I mean I’d love to go back to Montreal, cause it always was my favourite city, but St. John’s has taken that place. I gotta go with Newfoundland, Woody Point, Newfoundland is my favourite place in the world that I’ve gotten to spend time other than St. John’s. Just like being near the ocean, being near water is fresh and romantic air. That is what I love.
Laura MacInnes-Rae: Absolutely, well congratulations again on getting nominated on your debut record, this is an incredibly special night for you, so best of luck!
Kelly McMichael: Ah, thank you.
Closing out the night of excellent performances, five-time shortlist nominee Shad was the final act to take the stage performing his energetic “Out of Touch” off his album TAO (2021) and ending with a spoken word piece.
At last, it was time for the winner reveal. Presented by last year’s winner Cadence Weapon, Pierre Kwenders was announced as the recipient of the 2022 Polaris Music Prize Winner for his album José Louis and The Paradox of Love. The album combines an expertly produced blend of Afro-Fusion, Latin and electronic dance elements.
The venue erupted into applause as Pierre Kwenders took the stage with his team of family and friends. Eager to hear his acceptance speech, one could hear a pin drop as Kwenders appeared to collapse into a squat in disbelief, mic poised in hand. Processing the moment, he stood up again and noted he had lost a godfather and two cousins in recent times and emphasized the power of family.
“My album is called José Louis and the Paradox of Love because love is a paradox, and I still don’t know what love is. I am still trying to figure it out,” said Kwenders sincerely, before continuing his thank you speech.
The Congolese Canadian musician’s distinctive sound and multilingual style has not gone unnoticed in the Canadian musical landscape. Kwenders’ first full-length album Le Dernier Empereur Bantou (2014) was longlisted for the Polaris Music Prize in 2015, as well as boasting a Juno Award shortlist nomination for the World Music Album of the Year in 2015 for the same album.
Past Polaris Music Prize winners include Cadence Weapon (2021), Backxwash (2020), Haviah Mighty (2019), Jeremy Dutcher (2018), Lido Pimienta (2017), Kaytranada (2016), Buffy Sainte-Marie (2015) to name a few.