It took me weeks to settle on a topic for this article.
The eureka moment came in the form of reminiscing about a simpler time and place in my musical journey — back when and where I was just starting out. Somewhere rooted in the metaphysical where all my creative ideas felt right, manifested themselves with a beautiful naivety and carried tangible meaning. The place that saw my first releases debut on Ta-ku’s Drive Slow, Homie mixes III and IV alongside Breezy Lovejoy (now Anderson .Paak), and has inspired most of my music ever since.
That somewhere is Montreal, QC. If you’ve never been, I’m here to tell you about it and why it’s the greatest city on Earth for creatives. I have a knack for waxing poetic about the years I spent in Montreal—especially 2012 through 2014—so please bear with me:
SoundCloud had already taken off, but the community and the musical styles it birthed were still relatively unripe. As a metalhead and jazz buff in high school, I had only started exploring underground hip-hop and electronic music as of 2010, my first year at McGill University. In our freshman residence, my friend Benji spoon-fed me 2manydjs, Flying Lotus and Stimming among others, until I was snowballing my way into Burial, Exist Strategy, Kenlo Craqnuques and more.
Like any good Greater Toronto Area-transplant to Montreal, I bought rare demos at CKUT’s outdoor CD sales of Chromeo, Arcade Fire and other artists that passed through McGill before me, attended Kalmunity improv-jazz workshops weekly, threw down at djent shows at Cabaret Underworld (now Newspeak), and attended Dream-Pop apartment gigs in the Mile End. On Thursday nights, I would make my way from Schulich library to Blizzarts for MELT where I’d watch Nick Wisdom (Potatohead People), Kaytranada or High Klassified spin for free, or run into Pomo hanging at the bar. Balancing my musical adventures and my degree in Math & Physics (with little grace) was secretly preparing me for the double life of music and full-time work that was looming after graduation.
It was the summer of 2013 when the stars aligned: I was dirt broke (the kind where the ATM yells at you for trying to withdraw money), working a call centre job to pay for school and displaced from my apartment due to bedbugs, when I made my first real beat, “Feel Me.” All those hours of dissecting J Dilla, Kaytranada, Ta-ku and Elaquent — dragging hats behind the beat, writing the jazziest chord progressions I could — were finally paying off. There were few people with whom I could share it since the style was still under-recognized, so it sat dormant on my laptop until the new year while I continued to amass a whole catalogue of others like it.
In 2014, I was prompted by schoolmate, collaborator and friend KEI-LI to submit “Feel Me” to Ta-ku’s beat competition for his Drive Slow, Homie III mix. One person from around the world would win a slot on it, and I was certain it would NOT be me. I submitted it anyway, along with the second track I ever made, “Sunset Blvd.” One fine morning as I was rushing to class, I found the following email in my inbox:
That was the start of me taking music a little more seriously. It confirmed a sense of personal duty to continue making music no matter what, at a time when that dream was becoming increasingly unrealistic by the day. It showed me that maybe all the learning curves, hardships and shortcomings were actually worth something. Though it seems like a stretch, I can’t say for sure that I would’ve gotten all those potent initial conditions anywhere other than Montreal.
I want you as a reader to come away from this article with something more tangible than me being nostalgic about a place I used to call home. The following bullets are only some of the reasons that come to mind when I say that there’s no better city in the world for creative types to thrive than Montreal.
I’ve been fortunate enough to have traveled quite a bit; whether for work, music or because my Mom was a flight attendant (I’d be way too cheap to travel otherwise). I can truthfully say that I’ve not been to another sizable urban city as inexpensive as Montreal. Some prices are comparable to other Canadian cities like Toronto or Vancouver—groceries, general purchases (toiletries, renovation materials, etc)—but the low cost of housing/rental alone makes it the most affordable urban option in the country. Furthermore, utilities, transit and insurance are all very low compared to my home province of Ontario. Seeing as Canada already has a favorable exchange rate with respect to other first world countries, that’s an increased incentive for international migrants.
For this reason alone, Montreal allows for more opportunity to hone your craft and grow your creative business without stringent financial pressures.
“As the good weather rolls around, so does the art: there’s a major music festival held pretty much every week from the end of May until November, including arguably Canada’s biggest, OSHEAGA.
Though winters can be harsh (seriously, they’re no joke), you’d be hard-pressed to find anywhere more vibrant than Montreal in the summer. Even in the winter, skiing and virtually any other winter activity imaginable are easily accessible from the city.
As the good weather rolls around, so does the art: there’s a major music festival held pretty much every week from the end of May until November, including arguably Canada’s biggest, OSHEAGA. Montreal’s Jazz Fest is also considered one of the most renowned in the world. For electronic and world music lovers, Moonshine throws insane after-hour full moon parties that draw hundreds to abandoned warehouses across the island. As an independent artist just starting out, there was no shortage of show opportunities for me, and people do actually attend/get down at concerts there (no “screwface” vibes). On a barely related note, KEI-LI, Blasé (of Haute), Robotaki and I once played a tiny Montreal apartment show with over 100 people crammed into it. I’m telling you—move to Montreal, acquire shows (even in the most unexpected places).
I’ve personally yet to find anywhere that has been more of a muse to my music. Most of the songs off my Timbits Series are named after or inspired by landmarks across the city that have moved me in some way, including arguably my biggest track, Reminisce. You just might find inspiration in Montreal too!
Fine, maybe not as multicultural as the Greater Toronto Area, but darn close. So if you find yourself missing home in Montreal, chances are you can find your kin to keep you company pretty easily. There’s also a certain beauty to having both Canadian official languages equally prominent within the city. In my opinion, this works wonders for an artist’s source of influences which is inherently itself a melting pot.
I feel compelled to add that it’s no longer as difficult for an anglophone to get by in Montreal with only English as it used to be. I certainly wouldn’t dissuade anyone from learning French—it’s a beautiful language and can only help you get by—but you can certainly operate there without it. Furthermore, the English-French cultural friction in modern day Montreal is more fiction than fact.
“Although hard to quantify, I felt much more relaxed, stress-free and quite honestly happier living in Montreal than anywhere else in Canada.”
IT ALLOWS FOR A GREAT QUALITY OF LIFE:
Although hard to quantify, I felt much more relaxed, stress-free and quite honestly happier living in Montreal than anywhere else in Canada. Surely it’s a consequence of the other bullets, but life is just a little more laid-back and peaceful there overall. Two of my former Montreal roommates, a couple—both writers—would work a labour job for 1-2 years, then take half a year or more off to write. Rinse and repeat. That lifestyle would simply not be sustainable in Toronto or Vancouver (or in most big cities around the world).
Ultimately, for all the reasons listed above, it’s hard not to fall in love with Montreal as an artist. When Green Room Stories asked me to play their Montreal show on May 17th at Le Ministère, it was a no brainer. Having an excuse to go back and visit is always worth the five-hour train ride. If the above doesn’t convince you to pack up and move there for a summer, then it’s your loss really!