Photos by Kyle West
On stage, Alanna Stuart’s voice soars like a skyscraper while Ian Swain orchestrates an arrangement as bustling and controlled as a city street. The two halves of the Toronto duo gave an energized Supercrawl performance on Friday night with their mix of dancehall and emotive soul.
The two met at a party in Ottawa when Stuart interrupted Swain as he was spinning music as disc jockey. The hours they have spent since that night making music and touring together have forged a partnership of deep understanding and trust in one another.
“We’re two very different people so, creatively, that’s good but it’s hard. We have such different mindsets and ways of approaching music and the world and our understanding of the world…I think it makes the music a lot better, but it also makes it a lot harder to work together,” Swain explained.
The beauty and collision of their differences is explored in a broader sense in their latest album, Lush Life, which was released in May 2018 They began writing the album years ago in Berlin but have always known that they wanted to speak about the way we live in cities today.
Lush Life draws inspiration from the Richard Price book by the same name, which they feel aptly captures the reality of having many diverse people living side by side. Throughout the album they examine both the good and the bad sides of metropolitan life.
“I think the good thing is that there’s so many different people… forced, just out of proximity, to interact and engage with each other… But the bad part of that is that we haven’t quite figured out how to do it right, just yet… This is a new thing for us humans,” Stuart explained.
This challenge is exemplified in the indie landscape itself. Stuart is proud to be part of the independent scene for she believes it is where innovation in music takes place. However, she would like to see more diverse audiences, alternative nominees at the Juno’s and rosters across Canada.
While dealing with the intersection of their differences is challenging, it has also given birth to beautiful projects. They have been inspired by cities, such as Hamilton, where dissimilarity has united to create new and unique sounds.
The pair mixed their record in the Steel City and spent a summer here exploring Hamilton’s electronic music scene. Stuart looks up to artists such as Junior Boys, Jessy Lanza and others who were inspired by the abandoned steel mills and mixed industrial sounds with others like Detroit techno.
“All these people have existed outside the mainstream industry and as a result seem free of certain industry expectations. [They] created their own unique [and] soulful electronic music sound… I feel like that ethos of just staying true, as simple and cliché as it sounds, just staying true to music and trusting that you will find your people out there, [that’s] what Hamilton has taught me,” explained Stuart.
By staying true to themselves Bonjay has created a sound that amalgamates their different experiences and outlooks. Elements of dancehall in their music is reminiscent of Stuart’s father’s native Jamaica, as is pieces from indie-pop singer-songwriter, Feist, whom they covered during their Supercrawl performance.
Bonjay’s sound is indescribable, but the duo knows how they want you to feel. During Bonjay’s Supercrawl performance, Stuart repetitively asked the crowd to yell out their name. The name is Grenadian slang for ‘good God’ is something her mother’s family exclaims whenever something amazing or unexpected happens.
The melodic blend of both the creators and the different influences is perhaps a microcosm of what cities will be like when we finally get it right. By merging their varied influences, they have created a sound that is difficult to pinpoint but as harmonious and surprising as the cities they are inspired by.