Of Course It's Women Who Have Been Revitalizing Toronto's Rock Scene
"There are women who are going to be playing this type of music. Now let’s look at them for more than just that."
For much of the 2000s, Toronto's bustling—if very self-conscious—metropolitan music scene rested on what Broken Social Scene gave us. That period of the city's indie rock glory is sometimes called Torontopia, which is the marriage of music and community with a philosophical injection of sorts about collectiveness. Kevin Drew is still lauded as an indie rock king in these parts; his legacy will be what he and Brendan Canning brought together in BSS back at Ted's Wrecking Yard and beyond. To give credit where it's due, that scene and particular band are very important, not just for Toronto, but also for their contribution to the alt indie rock canon. The thought is this group and, by extension this scene, made Toronto relevant when rock kicked into a high post-punk, new wave indie gear and so they were fresh, idyllic. Their success brought light to Toronto in a more meaningful way, giving the city and scene purpose. More importantly, it was a good foundation for what new sounds could build upon.
"Around that time, [the scenes] were sort of split into two: it was either the really hardcore street punks or it was the indie scene. Broken Social Scene, Feist, Metric, etc.," says Annabelle Lee, singer and guitarist of Peeling, also formerly of Mexican Slang. "Now I feel like those two things have come together. It's merging where there are really heavy elements in the music, and pop, and it's all in the same scene. Whereas before, that never would have happened."
Toronto's current alt music scene, like most other genres and subgenres, is evolving. What's coming out of the musical community now are small sonic ripples that build to one tremendous wave that satisfyingly crashes on the bank of its local audience. The distinctions that once separated each genre are still there, in a sense, but a purist sensibility with genre—if spoken about with a kind of passionate fervor—isn't really relevant here anymore. It's an interesting ecosystem of sound: Punk informs mainstream rock, which informs alternative rock, which informs noise and grunge, which is influenced by electronica, which has some beats reserved for the city's promising rappers. "Even looking at me and one of my best friends, Laura [Hermiston] from Twist, we're very different," says Robyn Phillips of Vallens. "Weaves is different from Twist but they are both pop bands. Peeling is different from Vallens. I think the same person would listen to all of the bands."
In Carl Wilson's column for Bandcamp, the music critic gestures accurately toward Toronto's latest sonic reach. "It's a sound that bends with the forces of ratcheting rents and generational friction, and lashes back with twice the fury and creative humor," he writes. A noise and alt grunge-rock blend have found a home here. Wilson focuses a lot on contextualizing the DIY scene that popped up downtown since Torontopia fizzled out of relevance; looking at why and how the bands produced currently create the sounds that they do, which includes the influx of condos gobbling up city space, the garages these good bands (Greys, Fake Palms, Odonis Odonis, and more) have come out of, and the new labels who support them . A number of the bands he name-checks in his piece predominantly feature men or are only comprised of men, which isn't that unusual in this city. The ones he mentions are by and large exemplary, but walk around the city's downtown west end and you'll stumble over numerous four-piece rock bands made up entirely of average men ready to disappoint. There is, however, a large and growing number of female-identifying musicians who are part of this scene who are creating challenging sounds as well as challenging perceptions. Intentional or otherwise, the narrative of Toronto's new sound is overlooking these women when in fact it's bands like Weaves, Dilly Dally, Vallens, Frigs, and so, so many more who are the new leaders and forebearers of the city's rock scene. It's these people who are shaping the future of Toronto's alt rock.
During Torontopia's heyday, great women, like Amy Millan, Emily Haines, Leslie Feist— and the oft-embraced Peaches—were key contributors to the scene. But they sometimes felt like strategic placements, not deserving occupants of the space in their own right, until they went solo, forming their own groups and overextending themselves in a way women typically are expected just to be heard in music. To qualify: Women have to work that much harder to gain the kind of average recognition and traction a man would. They must be masters of their instruments and voice but even then, at times, that is torn to pieces. Phillips says she learned everything she could about playing guitar, out of genuine interest and to be better, but also to arm herself against the questions by some men of her skill or place here.
In the city's current alt scope, a significant amount of women occupy this space—completely owning it and their sound. These bands also create sonic lacerations, vocally, or with their superior guitar shredding, or by experimenting with noise or drone or pop hooks, to give us real, fresh takes. "I played [in Toronto] for over 10 years and I think there has always been confident women, but there are just more confident women now," says Jasmyn Burke of Weaves via email. "When I started there were two bands with females that were playing regularly in 'the scene' so maybe now there are just more of us." And Burke is right: many of these women are written about and featured in so many publications. Yet, the conversation about these women doesn't necessarily recognize that they're leaders in the scene.
"I've had to tell my male friends, who are good people, who say 'why do you feel so intensely when men undermine you—screw them they are idiots,'" says Phillips, guitarist and lead singer of the mercurial alt band Vallens. "And I'm like, 'can you imagine if you have to defend yourself for the only thing that you love?'" Phillips' band just released their searing debut, Consent, via Hand Drawn Dracula. "Vallens is the first band where I've played with women, unfortunately. It wasn't on purpose and it was actually a conscious effort [to work with women.] Not like there weren't any options—this city is filled with talented women, it's insane," she says.
Bands that include women currently piquing interest are Phillips' aforementioned band and of course Burke's project Weaves and Dilly Dally, but there's also Twist, Casper Skulls, Crosss, New Fries, HSY, Frigs, Peeling, The Beaches, and the now, sadly, defunct Beverleys. Simone TB in Fake Palms is an incredibly focused and vigorous drummer, which ought not be forgotten. These are but a small handful of the otherwise generously stacked list of bands who include, or are made up of entirely of female-identifying women who don't feel pushed to adhere to a specific feminine caricature in the music industry. That caricature is still the objectified female in music—they're eye candy—which Phillips says she once was in another project. Either that or they're the aspect that makes a group "special." These women change the status quo by existing as they are. "I remember when we played with Dilly Dally years ago before they blew up. It was the first time I heard or seen them at the Silver Dollar. My dad was there and Katie [Monks from Dilly Dally] said onstage, 'Sorry, if I'm really out of it. I just started my period,'" says Bria Salmena of Frigs. "And that was like four years ago and even then people were like 'whoa' and my dad was like 'I can't believe what that girl said.' But I remember her saying that and being like "shit, that was really cool."
There is a willingness to display vulnerability or femininity, if that is their creative choice. Salmena says the Frigs EP, Slush, is about her experiences as a woman and she is the only woman in her band. She's currently working on a song about Brock Turner's lax conviction and how frustrating that is on a larger scale. But there is no expectation to adhere to a label, to subscribe to a certain populist idea; feminism's relevance and importance to one group of women doesn't negate the ones who don't readily ascribe to that qualifier. Some don't feel the need to define or defend their value systems to their audience. Dilly Dally's Katie Monks says her negotiation of feminism as a label and qualifier of music is one she has grappled with because she doesn't want to exclude her fan base or be included in the litany of internet hate angled at anyone who may identify as a feminist. If anything, striving to be seen as a human is the goal.
"It's definitely great that [women in the scene are getting] acknowledged but, like, of course there are women who are going to be playing this type of music. Now let's look at them for more than just that. What do they do creatively? What as a person makes them interesting creatively?" says Salmena. "The thing about these women who are prominent in this scene is, yeah they are girls, but they are all interesting creatively. Jasmyn [Burke] is interesting with her vocal qualities—same with Katie. [She] has a really great grasp of grunge pop so her and Liz Ball know how to write to really catchy songs. And Katie sounds weird over them—that's how she feels it. I feel like we all have, beyond the fact that we're girls, these skills that are really interesting. Maybe I'd like to think that's why Weaves are doing so well, Dilly Dally is doing so well. It's not what you would consider a female voice to sound like."
Some of the female-identifying musicians here rely on each other for support by virtue of circumstance—if you play the venues downtown enough, you'll all end up on bills together— and because of genuine admiration. But a conscious and sincere effort to be more inclusive in rock music is necessary since the genre hasn't always been that progressive… which is a very generous, boilerplate way of saying rock can be misogynistic and narrow-minded. "A lot of my guy friends are very feminist and cool and awesome. But that didn't happen overnight," Monks tells me over the phone while on tour in Europe. "When everyone was in their early 20s and shit, they don't know what's going on. You know, it took years of hanging around strong artist women for everyone to, I think, grow up."
While some view the scene through this optimistic yet realistic lens, others also see that it is still predominantly men, especially white, and that the substantial amount of talented women in this city are not always reflected. "I'm still one of the few women. There are more! But it's maybe me and two other guys and one and two other women," says April Alermo of Hooded Fang. "In Toronto, it's definitely more women who are playing music. Or maybe, they have been playing and there's attention being given to them." It's still a space where Alermo says she needs to assert herself. "I will get involved in setting up the stage or talking about gear with guys, just to be like, 'just because I'm a woman doesn't mean I can't do this stuff.' You know, it's crazy that after all these years, I still feel like I'm having to assert myself. Even if men are not, like, overtly sexist—they are not exactly conscious."
It is important to acknowledge the work women have put into a scene or band as it is happening because women have long held a space in this sphere and its reductive to their skills to continue to praise them based solely on your conscious awakening to this fact. Receiving congratulation for showing up and being yourself the way any man would is something every woman has long deserved. These women will and have informed a new generation growing up. Hex is one such group comprised of teenage girls who were formed via Toronto's chapter of Girls Rock Camp—another vital resource to keep encouraging girls in the city that their space here is warranted and necessary. "They started movements and organizations that fuelled safe spaces where females like myself could openly create and share," says Katerina Theodorelos of HSY. "Organizations in Toronto like Girls Rock Camp and Girls Art League teach females from a young age how important their voice is and how vital it is to own and express that voice. I've recognized a change in the Toronto music scene since organizations like these came to be in our communities."
In some ways, the idea of Torontopia still exists. Community is a much stronger theme now but instead of being connected to one band, there is a connection to many other bands or artists. Women playing grungy, raucous rock with softness or pop elements is exciting, not because they are women—though this is important—but because they give nuance to a scene that, if left untreated, could become incredibly boring. They challenge it and themselves to be better. There is value in seeing yourself in someone who is onstage—a sentiment that sometimes gets glossed over with a cutting and defeating because it's 2016 adage. Just because it is 2016 doesn't mean everyone's on the same page, caught up to so-called progress.
"Me playing is related to the fact that I want to see that—to be present as a woman and taking up space so that other women can see that too," says Alermo. "When I am playing onstage with three men, and every time I play a show, I feel like I have to show what a Filipino woman playing rock music looks like and she slays."