Live music is medicine that feeds one’s soul. Without it, there is a void. Over the last two years, imposed isolations and quarantines replaced in-person events. Scheduled performances were postponed and cancelled. For prolonged periods, concert halls from St. John’s to Victoria were quiet.
On May 11 at Massey Hall, that silence was broken. Some of Canada’s most talented songwriters served up an overdue dose of live music as the revitalized venue in downtown Toronto hosted the JUNO Songwriters’ Circle, presented by SOCAN and FACTOR. After a two-year hiatus, the event—dubbed the ‘Jewel of the JUNOS’—returned, showcasing colours of sound from a diverse group of Canadian artists, from first-time nominees to music-industry veterans. For some, it was their inaugural time playing on this storied stage. The trait all these songwriters share is a talent to distill the emotions everyone feels, put them into a song, and make these universal truths relatable and better understood.
For two hours, these musicians shared a joyful noise and the stories behind a few of their songs. Both audience and artists connected as each songwriter took turns to perform stripped-down versions of fan favourites and 2022 JUNO-nominated songs on acoustic guitar, banjo (in the case of Allison Russell), and grand piano. While the pandemic pause temporarily silenced the rooms, like Massey Hall, where these artists earn a living, it did not silence their voices. Many songwriters used this extended break from the road to pen new compositions, release new records, and reflect on serious issues: from childhood traumas to mental health; from universal truths to the minutia and the mundane of everyday life.
CBC’s Talia Schlanger hosted, doing an admirable job; she asked pointed questions before introducing each performer. The night’s first five performers were: Serena Ryder, Allison Russell, Devon Portielje and Conner Molander of Half Moon Run, and TOBi.
Ryder, a six-time JUNO award winner, spoke of truth and the importance of being honest. These themes inspired her most recent record (The Art of Falling Apart). Before performing her first song of the night, she offered this wisdom: “It’s not medicine if it just makes the symptoms go away temporarily.” Later, when it was her turn again, the songwriter prefaced “Better Now,” by revealing she has not had a drink of alcohol in over three years; this sobriety has resulted in better self-care. The song is about facing one’s fears and coming out on the other side in a better place. Like folk festival songwriter-in-the-round sessions, Ryder got her fellow artists on stage and the audience, from the floor to the balcony, to join in on the chorus: “I can love you better now.” TOBi offered the song’s final notes, what he dubbed an “alley-oop.”
Other highlights of the opening one-hour set included the heaven-sent harmony of Portielje and Molander of Montreal indie rockers Half Moon Run, nominated this year in the Adult Alternative Album of the Year category. To steal Schlanger’s line, the duo accompanied each song with their band’s trademark “crunchy chords.”
Later, Nigerian-Canadian rapper TOBi offered a brand-new song called “Flowers,” accompanied by acoustic guitar; the artist explained he was inspired to write this piece one night in L.A. last year when he went out on a date with a female companion, and as they were set to leave, a gun fell out of her purse. This made TOBi ruminate on male privilege and what it must be like for a woman to feel unsafe walking alone at night to the point of arming herself.
Russell, whose 2021 release Outside Child was nominated for three Grammy awards earlier this year and is up for a pair of JUNO Awards this weekend, performed a pair of arresting songs. First up, “Kathy,” a prayer-song about her mom, who is still stuck in an abusive relationship with the man Russell escaped from as a teen. The artist’s second number, “Quasheba, Quasheba,” was released in 2019 on the Our Native Daughters collaboration album the singer-songwriter did with Rhiannon Giddens and Amythyst Kiah. The song of reconciliation is about Russell’s ancestral matriarch, a survivor of slavery. During both numbers, as her banjo provided the backbeat, the artist’s voice carried to the upper arches of Massey’s roof and returned to envelop the audience in a giant healing hug.
The first set ended with a standing ovation for everyone gathered on stage. Attendees barely had time for a bathroom break before the second act started with another group of JUNO-nominated and award-winning songwriters: Emily Haines and James Shaw of Metric, Charlotte Day Wilson, Mustafa, and Tamara Lindeman (The Weather Station).
Wilson, who makes her Massey Hall headlining debut on June 18 this year, sang one of her earliest hits, “Work,” as well as “Take Care of You” from her most recent release. Normally played on keyboard, the 29-year-old rising star performed this song for the first time on acoustic guitar.
Next to Russell’s riveting performances in the first act, Mustafa’s second song in the second half of the evening, “What About Heaven,” was the night’s most poignant moment. The poet previously performed this ode from his latest release (When Smoke Rises) last May on The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon. He explained the song is about friends that died too young and never got to hear this powerful song sung; it speaks to existential conversations he never got to have and ruminations on death and dying. As the 2022 JUNO-nominee shared the background and inspiration to this song, his fellow artists were rapt and hung on to each syllable.
Metric’s Haines and Shaw performed a moody version of “Dark Saturday” from the band’s 2018 record and ended the evening with a gorgeous take of their smash hit “Breathing Underwater” on grand piano and guitar.
As crowds lingered after the show below the iconic Massey Hall sign on Shuter Street, just south of the venue, TOBi hung out, talking to fans and taking selfies with them; he even autographed a guy’s Team Canada hockey jersey. Obviously, no one wanted this magical night of songs and music to end.
Watch the entire JUNO Songwriters’ Circle show online via CBC Music.