“Canadian” is not a genre

As we near Canada Day, we question Canadian content standards and come up with some top playlist picks for the long weekend.

By Serena Ypelaar

I didn’t come up with the title for this post myself – it’s a slogan coined by Dine Alone Records, the Canadian independent record label based here in Toronto.

We can take some pointers from its message, as Canadian art is often dismissed – from literature, to visual arts, to music, and more. It’d be interesting to see what percentage of music in our libraries is Canadian – I’d wager most Canadians have 15% or less. But the fact is that there is so much Canadian music out there – and it’s good. 

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Canadian Indigenous singer-songwriter Buffy Sainte-Marie. Photo: Flickr

What is it about being Canadian that automatically garners less attention? We even have poorer-quality versions of American reality TV shows, and a terrible Netflix selection compared to our southern neighbours to show for it.

In our current political climate, feat. a tariff war with the United States (which, let’s be honest, flares up every so often like a chronic wound), why not support Canadian musicians and invest in some local talent?

Here are some concise, but by no means comprehensive, top picks for quintessential Canadian listening. Enjoy my quick recs below.

A Tribe Called Red: Essential Indigenous electronic/hip-hop; mandatory listening. Songs to Start With: “R.E.D.,” “How I Feel”, “Bread & Cheese”

Billy Talent: Political commentary & punk rock all in one. Crisp guitars; crisper lyrics. Songs to Start With: “Try Honesty”, “Devil in a Midnight Mass”, “White Sparrows”

July Talk: Jarring juxtaposition of vocals – guttural/masculine vs. soft/feminine. Songs to Start With: “Headsick”, “Blood + Honey”, “Picturing Love”

Alexisonfire: “The sound of two Catholic high-school girls mid-knife-fight”.* Songs to Start With: “Boiled Frogs”, “Get Fighted”, “Midnight Regulations”

*I can’t describe it any better than they already have…

City and Colour: Mournful lamentations nursed by Dallas Green’s voice. Songs to Start With: “Casey’s Song”, “Waiting…”, “The Lonely Life”

Arkells: Anthemic, buoyant daytime rock with a touch of motown. Songs to Start With: “Where U Goin”, “Cynical Bastards”, “John Lennon”

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Mike DeAngelis and Max Kerman of Hamilton band Arkells, at WayHome Music and Arts Festival 2016. Photo: Flickr

Death From Above: Industrious duo at the junction of bass & drums. Songs to Start With: “All I C is U and Me”, “Crystal Ball”, “Romantic Rights”

Tanya Tagaq: Daring, innovative, and traditional Inuit throat-singing. Songs to Start With: “Uja”, “Sila”, “Retribution”

Mother Mother: Three-layered high-pitched vocals on a base of synth and strings. Songs to Start With: “Ghosting”, “The Stand”, “Infinitesimal”

Sum 41: Sprawling spitfire of classic punk rock with heavyweight choruses. Songs to Start With: “Still Waiting”, “Open Your Eyes”, “With Me”

USS (Ubiquitous Synergy Seeker): Lucid, lively electronica fuelled by lyrical emotion. Songs to Start With: “Damini”, “Vulcan”, “Freakquency”

Arcade Fire: A convergence of 6+ hipsters producing indie rock with accordion and keyboard at the fore. Songs to Start With: “Ready to Start”, “The Suburbs”, “No Cars Go”

Monster Truck: 70s style blues rock backed by organs. Long hair & denim required.   Songs to Start With: “Don’t Tell Me How to Live”, “Old Train”, “For the People”

Hollerado: Personable indie rock with a genuine sound and hard-hitting beats. Songs to Start With: “Too Much to Handle”, “So It Goes”, “Got to Lose”

Drake: No description needed for Toronto’s resident rapper… Songs to Start With: “Passionfruit”, “Over”, “God’s Plan”

Our Lady Peace: Low, crooning vocals replete with reassuring lyrics. Songs to Start With: “Innocent”, “All You Did Was Save My Life”, “Angels/Losing/Sleep”

Avril Lavigne: Do I even need to explain this? Songs to Start With: “Complicated”, “Sk8er Boi”, “I’m With You”

Cancer Bats: Gritty underground metal; shredding, cymbal-smashing oblivion. Songs to Start With: “Hail Destroyer”, “Beelzebub”, “Gatekeeper”

Three Days Grace: Bass-heavy garage-rock with brutally honest insights. Songs to Start With: “Just Like You”, “Never Too Late”, “Last to Know”

Sam Roberts Band: Even-paced alternative rock with laid-back guitars. Songs to Start With: “Brother Down”, “Them Kids”, “If You Want It”

Half Moon Run: Serene assertions on the human condition, featuring folksy acoustics. Songs to Start With: “Nerve”, “Trust”, “Narrow Margins”

Wintersleep: Guitars, synth, and experimental riffs with a sprightly rhythm. Songs to Start With: “Lifting Cure”, “Metropolis”, “Santa Fe”

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Alanis Morissette. Photo: Wikimedia

Of course, there are also the Canadian classics, which you might consider revisiting for the long weekend. I’ve created a track-by-track vignette of essential Canadiana:

  • Rush – “YYZ”
  • Buffy Sainte-Marie – “Working for the Government”
  • Bryan Adams – “Summer of ’69”
  • The Guess Who – “American Woman”
  • Gordon Lightfoot – “Canadian Railroad Trilogy”
  • Shania Twain – “Man! I Feel Like A Woman”
  • Alanis Morissette – “Thank U”
  • Sarah McLachlan – “Building A Mystery”
  • Great Big Sea – “The Chemical Worker’s Song”
  • Neil Young – “Heart of Gold”
  • Joni Mitchell – “Big Yellow Taxi”
  • Leonard Cohen – “Treaty”
  • k.d. lang – “Constant Craving”
  • Celine Dion – “My Heart Will Go On”
  • Barenaked Ladies – “Canada Dry”
  • The Tragically Hip – “Bobcaygeon”

Obviously I omitted a bunch of bands/artists, mainly because I don’t listen to them enough to consider myself worthy of making thoughtful recommendations. Other Canadian artists are included below.

Shad, Lights, The Dirty Nil, Anne Murray, The Jerry Cans, Shawn Mendes, Sloan, Tegan and Sara, Michael Buble, Metric, Simple Plan, Young Empires, Joni Mitchell, Nelly Furtado, Bruce Cockburn, Jann Arden, The Trews, Corey Hart, Alessia Cara, Ron Sexsmith, Diana Krall, Stan Rogers, BROS, Feist, The Beaches, Moneen, The Darcys, The Weeknd, Justin Bieber, Said the Whale, Constantines, Marianas Trench, Silverstein, Broken Social Scene, Big Wreck, Nickelback, PUP, Dear Rouge, Blue Rodeo, Hedley, Fucked Up, Toronto, Great Lake Swimmers, The Rural Alberta Advantage, Teenage Head, Down With Webster, Thousand Foot Krutch, Matt Good Band, The Tea Party, The Sheepdogs, Hey Rosetta!, The Elwins, IllScarlett, Prism, I Mother Earth, Black Lungs, Chromeo, Japandroids, Whitehorse, Protest the Hero, The New Pornographers, Joel Plaskett, Northern Voice, Serena Ryder, Lost Cousins, Moist, Neverending White Lights, Platinum Blonde, Stabilo, Saint Asonia, Finger Eleven, Templar, Theory of a Deadman, Wolf Parade, Yukon Blonde, Born Ruffians, Black Bear.

Over the years, so much of Canadian identity has been built on what we’re not (namely, American). Let’s talk about what we are, for a change. It’s something Canadian music does well, if we only listen.

Look at this Art(icle)

By Serena Ypelaar

In all its abstraction, art somehow manages to reach the deepest parts of us. Art can make us feel understood; it can help us process complex emotions; it can foster empathetic reactions, or merely offer us some beauty to take solace in.

Our fourth and final theme on The Mindful Rambler, “On Art“, will explore how artistic works can give us something to relate to, and how artists achieve resonance through their craft. It’s always astounded me how artists can capture common elements of the human experience to make the viewer/listener/consumer feel that they can relate.

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“A Sunday on La Grande Jatte” (1884), Georges Seurat. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

I shouldn’t generalize, but artists seem to summon something from within them to produce their art – whether it’s about loss, suffering, heartbreak, healing, comfort, or acceptance. Or even just an element of everyday life that they wanted to capture. These depictions offer us the opportunity to connect through shared experiences, despite probably never having met one another.

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Tom Thomson’s “Northern River” (1915) reminds me of camping trips I’ve taken almost every year of my life, and seeing it makes me nostalgic. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

For instance, I’ve never met A.Y. Jackson (of Group of Seven fame) or Tom Thomson because they predeceased me, of course. Their paintings tap into the beauty of the Georgian Bay and the Great Lakes in Ontario. For me, such beautiful portrayals of the Canadian landscape spark countless childhood memories of camping trips in Ontario Parks, bringing up a sense of awe and nostalgia – in short, making me feel something.

I should define art more broadly. This column won’t just talk about paintings, drawings, photographs, sculpture, and other art you’d see in art galleries. When we talk about art, we also mean music, dance, drama, textiles, fashion, and that which is created as a form of self-expression. We can get into the minutiae of high art vs. low art later (a discussion that’ll hopefully contribute to a our interpretive mindfulness) but needless to say, we will discuss all kinds of art here.

What seems like commonplace art that we access daily, such as music, will also make up a significant part of this column – we’ll examine how it can connect to us emotionally, every day. The point of this column is to question our responses, and our desires implicit desires in consuming art. What do we hope to get out of art? How do we react to it? How do we express ourselves in response? Based on our expectations and needs, how do we decide whether we like a piece of art or not?

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Kader Attia’s “J’accuse” (2016), on display at the Power Plant Contemporary Art Gallery in Toronto, Canada. How do you feel looking at this artwork? Would you feel differently if you feel if you walked through it in person? Photo: Serena Ypelaar

Next time you look at a painting/photograph or listen to some music or go to the theatre, think about these questions, because art, and the experience of interacting with it, may be more about the self than we realize.

How to Save a Life

By Serena Ypelaar

This past year, I’ve often reflected on our inability to control the passage of time. It’s something that haunts us throughout our lives, since it’s beyond our power to stop time from unraveling. We often wish to transcend mortality, and while that’s an unattainable goal, there are ways we can deal with such a dark reality.

One such method is the art of biography. How can we hold on to what we have left of people? Our family and friends aren’t gone without a trace when they die, nor are public figures. Why? Well, because we remember them.

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Museums can facilitate biography in their exhibitions, such as this one in Jimi Hendrix’s London flat (Handel & Hendrix). Photo: Serena Ypelaar

Regardless of who you are, you will die having left some indelible mark on the world, no matter how small. Biography is a means of harnessing what we can control about life and preserving it for the future. It doesn’t just document birth, life milestones, education, work, marriage, family, and death. Biography also captures the emotional experience of a person during their life. It gets to the heart of who they were and how they interacted with others.

We can study the lives of the living as well – there are plenty of biographies written about those who are still with us. The bottom line is that biographies outlive us if they’re preserved in the public eye – they can be immortal.

I won’t even wonder whether biography is important: it is. We can’t hope to learn from those who have lived before us, or in some cases alongside us, unless we keep their lessons accessible for future reference.

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The film “12 Years A Slave” (2013) illustrates the life of Solomon Northup based on his written memoir of his enslavement in America. Photo: Flickr

That said, biography is still an act of interpretation. Even autobiography, the act of telling one’s own life story, consists of interpreting one’s own life and defining it. We must consider the issues that come with biographers as individuals, as their own interpretations can influence the way an individual’s life story is retold.

I think it’s fair to say that we all have some kind of role model (or in my case, many), some of whom we may not have met in person. We venerate them because they made a contribution to public life that would have us remember them. It’s worth questioning what merits a full-scale biography, whether in book form, biopic, documentary, or otherwise. Something in our ability to connect to individuals lends itself to widespread commemoration through biography. But these forms of media aren’t the only kind of biography – for instance, we write our own bios all the time for professional purposes. Biography is an engine of self-definition, a tool of categorization; it’s also a means of trying to understanding each other.

In this column, “On Biography“, we’ll take a look at why we remember certain individuals, how they are remembered, who remembers them, and how this affects their identity, both during their lifetime and after it. We’ll examine what it means to be a person and how public memory can rearrange the collective understanding of people’s lives. And, perhaps most importantly, we’ll learn how people make connections.

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The diary of Anne Frank, a young Jewish girl who lived in hiding during WWII, is a moving document that has informed countless biographies. What’s so compelling is the diary’s ability to connect us with Anne Frank and her experiences; in reading it, we can hear her speak. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

A biography saves that which we never thought we could save. While it’s not the literal act of saving a life, creating a biography ensures that we can connect to people long after they are gone, whether to learn something or merely to take comfort.

How do we save a life using the limited means afforded to us? Preserve it, and make sure we never forget.

It’s Lit(erary)

By Serena Ypelaar

Hello again, dear readers, and thanks for visiting The Mindful Rambler! Last week, we talked about history and who writes our past. Collectively (though not without knowledge hierarchies), we shape our memory of historical events through storytelling. Now, let’s look at the second of our four themes: Literature.

When I speak broadly about literature, I mean fictional prose, poetry, literary essays, or the like. Literature may not necessarily reflect on actual events, but it does capture elements of the human experience for us to examine and reflect upon. Thus, literature is an instrument of storytelling.

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An extremely crammed bookshelf promises enough interpretation to last years. Photo: Serena Ypelaar

Why is it important to look at literature in the field of interpretation? Because literature itself is an interpretation of the world around us. The creators of literature are absorbing what they see around them and reproducing (or subverting) it through the act of storytelling. Drawing upon shared experiences and portraying them, whether through realism or abstraction, allows us to understand each other, ourselves, and our environment.

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Daunt Books, Hampstead, London, UK. Photo: Serena Ypelaar

Literature uses the written word to tell us the truths the world doesn’t share openly – but it’s more than just that. Books, poems, pamphlets, essays, and other literature aren’t limited to just words. They give us imagery; they provoke our senses and prompt us to think critically in response to stimuli. We aren’t force-fed these images, nor is the meaning of a literary work meant to slap us in the face. There are nuances that we ourselves have to read into, which often means that we as individuals bring different perspectives to the literature we consume.

In the act of reading, we’re interpreting. We process the messages that writers (who have interpreted before us) present to us, and our takeaway varies from one person to the next based on past experiences. Our own personalities and backstories define what stands out to us and what we think is worth considering.

So how do we find a definitive interpretation of literary texts?

We can’t.

We can choose to venerate the analyses of certain individuals – for instance, since I like Samuel Johnson, to whom this blog’s title pays homage, I’m more likely to embrace his opinions on Shakespeare. Conversely, if I love Jane Austen (and I do, most ardently), I will reject Mark Twain’s scathing criticisms of Pride and Prejudice. But you, or someone else, may like and respect Twain’s opinion and therefore lend it some credence. Our biases influence our perceptions, so interpreting literature is a constant decision-making process.

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Graves from the Poets’ Corner in Westminster Abbey, London, UK. Readers connect with different works/authors/themes as a result of their individual background – this diversity affects our interpretive processes. Photo: Serena Ypelaar

Hence, once literature is published, its meaning lies in the hands of the recipient. Authors’ intentions are powerful and significant, and this column, “On Literature“, will explore those ethical concerns. However, we aren’t necessarily bound by them. No one can really police our response to literature because it’s a very personal interaction. As a former English major, I definitely learned how to pick up on people’s partiality and respond to that, but ultimately, we form our own relationships with the materials that are presented to us.

So literature as media is oddly empowering: we can choose what we read, how we read it, and how we respond to it. We can be mindful of the contexts in which a work was produced, or we can simply read it at face value – and is either interpretation wrong?

Tell Me a (Hi)story

ram·ble
/ˈrambəl/
Middle Dutch
verb
  1. walk for pleasure, typically without a definite route.
  2. talk or write at length, typically in a confused or inconsequential way.

Hi! My name is Serena, and I’m the Founder and Editor-in-Chief of The Mindful Rambler. I started this blog to explore questions of interpretation and the ways we communicate in the public sphere. As the definitions above suggest, there will be confusing moments during these “rambles” when we don’t know exactly where we’re going – but they’ll help us learn! To celebrate our official launch, I’d like to introduce you to one of our four key themes: History.

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History is all around us, with new additions embracing (or sometimes overpowering) the old. Photo: Serena Ypelaar

History is all around us. The present is influenced by our past and the way we remember it. History isn’t just “the past”, though – it’s not as objective as that. Rather, history represents the way we interpret and understand the past using material evidence.

Such evidence can come in the form of documents, photographs, artwork, audio, or even commonplace objects. We construct history from this evidence; it’s not always easy to process or understand, especially when we’re trying to synthesize multiple (sometimes conflicting) pieces of evidence into a coherent story.

What types of evidence are privileged? Which voices do we value? In placing emphasis on some forms of evidence over others, which perspectives do we identify as “more important” in the greater scheme of things?

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Serena stands with Yousuf Karsh’s 1941 portrait of Sir Winston Churchill at the Churchill War Rooms, London, UK. We can interpret photographs like this one as historical evidence of a period in time. Photo: Serena Ypelaar

In this column, “On History“, we’ll delve deeper into these questions using specific case studies. It’s crucial to understand how we remember our past and why we remember it that way. By consciously exploring our interpretative processes, we can understand the methods we use to create bridges between the past, present, and future.

The name “The Mindful Rambler” is a tribute to Dr. Samuel Johnson, the 18th century scholar and writer of the first English Dictionary. Published between 1750 and 1752, Johnson’s periodical The Rambler discussed contemporary societal issues such as politics, religion, morality, and literature. In coming up with a title for this blog, I enjoyed the idea of “rambling” like Dr. Johnson, but the connotations seemed a little more lackadaisical than the goal of this blog – hence the addition of mindfulness to our title.

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Stained glass window commemorating Samuel Johnson’s life, located at Dr. Johnson’s House Museum in Gough Square, London, UK. Photo: Serena Ypelaar

We should definitely let our ideas unfold so we can learn new things from one another, but being mindful of how we interpret and communicate will ensure the ethical sharing of knowledge. Johnson had similar beliefs:

Integrity without knowledge is weak and useless, and knowledge without integrity is dangerous and dreadful. — Samuel Johnson

From reflecting on lessons learned, to contemplating ongoing mysteries, to questioning privileged knowledge structures, we owe it to our future to acknowledge and preserve our past – and to inform how we treat history going forward. It’s my hope that when considering issues of interpretation and communication, we always tread mindfully – and think before we ramble.