Tonight, Bonjay meets Bon-Fire as the Toronto duo—actually, the soul-EDM act formed in Ottawa back before 2010—hits Rideau Pines Farm to deliver their Polaris Prize-longlisted sound. Ian “Pho” Swain and Alanna Stuart, Bonjay’s roster, are back in their sort-of-hometown for the second time this year, and while Toronto is currently home base, coming back to the capital is a special experience for them.
“Bonjay could only have started in Ottawa—that nurturing community and mix of people,” says Ian Swain, who does everything but the vocals. “It’s so cool to come back to the place where we come from and see, kind of, reflections of ourselves.”
“Bonjay could only have started in Ottawa…”
Bonjay has left a burgeoning R&B music scene in their wake, and while they take no credit whatsoever, they see artists like King Kimbit and see a bit of themselves.
The pair met at a party in the city. Swain was DJing and Stuart interrupted his mix to jam with him, singing vocals from atop a pool table. From that, to Broughtupsy in 2010, to the dazzling Lush Life released early this year, and now to Arboretum Festival’s Bon-Fire.
“I never would have envisioned this happening,” says Swain.
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Bonjay has described their sound as “dancehall meets Kate Bush,” and while that’s not necessarily that far off, it misses a lot. Stuart’s voice has an almost destructive power to it, turning pretty much every song into something you’d put on if you needed courage. Swain’s beats and samples are supremely tailored, stitched meticulously with the skill of an experienced artisan.
“I had to become kind of a craftsperson of songs,” says Swain. For this new record he delved deep into musical theory, and started thinking about songwriting as something that one can perfect. “It’s the timeless balance between tension and release, ultimately.”
That’s so true of this music. Bonjay has a real energy to it, a dynamism. And it goes far, far beyond what is already a clearly winning concept: soul lyrics over electronic beats. Bonjay has created their own sound, and there is always a certain amount of anxiety that comes with new territory.
“Coming up with a good concept doesn’t mean it’ll work in the real world,” says Swain. “I’m happy with how the record [Lush Life] turned out—but there was a lot of trial and error and a lot of learning in order to realize our concept and make it an enjoyable album to listen to.”
The band’s sound is fresh, as is their lyrical content. The song “Emoticon Panopticon” off Lush Life is a love song told from a distinctly modern perspective. It describes the impossibility of escaping someone in this connected world where exes pop up everywhere, whether you follow them or not.
“We wanted to write a love song that was about something that could only happen today,” says Swain.
Like their song, this band truly could only happen today. They are trying something new and it’s working. For a music fan, there’s absolutely nothing better. As Swain puts it:
“People that try to blaze their own trail are cool.”
Bonjay play Arboretum Festival’s Bon-Fire at Rideau Pines Farm (5714 Fourth Line Rd) on Saturday August 18, 2018. Day passes are available online and include a shuttle bus to/from downtown Ottawa. Visit arboretumfestival.com for the full schedule.