We caught up with DRAE to discuss the Capital Music Awards, their incredible success over the last year, and growth in the Ottawa music scene.
DRAE’s high-energy performances have been a mainstay on Ottawa’s stages for the last decade, but the group reached new heights over the last year with the release of singles “Take Cover” and “Sleep,” pushing DRAE to be crowned Group of the Year at last week’s Capital Music Awards. Both tracks showcase DRAE’s ease at blending genres by expanding the scope of hip-hop to encompass blues and rock influences. Producer-frontman André Thibault’s lyrics have always been thoughtful and engaging, but the increased presence on new tracks from drummer Matt Robillard and guitarist Matt Yorke have added newfound depth to the group’s sound.
One of DRAE’s understated strengths is the diversity of their audiences, as they are able to unite the leather-clad rockers and Supreme-sporting hip-hop heads in the same room, singing back Thibault’s lyrics in unison. Their two latest singles have earned DRAE legions of new fans, and their follow-up to 2016’s E/scape is eagerly anticipated. We reached André Thibault shortly after the Capital Music Awards to discuss winning Group of the Year, the evolution of their sound on new releases, and the growth happening in Ottawa’s music scene.
Apt613: Congrats on winning Group of the Year at the Capital Music Awards! What does this award mean to you?
DRAE: It’s big. We’ve won other awards before, but this one’s the most significant because it’s recognition from Ottawa, which doesn’t happen very often. The Ottawa Music Industry Coalition has done a lot of work to push the growth of music in Ottawa. To see that something here is happening–and to be recognized as part of it–is pretty huge.
As a local artist, how have you seen the Ottawa music scene evolve since you first started playing shows here?
We’ve been playing shows in Ottawa for almost 10 years now. It really was a very exclusive small list of local bands and artists who got recognition in the beginning. I used to think it was a pretty tight-knit community, but now there are bands I’m hearing of that I’ve never met, spoken to, or seen live before, which didn’t use to be the case. The scene is exploding and there are a lot of artists that are getting a lot of attention outside of the city too which is really great.
The award came after a busy year for you with the release of singles “Sleep” and “Take Cover.” What has been the biggest difficulty of releasing music during the pandemic?
This is going to sound silly, but maintaining content online has been a challenge. You almost need to double the level of content that you’re putting out to make up for the fact that you can’t see audiences in person. Normally it’s our high-energy live shows that help to attract new fans, but without concerts, we’ve really had to push more on social media.
It’s been a struggle, but I have to give a huge shoutout to Live 88.5. They’ve been a huge contributor to our success over the last year when we couldn’t play in front of people. They picked up both singles very quickly and have helped spread the word about our music. Having their support has helped a lot without the usual live music revenue stream.
Were those tracks recorded during the pandemic?
They were actually both recorded in 2019 and then polished afterwards. We were going to put them on an EP and have that EP release show on March 14, 2020, but we actually had to cancel the show because everything was being shut down. We reassessed the situation and thought maybe we’d wait and not put out an EP, and instead just release the singles and see how people receive them. We figured releasing them all at once wouldn’t be a good idea because we’d have a long haul in keeping people engaged and interacting with our fans over the darker months of the virus.
When this is all over it’s going to be like unleashing a caged beast. We’ll play every night we can.
This has been a very big test for everybody, especially artists and people involved in the live music sector. We were very excited for the show, but in hindsight, I’m glad it didn’t happen because we shifted our focus and changed our plans. I think it worked out for the best. When this is all over it’s going to be like unleashing a caged beast. We’ll play every night we can, and I promise it’ll be a hell of a party.
How do you think your sound has evolved since your last album, 2016’s E/scape?
E/scape was very much an experiment with different influences and sounds. It had more of a hip-hop focus, but also dabbled a lot into some of my electronic influences. There wasn’t as much of a rock-blues influence on that record, which I think is the direction that DRAE has taken now. There’s really a fluidity of genres in our songs now, and I think it’s a much more mature sound. The message behind the lyrics is also much more focused. I’d say that overall our music has grown to have more consistency.
Your previous album was quite guest-heavy. Are there any Ottawa artists that you’d love to collaborate with on a future project?
Our dream team of collaborators just keeps growing. I can think of a few artists that would be great to collaborate with considering our shift away from traditional hip-hop toward more of that blues-rock sound. One group that I would absolutely love to collaborate with is The Blue Stones. They’re based out of Kingston and have made a name for themselves of late.
What’s the importance of having actual musicians and instrumentation on your tracks rather than sampling?
I think it just brings more life to the music. I started my musical journey off learning to play guitar and being a songwriter first. Guitar has always been my first love, and incorporating that into my music has always been something I’ve looked to do but never really found an appropriate way to do so until recently. That influence has been there ever since my childhood.
I think a lot of hip-hop artists are starting to see the value of including real instrumentation in their music and how it can separate them from the contemporary hip-hop that seems to be all 808 heavy. I’ve heard that’s the direction that Kendrick Lamar is heading on his newest record, so I’m very intrigued to see how the collaboration between studio musicians and hip-hop artists continues to grow.
What do you see as the next steps for DRAE?
We hope for a full tour once things get back to normal. “Take Cover” and “Sleep” were the first releases where we had a structured plan for them rather than just putting songs online to see how they’re received. Having seen how successful it was to really take our time thinking out the release process has changed the way we approach releasing our music. We’ll probably go silent for a little bit to finish up the next project. We haven’t decided yet if it will be an EP or an album, but there will be some more singles coming out this summer.
If you were given unlimited power to make a difference in the Ottawa music scene, what would you do to give back and help grow the local scene?
For a long time, there was a very small selection of recording studios and spaces to actually record in Ottawa and get your tracks polished with a professional sound. Now studios are starting to pop up all over the city, and some producers and engineers have started to make a name for themselves.
I think what the city can really use now—and unfortunately, it’s been really amplified due to the pandemic—are more small-to-medium-sized venues. A lot of venues have unfortunately had to close down over the course of the pandemic, but even pre-pandemic we didn’t have many. Ottawa has small places that can maybe fit a hundred people, and then we have the Bronson Centre, the Canadian Tire Centre, and Lansdowne. Besides those, there aren’t really many medium-sized venues of like 1000-2000 people. I think that’s something that Ottawa needs in order to draw up-and-coming artists. It would provide a great opportunity for local musicians to play in front of a couple thousand people and to create a wave of local support that you can’t really get from playing in front of a hundred people in a club. There are great artists living here and we need to find more ways to get them on larger stages and break them to the city.