Despite being a hotbed of international talent, Vancouver’s grassroots musical communities have long been tucked into the margins. Between the crippling cost of living and the paucity of small venues, it can be hard for young musicians to raise their heads above the parapet to secure mainstream attention. Which is a shame, because away from the bright lights of Granville Street and the sold-out concerts of Rogers Arena, there are local artists carving their own remarkable creative journeys. Here are three who are more than deserving of their moments in the spotlight.
“We’re proud of what we’re making and what we can share,” says bass player Avery O’Brien, one of the two sisters at the heart of Harlequin Gold, which is aided and abetted by drummer Jamison Ko and Australian guitarist Nicholas Coombe. The band’s harmonious mix of folk, rock, and electronics stole the show on the main stage at 2018’s Khatsahlano Festival on West 4th Avenue; despite having only a lone single release (“Without You Now”) at that point (though they have since released a second single called “Youth”), Harlequin Gold stepped on stage sounding, looking, and acting like polished future superstars.
“It didn’t happen overnight,” insists guitarist (and sister to Avery) Elle. “I’ve been writing songs my entire life but never took it seriously. At one point I’d broken my arm, broken up with my boyfriend, and had to quit my job. A guy I was working with said, ‘Why don’t you try music?’ He made me vow that I’d put out one video a week for the next six months. I told Avery and she said, ‘I’ll do it with you.’ We agreed that music was what made us happy.”
Like many family groups before them, Harlequin Gold began with an acoustic guitar and naturally melodious voices. But an eventual change in instruments did more than alter their sound—it changed how they were viewed. “We were perceived as cute singing sisters,” continues Elle. “Then I switched over to electric guitar, and Avery started playing guitar, then switched to bass. That was huge. Then we added Nick.” The sisters grew up in Kelowna and were surrounded by music from a young age. “I started playing piano when I was five and guitar when I was 12,” explains Elle. “It got to a point where we’d collected enough instruments where we needed a room to store it all.” She grew up listening to everything from Etta James to Biggie Smalls and Eminem.
“She was listening to rap and I was listening to heavy metal, like Billy Talent, then switching over to Hilary Duff,” adds Avery. “We’ve been all over the spectrum. It’s never just been rock or folk. We would record music and make little videos together. When we started harmonizing it was so much fun. We’d get shivers all over our bodies.” Harmony is at the core of Harlequin Gold’s sound, complementing and elevating Elle’s gift for writing melodies. If it seems natural, it’s because they have years of practice behind them. “When a song we liked would come on the radio we wouldn’t sing the lead, we’d harmonize,” recalls Elle. “It was so annoying for our parents.”
From Ray and Dave Davies of The Kinks, to Heart’s Ann and Nancy Wilson, to the Gallagher brothers of Oasis, rock and roll has a long history of sibling brilliance. For the O’Brien sisters, there is a connection that is impossible to explain. “When we spend time together rehearsing, our voices begin to move in the exact same way,” says Avery with a smile. “Even when we did our first recordings, our producer said that we couldn’t be recorded separately. We had to be singing together and looking at one another. That connection is only frustrating when we show up wearing the exact same things.” Great minds, indeed.
Altona’s Adam Sharp isn’t quite a local celebrity, but he is still one of the city’s most recognizable musicians. Standing six-foot-seven and with multiple years’ experience as one of the friendliest baristas in some of Vancouver’s best coffee shops, he’ll rarely walk down one of the streets without someone stopping to say hello. It’s a radically different lifestyle to the one he left in the tiny English village of Thornborough, Buckinghamshire when he moved to Canada in 2009.
“The most famous person from Thornborough?” Sharp wonders, laughing. “It might be me! If you Googled everyone ever from Thornborough, I might have more hits than anyone else.”
Sharp’s burgeoning fame is justified. Since his arrival in Canada, he has forged a reputation for himself as an eternally optimistic hard worker, founding and running the Big Smoke record label and putting on countless concerts for up-and-coming bands (including the now legendary Spruce Trap show at Vancouver’s Christ Church Cathedral), in addition to his own musical adventures under the name Altona. The effort comes naturally for Sharp. It’s an essential part of the person he decided to be.
“I came to Canada ready to rebuild my life,” he explains. “I’d played bass in the UK so I knew being in bands and writing songs was something I wanted to do. No one took me seriously when I brought songs to my previous bands as a bass player, so I bought a guitar, learned to play, and started the band Mercy Years. That was wicked, but I knocked it on the head when I moved to New York for an internship. I’d already had the idea for Altona, so when I moved back I started that. There were seven of us in Mercy Years and it was very collaborative. With Altona, I know what I want and I know how to get it.”
That means the singer, songwriter, and guitarist married his love of obscure American punk and emo with his ear for layered riffs and understated pop melodies. Working alongside guitarist Thomas Nyte and a revolving cast of drummers and bass players, Sharp developed a successful creative process for Altona. “I’m not a dictator, but I’m the one doing the work for the band. The songwriting is collaborative but the general direction is my call,” he says. “The art and the business of being in a band are one and the same to me. I enjoy the mental gymnastics of doing both. I do set high standards for myself, often to my detriment—but there is an art to good marketing.” Expect to see Altona’s architecturally inspired posters scattered on walls across Vancouver in the near future. More a branding exercise than point-of-sale promotion for forthcoming records and tours (although both are on the horizon), these advertisements are designed to help Altona stand out from the crowd. “The presentation of bands here is often a bit cool and aloof,” says Sharp. “I’m not ashamed of trying.” It’s a refreshing approach.
Inspired by the underground but unapologetically ambitious, Altona has the potential to explode beyond the confines of the underground rock scene that spawned it.
Accepted wisdom states that if you want to make it big in Canadian hip hop, you head directly to Toronto. Kimmortal, known to friends and family as Kim Villagante, does not follow accepted wisdom.
“I was thinking about moving to Toronto but decided to stay in Vancouver,” she admits. “The foundation isn’t as strong [here]. I realized that I want to contribute more to building that foundation, building my own career, and building a platform for other people to shine.”
If anyone is well placed to take Vancouver’s rap underground into daylight, it’s Villagante. She is the epitome of the do-it-yourself artist, with her creative journey evolving from theatre, to performing at grassroots events for the city’s queer and Filipino communities, to teaching herself animation and persuading friends to join her in a freezing October ocean to create her own music videos. Her profile shot skyward after a turn at Khatsahlano, where her mix of righteously rage-filled rap and soul-infused vocals (think Lauryn Hill without the religious overtones) wowed the crowd at her biggest gig to date.
The road to Khatsahlano was a long one. Having annexed her sister’s guitar when she was 15, Villagante’s musical discovery began with acoustic emo songs, strayed down a new path as she learned how to make beats from YouTube tutorials, and took a hard turn after she landed a role in Omari Newton’s hip hop musical Sal Capone in 2014. “Through that production I accessed the grit that I couldn’t find with an acoustic solo performance. Accessing my rage and letting that flow is a way of being bigger than my body,” she explains. “I liked how I could gender bend in hip hop and access my masculinity. Conservative Filipino community thought teaches you that to survive in this world you pay your bills, keep your head down, and not step out of the box. Hip hop comes from black communities rising against systems of hate; Filipino communities can connect with that to a certain level. I can yell on the mic. I can flow. I can show my story. I can be harder. Hip hop is a platform to do that.”
Villagante will be connecting deeper with communities in Vancouver and beyond with the release of her long-gestated forthcoming album. “I hope this album is a catalyst to conversations. I like the in-between. I’m a middle child. I’m queer,” she says. “It’s about the water and the moon. The womb. It’s about my mother. It teeter-totters between pain and pleasure, love and rage. It’s an effort I’ve been building for so long, I just hope it reaches people’s hearts.”
Acutely aware that mainstream hip hop continues to glorify misogyny and materialism, Villagante understands that the way to return rap to its revolutionary early days is from the ground up. “There’s hope because things are changing. The voices that have been pushed to the margins are coming up,” she says. “People are starting to get it. The more voices are heard, the more the mainstream will change.”
And these voices are just the beginning.
Read more music stories here.