In 2010, Alanna Stuart and Ian “Pho” Swain released their Bonjay debut. The critically acclaimed EP, Broughtupsy, was the start of something special. Stuart’s voice — powerful and gospel, groomed from growing up in the Jamaican Pentecostal church and Canadian indie-influenced from coming of age alongside the emergence of bands like Arcade Fire and Feist — was a revelation.
Bonjay’s unique sonic blend — dancehall, electronic and experimental pop, futuristic soul — was more a first draft blueprint than a map back then, but the foundation was clear. Bonjay was a band to watch, the next generation of a more complex, diverse and cool iteration of what it meant to be a Canadian musician.
And then, nothing. Until now.
It’s eight years in the making, but Bonjay is back with its full-length debut album, Lush Life. The record’s title is a fitting description of the sonic landscape Stuart and Swain have crafted over the album’s nine tracks. Every song is vibrant and evocative, high concept without sacrificing any emotional weight. It’s so cohesive that Lush Life itself feels like a place, a city or space of its own making that begins to take shape with the first track, “Ingenue,” a wild reinvention of the classic torch song, and doesn’t stop building, experimenting, and surprising until “Night Bus Blue,” the final track, fades out in all its hypnotic, holy glory.
Stream Lush Life one week before its release via the CBC Music player.
CBC Music spoke with Stuart and Swain by phone about the making of Lush Life, cities, thought experiments, economists, the power of diversity and what it really takes to craft something original.
In my head you guys have a discography that stretches miles behind us but this is actually your debut full-length. So it’s taken at least seven years to get here, though it feels unique, very much your own thing. You can tell how much time you put into it.
Ian “Pho” Swain: Oh cool! It totally was like making up your own new thing. It’s really hard; you can have the vision and then you can have the unique combination of influences but making it work together is a tremendous challenge so just having the record to share with the world feels good.
Alanna Stuart: I think about the ambition of trying to bring different sounds and also trying to find the middle ground, where the differences between Ian and I meet, our different backgrounds and where are those commonalities. Ian comes from DJing classic soul and hip-hop records and I come from singing in the Jamaican Pentecostal church and really came of age in the Canadian indie-rock scene. Then we have this love of dancehall and kick-and-bass that brings those influences together. On paper, Bonjay shouldn't work. We needed to take the time to find a happy marriage of those sounds.
Swain: A good rule of thumb I think is diversity is harder, but it's better.…That's a lot of the inspiration behind this record: how do we make this work together?
Stuart: And thinking about the topic of diversity, or creating a nuanced look, a more microscopic look at the way we live in today. It's more upon reflection that I can articulate how those stories have come to be. I'm not as deliberate as Ian in creating a vision for a song but I think the beauty of the symbiosis in our relationship is that Ian is a visionary in that way. His day job is working as an economist and getting a bird's-eye view of the way we exist and so he comes with these great ideas. I have an emotional response to those ideas and it touches on an experience I may have witnessed walking down the street or talking to somebody after a show or reflecting on my own diverse background. I pull from lived experiences and try to convey in a real-life way so I can use what he's bringing to the table.
I think of a song like "Ingenue" and I think about the Lush Life manifesto where we acknowledged the struggle of living in the city. It is a beautiful place [Toronto], a place of opportunity but it's f--king hard to afford to live here while maintaining a passion. These are the ideas that swirl around in Ian’s head everyday, and I think I was able to imagine such diverse stories because I grew up in such a diverse family so it wasn't such a stretch for me. My mother was a foster mother and we were kind of like an emergency care home where we had a rapid turnover of foster kids. My siblings were Jamaican-Canadian, there was a young Brazilian girl who just came to Canada, French-Canadians, Inuit brothers who I couldn't understand. I grew up with people who spoke different languages in my home and looked differently and live different ways.
In terms of the songwriting, are you both writing the lyrics together?
Stuart: Pretty much.
Swain: You write more of the lyrics. I’m more likely to come up with the song content. You connect the ideas to the personal a lot of the time.
Stuart: Yeah, I would say so. "Emoticon Panopticon" is the perfect example of a concept that Ian came up with. Can you share that because I still feel curious about this title.
Swain: We wanted to tell a sad love story that could take place now. It was a bit of a response to how so much music now is referencing other eras of music that it becomes disconnected from the experiences of us and our friends and what we're going through. So "Emoticon Panopticon" was inspired by something that happened to a friend about how it's really hard to escape people today when you break up with them. In the past, you would stop calling them or hanging out with them but now even if you unfollow them or unfriend them, they're always showing up in other people's posts or other people's photos.
Or a "recommended friend for you."
Swain: Right! So that seemed very sad and tragic at times, and this was a totally unique thing that did not exist previously in thousands of years of human history. So "emoticon" is obviously emoji and "panopticon" — are you familiar with that word?
I don’t think so? But I’m also not an economist, FYI.
Swain: Around the 16 or 1700s, Jeremy Bentham, who was a philosopher basically, decided the perfect prison was one where everyone could see each other all the time, because then they would be policing each other. It was like a thought experiment from hundreds of years ago. So it was like a tower where it's a circle that opens to the inside and the walls are made of glass so everyone can see everyone else and the idea was [that] it was kind of the perfect prison to keep people from acting differently than how you wanted them to. So that's what the title is about — the way that it's really hard to escape each other when a relationship ends today and that causes a lot of pain. I do think Jeremy Bentham was also an economist. [Laughs] He came up with some early economic concepts. I will bear that one.
I knew it!
Swain: But my focus is on cities and the micro level so it's much more literary than most. Jane Jacobs is my favourite economist, she wrote The Death and Life of Great American Cities. To me, she is the greatest economist ever and a great genius of the 20th century. It’s not really the dull, grey suit-wearing, making-predictions-that-never-come-true economist; it's more like how do risk-taking, exciting music scenes develop? Or, how did Silicon Valley grow from a working-class San Francisco in the 1950s to the hippies and then beyond to what it is today? Those sorts of questions.
Stuart: So, all of this I distill into verse, chorus, verse, bridge, chorus, chorus using — I tend to learn best through conversation and witnessing some of these concepts and how they play out in everyday life. It allows me to visualize how this would play out when I'm writing. I see these themes in my mind like a movie. I don't see them as words, I see them with faces and texture and environment and I can imagine sounds and smells and I just describe what I'm seeing. I'm constantly fed inspiration by Ian’s conceptual thinking and there are some songs where I started with the influence. Our upcoming single, "Medicine for Melancholy," is a very personal story about what's common amongst many second-generation Canadians — existing with an identity rooted in duality — but I think it's for anybody transitioning from who they were and into who they're supposed to be or what they desire to be. It speaks to both the frustration of feeling like you don't belong anywhere but also the opportunity in writing that line for you to create your own path.
I can articulate it now, but I wasn't able to articulate that unsettling feeling of not really feeling like I belonged anywhere until I saw that debut film by Barry Jenkins [2008’s Medicine For Melancholy] who went on to win the Academy Award [for Moonlight]. His movie was a visual articulation of some of those feelings that I was struggling with but I couldn't articulate. It features two Black characters and each character represents different ideas of Blackness and their conversation brings them together and moves them apart; sometimes my life felt like I was walking hand in hand between those two people. It [the song] is one of the rare moments where I’m less cryptic and very heart-on-sleeve.