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Rockin’ in the free world

Our Culture editor throws some Neil Young on the record player as he contemplates what it is that makes Canada cool in more ways than one. By Robert Bound

Winston Churchill described Russia as a riddle, wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma. So what does that make Canada? A wordsearch? A moderate sudoku? Well, never mind; being a tricky bugger isn’t the be all and end all. In fact, one of the reasons we’re taking such a swooping, rather swooning view of Canada this month is because of our sense of it being that rare thing: nice and easy.

Nice and easy is what Londoners, Tokyokko and the more honest, less-zip-code-proud New Yorkers really want. And it’s ready and waiting up there if you carry straight on at Greenland rather than turning left.

Culturally, Canada’s key assets might seem to be down to obvious reasons: rent in many Canadian cities is cheaper than in corresponding US cities, so artists’ studios and band’s rehearsal spaces are easier to come by. Nightlife is also considerably less scowled at in places that are more spread out. Allied to this, the music scenes of Toronto and Montréal are rightly becoming famous as shimmering production lines of cool, creative, nicely crazy bands and artists. The starting gun might well have been in the form of the inspiration offered by having a colossus like Neil Young up top and a bit of government money helping down below; the rest is history. From Justin Bieber to Bryan Adams via Joni Mitchell, Arcade Fire and Alanis Morissette (OK, and Rush), Canada does not suffer from much of a fame deficit.

Away from the dynamism of the best of Canada’s cities (you’ll see that it’s the loose-limbed kind of dynamism), the epic width of that famous wilderness is a selling point, of course. Whether you’re a city-slicker seeking solace in silence or director Alejandro “The Revenant” Iñárritu wanting to keep Hollywood’s A-ist A-lister in snow-shoes and out of cell-phone reception for months at a time in Alberta’s great outdoors (or, indeed, just using good old Toronto for Cocktail, easily Tom Cruise’s finest hour), you can find the right backdrop in the north of North America.

The power of the Canadian winter is storied and not just in myth and meteorology. In the right hands the Canadian winter is a licence for creativity. Young put much of his early talent and technique down to Winnipeg winters keeping him shut in the basement with nothing but his guitar and Beatles songs bouncing about in the back of his brain. The haunting opening refrain of “Helpless” never fails to raise the hairs on the back of my neck; “There is a town in north Ontario…” couldn’t have been written without the cold-weather hard-schooling experienced by that blizzard visionary. So, thank you, big old place. Nice and easy wins the day. Until you run out of firewood.

The close-up

Twenty years ago Alanis Morissette’s “Ironic” won three awards at the 1996 MTV Video Music Awards. So what’s the emotionally driven Canadian singer-songwriter up to now? Here’s the lowdown on the girl who perennially has one hand in her pocket.

Who
Morissette was a big star when she was barely out of her teens: in 1995 she released Jagged Little Pill with Madonna’s Maverick Records. The album, which sold 33 million copies, was an ode to her fraught emotions that was led by “You Oughta Know”: a break-up distilled into lyrics laced with hatred and jealousy. All hail Morissette, queen of angsty alt rock. 

Why
She resolved problems by writing them down and singing them aloud – in her distinctive raspy voice. Sure, she should have swatted up on the meaning of irony before confusing it with bad luck (“a black fly in your chardonnay”) but we know what she meant. The backstory Born in Ottawa in 1974 to teacher parents, Morissette grew up Catholic with brothers Chad and Wade. She started young, with her natural talent and dance lessons paving the way for appearances on Nikelodeon’s You Can’t do That on Television. She released her dance-pop debut Alanis at 17. In the 1990s she moved to LA, hooked up with producer and songwriter Glen Ballard and from there on in everything was fine, fine, fine.

What now?
Music is no longer enough to sate Morissette: aged 42, she now needs more than three-and-a-half minute bursts to get her point across. She makes podcasts, writes an advice column in the UK’s Guardian and is hard at work on a memoir-cum-self-help book. Attitude meets agony aunt.

Finest moment
When “Ironic” won big at the VMAs. Or maybe when she recorded a duet with James Corden on The Late Late Show last year, in the process updating her biggest hit in wry fashion: “It’s like swiping left on your future soulmate, it’s a Snapchat that you wish you had saved.”

On record

The best noises emerging from Canada (which rules out any moose-based mating calls).

Pop

Do Easy
Tasseomancy

This fifth album from twin sisters Sari and Romy Lightman (and collaborators) is easily the finest work of art to come out of Canada all year. Do Easy is a beautiful, accessible, jaw-droppingly big-sounding 11-track lesson in how to do witty, wise, lyrical dream-pop with the sort of perfection that the genre deserves. Sure, they’ve listened to quite a bit of Kate Bush and Stevie Nicks but they’re only human. Or are they?

Folk

Retribution
Tanya Tagaq

There is no plaid or worn denim to be seen here, people. Tanya Tagaq is a northern Canadian Inuit throat-singer who here confirms suspicions of brilliance arising from her last LP Animism. Collaborations with rapper Shad are a marvel; trading phrases with Inuk singer Ruben Komangapik sets her free.

More music:

  1. July TalkTouch
    This beguiling five-piece’s second album is a stand-out Canadian export and a great advertisement for Toronto as a music city: inventive, lively, sometimes lairy, very definitely alive. The boy-girl interplay between vocalists Peter Dreimanis and Leah Fay ensure a rasping take on blues, rock and disco.

  2. MaunoRough Master
    This new-ish four-piece from Nova Scotia have come up with a short, sweet and effortlessly melodic album. It rewards repeated plays – which, if you’re in Nova Scotia, you’ll have plenty of time for. God bless those winters!

On stage

Q&A - Katsura Sunshine
Rakugo-ka, Tokyo

Toronto-born Katsura Sunshine is the sole foreigner working in the world of Rakugo – traditional Japanese comic storytelling – and only the second in the artform’s 400-year history. Back in Canada he was a successful playwright, composer and theatre producer. Today he divides his time between Tokyo and London and performs Rakugo in Japanese and English around the world.

How did you learn Rakugo?
I read an article that compared ancient Greek works with Noh and Kabuki – Japanese traditional theatre – so I came to Japan in 1999. I saw a live Rakugo show for the first time in a restaurant in Yokohama. A performer in a kimono created a whole world using the imagination of the audience.

Tell us about your apprenticeship.
It was very traditional. I went to my master’s house everyday and did everything: cleaning, laundry and carrying his bags. No smoking, no drinking, no dates for three years.

How have you sustained a career in music?
It’s a challenge to have the will power to not just dive into everything that sounds cool. I try to make sure I am doing something exciting for me and the audience.

On page

A celebration of strong women, buoyant bookshops and perfectly formed short stories. Oh, and massive irrigation plants.

Fiction

Nicotine
Nell Zink

From nowhere (in publishing terms anyway; from Berlin via Virginia, more accurately), Zink has zoomed into the foreground of an international publishing scene that felt it needed some sort of wise-ass heroine. Maybe we’re confusing her with her own heroines – in this case Penny, who is adrift but candid in her assessment of her own state. Hard as nails and soft as tears, this is Zink’s best yet.

Essays

Browse
Henry Hitchings (editor)

A paean to the joy of bookshops written by some of the leading lights of letters? Now there’s a way to ensure a good spot in the shop window. Henry Hitchings is a man after our own hearts: we need books and books need shops, so we all need bookshops. Ali Smith, Alaa Al Aswany and Iain Sinclair write on shops as meeting places, bastions of madness and civilisation. Very worthwhile but not too worthy, this is a timely call to arms.

Fiction

Head Land
Rodge Glass (editor)

What a good title for a short story collection: the imaginative territory of the mind or a cliff edge? What’s the difference? There lies much of the satisfaction of the form – a lot packed into a little – especially when practised by Ali Smith, Neil Gaiman and Sarah Hall. However, it’s the mix of names and unknowns, and the stories themselves, that make this ring particularly true.

Photography

Essential Elements
Edward Burtynsky

The large-scale topographical photographs of Canada’s greatest living visual artist are best viewed at their awesome actual size but here we’re very happy to include this indispensable four-decade survey of Ed Burtynsky’s work. You’ll know his plan-view shots of Californian irrigation plants that look like corn circles, and Chinese mines dark as deep-space photography. Humbling, and huge, his work allows us to make up our mind about what we’ve done in the name of progress and profit.

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