Isla Craig has a way of making the ordinary feel fantastic.
In 2014, The Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature was given to 20 Feet From Stardom, a film that showcased the plight and near-glory of the professional backup singer. It profiles several women — all once eager and determined to be stars themselves — and their careers singing harmonies for huge male rockstars. Several of the women profiled had minor hits. One, Darleen Love, was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, while others’ careers never really went anywhere. In hindsight, it’s hard not to see the larger forces at play, namely how dude-centric music was and just how ruthless the music industry could be. The whole story, including the success of the film, is a little suspect: the lack of space given to women in the music industry; their humble gratitude and cultural contribution finally acknowledged with a statue of a golden man given to the white-guy director. Great.
Despite the obvious negative effects that the streaming era has had on music, it has created a level playing field that has not existed in music for a very long time. Everyone is struggling just as hard as everyone else to make a living and to introduce their art to a wider audience. Being a backup singer is no more or less noble, or notable, than being a guitar player or a drummer. Anyone making “alternative music”, let alone rock music, is rarely ever going to have a bonafide hit. Everyone is in the shit together.
Isla Craig has been a backup singer for two of the country’s most admired vocal performers — Jennifer Castle and Meg Remy of U.S. Girls. On her new album, The Becoming, she showcases just how important having a great backing singer in your band can be.
The Becoming is remarkable, first and foremost, for the quality and originality of its songs, but also because it actively avoids sounding comparable to Castle or U.S. Girls, or anything else for that matter. Sure, there are some deep grooves on several songs, all swampier than anything on In a Poem Unlimited and yes, there are some Castle-esque melodic runs, but Craig has clearly been spending her spare time searching for a sound appropriate to fit her incredibly unique sense of melody. This is an album bursting with ideas; it often soars, flying off on winding paths and up to dizzying heights, but it’s nearly always satisfying. It’s produced by Prince Nifty — a clear fit for Craig’s dub-jazz-R&B-folk utopia — who helps make these songs pop with added strings and electronic beats.
Unsurprisingly, The Becoming features a wide array of backing singers, most stunningly on the record’s centerpiece and thesis “Who Am I?”. Flanked by past collaborators Tamara Lindeman, Ivy Mairi, Daniela Gesundheit (who all sang backing vocals in Bruce Peninsula at one time or another), and Felicity Williams (probably the most omnipresent backup singer in Toronto next to Craig) the vocals carry the song for nearly three and a half minutes before the groove drops. The song is a testament to Craig’s ability as a vocal arranger; it’s also a call back to Craig’s previous release Both the one….
“Faraway Blue” and “Birds of Paradise”, the album’s most straightforward songs, sound like Sheryl Crow if she smoked (more) pot and/or grew up somewhere with a little more groove than Missouri. Coincidentally, or maybe tellingly, Crow is the most successful backup singer of all time, having ripped harmonies for Michael Jackson, Bob Dylan, Stevie Nicks, and more. “Love Song” is a freaked out addition to the Toronto R&B-boom. “Out of a Dream” and “Messages (Garden Edition)” both feature unexpected island grooves that balance out the darker songs that precede them. One of those songs, “There Is A Hole”, finds Craig at her most intense and anxious, but it also shows that Craig’s voice is not bound to any one sound or vibe — she sets whatever vibe she wants and the music follows. Closing track “Gregory” finds Craig on backing vocals, with Jeremy Costello of Special Costello taking the lead. It’s a bold way to end an album (Fiver’s Audible Songs from Rockwood plays a similar trick) but it is effective and beautiful despite the fact that I can’t totally grasp the statement it is making.
Isla Craig has a way of making the ordinary feel fantastic, whether it be through lyrical choices (“Snakes under the kitchen sink/Dangling from the trees/And the vibrant green countryside/ squished in the legs of my jeans”) or an off-kilter harmony. It’s no surprise then, that the whole of The Becoming feels like a series of fantastic answers to ordinary questions, and brilliant melodic interpretations of everyday emotions. It is an album that feels varied, fluid, and defiant in its refusal to stay in one place. It is also a testament to the wonderful utilitarianism of Toronto’s music community, where artists seem to elevate, support, and use each other’s talent for the sake of the song. The glorious reign of the oppressive, capitalist rock star is over, and the socialist future just might make it so no one’s talent is kept hidden away at the back of the stage. The Becoming is a true testament to how important that leveling has been.