As fun as it is to go to a huge mainstream music festival to see dozens of artists you’re already familiar with, there are some music fans who wish for more of a sense of discovery. It’s great to see those massive headline shows by the latest superstar, but there’s something special about finding a new favorite artist just by chance. Thankfully there are plenty of smaller festivals that specialize in showcasing new and upcoming musical talent. In Canada, Pop Montreal is the big one, centrally located and absolutely huge, but if you look further northwest of Montreal, 434 miles northwest to be exact, you’ll find a similar new music festival that, while lacking in size, boasts just as much ambition. The fact that it’s located in a pretty little lakeside city in the boreal forest, with blue skies and bluer water for miles, makes it even more special.
The Festival de musique émergente, or FME, has grown into one of Canada’s best and most important music festivals over the last 20 years, and after enduring the brutal economic speed bump of 2020 and 2021, is again up and running in full gear. Situated in the city of Rouyn-Noranda in the heart of gold and copper mine country and beside the still waters of Lake Osisko, FME remains a highly unique festival experience. In an effort to revitalize a city whose economy relies heavily on non-renewable resources, Rouyn-Noranda has embraced the arts in a way that you’ll rarely see in an industrial community. And while FME attracts tourists from Ontario and Quebec, so much of the audience is local, from teenagers eager to see hip hop shows on the big street stage to curious older couples enjoying cutting-edge music in a local park to parents and kids dashing from venue to venue, dancing, picnicking, and having fun.
The 2023 edition of Festival de musique émergente, which took place over the Labor Day weekend, was especially memorable. The weather cooperated to the point of over-cooperating as daytime temperatures soared to a highly unusual 100 degrees Fahrenheit. The gorgeous weather had everyone outside, and the usually quiet little city of 42,000 transformed into a vibrant, cosmopolitan community. Restaurants and bars did brisk business at their outdoor patios in the daytime, and by night the core neighborhoods were booming with live music and fun, safe vibes, and there were smiling faces everywhere you looked.
With an array of outdoor stages and indoor venues all within a radius of a mile, the best way to experience FME is to keep an open mind and schedule and simply explore from six in the evening until well past midnight, get lots of rest, and repeat for three more nights.
The variety of music was the 2023 festival’s best asset, ranging from popular Québécois rapper FouKi, who had a massive throng of teenagers bouncing at the outdoor main stage on Friday night, to folk and dream-pop at the stunningly renovated Agora des Artes, to metal and hardcore shows, to electropop, dance, hip hop, R&B, even a little country, and everything in between. With so much music to discover, it was hard to whittle the highlights down, but here are the ten artists that wowed yours truly at a triumphant FME 2023.
The New Zealand artist brought his high-concept show to the Festival de musique émergente, wowing the huge main stage crowd in the process. His latest album Pre-Code Hollywood leans hard into the pristine synthpop sounds of New Order, Orchestral Maneuvers in the Dark, and Ultravox, and the elaborate, neon-adorned pergormance of the material enhanced the music beautifully. Flanked by similarly anonymous backing musicians, the faceless Bree channeled the ghosts of Ian Curtis and David Bowie, crooning in his rich baritone. At first glance, it feels as though his masked persona keeps the audience at arm’s length. It’s a perfect reflection of the music: a rich composite of the best goth-tinged synth sounds of the early 1980s that compels the audience to immerse themselves, not only in the music but the dark yet sparkling aesthetic as well.
Hot on the heels of her viral cover of Metallica’s “The Unforgiven”, Elisapie was the hottest ticket at Festival de musique émergente, and her 90-minute set in the sweltering Paramount Theatre wound up being the festival’s most transcendent performance. Best known for her Polaris Music Prize shortlisted 2018 album The Ballad of the Runaway Girl, the Inuk artist entranced the rapturous crowd with her clever bridging of ancient Inuktitut language and storytelling with more modern art rock and folk arrangements. The venue’s extreme heat and humidity lent a surreal, foggy atmosphere to the stunning visuals of elaborate stage lighting and hanging LED lights above the audience, and when Elisapie led the crowd in a huge singalong on the haunting “Arnaq”, the mood turned otherworldly, a collective indie rock version of a sweat.
Much of Elisapie’s performance centered on her new LP Inuktitut, which is comprised of Inuk renditions of pop and rock staples, highlighted by performances of “Heart of Glass” (“Uummati Attanarsimat”), “Dreams” (“Sinnatuumait”), “Born to Be Alive” (“Inuuniaravit”), and a show-stopping version of Leonard Cohen’s “Hey, That’s No Way to Say Goodbye” (“Taimaa Qimatsiniungimat”).
The buzz around Montreal singer-songwriter-multi-instrumentalist Laurence-Anne has been slowly growing outside the insular confines of Quebec’s francophone music scene since her first album, 2019’s Première apparition. Her distinct blend of chamber pop and dream-pop has been getting better with each release since, and her new album Oniromancie is her strongest to date, featuring prominently in her hour-long set in the ornate Agora des Artes. Clad in a hooded cloak and wandering between synths, guitar, effects pedals, gongs, and recorder, Laurence-Anne effectively evoked the album’s haunting theme of nightmares and sleep paralysis, singing in a murmuring voice similar to Elisabeth Fraser of Cocteau Twins, ably backed by an ace four-piece band. New songs like the dreamy “Polymorphe” and the Kraftwerky “Politesse” are strong enough to break Laurence-Anne outside Quebec, and one can only hope it happens sooner than later.
The solo alter-ego of Montreal artist Étienne Côté, LUMIÈRE is all about evoking the glam rock sounds of the early 1970s, from the high-art concept of Ziggy Stardust to the more pop-pandering Wings and his glitzy, sparkling, and raucous sunset performance at the stunning lakeside outdoor stage brought Festival de musique émergente to a stirring and exultant climax. His latest album GLAM is a glorious, faithful evocation of that vintage sound, and the live set amplified the aesthetic tenfold, a high-energy show featuring wardrobe changes, brassy backing singers, and a scorching band that brought a ferocious, Spiders From Mars energy that had the euphoric audience, and the flower-strewn stage for that matter, bouncing. It was the perfect show to cap off a gorgeous, glorious long weekend.
A fixture of Toronto’s ballroom scene, rapper/producer Myst Milano is on the cusp of something huge in her home country. Thanks in large part to past Polaris winner Haviah Mighty, female rap music is on the rise in Canada, and Milano’s distinct hybrid of house, garage, drum ‘n’ bass, and 1990s hip-hop on their latest full-length Beyond the Uncanny Valley announces her presence with outspoken authority. Better yet, they’re a wicked, charismatic performer, and they wasted no time converting her cautious, early-evening audience into a jumping, dancing, shouting mob by the end of her 45-minute performance. Accentuated by their refreshingly clean, articulate flow, Milano’s storytelling and wordplay are reminiscent of the esteemed Cadence Weapon, but her clever arrangements and highly dynamic beats take Canadian hip-hop to a thrilling new level. By the end of the show, folks left convinced they’d just witnessed the emergence of a new rap superstar.
Milk & Bone
A more consistent and less-unhinged alternative to well-off-the-deep-end Grimes, the duo of Laurence Lafond-Beaulne and Camille Poliquin have been making endearing electropop as Milk & Bone for the last decade, and now are so established and confident that they have no trouble commanding a main stage in front of a jubilant crowd of several thousand, as they did on a lovely Saturday night. Their latest album Chrysalism is their most refined outing yet, and those new tunes highlighted their lovable, high-energy set. Often facing each other on elaborate podiums of synths and mixing boards, the chemistry between the two friends is palpable as they interact and create their winsome music, and by the time they brought the show to a climax with their hit “Peaches”, the audience, from kids on their parents’ shoulders to curious elderly onlookers, was beaming, bathed in arpeggiated synth notes and extremely danceable beats.
Operating under the moniker N NAO, Montreal multi-disciplinary artist Naomie de Lorimier was one of the biggest discoveries at the Festival de musique émergente. Advertised as “psychedelic folk”, her sound is a lot wider-ranging and experimental, utilizing both electronic and organic instrumentation to create a lush, ethereal environment that, upon further reflection, dares to approach the majesty of the great Jenny Hval. Released earlier this year, her new album L’eau et les rêves is a huge creative step forward, and her live performances of the material are even more vivid, making brilliant use of dynamics, from ebbing waves of synths to confrontational primal screams that would make any death metal vocalist cower in fear. Imaginative, enigmatic, and entrancing, N NAO converted a lot of skeptics on this night.
Don’t ever sleep on new artist showcases in tiny, quirky spaces because you’ll never know what you’ll get. Toronto rapper Fraud Perry and her DJ took the tiny stage in a corner in a downtown cocktail bar in front of a gaggle of curious onlookers and proceeded to slay for 45 mind-blowing minutes, spitting line after saucy line (Including the very Quebecois “He wanna taste my poutine”) turning a normally upscale joint into a bouncing, booty-shaking house party. By the end of the set, she’d been strutting on the bar with her middle finger high, twerking to gin-fizz-sipping patrons and delivering verses on the floor surrounded by a throng of new fans. What began as a spur-of-the-moment decision on a scorching day wound up being a revelatory and enormously fun discovery.
On a personal note, late 1960s/early 1970s heavy rock is like catnip to me, and Population II won me over in a way that I haven’t experienced in years. Operating on the fringes of the bustling Montreal indie rock scene, the trio of singer/drummer Pierre-Luc Gratton, guitarist/keyboardist Tristan Lacombe, and bassist Sébastien Provençal delivered an onslaught of heavy rock that dabbles in everything from Hawkwind to the MC5, to Miles Davis, to early Can, to Blue Cheer, to Budgie. Their sound is ferocious, their chemistry mind-boggling as they hammered out jams tighter than Air Canada economy class. It was perfectly suited for the dive bar/pool hall setting, where patrons sat on wobbly stools, pounding back beers to stave off the heat and losing themselves in the gloriously loud sounds. Their new album Électrons libres du québec comes out in a month, so if you’re ever in need of a good brain melt, get it as soon as you can.
À trois sur la plage
It’s tempting to compare Parisian duo À trois sur la plage (literally translated as “threesome on the beach”) to Franco-Krautrock geniuses Stereolab, but the music created by Liza Bantegnie and Sophie Massa is more deeply rooted in the French coldwave sound of the mid-1980s. Stripping their electropop arrangements down to the bone, it’s a highly minimalist and cold sound, further accentuated by their detached vocals. As unsettling as it may seem at first, what these musicians do so cleverly is integrate just enough warmth in the melodies to make the music inviting. It’s a seductive sound, one rarely pulled off so faithfully in North America, let alone at a Moose lodge in Northern Quebec, and it was exciting to hear.