Shape-shifting the Short List
Given that the Polaris Prize was designed to celebrate the best Canadian albums being released each year, it's inspiring to see that the buzz around the award helps to introduce great new sounds to a wider audience of both music fans and music-makers alike.
While it's become commonplace to hear of people picking up on albums specifically because of a Polaris nomination, two Toronto musicians have taken that angle one step further: not only have they listened to all ten of the Short List albums, they also decided to cover a song from each of the records – in their own unique style.
Meet The MAKEOVER – electronic duo Jeremy Glenn and Rod â€œToddâ€ Skimmins, Toronto-based musical multitaskers (the two double as vocalists/instrumentalists, producers, and DJs) with a particularly neat concept: taking a page from hip-hop gigs structured like a â€œlive mixtapeâ€ of classic old-school tracks, the pair joined forces and began reworking tunes for their R&B/soul-inflected live sets, eventually recording their own â€œmakeoversâ€ of some of their current favourite tracks (hot acts like Janelle Monae and Washed Out have also gotten the MAKEOVER treatment).
It's their latest project, however, that had us immediately intrigued: the duo have been busy reworking one track from each of the ten albums nominated for the Polaris, an effort that they hope will culminate in a free mixtape of all ten covers just in time for the gala on Sept. 19.
It's an ambitious plan, but they're making good headway, with six remade tracks already up for listening on their Soundcloud page (look for a download of the entire mixtape once all ten songs are completed) – and what an ear-expanding listen it is thus far.
Less of a â€œremixâ€ than a total re-imagining of each artist's sound, The MAKEOVER's innovative covers dismantle the originals and then stitch them back together again with their own slinky, danceable vibe.
We coaxed The MAKEOVER to take a break from working on their Polaris mixtape to explain what on earth compelled them to embark on such an undertaking.
Tabassum Siddiqui: What gave you the idea to do these remakes of tracks from the Short Listed albums?
The MAKEOVER: The original idea came from a juror, actually. He mentioned to our manager that someone should do a mixtape of all of the Polaris Prize nominees. We were getting ready to do a new mixtape anyway and had tossed around the idea of it consisting entirely of makeovers. So we thought, why not take it a step further and do a mixtape of makeovers of all this year’s Polaris Short Listers.
TS: Were any of the records brand-new to your ears? Did you discover some new music along the way?
TM: Some of them were new to us. We knew most of the artists, but hadn't heard their full albums.
TS: How did you decide on which tracks to re-interpret? And how do you decide what kind of a sound or musical approach to take with the various tracks? They’ve all been so different thus far…
TM: Based on our previous mixtapes, we knew we’d be covering a bunch of genres, so we first came up with various genres to possibly include. Then we had a listening session where we went through each album and picked songs that resonated with us, then decided on which songs might work for each genre. Once we had ten songs for ten genres, we were ready to get makin' over. (We had already previously done the Arcade Fire makeover, though, so that put us up one song to ease the process.) All that being said, we allow for ourselves to arrive at the end product organically.
TS: Has there been a song or artist that’s been particularly difficult to cover?
TM: So far they've been equally challenging. We’re always looking to take a different direction with each song, while being true to the intrinsic emotive qualities of the songs.
For example, with a track like [Arcade Fire's] “Sprawl II,” you absolutely have to keep that chorus as close to the original as possible because it's so anthemic – to change it would lessen the emotional impact.
We wanted to flip the tracks while still retaining the essence – the elements which make the song, and drew us to it in the first place.
TS: Seems like you’ve been working around the clock to get these tracks out, given that your goal is to do all ten before the gala – how are you managing that in such a quick timeframe?
TM: Just plugging away when we can. It’s been great exercise in time management. We both have a lot going on in our lives, but we find that whenever we’re composing a song, we have to make a decision as to its direction. With each â€œmakeover,â€ we seem to be more confident about sticking to those decisions and following through with them while still being flexible enough to explore different directions that the process might take us in.
TS: Have you heard from any of the nominated artists whose songs you're remaking?
TM: We’re getting more support every day, but we have yet to hear from any of the artists – we’d really love to know what they think!
TS: What are your thoughts on the Polaris Prize itself?
TM: It’s a great opportunity for Canadian artists – one that artists in many countries don’t enjoy. At the same time, we feel that there are certain musical genres that are under-represented. Whether this is a result of bias on the part of the industry or lack of interest from Canadian music fans/journalists, we can’t say. Maybe the current situation is just symptomatic of the climate of Canadian society as a whole, which is also being reflected in the music scene.
TS: Any guesses as to which artist might take home the prize?
TM: Jeremy’s vote would be Austra; Todd was originally thinking Arcade Fire, but what with the recent international attention, he’s now thinking that might not happen… They’re all winners in our books!
TS: What is your overall aim in releasing this Polaris mixtape?
Honestly, to get our names in your heads for next year! But also to expose the diversity that exists in the ‘urban’ and dance genres in the hopes that it will get recognized as a valid form of musical expression.
TS: How would you describe The Makeover’s sound to someone who hadn’t heard it before?
The Makeover sound is as varied as the mixtape – which was part of the intent of this project, and we hope that gets conveyed to people.
TS: Will you be watching the Polaris gala? If so, where?
TM: Hopefully from backstage after we perform at it… (No, really – we want to be performing there!)
Keep watching The MAKEOVER's Soundcloud as they continue to add new tracks in the lead-up to releasing the full Polaris mixtape by gala time, Sept. 19!