Gayance stays true to the name of her forthcoming EP, Not Toning Down

We caught up with the Montreal DJ and producer before her trip to the FME festival in Rouyn-Noranda this week.

Ain’t no half-steppin’ for Montreal-bred DJ and club life ambassador Gayance. Party-goers around town and abroad recognize her from behind the mixer or right next to us on the dancefloor, and culture aficionados recognize her as a voice for the arts, Black empowerment and feminism from Quebec to Brazil, to the Netherlands and beyond, by way of her family roots in Haiti. 

After nearly a decade spent simultaneously chronicling and contributing to Montreal’s music landscape and global reputation, Gayance (aka Aïsha Vertus) has most recently turned her talents toward production and songwriting. Since this past spring, she has released a string of singles and collaborations in advance of the release of a debut EP, Not Toning Down.

“Let’s not put dates,” she cautioned. “Even thinking of telling you is stressing me! It’s changed dates, but it’s for the best. Right now, it’s coming in the fall.”

In the meantime, an impressive new track “Sirens” (featuring vocals from Canadian singer KALLITECHNIS) dropped Tuesday.

This week, Gayance travels back from home from Brussels and hightails it to Rouyn-Noranda, Quebec for a pair of DJ sets at the renowned Festival de musique émergente, taking place in the welcoming, scenic Abitibi city this Thursday through Sunday. 

True to the creole roots of her artist name, which translates loosely to “joyful,” Gayance is always a pleasure to speak to. It so happens, though, that as we caught up by phone last week, she’s feeling the recent loss of her maternal grandfather, who had passed only days prior. 

“I know that when I’m sad, I make the greatest sets ever,” she offered, brightly optimistic. 

Though our conversation started on an emotional foot, Gayance channelled those feelings into a reflection of where she is, where she’s been and where she’s going, to share with our readers a page from her travelogue en route to FME.

Darcy MacDonald: I know you’re a music fanatic and a seasoned DJ. Did you have any formal music training?

Gayance: I got music in church from my grandfather….(sobbing suddenly)

I’m not just crying from sadness, I’m crying with joy, also. I’m very happy I had my moment with him. 

My grandfather was using drums in church, and no one used drums in church. It’s like the devil’s shit, you know? He was playing drums and synths in church and making kompa-esque gospel music, with guitars and bass. His players all had dreads and stuff. They were, like, shredding. It was dance-y, Haitian church music. So I grew up seeing him and my great uncle – my grandmother’s brother – they were friends, and they had a band. That’s where I learned about music; listening to music, vibing to music, and how to also use music to really touch people. 

For real, it was in church. And it’s funny because people are always like, ‘Yo, Gayance, preach! Preach!(laughs) I got it from my grandfather preaching with the music in the background. 

So we had this discussion before I took the plane, at the hospital, me and him, about bringing your message through music. My dad taught me this, too, but not in the church way. 

Also, in elementary school, I went to an arts school in Montreal Nord and learned the piano from age eight until 11, but I didn’t continue after that. I’ve got some chops but I need to train if I wanna do a live show. I can freestyle and find some nice notes and sounds, but to do a show, I’m,like, stressing about this. I can do it but I need time to do it. 

DM: You just mentioned your grandfather giving a message in the church fashion and your father teaching you that in a different way. What was the difference?

Gayance: My father is more of a leftist, Haitian guy, in a little bit of a machiste style, in some ways. But through the years, and with my little sister growing up, he’s becoming more feminist, finally. Even though my mom and her mom are very feminist. 

But (my father) is more the ‘left’ guy. My grandfather didn’t drink at all. He was a very good Christian, going to church but chilling, still. But my dad was really chilling, drinking, smoking cigarettes, going to the party, like yo, vraiment bon vivant. (From him) it was really more the lyrics, and the political message, and like, ‘Jazz, blah blah blah, and BB King, and…” You know? It was really more about the music and movement that it came from. My dad doesn’t play music but he’s really more of a mélomane, let’s say. 

DM: And it really seems that you and your mother have a very mutually supportive relationship.

Gayance: Yeah, it’s a very different relationship. I think at some points in my life it’s been really more fusional. At the same time, it’s also been that single-mom-and-kid classic. We bond. Some people have bad relationships with their mom but mine is very good. I would love to have more money in the bank to buy me a duplex with my mom. I would do that. 

DM: So the first thing you mentioned in this interview is drums. And as I’m listening to your songs as they come out, the time signatures sound very experimental. 

I’m curious to know – and maybe this is because I know you and have watched you grow – but I feel like this is really DJ influenced music. 

Gayance: Of course.

DM: So as you begin to compose and go more into that world, how is your DJ career informing your production?

Gayance: I’d say that in the music I’m not reinventing anything. I’m mostly very heavily influenced by other people, like Vikter Duplaix, Moodymann, IG Culture, Bugz in the Attic, Scott C. All these people really did what I’m doing. And with electronic music…I guess I really miss the dance floor. Before the pandemic I was never listening to club music at home, ever, because I was DJing all the time. When I was home, I was listening to bossa nova and really calm music.

Then with the COVID, I was like, ‘ARGH!’ And the neighbours were going like, ‘Oh, I feel like the walls are shaking!’ because the sound system was like boom-boom-boom. 

I feel like this type of broken beat thing (I’m making) is a good middle ground. It has influences in house, jungle, UK grime. It’s also influenced by Brazilian-type chords in the keys and the guitar, even sometimes in the drums. So it’s influenced by that as much as by Black electronic music from the UK or the States. 

DM: So maybe it’s more of the traveller in you than the DJ in you that’s actually coming to the table.

Gayance: Yeah! Also, I like to collaborate with different people in different places. It’s fun because everyone has their way of working. Of course, it’s within the same city, but people work differently. And then in another place, it gets really more intense. I did a song in creole in Amsterdam, imagine? 

I guess when you’re more affirming yourself, you externalize that side of yourself more, because when you’re in a different place, there’s no point of reference. And I like that, and I crave that. I was depressed because I didn’t have it. It’s like a drug, bro. Like, “I wanna feel lost!” (laughs)

It’s also the best place, I guess, for me to start leaving my grief. I feel like if I was in Montreal, it would be more intense. I’d be like, “I’maaa leeeave” (sings) but now I’m like, I’m already somewhere else, so it’s okay. Thank you, Grandpa. 

It’s fun to see different people living different lives, or extremely similar ones, but in different worlds. There are parallel worlds, I think, in this world. And we take this little tube, the plane, and oh shit – we’re in the parallel world!

DM: Have you been listening to Cadence Weapon? (laughing)

Gayance: Ah! I’m doing a remix of Cadence actually! (laughs) That’s what I was doing in the studio yesterday, a remix of “Hard To Find” (from Cadence Weapon’s recent album Parallel World).

DM: You’re in Brussels right now, correct? You seem very attracted to Brussels and Belgium. Why is that? 

Gayance: Les amis, quoi! Les poteaux! Long story short, in 2012 — that’s a long time ago, sacrament basically was the piu piu era of my life. We made the film, and there was this organization called Beat Chronique who made a documentary about us. There was this guy Constantin, he was shooting the video, and he came to Montreal. Unfortunately, he’s also someone who passed, I’d say the year before I came to Brussels. It was sad, he died in an avalanche. He was the connection. And I made friends (through that). Like one of the guys (I was producing with) yesterday is a guy I met in Montreal in 2012, and there are all these people that I’ve met through the years. It’s the people, but it’s also special to be here. It’s like a parallel version of Montreal. They have two languages, like us. It’s very multicultural. It’s interesting to see how they live, except they’re European. 

DM: What does their party scene have that we don’t have?

Gayance: I think they have a better sense of respecting nightlife. The problem with the city (of Montreal) — and not the people, the party-goers or the party organizers — is how it handles or sees nightlife. We don’t have good regulations. We could be like Brussels if we want, but they don’t want the clubs to close at 6 a.m., or they don’t want people to drink alcohol at a certain hour, or whatever. 

And I’m not naming names because I’m not here to campaign for nobody, with the elections coming. But I feel like we should have politics for nightlife. Here, they say they need to work more on that, but at least there’s a real conversation happening. (Montreal) should definitely do that. Our nightlife is already solid, but we need to not be pilgrims about it. 

DM: Okay, so now we’ve travelled the world. Let’s take it to Rouyn-Noranda and FME. Have you been before?

Gayance: I’ve never been! I’ve never travelled in Quebec. Look at me, being a Montealer!

DM: It’s an interesting festival because it has this laid-back, small town feel, and the whole town just becomes this festival for a few days. So the place is chill but the atmosphere is hyper, which is a really cool dynamic when you come from a city like Montreal where festival crowds are intense. 

So when you see the lineup, which is very Quebec-centric, how does it give context to your place in the Quebec music scene?

Gayance: How can I answer this question without sounding cocky? I mean, I have much respect. I’m playing (the same festival as) Backxwash, I’m playing with Lido Pimienta and Maky Lavender and I really respect those artists. I like them and I think they’re great performers. 

But of course, I also feel like, “What  am I doing there?” 

Especially on the 7ème Ciel (label) lineup, I’m a little anxious about that set. And I’m not anxious to play in Berlin, so why am I anxious to play in Rouyn-Noranda? (laughter) I’m just like, do they know I’m really weird sometimes, if I’m in that mood? Especially now. You know, there’s a song by Moodmann, ‘I get mooooody sometimes.’

That’s me. 

If I do set, of course there’s music that I’m listening to a lot these days. Right now, I’m in my broken beat, ghetto house phase. Plus I put other stuff that has no links to that music. So I don’t know! I don’t play hip hop and I don’t play rap that much. I have one song I like, a mashup of Pop Smoke that I’ve played once. So, the broken beat for the rap fans…ôsti!

It’s no diss to the public. I thought I was playing with Ouri, but she’s playing on another day. So it’s just me that day with people where, yes, I have a link – but I have to make that link in an hour! I just think it’s funny.

DM: Well, the festival does take the “emerging” part of its name pretty seriously. A couple of years ago, Sarahmee opened for Loud. And people didn’t know her back then as much as they do now. And yes, there’s some link…

Gayance: ..but there’s more of a link than me and Souldia! What do we have in common aside from coming from Quebec? And yes, he likes Tupac, and we have this in common, but that’s it! I feel like I have a link with Backxwash’s audience, and Lido’s, and Maky Lavender’s. 

Maybe they think I play Top 40, and some Afrobeat, and a washed up Baile funk remix from 2010. Vous-êtes pas pret!

But it’s gonna be fun. Low-key right now I’m not thinking too much about it, but I have thought about it. I’m gonna use my powers but like, deep. Envoyer la sauce! I know that when I’m sad, I make the greatest sets ever. ■

Gayance performs with with Pantayo, Pierre Kwenders and Lido Pimienta at FME in Rouyn-Noranda (Scène Desjardins, Poisson Volant, 140 8e Rue) on Thursday, Sept. 2, 7 p.m., and with Shreez, White-B and Souldiaon on the same stage on Sept. 3 , 7 p.m. Fore more about FME, Sept. 2–5, please visit the festival website.

For more music coverage, please visit the Music section.