Billy Talent frontman Ben Kowalewicz hosted the JUNOs Gala Dinner and Awards in London on Saturday night.
Held at the London Convention Centre on March 16th, the pre-broadcast Gala celebrated Canadian artists in nearly forty categories, and featured musical performances by artists like Port Cities, Dizzy, and Exco Levi.
The Gala was kicked off with a provocative number by Album of the Year nominee Hubert Lenoir, who kissed his guitarist and flipped the audience the bird while singing catchy glam-pop single “Ton Hotel.”
From there, Kowalewicz took the stage to assume hosting duties. The punk rocker got more than a few laughs with his opening speech, in which he noted that a band’s first JUNO win is the moment “when your parents will accept that your little hobby is actually a legitimate job.”
As for those who don’t win, he urged them not to worry: “Rest assured, you’re working in one of the most stable and sustainable industries in the entire world.”
One of the first awards of the night went to London’s own Loud Luxury, who took home Dance Recording of the Year for “Body.” Speaking to media on-site, the duo said that the dance music scene is thriving in Canada. “Every DJ that we speak to, they say that Canada’s one of their favourite places to play.”
Next up, Barbara Hannigan with Reinbert De Leeuw won Classical Album of the Year (Vocal or Choral), crooner Michael Buble took home the Adult Contemporary award for his album Love, and Shawn Mendes’s self-titled record was awarded the prize for Pop Album of the Year. (Mendes would later win Artist of the Year and Songwriter of the Year, as well as Single of the Year for “In My Blood”).
Director and puppeteer Ali Eisner was ecstatic to win Video of the Year for their take on “No Depression” by Bahamas. “This is a super awesome treat for a small trans person like myself,” they said, before sharing words of encouragement for fans who connect to the song’s theme of mental illness. “If you suffer from depression, if you’ve ever suffered from depression – I see you, it gets better, you got this.”
Eisner said that the clip was partially inspired by their own struggle with the illness. “I’ve always tried my best to bring light,” they explained. “When I was making this video, I stayed within the darkness, but shined a bit of the light in.”
Buble then took the stage again to present the annual Humanitarian Award to his mentor, prolific producer David Foster, who was honoured for his charitable work with the David Foster Foundation. In his acceptance speech, Foster said that philanthropy is a moral duty for those successful enough to contribute, and not something that should be taken lightly. “I quickly learned that there’s a difference between attaching your name to something and actually doing the work,” he said, recalling the early days of the Foundation.
Speaking to media in the Q&A room, Foster called the success of Canadian musicians “very, very disproportionate,” noting that “four of the top ten artists” internationally are Canadian. (That would be Drake, The Weeknd, Justin Bieber and Shawn Mendes).
Comedy Album of the Year winner Dave Merheje had similar praise for Canadian comedians. “Canada has the dopest comedy scene,” said the comic, known for his acting work on CBC sitcom Mr. D as well as his cringe-worthy but relatable stand-up shows.
Merheje’s father accompanied him to the Gala, but the comedian said his elderly father was more impressed with the opportunity to ride a VIA train for the first time. “I don’t think he knows what the JUNO Awards are.”
Does he now?
“No,” Merheje replied. “He’s sitting there confused.”
Merheje’s routines frequently feature anecdotes about his family, which he says he runs by them in advance. “I don’t want them to hate me,” he explains, adding that his mother only gets mad if he jokes about “religious stuff.”
After a wistful performance by Port Cities performing their song “Montreal,” the award for Alternative Album of the Year was handed out to Dizzy. The group was visibly excited by the win (“We were not expecting this – we’re four friends from Oshawa!”), although they joked that their category competitors and current tour-mates Tokyo Police Club threatened to kick them off the tour if they won.
Dizzy would later return to the Gala stage to perform their song “Backstroke.”
Speaking to media after their win, lead singer Katie Munshaw said the band is looking forward to broadening their musical horizons beyond the dreamy suburban angst they perfectly encapsulated on their debut. “Baby Teeth was written when we were…fresh out of high school and doing a lot of growing as people,” she explained.
“Hopefully, I won’t be having the same problems as I had in high school now that I’m twenty-three,” she adds wryly. “So hopefully there will be new stories to be told.”
Later on, a seminal thrash metal band took home their first JUNO after thirty-five years in the business. Metal/Hard Music winners Voivod said it was “kind of surreal” to finally win, and noted that they and other metal bands have found more success touring overseas than in Canada. “People don’t really know [metal] in Canada, [but] all over the planet it’s really well-known.”
The group credited Canadian bands RUSH, Anvil, and Exciter for influencing their “very technical” style of speed metal, and cited dystopian science fiction as inspiration for their paranoid lyrics. “Anything dystopian really influenced us,” explained drummer Michael “Away” Langevin. “It’s sort of a way for us to spread a message about the environment and all that.”
“The future kind of caught up with us,” he adds. “But we’re still going strong and trying to warn the people.”
Another industry veteran honoured Saturday was prolific producer Eric Ratz, who received the Jack Richardson Producer of the Year Award for his work on Arkells singles “Relentless” and “People’s Champ.”
Ratz has worked extensively with modern greats like Arkells, Billy Talent, and Monster Truck. Asked if there is any artist he hasn’t worked with yet but would like to, he quipped, “Only dead people.” (He then amended his answer to “Michael Buble”).
Indigenous Album of the Year winner Jeremy Dutcher spoke eloquently about the importance of art for the reconciliation process. “I feel an immense sense of responsibility to do this work. We can hold signs and shake fingers, and that’s important,” he said, “but when we change hearts, it’s in beauty.”
Dutcher, who also received the Polaris Award for his melding of nearly-lost Indigenous folk songs with classical techniques, said he’s embarking on an orchestral tour “to put our musics on the same playing field as Western classical music.”
“When you hear those scratchy voices [on the archival recordings his album reinterprets], you hear a melody, but I hear a symphony,” he said.
Dutcher also noted the “sonic diversity” within the Indigenous category. This year’s nominees also included folk singer Elisapie, hip-hop/folk-rock crossover Leonard Sumner, traditional musicians Northern Cree, and rap crew Snotty Nose Rez Kids, who Dutcher saluted in his acceptance speech. “All of your music changes this place and it deserves to be considered outside this category. Because our music is not niche.”
Next in the program, blues rocker Colin James (who was not in attendance) received Blues Album of the Year for his latest album Miles to Go.
After previously winning Breakthrough Group of the Year in 2016, Montreal’s Milk & Bone were ecstatic to be back at the JUNOs to accept Electronic Album of the Year. “An album is a work of art and you put so much into it, so this is an honour,” said Camille Poliquin, who forms one half of the duo.
Recording Engineer of the Year Shawn Everett said he was mildly surprised when he was asked to work on Kasey Musgraves’s Golden Hour, which would later win the 2019 Grammy for Album of the Year. Everett had no experience with country music but said that Golden Hour was conceived as “a different kind of record,” noting that a member of psychedelic project Tame Impala had been initially approached to produce.
The recording process, he added, was “breezy.” Everett still isn’t familiar enough with the genre to consider himself a country fan, but said he is a fan of Musgraves.
He left the Q&A room with a few words of wisdom for aspiring engineers: “Work hard and be nice.”
Contemporary Roots winner Donovan Woods also said that fostering a supportive environment is essential for successful artistic collaborations. “If you’re in a place where everyone feels comfortable and appreciated…you usually get something pretty great because you can get past the first ideas.”
“It’s usually the fifth idea” for a song that sticks, he explained, noting that inspiration can come from surprising places. His poignant song “Next Year” (which he performed to accompany the In Memoriam segment) was inspired by seeing a “bro-y” guy at an airport pat his friend on the chest and say “Next year, man.”
Woods also joked that his win Saturday night helped him see the city of London in a different light, replacing less exciting memories of visiting elderly relatives in the city and getting “beat up” in a local bar at the age of twenty-four.
The final award of the night featured one of the most memorable moments in recent JUNOs history. After Hamilton rockers Arkells took home Rock Album of the Year for their powerful Rally Cry record, they ceded the stage to Jeremy Dutcher to allow him to finish his speech.
Answering questions in the media room, Arkells leads singer Max Kerman explained that he thought Dutcher’s acceptance speech was incredible, and that he was disappointed to see it had been cut for time. Kerman ended up running into Dutcher in the bathroom later in the evening, found out which table he was seated at, and beelined for him as soon as their win was announced: “I just grabbed him, I think he was a little startled.”
Dutcher used the moment to speak about reconciliation with Canada’s Indigenous communities, and the role Canada’s arts community can play in that process. “It takes stories,” he said. “It takes shared experience. It takes music.”