The last time Vancouver hosted the Juno Awards—March 2009—Gregor Robertson was a fresh-faced first-time mayor, the Olympics were in the final stages of planning, and nobody had yet set fire to a cop car while cursing the Boston Bruins.
The year proved just as important for local artist (and double Juno 2018 nominee) Felix Cartal. After spending his teens locked in the studio at New Westminster Secondary School and gigging around North Van with his experimental band Orange Orange, the young musician was in the throes of becoming a bona fide producer. Three years at UBC let the rising star distill his creations into coherent, hype-inducing electro tracks, and Vancouver DJs like Paul Devro and My!Gay!Husband! gave him the platform for his first show at their Half Alive events. When 2009 rolled around—two months after the Junos wrapped in the city—the artist released his first EP on Steve Aoki’s Dim Mak Records.
Today, that seems like ancient history to the artist, born Taelor Deitcher. Gone are the days of hard drops and aggressive synths—the sound that scored him his first Juno nomination in 2013, for the single “Don’t Turn on the Lights”. In its place came more melodic, vocal-driven tracks, and a desire to focus on quality hooks over volume.
“When I started, I just wasn’t that capable at the programs I was using,” Deitcher tells the Straight by phone, reached in New York. “I was making what I could with the tools I had, and a lot of the tracks were happy accidents at the time. I had this realization with really hard music that it eventually became a competition for who could go the hardest. I didn’t find it very conducive to actual songwriting, because it sort of felt like watching Jackass or something—it’s about how crazy we could go before we hit the limit. I still love listening to that kind of music, but I don’t find it so interesting to create anymore.”
Deitcher emerged from that period of transition after a collaboration with dance luminary Kaskade. Having met the producer at a few festivals and worked briefly in his studio, Deitcher always talked about doing a song with the industry giant. After writing a vocal with singer Ofelia K in her apartment, he reached out to Kaskade to complete the track as an indie-pop dance number. They called it “Fakin It”.
“When the single came out, that felt like a catalyst,” he recalls. “That was the first lyric that I felt people really connected with. It felt different to everything I had previously done, and it was a moment where I realized, ‘Oh, this can work.’ It doesn’t sound like a hit to me—it doesn’t have a big pop vocal on it—but the feedback and response I got from people was overwhelming. Somebody got a tattoo of the lyrics, which is crazy to me. From that moment on, I’ve had a little more clarity on what I want to do. I think it’s about caring more about what I make, and caring less about what happens when it’s released.”
That philosophy has propelled Deitcher into his latest venture, a yet-to-be-titled upcoming album. Slated to drop in the spring, the 18-track collection comes six years after the release of his last full-length, Different Faces, and is the result of a bold decision to scrap a completed record and start again from scratch.
“I signed to a major label in 2015, and I think when you do that there’s a lot of pressure—either real or perceived—to write things that are more commercial,” he says. “There’s lots of commercial music that I love, but I don’t love all of it. There was a moment when I was trying to write songs I thought would do well, but now this album is about creating things that I think are great, and if it does well commercially, it’s a bonus.”
His new outlook has already been rewarded. March 2017 saw the artist release “Get What You Give”, a flip of the New Radicals’ classic rock track into a laid-back, feel-good dance recording. A single from the upcoming album, the song has earned Deitcher his first gold record, and has led to two nominations at this year’s Juno Awards: dance recording of the year and producer of the year. To top that success, Monday brought the news that he’ll be playing the event alongside fellow performers like Arcade Fire, Arkells, and Barenaked Ladies, spinning records as the house DJ for the live Juno broadcast.
“It feels a bit surreal to me, I guess, because I always think of dance music as something underground,” he says. “It came at a time when labels weren’t prepared to spend $100,000 on a record, and dance music got creative. Producers stole a bunch of software and would make new records that were just as good as professionally made music, so it always felt punk-rock and as if it had a DIY edge. Being acknowledged at the Junos and in this kind of setting feels strange to me, but in a really good way.
“It’s great to have the Junos in Vancouver, especially because it’s the year that I’m lucky enough to be featured at,” he continues. “The timing feels really nice, and it’s cool because my parents get to come. They might be even more stoked than me.”
Felix Cartal plays at the 2018 Juno Awards at Rogers Arena on March 25.
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