Considering how crazily accomplished Josée Caron and Lucy Niles sound on Partner’s Polaris Prize–nominated debut album, In Search of Lost Time, it’s no shocker they aren’t new to the business of making music.
Do some digging, and you’ll discover that the two singer-guitarists spent years playing in bands—Yellowteeth, the Mouthbreathers, Go Get Fucked—in and around the exotically named town of Sackville, New Brunswick. Hop on YouTube and you’ll see the two future partners in Partner bridging grunge-smeared punk and riot-grrrl garage with the Mouthbreathers thumper “No Fear”.
Partner is a whole different animal, with Caron and Niles displaying a complete and impressive understanding of classic ’90s-crunch alterna-pop. Sweetening the mix is Caron’s shit-hot guitar work, which suggests that she’d hold her own playing beer pong with Dean Ween, Rivers Cuomo, and Heart’s Nancy Wilson.
Caron and Niles have joked that they first met in the meal hall at college, bonding over being two “dykes” who were likely cooler than everyone around them. At some point they finally decided they wanted to be more than the biggest fish in Sackville, leading to Partner.
“I guess everything changed when all the people we used to play with in bands moved away,” Niles says, on a conference call with Caron from back east. “In the beginning, it was always ‘We’ll get four people together and play in a shed.’ Eventually, we decided to reconceptualize things as just the two of us. That was a huge difference.
“Suddenly we were free to write songs, and then really work on them, instead of having to write songs and bring them to a band. Also we set our sights really high. It was like, ‘Fuck it—why not try to be huge instead of trying to be the biggest band in town?’ ”
On its Bandcamp page bio, the now Windsor-based Partner describes itself as follows: “Partner is unflinching in its exploration of intimacy, friendship, sexuality, drugs, and the existential predicament of being a lesbian barista in the year 2017.” Consider the existential predicament/lesbian barista part a heads-up that, as serious as Caron and Niles are about songwriting, they also have a wickedly funny and cleverly subversive side. That manifests itself all over In Search of Lost Time, which they worked on and tweaked for a good couple of years before the album’s release.
One of the big strengths of Caron and Niles is how they recognize it’s the little details that separate good from great. Witness the spiky-sweet In Search of Lost Time ode to getting blazed that is “Everybody Knows”, with its lyrics “I found myself all alone in the grocery store, more stoned than I think I’ve ever been before/Decided after 13 bong hits I needed chips.” That’s right, not one bong pull, but a fully incapacitating 13.
On the just-released “Long and McQuade” off Partner’s upcoming EP Saturday the 14th, the joke is drawn out for four fantastic minutes, Caron and Niles delivering an extended love letter to the cross-Canada music-store chain. Anyone who’s ever found themselves waiting for some amateur John Bonham to get the fuck off the electronic drums will have zero trouble relating to “There is a child waiting patiently/By the electric drums, to take them from me/Well too bad for them, ’cause I am not done.”
Cleverly, a lot of times the funny lines also have a deeply bittersweet side. Consider, from “Play the Field”, “Staring at the tile floor of the gym class changing room/And trying not to look at you/’Cause even though I’d really like to/It’s not worth being called a dyke to see you in your sports bra.”
Both Niles and Caron credit smart-ass cult faves Ween with teaching them that there’s no idea too bizarre to be turned into a song. That was driven home by “Fluffy”, a molasses-slow acoustic number off the band’s shitkicker-themed 12 Golden Country Greats. (Sample lyrics: “Fluffy, furry buddy, chewed his leg on the porch/Why’d you do it Fluffy, on the porch?”)
“A big thing for us was embracing our sense of humour,” Caron offers. “The song that showed me it was okay to do that was on the Ween country album—the one about Fluffy. I listened to that and I was like , ‘Oh my god, I can say anything.’ That brought a lot of confidence—it was like being let in on a secret.”
Just as important for Caron was not being afraid to unleash her inner guitar hero. Like Niles, she’s friendly and outgoing on the phone. But when the tape’s rolling, Caron is a monster, adding a metallic-KO kick to the twice-removed grunge-pop of “Ambassador to Ecstasy”, and unleashing her inner ’70s-blues sister on the slinky “Gross Secret”.
“I started when I was in about Grade 7,” Caron says. “My dad really wanted me to play guitar, and he gave me a lot of positive reinforcement. That was key—someone giving me the belief that I could do this. That was a huge reward. It turned into a way for me to belong and to connect with people, so I kept doing it. It also helped that I have a certain predisposition to detail—it’s one of my traits.”
For Niles, the path to Partner started with the kitchen parties that were a huge part of her upbringing. From there, punk rock would prove life-changing.
“I got really into punk in Grade 8 and started going to all the shows,” she says. “I remember thinking that all the people on-stage were really cool, but then also thinking that some of them were people from my class who were also my friends. That was where things got like, ‘Oh, shit—being in a band is not as unobtainable as I thought. If those guys are in a band, then I can be in a band.’ ”
Except that pretty much no one from Sackville ended up in a band as great as Partner.
“We’ve both been playing since we were 12 or 13,” Niles says. “And everything good that’s ever happened to me has happened because of music—whether it’s been acceptance or popularity. It’s been consistently paying off for both of us since we were kids. I mean, where the hell would we be without guitars? It’s like, ‘Would our girlfriends even like us?’”
Partner plays the Fox Cabaret on Wednesday (February 20).