“I’m of the opinion – especially in this day and age – that having a record in the marketplace doesn’t mean anything if the right pieces aren’t in place.” – the unsung hero increasingly known as Colin Munroe tells SoulCulture.
Influenced by a range of artists including Lewis Taylor, the Beatles, Slum Village, Stevie Wonder and Joni Mitchell, Munroe found it a struggle to break through the ‘meat-and-potatoes’ and indie rock markets in Canada.
“I didn’t fit into either one of those; the urban scene in Canada is a struggling scene even for artists who fit squarely into that scene, which I don’t…” he says, eventually connecting with prolific ATL producer and songwriter Dallas Austin through a mutual friend who used to work for industry giant L.A. Reid.
It’s been a year since the Toronto-based singer and producer signed his deal with Motown Records. Now, the 28-year old takes a short break from putting the finishing touches to his debut album Don’t Think Less Of Me (due out in May/June) to talk to us about family and self-discovery – and to explain why Bono is his hero…
SoulCulture: You seem to have a firm grip on the important role the internet plays in reaching your audience. How do you find record labels are adjusting to the internet generation?
Colin: In terms of my release they’ve been really good, but what they’ve been really good at is saying “Here, you guys do it all yourself.” It’s important that they get that my team has figured out a few things about the internet, but they’re still not set up themselves to deal with it.
Motown specifically got rid of its internet promotions department I think last month. I think it got absorbed into another department so it’s fewer people having to do more work now. It’s the stress that everyone in the business is feeling and I know they’re not the only label that’s had to make hard decisions about that sort of thing…
Two years ago I didn’t think I’d get to be at the centre of a team of a legendary American record company helping it figure out its online strategy.
SoulCulture: Your wider audience is just getting to know you, but how long have you been writing songs for?
Colin: Since I was maybe 13 years old, but in the music game properly I’ve been in it for only about four or five years. In Canada I produced for all different sorts of urban artists, hip hop and soul artists, [such as] Ray Robinson – his album was nominated for a Juno, which is like the ‘Canadian Grammy.’
SoulCulture: What was the first thing you wrote a song about?
Colin: For me it was always the music first and there was something about that that seemed deeper than “oh, I’m sad, I’m gonna write sad lyrics.” When I sat down to write it wasn’t always a direct correlation between “I feel this so I’m going to write this.”
It’s only been in the past few years that I have started to identify my inspirations a little bit more accurately, and a lot of it has to do with the kind of childhood I had growing up in a very isolated household, big family, small house, all the kids were home-schooled and the tension that comes out of a family environment like that and the drama that shaped me in my early years and processing that whole part of leaving home and finding an identity in a world that is so much bigger than your bedroom ever was.
SoulCulture: Your parents are quite religious, from what I gather…
Colin: They certainly were. They’ve definitely cooled off in recent years, and not necessarily in any of their beliefs but in terms of how they engage with the world.
SoulCulture: How did that rub off on you?
Colin: I’ve certainly figured out a lot of things that I don’t think work as far as what you want to do when you go to raise a family, and how you raise a kid, and all of that stuff. Philosophies of whether you want your kid to grow up isolated or not, home-schooled or not.
I definitely have strong opinions now but… When it comes down to it I think all parents – apart from the ones that are just complete abusive psychos – parents are just kind of doing the best with what they have and the scars that you get are probably not much different from the scars that they got from their parents, and the scars that you’re probably gonna pass onto your kids in a slightly different way.
SoulCulture: So you felt isolated in your childhood…?
Colin: Yeah I was very isolated. I mean look at me – I don’t have really a band, I’ve never gravitated towards bands or making music in groups, just look at my career and you kinda see the seeds that were planted in my childhood coming to fruition. I’ve kind of developed this habit of really trying to do everything myself and I’ve always been myself.
SoulCulture: A lot of singers say similar about flying solo but it seems less for reasons of isolation and more to do with ego or control for some of them…
Colin: I think it’s probably a nice little cocktail mixture of all of the above when it comes to why I do what I do.
SoulCulture: Would you say your family were unsupportive of your decision to make music; is that what the album title [Don’t Think Less Of Me] is about?
Colin: Yeah it’s definitely the original seed of where that concept comes from. They were never maliciously unsupportive, but like many families that are in small towns and trying to get by they were like, “it’s cute, that’s nice dear, this music thing is nice but you know, you’re gonna go to university right? You’re gonna get a real job, right?”
Now they’re great, they love watching it and seeing the stuff happening online or if there’s something in a magazine they’ll pick it up. I think they have figured out that I’m a different kind of kid from what they maybe expected and this is what I’m doing, and they’re able to kind of enjoy it now.
COLIN MUNROE – PIANO LESSONS ft JOELL ORTIZ
SoulCulture: How’s the album coming along – is it almost ready?
Colin Munroe: It’s almost there. I’m definitely pushing it down to the wire. It’s more little tweaks at this stage but there’s always more tweaks after you make your first round of tweaks. I’ve learned to figure out when to stop. I know The Edge always said he could probably mix every U2 album ever made again and still not be happy with it. It’s just individual personalities that for whatever reason are always trying to make it better, and I don’t know… maybe I’m one of those.
SoulCulture: Your music seems more issue-based than emotion based…
Colin: And that’s something that’s probably gonna be consistent because like I said, I do feel a sense of purpose and it’s not just to succeed in music. I think it was Bono who said, “There’s something inherently missing at the heart of every artist who has something to say, for them to need to say it so loudly and to get approval of millions and millions of people.”
So far I’ve been talking about what I’ve seen and experienced in my development and I’ll probably just continue to talk about my story and I don’t see my story as ever being reduced to just love poems and poetry.
SoulCulture: You always quote people in your interviews. Are you really well-read or do you just have an excellent memory?
Colin: I don’t mean to do that… to be honest, I value the wisdom of the people that I would call the ‘heroes’ of my life. Most of the ones I quote aren’t necessarily the personal heroes; they’re more the pop culture heroes… someone like Bono. If something strikes me as true it definitely writes itself on my psyche and I generally don’t forget it.
SoulCulture: Why is Bono one of your heroes?
Colin: I discovered [U2’s] music late at night flipping through radio stations when I wasn’t supposed to be listening to the radio, when there was no internet and you didn’t know who you were listening to and music would just flow by and I would just press record on the tape player whenever I heard something that I was fascinated by.
I’ve had a real close connection with their music ever since; musically them coming out of a scene that never really accepted them, trying to reach beyond their own real creative limitations – which they’re really open with. I’ve just been able to identify a lot with them.
Then what [Bono]’s been able to do with his family – he’s not a guy that you read about any scandals…he’s raised like, as far as I know, a pretty decent family, still has the same wife he’s had since high school. This is a dude by all accounts who should have drug problem after drug problem, should be all over the place with whoever, and he’s not – and I find that really admirable. Somehow, he kept his feet on the ground.
SoulCulture: And you identify with this in referring to yourself as an underdog….
Colin: Yeah definitely, in coming out of a scene where I don’t really fit in either. I’m not really a part of the urban scene, I’m not really a part of the pop and rock scene, I’m kind of in this no-man’s land in-between and I’ll just see if it works.
SoulCulture: How did you end up there?
Colin: I was mostly drawn to the stuff that I was hearing that sounded like the classic rock period, I had more of that around me too so that kinda slanted my exposure – like Chicago, Beatles and what not. My parents, aside from a Marvin Gaye record, weren’t really into urban music. So there’s definitely two eras of my life – before black music and after black music. [laughs]
SoulCulture: When did you fall for soul and hip hop?
Colin: Just after I moved to Toronto, like right after high school.
SoulCulture: What has the been the biggest challenge you’ve faced in your career?
Colin: It’s a real mind fuck when you have a gazillion voices in the world giving you a few options of what you can do and who you can be and where you should sit. And then you try to say something individual and say something that’s from your gut and your heart and you’re living in a place that doesn’t want to hear it because they listen to X, Y and Z and you’re not them. “But if you just changed a couple things, maybe you could be…” You know?
SoulCulture: What are the biggest compromises that have been asked of you?
Colin: The ‘biggest compromise’… It’s funny; I think that idea is a little bit of a myth surrounding the music industry. The real reality is much darker and more insidious. It’s not like, I guess, the classic example of that L.A. Reid/Pink example where L.A. was like “you can have all of this if you just be an RnB singer” and she decided, “yeah, I’ll do that to get my name and my money and then I’ll do what I do” and it worked for her. Most people don’t really have it happen like that.
For most people it’s the little things like, “well why don’t you try doing this, why don’t you write a song about this, so and so is really popular and they’re writing songs like this – why don’t you try something like that, just one?’’ and slowly you get all your rough edges filed down and you’ve been homogenized. It’s never one big moment; it’s a bunch of little moments.
SoulCulture: What can people expect from your forthcoming album, Don’t Think Less Of Me?
Colin: I’m not sure that there’s gonna be any collaborations on it at all; that was a pre-mixtape thing. I’ve been producing it myself… It sits between the urban genre and the pop/rock genre and maybe a couple of other flavours thrown in from what I’ve been listening to recently… It picks up where the mixtape left off.
Colin Munroe’s debut album Don’t Think Less Of Me is due out on Motown in mid-2009.
In the meantime, you can always download a free copy of The Unsung Hero mixtape.
–MARSHA GOSHO OAKES