Two years ago, the Polaris Music Prize announced a partnership with the Toronto Symphony Orchestra that would include collaborative performances with shortlisted nominees at the annual gala as well as bigger projects with each year's winner. It's been a fruitful project so far, with memorable performances with Alvvays, Basia Bulat and Tanya Tagaq.
Composer Christopher Mayo is just one of the orchestrators behind the amazing performances we've seen over the years. His job is to team up with nominated artists and put together string arrangements that would compliment the songs being performed. It's an interesting task, especially given the wide array of genres he's had to tackle: hip hop, pop and improvisational.
"They're great projects to work on," Mayo says. "Getting to expand my pallet of things that I can do is fun and it's good to have a variety of stuff to work on."
Mayo's latest collaboration is not necessarily related to the Polaris Music Prize, but it is with a shortlisted artist: Carly Rae Jepsen. On June 17, Jepsen will perform at Toronto's Roy Thompson Hall alongside the TSO, an event that Mayo got to work on with Jepsen and her band mate, Tavish Crowe.
To mark the occasion, we asked Mayo to break down the process behind his collaborations (or, in one case, working on their music sans the artist's personal input) with three Polaris-related acts: Carly Rae Jepsen, Drake and Tanya Tagaq.
Carly Rae Jepsen
Mayo's collaborative relationship with pop star Carly Rae Jepsen and her band mate, Tavish Crowe, began at last year's Polaris gala. The process for that performance was relatively easy: Jepsen and Crowe already had an acoustic framework for her Emotion cut, "Your Type," and all Mayo had to do was flesh it out with a string quartet. Jepsen was busy leading up to the gala so, although the arrangements were finalized via back-and-forth communications, they didn't all come together to rehearse till the day of the event.
At the time of our interview, Mayo had yet to meet with Jepsen for her upcoming performance at Roy Thompson Hall. Mayo explains that the mechanics for this larger showcase worked similarly to her Polaris performance. "They had a really good idea about the arc of the show and how they wanted it to progress," he adds. So, equipped with the full setlist, Mayo set forth to build arrangements around each song, with varying sizes of orchestras per track.
As with anyone trying to change up the instrumentation of a track, Mayo ran into some challenges. With songs like "When I Needed You" and "Let's Get Lost," which prominently features synths and slap bass, Mayo had no choice but to deviate from the original sound a little bit. "It was difficult to really preserve the energy of it," he says.
Ultimately, Mayo, Jepsen and Crowe all worked out a setlist that satisfied all parties and Mayo hopes it'll please the most important people: the audience. But, he warns: "I think it'll be hard to dance in those seats."
The Toronto rapper has been shortlisted for the Polaris Music Prize three times (2012, 2014, 2015) yet he has never acknowledged the Canadian award nor has he attended a gala. Since he was a no-show in 2015, Mayo was given the task of arranging a piece based on one of the songs from Drake's nominated release, If You're Reading This It's Too Late. While he and the TSO brainstormed a few options, they ultimately chose the Toronto anthem, "Know Yourself," not because of its popularity, but because of sheer technicality. "It checked off all the boxes," Mayo says, of the song's ability to be directly transcribed into string arrangements.
"The thing about 'Know Yourself' is that, even though the vocal line is pretty monotone, it's at a note," Mayo explains. Drake's vocal style here was easier for Mayo to work with as opposed to his more rap-forward tracks where his inflections are near impossible to replicate with an orchestra. He adds, "The production of that song lends itself best to the instrumentation that we have, so we can do something that would sound close enough to the original where people won't go, 'What is that?'"
Mayo wasn't involved in Tagaq's Polaris-winning performance in 2014, but he did team up with the Indigenous artist earlier this year for a TSO performance of Qiksaaktuq. Tagaq is best known for her improvised performances so one might assume working with her would be intimidating or difficult, but Mayo admits that the process was rather smooth and easygoing.
Tagaq still improvised her parts and Mayo's job, as the orchestrator, was to keep the process around her voice as similar to her regular process as possible. "A lot of it was [band mate Jean Martin] writing the framework with her," he says. The biggest change, Mayo reveals, was translating Tagaq's usual vocal choir into a brass section. "It was a very collaborative thing," he continues. "It was a great thing to be involved with and I think they're doing it quite a few more times."
— Melody Lau, q digital staff
Missed an episode of CBC q? Download our podcast here.