Arts

She sang Drinking in LA's iconic hook — but the record label erased her from the band for being Black

On Q, Bran Van 3000 singer Stéphane Moraille recalls "the day I found out what 'urban' meant."

On Q, Bran Van 3000 singer Stéphane Moraille recalls "the day I found out what 'urban' meant"

Former Bran Van 3000 singer Stéphane Moraille, says the multiracial band was "a little capsule of what Montreal was," but the record industry struggled to embrace it. (François Nadeau/Audiogram)

If you are old enough to remember the year 1997, then you almost certainly remember the song "Drinking in L.A.," the breakout hit by Montreal group Bran Van 3000. It was pretty ubiquitous in the spring and summer of that year, and it didn't sound like anything else on the radio at the time: it was a little bit alt rock, a little bit hip-hop, and a little bit some third thing that you couldn't quite place. And it had a big, anthemic sing-a-long chorus that could live in your head for weeks. 

The woman behind that chorus was Stéphane Moraille. At the time the song was recorded, she was a part-time singer who was also teaching aerobics and going to law school. But when the song became a hit in the U.S. and U.K., she was excluded from the band's press and promotional tour. Moraille is now a successful entertainment lawyer in Montreal, albeit one who still sings and records from time to time. She recently sat down with Q's Tom Power to talk about the making of the song, the experience of being largely left out of its success, and what "Drinking in L.A." means 25 years later.

Initially, she tells Power, she didn't want to go in and record the song at all. It was too cold out.

"It was the dead of winter, -40 degrees," she says. "If I had a cell phone back then I would have cancelled. But in the '90s, if you said you were going to be at a place at a certain time, you had to show up because there was no other way to contact anyone… I show up at the studio. [Bran Van founder] James [Di Salvio] shows me, like, chicken scratch lyrics, and then I hear the guitar riff. I'm like, 'Wow, this is going to work.' I down a beer and then I sing the chorus."

The song was mixed at the end of February and released in Canada in March. Very quickly, a bidding war broke out among the labels for the international rights to the song. Almost instantly, she says, things start to change.

"Two weeks later, everything got better," she says. "The studio space got better, the gear got better, the hotels got better. It was as if someone waved a magic wand and said, 'OK, your turn.'" 

The band ended up signing with manager Gary Gersh, a former Geffen A&R who had helped Nirvana break into the mainstream. He helped get "Drinking in L.A." on KROQ, the legendary Los Angeles station that, in the '90s, could make or break a band in the U.S. KROQ audiences loved the song. There is just one troubling comment that keeps coming up.

"I'll never forget the day I found out what 'urban' meant," she says. "A lot of people liked the song, but a couple of people called to say 'The singer sounds a little urban. The singer sounds a little urban.' I'm like 'Well, what does urban mean?' I live in [off-island Montreal suburb] Boucherville. It takes me 45 minutes to ride the bus downtown to Montreal. And then when I finally asked enough, the answer was, 'It's Black, it means Black.'"

Bran Van 3000, Moraille says, was "a little capsule of what Montreal was: it was a Jamaican, a Haitian, an Anglo, a Francophone, a guy from B.C., an Italian guy." And they were making music that didn't fit neatly into a genre box. But the record industry couldn't handle that. Moraille was pushed out of the efforts to promote the song. She wasn't in any of the pictures or promotional materials. At one point, she says, Di Salvio even received a push from their label to re-record the song with a singer that sounded "more white." Moraille was heartbroken.

"It cuts you like a knife," she says. "Because here you are doing everything right, and you have the song and you have the voice. You're singing every show perfectly — as perfectly as you can — and the door still doesn't open."

Eventually, someone from the band's Canadian label asked to meet with her confidentially and told her that her exclusion had been a "business decision."

"When the bidding war subsided and Gary Gersh signed us, he just got done doing Nirvana," she says. "Everyone was grunge. So in his mind… it made a lot of sense that if you have a multiracial band, with what the United States of America was at that time — and still is, and even more so now — it made more sense for him as a businessman to bet on white."

She says that she cleared the air with Di Salvio before the 25th anniversary tour they did earlier this year. 

"He said, 'I'm so sorry for whatever happened. I'm here for you for the healing, and I'm going to be an ally,'" she says. 

That, she says, helped her complete a healing process that began when the Canadian label employee explained the "business decision" to her, and has been going on for over two decades. 

"I was just another Black singer that the system chewed and spat out," she says. "But now I have a story to tell, and I'm all the stronger for it."

She adds that, when she finally did get back together with Bran Van for their 25th anniversary shows, it felt like no time had passed at all.

"It's as if we never left each other," she said. "The magic was the same, and in a sense it was even better because we didn't have the undercurrent of misunderstanding."

Hear the complete interview with Stéphane Moraille on Q.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Chris Dart

Web Writer

Chris Dart is a writer, editor, jiu-jitsu enthusiast, transit nerd, comic book lover, and some other stuff from Scarborough, Ont. In addition to CBC, he's had bylines in The Globe and Mail, Vice, The AV Club, the National Post, Atlas Obscura, Toronto Life, Canadian Grocer, and more.

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