Arts

The singers changing the sound of Toronto R&B

Where Toronto R&B was once categorized as moody, brooding, and self-consuming, artists like Jon Vinyl and Dylan Sinclair provide a bit of light—maybe some love, too.

Jon Vinyl and Dylan Sinclair are reshaping Toronto's R&B sound and getting Juno nominations in the process

Jon Vinyl and Dylan Sinclair are two of the artists bringing forth a more sensitive, introspective lens to Toronto's R&B scene. (Vinyl: Jamil Hamilton, Sinclair: What I Like Studios)

I first heard of Jon Vinyl — the honey-voiced singer-songwriter from Pickering, Ont. — a few years ago, while serving on a Canadian music jury. His single "Work" caught my attention. I listened to it twice, then jotted down Jon's name in my notes as a name to watch.

"You see this life it comes and goes/But you the only one that got me wishing," he sings on the track, his earnest voice floating over the early '00s-reminiscent production. "All our moments stay frozen/But I'm still hoping…" So sweet, right? 

A few years later, I came across Jon again. This time, he had a debut project in tow — the aptly-titled Lost in You. Today, Jon celebrates his work and love — or love and work, whichever comes first — attending his first Junos with a heavy nomination in hand (album of the year within his genre), a huge feat for the swoon-worthy artist. 

The more I listened to Jon, the more I realized how much the literal sound of R&B was changing in Toronto and its suburbs—specifically, how male artists were trading in hedonism for vulnerability, ushering in a homegrown return to warmer narratives and sonic ambitions. While Toronto R&B went global with artists like The Weeknd, PARTYNEXTDOOR, and sometimes Drake, their version of confessional-style, desire-fueled writing was a departure from the city's more recent R&B history. 

For this piece, I spoke to two singer-songwriters leading the new cohort: Jon Vinyl and Dylan Sinclair. Together, they describe the changing temperature of this music coming from where we come from — particularly, what happens when we chase love and dreams, instead of pure desire.

"Some days I have to remind myself where I started and how far I've come because it's so easy to get caught up and forget to slow down to celebrate the wins," Jon shares with me. While things may look rosy for him now, Jon's been at it for the better part of a decade. Through the ups and downs, rejections and pauses, there wasn't much to keep him focused and grounded. Luckily for him, his work was (and is) his comfort. Again, luckily for him, his heartwork bloomed into his success. "My music is sort of a cross-breed between the classic, sultry old school R&B we know and love, mixed with the raw emotion of modern Soul, with a hint of savagery," he describes to me cheekily. But to the outside world (that is, the powers that be in the Canadian music industry), his music loosely falls within the stylings of R&B and Soul. 

Unlike other artists coming up in an increasingly genre-fluid landscape (and with a curiously out-of-touch population watching them), the categorization doesn't bother Jon much. Instead, he uses it as an opportunity to think about what R&B allows him to unpack and process for himself and his listeners. To him, R&B represents something expansive, something forming, still. "I feel like R&B is the best avenue to break through stigmas around male emotion and masculinity," he says. 

Growing up, Jon would memorize lyrics and perform them anywhere he could. From his mother's weekend morning cleaning soundtrack to the jukebox selections at Fran's Diner in downtown Toronto, where his family would frequent, Jon developed an interesting sort of musical taste. 

"For years I would imitate my musical idols like Luther Vandross, Jully Black and Oscar Peterson," he says. "I'm totally a sucker for some old school R&B from Luther Vandross, Maxwell, Jodeci. But I'm also really into contemporary R&B like Phabo, Arin Ray and Destin Conrad." More than anything, it seemed, Jon's interests were piqued by artists melding 'new' and 'old' school vibes, sounds, aesthetics. 

In a similar vein of inspiration is Dylan Sinclair — a Thornhill-raised church kid turned city boy and heartfelt crooner. In 2020, Sinclair self-released Proverb, his hazy, intimate eight-track debut. It went on to earn him the nomination Jon celebrates this year. When I ask him of his inspiration, and what about R&B ignites that inspiration, Sinclair ponders. "I love R&B drum patterns, I love the chords that happen," he tells me. "Especially when you blend that with the church feeling I grew up with… that's what makes all this so exciting to me. Being able to create music that feels close to home."

Raised by his music-loving (and music-making) family,—namely his grandfather, who he used to perform duets with—singing is as natural as anything else to Sinclair. In the eleventh grade, Sinclair tried his hand at songwriting, toying with what would become his fate. Along the way, he met Jordon Manswell and Zachary Simmons, two of his co-conspirators and friends. They've been scheming ever since. 

Today, Sinclair drops his follow-up EP to Proverb, titled No Longer in the Suburbs. When I ask him what it is that he prioritizes in his own process, the young artist takes a moment. "I had to look at myself and think, 'what am I really good at?'" A true student of the craft and of the city, he lists off the strengths of the singers who preceded his own buzz: Daniel Caesar's falsetto and reimagination of the church sound, for example, or PartyNextDoor's ability to formulaically construct a feeling. While he admires all they've done, his focus is elsewhere. 

Learning into the throughline of what's earned success for himself and his peers,—authenticity, groundedness, consistency—Sinclair's betting on himself. "I had to step outside all the sounds—this artist sound, that artist sound, the Toronto sound," Sinclair says to me surely. "I want to see what comes from me." 

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