8 emerging Saskatoon acts to watch

Meet the next wave of artists keeping Saskatoon on the musical map.

Meet the next wave of artists keeping Saskatoon on the musical map

From left to right, Devon Gunn (a.k.a. vbnd), Godwin Friesen and Elsa Gebremichael (a.k.a. Wild Black) are 3 Saskatoon musicians on the rise. (Courtesy of the artists; Stuart Lowe)

The 2020 Junos have been cancelled since this article was first published.

While musicians from across Canada will be converging on Saskatoon on March 15 for the 49th annual Juno Awards, the city's own musicians have been busy representing their city at home and abroad.

Established Saskatoon acts such as the Sheepdogs and One Bad Son have contributed to a vibrant music scene that's turning out a whole range of exciting new acts: rock bands, singer-songwriters, R&B producers, country singers and jazz and classical musicians.

Below, meet eight emerging Saskatoon acts to watch.

And wherever you are on March 15, you can watch the Juno Awards live from Sasktel Centre in Saskatoon at cbcmusic.ca/junos.

Ellen Froese, country/folk singer-songwriter 

Ellen Froese has been performing in local bands since 2012, when she formed the Saskatoon folk trio In With the Old, but recently she's been taking a solo approach to making music. Over the past three years, Froese has released two full-length albums under her own name (though both onstage and sometimes on record, she is backed by her band, the Hot Toddies). Froese's songs span an impressive range of genres, from barn-burner country jams to hushed folk songs to '70s-style rock anthems. A quick scroll through her influences explains her constant experimentation: Elvis Presley, Crosby, Stills & Nash, Joni Mitchell. Froese's latest release, last year's Fightin' Words, is a grab-bag of these sounds, a thrilling mix of guitar-driven tracks that surprises listeners at every turn.

— Melody Lau

Justice Der, guitarist

Justice Der, who divides his time between Toronto and his native Saskatoon, has rapidly made a name for himself with his surprising solo guitar covers of songs by a whole range of artists: Daniel Caesar, Drake, Frank Ocean, Kendrick Lamar, Burt Bacharach, New Order and John Mayer, to name a few. With the aid of a looper, the 20-year-old Humber College student takes a melody and fleshes it out with inventive improvisation that never disrupts his signature soulful sound. "I think if people have something familiar, like a song they already know, to latch onto, they're more likely to explore an unfamiliar feeling or emotion with it as a vehicle," he told CBC Music.

Der's most recent project is a duo he formed with vocalist Rachel Bobbitt. Their arresting debut album, When This Plane Goes Down, was released in November 2019.

— Robert Rowat

Wild Black, electro-pop artist

Elsa Gebremichael has established a lot of musical roots in her hometown of Saskatoon, from performing in an array of bands to mentoring young musicians at the local Girls Rock Camp. But, like many musicians across the country, she has since relocated to Toronto and taken on a new moniker: Wild Black. As Wild Black, Gebremichael has collaborated with Toronto artist Shan Vincent de Paul on a track, opened for Louise Burns, and last October, she released the disco-pop anthem, "Moon Star Lover." (With the help of the MVP Project — an initiative of the Prism Prize, Canadian Academy and RBC Music — Gebremichael was able to film a music video for the track.) That single and its accompanying visual is a celebration of queer love and inclusivity, an airy upbeat jam that will hopefully get its moment in the sun as an early song of the summer contender this year. — ML

Danika Lorèn, soprano, composer, visual artist

Danika Lorèn is breaking her own trail in the classical music world. A graduate of the Canadian Opera Company's prestigious Ensemble Studio, she sings roles in the standard lyric soprano repertoire — Musetta (La bohème), Adina (L'elisir d'amore), Susanna (Le nozze di Figaro), to name a few — while also composing and frequently performing her own music. A recent project is First Fig Songbook, a collection of 20 songs based on the poetry of Edna St. Vincent Millay, Lorna Crozier and Mohawk writer Tekahionwake. Lorèn created a series of colourful fig sketches as a visual companion. She has also composed an opera based on Henrik Ibsen's Hedda Gabler, and last year, she did a test recording for Deutsche Grammophon. — RR

Raeburn, surf/garage-rock artist

Maxwell Raeburn Warner's guitar riffs are a teleportation device. The music he makes as Raeburn is akin to a lazy day on the beach: relaxed instrumentation topped by Warner's nonchalant drawl that sounds like it's been baking under the sun all day. His sophomore album, 2019's Bongo Dracula, definitely personifies that summertime feeling, but it came out of tragedy. After the death of a family member, the album was put on hiatus and later completed as "a celebration of friends, family, connectedness and love," a statement reveals. — ML

vbnd, producer, bassist

vbnd is the moniker of Saskatoon's Devon Gunn, who first captured our attention with his downtempo jams on 2018's Daughter of the Sun. Solid songwriting, moody electric piano and satisfying bass lines provide the perfect atmosphere for his collaborators' talents, namely Katie Tupper's chill vocals and Connor Newton's eloquent saxophone. (Newton is a member of the seven-piece funk unit Bombargo, another Saskatoon act to watch.) From Daughter of the Sun, "Smoke" is a standout, now closing in on 3 million Spotify streams. Scroll back to 2017's Colours Compilation, a seven-song EP, for a peek into vbnd's prodigious musical mind, and look no further than his latest song, "No Other Feeling," to discover where this exciting artist is heading.— RR

Alex Bent, alt-pop/R&B singer-songwriter 

Alex Bent landed on the cover of his local newspaper back in 2013 for a humorous ballad he wrote about pop star Selena Gomez. But instead of going down the comedy route ("I don't plan on making too many silly celebrity-targeted love songs again," he told Canadian Beats), Bent spent several years crafting hip-hop-inspired pop songs. Last year, he released his debut album, Baby, an eclectic mix that at times boasts moody Post Malone-like melodies and at others explores softer guitar moments that recall Alex G. The album also features a few notable collaborators: Brockhampton affiliate Jack Larsen, Houston producer Connor Barkhouse and fellow Saskatchewanians, Samurai Champs. — ML

Godwin Friesen, pianist, composer

Godwin Friesen grew up in a Saskatoon family with its own band, the Friesen Family Band, that played music ranging from Bach to bluegrass. Now, he's a student of John O'Conor at the Royal Conservatory of Music's Glenn Gould School, and his attention is squarely focused on classical music. As a prize-winner at the school's concerto competition, Friesen played Ravel's Concerto in G with the Royal Conservatory Orchestra under Tania Miller at its opening concert of the 2019-20 season. "Pianist Godwin Friesen was completely in control and rhythmically charged for a performance that was absolutely stunning!," wrote one reviewer.

He also recently performed on a Piano Six - New Generation concert tour and had a role in Soulpepper Theatre's narrated concert, 88 Keys. At his upcoming graduation recital at the Glenn Gould School, Friesen and three colleagues will perform the world premiere of his own composition, The Skies Proclaim. Watch him play Brahms and you'll see what the fuss is about. — RR