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Thursday, July 24, 2014

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Songwriter headlines fledgling art-rock band

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From left, Dominique Morier, Sebastian Shinwell, Michael Keshen

It may be hard to be an independent artist in Toronto, but Sebastian Shinwell and his band, CRHYMES, aren’t doing too badly.

Barely a year after its formation, CRHYMES is performing regularly in Toronto and getting ready to release its first full-length album, although Shinwell said he’s not sure yet which medium would be best.

“It seems like the CD is on the way out in terms of a medium people buy,” said the 25-year-old musician.

In fact, he doesn’t even own a CD player anymore. “I wouldn’t be able to listen to my own CDs.”

In Toronto, vinyl seems the way to go, he said, but it’s not a cheap medium, especially for an independent artist.

“It seems like the digital download is the way to get around that, but then you don’t have a physical thing to hold onto,” he said.

The Toronto-based art-rock band was conceived while Shinwell was studying composition in a master’s program at York University. He wrote the songs for his thesis project and he began to perform them, and he released five of them as an EP. Soon enough, promoters were asking him back for more gigs.

An art-rock band, Shinwell said, makes music with artistic intention. Although he admitted the moniker is the best way to describe his band, he acknowledged that he also cares about whether audiences can simply enjoy his music and not look at it with an artistic eye.

“There’s enough intricacies in the music that if people want to sit back and listen, they can do that,” he said.

But it’s also written for musicians listening for technical skills. “I try to write music that I think, as a musician, I would appreciate.”

For him, that means using interesting time signatures or harmonic complexities that would capture a musician’s attention.

Shinwell has many years of musical experience, having started music lessons at the age of five with the piano, but quitting when he was 12. As a compromise with his mother, who insisted he study music, he picked up the guitar, and about 10 years ago, he decided he would pursue music professionally.

When he’s not working on his band or his master’s degree, which he has switched from composition to musicology, he works as a studio musician, performing music for films.

“It’s pretty night and day,” he said, comparing that experience with recording music for CRHYMES. “When I end up doing music for films, a lot is very classically oriented acoustic guitar.”

Writing the music for CRHYMES typically comes organically for Shinwell. He’ll usually sit down with his guitar and start playing, improvising the music, melody and lyrics.

He said it’s sometimes hard to sit down with the intention to write a song, so this method works better.

“I leave my guitar sitting around, and I’ll pick it up and start playing,” he said, adding that he’ll play around on it for hours, hoping something comes out.

Although the band consists of five people – Craig Saltz on bass, Michael Keshen on guitar, Dominique Morier on tenor saxophone, Adam Silva on drums, and Shinwell on vocals and guitar – Shinwell is the main composer.

That’s how the band started, and that’s how it continues.

“In a collaborative band where there are two or three writers, there’s a lot of ego involved,” he said. “I always thought [writing solo] would be a political structure I wouldn’t enjoy, but it’s much simpler.”

But that doesn’t mean the band doesn’t have any input, he said, because it’s not so easy writing alone, especially when you’re writing for so many instruments.

Shinwell writes using a computer program that simulates the sounds of different instruments so that he can approximate the sound of a real band.

“But sometimes when you’re writing on a computer, it doesn’t translate into a live performance,” he said, so as the band rehearses, they sometimes need to alter the songs.

Nevertheless, now that the band has completed a year of live performances, including a performance at Toronto’s North-by-Northeast Festival, Shinwell says he’s getting an understanding of what works live and what doesn’t.

“Playing some of the softer tunes on the EP, if you’re in a rock club, it doesn’t translate so well,” he said, “so the album is a bit more high energy and influenced by playing live.”

Shinwell said he’s hoping the new album will be released later this year – hopefully around October or November – but people who would like to hear the music can already catch the band playing the new songs live.

On Aug. 30, Torontonians can catch the band at the Holy Oak Café, where CRHYMES will be playing two sets, comprising songs from the EP and the new album.

For more information, visit crhymes.bandcamp.com.

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