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Making It Montreal Discussion Transcript, Feb. 4 2011

The launch of Making it Montreal was a huge success! The evening began with a 30-minute discussion featuring author Maya Merrick, artist Marc Bell, writer and Querenzia zine publisher Jesse Staniforth, multi-disciplinary visual artist & animator Amy Lockhart, members of folk / roots band Lake of Stew, and one-man funk army Tony Ezzy.

Further down, you can read a transcript of the discussion. Here are a few of the themes that emerged:

These artists moved here in large part because it's an inexpensive city to live in, or they moved here to attend University and stayed because it's inexpensive.

This ties in with the definition of "success" in the arts that everyone agreed on: being able to pay your living expenses with your art, or at least not have to work too many unrelated jobs to do so. Our panelists felt that they have more free time to do their art here than they'd otherwise have in cities with much higher costs of living.

Some panelists mentioned being originally drawn to the city because of its reputation as a highly open and creative milieu. The comics and music scenes are internationally renowned, for example, and for writers, such famous local names as Leonard Cohen and Mordecai Richler made the city an enticing place to consider moving to.

Each panelist seemed to feel more a part of a creative community than any linguistically-defined community. Support for their work as artists has come more from their specific artistic milieus rather than any specific wider linguistic community.

For example, artist Marc Bell felt welcomed by the bilingual comics and visual arts community when he came to town in the mid-1990s, quickly finding himself involved in group exhibits and bilingual publications.

With regards to language, it is less an issue than might be assumed with either collaborators or with audiences. Lake of Stew mentioned how the "roots music community" is largely Anglophone but draws a great many Francophone fans to that scene's concerts and events and includes Francophone performers.

The literary scene is by nature more closely tied to one's linguistic community, but that doesn't preclude the presence of mixed audiences and collaborations. One author mentioned how local publishers on occasion publish translations of each other's works, and of course events such as Expozine small press fair or the Festival des Voix Amériques mix English and French publishers, authors and spoken-word artists. What's more, many Montrealers are bilingual enough to be consumers of local writing and performances in either language.

The panelists agreed that many challenges to being an English-speaking artist in Montreal apply to the general plight of artists anywhere. In the end, lucrative careers in the arts are not easy to find in most North American cities, particularly in today's economic environment (and with technological challenges affecting the music and publishing industries in particular).

The panelists did agree that Montreal had fewer cultural "industries" than other big cities (at least in English). There are less large established music industries or publishing industries in Montreal than in comparable cities than when providing potential for higher-paying work in the arts, but this often comes at the expense of a less vibrant cultural community or "scene" in those cities. Furthermore, panelists mentioned they still write for Toronto publications, for example, or participate in concerts or exhibits in Toronto or New York, all while maintaining their home base in Montreal.

Here is the full transcript of the discussion:

Participants:

Tony Ezzy (TE) – musician

Amy Lockhart (AL) – illustrator / filmmaker

Marc Bell (MB) – illustrator / comic artist

Richard Rigby (RR) – musician (Lake of Stew)

Dina Cindric (DC) – musician (Lake of Stew)

Maya Merrick (MM) – author

Jesse Staniforth (JS) – author

Louis Rastelli (LR) – moderator

LR: Welcome to the first discussion in the Making It Montreal series! I’m going to start by quickly going from left to right to ask you to briefly explain: “Why did you move here?” and “Where did you move from?”

AL: I was living in Vancouver, and then in Chicago a year for a job, then I moved here because Marc was here, and it’s cheap, and it’s a good place to resettle.

LR: Marc, you’ve moved here more than once, I think…

MB: Well yeah, I moved here in ’95, just in time for the referendum. Good timing. I moved here. I was going to school in Sackville, NB, where I made some friends from the Montreal comics community, and ended up moving here. I left after a few years but then moved back more recently, for the same reasons Amy was saying, just because it’s cheap and…it’s cheap!

LR: We’re already onto something.

DC: I moved here in ’98, basically to go to McGill for music, but I think it was more for the city. At the time it wasn’t because it was cheap, it was because of all the cities that I was looking at to do something artistic, like music, I figured Montreal was a good place for that. And it felt very European, and I’m Croatian, so it felt like I was at home

JS: I’m not going to lie, I moved here because I wanted to be Leonard Cohen when I was 18, and then it turned out that there was already one. I discovered that it was cheap to live here, and I stayed.

MM: I also moved here because it was cheap. I had no idea what I was doing, I was 18 and moved here from Vancouver.

LR: And you, Tony?

TE: I don’t divulge personal information very often, BUT I grew up in the state of Maine in the United States. However, I was born in New Brunswick, just on the border, 2 inches above, so with my Canadian citizenship, I went to university here. I didn’t finish.

LR: I’d like to know if most of the people you hang out with or know since you got here are Montrealers, or are most of them also expatriates?

AL: I think it’s mixed, some Acadian, some Eastern Townshippers, some from the South Shore, lots of people from Ottawa…

MB: Maybe when I moved here in ’95, I knew more people from here, but since moving back, I think the comics community is a little more splintered, more people from elsewhere are around.

DC: I find that when I first moved here, basically everyone I communicated with was from out of province, that’s probably because I was at McGill. But now it’s mainly people who are from, not necessary from Montreal, but like she said, Eastern Townships , South Shore, places like that.

RR: Most of the people I know are from elsewhere, which is really bizarre. Every time I meet somebody who’s a native Montrealer like I am who speaks English, it’s always a treat, there’s very few of us in the scene.

LR: It’s true, yeah

RR: And we’re culturally unique. It’s very difficult for us to live elsewhere in Canada. It’s really hard to get a good cup of coffee, to find decent bread, it’s practically impossible…

LR: That’s why we get called snobs when we go elsewhere.

RR: It’s tough. That’s how it is.

MB: I think the longer you live here, the more likely you are to get to know people who are from here originally, because you see so many waves of people come in and go out. When I moved here in ’95, everyone was from someplace else, but now that I’ve been here for 14 years, people who’ve stuck around are either in it for the long haul, or they’ve got grandparents here.

TE: 60% of my friends are from Montreal, 40% are from elsewhere.

LR: Oh, very concise. Good. [audience laughs] That brings me to another related question. A lot of people might talk about ‘English this’, ‘French that’, English community, French community, ethnic communities, etc. I’m wondering if maybe you guys feel more a part of an artistic scene, a music scene, an arts scene, a comics scene, rather than an actual English community. Or that maybe the differences are between DIY / independent scene and the mainstream? In other words, do you feel more a part of a scene than the English Montreal community?

(Most of the panelists murmur “Yes”).

TE: I think that French people make a bigger effort to intermingle with English artists. I know that I personally haven’t reached out to many Francophone artists, but I’ve been associated with them.

LR: Do you feel though that your milieu, your community is the music scene?

TE: It’s a pretty Anglophone music scene that I’m involved in. Some people make a deliberate effort to be multilingual, but that often seems contrived, slightly dishonest.

DC: I feel like it’s a personal thing, though, too. It’s sort of what you do with it. It’s like, if you’re going to go out, and be involved with something, you know it’s just who you meet, and the friends you make, it’s community, because essentially you’re talking about communities.

LR: I think what I was trying to get at was, because, obviously I have this sense that maybe community bonds are more within the gang of writers, the crew of comic artists, the music scene, and maybe different types of music scene, you know the dance music scene, other arts scenes…

RR: I think that’s really interesting. I’ve been playing music for a long time in Montreal. For example, there’s a big Anglo roots music community, like the Wheel Club and the Barfly and everything like that. As Tony said, it’s more Francophones making the effort to come out those things than Anglos would to go discover the French side. Also, in a broader sense, we also play music in a broader community, and a lot of the shows that we play are mainly francophone audiences. We have a lot of friends who are in Francophone bands, doing the same thing that we do. So it gets to a point where it doesn’t really matter.

LR: I guess what really doesn’t matter so much is sticking to one or the other. It seems like a lot of different artists collaborate with one another, you’re not going to limit your audience to one language, there’s a lot of intermingling.

JS: Being an English writer kind of limits your audience, as far as language is concerned.

LR: That’s what I was going to get at, whether maybe it’s not the same for all types of art, like maybe the music scene is a bit more accessible to collaborating with or having fans from either language.

JS: I have a lot of friends who are Francophone, but I really feel like a dick, asking them to read my stuff, because I don’t read so well in French, and I try and I’m reasonably bilingual, but it’s a real effort for me. So I feel like a real schmuck if I’m like “here, read this crap, it’s difficult for you.”

MM: I feel like there’s a real overlap, though, even within the writing community, that French people are reading English authors and vice versa. I know from dealing with translations, not only with my book, but with other books that I’m dealing with, there’s interest in both communities to read each other’s stuff and experience each other’s work.

LR: So there is a bit of back and forth. We do see at Expozine, the big small press fair that we do every year, it’s very mixed. It’s publishing, but it’s very mixed, there are a lot of bilingual publications, people putting out books in both languages. We see more coming together of independent artists of either language, who bond together because of they’re in the same situation. That brings me to another topic that we want to touch on in this project. One of the points is about the wider English community. When you came here, in some cases it was university, and you made friends there. Now you’re involved in this scene, and so on. Is there much of a sense of being part of this larger English community? Or are we in the little Mile End bubble here, the artistic scene bubble?

DC: Yeah I think it’s the Mile End bubble. It’s like what everyone was saying, it’s not so much part of an English community, I just relate to people who do art that’s similar to mine, and a lot of them are Francophone.

LR: So it’s more the style than anything.

DC: Yes.

LR: We see that a lot in the comics scene, the visual arts, screenprinting, the galleries, it’s very mixed, from what I can tell in the city.

MB: When I first moved here, the French cartoonists were really nice with me. They brought me in and put me in the shows. I was part of a show ‘Cocktail Molotov’, which was at the CEGEP de Vieux Montréal. It was mind blowing to me because it’s a CEGEP, so it’s a public system, and they’re putting (local bilingual comic artist) Henriette Valium pages in the gallery, to me that was pretty insane, for a square-head like me to be part of such a crazy scene.

RR: I know Marc Bell’s art really well, and I always thought you were French.

MB: Well it’s because of my name, I’m not posing as a French person, I have a twin sister and her name is Marcie, so Marc and Marcie, M-A-R-C-I-E, M-A-R-C.

RR: No I just mean just based on your work, like what Louis was saying, the comic book scene in the 90s was really integrated, all I saw was the art, so I assumed you were just another one of the Franco artists from here.

LR: That brings me to another point I want to touch on. Do you think it makes a difference that Anglophones are a minority community here, and in a way the independent scene, French or English, is “a minority within a minority”? Do you think this may help explain why there seems to be more new or different art and music coming out of this city, that maybe people here are more open to different crazy things, compared to other cities?

MB: I lived in Toronto for a year, I lived in a lot of different places, and I think that Montreal…it’s just the general attitude of openness. I think everyone who live here appreciates that, we’re a city of people who are willing to take risks and whatnot.

LR: So you think this is the case more so than Toronto?

MB: In Toronto they do their thing too, but I think there’s people out there in the rest of Canada dreaming of coming to Montreal, like “yeah we’re gonna go there and freak people out,” like this is the appropriate place for that.

LR: What about you Tony, did you come here to freak people out?

TE: No, but a lot of people in the good ol’ US of A says they like it here a lot, so…you should know that they do a good job over here.

LR: Well that reminds me, we talked a lot about the fact that it’s cheap…

MB: I think sometimes it’s a nice place to live, like you say there’s nice bread, nice coffee, it’s very relaxed. Sometimes I find it’s a little hard to get motivated here, because there’s almost nothing to act against. Sometimes I think that things could use a little bit of a kick. It’s a nice city, but sometimes I find it’s a little too chill. There’s no anger. I knew a lot more people when I lived in Vancouver before, and Vancouver’s kind of a tough place to live, and it instills a different kind of energy. Whereas here, it’s pretty nice…

LR: So maybe there’s a good side and a bad side to how cheap it is, we don’t really have to work.

MB: I think that’s true, I’ve heard it described as the ‘golden handcuffs’. You don’t want to leave because you have your cheap rent, so you get lazy,

LR: You don’t work anymore than you have to, which maybe isn’t so much…

JS: What we need is for Francophones to spray paint “101” on people’s doors more often, because that used to happen a lot when I first moved here, it really gets people going, it makes things more exciting.

LR: It gets Anglos up and moving to Toronto, I don’t know if it makes them ‘get going’ on their art.

MB: It keeps the rents down, too.

JS: Exactly!

MB: It isn’t really so cheap as it was, really.

LR: Although if you go back to the other places you moved here from, you might find that it’s gotten more expensive there too.

LR: I think we’ve concluded that it’s pretty easy to live here, and do art, it’s not too expensive and so on. Do you think that could lead to success? Does that make this is the place where you could actually go somewhere [with your art]? Is that still the dream?

DC: It’s what you define as success, like just being able to do what you want and having control over your own time, or making tons of cash and working for the CBC in Toronto.

LR: OK, success might be more about being able to do the art and not work so many hours to pay rent.

MM: We don’t live here for the money.

AL: Yeah we’re doing it for the art.

LR: What about you, Tony, are you going for the big time?

TE: Not at all. It’s perfect. Success already happened here, maybe even before some of us were born, so now we’re reaping the rewards. This is what it’s like. Congratulations, everybody.

MB: We live in a peaceful society.

TE: We did it. We are a post-Prince Minneapolis.

LR: What about the temptation to go somewhere where you can make a lot more money, or where there’s say more of a music industry than scene, or more of a publishing industry than a scene.

JS: We’re speaking here of Toronto, right?

LR: Maybe Toronto, maybe New York, maybe Vancouver. Have any of you ever been either tempted to do that, or believe in the back of your mind that you could get off your ass and go and do that, but you don’t? Are there really better prospects elsewhere, or do you think that trying to do your art the way you’re doing it now won’t get you much further in any of these other places?

TE: I moved to Toronto, once. For 9 months I lived in Toronto and it was really bad, I had a really bad time. I could hardly get any gigs. I played at Lee’s Palace once, but aside from that, really bad.

LR: So not easier there, in your experience.

TE: No. It was more difficult, and the lifestyle was spirit-crushing.

LR: Well I guess what you’re saying, to do the music you want to do, the way you want to do it, it wasn’t clicking.

TE: Music is a part of my life, it’s a part of living life. I wasn’t trying to really make it. I was trying to extend myself very honestly to my community, but there was none, where I happened to be in Toronto at the time.

LR: Well that’s what some people say: a city that has a lot of artists might have a community but not really an industry, so you kind of get stuck there. But then, from what you’re saying, you go to a place where there’s a lot of industry, a lot of big labels and promoters and things, technically you can find success there, but you might not be able to get the community and artistic freedom.

JS: I could get a desk job in Toronto, but…

LR: But don’t you think as a writer that you could actually make more money writing there than here?

JS: Theoretically, but I’d still have to have a job.

MB: Before I moved here, I lived briefly in Toronto, and I realized I had to get out of there, because to stay, I needed a full-time job…

AL: I worked in television and film for a while, and a lot of my friends, here in Montreal, and a lot of the people I was working with moved to Toronto because there were more opportunities there. And I was tempted to, because there were opportunities, and money, and then I said “no”, because there’s no community, I don’t feel a sense of community, the sort of community I have here.

JS: And those people all end up with jobs. A cautionary tale…

LR: So maybe none of us on the stage here have hit the ‘big time’, but there are some people that made it pretty big coming out of Montreal, at least a handful of writers, a number of bands have really made it. Would you say there is this potential here, relative to what success means in any given art, that some people do make it here? Is that, at all, one of your own dreams, basically get to the point where you’re paying your whole rent from your art?

RR: Well, we (Lake of Stew) are an extremely popular folk band, and as you know, we’re rolling in dough. We drove here in a Brinks truck. In fact, that’s what we drive all the time. Yes, I think success is really relative. (sarcastic laughter)

AL: I feel like the mentality here is to do your art. It’s not money, so if the success comes just because of the fact that you’re doing your art as well as you can, and you’re following your heart, then great, but the focus isn’t on financial gain.

MM: I don’t think it would be geographical anyway. “Successful” bands or artists can come out of anywhere. Montreal’s great because no one is seeking that, in a way, everyone is here just to do it.

RR: Since rents are so cheap, you can basically busk a couple of days a week and make your rent, so that’s success.

LR: That’s true, I don’t think you can do that in New York. I’d like to ask the audience if you have any questions for the panel.

Audience: How do you all make money? This is all about making it in Montreal. Are you all on welfare?

AL: I babysit. I’m part of the child-care industry in Montreal.

MM: I work with drunk people (as a bartender), I think we’ve established that already.

MB: I pay my $220 rent by selling art outside of Montreal.

DC: I babysit, I clean a studio, I teach piano lessons, if anyone wants piano lessons out there! I proofread for a magazine, and periodically I take other little contracts. I don’t do television anymore, I don’t like television because it’s so money focused.

JS: I’m a military consultant. I write and edit stuff, and I teach English as a second language, and I will teach it to you. I’m also considering becoming an escort.

LR: And you, Tony? Do you do anything else but the music for money?

TE: No comment.

LR: Well, I think we’ve established that everyone here is a relative success as an artist, because from what I could gather, no one’s working full time, 60-hour weeks, overtime, with barely enough time to do their art. Everyone seems to have a bunch of different things and some money’s coming from art, some from somewhere else. Does that sound about right? (Panelists nod tentatively.) That’s pretty much the comfortable artist life in Montreal, right? A good thing?

TE: If you’re not suffering as an artist, you’re not successful. You have to be miserable, to know that you’re doing something.

LR: Hey, bring on the next referendum!