Hip Hosers

Can a St. Paul musician help a Canadian chanteuse turn Americans on to the Toronto music scene?

Esthero was a new arrival in the big city. Hailing from a small town in southern Ontario, she was raised on a diet of her older brother's rock 'n' roll hand-me-downs. "He played me the Cramps and the Gruesomes and all sorts of punk bands when I was, like, 7," she says in her distinct, wispy voice. "When I was really young he used to give me his Twisted Sister tapes and to this day I'm just a huge Twisted Sister fan."

Though she dipped in and out of alt-rock--from Björk, the Pixies, and Jane's Addiction to more obscure artists like Medicine, Mercury Rev, Aphex Twin, Spiritualized, and Massive Attack--Esthero managed to retain a love for Bowie, Sly Stone, and that semantic quagmire formerly known as Prince. "I'm a huge Prince fan, and I'm not just saying that 'cause you're calling from Minneapolis. I wrote "Die, Mayte, die" on my Purple Rain CD when he got married."

When the artist not-yet-known-as Esthero was 15, she left home without acrimony or ceremony. At 16, she dropped out of high school and moved to Toronto. "I just had fire in my belly," she says. "I was living in a fucking town of 2,100 people and I wanted to make music. I think there's a need to retain your anonymity when you're young, to be faceless and have no history and then reinvent yourself."

When she wasn't making cappuccino or flipping burgers, she soaked up the city life, occasionally wandering down to the local café to play her songs. The name Esthero came to her on one particularly lonely night. "I was alone and I started having these really fucked-up anxiety attacks where I couldn't sleep at night. This TV station would always play 'late, great' movies and one night there was this movie about a girl named Esther who kept trying to commit suicide. They put her in an insane asylum, and her friend, who was in there with her, hanged herself. Esther has the last line in the movie: 'If I am to be the hero, then I cannot fly from darkness.'

"I just thought that was really cool and I felt better. It had something to do with everything that was going on in my life at the time--being 16 years old and being by myself. 'Esthero' is an anagram for 'Esther the hero' and it represents something I'm trying to direct myself toward, something more positive."

For a teenager still finding her musical voice, meeting a budding studio wiz like Doc was a godsend. Doc, on the other hand, knew right away that he'd found the kind of strong personality and voice that makes songs come alive. But their debut album took form slowly. Breath from Another was recorded in fits and starts in Doc's bedroom, bathroom, and basement over nearly two and a half years. During this long gestation period, Doc's expanding studio became a stopover for a diverse cross-section of Toronto's electronic musicians. Doc appropriated the work of various scenes, persuading producers, DJs, MCs, and musicians to contribute to the album-in-progress.

The tracks were nearly complete before an intense bidding war led the Sony subsidiary label, Work Group, to sign the duo last summer for what is reported to be a fat sum of money. "I get to pay musicians now," Doc says. "I can put together a band and I can put out other people's records." Doc even nabbed dance-music legends such as dub-reggae vet Mad Professor and hugely influential U.K. drum 'n' bassers Talvin Singh and DJ Krust to remix his aural cocktails for 12-inch. From out of obscurity, the duo now dances along the precipice of stardom.

It's a strange position for both Doc and Esthero to be in. Esthero is a relative newcomer to the electro and hip-hop scenes through which Doc moves with some ease. For his part, Doc is still thought of as an American outsider by some music critics who wonder what the signing hype's about. But neither plans on taking the traditional route of successful Canadian acts and packing up for L.A. "Not that they pushed the issue," says Doc, "but in the beginning the record label was saying that it would be a lot easier if we could move out there. And I was persistent in saying, you know, this is where I get my inspiration from."

Doc keeps his ties fresh with family and friends in the Cities, and he enlisted Minneapolis filmmaker Phil Harder to direct the album's premiere video, "Heaven Sent." But both Esthero and Doc see Toronto as the place to be, and they're eager to give shout-outs to other unheard talents: Shug, 2 Rude, Kardinal Offishall, Socrates, Choclair, the Rascalz, Abacus, and Don Ray, to name a few. "God, there's so many, eh?" she says, sounding, if only for a second, like that arch-hoser Doug McKenzie. "Oops, you just caught me saying, 'Eh?'"

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