by fog drake
released August 12, 2017
The following interview was originally published here on SYR.
Though he may dispute the date, I believe I first met Xavier Leon in the summer of 2010. I faintly recall him sitting in a living room in Saint Henri strumming a guitar with my then musical partner, David Martinez. I was in town only briefly, so the pair didn’t care too much that I was interrupting their jam. He was wearing a sleeveless Baroness shirt, a garment he was known for at the time.
My next musical experience with Xavier wasn’t until over a year later. He more or less chose me as a companion, proclaiming explicitly that we had to be friends. Not long after acceding to this, we had our first session together in the digital audio workstation Ableton Live. The products of that one session were never completed, groovy and unusual though they were. Shortly thereafter, he would go on to attend Red Bull Music Academy in Madrid.
I would consume Xavier’s work avidly over the next few years as we grew closer. Our paths didn’t cross musically very often, but we always kept abreast with one another’s work as attentively as life permitted. Eventually, his gumption and talents led him to a post as a music facilitator for youths with the organization Jeunesse 2000, a position he still holds today.
What draws me most to Xavier is his palette for all varieties of music. As a listener, there is legitimately no genre I know him to dislike. As a creator, he has dabbled in as many genres as is possible for someone not yet 30 years old. There was Sibian and Faun, an electronic production duo with Milo Reinhardt. There is Witnessing, a forceful amalgam of danceable rhythms, crisp ambient, and zealous emotion. There was Mulekid, devastating, genre-bending jazz and r&b, co-created with Viktor Hansson.
And now there is fog drake.
Being a community worker, Xavier is no stranger to struggle or trial. But often, in painting social work as that of extraordinary heroes, we forget that community workers, too, can endure the ordinary difficulties of life. I asked Xavier to discuss how this plays into his creative output, and his most recent project, fog drake: vol 1.
William: It’s easy to herald community and social work without knowing the emotional and physical labor that goes into it. Do social and community workers have decent access to mental and general health services? Can you talk about the realities that underlie community work that may be obscure to someone unfamiliar with what you do?
Xavier: I’ll start by saying that as citizens of Canada, many of us have privileges of access to health care and mental health support. There is of course a long way to go for equal access to be a reality. As someone who works for a non-profit organization that offers health and counselling services, I am lucky to be able to seek support when I do require it. However it is very important for us as privileged citizens and consumers of health services to understand the inequalities of access, and the violent ways in which many marginalized communities are mistreated through complicated bureaucratic structures, disregarded cultural sensitivities, and a complete lack of training in emergency response by the police force. [Around the time of this interview a Black man, Pierre Coriolan, was shot dead in his apartment by Montreal police. Coriolan was thought by his neighbors to have struggled with mental illness.]
In 2016, roughly 300,000 immigrants were admitted into Canada, including a refugee resettlement program of 46,700 refugees. We must consider that many if not all refugees arrive with mental health concerns due to trauma. While this country is generally considered to have progressive immigration policies, we as citizens must still hold government and mental health sectors to extreme scrutiny to ensure that their services are fair and accessible to each and every resident of this country. Across Canada there are health crises in First Nations communities which continue to go unaddressed. There are not enough medical services in many of the remote locations where First Nations reserves are located. Even in urbanized areas, there is often complete disregard in how Indigenous people are treated in the medical system, often times being routed into the criminal system instead. We must keep in mind that in provincial and territorial prisons, Indigenous women make up 36% of the female incarceration rates and men make up 25% of male incarceration rates, despite amounting to only 4% of the federal population. Including federal prisons, Indigenous people make up 22.8% of the total incarcerated population. These numbers are alarming, and there needs to be a shift from streaming Indigenous people into the criminal justice system to providing them with adequate general and mental health services. The same applies to homeless populations and to trans, gender non-conforming and female-identifying people of colour who disproportionately are survivors of systemic violence.
In addressing the realities that underlie community work, I can say that I know several community workers who have burned out because of the emotional demand of front line work and unmanageable caseloads. Front line workers definitely require emotional and financial assistance, and sometimes there is simply not enough priority placed on that. Fundraising can also be a difficult task in running a non-profit community organization, especially for those who offer services free of charge. So there is a high dependence on government grants (which can fluctuate drastically in times of austerity) and on private donations. Not having a secure stream of financing can cause a stressful trickle down effect from organizations to employees to clients.
William: How do your personal politics emerge in or shape your creative work? Is the integration of politics and art a necessity for you? Can this integration build political power? Do you see music as a fertile bed for this kind of work?
Xavier: In terms of my creative process, I would say that I compose purely from my senses. I manipulate materials and explore melodic, textural, rhythmic ideas. I enjoy the creation of art for its joyful and therapeutic qualities. It is a very simple love, one that I cannot explain and care very little to.
That being said, it is impossible for my work to be removed from my personal philosophies, politics, and realities. We are at all times immersed in our political environments and every decision we make is political, whether we choose to recognize that or not. I cannot escape experiencing my present day political, social and economic realities, nor can I escape thinking of the realities of people who live among me locally, regionally, globally. As a person of colour of the Latinx diaspora, it is particularly difficult to dismiss the experiences of my fellow Latinx, many who are struggling to exist in violent environments and resist violent governments; living in poverty and being subjected to inhumane border policies, my family included. I am immersed in these thoughts throughout the process of breathing, thinking and creating, so naturally they permeate my artistic work, boldly and subliminally.
As a privileged citizen of this country, I also hold myself responsible to a civic duty in prioritizing First Nations and Indigenous struggles by listening, learning and supporting movements and communities vocally, emotionally and financially. The question I ask myself every day is, how can I enjoy the privilege of making music in a secure environment and live the comfortable life I do without considering the conditions Indigenous communities live in. This people’s land has been stolen and some continue to live without clean water, emergency services, and equal access to healthcare, amidst housing crises and on land devastated by resource extraction. I lose sleep over this question. How the fuck is this not a problem for everyone?
What I’m trying to say is that situating my work within a political conversation, as a positive force for social change, is very important to me. Music has an incredible power in uniting people, and history shows how it has always acted as a communal response to societal oppression. The gift of music is the inherent power it has to uplift people. This as a tool I believe is political. A united voice against systemic oppression facilitated through music can be a wonderful and powerful thing. Knowing all actions are political ones, I hope to always be mindful of how my actions relate to greater political realities, and how they can be a constructive and positive response.
William: You’ve said that you just want to be a helping hand in making people feel empowered to keep going. What mechanisms in your work allow that? Is it possible to translate social work to music in that sense? How do you facilitate that for yourself?
Xavier: I think the mechanism is inherent in the music. Sound paired with speech can elicit very profound emotions. My hope is that my music can conjure feelings of upliftment and joy, and ultimately help someone undergoing hardship. If there is an explicit political voice provided by the artist that accompanies the music, in form of a statement, document, or an interview such as this, we as creators can make the art have a purpose for social change. With the inequality in this country, I think creatively minded people in positions of privilege should use their platforms to shed light on the struggles of those whose voices are not prioritized. This does not mean art must be conceptually political, but as artists and people whose rights are rarely if ever questioned, who enjoy relative security, we should support people whose rights are continuously questioned, those who live in constant insecurity.
William: Finally, can you tell me about the process behind vol. 1? Who was there? Who wasn’t? What experiences were shaping the sounds? How would you describe the final result? Is there something specific that sets fog drake apart from your previous endeavors?
Xavier: The process behind this project was markedly different from my other work. I was very much influenced by the youth I work with at the youth center. Most of the work they create is rap and hip hop, and being immersed in their world definitely inspired me to explore similar timbres, tempos, and styles.
I chose to disregard techniques and rules I would generally apply in terms of engineering and mixing. The experience began as a means to deal with a depressive episode I was undergoing, and with advice from people such as yourself I was encouraged to sing as a form of therapy and healing; singing masked under bedsheets, distortion, and autotune, but singing nevertheless. The lyrics came as stream of consciousness while improvising over the instrumentals but retained a focus of emotional vulnerability, honesty, and the desire to find mutual and unconditional support in someone.
The record was made over the course of a week and during this time I was having many online conversations with a composer and friend of mine John Jacob Courtney (Swim). We began opening up to one another about certain personal struggles we had undergone while also realising we were creating similar music during this time. I asked John Jacob if they would contribute to a fog drake song I had started and they sent me guitar and vocal recordings which ended up shaping “dopa ours.” The synchronicity of our conversations and the themes within fog drake were a beautiful coalescence that I believe brought us closer as friends. Incidentally during this time fog drake also made a feature on one of Swim’s songs.
What I see as the final result of this project is a short abstract composition dedicated to confronting depression in ourselves and in our loved ones; a symbol of comfort in understanding these difficult emotions. By virtue of sharing creative work, one also creates an interconnected web of listeners who can collectively embody this sense of hurt and healing through each and every personal identification to the creative work. Many of us have experienced this type of relationship both to music and to each other. Communal healing through art is beautiful and is the core of what I find marvelous about the way art affects people.
Written and produced by Xavier Leon
Guitar on track 5 by John Jacob Courtney
Art by Charlotte Forbes