M for Montréal 2023: The Report

We eat, sleep and breathe music at Canada's M for Montréal festival, leaving with a new tattoo as well as a new favourite band

Feature by Tallah Brash | 13 Dec 2023

Arriving into Downtown Montréal on a surprisingly mild and bright November afternoon, it becomes quickly apparent that the largest city in the province of Quebec are still pretty proud of having hosted the 1976 Summer Olympics (we pass both an Olympic rings and Olympic torch landmark on the bus from the airport, and the Olympic Stadium lurks like a UFO to the northeast of where we spend a lot of our time while in the city).

But we’re not here to talk sport. We’re in Montréal for a different kind of endurance test: the annual four-day music showcase and conference festival M for Montréal. Celebrating its 18th anniversary, the festival has in the past helped platform Canadian and international artists like Grimes, MacDemarco, Of Monsters and Men, BadBadNotGood, M83, Fucked Up, Death Grips and more, with a devoted focus on up-and-coming local artists. During our visit to the festival, we're up watching bands as early as 11am and until as late as 2am. We eat, sleep and breathe music during the time we're there, we get a hand-poked tattoo at the back of a gig on our first night, and discover a new favourite band.

On the opening night, beyond getting the aforementioned tattoo (it's a grumpy star if you must know), we bounce back and forth across the Rue Saint-Hubert, between Ausgang Plaza and Théâtre Plaza. Our night one standout is hands down the utterly charming Ellen Froese. In-between her folk and country-inflected songs, storytelling is at the core of her onstage banter too, with tales of shoe shopping gone slightly awry in the very French-speaking city of Montréal. 

Image: Les Shirley @ L'Escogriffe, M for Montreal, 16 Nov by Camille Gladu-Drouin

Following an early-morning speed dating-style networking event, the next day has us watching official showcase artists from around two-ish, bouncing between Quai des brumes and L’Escogriffe, two venues next door to each other on Saint Denis Street. The knockout performance of the afternoon comes from the much talked up Montréal three-piece Les Shirley, with riff-tastic songs about everything from being in love to Fifth Element’s main protagonist, Korben Dallas. 

And the trio go hard, wide-stanced, making use of the entirety of the diminutive stage, making one hell of a good racket while they’re at it. Performing like they’re headlining a 1000-capacity venue on a Saturday night, when in actual fact they’re playing for around 60 people at three in the afternoon, it’s no surprise that Les Shirley have supported Foo Fighters on request of Dave Grohl. Acknowledging the unusually early time slot, frontwoman Raphaëlle Chouinard claims it’s never too early for rock; we'd say, it’s just never too early for Les Shirley!

Later in the evening, Club Soda hosts the intriguing and magnetic Hawa B, her black bodysuit wrapped in chains, blonde braids flowing down to her knees. Her music traverses neo-soul, alt-rock and R’n’B with unexpected operatic moments, belly-shaking bass frequencies and dense soundscapes; at points she performs like no-one’s watching and when her bandmate starts to wail on a saxophone, she whips her hair like a helicopter blade, completely lost in the moment. She’s also not afraid to get up in the crowd.

Image: Hawa B @ Club Soda, M for Montreal, 16 Nov by Camille Gladu-Drouin

Later that night, we catch the electric Choses Sauvages (you may have caught them in Edinburgh during Wide Days earlier this year), who play a late-night show at Les Foufounes Électriques, an incredibly cool venue for an even cooler show, that we’re lucky to get into as the queue winds down the street outside. Funk grooves, indie disco and electroclash set the room in a moshing and crowd-surfing frenzy, and it’s not long before topless frontman Félix Bélisle joins in, launching himself backwards off the stage into the adoring crowd.

After a late night, the next day brings an early start with partners Focus Wales showcasing some Welsh talent at Café Campus. Bethan Lloyd’s improvised, guttural throat singing a capella is mesmeric, with the kind of power and intrigue that can silence the most disruptive of rooms. And songs that combine her powerful vocals with gothic or rave-inspired beats are hypnotic and just as exciting. After Lloyd, all the way from Splott in Cardiff, rapper Mace the Great patrols the stage and performs like his life depends on it – he’s got flow for days, and we won't forget a place named Splott in a hurry.

Image: Arielle Soucy @ NOMAD Life, M for Montreal, 17 Nov by Camille Gladu-Drouin

Vibes get cosy when we move to an afternoon showcase at NOMAD Life, a coworking and studio production space in the Mile End area of the city. It’s dreich and drizzly outside, but Arielle Soucy’s gently plucked and soothing mix of songs in English and French quickly warm things up, while later we’re treated to a captivating performance from singer-songwriter Billianne, who closes out her set with a breathtaking cover of Simply the Best, in the style of Noah Reid’s character in Schitt’s Creek; this cover has seen Billianne rack up over 36 million streams on Spotify since its release last February.

The evening brings yet more music. 36? and zouz bring some big energy to Club Soda, but the day truly belongs to Mothland Records, who take over the upstairs of La Sala Rossa, a gig space above a Mexican eatery. A local label, management company, curators and more, Mothland have a focus on psych, experimental and art-pop, and they sure do know how to put on a spectacle; with bands performing both on the main stage as well as in the round on a riser in the middle of the room, the whole showcase is an absolute masterclass with back-to-back non-stop live music.

There's not a single dud in the night. We enjoy performances from Anthony Piazza, local supergroup La Sécurité, and three-piece Population II, but it's CDSM (Celebrity Death Slot Machine, in case you were wondering) playing in the round who steal the show, becoming a fast highlight of our time in Montréal. The band from Atlanta, Georgia are nothing short of exhillarating and know how to bring the party. They're all scuzzy synths and bleep-tastic electronics, with flourishes of cowbell, saxophone and tambourine. The cherry on top is when the drummer, wearing a glistening silver sequin jacket, comes to the front halfway through the set to take over lead vocals, while the main singer turns his hand to the kit. It's indie disco sleaze at its finest, and we can't get enough.

The following day, we can’t think about much else other than CDSM, but end our night on a high with a live set from local electronic and production whizz Marie Davidson, who plays her first live show in four years at the Théâtre Fairmount to a non-stop dancing and all-adoring crowd who are thrilled to see her back on the mic and back behind the decks, especially when she blasts out her undeniable banger Work It. What a way to end the week. We wander off into the snow-threatening night, grab some 2am freshly baked sesame bagels from the nearby Fairmount Bagel shop, and think about how good it would be if we could get fresh bagels after a night out in Edinburgh.

M for Montréal took place from 15-18 November