Toronto’s Monowhales started out as “the misfit children of Humber College”

Toronto's Monowhales

By Nick Krewen

Special to the Star

Published March 4, 2021

Toronto’s Monowhales’ story of triumph, is, in a weird way, a story of Triumph.

The local alt-rock trio’s singer, Sally Shaar, took songwriting lessons from Triumph guitarist and singer Rik Emmett at Humber College, no doubt a contributing factor to the mesmerizing melodies put forth on the new seven-song Monowhales effort Daytona Bleach that’s out Friday.

“It was fantastic,” Shaar said earlier this week over the phone on behalf of band mates Jordan Circosta and Zach Zanardo, whom she insists also contribute equally to the band’s synth-guitar-and-rhythm-heavy pop rock songs.

It turns out that all three members formed what was originally the four-piece Ginger Ale and the Monowhales while attending Humber, an institution whose program is known for its emphasis on jazz music.

As Shaar explains, the skill set in learning a discipline that involves more than three chords and numerous syncopated rhythms is quite valuable to rock musicians.

“All three of us are really open-minded and we were enthusiastic to learn the skill of being able to play jazz music,” Shaar admits. 

“It’s a different skill set that helps you in any genre of music you want to play. Studying any music will help you do whatever you want to do with your own music.

“That said, I know we all felt like the misfit children of Humber College. We didn’t feel like we 100% fit in or that we were excelling  at what they want you to excel in in that program. 

“But  we also took what we felt were the best tools from there and used them to our advantage.”

Another advantage for Shaar was Triumph’s Emmett, a Canadian Music Hall of Fame member who recorded a dozen albums with the hard rock trio and sold more than five million albums before continuing with a solo career that explored different genres with his guitar mastery. 

He unlocked a passion within her that she never knew she had for the music business.

“For me, music business and marketing was a life-changing course to take,” Shaar enthuses. “Rik Emmett from Triumph,  my teacher, was a real-life rock star. With that in mind, I really respected what he had to say and that he kind of took the band under his wing as someone he felt really had potential. 

“That drove me to doing better, because even if I wasn’t excelling in my arranging class, I still felt confident that I was learning what I needed from another teacher. 

 “I don’t want to credit just one teacher because there were so many who were fantastic but like anything you take what you can and you don’t get upset about what doesn’t serve you.”

But to suggest that Monowhales is a by-product of their educational environment is giving them short shrift: the gritty, driving Daytona Bleach  – you can hear elements of Metric and Garbage in their music as points of reference – serves the lesson that while a first glance may reveal a shimmering surface, there’s something more profound in repeated listens.

“This album was very labour-intensive with lots of deep personal feelings of pain and love and growing pains,” Shaar explains. “The name of the album itself came from the fact that I spent a lot of time in Florida growing up and there was something about the imagery – a nice beach in Florida and how manicured it looks with the palm trees and the sand – that wasn’t exact.

“I started to see what’s in the cracks when you look closer: you can see the broken beer bottles on the beach and the garbage and while I’m not going to trash-talk Florida, it’s just a sense of reflection, personally.

“Even I post a lot of carefully-chosen photos, but if you look deeper, you might see some scars. There’s always a deeper meaning to everybody, more truth in what you’re seeing. I’m sure the story’s been told a million times – don’t judge a book by its cover.”

Shaar says Daytona Bleach moves that interpretation forward on such universally topical songs as “All Or Nothing,” “Out With The Old” and “RWLYD (Really Want To Let You Down.)”

“We thought Daytona Bleach represented that concept musically and we thought that the imagery of something naturally organic like water  – and throwing it together with  something really toxic like bleach is this ugly smash-up that we all accept. I felt like that matched our music somehow.

”And  I love that anybody can take  any  piece of music and adapt their own feelings and their own reasoning to it to kind of use it as therapy.”

She also relishes the added  shared experiences of Circosta and Zanardo that factor into Daytona Bleach.

“Everything that we do is collaborative – the music and the lyrics – so it’s both a blessing and a curse,” says Shaar. “It can be hard to be so open and raw and emotional and open that up to the other people in the group, and then be criticized as you’re trying to make improvements on it. 

“But at the same time, it always works better and elevates it – and I like that everyone’s experiences are in it so when we’re all playing the songs, we’re all connecting with it and we’re singing it and all meaning that we have to say.”

Supplemented by keyboardist and bassist Gina Kennedy on bass and keyboards (original synth player Holly Jamieson departed to pursue a career in music therapy), Monowhales has done something  recently that few other bands have managed lately: play live music.

They did a couple of streaming shows in January – at the resurrected El Mocambo no less – and just last weekend played another streaming gig in Hamilton.

“We’re very lucky to have people who have taken the lockdown seriously, so we’ve been able to do it nice and safe,” says singer Sally Shaar.

“But boy, are we excited to play it again once there are people in it. It is a gorgeous venue.”

Shaar said although it was an empty room with the exception of the crew, she felt that “as a child of the Internet” she could envision Monowhales fans partying and rocking out at home.

For her own needs, a crew member provided some much-needed vigour.

“One of my favourite people at the El Mo was the lighting guy who was dancing the entire time. His energy was feeding me throughout the performance,” she laughs.

And the band has not been slacking off between their very occasional gigs.

“As far as workload goes, we’re not doing anything less than we ever did – it’s still pretty heavy,” says Shaar. “We’ve always loved and utilized social media and what it means to community, so I think we’ve dug in even more in terms of interacting and asking people what they want. 

“We’re giving them content that we might not have otherwise time to do. – and give our fans one-on-one time that’s more difficult to do when you’re on the road.

“It’s brought us all closer together and the type of messages I get about what it’s going to be like when we all finally can get together.”

For album release day, Monowhales have activated a storefront at 1200 Bloor St. W. and Sally Shaar says the band will have a few “Wizard of Oz” moments on Friday.

“I don’t want to give away too much, but on the day of release you might see us in and around Toronto in unexpected places. Keep your eyes out.”