“C’est la vie, c’est la vie, baby…”
The name Ethan Surman might not ring a bell with you, but there’s a good chance you’ve already had the sticky refrain to his very first official release rattling around in your head at some point during the past couple of months and wondered “Who the hey does that song, anyway?”
(Warning: Graphic language)
As it turns out, the young chap behind the whimsical summer-single-to-be “C’est La Vie” is an amiable 20-year-old singer, multi-instrumentalist and bedroom producer from the High Park/Roncesvalles ‘hood right here in Toronto. And if he hasn’t yet taken the world by storm in the manner of such self-made hometown heroes as Shawn Mendes or Daniel Caesar, the 600,000-plus-and-counting streams and millions of TikTok views amassed in a very short time on the back of that lingering pop ditty suggest Surman is well positioned to do so.
Indeed, “C’est La Vie” recorded its biggest-ever single-day streaming numbers just this past Tuesday, the day before Surman — a student at the venerable Berklee College of Music in Boston — took an hour off his summer job scooping ice cream in Regent Park to sit down in a park and discuss his burgeoning musical career with the Star. A career, he said, he’s happy to let proceed at his own pace.
Although Surman is sitting on a solid stack of breezily infectious jams cooked up with producer Frans Mernick in Los Angeles last year, he’s in no hurry to rush an album. “Say Less,” a stealthily catchy slab of blue-eyed soul that wouldn’t sound out of place on a 1970s Elton John record were its modern production trappings removed, landed as a followup single to “C’est La Vie” on Friday , but there are no plans to release a full LP until early 2023.
“Ultimately, building the momentum and building the hype is what’s really going to get people’s attention. Doing it slowly is actually going to make it more worth it in the end,” said Surman, who plays the Canadian Music Week closing party with Birds of Bellwoods and Basement Revolver at the Phoenix on Saturday. “If it were up to me – and this is, like, the dumbest thing ever – I would have put this out long ago because we made this stuff a year ago. ‘Damn, this should be out in the fall when I go to school.’
“But I am so glad and I cannot express how happy I am that we’ve been patient. And it’s good, man. It gives me way more time to write new stuff and explore and also just learn about the industry side a little bit, how to market yourself as an artist and be a front-facing individual in that way and just slowly ease into it. I think that’s the best way to do it. If you want a long career, you need to ease into it and work your way up.”
Patience aside, it was a validating shot in the arm when some of the entirely self-played and self-recorded demos Surman had been diligently laboring over in his parents’ attic since high school wound their way—via his new management’s connections to Toronto producer Frank Dukes and his Kingsway Music Library network — to Mernick last year and the hitmaking producer behind memorable tunes for A$AP Rocky and Foster the People immediately encouraged him to fly south to California and see if they’d click.
“He thought I was on to something and took a bit of a leap of faith, I guess, and said ‘Yo, you should pull up to LA for a month,'” recalled Surman. “I was, like, ‘Oh my god, this is crazy’ because as a kid making music in your bedroom purely out of passion, you never think about having a manager, you never think about having a producer. I was just thinking ‘How many cool sounds can I put together?’
“But Franz and I worked so well together because, I think, he really respected that I was a musician and he was super excited to work with someone who was playing all the instruments and actually coming up with a whole lot of musical ideas for the whole month rather than it being one of those ‘I’m the producer, you’re the artist, sing on the track, etc.’ speed dating sessions, as some people in LA call them. And both of us also have a wide array of influences that really do range from new to old. So we were geeking out over Stevie Wonder and Curtis Mayfield together, but also Kanye and Tame Impala and Daniel Caesar and Mac Miller.”
Despite Surman’s obvious crack for doing everything himself in the studio, his current live show finds him singing and playing guitar at the front of an eight-piece band: a second guitarist, a bassist, a drummer, a keyboardist playing Surman’s own jazz pianist grandfather’s old Fender Rhodes and three backup singers because “I’m such a sucker for harmonies.” He spent his high school years playing in garage-rock bands and still has another more “indie-folk” ensemble on the side, so he’s not bound to being an insular solo artist.
Nor to a single style of music, for that matter. As he puts it, “a really key tenet” of his genre-blurring approach to songwriting is that “you should listen to music of all styles … Y’know, if you’re a metal drummer who only listens to metal you’re never going to innovate within metallic.”
Regardless, he’s got a lot of time ahead of him to soak up as much music as he can because he’s only 20 freakin’ years old.
“I often have to remind myself ‘OK, I’m just 20. I’m good. I’m allowed to chill sometimes,’” laughs Surman. “Because I get ahead of myself sometimes. It’s so important to me and I work hard for it and I’m always going to work hard for it, but it’s relieving when I remind myself or somebody reminds me ‘Hey, bud, you’re 20. You’ve got some time to grow and figure it out.’”
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