By Evan Webster
Gray Rowan strums his bass guitar nervously as The WAYO warm up backstage at The Argyle. They’ve performed a hundred times before, but never like this.
Rowan’s band mates George Kingston and Mike Fong quietly go about their pre-show routines. Kingston spins the drumstick on his finger. Fong unplugs his six-string and practices his synthesizer chords. Vocalist Charlotte Wilson mumbles to herself while she prepares for the biggest show of her life.
It was a revolutionary May evening in 2012 for the R&B band. Exams had just ended for the second-year University of King’s College students, but they had been preparing this set for weeks. A group of their cult-like followers and classmates waited in the crowd, eager to see The WAYO play their first paid gig.
“The crowd was huge and filled with our friends,” recalls Rowan. “This metal band downstairs wanted us to stop playing, but the management told us to stay for an encore because people were buying drinks. It was pretty awesome.”
They began as four friends jamming above their Seymour Street apartment. From the attic to The Argyle, The WAYO moved fast after their formation in 2012. Within the small, artistically driven communities of Halifax and King’s, the next step always seemed clear to the band. They land a gig, play it, and then find the next one while simultaneously producing original beats and keeping up with school. Simple, right?
It’s worked for The WAYO so far. The group just completed Wanderings, their first ever four-song extended play album, or EP. The EP was officially released on Feb. 1, 2014 with a launch party at The Seahorse Tavern, one of the WAYO’s favourite spots to perform.
As the band moves forward and gets serious about music production, fans are asking the same question they’ve asked The WAYO every step of the way: what’s next guys? The answer is in Toronto.
But if The WAYO’s future is anything like their past, then this promising, talented group of young musicians have a lot to look forward to.
Rowan, Kingston, Fong and Wilson met in the fall of 2010 at the University of King’s College. The freshmen soon became good friends, bonding over their mutual passion for music.
In second-year, the group moved in together on Seymour Street and started jamming in the attic. Their musical skills have been groomed since childhood, making their house a temple of creativity. Rowan’s flicks on the bass guitar never fail to produce a beat for Wilson to rap or sing over. Fong’s six-string and synthesizer provide the melody while Kingston’s mastery of the drum kit brings it all together.
By early 2012, the group was attracting tons of hype in the student community at King’s. The WAYO’s first performances together were actually at house parties around campus.
“We were always playing at these parties. We did covers and played songs people could dance to and get drunk or high to,” says Rowan. “It definitely informed our sound.”
Practicing and experimenting with covers was instrumental for The WAYO’s early development as a band.
“For our first eight months, we did strictly covers,” recalls Fong.
The naming of the band in 2012 was a divine twist of fate, which came to them in the form of an old Nigerian record.
“Gray bought this Nigerian funk and disco compilation called The Brand New Wayo. We were looking for a band name at the time. We just thought it was cool,” says Kingston with a laugh.
“It’s so hard to find a word in English that isn’t already a band name,” says Fong.
Shaping their style
On their website, The WAYO classifies their genre as “smooth-ass R&B.” When it comes to an economy of sounds, The WAYO has picked the freshest fruit from a wide range of trees.
“Our foundation is definitely in hip-hop and soul,” says Kingston.
“But a lot of our stuff isn’t really upbeat,” says Rowan.
Listening to The WAYO’s music is a journey across the musical spectrum. Some tracks have a lot of smooth vocal crescendos, coming from the soul side of The WAYO. Others are from the hip-hop realm, where Wilson balances rapping and singing with a sharp flow and hard-hitting lyrics. Some songs even have a hint of rock-and-roll.
All of The WAYO’s polished and produced music is downloadable for free on their website. But as a young band, their style is still evolving.
“Our sound is what it is because we’re all influenced by different things,” says Kingston. “Every successful band has a different way of stringing their skills together. For me, I focus on the drums when I listen to music, and I listen to mostly jazz. That’s what I bring to the table.”
“I listen to mostly new-wave British music, which is more melodic than jazz,” says Fong. “So we’ll be playing a slow-moving hip-hop song, but I make my guitar chords as melodic as possible for vocal hooks. That’s my sound.”
The WAYO finds inspiration everywhere in music, but they especially look up to Philly-born rappers The Roots in terms of what they’re trying to accomplish onstage.
“They [The Roots] did something really new with taking hip-hop into a live-band setting,” says Rowan. “They’re the hardest working band in the world.”
But The WAYO’s strongest push didn’t come from another artist or genre. The artists took off after that first real gig at The Argyle.
The WAYO blows up and Wanderings EP
Music blog and promotion company The New Halifax was the force behind The WAYO’s breakthrough performance. Nick Yim, a friend of Rowan’s from high school, was working for the company at the time.
“We [The New Halifax] were sponsoring this huge party at The Argyle in May,” says Yim. “I knew I could get them a set in the live show.”
“Nick encouraged us to get some of our own songs together for the show,” says Rowan. “It just took off from there.”
Like all great achievements, commitment and sacrifice was necessary. Wilson and Fong both dropped out of school in 2013, turning their attention completely towards music. They plan to finish university one day, but The WAYO comes first.
Kingston and Rowan both admit that their academic careers have crumbled under the pressure of their music careers. Kingston is pursuing a double major in music and European studies, while Rowan is doing the same with philosophy. Neither will graduate this May, but it’s a sacrifice they’re more than willing to make.
“When we got back from reading week, I just completely neglected my schoolwork,” says Rowan. “I’ll take summer courses to catch up and graduate. We were just playing so many shows!”
For an average gig, The WAYO is paid anywhere between $200 and $500, depending on the length of the set. But creativity drives The WAYO over money. Their professional breakthrough encouraged them to produce more original content.
Today, The WAYO records mostly in their home studio. But for the production of Wanderings this summer, the band enlisted some professional help in Toronto.
“We went to this studio called Cylinder Sound in Toronto,” says Kingston. “The main producer, Brad Nelson, has done some work with Alanis Morissette. He’s a really nice guy, so that was cool.”
In order to save money, The WAYO is trying to master the art of professional-grade recording in their home.
“It’s definitely something we’ve gotten better at since we released our first single,” says Rowan.
The WAYO has evolved since that first release. They now have seven original tracks available across three separate releases, the most recent being Wanderings in February.
The WAYO’s first release from Jul. 2013 includes the hip-hop track Walkin’ and the jazz-inspired Sun Soaked. Their second release from Dec. 2013 is a lively cover of Drake’s Girls Love Beyoncé, while Wanderings offers four original tracks that truly highlight The WAYO’s talent and versatility.
The 225 Party
The success of Wanderings has invigorated The WAYO like never before. Their Feb. 1 release party at the Seahorse Tavern left both The WAYO and their listeners hungry for more. According to Fong, a full album should be complete by the end of this summer.
The group brought this same optimism to the King’s Student Union’s 225 Party on Saturday night.
Unfortunately, Wilson was in Montreal over the weekend, so The WAYO couldn’t play any songs from Wanderings. Opening the show, the WAYO surprised the crowd with an appearance from another vocalist: their friend Eliza Niemi. Despite a smaller-than-usual crowd, the band “just did their thing” and captured the room’s attention with what Rowan called “some sexy love ballads.” After the show, Niemi said she “was honoured to play with them.”
The set list was funky and jazzy, with a little less rapping in order to accommodate Niemi. They graced the stage with four original tracks: Stank Booty, Downtime and two untitled ones.
The WAYO’s covers on Saturday were brilliant as well. On top of Marvin Gaye’s Sexual Healing, they covered I’m a Man by Mac DeMarco, West End Girls by The Pet Shop Boys and I’m the Man, That Will Find You by Connan Mockasin.
Twenty year-old Jill Boyle is a huge fan of The WAYO and was one of the loudest in the crowd on Saturday. Boyle really enjoyed how The WAYO switched things up to accommodate Wilson’s absence.
“I thought it was great,” says Boyle. “I thought it was a little different from their usual set but I liked it. I guess having a different style now and again refreshes interest.”
But what’s next for The WAYO?
The group will continue to build hype in the music scene long after their days in Halifax. They work hard, they’re committed and they have all the support they need. This city is their comfort zone. They met here, grew here, and were shaped by their support in Halifax. But to make the next big step, The WAYO must leave Halifax behind.
“Halifax has been good to us,” says Rowan. “But we’re moving to Toronto this summer.”
“We’re really trying to grab the attention of some smaller labels [in Toronto] and hopefully re-record some of the tracks from Wanderings,” says Fong. “We want to release it as a full length album. Music is our priority now.”
Fong’s advice for aspiring musicians:
Halifax has watched The WAYO blossom into a talented group of young musicians. Everything from their music style to their fan base has been influenced by their growth in this city.
But it’s time to move on. Halifax will miss The WAYO, but music-junkies will follow their career with a strong sense of pride.
“In Halifax, we’re a big fish in a small pond,” says Fong. “In Toronto, we’re a small fish in a huge pond.”
“We’ll miss Halifax, but we’re also really excited,” says Kingston. ‘We’re focusing on our music careers. It’s just what we have to do.”