When the Bank Street BIA unveiled its plans for a high-powered celebration of light and electronic music in the heart of the Village, the excitement was palpable. The festival, the first of its kind for Ottawa, will see Bank Street closed to traffic from Laurier to Gilmour.
Though not specifically LGBT-focused, the Bank Street Glow Fair will showcase an exciting mix of queer DJs, vocalists and drag queens. The performers hail from as far away as Australia, and there’s also a strong showing of local talent.
Drag queen and DJ Kitty Glitter, from Sydney, Australia, will be making an appearance, as will the infamous and wickedly funny Willam. The festival’s focus on electronic music means that an armada of DJs are set to invade Ottawa, including Toronto’s Mark Falco, Montreal’s Stephan Grondin and DJ and vocalist Sandy Duperval, also from Montreal. Xtra spoke with Duperval, Grondin and Willam about their careers and what they will be bringing to Glow Fair.
Sandy Duperval set off on the path to stardom when she was incredibly young. Raised by her grandmother, she recalls singing around the house at the age of three. Realizing her talent, Duperval’s grandmother enrolled her in a church choir at nine years old by saying she was 14.
“I have to be grateful for my grandmother because she really pushed me into it, she encouraged me,” Duperval says. “She put me into classes; I was nine years old taking vocal lessons, and then I did my first album — I was 13.”
Shortly after her album was released, Duperval undertook a year of vocal coaching with Cissy Houston, mother of Whitney Houston. “It felt like boot camp,” she says of the experience. “It was stressful because here I am with the mother of, to me, one of the greatest vocalists in the world.”
In addition to navigating a demanding career at a young age, Duperval also had to come to terms with her sexuality and reconcile it with her religious upbringing. “It was facing myself that was the hardest part, because now I had to accept that yes, I was going to disappoint a few people, but then I was going to be relieved.” Luckily, she found her family and her grandmother, in particular, to be far more accepting and respectful than she had hoped.
“I chose not to fight [with my family] over it because at the end of the day, no one can stop me from being myself, but I can’t make my life a battlefield . . . the only thing I could do in my position was to keep doing what I do and to show that I have self-dignity, I have self-respect enough not to lie.”
Duperval’s musical style is unique, blending her powerful live vocals with the electronic beats she spins. She says she came to the style almost by accident during an appearance in front of 40,000 people at Montreal Fashion Week. “I had a mic next to me; I was like, okay, well, let me do one or two songs and see how it goes. And since then I haven’t stopped. From the moment I started singing the first few notes, I just knew that this was it for me.
“For the amount of things I do that are related to music, that was the thing that made me feel the most complete because now I didn’t have to just sing or DJ or produce; I could do it all and then share it as a whole,” she says.
As a performer and a person, Duperval sits at a rich intersection of identities — she is a lesbian, a woman of colour, a female DJ and a singer. Rather than trying to act as a figurehead for any of these communities, she says the most important thing she does is be true to herself. “The only thing that made me feel that I belonged was the fact that I felt freedom,” she says. “I find that Glow Fair is exactly that — it’s freedom . . . [The organizers] accepted any artist as long as they were themselves and they had something to share, and it makes me feel like I’m right where I need to be.”
Duperval’s newest single, “All Night,” is set for release at the same time as Glow Fair.
Hailing from Montreal, Stephan Grondin has been a DJ for 31 years. He got his start as a young boy in Mt-Laurier, Quebec, taught mainly by his father, who worked the wedding circuit. Grondin says his father taught him how to work a turntable, when to change the beat, and how to interpret the vibe of a room to keep the party hopping.
He spent his early days playing in the Mt-Laurier discotheque. He was so young a separate DJ booth had to be constructed for him to get around the fact that he was underage. “There was a DJ booth with a closed door; the door had to be closed from 10 to three and they had a big window,” he says. From Wednesday to Sunday, the young Grondin spun beats in his self-contained booth. From there he went on to play some of Canada’s biggest clubs and hotspots.
Grondin says he always knew he would be a DJ. “I’m grateful now because I’m still doing at 46 years old the same work that I was doing when I was a young guy.” Over the years, he has witnessed the scene change as different generations have discovered the clubs and made their mark. “For me, I’ve been in clubs for 30 years, but obviously, people don’t go out for 30 years . . . it’s always a young crowd that comes in, so you’ve got to keep your sound fresh.”
As far as his style as a DJ, Grondin says he tries to stay versatile. “I like everything,” he says. He adjusts his sets depending on the crowd and where he’s playing and doesn’t shy away from blending more obscure sounds with top 40 hits. “When a song is good, it’s not because it’s Rihanna or Lady Gaga,” he says. “When a song is good, it’s good.”
Over the years, Grondin says, he’s observed a particular shift in the gay club scene. He says gay-specific clubs, like Toronto’s Fly Nightclub, are closing down in favour of more mixed establishments. “Honestly for me, I like a club when it’s mixed,” he says. “I think the young crowds don’t want to be in the ghetto . . . they don’t want to be in the ghetto and be surrounded only with gays, so I think that’s the biggest change.”
Grondin says he’s looking forward to Glow Fair partly for this reason. While the festival showcases the talents of many LGBT artists, he likes that it’s open to everyone and focuses on the talents of up-and-coming artists. “That’s what I like because you cater to everybody.” Even in his own career, he says, he prefers not to be classified as representing only the gay community.
“Sometimes people say I’m a gay DJ, but I’m not a gay DJ. I’m gay, I work as a DJ, but you know, sometimes people put a label on it . . . But I’m proud to be gay, so you know, it’s nice to be part of these festivals.”
Known for his biting wit and no-bullshit attitude, Willam is the embodiment of what-you-see-is-what-you-get. He combines an impeccable sense of style with a knack for comedy and a particular talent for lampooning celebrities, pop culture and homophobic fried chicken restaurants in song.
His particular style of drag combines a razor-sharp sense of humour with a glamorous persona. “Imagine a tour guide who’s also a prostitute who makes their audience laugh. I can go into any room and run for office, basically,” he says. It’s that fearless nature that has made him a force to be reckoned with.
While traditionally, drag queens have fallen into two camps — glamour and clown — Willam tries to bring his genuine self to his performances. He says that in recent years he’s seen more queens embodying unique styles. “Five years ago, it was definitely one or the other, so it’s nice that more people are doing their own thing and they’re not afraid.”
While he’s been doing drag since the age of 16, it wasn’t necessarily Willam’s first choice or where he thought he’d end up. “I’m a failed actor, basically,” he says. “I was trying to be an actor for years, and I had some success.” But despite appearances on shows like Nip/Tuck and CSI, he found the world of Hollywood to be a challenging one to navigate.
“I was doing everything that a struggling actor was supposed to do — taking classes and auditioning, changing [my] look, getting new headshots. None of it was working.” But while he wasn’t finding the success he’d hoped for as an actor, his talents as a drag queen were being recognized. He was a contestant on season four of RuPaul’s Drag Race and has released a series of successful videos parodying popular songs. He frequently collaborates with other queens, including Detox, Vicky Vox and Rhea Litré.
“Now I’m trying to learn not to be unhappy that I’m a failed actor, but to be happy that I’m a successful drag queen,” he says. “You know, I get to tour the world and I love it, but then sometimes I’ll see a part and I’ll be like, God, I wish I could do that.” While he’s found success in the world of drag, he says he wouldn’t rule out a return to acting if the right opportunity came along. “I never say no. If they’ve got a cheque, I’ve got a talent.”
As a performer, Willam is probably best known for his parody videos. While the songs are funny, he’s also trying to make people think a little bit. His latest video, “Hole Pic,” sends a message about hook-up culture and the importance of gay men taking precautions and getting tested, even in a post-Truvada world.
“I’m not Maya Angelou. I should not be looked up to; I should not be looked at for social commentary, but if I happen to give some that’s valuable or insightful, that would be really rad.”