We’ve all had that moment—you’re in a hospital bed, listening to a classic pop song and thinking to yourself, “This should have fuzz guitars.” Okay, maybe not—but that’s how Two Gays Shoegaze, a new EP from Toronto’s Jesse Crowe and Julia Wittmann, came to be.
Crowe, who plays in several bands including shoegaze outfit Beliefs and their solo project Praises, spent a month in the hospital in February while they were having surgery for rectal cancer. Their partner, Wittmann, who plays in For Jane, was visiting them when the two dreamed up the idea of recording their favourite pop songs in shoegaze style. The result is a six-song EP that is now available on Bandcamp; all proceeds will go to The 519’s Will Munro Fund for queer and trans people living with cancer.
The concept is shoegaze—a genre from the early 1990s known for its fuzzy guitars and buried vocals—meets Women & Songs, a classic Canadian compilation series, which from 1997 to 2008 released 12 volumes of the hottest hits performed by women. The pop song that first inspired the EP was “Kiss Me” by Sixpence None the Richer, but you’ll also find hits by Paula Cole, k.d. lang and Jann Arden washed out to dreamy, gazey perfection. Each song on the EP is done in the style of a specific band, though Crowe and Wittmann have kept the identities of the bands secret to keep listeners on their toes.
The idea originated earlier this year when Crowe was in the hospital, but the couple didn’t actually decide to record the EP until the pandemic hit. Both Crowe and Wittmann were in physical recovery during the early stages of quarantine: While Crowe was battling cancer, Wittmann was healing from a knee injury. “This was so we could have a project that was creative, but didn’t have the emotional investment that constantly trying to write music has,” Crowe explains. “[It helped] to keep our minds on something interesting and positive while we were both in a lot of pain and the world seemed totally bizarre.”
Holed up in Wittmann’s west-end Toronto loft, the two decided to finally collaborate musically and make their shoegaze dreams a reality. Wittmann was on crutches and Crowe wasn’t allowed to do any heavy lifting, but together they managed to record all the parts, with Wittmann handling the guitars, Crowe taking lead on synths and the two trading off on vocals.
The songs came from a playlist Crowe and Wittmann had made together while Crowe was in the hospital. “They’re all a little romantic,” Crowe says, “so it worked with our queer coupling.” “Constant Craving” by lang is obviously a queer anthem, but all of the songs on the EP—and, to be honest, all of the Women & Songs compilations in general—feel invested with a kind of queer longing or earnestness. “I feel like we’re borrowing from the queer karaoke songbook on this,” Crowe says. For an added layer of queerness: They’ve seen the songs performed many times at their favourite karaoke spot, the (recently closed) gay bar The Beaver, which was originally co-owned by the late queer artist and promoter Will Munro—the namesake of the 519’s fund for queer and trans people living with cancer.
Turning pop hits into shoegaze tracks might seem somewhat counterintuitive. If pop is about clarity and catchiness, shoegaze is about atmosphere; but shoegaze, too, is big on emotion. “Shoegaze is a very soft, vulnerable and open genre,” Crowe says, “while still having the grittiness and the fight of being ‘alternative.’ All those really crunchy tones and all that feedback marry together to make this beautiful wall of sound. It’s music that hits you in the heart.” Crowe had introduced Wittmann to shoegaze—via another playlist—when they started dating last November. “Jesse was really my teacher,” Wittmann says. “They would sit and adjust my pedals for me and tell me to play it harder.”
Wittmann caught on fast, though, and mixed the EP herself before handing it over to Josh Korody for mastering. The EP is as fun to listen to as it was to make—the duo nail their My Bloody Valentine guitars and Jesus and Mary Chain drums, as well as their pastiche of the classic Women & Songs album art (“That was our chance to really be gay,” says Wittmann). They draw out the darkness in a song like “Constant Craving” and add dissonance to the anthemic “Insensitive.” The research they put in shows—Crowe and Wittmann spent whole days just listening to one of their chosen bands, figuring out how to emulate the sound.
Focusing on the EP was helpful for the couple at a time when the future was, and remains, uncertain—especially for musicians. “I think we equally felt a bit of despair about our own bands,” Wittmann says. For Jane had to postpone plans to record two EPs, and Praises was supposed to debut a new five-piece live band when Crowe got out of the hospital. Though the duo continue to work on their own projects, lately they have struggled to feel inspired by new music. “It’s hard to be like, ‘I’m really excited about this new thing,’” Crowe says, “when the world is collapsing and COVID-19 is pointing out what life is actually like for every single marginalized community.”
There’s comfort in the classics, though. “On the bad days,” Wittmann says, “Listen to Joni Mitchell. Listen to Women & Songs.” And listen to Two Gays Shoegaze, too.