Role Models: The Dears Expanded Jasmyn’s Mind As To What Music Could Be

On how the Montreal band turned the white indie rock world on its head.

You know those core memories that just stick in your mind forever? I recently remembered a kind of pivotal moment, from when I was working at this typical suburban mall near my high school. On my lunch break, I went to pick up a CD from a band I didn’t know much about — the Dears. They were from Montreal, and I had seen them interviewed on Muchmusic (aka Canadian MTV) and was enthralled by their song “Lost in the Plot,” from their 2003 album No Cities Left. Instantly, I felt an innate sense of belonging when I saw a Black man fronting an indie rock band.  

When you see early images of Murray Lightburn, he often was sporting a black suit, Bob Dylan-esque sunglasses, sometimes a bow tie. He wore a uniform usually tied to whiteness — and was perhaps subliminally turning indie rock on its head, reclaiming a style and genre. His voice was often compared to The Smiths, but I think he honed in on a sound that was uniquely his own. The Dears’ music had a morose undertone that shaded strains of rock opera, folk, and a swagger reminiscent of bands like Echo and the Bunnymen, Kate Bush and Talk Talk — all coming together in one forward-thinking sound. 

The Dears’ songs are sweeping and melodramatic, sounding like a wilted flower that’s ready to start anew, or maybe just be left alone. As heard on the song, “Lost In The Plot,” “…And I promise not to cry anymore, all the reasons beat the crap out of me… Cause it’s the same old plot these days…” The narrator, seemingly stuck in the loop of a life that’s not delivering the promises of a happy existence, then jumps: “Our love, don’t mess with our love, our love is so much stronger.” It’s that kind of oppositional dichotomy in the lyrics that I find so appealing about the texture of their music. Even in the depths of despair, there is always love to be found. But perhaps lost again. They do such a great job of speaking about loneliness and delight co-existing in their music, all the while we bop our heads to the catchy guitar line.

Lightburn sang about love and loss and being a loner. I liked that his subject matter was about not fitting in — not necessarily about glaring trauma, which I think was an act of defiance and quite punk rock. We have the right to sing songs about the mundane, and love and sadness in a poetic way. Lightburn made tender music a decade before artists like Frank Ocean or Sampha, and revisiting No Cities Left, there is still such a freshness to The Dears’ music. 

At that time in the early 2000s, there was seemingly a plethora of Canadian bands popping up. It felt like there was an ever-expanding scene happening in Canada, with a lot of great music getting attention. But in hindsight, I think when I bought that Dears album, it really opened my heart to the idea of writing music as a woman of color. As a teenager I listened to it on repeat, and I think it was expanding my mind as to what music could be and how you could express yourself in a world that didn’t have a lot of people of color making rock & roll. 

Perhaps I connected with the band because it felt like indie rock was not really a place for people of color — like emo music was strictly allied with white sadness. But this album, and their music in general, really open your eyes to different perspectives and ways of showing up in the world. By just existing in rock & roll music, Lightburn was quietly moving the dialogue forward and pushing other BIPOC artists to think about how they can show up in the music industry. Bands like The Dears, Yeah Yeah Yeahs, TV on the Radio, Bloc Party, to name a few, were navigating a predominantly white genre and laying the ground-work for a lot of younger BIPOC artists, who in turn felt like they could make any kind of music. As has been brought up over the last couple of years, it just takes people seeing someone that looks like them to open their mind to the idea of being authentically themselves in this world. We should all be able to express ourselves in whatever way we would like. 

In my opinion, Lightburn was giving a voice to BIPOC people who wanted to be seen as more than one-dimensional beings; who do, in fact, like different types of music and all kinds of attire. To this day, there are not very many BIPOC people in Canada getting a platform to be able to write and record music in a big, progressive sense. So in that way, he was a trailblazer, and deserves a lot more recognition in Canada. 

I think No Cities Left in particular is ahead of its time. Sometimes I wonder how this album and their music would be received now — these days, there is space for more than one BIPOC person to be making music. The Dears are a legendary Canadian band. Lightburn is a Black man who fronted an indie rock band 20 years ago when no one else was doing it. He, this band, and this record changed my life. Thank you to The Dears.

Jasmyn is the new solo project created by Jasmyn Burke, former singer-songwriter and frontwoman of the critically acclaimed band Weaves. Having received two Polaris Music Prize shortlists, two JUNO nominations for Alternative Album of the Year and two SOCAN Songwriting Prize nominations, Burke has established herself as one of Canada’s most exciting and fresh voices.  Her debut record In The Wild is out now on ANTI-.