Toronto-based rocker Billy Raffoul has been making an impact on the airwaves and on stage in the U.S. since about 2017, the year of his first single, the explosive rock track “Driver” in addition to appearing on Avicii’s track “You Be Love” as well as Kygo’s “I See You”, also released the same year. Electronic features aside, Raffoul’s distinctive vocal tone has the grit of a legend, a falsetto like your playlist’s favorite song on a road trip and he’s got the long locks of hair and the presence to make him memorable. Raffoul welcomes a new era this year with the I Wish You Were Here EP, coming March 24, sharing new music and older favorites throughout a 22-date opener slot for American Authors which wraps on Sunday. The artists perform at West Hollywood rite of passage The Troubadour tomorrow for what is expected to be a memorable night of song.
Billy Raffoul has already toured with Kings of Leon, Kaleo, X Ambassadors, Passenger and a lot more heavy-hitters. He won the 2021 SOCAN Songwriting Prize for the single “Western Skies” and tomorrow marks his fifth appearance playing at The Troubadour. Previous dates include co-headlining with Wrabel, two opener nights for Parachute and another date that Billy isn’t particularly proud of but he should be because it was a special tribute show with 20 artists chosen to honor folk singer John Prine during Grammy Week. Brandi Carlile, Dwight Yoakam, Margo Price and Ashley McBryde were all on the bill. There were 18 or 19 songs selected, but most of the popular ones were taken and Raffoul’s was a lesser known deep cut that he had played before, so it seemed like a home run. The sound track was great and the band was phenomenal and it was an old song that the crowd might not have even recognized as Prine’s. Seeing John sitting had Raffoul kind of frozen and he doesn’t remember if he even sang in English on the first verse.
“I paid tribute to the late, great John Prine, for their MusiCares, which is like one of my most embarrassing moments on stage,” shared Raffoul. “I was definitely one of the luckiest to be there, it was a wild lineup of people. A lot of the songs and the lineup had already been solidified and John Prine’s got such a prolific catalog. I was singing but the words weren’t —in my brain it was like I was just singing the melody. It was so embarrassing, I had to turn around to the band and say sorry and to the crowd and say let’s restart. I wrote him a letter afterwards and had my manager give it to him and say sorry. Like what a ridiculous thing, I was supposed to be honoring this guy’s lyrics and melody and I get up there and it was just gibberish. We thankfully got to restart and it was good after that. John Paul White did a song, right before the pandemic we ended up doing a social distancing tour and John actually was a guest on one of them. We did a terrible wi-fi connection performance together.”
Raffoul’s tourmates American Authors released a gospel-infused rock song with Billy called “Say Amen” back in 2019, so they already have a history together. They were playing it every night on tour, but artists (and fans) like variety so anything is possible come tomorrow.
“We were doing “Say Amen” for the first few shows, and we switched it up and now we are performing a song of theirs called “Neighborhood” that is normally sung with Bear from Needtobreathe, so I’ve been singing Bear’s part. I’m sure by The Troubadour we’ll be switching back to “Say Amen,” said Raffoul.
The new EP I Wish You Were Here really is a cohesive set of six songs, with the stadium-ready “We Could Get High”, and a twangy, indie-rock flavored tune called “Alligator.” Tempos are contrasted on the fan favorite “Jim Carrey”, an organic, acoustic-folk song with strings, and “Better”, a pretty love song about imperfection and the comforting title track with its optimistic “it all gets better” vibes. And then there’s the new mid-tempo single “Bliss” which really showcases Raffouls sense of dynamics and the textures he crushes with his voice, as he waxes through the lyric “I wish I was a young dumb kid again, give me a hit of ignorance and double shot of bliss.”
“”Bliss” from a musical standpoint is very dynamic vocally”, said Raffoul. “A lot of these decisions are made in the recording process when we’re kind of trying to decide what key to record it in. A lot of times you can have a song where the vocal doesn’t move and it’s in the same register for three minutes. And then you get these songs like “Bliss” where they’re more difficult to navigate when you’re working on them but when they’re done you can see it makes sense. When they are in this kind of key where, I could yell this song at the top of my range for the entire song or we could raise it a little bit more and I could sing it low and soft and falsetto for the first bit and really give it to the back end of the song with more power and more force.”
Raffoul revealed that “Jim Carrey” was actually written in 2019 and so was “We Could Get High”, as he leans into a project that is truly years in the making. Fellow Canadian Jim Carrey was clearly a figure during Billy Raffoul’s childhood and the beloved comic actor is now the title of a song that is requested on the regular.
“Yeah, that was a song that the first time I played it was during that social distancing tour, the online thing,” said Raffoul. “It was such a cool thing because I played it at one of the first shows cause I was like shit, we can sit here and play for an hour and a half if we want. Listeners who were joining these shows reacted so well, it became like a requested thing and we ended up playing it on all of those online shows so people had an idea what it was going to sound like already, for a full year plus, three years even. We wanted to make sure that we were making it as honest to that as possible but then also we wanted to give people something a little bit more, so Justin Zuccato who co-produced the EP with me, he was responsible for those strings.”
Raffoul also added that “Better” might be the oldest song of the bunch. “It changed forms throughout the recording process but it was written not long after I wrote “Acoustic” with Julia Michaels and Justin Tranter. We felt like we really had something with “Acoustic” and while it was hot I wanted to create a sister track for it and that’s what “Better” was for a long time.”
When your father is a musician your entire life, music can really come easily to you and that was the case with his situation. With talent equally impressive on vocals and on guitar, it’s interesting revisiting the origin story of Raffoul, who is largely self-taught on guitar.
“My father’s been a musician my whole life and before I came along, so music was always in the house and a constant in our lives.””I think I was 10 years old when he gifted me my first guitar for my birthday, but I didn’t really start writing songs til I was maybe 12 or 13 and really took it seriously. I play the guitar a little bit unorthodox, I play upside down so the strings are flipped and reversed from a standard guitar, so I’m definitely self-taught. But my dad did teach me the first couple songs that I ever learned properly on a left-handed guitar and when I started playing right-handed guitars upside-down that’s when I really started to get inspired to write songs and teach myself the instrument.”
Since Billy Raffoul is one of our friendly friends up north in Canada, we had to pay our respects to the strong music entertainment industry there. Surprisingly, Raffoul actually hasn’t toured too much in his home country (other than one-offs) until recently. He does live most of the time in Toronto with his girlfriend in a neighborhood called The Annex and really loves and embraces the music scene in his city.
“One thing I can tell you for sure that has been a great thing in Canada is programs like Factor and Starmaker, these government grants,” said Raffoul. “They have to spend a certain amount of money every year endorsing the arts and young artists and people who are trying to make it. And it’s such a great thing that we have in Canada that allows bands who are getting started. It gives them the means to make a music video, to tour, to tour internationally, as well as the CanCon policies of having a certain amount of music on the radio be created by musicians in Canada. Things like that definitely support the local Canadian artists. The music community is incredible.”
Following The Troubadour show, Raffoul and American Authors head to San Francisco and up the Pacific coast, concluding their tour in Seattle this weekend. It all leads up to the release of Billy Raffoul’s new project. He mentioned his career has largely been cemented in the U.S. but he did greatly enjoy his recent dates across Canada too.
“When I started making music I immediately started touring in the States, focusing way more playing in America and only this last year was my first cross-Canadian tour with JJ Wilde”, said Raffoul. “We finally got to see the country and the crowds are incredible. I’ve done one-offs and obviously played Toronto a bunch and had a great headlining date earlier last month in Toronto. I’ve played Vancouver. The stops that any American band would pop up and play, but this is the first time I ever got to tour the middle of the country and it was amazing.”
Raffoul plays The Troubadour tomorrow, Wednesday, March 8 opening for American Authors. Billy Raffoul added that he’s featured on a reimagined version of Serena Ryder’s “What I Wouldn’t Do” in partnership with Kids Help Phone and Bell Media. Billy described it as an “incredible cast of Canadian artists” with over 50 talents including Serena Ryder, Alessia Cara, JP Saxe, Leela Gilday, JESSIA, Johnny Orlando, TOBi, Fefe Dobson, GRAE, Shawn Desman, Donovan Woods and Sarah McLachlan with a children’s choir and many more, in an effort to support mental health for Canada’s youth. For more information call 1-800-668-6868, young people can text 686868, adults can text 741741 and more resources can be found visiting KidsHelpPhone.ca.
Words by Michael Menachem
Main images by Vanessa Heins