Last month, my girlfriend and I stepped onto the fourth floor of Toronto’s Allied Music Centre to the sound of a small yet frenzied crowd buzzing with excitement. We were there to see Matt Corby, an indie rock singer-songwriter travelling from Australia, to celebrate our two-year anniversary. Corby’s blue-eyed soul music was the soundtrack behind so many long road trips throughout our first two years together that it felt like he was the only artist who could properly commemorate the occasion.
We showed up early, knowing that the TD Music Hall would fill up quickly with fans who had been waiting for Corby to return after a four-year hiatus from Toronto. We could hear the crowd’s excitement before we even opened the doors to the hall. Panicking, I checked my phone to confirm the time. We weren’t late, but it sounded as if the show was in full swing. As we entered, the crowd was huddled around the stage, mesmerized not by the Australian indie sensation, but instead by his opening act. Commanding the stage as if she was who we had waited four years to see, Saskatoon’s Katie Tupper and her neo-soul-inspired performance signalled what might be the next great talent to emerge from Canada’s music scene.
“I’d actually bought tickets to see the show,” Tupper explains, laughing. “I think everything [Matt] does is amazing. My partner and I were looking forward to the show for so long. But the week before, I noticed he still hadn’t added support yet. So I asked my agents, ‘Please, could you reach out and see if he needs an opener?’ I still don’t know how it all came together logistically, but it fell into place. He needed someone, and I was ready.”
As unexpected as the pairing may have been, Tupper’s talent and songwriting complemented Corby’s seamlessly. Both are heart-wrenchingly romantic in their lyricism and considerate through every chord. Even their voices carry the same deep richness that can only be done justice by seeing them live in concert. But the difference between the two lies in their stage presence. Corby tends to be quite laid-back, speaking softly with bits of sarcastic banter peppered in between songs, perfect for an intimate venue like TD Music Hall. Tupper’s stage presence, on the other hand, is a wonderful study in contrasts.
Songs such as “How Can I Get Your Love” and “Woman No” offer such vulnerable insights into the rush of falling in love or the pain of realizing it might be unrequited, expressed through her rich, mellifluous vocals. But between each song, Tupper shifts effortlessly into the most vibrant, charismatic personality in the room. She engages with the crowd, encouraging them to join in the melodies and joking about taking tequila shots backstage with the keyboard player she met moments before their set. It’s a shift that doesn’t take away from the depth and soulfulness of the music. She’s not departing from the intimacy but simply inviting the audience to join in it with her, like a friend coaxing you into a deeper conversation.
“I’ve always loved being on stage. It’s my favourite part of being a musician,” she says. “I love talking to people and being in front of the crowd. But it’s always funny finding out where I exist in my live performances because I’m such a chatty person. I just want to joke around and talk to the crowd, but at the same time, my songs are so serious. For a while, I thought that I had to play the part of this sultry musician. That just never felt authentic.”
But Tupper is used to playing in dichotomy. Growing up surrounded by Saskatoon’s vibrant country music culture, she found herself branching out to explore genres that were far less prevalent among her peers. Lana Del Rey was a source behind her lyricism, “Panic! At the Disco” became the inspiration for her production, and “Simple Plan” was the blueprint for the emotion that runs through her performances.
“I talk how I talk offstage and try to let people into all sides of my personality,” Tupper continues. “I used to think those two parts couldn’t exist together, but then I realized that people are allowed to laugh at my stupid jokes and cry about my bisexual awakening two seconds later. It gives people a different experience.”
After what felt far too soon, Tupper’s set was over. The crowd broke out in applause before Corby sauntered on stage, took the mic, and smiled.
“Wow,” he said. “Give it up for Katie. Seriously, that was amazing.”
He paused for a moment.
“Almost too amazing,” he said, grinning and directing a sarcastic scowl offstage. “You’re fired.”
It was a moment Tupper won’t soon forget, one of validation from someone she had once been a fan of who had since become a peer over a two-week span. “I was back in the audience when he said that. It was one of the coolest moments of my life,” she says.
But when asked where the moment ranks in terms of the validation she’s received—compared to co-signs from Zane Lowe, Western Canadian Music Awards, and invitations to perform at the Junos—Tupper doesn’t have to think twice.
“This sounds so corny,” she prefaces. “But genuinely, every single time that I’m on stage, I come off and think, ‘This is the only thing that I want to do with my life.’ I have so much fun playing music.… As cool as it is to open for City and Colour or Matt Corby or whoever else, playing in front of a crowd will always be the most validating. It feels like my purpose.”
Now, as the years pass, my girlfriend and I will have a new artist to join Corby on our long road trips, bringing us back to a live performance as singular as the artist herself.
Photography by Thomas van der Zaag.