Debby Friday is redefining what it means to win

Debby Friday is beaming, still. It’s been less than a month since her debut album won the coveted Polaris Music Prize and judging by the elated expression on her face on our video call, she’s still basking in the afterglow. As she should. The annual award is given to the best full-length Canadian album of the year, regardless of genre or sales and fully based on artistic merit, an accomplishment that blows the mind of the Nigerian-born, Montreal-raised artist. Previous winners include Arcade Fire, Caribou and Kaytranada.

“It’s not the only place I get my validation from but I think it’s important that they recognise art that’s different, especially if we’re talking in the context of Canada,” Friday tells NME from her home in Toronto. “Like, I make weird electronic music in Canada,” she says with a laugh. “It’s not common, so this is very encouraging.”

Debby Friday (2023) Stella Gigliotti
Debby Friday on The Cover of NME. Credit: Stella Gigliotti for NME

Friday’s award-winning debut LP’s ‘Good Luck’, moves seamlessly from house music to industrial rock, delving into melodic and surreal pop territory that sees the electronic producer defying any expectation of genre. Though the bold debut has been a career inflexion point for Friday, as she tells NME, multiple things had to fall into place for her to be where she is now. “I see everything as this domino effect,” she says. “It’s only in retrospect that you can see all the pieces falling together.”

Friday’s first foray into music was as a self-proclaimed “party girl”, pulling all-nighters at Montreal clubs and cutting her teeth by spinning energetic DJ sets in crowded rooms. Despite enjoying the experience, the late nights, drugs and constant clubbing started to take their toll. “Nightlife involves a lot of sacrifice,” she says. “You’re basically sacrificing your daytime life. Some people are able to figure out a healthy way to engage with it where it doesn’t affect the rest of their life but I was not one of those people.”

In 2017, when she was ready to step away from her DJing, fate landed her in Europe touring for a month, an experience she says “opened up this new part of my brain”. As the child of immigrant parents who worked in nursing and real estate, art never seemed like a viable option for Friday, who was on track to put her bachelor’s degree in political science and women’s studies to good use. However, that month around creatives completely shifted her perspective. “I saw groups of young people who were able to build community and have careers in the arts and I realised that I could do this too,” she says. “I realised that it was possible to make a living being an artist”.

“Winning the Polaris Prize with weird electronic music? It’s very encouraging”

The tour left an indelible mark on Friday, but the road from realisation to actually manifesting her own music wasn’t a smooth one. “I came back to Montreal and played a few shows, but then I had what I refer to as my nervous breakdown,” she says. “Essentially everything in my life started going to shit. It’s like where you can’t hold anything up anymore because the foundation is not solid. I quit nightlife, I quit doing drugs, I quit Montreal,” she says. “I’d had a substance abuse problem for many years at that point in my life and that was the first time I ever got sober.”

Friday decided to rebuild her life on the other side of the country in Vancouver, spending her now seemingly infinite amounts of free time teaching herself how to produce music by watching YouTube tutorials. “I was living in mom’s basement with no job and no money,” she says. “I had nothing else going for me but I had this outlet.”

It was also during that time that Friday came to terms with what had been missing from her time DJing: the ability to create something that was undeniably unique and all her own. “One of the frustrations I had with DJing was that it never felt like my own voice,” she says. “It always felt like I was using other people’s voices to construct something new, not something different. I wanted my own voice to be heard.” Knowing she wanted to make her own music but with no “producer friend” to aid her in that goal, she made the life-changing decision to just do it herself. “I’ve always been this very autodidactic person. If I wanted to, I feel like given enough time I could teach myself rocket science,” she says with a wide grin. “If I wanted to and put my mind to it, I believe I could do anything.”

Debby Friday (2023) Stella Gigliotti
Credit: Stella Gigliotti for NME

Friday’s confidence in her own creativity resulted in 2018’s ‘Bitchpunk’ EP six tracks that transmuted her feelings of aggression into gritty and propelling music as she leaned into industrial hip-hop and punk arrangements to confront and delight listeners. She self-released the EP, casually dropping a link online and the work ended up making it to the right ears. “It wasn’t even on streaming,” she says. “When I first put it out it was just the Bandcamp link but somehow through that, people heard it and liked it and then boom, I met my manager because she heard ‘Bitchpunk’ online.”

With the help of a manager she began performing her tracks on stage and growing her audience organically. Then she released her second EP, 2019’s ‘Death Drive’, which saw her exploring elements of noise music without hiding her voice behind them. “The distortion elements serve the larger narrative,” she says. “But it’s never something to hide my emotions or myself.”

But when it was time to take ‘Death Drive’ on the road, everything came to a halt again, this time because of the global lockdown. Friday, however, took advantage of the unplanned time off. “I worked on [‘Good Luck’] during the first two years of the pandemic and once it was finished, all the dominos started falling into place.”

“If I put my mind to it, I believe I could do anything”

One of those dominos came by way of Friday’s manager shopping around her first LP to labels, that’s when rock mainstay, Sub Pop known for breaking the world’s biggest grunge acts like Nirvana and Soundgarden came calling. “I knew they were the right choice for me,” she says. “They were supportive of my creative vision and of me having complete creative control. They were like ‘Do whatever you wanna do and we’re behind you 100 per cent’ and that felt very authentic.”

With Sub Pop backing her do-it-yourself mentality and two EPs drumming up her subversive sonics, Friday released ‘Good Luck’ in March of this year. The album followed suit of her previous releases, brimming with caustic confidence and showcasing a melting pot of soundscapes, with Friday’s soulful and sinister vocal delivery pontificating about love and hardship while outlining what she told NME during her SXSW debut earlier this year was the “journey” to become herself.

The vibrating, pulsating single ‘So Hard To Tell’ leads the album’s charge, as she sings to her younger self, asking a protagonist in a sultry register “All alone by yourself in the city / Act like you don’t need help / Honey, honey Is this heaven or hell?”. In other moments, like ‘What A Man’ Friday plays with timeless orchestration, building her voice over blistering echoing retro guitars, repeating “what a man” with the veracity of a funk singer. ‘Good Luck’ is a testament to how comfortable Friday is being both vulnerable and daring. It’s a clear evolution from her earlier EPs, and she’s not done growing.

Debby Friday (2023) Stella Gigliotti
Credit: Stella Gigliotti for NME

“I did what I set out to do with this album,” she says. “Now I am in a completely different emotional space. When I listen back to it, it can be very heavy at times. I feel like I got it all out in the album and I’ve been working on my new music and hearing the difference between where I am now sonically and emotionally. I’m in a different place and it’s a different tone. I feel like the Polaris Award was almost this bow on top of ‘Good Luck’.”

Now that she’s wrapping her last life cycle the different place she’s in can be heard in her latest single ‘Let U In’, a glittery, drum ‘n’ bass love song she wrote while on tour in Melbourne, Australia. “I wrote the song about surrendering to love and missing your boo when you’re on tour,” she says. “I felt very happy and vulnerable and wanted to explore romantic vulnerability. I’m using my voice in a different way and the emotion feels lighter. It expands in a different direction, and the sound of my next album is similar.”

Next month, Friday heads back out on a global tour, something she’s eager to embark on now that she’s able to revisit her past through her music and still show her fans the optimistic and lighter emotions she’s feeling in the present. “The power of music is what really takes me,” she says when asked about performing ‘Good Luck’ to fans. “I’m in awe of it.”

Now, with an award-winning debut behind her and a future of mining new sounds from fresh emotions, Friday is looking forward to what’s next while still wonderstruck about what she’s created so far. “Of course, you have goals and aspirations but having these things come true and all of it exceeding your expectations?” she says with a smile and a pause. “That’s a wild feeling.”

Debby Friday’s ‘Good Luck’ is out now on Sub Pop

Listen to Debby Friday’s exclusive playlist to accompany The Cover below on Spotify and here on Apple Music

Writer: Erica Campbell
Photography: Stella Gigliotti
Styling: Angie Jayasinghe
Hair & Makeup: Myla Martin
Label: Sub Pop
Location: Mild Studios
MGMT: Semaphore Management

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