Watch The full “BETTER FOR ME” Album experience now
Toronto-based music duo Garden View are at the crossroads of music and film. Alex Douglas and Levi Wheeler met each other in first year of university and began experimenting with soundscapes in the hip-hop genre. This eventually led them to work on projects that explore the boundaries of academic and commercial environments. In their most recent release, Better For Me, the collective reveals a cathartic album that combines aesthetic and culturally provoking visuals with a sound that is divergent from traditional hip hop. Debuted as a tangible, multidisciplinary music product, the album is also a thesis project that culminates the duo’s years of study and collaboration.
“Academia shapes the project quite a bit. We really channelled the restraints and freedoms that came with our programs and this really contributed to our music. The professors who were directly working with us were very supportive, as well,” muses Levi, the producer and mastermind behind the mechanics of the visual effects. “All eight videos have different types of effects and different things we have learned throughout our time in formal education.”
Better For Me tells the story of mental illness—from the first episode, to the aftermath and the path to healing. “It was very hard to get people in academia to take the project seriously because a lot of them didn’t want to relate to hip hop and a culture that was infused with the trauma and violence. These experiences are very present in black communities and have affected me greatly throughout my life, especially since mental illness was not a topic of discussion when I was growing up. Taking it outside of academia was much more liberating,” shares Alex.
The first tracks of the album are rooted in darker, more disassociate states. In its later stages, Better For Me morphs into a lighter, more optimistic vibe, signalling to Alex’s hard journey through psychosis and how she was able to turn this narrative into a tool for recovery and raising awareness. “In an academic way, it was exploring generational trauma that is part of my roots, but my experience was also the most powerful message I can share with the world.”
While the sound of the single Stay Healthy intrigues with resonating vocal effects, the themes of generational trauma really become potent through the visuals. Hard at work, Levi is capable of combining tropes that indicate “emptiness” and “energy”—words Alex uses to describe her experience with mania. “I also wanted to use cultural factors, pertaining to blackness and womenhood,” she shares. In Self-Titled, for example, the duo pays homage to all the black fems who have helped Alex throughout the hardest bits of her life.
The songs extend with auditory appeal, particularly with minimalist beats that effortlessly blend into heart-wrenching lyrics. However, it is important to understand the visual aspects of each piece to gain a glimpse into the cultural connotation. Part of the African diaspora and bearer of Caribbean decent, Alex associates with ideas of Pan Africanism and this is what first led her to embrace the Egyptian tradition within the context of the project. In Stay Healthy, Alex is being mummified by a close friend. “The act itself is connected to concepts of ego death and rebirth. It is the lowest point of my emotional journey, its me coming out of that hospital and that initial first episode,” she shares.
The ankh (an ancient Egyptian hieroglyphic symbol) also plays a predominant role in the video itself. A symbol that encompasses all of life, Garden View shows us through its use how everything is a cycle, with death and rebirth as inseparable constituents. A thought-provoking animation of a tomb that disappears and leaves a silhouette of lights behind also feeds into this idea. “There is a strong futuristic element to Stay Healthy,” Levi thinks, “at this part of the album, we are addressing the generational trauma in a multitude of ways but through this song and the visuals incorporated into it, we are acknowledging the better things that have been passed down to Alex—concepts pertaining to spiritualism. We are attempting to preserve these types of things in the digital space.”
Levi shares that a big part of the Better For Me project was proving that they could do this all independently, on a low-budget and with the help of a small crew and some friends. In the end, the eight-part visual music album extravaganza combines personal struggle within a greater context that brings together thoughts on culture and power structures that have eradicated and displaced individuals who have claim to it.
Dedicated to their multidisciplinary approach, Garden View is also planning to release a creative zine as a free PDF that shares some behind-the-scenes stories, ultimately bringing the entire project into a cohesive finale with an in-print follow-up.