A pair of 20-something lesbian women from New Brunswick have been storming the boys club of so-called "cock rock" with their de ant and often hilarious band, Partner. On a blustery Friday night in September, the Canadian duo (plus their three-piece backing band) played to a packed crowd at Toronto's Horseshoe Tavern in support of their debut album, In Search of Lost Time. Lead singer Josée Caron stood atop the monitors, commanding her audience, as she strummed the chords to "Comfort Zone"—a thumping rock jam about being comfortable—while her best friend, an overheated Lucy Niles, shed her denim jumpsuit and stripped down to her underwear, tying a plaid shirt securely around her waist before laughing into the microphone. They grinded into the backs of their double neck guitars and gyrated onstage throughout the show, but tempered those exploits with between-song banter that included talking about weed or asking the crowd, sincerely, if everyone was doing OK.
It's not that such a performance is entirely rare; women have occupied these typically male spaces before. (See: the guitar heroics of Annie Clark or exuberant stage presence of Peaches, not to mention some fantastic dude-rock reclamations done by Toronto cover bands like Sheezer and Vag Halen.) But there is something important about being yourself, entirely and purely, during a tumultuous political climate. While Canada is seemingly very open (Prime Minister Trudeau's hashtag worthy "progressive" proclamations as one such example), the looming dark cloud of Trump's United States and the overwhelming rise of ignorance grabbing the headlines are hard to ignore. Partner's exceptional approach is that they harness formerly typical male gendered energies in rock music—protest music, if you will—and project them back onto their audience to make it safe and OK to just matter-of-factly rock the fuck out.
If a record like In Search of Lost Time were released in the 90s or early 2000s, and featured all cis men, one might call it balls to the wall. It's easy to imagine Partner on a festival bill with Ween (a dream of theirs). Sonically, the music is loud and crunchy and lyrically it touches on subjects men have held dominion over forever—jaunty tracks about fucking or smoking or getting wasted and high. Except that Partner are doing it smarter, and better, than pretty much everyone else.
"I remember thinking when I was young playing guitar and stuff I'd have to wear a bikini top and lipstick and play a Van Halen song, " Caron explained, when I met up with the pair at the historic Toronto venue. "But it took so much energy feeling that way, you know, when you have the privilege of settling into yourself, your energy is freed up for so much more."
"The crazy thing is if you're a woman you're obviously sexualized in a different way all the time," Niles said. "You're not supposed to be cool. You're supposed to think someone else is cool." Caron added: "It feels revolutionary to [approach music this way.] I can do this? I can hump my guitar?"
A pure, classic, and greasy rock band—Partner is the brain- (bong-)child of Caron and Niles. Any lore that surrounds them inevitably focuses on weed and friendship, and they wouldn't want it any other way. Their offstage personas are warm and, admittedly, goo er than they are in front of a sweaty crowd. They're polite and considerate; a real Just-Happy-To-Be-Here sentiment personified.
The duo have been building buzz for a few years now, garnering critical and audience acclaim for their incomparable lives shows and rowdy riffs. While currently based out of Windsor, Ontario by way of Sackville, NB, Caron is originally from Prince Edward Island, while Niles comes from Labrador, so, by default, they fall very far outside of the metropolitan rock narrative.
People first started to take notice back in 2015 when the band released a song about Ellen Page (literally called "The 'Ellen' Page"). They used open-source footage of the Canadian actress for the video to make it look as though she was dancing along. It got the modern seal of the approval: the actress quote tweeted "Rad" with a heart. The lyrics to the track are fairly simple and cheeky, comparing Caron to Page as a lookalike ("We're far from spitting images / We're just two gay Canadians").
Such clever delivery extends to vulgar-seeming tracks like "Gross Secret" and "Sex Object"— the latter of which which sets up sonic tension, suspense, and anticipation until the song's narrator discovers someone's sex toy (they told me the object in question was a part from an aquarium). And the 12 songs on the album are punctuated with seven skits, which, according to the duo, are divisive among their audience. Admittedly, I love them a lot, but Niles laughed and said I am their target for this. "On the record, the tone of the skits is supposed to be, if it's not apparent, we're calling up men in our lives and—," Caron explained, with Niles nishing her sentence: "—fucking with them."
The skits serve a dual purpose: to be funny ("Hey, Partner Here," a stoner skit where Niles and Caron riff off each other's introduction of the band in funny voices is the perfect example) and, importantly, show a side of women in music demanding things from their male peers and bosses. On "Callin' Collin" and "You've Changed," Niles and Caron respectively call photographer Colin Medley and their label boss Steven Lambke, from You've Changed Records, telling them the album art has dramatically changed to either a drawing of Melissa Etheridge or them giving the nger. "We wanted to show them how we could freak them out with our power," said Caron.
This playfulness is even implicit in the name Partner, which the duo dissected for me like so: Niles: "When we first started Partner, we used to feel really not adult and we felt like there was a difference between adults and us. Like, 'My partner and I just bought a house,' or 'my partner and I are working on a farm.'"
Caron: "It's a gay word that sounds really gay no matter who says it."
Niles: "No matter who says it! But people are still totally wondering if you're gay until 2045 if you use it. If you say partner, people will think you're gay."
Caron: "It's such a powerful beautiful word. Our relationship view from the outside is ambiguous in some ways. We're best friends and songwriting together—"
Niles: "Partners in crime when we do crimes. It's just light-hearted. It's one of those things about the modern world that's hilarious, like calling their boyfriend their partner. Obviously it means you're serious or whatever. We thought it was funny to fuck with all of that. Gay, straight, grown-up, not grown-up."
All this joking around is serious business for Partner, however. They assume a respectful tone when talking about fun—especially what it means to be able to have fun in 2017. "It's probably privileged first of all," Niles admitted. "Definitely, 100 percent. I think we've said this before but... you're lucky to still be feeling any type of joy in 2017 or [to] spread your joy a little bit." Caron added, "We wrote [the album] from a completely joyful place. That net positivity in the world, you know, it can be helpful. I was just feeling so good, feeling so true, and... like I transcended my ego for the first time and felt free."
This emphasis on positivity comes from being true to themselves—something that's explicit in their songs. They are queer and write about relationships with women (like "Woman of My Dreams," and "Angel in Ontario"), yet are careful of pronouns or experiences too limiting to their fans. "You might not have necessarily, literally, felt every sensation," Niles explained, with respect to their songwriting. "Because we don't want only lesbians to like our music. We want bi, pan, straight ... We want asexual people to be able to relate to our music."
"We're lucky to live in 2017 where it's normal to care about stuff like that," she added. "It might not have occurred to us [before.] I think even in our old bands we weren't thinking that hard about shit like that, trying to not be oppressive actively and stuff. It's de nitely a result of the time."
Partner very consciously maintain a delicate balance of making gross jokes and poking fun while simultaneously being considerate and thoughtful to not only themselves but to other people's lived experiences. And they do it all while ripping the shit out of some burly rock riffs.
On the skit titled "The World Needs A Good Band," Caron's father, a PEI schoolteacher, tells the girls: "The world needs a good band right now—a really good band. One that is going to excite people again, like KISS." And Partner seem poised to find a limelight bright enough to blast their brand of rock music to broader audience. Not only are they fun, but they occupy a canonical rock sound that deeply hits against the foundation that sound was built upon, which they try to make accessible for so many other groups of people. Caron and Niles may not seem like they are on any real revolutionary rock music precipice but they are and they can make a difference. "One [reviewer] said that she hopes that, instead of Pinkerton, 13-year-old girls get a Partner [album] for Christmas," said Caron. To which Niles replied, perfectly: "Fuckin' right."
Sarah MacDonald is an assistant editor at Noisey Canada. Follow her on Twitter.