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#KingsOfSwagger: Why Karl Wolf’s musical success is no ‘Illusion’

Sailun Tires

One night in Dubai many years ago, on his way to see Michael Jackson in concert, a young Karl Wolf found himself riding in a hotel elevator when the doors opened and in walked . . . Michael Jackson.

“He came in with a bunch of people,” Wolf recalls, describing an encounter less memorable for the King of Pop’s appearance than his smell. “When you watch famous people, you don’t connect smells to them, but when someone’s in front of you and there’s all this cologne . . . it was almost like proof that someone larger than life was in my vicinity. Ever since then, I’ve realized that when you walk by a fan, the experience can be so indescribable and intangible. No matter how close or far away you are, you have to be conscious of the impression you’re making.”


Karl Wolf - Cover Feature / SWAGGER Magazine
#KingsofSwagger cover feature with Karl Wolf (Photo: Michael Stuckless / SWAGGER)

Wolf seems to have no problem creating a strong impression now that he’s a recording artist himself. His most recent single, “Illusion,” tells a vivid story of heartbreak and deception that draws a distinction of what feels like the “magic” of a great relationship vs. what turns out to be a decidedly one-sided affair. The song, which has since been given the remix treatment by Canadian hip-hop artist Ramsay Almighty, blends a strong drum beat with a distinctly international inflection that may remind listeners of ‘Africa,” the remake that Wolf readily admits put him on the map.

Originally recorded by Toto, Wolf’s version (which featured Culture) was recently included as No. 26 on the top 150 most played songs of all time by Billboard and Nielsen.

“Without that song, there would be no Karl Wolf today,” he says, harkening back to when he first heard it at the age of ten. “I loved the way it started out (with singers singing) in unison, I loved the whole record. I just wanted to remake it for me. It was a selfish moment in that sense, but a genuine one.”


Wolf was born Carl Abou Samah and came to Montreal with his parents, who had fled with their then three-year-old son to Dubai from the civil war in Lebanon. “Wolf” was a nickname earned not on stage by on the basketball court, where as the shortest and quickest of his team he was likened to the Michael J. Fox character in Teen Wolf.

Though he’s been in Canada since he was 17, Wolf called his last album “The Export” — the first volume in a projected trilogy of releases. He says he plans to explore his past, present and future as an outsider finding his place.

“We came here for good reasons, but we left (Lebanon) due to bad situations,” he explains. “I’ve always felt like I’m an export somewhere. I wish I had grown up here. Now I have  friends here, I’m Canadian. Some of my childhood friends are also here, but I still wonder, why did this happen to my family? Why was there this displacement?”


Karl Wolf - Thompson Toronto Hotel rooftop / SWAGGER Magazine
Pool side at the Thompson Toronto Hotel rooftop. (Photo: Michael Stuckless / SWAGGER)

Wolf’s solution to fitting in was working hard and constantly looking for opportunity. His musical career began behind the scenes, co-producing and writing songs for others until  a series of major breaks. These included replacing the lead singer of a Canadian pop act called Sky and a major role in Star Academie, the Quebec-based reality show that generated Canada’s best-selling album in 2003.

“When I was mentoring artists at the time I realized they wouldn’t show up like I would. They would rather go out at night,” he says. “I started seeing a work ethic issue with some of these artists. It’s proved to me that hard work defines who makes it. There are some people from those early years who still hit me up to listen to their demo. I’ll be like, ‘It’s been 15 years. You haven’t progressed in 15 years?’”

For Wolf, progress means continually reevaluating his strategy, which includes working with a U.S. management company that will propel the distribution of his work on a North American scale. It also helps explain why tracks like “Illusion” came out in advance of The Export Vol. 2.


“I’ve realized the game has changed with Spotify,” he says. “It’s okay to put out a song out here and there. We had a good conversation with the label. We’ll build it up and finally have the release of the album.”

And at that point, when you look for the album, you’ll see a collection already packed with Karl Wolf hits. Nothing magical about it — just hard work and talent.



Photographer:  Michael Stuckless / @m.stuckless
Creative Director:  Rai Allen / @raiallen
Art Director:  April Tran / @aprltrn
Stylist:  Cherry Wang / @cherrywang07
Styling Assistant:  Manuela Bartolomeo
Makeup Artist:  Leanne Herman / @leanne.herman
Editorial Director & Executive Producer:  Steven Branco / @chiefswaggerofficer
Location:  Thompson Hotel Toronto, Lobby Bar & Rooftop / @thompsontoronto



Cover Look:

Suit, Philip, Available at Philip.
Shirt, Paul Smith, Available at Nordstrom.
Pocket square and belt, Pal Zileri, Available at at Via Cavour or Nordstrom.
Watch, Paul Hewitt, Available at The Bay or
Silver bracelet, Wrist & Rye, Available at TNT or
Beaded bracelet, Kyle Roberts, Available at
Shoes, Gucci, Available at Nordstrom.

Look 2:

Sweater, Brunello Cuccinelli, Available at Via Cavour or Neiman Marcus
Shirt, Theory, Available at Simons or
Pants, Rad Hourani, Available at Simons or
Watch, Paul Hewitt, Available at The Bay or
Fedora, Goorin Bros, Available at Goorin Bros or Nordstrom.

Look 3

Shirt, Thomas Henry Made, Available at
Pants, John Varvartos, Available at Philip or
Sunglasses, Hugo Boss, Available at Simons or
Watch and braided anchor bracelet, Paul Hewitt, Available at The Bay or
Silver bracelet, Wrist & Rye, Available at TNT or
Beaded bracelet, Kyle Roberts, Available at
Fedora, Goorin Bros, Available at Goorin Bros or Nordstrom.

Look 4

Denim jacket, Acne Studios, Available at TNT or
Shirt and pants, Thomas Henry Made, Available at
Tie, Z Zegna, Available at Philip or
Sunglasses, Carrera, Available at Simons or
Watch, Paul Hewitt, Available at The Bay or
Silver bracelet, Wrist & Rye, Available at TNT or
Beaded bracelet, Kyle Roberts, Available at
Hat, Goorin Bros, Available at Goorin Bros or Nordstrom.
Sneakers, Adidas, Available at TNT or


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