For many, one of the pandemic’s silver linings was extra family time. Quarantines, self-isolation, remote work, virtual schooling, and the prolonged domestic existence caused by the coronavirus – especially for musicians used to touring, live gigs, and studio work – forced artists to re-examine how they earned a living, and to develop new skills.

For classically-trained musicians (and SOCAN members) Drew Jurecka and wife Rebekah Wolkstein, who met in music college and perform together in the Payadora Tango Ensemble, this meant taking a deep dive into the unknown world of video production. They decided to take their three daughters along.

Thanks to his ongoing production work and a steady stable of clients, Jurecka, a veteran of the Toronto music scene – who’s written for or played on more than 150 albums, and created arrangements for artists ranging from Hailee Steinfeld and Dua Lipa to Bahamas and Royal Wood – already had a home studio built before the pandemic hit. So, he was kept busy. Meanwhile, Wolkstein saw her regular gigs vanish overnight. She was also tasked with helping her three daughters – Sylvie (8); Annie (6); and Maya (one-and-a-half) – complete their schoolwork. This left a void that she needed to fill. That’s how the Wolkstein Jurecka Family Orchestra was born.

Flash back to March 2020. When COVID-19 suddenly cancelled all of Wolkstein’s performances, she set about to create a family music video. The first was their take on the Shirley Temple tune, “An Old Straw Hat.”

“I’ve always loved jazz, and grew up with Rodgers and Hammerstein musicals and stuff from the Great American Songbook,” is how Wolkstein describes the choice. Drew produced, recorded and arranged the song while Rebekah filmed the video. Both created simple choreographed moves for the daughters. The response was overwhelming; the video has already eclipsed 15,000 views. Wolkstein was on to something. Not to mention, she was also having fun.

So, they made another video, “Like My Sister.” The mother of three wrote this original song in between nursing Maya. The composition speaks to the joys – and the pains – of sibling bonds. “Sylvie and Annie were fighting, and it got me thinking about their relationship,” says Wolkstein. “So, one night, rocking my baby to sleep with my iPhone in my hand, I typed out the lyrics. I had to edit it down and make sure it had the best rhyme scheme, but all the material came easily and straight from watching how my kids do, and do not, get along throughout the day.” In this newest video Sylvie and Annie play violin, piano, harp, and sing, while baby Maya also dances and sings along.

What’s next for the The Wolkstein Jurecka Family Orchestra? Wolkstein has already penned a new song: “Years from Today,” on how children yearn for adulthood and adults yearn for childhood, and just needs to rally the family together to shoot the video.

On top of the orchestra’s success, Jurecka recently received his first-ever Grammy nomination, for his string arrangement work on the Dua Lipa song, “Don’t Start Now.” During the pandemic, the married couple also found time to collaborate and co-write songs together for the first time. “This project has definitely brought us into a different creative sphere than we were in before the pandemic, which has been a lot of fun,” says Wokstein.

“What’s come out of this experience for Rebekah and I is that it gave us a framework to collaborate as creators of music,” says Jurecka. “We’ve always had a good collaborative relationship as players, and have worked together in groups, but we hadn’t really done any co-writing up to this point. We’ve even pitched a few kids’ TV shows, and landed one synch in a pilot – which I can’t name until it airs.”

Charmed listeners can support the family orchestra on Patreon.

Tango in the Dark

As if motherly tasks, writing songs in the middle of the night, and playing the odd virtual show weren’t enough, Jurecka and Wolkstein also made a film with their band (Payadora Tango Ensemble) and PointeTango – a group of talented ballet/tango dancers from Buenos Aires. Tango in the Dark features the dancing of Erin Scott-Kafadar and Alexander Richardson, and the score is original music composed by the ensemble. Richardson is also the director of the movie, which takes a journey into the shadows and the mysteries of the city, and tells a tale of two dancers moving to the rhythms of the night in the Argentine capital. You can stream the film online and pay what you can, and it’s also set to be part of various Fringe Festivals in 2021-22.

“I know where I’m going, and I’m not the type who hesitates and questions themselves a thousand times once I have a plan. On the other hand, I do take time to properly analyze things; I never make a decision on a whim. I trust my abilities and my team.”

So says a very pregnant Catherine Simard, who welcomes us to her terrace on a hot July day. During our interview, she reclines lightly, hands on her belly, in what comes across as an introspective stance – the better to take stock of the last, dazzling year at her agency La Maison Fauve, her “Little Company,” as Alain Bashung sings in the film of the same name.

“I actually hope that we don’t grow,” she admits. “The game plan was to have no more than six employees, and to take on just a few projects, but to complete them from A to Z. We have two motion designers, 3D animators, and designers – who also make video content for Star Académie, that we outsource, which allows us to be even more diversified – who are part of the team, especially for the virtual reality project Astéria.”

Catherine Simard, Patrice Michaud

With Patrice Michaud

La Maison Fauve: booking, management, and record label. Like so many small businesses in the music industry, the agency is multi-pronged. Skills are diversified by providing one or more of these components at a time. Its roster includes artists as diverse as Michel Rivard, Eli Rose, Vincent Vallières, Dominique Fils-Aimé, Philippe Brach, Patrice Michaud, and newcomer Ariane Roy, chosen as this year’s Révélation Radio-Canada and among the SOCAN members to Watch in 2021.

“Artists often question themselves, and they like knowing that we have a plan,” says Simard. “We’d only been around for 18 months when the pandemic hit. We were lucky, because many of our artists were in a songwriting phase, so we didn’t take too big a hit from shows being cancelled or postponed. And we got management fees as revenues. Streaming revenues also helped. But that said, because we’re a small company, we were able to cut our operating costs without touching the employees’ salaries; it was essential for me to keep my team. To top it all off, Patrice Michaud ended up hosting Star Académie, so diversification definitely helped us.”

Before establishing La Maison Fauve, Simard was General Manager of Spectra Musique, one of the branches of Équipe Spectra, founded by Alain Simard – the father of the Montréal International Jazz Fest and the Francofolies de Montréal, among other cultural institutions. But why in the world would Simard walk away from Spectra, her own father’s immensely successful enterprise?

“A combination of factors,” she replies. “Motherhood played a big part – I wanted less pressure, less work, not having to commute downtown to the Bell Centre, where Spectra has moved. But in the end, I work just as much here, except I dictate the pace. Our offices are 10 minutes’ walk from home, and the daycare centre is two blocks away – can’t beat that when it comes to work-life balance. I can be more involved without having to go out and see shows three nights a week. I was in charge of 20 artists at Spectra Musique, it’s very demanding,” she says laughing. “I no longer have to convince the people around the table to buy my ideas – if I have bad numbers, it’s on me. I’m totally comfortable with that.

“My father honestly believed I would thrive as the head of Spectra Musique after he sold his business to evenko. I would have had more growth potential with that company, but my goal isn’t to lead 25 employees and manage millions. With the pandemic, I clearly saw all the benefits of having my own business, and the flexibility to make my decisions.”

Catherine Simard, Vincent Vallières

With Vincent Vallières

Several artists at the end of their contract with Spectra Musique have followed Simard on her new adventure. Brigitte Matte (Anacrouse), who headed Spectra’s live-show branch at the time, was already Michel Rivard’s agent – a task she now shares with Simard. “Managing an artist is the most time-consuming aspect of everything,” says Matte. “But Michel is served better, no doubt! My four boys (Michel, Patrice, Philippe, and Vincent) followed me to Maison Fauve, but it was crucial for me to make space for women.”

After being on the Polaris Prize short list, jazz/R&B singer Dominique Fils-Aimé has fulfilled ed all expectations of her, and her live shows sell out in no time. “We have a big tour of Europe planned for her,” says Simard, clearly proud of her overseas booking partners. “Dominique had a label and a manager, I think she’s truly an exceptional artist. Developing an artist abroad – finding agents, establishing partnerships – is quite a task when you’re not in charge of record sales and distribution.”

Eli Rose was crowned Breakthrough Artist of the Year at the 2020 ADISQ Gala, and in 2021, it seems Ariane Roy is on her way to a similar feat. “Developing an artist without a good manager is like working for nothing,” says Simard.

Is there something missing in Québec’s music industry? “Two things,” she says. “Improved sharing of streaming revenues through a federal bill, and better visibility for French-language new releases on these platforms. Right now, you have to be determined to find it,” says Simard. “Also, we have to make sure that music gets to the ears of the younger generations. Renewing our audience is a priority, for me.”

What’s in the plans for Simard in the coming months, aside, obviously, from giving birth? “There will necessarily be too much on offer for the level of demand,” she says. “And it’s likely to go up, because during a year without shows, many artists went into a creative phase. A lot of records are going to come out at the same time and the artists will bump into each other on tour… The year ahead ain’t gonna be easy!”

Halfway through our conversation with young sensation Emanuel, whose debut album has been called “one of the most anticipated R&B albums of the year,” we’re both furiously googling Ethiopian jazz legends.

EmanuelThe London, Ont., singer’s parents came to Canada from Ethiopia about 40 years back, so we casually asked if he’d heard any EthioJazz growing up. “Oh yes, yes!” he says, excitedly. “I love tapping into Ethiopian jazz and Tizita [Ethiopian ballads].” We rave about Hailu Mergia and Tsegue-Maryam Guebrou, and offer to send him links to their music. “I love that you brought that up! And your pronunciations are right, too. Damn!” he laughs. “My mom would be laughing at both of us right now.”

Emanuel says that one day he’d love to make music inspired by that era. Family and roots are paramount to the singer-songwriter, who’s signed to Motown, had his own gigantic billboard in Times Square, and who appeared on the world’s radar last April thanks to Idris Elba. “Those things [billboards and rave reviews] are great,” he says. “It’s amazing to feel the support from the label, but nothing beats that human connection, whether it’s people responding to you being onstage, or telling you how they felt when they heard your music.”

And how does he keep his feet on the ground? “It’s easy to stay grounded when you’re close to your roots, but I do have my moments when conversations need to be had,” he says. “My mother’s a wise woman, and she has a beautiful way of reminding me to stay humble.”

Emanuel has been hearing from a lot of listeners since his debut single “Need You,” which Elba helped promote with his legion of followers on social media last year, and his album ALT THERAPY, dropped on June 16, 2021. Emanuel says he intended the album to be “something people can sit with in times of stillness, or if they’re seeking healing – and people have responded to that. There have been days when I’ve woken up to some really beautiful messages.

“The song was speaking to a deep yearning, of how much I needed the people around me”

“Nobody can take that away from me,” he says. “Nobody can take away those moments of pure love. I’m talking about how the music healed me, and I love that people can hear that. It’s definitely a blessing.”

Emanuel, who says his interest in music has always been based on hearing people’s stories, shares some deeply personal ones on his debut album. The super-catchy “Addiction,” which he says is about “the life of addiction I was living,” is just one example. “I was reflecting on some of the bad relationships I’d been in, and my past toxic behaviour,” he says, recalling the song’s genesis. “The way I was approaching life, I wasn’t leaving room for help, and room to grow and be present.

“It was easy to scrutinize my behaviour, but ‘Addiction’ acknowledges that feeling of stopping a cycle and realizing how much it took from me. When I came up with the lyrics, it reminded me of that fear and anxiety” some of us feel when we’re in a plane that’s descending, he says, adding that the song came together shortly after his producers played him the beat one morning.

“Prodigal son fell asleep with the swine,” is one of the heaviest lines in the song. “Yeah, that’s a visceral bar,” Emanuel says quietly. “I wanted to speak from that place without wallowing in it. I wanted to show the vulnerability, without co-signing bad behaviour.”

The joy he gets from connecting with listeners, and offering his music as therapy, became evident when he released the aforementioned “Need You” one month into the pandemic. Kardinal Offishall had sent the song to Idris Elba, who was recovering from COVID. Emanuel recounts that Elba said it really helped him, and that he wanted to share it so it could help other people. The movie star asked his followers on social media to submit images showing how they were coping with self-isolation, to create an “inspirational collage.” Within a day, more than 3,000 submissions for the collaborative video were submitted by people around the world.

Emanuel calls that chapter of his life a Cinderella story. Describing the song, the singer-songwriter says he was “speaking to a feeling, a deep yearning, of how much I needed the people around me, how much I needed God, and all the other things in this world that give me life.”

He says the pandemic helped him learn how to appreciate stillness, and to embark on a road to self-discovery and healing. “I’ve been taking time to think about how I can have better relationships and build stronger ones, and it’s given me time to think a lot about my future,” Emanuel says, adding that it’s also provided time to “heal from having a negative view of myself, and a chaotic lifestyle [he once led].

“I strongly believe that everybody goes through this on the road to self-discovery, and so I felt it was the perfect thing to talk about on the record.”