Music brings us together; it helps us heal in these trying times. Artists, and their songs, fill a void when we’re surrounded by emptiness and uncertainty. Aaron Allen, from London, Ontario, is one of many musicians answering the public’s call for new music during the pandemic. Stuck at home, with the family tattoo business – The Taste of Ink (see sidebar) – closed, he’s enjoying time with his wife and two children, and writing away the days.

“I’ve never been busier,” says Allen, who recently landed two Country Music Association of Ontario (CMAO) nominations for both Male Artist and Rising Star of the Year.  “At the beginning, it was hard,” he adds. “Us writers don’t love to do the Skype thing, but now it’s like being in the same room, and I’m firing on all cylinders, all day, every day, doing lots of co-writes for myself and for other artists.”

Allen released Highway Mile on April 3, a six-song EP co-produced with CMAO Producer of the Year Jeff Dalziel. There was a bit of trepidation about putting out new music in the middle of COVID-19, but he figured it was worth the risk.

“I would probably be in jail if I didn’t have songwriting”

The Taste of Ink: Tattoo Artist on the Side

Allen and his wife opened a hair salon and tattoo shop about a decade ago. Realizing tattooing pays more, they morphed the store into The Taste of Ink. Allen says it’s a career where you constantly learn and grow. The songwriter sports many of his own permanent markings of the trade. Asked what they mean, he laughs. “When the shop first opened our apprentices needed someone to work on, so I volunteered… I would not be this covered if I didn’t get them for free!” There are times when Allen’s two vocations intertwine: people come into the shop, share a story, and it works its way into one of his songs. One of the standout tracks on the new EP is “Good Tattoo,” an ode to his wife and their everlasting love: “Our love is like a good tattoo/ It might fade a little along the way, but trust me babe, it’s here to stay.”

“At this time people need music more than ever,” he says. The strategy worked: online plays of the new record have already eclipsed two million streams, and continue to climb. The song connecting most with people, and the one recently released to radio, is “Can We Go Back.” Recorded just two weeks before the pandemic hit, it’s a love song to his wife and a nostalgic nod about returning to a simpler time, when they were young and carefree. Allen sings: “I wonder if that tree’s still there/ The one we carved our initials in/ Back when we were kids/ It didn’t really matter where we were at / As long as you were shotgun, holding my hand.”

As if the new EP was not enough, in May, Allen added a publishing deal with Arts & Crafts Music to his resume. He’s excited about expanding his repertoire, exploring more synchs, writing in other genres, and expanding from the sometimes-formulaic structure and rigidity of writing the Nashville way. “In synch you can break some rules, and say some things you normally can’t say in country music,” he says. “I just love songwriting… it’s nice to try something different and learn something new.”

Growing up in London, Allen started penning songs to express his feelings. It quickly became his lifeline. When he was 13, his mother got ill; it hit Allen hard. “She had terminal cancer for many years and I didn’t take it well,” he recalls. “I was really angry. I did not like school. I had this guitar and I locked myself in my room, just shut the world out writing songs.”

Twenty-five years on, Allen still spends endless hours locked away, alone in his home studio, writing away the days. “It’s a part of me,” says. “It saved my life when I was a kid and it’s therapeutic; I would probably be in jail if I didn’t have songwriting.”

Both natural-born French-speakers, Matt Lang and Laurie LeBlanc are eying country music’s Klondike with recent albums performed in Shania Twain’s language, as part of a charm offensive targeting the rest of Canada (ROC) and the world beyond.

Though they may hold varying views on topics such as music and love, these two SOCAN members are driven by similar forces and, more importantly, by similar goals. Matt Lang, originally from Québec, isn’t a stranger to performing in English: his earlier, self-titled EP did quite well on Apple Music’s national top country playlist.

Francophone Acadian Laurie LeBlanc, for his part, is trying to break out in a second language for the first time, following the release of the single “The Bigger The Better,” a song written by Irish singer-songwriter Don Mescall, whom he befriended at a dance and country music conference he attended in France. As if all roads led to the English language. As if, for LeBlanc, it had been in the cards all along.

“I’m originally from Cap-Pelé,” says LeBlanc, “and my family moved to Bouctouche when I was 10 years old. People really love their country music out here! When I was a kid, my parents and grandparents were listening to songs by Charley Pride, Kenny Rogers, and other singers of their generation. Personally, I was influenced by 1990s singers instead. That’s when Alan Jackson, and then Zac Brown, and all the rest, started out. So, listening to English songs is what got me started.”

Matt Lang – or Mathieu Langevin, to those who went to school with him in Maniwaki – also grew up listening to music from South of the border. His thing is New Country, Music City’s current sound. Still, when he hit Nashville in 2018, the big guy from Vallée-de-la-Gatineau, in the Outaouais region of Western Québec, didn’t speak a word of English.

“It wasn’t easy at first,” he recalls. “I wasn’t good at speaking English, I mean, really not good. I had some basic knowledge due to the fact that, after all, I was raised near an Indian reservation and had chums who spoke English. I don’t know, maybe I was shy… But I had to learn to speak English after I moved to Nashville. Obviously, I still have an accent. But I know it doesn’t really show when I’m singing. It took a lot of work – in fact, I had three coaches for voice, and one for pronunciation. It didn’t happen overnight!”

Another version of yourself

Laurie LeBlanc

Laurie LeBlanc

Before recording songs for When It’s Right It’s Right, Laurie LeBlanc was known for “Moi itou Mojito,” and a handful of deliciously dry, humorous songs. The English lyrics that the New Brunswick artist chooses to sing today, however, are more serious. His lyrics are momentous, composed, and even romantic. On “Another Night Like This, he begs his new girlfriend to see him again after their first date. On “The Bigger The Better,” the character he’s impersonating has just been through a breakup, and is drowning his sorrows in a bar. Nobody knew he was capable of such drama.

“Without claiming that Don Mescall’s lyrics are darker,” says LeBlanc, “he writes about stuff that’s less festive than mine, and I love the result… Honestly, I must also say that this first English-language album blends together plenty of country pop, and maybe country-rock, influences. My producer Jason Barry and I discussed that… Maybe I’m also searching for my English voice. In French, I’ve had my own sound for the last couple of albums.”

A comparatively modest artist, Laurie LeBlanc still is a dreamer, proving that a man can be ambitious without being pretentious. The first song on his album plainly describes the opportunities the musician is hoping to seize.

Just like his Maritime colleague does, Matt Lang lays his cards on the table from the initial bars of “More,” the first song on his new album. Bent on success, he’s determined to the point of breaking down doors. “I’m saying this quite humbly,” he explains. “I’m not one to pat myself on the back in real life, but I honestly think I have lots of drive. I seem to be unable to stay home doing nothing. I don’t just wait for the phone to ring. I create my own opportunities, but while respecting other people. I’m a team player. Always have been.”

Remembering where you come from

Matt Lang

Matt Lang

The fact that Laurie LeBlanc and Matt Lang dare to acknowledge the pull of the rest of Canada, doesn’t mean that they’re denying their true nature. Authenticity is a country music staple, and these two artists aren’t denying it. Far from it. LeBlanc’s arrangements for “Belle of the Ball” and “All In” echo the fast violin work and emblematic reels for which Acadian music is known.

Lang, on the other hand, alludes to the geographic isolation of the land of his birth in “Getcha” (an auto mechanic’s fantasy along an isolated road) and “Better When I Drink.” Instead of being presented as a nice place to live, the city becomes a symbol for special occasions and boozy parties. This duality between city and country spaces is an ongoing concern in LeBlanc’s career and writing.

“In Quebec, all TV networks are concentrated in Montréal,” says Lang. “When you’re coming from far away, let’s say from Gaspésie or Abitibi, whatever, it’s as if your dream was, like, pretty unreachable.  When you’re coming from a remote area, you feel unable to get to [where you want to be]. I, for one, have always wanted to prove that wrong!”

Laurie LeBlanc, too, is hoping to make it beyond the limited territory to which he has so far restricted himself. Already very popular with Francophone Canadians, he realizes that he’ll have to climb the ladder all over again as he moves westward. He won the Male Country Artist of the Year at the Josie Music Awards last year, which helps. There is no point denying that the buzz is there, but the Canadian-American league isn’t an easy on to break into, partly because it’s a far more crowded field.

“I must admit that the English-language market is humongous!” says LeBlanc. “When I listen to the radio, there are artists there that I don’t even know who are releasing stuff, and it’s great production. In the Maritimes, our fans love and support us. We’re delighted, and we feel lucky. Let’s say that, back home, opportunities come to us more quickly… On radio, I’ll now be competing with Brett Kissel and all the rest, with major labels. We’ll have to see how it goes, but we’re happy with the product…

“I wasn’t raised on five course meals,” as one of his lyrics points out, but the self-produced musician already enjoys the support of top U.S. country artists. Blake Shelton writer Dallas Davidson, Don Shlitz, and Mike Reid (these last two, Grammy Award winners) are adding their names to his list of prestigious collaborators. And Matt Lang, too, is being backed by many big names, including Tebey and Danick Dupelle, who sense his star potential.

As if, in the end, the future of Canadian country music were destined to have a slight French accent.

Quebec master hip-hop producer Ruffsound meets rising beat-maker QuietMike on Génies en herbe, an album that was largely created at a cottage, along with their faithful accomplices Koriass and FouKi.

To the left, view the interview FouKi and Koriass gave to Paroles & Musique Editor Eric Parazelli about the Génies en herbe album, as a complement to this article.

“Mike is a natural. He always has great ideas. He’s truly fascinating to watch,” says Ruffsound at the other end of the line, talking about QuietMike, 13 years his junior. FouKi’s unwavering ally also has nice words for the guy he considers to be one of his mentors: “He’s a true warrior. He’s always evolving. It’s quite motivating.”

Marc Vincent has followed a warrior’s course. When he landed on the rap scene in the 2000s, there were few successful models to look up to for Quebec beat-makers. The young musician from Laval produced his “first potable beat” in 2005, Yvon Krevé’s  “J’représente.” The firepower of his compositions drew the attention of other local rap music greats, including Connaisseur Ticaso, Imposs, and Sans Pression – who called upon his services, as would several leaders of the new Rap québ’ wave (Yes Mccan, Souldia, Rymz) a few years later. Since then, the Ruffsound name has not only become synonymous with quality, but also with popularity, as evidenced by “Toutes les femmes savent danser” (by Loud), “Cinq à sept” (by Koriass), and “iPhone” (by FouKi) – three songs he’s co-produced, that are among the few pieces of their kind that have found commercial radio success.

The last of those three songs was coproduced with QuietMike. At the young age of 23, this producer already has a number of accomplishments to his credit; most are attributable to his work with FouKi, with whom he’s been developing outstanding chemistry since high school. QuietMike was introduced to beat-making at the very beginning of the decade, a time when he was exploring the possibilities of finger drumming on his MPC Machine. He hit a home run in 2017 with “Gayé,” a folk/reggae-tinged piece based on a sample from a song by the Moroccan artist Hindi Zahra.

That song was Ruffsound’s first contact with Mike’s repertoire. “I was floored,” says the veteran producer. “What a big jam!” Mike also has nothing but praise for Ruffsound’s work: “My initial contact with [Ruff’s music] was Koriass’s ‘Montréal-Nord’ and ‘Devenir fou,’” he says. “FouKi had introduced me to that, and I couldn’t believe how well done it was.”

So, it was with unmitigated enthusiasm that the two artists undertook their first-ever collaboration, in 2019, on “iPhone” and “No Offense” (both FouKi songs). “It was cool and super organic,” says Ruffsound. “We ordered griot music and made beats. If you’re somewhat familiar with Mike and his squad, you know that nothing’s ever complicated with them.”

“I’ll admit that I was kind of flabbergasted during our first session,” says Mike. “I had rarely made beats outside my close circle, so I was amazed to witness another technique, another approach. Ruff is less into sampling than I am. He built the track from A to Z.

“What I love doing most is collaborating,” he continues. “It’s really inspiring to all get together in a studio. Something’s lost when everyone is working at home, each in his corner. I’ve gone to U.S. studios with friends, and I was able to see that collaboration is the name of the game there. They have three producers side-by-side with laptops, and the workflow is always pretty fast. The guys are sending loops to one another, and they each work on them.”

It was in that spirit of collaboration that the two producers attended the Koriass and FouKi creative cottage in Morin-Heights last winter. “It all went very quickly,” Ryuffsound recalls. “We were creating beats while the other guys were throwing around ideas, writing verses, or having a beer on the couch. Mocy [the project’s engineer] was recording the guys’ voices as soon as they got moving into the vibe. The main thing is chemistry. You’ve got to be able to joke around and chill out while in the studio. If you keep silent too much, it’s not going to be good.”

“It wasn’t a pace I was quite used to”, says QuietMike. “I was a bit stunned at first, but I ended up learning a lot.”

Many of the beats used for “Génies en herbe” were written over one day when Ruffsound made a brief appearance. Others were re-worked, since they were based on sketches that had already been started with other his beat-making colleagues (Jay Century, June Nawakii, Alex Castillo, Realmind). “When we felt that the guys were a bit less inspired, we fed them beats that we already had on our computers. It always got the session going again right away,” says Ruffsound.

Afterwards, the two producers exchanged mock-ups in order to finalize the album.  Rousseau (a producer close to QuietMike) and Pops (the Clay and Friends guitar player) also participated. On account of the pandemic, Koriass and FouKi also had to finalize the album separately. “We were good responsible citizens, we didn’t cheat… Actually, FouKi was going to, but we stopped him,” jokes Ruffsound.

Since then, the veteran Ruffsound has started to enjoy his work with the young prodigy QuietMike. “We’re going to work together again, that’s for sure,” he promises. “Yeah, but it might be awhile…” cautions Mike in reference to the COVID-19 social distancing measures.

“I’m now sprucing up my gazebo to be able to entertain people,” adds his obviously more optimistic accomplice. “My backyard studio is going to be unbelievable!”