Alex nevsky

Photo: John Londono

Featured in any and all Québec media outlets for months on end, Alex Nevsky can say one thing unpretentiously: the timing couldn’t be better to release Nos Eldorados, an album that goes well beyond the pop compromise for which he seemed destined.

Nevsky’s life changed completely after the release of Himalaya mon amour during the summer of 2013: an impressive harvest of awards et the 2014 ADISQ Gala, radio hit upon radio hit, several SOCAN No. 1 Song Awards, and an audience of two million viewers who watch him every week on La Voix Junior. “Let’s just say that it’s much more difficult to act like an idiot on the street,” says Nevsky. “I allow myself to anyways, because I can’t forget to live my life throughout all of this. I don’t want to go ‘all-in’ in this game.”

Without being entirely tainted by the songwriter’s meteoric rise, this third album does nonetheless touch upon many mirages in life. Where Leloup had his dome, an illusory crystal sphere that was a refuge for “time’s desperadoes,” Nevsky has his Eldorados, utopic havens that are both feared and desired.

“The Eldorado is my dream country, a fantastic place where two lovers live,” he says. “Those are songs that I write when I’m in love. The basic romantic emotion is very strong and I really get a kick out of it,” adds the 30-year-old singer-songwriter, who admits to having lived through three different relationships during his latest creative phase.

“But the Eldorado is also a utopia, a mirage,” he says. “Take ‘L’enfer c’est les autres’ (‘Hell is Other People’), for example. In it, I sing about my radio-hit inflated ego. I’m turning the mirror on myself and, looking at myself, I realize that I, too, can be mediocre and ugly. It’s very important to me to reveal that side of me, but I didn’t want to do a whole album about that. That would’ve been way too depressing!”

“I thought it was the worst time ever to not try different things. It would’ve been pathetic if I’d stayed in the comfort zone of the previous record.”

Not quite depressed, Nevsky did nonetheless live through very intense periods of self-doubt during the recording of his third album. Songs such as “Le cœur assez gros” (“A Heart so Stout”), “La beauté” (“Beauty”), and especially “Réveille l’enfant qui dort” (“Awake the Sleeping Child”), a duo with rapper Koriass, all took a long time to fully bloom.

“I was in the studio for seven months. . . It’s ridiculous!” says Nevsky. “Anyway, it’s always like that. I’m unable to finish a song in one go! ‘Réveille l’enfant,’ for example, I started writing in February on my phone. When we were in the studio, we twisted it, deconstructed it… Nothing worked. I started hating it and decided to get rid of it completely. And then we had this idea of inviting Koriass to participate. If we had canned the album in two weeks, I know I would’ve missed out of gorgeous musical moments like that one.”

Nevsky worked once again with producer Alex McMahon and mixer Gabriel Gratton, frequent collaborators who also helped with arrangements. With their assistance, the Granby-born artist now flirts with electro, and even forays into tropical indie pop on ‘La beauté,’ and dancehall on the title track. “We decided to go all in, to take the songs as far as we wanted to,” the songwriter confides. “I thought it was the worst time ever to not try different things. It would’ve been pathetic if I’d stayed in the comfort zone of the previous record.”

Nevertheless, with that amount of success, it would’ve been all too easy to stick to the radio-friendly formula of yore. Nevsky does admit, out of sheer honesty, that he did succumb to that temptation by launching an early single from the album, “Polaroïd,” last summer.

“I felt tremendous pressure to perform on the radio and wanted to get rid of it,” he recalls. “I knew ‘Polaroïd’ would be a hit, and that radio stations would follow. When it started climbing up the charts, it relieved a great amount of stress. It allowed me to veer off and try other stuff.”

In other words, just as on Himalaya mon amour, the singer-songwriter doesn’t consider pop as a means to an end, but as an efficient way to captivate an audience. “The trick is to hook them with a huge chorus and bring them in to live the rest of the song after that,” he says. “During my concerts, it’s not necessarily my biggest hits that I like playing the most; I prefer doing the densest and most poetically refined songs. Those are the significant songs to me.”

Valerie Carpentier lived through the tsunami of La Voix in 2013, after she won the first edition of Québec’s version of the immensely popular TV show The Voice. Her first album came soon after (L’Été des orages, now certified gold), as well as a tour that saw her perform in more than 50 cities across the province. Now, after a well-deserved rest, she’s back with a renewed, warrior-like energy – and a new album Pour Rosie, on which she penned 11 of the 13 songs. We met with the carpe diem-imbued singer-songwriter.

“I’ve always loved writing, ever since I was a child,” she says right from the start. “Writing songs requires a connection with oneself… I let myself live, I loved and lost, and I discovered parts of myself I was unaware of.” Evidently, Carpentier doesn’t shy away from describing her creative process. She goes on: “It’s in the face of adversity that you learn about yourself and grow.” Her genuine quest for authenticity overshadows the often clichéd nature of such statements, and it’s backed by a candour that cuts short any blasé or morose reaction. “I’m an optimist, it’s super important to me!” she says guilelessly.

“I’m so at peace with the music I write that I think I won’t even read the critics.”

Valérie CarpentierCarpentier, who’s in tip-top shape, was inspired by the recent vagaries of a career that hit the ground running, a particularly tempestuous breakup, and her travels. “I’m so at peace with the music I write that I think I won’t even read the critics,” she says. “I used to be very insecure about my femininity, about my music, etc. I feel like I did a lot of things to seek validation from the audience, but I no longer feel that way… This allows me to truly go back to something more real and authentic.”

Her new full-length record has a clear thread, she says: “There’s a concept behind my album. Rosie is someone looking for love in all the wrong places. She a bit like an alter ego, someone extreme and lost at the same time. The further you get into the album, the more it’s me talking. In the end, I’m on my own, which is to say you need to find love within yourself.”

Musically speaking, she delves into silky-smooth arrangements, courtesy of Jean Massicotte (Pierre Lapointe, Lhasa, Patrick Watson): “He’s fabulous!” says Carpentier. “I can sometimes get weird and describe my songs as vignettes, like ‘It’s nice out, but the girl is sad and she’s looking at the boats by the pier,’ or ‘I’m in a train in 1960s France,’ and he totally got where I wanted to go with that.”

Once they both understood her “movies,” the pair struck the right balance about the substance. “I wanted ambiance, lots of textures, cute instruments, and Jean respected my intentions amazingly well,” says Carpentier. “I didn’t want the singing to be buried in the mix, I wanted the music to support and lighten the lyrics. It really is built around the lyrics, they definitely are songs.” Of course, Carpentier’s favourite instrument, her rugged and sensual voice, is once again the star of the show.

Content with such crystal-clear answers, we dare ask if the idea of writing a book might one day be tempting. “I’ll definitely write a book someday, no doubt about it, but I do believe I’m too young at the moment,” she says. “You need to have something to say and the stamina to see it through… I love the French language so much that I’d need to feel like I’m honouring it as best I can.”

She concludes with clarity and confidence: “I don’t think my mission is to make music, I think it’s more important than that.”

Case closed.

If you were to scout out the most improbable path to writing a No. 1 hit single, the one car you’d see barrelling down that winding road now would be driven by Toronto singer-songwriter/DJ/producer Shaun Frank.

The Chainsmokers’ zeitgeist-surfing EDM love song “Closer,” featuring Halsey, was co-written by Frank, along with the band’s Andrew Taggart (ASCAP). In mid-October of 2016, “Closer” had been No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 for nine weeks, on the Canadian Soundscan chart for six weeks, and on the Canadian Top 40 chart for two weeks. The official lyric video had racked up more than 430 million YouTube views.

The song itself is anomalous, a pop-ified electro track that recalls punk band Blink 182 and features a two-ships-passing-in-the-night romance that’s far more “emo” than it is “dance.”

“Both me and ‘Drew from The Chainsmokers, we grew up listening to Blink 182, Taking Back Sunday and a lot of post-hardcore stuff,” Frank tells Words & Music from Los Angeles, in between two-a-day songwriting sessions. “My first band played on the Warped Tour with Blink 182, so it’s a very, very cool throwback. And when we were writing the song, we talked about all the bands that we came up with. Canadian bands Alexisonfire, Billy Talent, that style of lyrics, but just that kind of lyrical writing where it comes from an honest place, and that’s kind of how we landed on the idea.”

That a song like this was co-written by Frank, who once spent years crossing Canada in a Sum 41-inspired rock-ska band (Crowned King), and whose last band (The Envy) was signed by Gene Simmons, simultaneously makes no sense at all… and complete sense.

Frank says he constantly made beats on his laptop while The Envy was touring, but had “no intention of ever making a career out of it.” That changed when the band got off the road and he found himself desperately needing money to live.

“As my last band sort of went down, I was literally singing on these dance records to pay the bills,” says Frank. “I’d get $500 to sing on a record that my name wasn’t even on, to pay the bills. That’s how I got started [in dance music]. I didn’t know this was going to happen.”

What did happen was that one of the records on which he sang – “Unbreakable,” by Spanish DJ Marien Baker – became a hit in her home country. Frank toured there with her and quickly immersed himself in EDM culture. He’s since worked with the likes of BORGEOUS, Oliver Heldens, DVBBS, KSHMR, and Steve Aoki.

Frank possesses two distinct tactical advantages as his acclaim continues to rise in dance music circles.

First, those hard years of being in a touring rock band means the life of a globe-trotting DJ is relatively luxurious in comparison. “The treatment is just amazing, so I always joke that this is my retirement,” says Frank with a laugh. “I put in my work in a band, and now I’m retired, and this is my retirement gift.” It was touring as the opening act for The Chainsmokers where Frank wrote “Closer” with Taggart.

Secondly, his commitment to thoughtful writing and subject matter represents a rare exploit in a genre that’s often more focused on the beat, and the energy songs generate, rather than their lyrics.

“Yeah, honest lyrics,” says Frank, distilling his songwriting ethos to its essence. “Everyone’s always looking for honesty, and I’m always looking for something new that I haven’t heard before, a new angle on that. There’s only so many human emotions that people can relate to, but there’s a million different ways to talk about them.”

Another aspect that’s been working well with those lyrics is the fact that, of late, it’s often not Frank singing them. Whether it’s the talents of Halsey featured on The Chainsmokers’ track, Ashe for the single “Let You Get Away” or Frank and KSHMR’s team-up with frequent collaborator Delaney Jane on a song like “Heaven,” the female voice has featured prominently on many of the EDM songs he’s been involved with thus far.

“I sit down and write from the heart. I think I’m only one of a handful of electronic producers that like the lyrics.”

“I really like the way that the lyrics that I write sound when they’re sung by a female,” says Frank. “It’s funny that it happened that way, because the plan was always for me to sing my own music. And I’m going to, but so far everything has worked better using the female voice. That’s the cool thing about making dance music as a producer and an artist. There really are no rules. You just do whatever’s best for the song. If it sounds great sung by this person, then this person sings it.”

There’s one last secret element to Frank’s songwriting that positions him uniquely amongst his EDM peers – melancholy. The songs he’s been part of are, frankly, a touch sadder than standard dancefloor fare.

“I don’t know. Maybe I’m depressed,” says Frank, pondering the hint of gloom that’s in many of his songs. “No, I’m not depressed. I sit down and write from the heart. I think I’m only one of a handful of electronic producers that like the lyrics. A lot of people get vocals submitted to them, or just care about the beats. I’m involved in the whole process, from writing the lyrics to the mixing and mastering, until it’s all done. And so the songs are very honest and they’re all about things in my life. That’s where I come from, the singer-songwriter approach.”

As that winding road to success rapidly straightens out for Frank with each new co-write, feature and tour date, the one thing that remains strange to him – a person who’s spent more than a decade at his craft – is what getting a number one song is like.

“Everyone said that if I ever had a hit like this it would change my life,” he says. “I just didn’t realize how fast it would change things.”