He’s known for his unifying, luminous anthems, his love of poetry, and his references to Duras or Falardeau. Ever eclectic, Alex Nevsky ventures down new paths on Chemin sauvage (Wild Road).

We reached him at his cozy home, surrounded by apple trees, in the small town of Rougemont, about 45 minutes east of Montréal – where the Granby-born ex-Montréaler is readying the release of his new album. His move to the countryside has had an effect on his writing, because Nevsky’s prose has become even more flowery than when he started his career; his lyrics are now strewn with bucolic images, smelling of lilac and hydrangea. “I wrote ‘On dérobera’ during Gilles Vigneault’s writing workshop in January of 2018,” he says. “To be honest, the bulk of these new texts truly reflect the call of nature. I hadn’t moved here yet, but it’s what I wanted; I was projecting myself here.”

Without going as far as to say this is a break from what the singer-songwriter has released to this point, this new album – released on the Musicor imprint (he was previously signed with Audiogram) – clearly feels like the start of a new, distinct cycle. This new direction wasn’t, however, influenced by his new-found family life, with toddlers. He promised himself that would never have an impact on his music.

“I was really afraid of repeating myself, which is common on one’s fourth album, or when artists become parents,” says Nevsky. “I was really afraid of becoming the kind of artist that starts writing about their child… I’ve seen too many people I really like fall into that kind of creative pattern in their late thirties… It’s something I was really apprehensive about, so I surrounded myself with a bunch of people I find inspiring.”

Gabriel Gagnon (Milk & Bone) and Clément Leduc (Geoffroy, Hologramme) are among those people, and they co-produced Chemin sauvage alongside Nevsky. The talented singer-songwriter went from regular airplay on the charts of CISM (the Université de Montréal radio station) to the set of the immensely popular TV talent show La Voix (the Québec franchise of The Voice) in record time. “Loto,” a song he recorded with the prodigious rappers of Alaclair Ensemble is about the luck he feels he’s had so far, professionally.

He hooked up with the Lower Canadians, as the band call themselves, in “a match that wasn’t necessarily natural,” but that he’d wanted to undertake for a long time, and Eman penned the flow and lyrics of the first verse on the track. Then, on “Courir à deux,” there’s a sample from Boule Noire’s repertoire, and Nevsky reveals an unexpectedly soulful side of his singing. “That came at the very, very end,” he says. “That song was initially much more nervous because of its piano lines, and [it was played at] a much faster tempo. We’d done that one with Étienne Dupuis-Cloutier and Gab, but we ended up throwing it away. When we realized we needed more songs at the end of the summer, I wanted to give it a second chance.”

Going out of his comfort zone, in other words. That was his leitmotif. Now, for the first time since “I’m Sticking on You,” from his 2010 album, Nevsky revisits “Frenglish” in some of his choruses – his duets with Claudia Bouvette and Sophia Bel being prime examples. “After ‘De Lune à l’Aube,’ I felt it was too easy,” he says. “But at the same time, I also felt like it was admitting my defeat when it comes to the challenge I gave myself to make an effort to honour the French language more. Now, I don’t know, maybe it’s more of an era thing. I don’t want to make an English-language album, but one thing’s for sure; when a sentence comes to me naturally in English, I make a conscious effort to give it some breathing room and be less restrictive.”

Free of complexes about linguistic issues, and ready to ignore the naysayers, the musician closes this new album with “Tout,” which he calls “almost a parody of Alex Nevsky.” The song is very likely to make it on commercial radio charts, thanks to its “ooh, ooh, ooh” chorus. Says Nevsky: “I was like, OK, I know I could use words here, because people are going to say all I do are songs with fucking ‘oohs’ and ‘aahs,’ and that’s all I know how to write, yada yada… I needed to make a decision, and it was a very conscious choice. I decided to go for it… That hesitation comes from a lot of comments I’ve received since I became quite popular, and a ton of jokes about me. But you can’t avoid the road you’ve travelled having an influence on your creations.”

Four years after Sun Leads Me On, which opened the gates to Europe, Montréal-based quartet Half Moon Run is poised to release its third album – one that will become, whether the band likes it or not, a test. Will A Blemish in the Great Light be the vessel through which the title prophecy becomes true, namely, to break into the American market and headline an arena tour? After all, they only need one big radio hit… “That’s exactly what our label’s people tell us,” says HMR’s Devon Portielje.

“I hope it doesn’t sound too dry when I say it, but what we’re after is good songwriting,” continues Portielje, Half Moon Run’s main composer, singer, guitarist, and multi-instrumentalist. He adds, to flesh out his statement, “Does our songwriting evoke the right emotions? Is the listener quickly bored by what they’re hearing? It’s a very delicate balance between a song that’s just repetitive enough for people to remember, and a song no one will remember.”

And that’s why, he goes on, “we rehearse our songs tirelessly, play them live and endlessly re-record them before we release them on an album; we want to eliminate anything superfluous and focus on the more emotional sections… [I write] 95% of the songs, but I often ask Conner [Molander, multi-instrumentalist] to choose between two lines in a verse, and he has the last word. I write on guitar and piano; mainly on guitar, because I’m not as talented on piano. I’ll often transpose a guitar melody on the piano to see what effect it has on it, and how it sometimes provokes new chord ideas.” The ideal scenario occurs when Devon already has a verse or two, a chorus, a melody, and then the rest of the band grabs that proto-song and fleshes it out with arrangements and rhythms.

Half Moon Run is currently touring Europe, but the band has never actually stopped touring since the guys spent the whole summer testing new material on their audience. Half the songs on A Blemish in the Great Light, for which the recording was completed last spring, have been played live. “It’s a critical phase of an album’s creative process, and it was much easier before we became popular,” says Portielje. “We played the songs on our first album extensively before recording them. People had no expectations since they didn’t know us. That’s how we test our material: ‘Ah! this passage of that song doesn’t seem to move the audience.’”

“I realized that when they were played on the radio, our recordings lacked depth; they came across as too soft.” — Devon Portielje of Half Moon Run

“I’m discovering that I’ve become a lot more unbiased about our songs when we’re playing them live,” says Portelje. “It’s very different from playing them in a rehearsal space. We can feel the energy level go up or down while we’re playing. After each show, we take about 15 minutes analyzing it, and how the public reacted to our songs.” One could venture the band’s fans have an influence on Half Moon Run’s songwriting, “but we could never say it officially, because of copyright issues,” laughs Portielje.

On A Blemish in the Great Light, Half Moon Run has adopted a more dazzling lyrical approach. “I remember being in a store at some point,” says Portelje, “and the radio was playing softly in the background… Then I thought someone had turned it off, but it was one of our songs playing. I realized that when they were played on the radio, our recordings lacked depth; they came across as too soft.” “Oomph-up the production” was the mission that HMR gave to veteran producer Joe Chiccarelli, who’s worked with the likes of Broken Social Scene, Eleni Mandell, The Strokes, Mika, White Stripes, and many more.

References to classic pop-rock songwriting are plentiful on this third offering, with many a tip of the hat to The Beatles and James Taylor, to name but a few. “Issac [Symonds, multi-instrumentalist] listened to a lot of soft-rock from the ’70s, we love that style of music,” says Portelje. “It’s very studious songwriting; there are thousands of influences and micro-references on the album, so it becomes hard to say one is more important than the other.

“Take [the single] ‘Favorite Boy,’ for example; I really wanted it to sound like Fleetwood Mac’s ‘Dreams.’ That drum sound! I found an old magazine article online, where the engineer who recorded ‘Dreams’ explained, and even provided a drawing of, how he set up and mic-ed the drum kit, and how he built plywood walls around it to give it a live sound. We tried and tried, but we couldn’t replicate that sound!”

Tribute acts might be a dime a dozen, but few of them are lucky and enterprising enough to actually work with the artists they’re paying tribute to. That’s what makes Icons of Soul different from your average nostalgia trip.

The project – consisting of an album, Icons of Soul Vol. I, and a documentary film series – was conceived by Manitoban blue-eyed soul singer Luke McMaster and his songwriting partner, Arun Chaturvedi. They’re soulful to be sure, but their special guests are actual icons of soul: legendary Motown songwriter Lamont Dozier, who – with the Holland brothers – co-wrote and produced dozens of hits for The Supremes, The Four Tops, and others; and Felix Cavaliere, leader of The Rascals.

McMaster, who had success in the ‘90s with the soul-pop duo McMaster and James, and later as a solo artist, says it’s a natural, if fortuitous, progression. “I’ve always been in love with Motown and classic soul,” he says. “The first album I did after McMaster and James, All Roads, was very Motown-influenced, with lots of covers and a few originals.”

On a songwriting trip to L.A., McMaster and Chaturvedi met with Leeds Levy, a music publisher, and the son of publishing legend Lou Levy – who gave “Downtown” to Petula Clark and “Strangers in the Night” to Frank Sinatra. “Leeds published Elton John, and The Rascals played his bar mitzvah,” says McMaster. “So we bent his ear for awhile, and I ended up leaving him with All Roads.

“To my surprise, he called the next day and said, ‘I’ve always thought someone should do an album this way. What if I could hook you up with some of your heroes, so instead of doing another record influenced by that music, you could write with these guys?’ He was excited by that.”

McMaster and Chaturvedi were also excited, albeit doubtful that Levy could talk any legends into working with two relatively unknown Canadians. But it turned out that both Dozier and Cavaliere were interested, and McMaster thinks he knows why.

“Lamont has written with all kinds of artists, but they typically try and change him,” he says. “He said, ‘I end up in a lot of rooms where they want me to sample something, or write something more modern. You guys just want me to do me.’ He appreciated that, and I think both he and Felix got a kick out of seeing their music through our eyes.”

Dozier is the magnetic centre of the first episode of the documentary series – currently watchable only in the U.S. and at live shows, though they are looking for a Canadian broadcast partner – while Cavaliere will be filmed in Nashville soon, followed, they hope, by other icons. “Calling the album Vol. I is a not-so-subtle way of saying we want to keep going,” says McMaster.

Dozier and Cavaliere each wrote two songs with McMaster and Chaturvedi, and sang along with new recordings of their hits (“Groovin’” for Cavaliere and a medley of “Where Did Our Love Go”/”Stop in the Name of Love”/”Come See About Me”/”Baby Love” for Dozier). For McMaster, it wasn’t just an opportunity to honour them, but a chance to learn. “That was a big thing for us,” he says. “Like, ‘Think of what we’ll be able to learn from guys that helped invent pop music songwriting!’ It’s wild when I think about it.

“We came prepared, with a bunch of ideas. We didn’t want to find ourselves in the position of not knowing where to go with something, or what to do.”

One of their ideas was to write a song with and about Dozier, sprinkled with his song titles. “We presented him with the idea for ‘My Life Is a Song,’ and right away he sat down at the piano and started firing off melodies that no one else could come up with,” says McMaster. “And no one else could phrase things the way he was phrasing things. He’s an amazing singer, too. It was pretty mind-blowing.”

McMaster likes to play a game where he tries to go two weeks without hearing a Dozier song. “It’s impossible,” he says. “He’s full of ideas, he writes every day. And Felix is doing another album, and says he’s never going to stop touring. I don’t know, maybe their music is the fountain of youth, or something.”

Chaturvedi and McMaster usually start writing on piano and guitar respectively, but with the soul stuff, says McMaster, they’ll often put down a drumbeat and a bass line and start with that.

“I really feed off a bass line, I always have,” he says. “It’s funny because we were talking about that bass line in [Holland-Dozier-Holland’s] ‘I Can’t Help Myself (Sugar Pie Honey Bunch),’ and we came up with a similar one with Lamont. If it’d been anyone else, I would have been like, ‘Let’s make sure we don’t make this too much like ‘I Can’t Help Myself.’ But we’re writing it with the guy who wrote that. I doubt he’s going to sue himself, so we should be good to go!”