It’s done! On June 15, 2016, Alexandre Désilets launched his fourth album during the FrancoFolies de Montréal at the Gesù. The ambitious orchestral project, Windigo, marks the end of a cycle for the singer-songwriter. The 12-track album includes two new songs and 10 re-visited ones. “When I listened to the original demos, I got the feeling that for some songs, I didn’t go to the end of that trip,” says Désilets. “I felt like they were unfinished. It’s not because you burned a song onto a CD that it’s finished. It’s just like a painter who, many years later, decided to add an element to one of his paintings.”

The result, recorded last March at Radio-Canada’s Studio 12 with 17 musicians, including Olivier Langevin, Robbie Kuster and François Richard (piano, organ, arrangements, co-producer), is simply magnificent. Much care was given to the treatment of his voice, which is never drowned out by the orchestra. “The modus operandi was that the voice and lyrics would take centre stage,” says Désilets. “I’d never given so much care to that aspect before; these recordings are, hands down, the best takes of my life. I trained, visited my vocal coach, and didn’t compromise. During the recording, I felt enveloped by the orchestra. At no point do the instruments take over the voice. We used my voice as an instrument, as a matter of fact, creating a wall of sound that makes it all the way to you.”

“Being too obvious with your lyrics when you do pop is like adding sugar to sugary cereals.”

“Tout est perdu,” the last song on Fancy Ghetto, his last album, is now the second one on the new album – and it sends shivers down the spine, truly a gem of a bittersweet song. The impressionist lyrics are a mirror of the narrator’s inner torment; there’s nothing frivolous about Alexandre Désilets.

“At first glance, one could think it’s a love song, but when you dig deeper, you find it’s something else,” he says. “Being too obvious with your lyrics when you do pop is like adding sugar to sugary cereals. When I write with Mathieu Leclerc, I’ve already been living with the music for a few months. We create a universe; the songs are like chapters in a story. Then, I find myself with themes that are in tune with the raw emotion emanating from the music. Writing, for me, is often somewhat of a shock.”

Alexandre Désilets So where does the title Windigo come from? “It’s an archetype that was able to tie together all those songs from different albums together,” says Désilets. “According to the Native legend, the Windigo is a hungry, slightly cannibalistic beast that haunts the forest and eats flesh. In this case, it’s like the forest has been removed but the beast remains. All my characters have one thing in common: they wander aimlessly in the city. They are hungry and thirsty for something, an insatiable desire. It’s a metaphor for our fast-paced, ever-unsatisfied society. It is never sated, and it doesn’t create its own love or its own warmth. It takes and takes and doesn’t really give anything back.”

On “On sème,” one of the two new songs on this album, Désilets deftly plays with the word’s phonetics. One hears “on s’aime” (we love each other), but it’s really “on sème” (we sow), meaning sowing hate. “We forge ahead with such lack of concern for what Mother Nature has offered us,” says Désilets. “We split the atom to go to war, with not a single thought about the consequences, as if we were the only ones on Earth. We sow hate, and hate is what we reap.”

On the day of our interview, he’s wearing a t-shirt with a starry night motif. Now 41, he’s about to become a father, and has just launched an album that brings beauty to our often ugly world. He sings:

Je crois en la beauté, mais elle n’est plus la même
Elle ne s’est pas montrée, et ça, depuis des années
Longtemps j’ai laissé tourner la vie
Comme un vieux disque
Mais j’ai faussé sur l’hymne à la joie

(Loosely translated:)
I believe in beauty, but it’s not what it used to be
No one has seen her for many, many years
For a long time I let my life go round
Like an old record
But I sang out of tune on the Hymn to Joy

Is the creator of “Hymne à la joie” pessimistic? “When I write, it’s the melancholy side of me that expresses itself,” he says, “but I do believe in our capacity to get ourselves out of our predicament. I’m into alternative forms of energy. Thanks to new means of communication, scientists can now instantly share key data. There are solar panels, water-powered engines… I have a lot of hope for the next generations.”

During the summer Karl Wolf is often on the road. And 2016 is no different, says the Toronto-based singer-songwriter/producer/recording artist, admitting he’s had very little sleep. Not surprisingly, he’s keeping very busy, which seems a perpetual and normal state for Wolf.

Always prolific and driven, Wolf began his career as a songwriter and producer before stepping into the limelight in the early 2000s as lead singer for the pop band Sky. With Sky’s Antoine Sicotte, he collaborated on Quebec’s hugely successful Star Acade?mie reality TV show and two subsequent albums, Star Acade?mie I and II, the first of which went five-times-platinum in Canada. Since then, he’s won multiple SOCAN Awards, including two for his international hit version of Toto’s “Africa,” from his 2008 album, Bite the Bullet.

The success of “Africa” propelled his career to new heights. In all he’s released six solo albums prior to his latest EP, The Export Vol. 1 – the first of three EPs scheduled for release on B.C.-based indie label Cordova Bay Records. And among the markets that have embraced him are all of those he’s called home; Canada, obviously, but also his birthplace of Lebanon, and Dubai in the UAE, to which his family fled in the 1980s to escape Lebanon’s brutal civil war, and where he lived until emigrating to Montreal in 1995.

Currently Wolf is riding high on the success of his co-write (with Jenson Vaughan), of OMI’s international hit, “Hula Hoop,” but that’s no reason to take a break. Instead Wolf has thrown himself into the creation of The Export, writing roughly 40 songs over the course of late 2015 and 2016 to draw from for the EP.

“I feel it’s important to show my cultural heritage in my music.”

The result is a record that, while focused on Wolf’s desire to express a positive worldview, also reveals much about him as an artist and individual. “I wanted a little bit of a journey, a story, for the EP, and really these six songs are an expression of my story,” Wolf says.

The songs that make up The Export Vol. 1 tread the line between emotional tracks that offer candid glimpses into Wolf’s life and history, and all-out party tracks; songs he collaborated on with his producer, Mastertrak, as well as others, including Brandon Unis, Kardinal Offishall and Jenson Vaughan.

The blend of tracks, Wolf says, is a testament to what he believes people need to hear; a mix of tunes intended to lift listeners’ spirits, while providing fans with insights into his own life.

Nowhere is that clearer than on the album’s title track, “The Export,” a tune Wolf says reflects his life’s journey from Lebanon, to Dubai, to Montreal and, ultimately, to Toronto. It underlines the fact that he feels he doesn’t necessarily belong in one place, but in many.

On The Export Vol. 1, Wolf blends Middle Eastern and Western musical influences in a way that’s calculated, but subtle. “That’s crucial for me,” he says. “I feel it’s important to show my cultural heritage in my music. It grounds me, but there’s definitely a balance; it’s really East meets West… It has its own sound.”

Beyond that, the recording displays Wolf’s desire to move forward, both professionally and personally. The first single, “Amateur at Love,” being a case in point, a tune he considers one of the most genuine he’s ever written, and in which he admits he may have a bit of an issue committing to one person.

He’s included two versions of the song on the record, both the original single and a re-mix featuring Kardinal Offishall. “The re-mix I did at the same time and I put both out there because my gut feeling was we need to have something a little lighter,” he says.  Both tracks speak to listeners, but in different ways, something Wolf values. He realizes that by altering a song, it can provide similar emotional weight while offering a different kind of vibe for listeners to identify with. As for the re-mix, Wolf says, “It’s catching fire in Canada and on Spotify… We’ve got over 11,000 plays a day.”

Again, it being summer and Wolf being on tour, he’s letting loose, having fun with friends, and so the greater questions seem less important, for the moment. “Now it’s time to just be happy and push some good vibes out there,” Wolf says.

But, that said, his personal experiences have always informed his songwriting. Given his early life was characterized by war and displacement, and the fact that with so much darkness in the world, people now seem to need a lift, he’s currently aiming at putting songs out that will make people happy, make them move and hopefully help them to forget their problems for a time. “I want to be one of those artists that spreads the light,” he says.

Here’s the latest edition in our series about songwriting collaborators. In this edition, we present one of the most efficient songwriting duos in the Québec pop music scene of at least the past five years, the partnership between songwriter Karim Ouellet and his sidekick, musician and producer Claude Bégin.

Karim OuelletAlways on time, like a Swiss train, Karim Ouellet already awaits us at the café where we’ve agreed to meet for our interview. But where’s Claude? On the road somewhere between his base of Québec City and Montréal. “Claude’s Claude…,” says Ouellet with a knowing grin. “I have doubles for the keys to his studio, so that when we’re supposed to work in the studio and he’s late, I can at least get in and start working on my own.”

OK, so the notion of being on time is widely divergent between those two creative minds, but when it’s time to get busy, Bégin and Ouellet operate as one. All three of the Ouellet’s albums – Plume (2011), Fox (2012) and the brand new Trente – were carefully crafted with the help of Bégin, who also recently launched his own solo career with a debut album, Les Magiciens.

In just five years, thanks to Karim Ouellet’s commercial and critical success, the creative duo has adderted itself as a dominant and rejuvenating force on Québec’s pop scene. Ouellet’s albums, just as Bégin’s album, have a distinctive, fresh and undeniably modern sound; bouncy pop music, with lush electronic colours that hint at their hip-hop upbringing. Karim was a fan of Accrophone, a hip-hop duo of which Bégin was half in the mid-aughts. Their first collaborations hearken back to Movèzerbe’s album Dendrophile (2009), a hip-hop/funk/world collective that also included Boogat and Alaclair Ensemble’s KenLo, also brilliant representatives of Québec City’s music scene.

“Movèzerbe was the first time we worked together on a common project that we really cared about,” explains Ouellet. “I’d worked on some of his songs before, and he’d helped with my first EP. I met Claude in 2005 or 2006 through common friends. Our friendship grew organically.”

“Our sound relies entirely on our method of building hip-hop rhythms and slapping songs written with a guitar on top of them.” — Karim Ouellet

The duo’s methodology is apparent in between the notes of Ouellet’s albums. “Claude has a unique style,” says Ouellet. “He can do many things, but they always have a tinge of hip-hop. It’s all in his technique for building rap beats, using loops, and very distinctive sounds, with layers of sonic elements. He’s been a beatmaker for a long time, and I’ve done my fair share, too. And that – doing rap music – is how we learned the tricks of the trade. His sound, our sound, relies entirely on our method of building hip-hop rhythms and slapping songs written with a guitar on top of them.”

Calude BéginTheir four-handed creative process was more apparent on Ouellet’s first two albums, while for the latest, Trente, “I worked in solo,” he says. “Claude is much more the arranger and producer than a co-creator.”

Dishevelled, with his long-haired mane in disarray, Bégin finally arrives at the café after trying to find parking in the construction cone-littered downtown area for awhile. He’s got a long day ahead of him; after our interview, he’s off to the Quartier des Spectacles to rehearse for the opening concert of the FrancoFolies, which will feature, among others, Alaclair Ensemble, a group of which he’s part.

“Karim is the guy I’m most used to making music with,” says Bégin. “The Alaclair guys have a group mentality, everyone pitches in, everyone comes up with ideas, a beat, a verse; we meet up in my studio and sometimes, I don’t even need to touch anything. With Karim, it’s a give-and-take situation: he comes with his song, his idea, and we know what we need to do, how to get to the final result. His type of tunes, of ideas, with my type of production and arrangements, it just works.

“What defines my style? First, I’d say my vocal harmonies, and then my arrangements. I add layer upon layer of sound elements to my productions, sometimes too many. It’s something I’ve been faulted with. It’s my style, but I’ve been trying to tone it down… Then it’s rap, rhythm programming, I’ve become quite proficient at that. I had a drum set-up in my studio, but I took it down because I barely ever used it anymore. We do pop, but with a big beat, and the tension of rap. Radio seems to dig it, anyways, it seems to be a trend in pop music.’

Karim Ouellet will play Montréal Métropolis on June 17, during the FrancoFolies, and following his concert he’ll spin a DJ set at the Métropolis’ Shag. Claude Bégin will open for him that night. Here’s a tip: check out the outdoor Rednext Level concert, the day before at 11 p.m.: there’s a very good chance you’ll catch Ouellet and Bégin onstage then, too!