When we catch up with screen composer Amritha Vaz in July of 2016, she’s attending the prestigious and challenging Sundance Institute Music and Sound Design Labs at Skywalker Sound, located within Star Wars mastermind George Lucas’ Skywalker Ranch in Northern California. Vaz is here to participate in workshops and creative exercises under the guidance of leading film composers and film music professionals, who are acting as creative advisors. Each composer/director team has their original scores for new, independent film scenes performed live by a chamber orchestra.

“You’re teamed up with these phenomenal filmmakers and given a couple days to score some pretty challenging scenes, and you can’t help but feel instant panic that you might fail, big time,” says Vaz. “But then you remember, ‘Oh yeah that’s the point. If ever there was a safe place to try new things and take risks, it’s here.”

Fittingly, she’s sitting in a room with a poster on the wall that says “Make Mistakes.” “It was such a gift to be mentored by Harry Gregson-Williams, Christophe Beck and Edward Shearmur,” says Vaz. “There’s so much to learn from artists who can work at that level, not just creatively, but balancing all the time pressures, technical issues, responding to different opinions — including one’s own! — and second guessing… I also learned so much from my composer fellows, the Skywalker sound designers, and the whole Sundance team. Everyone was so generous with their time and so honest about their journeys. It’s funny, I came here expecting to only learn writing tools and techniques – and while I’ve definitely gained a deeper knowledge of my craft, I’m leaving with something far more valuable: that every single one of these people you admire is telling you that you actually deserve to be here.” This was the third year that Vaz applied for the program, and she finally got in, so the support is appreciated.

Amritha VazVaz is no stranger to film scoring, of course. Most recently she scored two films for Film Independent’s Project Involve lab, as well as for the documentaries Made in India (PBS) and Music for Mandela. And before that, Vaz had already been contributing to film scores for years. Born a Canadian of Indian descent, and now residing in Los Angeles, the multi-instrumentalist has worked extensively as an assistant composer to Oscar- and Emmy Award-winning film and TV composer Mychael Danna, on movies such as 500 Days of Summer, Pomegranates and Myrrh, and Cooking with Stella, among others.

So how did she meet the Life of Pi film composer, who draws from South Asian musical traditions as well as Western ones? “When I first saw him, he was actually wearing a T-shirt that had Hindi script on it that said ‘desi,’ which in Hindi basically means ‘local’ or ‘one of ours,’” says Vaz. “I was, like, ‘Oh, really? You think you’re from the ‘hood, do you?’ I was just kidding. It was funny, and he was great about it. After hearing him talk, I could see how he came at Indian music from such a great angle, and I loved the way he talked about film music… It was about finding your voice, and when he told his story, it just really connected with me. The fact that he also did a lot of quirky Indian films, as well [as mainstream ones], meant that I knew of his work. Later I contacted him and apologized for giving him such a hard time. I realized I was actually really proud to call him ‘desi.’

“I feel like the industry as a whole is starting to want to diversify their teams – not only because it’s important to be more inclusive, but also because these candidates are really good at what they do.”

“It’s probably the least likely thing to happen, which is that you go to attend a composer’s lecture and six months later you end up working as their assistant” says Vaz. “I was incredibly lucky to have gotten my start with another Canadian composer, Tim McCauley. Then less than a year later I got another break and started working in Mychael’s Hollywood studio. When you start working as an assistant, you might be exceptionally lucky to land a writing gig, but more often, you’re earning your way to that position. Perhaps because I hadn’t formally studied film scoring, I was keenly aware of my huge learning curve, so I was just as eager to learn how to set-up Logic templates and sync video, as I was to soak up musical insights. Being a bit of a tech nerd probably helped, but even then. there was so much to learn! April Lebedoff at the Vancouver SOCAN office definitely got more than a few desperate emails asking for help on how to fill out cue sheets. Eventually I was lucky enough to write additional music for Mychael, and we even co-wrote two scores together.”

Vaz learned a lot from being an assistant composer to Danna, from about 2008 through 2013. “I gained experience and insight into high-level film scoring, the art of incorporating world music and how to write both sparse and highly orchestrated scores,” she says. “He’s always encouraged me to ‘go to concept’ with my writing, to challenge me to go past what’s obvious, and think about how you can contribute to the bigger narrative, while still striving to write something beautiful. After all that, then there’s the art of graciously letting it all go when what you’ve tried doesn’t land and you’re back to square one. I’m not saying I’ve mastered any of those things, but I’m definitely trying!”

Amritha VazVaz travelled a path of many twists and turns before she ended up where she is today. She started off in her teens as a classical violinist, but a harsh bout of tendonitis at 16 (“so bad I couldn’t even get dressed, or open doors”) led her to India to study Indian Classical Music, which encourages improvisation. She started creating music, joining bands, and jamming. But the tendonitis wasn’t entirely resolved, so she embraced her other passion – for social justice. Vaz earned a degree in Political Science, followed up with a Master’s in International Development Studies Program, then law, and then went to work in South Africa. She returned to Vancouver, and when the search for work as a lawyer was proving unfruitful, chose to help out some old art-school friends who needed some music for a short film they were shooting.

“My grandfather worked in Bollywood, so maybe that’s why I thought it’d be fun to try, but I had no idea I would be so instantly hooked,” she says. “It was so much fun to collaborate and contribute to storytelling in that way, but there was another light that went on. When I was working in Africa, I learned about musical theatre groups that were having more success building AIDS awareness than traditional policies, and I started to wonder whether I could do something similar with my love of music. Not long after the short film, I met Tim McCauley, and he kindly gave me the opportunity to write on a CBC documentary about Hungarian refugees, and suddenly I saw that film scoring could be that connection between these two worlds.”

As a socially conscious mother, and woman of colour, working in a very rich, white, male-dominated industry, Vaz has a distinctive viewpoint on her film scoring craft. “While it’s no secret that women and people of colour have faced discrimination in this industry, I do think things are changing,” says Vaz. “There are a lot of champions out there, and I feel like the industry as a whole is starting to want to diversify their teams – not only because it’s important to be more inclusive, but also because these candidates are really good at what they do, and they bring new and exciting perspectives that haven’t really been heard before.”

Vaz’s next project is a feature-length documentary that’s in keeping with her views. “Little Stones is about four female artists from Senegal, Brazil, India and Kenya, who are making profound change in the lives of women, specifically fighting female genital mutilation, domestic violence, sex trafficking and extreme poverty,” she says. “They have no funding, no money. They’re just acting on their own, but just doing these amazing things… women who have a vision, who have an incredible story to be told.”

AMRITHA VAZ’S ADVICE FOR YOUNG SCREEN COMPOSERS

  • Find your voice. What’s unique about you and your sound? You can learn the technical things, but finding your voice is really key.
  • Create a supportive composer/artist community – this can be a lonely field so it’s important to have other supportive artists from whom to learn, collaborate and with whom to sometimes commiserate.
  • Build your team – at first you’re doing it all yourself, but as you take on bigger projects, you’ll need musicians, score mixers, Pro Tools assistants, contractors, orchestrators & assistants you can rely on to help you succeed.
  • Join composer organizations – to build alliances, enrich your skills and find mentors.
  • Have fun – sounds corny, but where possible I try to find the joy in what I write, as I really do believe that in the end what moves me often resonates with other people, too.

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The Motorleague

Toiling on the road for the past decade, The Motorleague have flown largely under the radar of mainstream media. Thanks to the success of the band’s current single “All The Words,” trending on Canadian rock radio, that broader anonymity is a little harder to maintain. This rise in popularity was hastened by these East Coast rockers returning to their roots.“We started off as a much punkier, rougher outfit,” says singer/guitarist Don Levandier. “We never really wanted anything other than to see the country and play the venues we’d hear about out East. As we kept touring and getting paired with bands from every genre imaginable, we lost a lot of the East Coast punk angst. We wanted to work harder at being a band that didn’t need to be ashamed of where we were from, or that would be embarrassed to play alongside a national touring act.”

With their latest release Holding Patterns – their first since 2013’s Acknowledge, Acknowledge – that’s exactly what this Moncton, foursome did, though they still injected their sound with the raucous rock, big riffs, and punk attitude that started their musical journey together. Holding Patterns captures the energy and enthusiasm of The Motorleague’s live shows. Besides Levandier, the band consists of bassist Shawn Chiasson, guitarist Nathan Jones, and drummer Francis Landry. For Levandier, the melody or guitar riff is what always guides his muse.

“The chords and structure of the songs always come afterwards, and are usually more flexible than not,” he explains. “The vocal melody or guitar hook is the entry point. Often a vocal melody or riff idea will just embed itself in your subconscious until you find yourself humming it, desperately trying to get to an instrument to find the chords and see if it’s a real thing. I’ve often dreamt songs, where the band will be rehearsing a new song in a dream – only to wake up and put it to paper.”

Maddison Krebs

For singer-songwriter Maddison Krebs, to say that 2016 was a whirlwind is an understatement. The 19-year-old Albertan started the year by dropping her sophomore record, Bull’s Eye. The lead single, “Pink Roses,” earned Krebs three Alberta Country Music Award nominations for Female Artist, Song, and Video of the Year. Then, in September, just as she prepped for her first trip to Nashville, she signed to music publisher ole’s red dot artist development program, after winning its second annual “on the spot” competition during Country Music Week.

“It’s been crazy!” she says of the year, as it’s coming to a close. “It’s cool how it all worked out. I’m excited for what next year will bring.”

Krebs was first brought to a wider audience two years ago when her debut album, Your True Love, was nominated for the Association of Country Music in Alberta’s 2014 Album of the Year. What 2017 will bring is uncertain, although Krebs knows there will be many more songs. Currently, she’s working on a new EP, writing fast and furiously down in Nashville, with a wide variety of collaborators.

Krebs cites her great-grandmother as the biggest influence on her path toward songwriting. “My great-grandmother introduced me to old vinyl records.” Says Krebs. All those classic songs that I learned to appreciate at such a young age.”

Looking back on her writing this year, Krebs is proudest of a couple of songs, “Midnight Slow Dancing” and “A Little More Nerve.” The former she calls “a slow burner,” that’s “sweet and speaks to heartache.” The latter is about self-defiance, being who you are, and never changing that – a common theme Krebs mines in her songs. “There’s always an overall message about empowerment,” she says.

Sebell

A songwriting nomad and a sometime musical enigma, who collaborates with just about anyone, Sebell is now a rising star. The question is, who will the native of Salmon Arm, BC pen a song with next? In the past year, he’s written with artists as diverse as Banners, Shawn Hook, Chord Oversreet (of Glee), Stephen Kozmeniuk (Madonna, Kendrick Lamar), Jimmy Harry, and Reuben and the Dark.

These days, the 32-year-old songwriter splits writing time between Los Angeles, Nashville and Toronto. Sebell, whose real name is Greg Sczebel, is no stranger to accolades; A JUNO Award winner, he’s also won Billboard’s WorldWide Song Contest and the grand prize in the international John Lennon Songwriting Contest – twice. Recently, he co-wrote Paul Brandt’s Top 10 Country single “I’m An Open Road.” His single, under his own name, “Till the Sun Burns Out.” hit No. 6 on Billboard’s Canadian Artist chart and No. 15 at Top 40 across Canada.

What’s the secret to Sebell’s success, and what advice does he have for aspiring songwriters?

Keep your head down and write, write, write,” he concludes. “Write with people who are completely different than you. Write with others who write just like you. Write with the veterans and the kid who’s just starting out. Challenge yourself, but don’t limit yourself. The career as an artist and songwriter can be a long game, but if you sharpen your skills and put the time in, it can really pay off.”


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In trying to trace her own professional track record, publisher Diane Pinet – the founder of Bloc-Notes Music Publishing – acknowledges that such an endeavour is fraught with gaps and lapses. It’s been a long while indeed since this headstrong music impassionata started evolving in the music world.

Even in high school, she would promote concerts by Jean-Pierre Ferland to Harmonium. “Back then, I had no clue one could even earn a living doing that,” says Pinet. During a student strike at cégep Saint-Laurent, where she was a student, booker Alain Paré tapped her to work with him. She accepted immediately and kept working through her university studies on a path that that would ultimately lead her to the copyrights world, at SDE/PRO, one of SOCAN’s precursor organizations. When the day came where she toyed with the idea of changing her career to go into advertising, her musician, writer and composer friends urged her to start her own publishing company instead. And that’s what she did in 1985, creating Bloc-Notes Music Publishing.

“Back then, rights were tiny,” says Pinet. “I was frustrated with how little money the writers and composers made. Even for artists who had a number one, some were often living below the poverty line. I had a lot of difficulty with that situation. I had a very hard time dealing with that.”

Right from the start, Bloc-Notes Music Publishing stood out because of the international nature of its catalogue. Pinet spent a lot of time in France working on agreements. To gain credibility in this very masculine world, she told people she had a boss, a man. “People thought I must’ve been really efficient, since my ‘virtual’ boss was sending me on business trips so often…”  That’s when she signed a sup-publishing deal for the entire Virgin France catalogue.

This privileged link with France is still as strong now that Bloc-Notes has become the sub-publisher of the prestigious Warner Chappell France catalogue. For Pinet, the idea that a song must travel beyond it’s original territory is self-evident, even essential. “A good song knows no bounds,” she says. “I think that comes from my education. I moved to many different countries when I was young. I lived in France and the U.K. My dad worked in the Canadian Air Force. So to me, no matter where I am, there’s always something wonderful to do.”

It clearly served her well, as is evident through her work, and collaborations with writers, composers and singers such as Céline Dion, Luc Plamondon, Patrick Bruel, Gerry Boulet, Gipsy Kings, Cirque du Soleil (René Dupéré), and Marie-Mai, as well as with songwriters who’ve been certified Gold, Platinum and won many SOCAN No. 1 Song Awards such as Tino Izzo, Diane Cadieux, Bobby John, Fred St-Gelais, Bobby Bazini, Sally Folk and Stéphane Dufour, to name but a few.

“What I’m looking for when I listen to a song is that shiver of pleasure down my spine. You can’t be in this line of work for as long as I have without a deep love of music.”

To this day, Pinet still cultivates relationships all over the world. Just a few days before our conversation, the businesswoman had finalized an agreement with Warner Chappell U.S. after months of negotiations. “There’s no single way of doing business, but a multitude of ways,” she says. “The Québec market has nothing in common with the Canadian market. Just as the American market has nothing in common with the French or Japanese markets. And I’m not talking politics, here. Not at all. When you work on a global scale, what matters most is availability. A capacity for reacting quickly and adapting. I must be able to completely re-think a business plan in less than 24 hours. To me, such nimbleness and flexibility is where [a music publisher’s] creativity comes in.”

Whether such agreements are concluded with major players or independent ones doesn’t matter to Pinet; what drives her is the contact with the writers and composers she represents. “What I’m looking for when I listen to a song is that shiver of pleasure down my spine,” she says. “You can’t be in this line of work for as long as I have without a deep love of music. I still get a huge thrill when I hear new music, when songwriters come to my office to play a new song for me. It’s a gift.”

Her ties with songwriters are so precious that this so-called “song manager” grooms them through songwriting workshops in Canada, the U.S. and Europe. “I pushed Bobby John to participate in a songwriting camp in Toronto with 40 other creators for the Pan American games,” she recalls. “In the end, the song he wrote with Jasmine Denham and Murray Daigle, ‘Together We Are One,’  was selected as the theme song for the games. And it was Serena Ryder who sang the song, which won a SOCAN No. 1 Song Award. But in the end, the journey of a writer or composer is always unique and specific to each and every one of them. What’s good for Betty Bonifassi is not necessarily good for Fred St-Gelais.”

Pinet has seen her trade transform for better and worse, but she still sees the new challenges facing creators, producers and publishers in a positive light. She’s impatient to see the results of the 2017 Copyright Act review which, she hopes, will see the extension of the protection from 50 to 70 years for creators, as is already the case in France, Italy and Brazil.  “I also hope that the revision will give us the necessary tools so that our writers, composers, and creators are better represented with regards to the use of their work, and more urgently than ever with all the technological changes going on in our world.”

Through this turmoil, Pinet embraces the challenge as an opportunity to gather all the players in the music ecosystem – from the creators to the various associations across the country – around a common cause. “Our culture is a reflection of who we are.”


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