In addition to working as a singer-songwriter, a song lyrics instructor at Seneca College, and the Associate Director of Public Engagement and Strategy at the Canadian Musical Reproduction Rights Agency (CMRRA), Andrea England serves the Canadian music community as founder, host, and curator of the songwriter series Four Chords and The Truth.

The quarterly song-circle series began at the Dakota Tavern in downtown Toronto, in 2015; by 2017, tickets were selling out before the lineup was even announced. The show features both established and emerging artists in a multi-genre format, and England is protective of it, and all the performers, regardless of their level of experience. “I need to make sure that the songs stand up; that the person is welcomed into the fold; and that it’s an entirely professional event the whole time,” she says.

After a pandemic-induced hiatus, FCATT (the event’s occasional acronym) returned on May 25, 2023, at a new venue: the TD Music Hall at Allied Music Centre, within the new Massey Hall building in downtown Toronto. Seeing the Four Chords and the Truth logo on such a grand stage was a surreal experience for England, who momentarily wondered if the intimacy of the show would be lost in a 500-capacity theatre. Any doubts were quelled, however, by the enthusiasm of the audience, and the commitment of the performers. “They all came willing to be vulnerable, and to really share their truths – and to trust me, the audience, and each other,” England says. “It was a beautiful, humble group.”

The evening featured Julian Taylor, Liz Rodrigues (accompanied by frequent collaborator James Bryan), Adam Baldwin, and Robyn Ottolini, all of whom turned in stellar performances. There were also several guests: the first emerging songwriter in the TikTok seat, Adrian Mitchell; new Universal Music Group Canada signing, Owen Riegling; and guest vocalist Shakura S’Aida who led the performers in a rendition of Gordon Lightfoot’s “If You Could Read My Mind.” Performing a cover song is a break from the FCATT tradition of all-originals; however, it allowed everyone to acknowledge the loss felt by Lightfoot’s recent passing. England says, “We sang it together as a thank you.” (At the gig, England even mentioned that she once met Lightfoot, and he was aware of FCATT.)

She both honours and breaks tradition through the “in-the-semi-round” format of her show, in which performers face the audience, as opposed to the “in the round” tradition made famous at The Bluebird Café – Nashville’s legendary venue, where songwriters face each other as they perform. Four Chords and the Truth came full circle when England brought the show to Nashville, and fittingly, then Nashville came to her Toronto show (at least in spirit) when Donovan Woods led England and fellow songwriters Morgan Cameron Ross, Joey Landreth, and Rose Cousins in a rendition of “Leaving Nashville,” Woods’ co-write with Abe Stoklasa. England says it was a perfect way to end a night devoted to songwriters.

England has big plans for Four Chords and the Truth, including a seven-night cruise through Austria, Germany, Hungary, and Slovakia happening in the Fall of 2024. Titled, The Danube Riverboat Confessions, the cruise promises a sharing of songs you already know, coupled with stories you don’t know yet. There’ll be a charity component to the cruise, to be announced this summer, in keeping with England’s desire to pay it forward. In addition to re-investing profits into her show, she also donates to the Unison Fund, a non-profit registered charity that provides counselling and emergency relief services to the Canadian music community. Grateful, England acknowledges having received much support from the community – including SOCAN, an early sponsor of her series.

England also has a new album in the works: she’s completed pre-production on Evidence of Love, produced by JUNO Award winner Hill Kourkoutis. Scheduled for release in October 2023, it features seven songs on the theme of love. And it’s love for music and people that inspires England the most. “Where would we be without music? Where would we be without songs?” she says. Then, after a pause: “To support a community of people who are committed to songs is why I do everything.”

“Christine and the Queens said that there’s no greater freedom than the freedom to be yourself. It’s true,” says singer-songwriter and performer Ariane Brunet who, after releasing three albums under her own name, has just issued Soif, her debut album under the name L’Isle. Following a career break, during which she went back to university and started a family, she found a new record label, Bravo Musique, and a new pop sound that’s simultaneously electronic, rhythmic, and more modern.

L'isle“For me, L’Isle is like a new project,” says Brunet. “I understand it’s kind of blurry in people’s minds, because it is still me writing and singing. The difference between what I’ve put out under the name of Ariane Brunet and under the name of L’Isle isn’t that great,” she says, “yet it makes all the difference.”

Synthesizers bring a new colour and freshness to her output. Somewhat evocative of Christine and the Queens, her new tunes fit L’Isle like a glove. “She and I have had the same influences. I believe we may have listened to the same music when we were younger. Although I haven’t yet figured out why, when I was younger, I was listening to James Brown and Whitney Houston, and Corneille was one of my earliest influences because he was singing in French,” says Brunet, also mentioning The Weeknd, the American singer Banks, and the Swedish singer Lykke Li.

Brunet was 19 when she put out her debut album Le pied dans ma bulle, in 2020. She was 22 when Fusée came out, and 24 when Stella  was released. “I was young, and I felt embarrassed when other musicians were comparing me with musicians who were 15 years my senior, but that’s what was happening at the time,” she says. When her first recording contract expired, she went through a period when she was trying to find herself as a musician by writing for other artists, and working as a background singer for the French-language TV programme Y’a du monde à messe, hosted by Christian Bégin, on Télé-Québec.

“I also managed to go back to university to study creative writing,” she says. “I met a whole bunch of new musicians. I had to explore in order to be able to become the person I enjoy being now. I questioned myself, both in terms of my own self-image, and my creative credo. I came to understand that I love the idea of a musical project that calls for an immersive experience. There’s more to an artist’s world than just the music.”

L'Isle, Tous Les Corps, video

Select the image to play the YouTube video of the L’Isle song “Tous les corps”

While all of her previously released albums under the name of Ariane Brunet have a musical identity of their own, L’Isle’s new esthetic direction puts her new project in a class by itself. “Everything changed when I started writing words from a melody or rhythm,” she explains. “In the past, the songs felt like they were getting written more freely – when you start a song by playing on a guitar, by following the melody of the rhythm, words and music just come together. This time, however, by using the rhythm and the melody as a base, I was more able to work on both the rhythm of my voice, and on the lyrics. That was the hardest part: helping the words make sense while making sure they sounded right.”

Which brings us to the meaning of the singer’s new name. L’Isle is the old spelling of the French word l’île (or the island in English), but with the exact same pronunciation as isle). She chose this new name mainly because she’s from Montréal’s West Island. Another reason was that L’Isle grew up in a primarily English-speaking neighbourhood. “My dad is a veteran Bill 101 fighter,” she says. “Every time we entered a business establishment, there was a new fight for us to get served in French. When people addressed him in English, he systematically answered in French – sometimes pretending he didn’t understand English.

“In school, French was spoken in class, but English was used in the schoolyard. The West Island was a beautiful place to live in, but as I was growing up, the fight for the French language became my own. And I got angry every time someone said that all French music sounded the same. For me personally, it was important to write and sing in French, and as a singer-songwriter and performer now, I want to make our language sound good. The meaning of words and phonetics are super important in a song. I want the songs to be meaningful and sound great, to get all those who claim it’s not possible to make good music in French to shut up.”

Sometimes songs – even those that seem pre-ordained to reach the artist for whom they’re meant – take awhile to get their destination.

Such was the case with “Catchin’ Grasshoppers,” written by SOCAN members Laura McCall Torno and Earl Torno. Pop and country music superstar Kenny Rogers – who sold more than 100 million albums prior to his death in March 2020 at the age of 81 – first promised the Toronto-based duo that he’d record the song back in 2009.

Fourteen years later, that promise was finally kept: “Catchin’ Grasshoppers” is the third single, and the epicentre, of Rogers’s first posthumous album of all-new material, Life Is Like A Song. It’s a 10-song effort that includes classics written by Lionel Richie, Eric Clapton, and the Motown tandem of Barrett Strong, Norman Whitfield and Rodger Penzabene, as well as fresh numbers by the likes of Kim Carnes, Gary Burr, and “Straight Into Love” by SOCAN members Jimmy Rankin and Patricia Conroy.

 “I feel gratitude,” says McCall Torno, who initially birthed the song and wrote the lyrics. Her husband chimed in to help with the melody, chord progressions, and musical composition, creating a guitar-and-piano demo, with McCall Torno singing the words into their iPhone and TASCAM digital recorder.

“We’ve got a nice little set-up at home,” says Earl. “Laura’s got a really nice writing room here, with a piano, and that’s where our ProTools rig is.  When she writes, it’s her thing – playing the piano and coming up with ideas.  When we get to the point where she’s got the idea,  a good general outline of the story, and a good sense of the melody, she’ll bring it in. I might pick up the guitar, sit down, and start jamming together.

“Then we’ll build it from there. I will say that Laura, from that point on, is the wordsmith. I might make a suggestion, but it’s Laura who puts words to paper and comes up with the actual lyric. My strength is more on the melodic, arrangement, and production side.”

McCall Torno took a trip down memory lane for “Catchin’ Grasshoppers.” “For me, it was  a look back on at my childhood and some of those wonderful, cherished memories, and wishing that there were more of those,” she says. “And then thinking about how life changed so dramatically. As I started, I immediately envisioned Kenny. I was thinking about what life must have been like for him. In a career that can be consuming, being able to find time with his kids. I wanted it to be a song that inspired fathers – and I hope it does that.”

Kenny Rogers, Catchin' Grasshoppers, Laura McCall Torno, Earl Torno

Select the image to play the YouTube static-image video of the Kenny Rogers song “Catchin’ Grasshoppers”

The five-times married Rogers had, in fact, five children. When U.S. publisher Rex Benson, who’d previously sent Rogers his 1999 chart-topping comeback hit “Buy Me A Rose,” pitched him “Catchin’ Grasshoppers,” he took to the song like a duck to water. So, the Tornos adjusted the lyrics slightly to reflect he and his wife Wanda’s relationship to their own twin sons, Jordan and Justin.

“We were thrilled to modify the lyrics,” says McCall Torno. “To have the twins woven throughout the song, tailoring the lines to reflect on the heartwarming relationship Kenny had with his boys, and his deep devotion to his family. Then, much to our surprise, we found out that the sons’ fifth birthdays fell within days of this song landing into Kenny’s hands. Pretty amazing!”

In 2009, Rogers invited the Tornos to a show, and onto his tour bus – where he surprised them with his recorded version of  “Catchin’ Grasshoppers.” “He told us how much ‘Catchin’ Grasshoppers’ meant to him personally; how greatly he valued it; and that the song is a legacy to his twin boys Justin and Jordan,” says Earl Torno. “That was the most fulfilling moment that we as songwriters could ever experience.”

Rogers promised to place the song on an album, but his passing seemed to indicate a premature end to fulfilling that mandate. Then, in the summer of 2021,  the Tornos received a call from Vector Management, which was handling Rogers’s estate. They shared the news that a posthumous album was in the works, and that “Catchin’ Grasshoppers” was likely to be included on the project, curated and executive-produced by Rogers’s widow Wanda, and Vector’s Jason Henke and Ken Levitan.  The official release became a reality on June 2, 2023.

The Tornos are no strangers to the music business: Earl has engineered and edited projects for Platinum Blonde, Triumph, and Glass Tiger – as well as being busily involved with animated and live-action TV series, including Odd Squad, Race Against The Tide, and Numb Chucks. Laura, meanwhile, has had songs placed on Degrassi: The Next Generation.

Still, to this point, “Catchin’ Grasshoppers” is the biggest feather in their cap. “What I love about this story is that it’s inspiring to all of us as songwriters,” says McCall Torno. “I know writers who have amazing songs, really believe in them, and end up shelving things if something doesn’t happen the way they expect it to happen, when they expect it to happen. Don’t give up hope.”