James Barker describes this past year as “an absolute blur.” His James Barker Band has enjoyed the type of meteoric rise that’s not unlike a fairy tale, one that dates back to a fateful performance at the 2015 Boots and Hearts Music Festival.

After years of attending the annual country music event, Barker and his bandmates entered the Emerging Artist Showcase and won with their sunny melodies and catchy, sing-along choruses. “The moment we were announced as the winners, it was a rush of emotions like we’ve never felt,” Barker recalls. The winning prize included an opening slot for Thomas Rhett on the main stage of the festival, a single with Universal Music Canada and a trip to Nashville – all seminal events that helped create a launching pad for The James Barker Band.

The following year, the band signed to Universal, and returned to Boots and Hearts for a homecoming of sorts. Since then, they’ve released three Top 10 country singles, “Lawn Chair Lazy,” “Just Sayin’,” and “Chills.” Those songs were co-written by Nashville songwriters Gavin Slate and Travis Wood – collaborators who were, in fact, another valuable result of their festival win. As Barker explains, “I met Travis Wood when we performed together at the Emerging Artist showcase; I reached out to him after the competition to see if he’d be interested in writing, and he invited me to write with Gavin Slate. That’s really where it all began.”

Things won’t be slowing down for The James Barker Band in 2017, as they’ve just released their debut EP, Game On. Future plans? Barker says, “We’ve always prided ourselves on being busybodies, and trying to play as many shows, and meet as many fans, as possible. So we just keep counting our blessings and hope it never stops!”

“Can I call you back in five? The Godin Guitars guy is at the door,” Michel Cusson apologizes halfway through our phone interview. As we resume our conversation, the man is ecstatic: “I just got my two custom-made guitars: a Porsche and a Ferrari!” He’s like a 60-year-old boy whose wildest dreams just got granted, chomping at the bit, passionate.

Michel Cusson has covered a lot of ground since scoring the Omertà TV series in Québec, 20 years ago. The guitarist composer’s know-how has left a huge mark on Québec’s film and TV landscape: Unité 9, Napoléon, Aurore, Maurice-Richard, Séraphin, un homme et son péché, Riopelle, the Cavalia and Odysseo equestrian shows, IMAX 3D (Ultimate Wave Tahiti, Volcanoes of the Deep Sea, etc.), a documentary on the late great painter Corno, and so many more it’s easy to forget some, garnering seven SOCAN Awards throughout the years.

“I say yes to everything,” he readily admits. “That means I often end up working on more than one project at a time. And the reason for that is, projects are financed by various institutions, and their approval sometimes comes six months after the planned deadlines, so you need to be able to deliver when the train pulls into the station.”

Obviously, work methodologies and technology have evolved since Omertà. Thus, Cusson has set up an alias, Mélodika, that he uses for more electronic projects. “I can compose anywhere, even in a hotel room,” he says. “I’m never sitting on a single chair, and I always have my two laptops with me.

Michel Cusson“I was fortunate to have two outstanding teachers, Pierre Houle and Francine Forest [a director and a producer]; they’re the ones who taught me musical dramaturgy. I learned how to look at an image. To be a good movie [and TV] composer, you have to listen, ask questions and leave your ego behind. That’s crucial. Nothing is taken for granted. Sometimes it means editing out a silence, how your soundbite enters the sequence and, above all, how you exit it! Producers, directors, screenwriters, they all have a different language. That’s why it becomes vital for me to know how to decode what they’re saying.”

To date, Cusson has scored nearly two dozen TV series, totalling between 300 and 400 episodes, and has worked with about 30 different filmmakers and directors.

“When you do screen music, you work vertically,” he says. “You watch the same sequence over and over, to really understand what emotion fits best: what do I want to say, how do I illustrate it, using what emotion and from what angle; now, I don’t need to watch the whole scene. I write the music bearing in mind the corresponding emotion… It makes a big difference, the music is much stronger when you can work away from the image.”

And how are things going with Unité 9?

“I’m at episode 122,” says the composer, as if to gauge the amount of work accomplished. “I like that TV series because I can really go in-depth with themes and variations. All the characters have their specific palette. I know all of them like the back of my hand. In this case, I watch the full episode before I start composing. On Unité 9, my partner Kim Gaboury [a.k.a. composer and producer aKido] also plays some instruments.”

A few months ago, he found some time to launch Michel Cusson Solo, which was inspired by family photos that he found somewhere in Maine. Nine tracks were recorded, but the intimate and striking audio-visual show that emerged from the album is constantly evolving.

“I felt like re-inventing the way I work,” says Cusson. “In this process, I combined improv with writing. I can sit onstage at my spaceship [that is, his ton of gear] and start writing immediately. I build my soundtrack on the fly, live in front of the audience. Then, using the loops I’ve just created, I build on top of that and improvise. Plus, there are a few pre-recorded tracks that mix in. My show is 100% guitar sounds. Each time I provoke an idea, it’s great fun!”

Last December, UZEB returned after a 25-year hiatus, shocking pretty much everyone. Bass virtuoso Alain Caron and master drummer Paul Brochu will always be part of Cusson’s DNA, but how did three fully-booked musicians find their motivation?

In 1992, the outdoor farewell concert at the Montréal Jazz Fest seemed to have fully capped the trio’s 15 years of high-flying, acrobatic jazz-rock fusion – which won them high praise throughout the world. “I won’t pretend there weren’t beefs between us,” says Cusson, “but we’re all big boys and we started seeing each other regularly in the last few years. At some point, we felt like starting up UZEB again. We don’t have new compositions for the time being, and we’re not setting any kind of deadline, we’re taking it slow. But we’ve already booked 18 gigs so far, several of which are in Europe, and there’s the reunion show in just over a month and Wilfrid-Pelletier, which is selling very well, with more than 2,500 tickets gone already. UZEB separated in 1992, but we never divorced!”

CorneilleCorneille has nothing on his plate lately. No album or tour on the agenda. Free as a bird. “Writing my autobiography (Là où le soleil disparaît, 2016) taught me another way of using words, and I find it harder to go back to the songwriting format. I need a break,” he says.

His last album, Entre nord et sud, was released in 2013. It’s a marvellous, 17-songs deep work written by Corneille, in collaboration with French rappers Youssoupha, Kerry James and Soprano. “I love hip-hop, but I don’t feel I’m good enough to make some,” says Corneille. “Collaborating with those guys was a great way to incorporate some into my music.”

Back in Québec since March, after the European tour of the Rat Pack-like act dubbed Forever Gentlemen, in which he shares the stage with Garou and Roch Voisine, Corneille looks back with a smile. “Getting dressed to the nines night after night came very naturally to me,” he says. “I admire crooners like everybody else, so it wasn’t something new for me. I sing that repertoire in the shower, and as lullabies for my kids!”

After the tour, the singer-songwriter reunited with his wife and kids, hunkered down, and threw his day planner out the window. Except for one thing: a show during the Francofolies de Montréal, on June 9, at Club Soda. “That show will be an chance for me to do only my hits in acoustic mode, seventy-five minutes of my best material,” says Corneille. “It’s going to be a celebration!”

Five musicians and two backing vocalists will accompany the suave, soulful voice of the elegant singer. “The Francofolies invite me every other year, and this year, it was even easier to say yes to the programmers’ proposition: put on a unique and exclusive show to celebrate the 15th anniversary of my first album, Parce qu’on vient de loin, released in 2002.”

His first album, it’s worth remembering, was double-platinum in France and propelled this Rwandan-born Canadian to the upper echelons of stardom. His double-live album, from 2005, was certified triple-platinum. Stupendous figures.

Let’s take a quick look back. Corneille has released six albums and, as is well known, has an enviable career in Europe. The recordings have been peppered with various collaborations, notably Génération Goldman in 2012 (Quand tu danses) and GG2 (Bonne idée). He’s also done humanitarian work (Africa Live in 2005) and soul-pop (the Eurovision 2006, in front of a jury presided over by Charles Aznavour). As a result of all this visibility, he was signed to the legendary American label Motown in 2007, a fantastic break that, sadly, didn’t pan out.

Then, in 2014, he sat alongside Garou as a judge on La Voix (the French version of The Voice), in France. “I loved it,” says Corneille. “People might think that such a well-oiled machine means you lose the essence of things, but I saw it differently. France and Québec aren’t that different. I have two parallel careers, but I made it very clear early on, for both territories, that I would only do music that I’m interested in. I don’t separate my audiences. I do, however, get the impression there are more options in France when it comes to financial means, and the number of opportunities.”

And what’s Corneille’s take on the road traveled during those 15 far-from-boring years?

“I get bored really easily and I’m in a trade where it’s safer to have a certain artistic consistency in one’s choices, following a line that doesn’t confuse people and the media,” he says. “That’s why I don’t feel like re-visiting what I’ve done in the past. I think my six albums are quite different from one another. Otherwise I would feel like I can’t breathe. I’ve had albums that did very well, and others really not so well [his two English albums, notably, The Birth of Cornelius in 2007, and Sans titre in 2009]. As time goes by, I feel like I want to try everything even more! I dream of doing an Afrobeat album with African musicians. But I think my next one will be a covers album.”