“It’s really crazy, all that,” says Laval-based Brandon Mig about his exceptional year in 2018, which can be summed up in five words: “Best I’ll Never Have.” That song was the most played on Québec radio in 2018, which contributed much more to the recognition of his talent than did his participation in La Voix [the Québec franchise of The Voice] in 2017. “It’s so cool to have had a chance like that,” he admits.

Propelled by tropical house rhythms, “Best I’ll Never Have” sits squarely in current musical trends, and became a summer staple on Québec’s commercial airwaves. The fact that there was also a bilingual version also helped ensure maximum rotation. “With both versions out there, we manage to accumulate [rotations] and increase its popularity in both languages,” says Mig. “Although the Francophone version did get more airplay.

“The interesting thing is, the French version was a huge hit on the radio, but the English version did better on streaming services like Spotify, Apple Music, and others. It’s like each version found its niche.”

But the fact that he was a contestant on La Voix, and his subsequent association with coach Marc Dupré, also played a big part in seeing his song adopted by radio stations and their audiences. “On the Anglophone side, it’s mostly community and college stations that played ‘Best I’ll Never Have,’ as well as Montréal’s Beat 92.5 FM.”

Captivated by music since the piano lessons he took as a child, Mig discovered singing when he participated in a musical in high school. He even played in a small alt-rock band. “I still play with those guys for fun, for the sheer pleasure of playing music,” he says. One thing leading to the next, he ended up auditioning for La Voix. “I made it to the quarter-finals – quite the experience. The following summer I toured with Marc Dupré a little,” he says, and also offered his songwriting skills to other people’s projects.

Partly thanks to Dupré, Mig met the architect behind the success of “Best I’ll Never Have,” Montréal composer, producer, and studio owner John Nathaniel. “He’s an incredible musician,” says Mig. “His method of composing is efficient, fast and formidable.” Fruitful, we would add: Nathaniel, awarded the Songwriter of the Year at the SOCAN Gala in 2017, co-written and/or produced a ton of radio hits in Québec and Canada, including Marc Dupré’s “Du bonheur dans les étoiles,” Alexe Gaudreault’s “Placebo,” and “Éclat,” as well as worked on songs by OneRepublic, Marie-Mai, and Switchfoot.

Nathaniel invited Mig to his studio just to see if there was any chemistry between them. Luckily, the two immediately clicked. “Before we got to ‘Best I’ll Never Have,’ we wrote seven songs in two days,” says Mig. “Short, two-minute-long ideas that we would record. ‘Best I’ll Never Have’ was the eighth, and it was the best of all the ones we’d come up with. Everything came together when we found the chorus; that’s when we knew we might have a hit on our hands.” Why that one? “Hmm…,” says Mig. “I think when we came up with the melody and the lyrics, I was in a more emotional place. I think that’s what it is: together we created a song full of emotion, both lyrically and musically.”

From this demo, the pair worked for a solid week in the studio to come up with the best voice tracks, tweaking the orchestration and production under Nathaniel’s direction. As soon as the song was finished, they considered recording a French version, and that’s when lyricist Mariane Cossette-Bacon, Nathaniel’s collaborator (who penned Alexe Gaudreault’s “Placebo”) stepped in to adapt to French. The rest, as they say, is history. “It’s so cool to have a mentor like John, because he knows how to compose good songs,” says Mig. “That’s something I want to keep doing for a very long time.”

Although “Best I’ll Never Have” was Québec’s Summer hit of 2018, and greatly increased the Mig’s fame and fortune, he still doesn’t have an album, yet. Unsurprisingly, he’s now working full-time to remedy that situation. “We’re planning on composing a five- or six-track EP, and to release them one by one, as singles for the radio,” says Mig. “By seeing how the next single does, if the momentum is still there, we’ll be able to figure out how far we can take this.”

A new song penned by Nathaniel, Cossette-Bacon and Mig should be released soon. Don’t touch that dial!


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New talent is constantly emerging on Québec’s rap scene. Here are five of them who’ll undoubtedly attract the attention of audiences and media alike this year.

Maky Lavender

Born in Montréal’s Pierrefonds neighbourhood, Maky Lavender caught the hip-hop bug a few years ago, after watching the evolution of Québec’s prolific beat-making scene. Inspired by the music of High Klassified, Kaytranada, and Tommy Kruise, the young rapper was filled with a burning desire to be part of a world seemingly so distant and out of reach. “I was from the West Island,” he says. “In my mind, it was impossible to be on par with those guys. But I didn’t give up. I started by gaining the respect of people in my neighbourhood, and I enrolled in a school for sound professionals. Shortly after, I heard that [rapper and member of The Posterz] Nate Husser was looking for a sound engineer, and I began working with him. That was a big boost to my confidence. I owe him a lot.”

After a few embryonic projects, Lavender stepped into the light in September of 2017 with an EP, Blowfoam 2, that attracted the attention of up-and-coming label, Ghost Club Records. Since then, this Jack-of-all-trades – as confident on the mic as he is a beatmaker and sound engineer – has asserted himself as one of the most well-rounded players of the Québec rap scene. His charisma is highly contagious, and he’s a peerless master of self-deprecation. His humility is like a breath of fresh air in an environment where overblown egos are all too common.

Already well under way, his next EP will offer a mix of festive and darker songs, a reflection of the 23-year-old artist, who’s wildly optimistic, but also battles bouts of sometimes very intense anxiety. “There will be lively songs that could be used to introduce events during the Olympic games,” he says, “as well as dirtier stuff à la DMX. Most of the songs have been recorded, but it’s not quite complete in my mind. I’m taking my time to make sure I release exactly what I intended to.”

Naya Ali

Despite being incredibly talented, Naya Ali’s journey in Montréal’s rap microcosm was a torturous one. Born in Ethiopia, she started wielding the mic in her late teens, and played a few shows around the city, but she gave it all up in her twenties to concentrate on her studies at Concordia University. Underwhelmed by her arrival on the job market, the artist, now 30, returned to music to re-energize herself, and re-build her confidence.

The wait was worth it. Her first EP, Higher Self, released last fall, carries a potent message of autonomy and perseverance, in synch with the ideology of this astute creator, who rejects social conventions. “We’re born into a pre-determined narrative that forces us to follow the rules, own a beautiful house, build a family, save for our retirement,” she says. But in reality, we’re born to create, evolve and influence each other. We have the power to change and create our own reality.”

Equally inspired by the current trap trend as she is by artists with a more organic groove, like J. Cole and Kendrick Lamar, Ali is working on her debut album, due before year’s end. “Right now, I’m growing, creating, learning and getting ready for the coming months,” she says. “I’m slowly revealing various aspects of who I am, sound-wise as well as poetically. The hard-hitting sound people got used to on my first EP will still be there, but I also want to work on sounds that have an emotional impact on people.”

Kirouac

Kirouac isn’t your average rapper. Growing up in the Town of Mount-Royal, an affluent district on the Island of Montréal, he was introduced to slam poetry in high school, and gradually grew more and more interested in rap. He took his first steps onto the scene in 2015 as one half of the duo PEM, alongside his partner-in-crime Nomad, and acquired enough confidence to create his first solo EP, the promising Je m’en rappelle plus, mais c’est vraiment bon (I don’t remember, but it’s really good). Shortly afterward, while beginning his studies in cinema at the Unuiversité du Québec à Montréal, there was a decisive encounter with producer Kodakludo. “He heard one of my tracks at a party and came to see me,” says Kirouac. “As soon as he played his beats for me, there was a big lightbulb moment. Our chemistry had huge potential.”

Wesh, the duo’s first project, was released in June of 2018 and enjoyed enviable airplay on a few radio stations, including CISM and ICI Première. The mini-album is a likeable and unabashed portrait of a young adult discovering the metropolis where he lives, and fits squarely in the “nice guy rap” trend. It’s a sub-genre originating from another Montréal neighbourhood, the Plateau Mont-Royal, and popularized mainly by FouKi over the last couple of years. “It’s a label I’m fully comfortable with, because I’m a soft person in everyday life, not a highway robber,” he says. “It’s pointless to pretend to be somebody else if you want to rap.”

Still guided by this quest for authenticity, the 22-year-old rapper will explore a large swath of his childhood on the upcoming EP, due Feb. 1. Titled Amos, an homage to the series of fantasy novels Amos Daragon by Québec writer Bryan Perro, the recording will include four songs that evoke each of the four elements. Riding high on the hype, he’s enjoying in the local scene. Next upo, he’ll be participating in the Cabaret Festif! de la relève as well as another showcase-contest in Montréal.

Tizzo

Tizzo didn’t choose rap; quite the contrary. After taking more or less serious first steps in English in the mid-oughts, the young rapper fine-tuned his flow after moving to the North Shore – where he recorded an untold number of songs, the vast majority of which were never released. After some trouble with the law, and a brief stint in prison kept him away from music, he found his productivity again in 2016, a pivotal year that saw the release of Comment faire. “It’s a song that, like all the others, was only destined to be heard by my friends,” he says. “But it travelled from e-mail account to e-mail account and, a few months later, a friend invited me to perform it in a downtown club. I was stunned when everyone started singing along.”

Astonished by this unexpected word of mouth, Tizzo redoubled his efforts as never before. As a result, 2018 saw him release four mixtapes in less than a year, two of which he did with his partner Shreez. Seemingly coming out of nowhere in many people’s eyes, the 26-year-old artist became the biggest sensation of Montréal’s still underestimated street rap scene. His songs “On fouetté” and “Ça pue,” both trap earworms with incredible energy, are on the verge of becoming bona fide anthems of Québec hip-hop.

This success has put things back into perspective for Tizzo. Less than a year after the release of his first project Tu sais vol. 1, rap became his true calling, and he now needs to keep up the pace, a challenge about which he’s more than optimistic. “It’s going to be crazier than last year,” he says. “Each time I come out of the studio, the beats are sicker and sicker! The kids want to jump around and move, and that’s exactly what I give them.”

White-B

White-B owes a debt to rap, which entered his life when he was in his mid-teens, at a time when things could have taken a wrong turn. Troubled by family problems, the Montréaler’s destiny looked brighter once he moved to the North end of the city, where he met his partners in the 5sang14 collective, Lost, MB, and Gaza. “I heard them rap and they were incredibly talented,” says White-B. “They inspired me, and I started scribbling some lyrics. One thing led to another, and we started freestyling together, sometimes for whole days or evenings.”

His first EP, En noir et blanc, released in 2016 alongside Lost, created a big sensation on Montréal’s rap scene. A year later, the success of Confession risquée, his first solo mixtape, confirmed what a lot of people suspected: That rap was no longer going to be a hobby for White-B, and would become central to his life.

The 23-year-old bridges the gap between socially conscious purist French rap, and an American influenced pop ego trip to reach a wider audience. Having generated a small amount of hype on the other side of the Atlantic, he’s accumulated millions of views and streams, and will release a second mixtape next spring. “It’s the project that will best represent my current vibe, something that’s hard-hitting yet very melodic,” he says. “I do feel some pressure, I can’t deny it, but I don’t want to rush things. I want to make sure I don’t come out with Confession risquée 2, because what matters most to me is to come up with something different.”


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Formed in 2008 in Toronto, The Strumbellas are Simon Ward on vocals and guitar, David Ritter on vocals and keyboards, Jon Hembrey on lead guitar, Isabel Ritchie on violin, Darryl James on bass guitar, and Jeremy Drury on drums. Hembrey, James, Drury and Ward are all originally from Lindsay, ON.

The band’s self-titled EP was released in 2009, garnering critical acclaim and widespread coverage as a band to watch. An ongoing Monday night residency at Toronto’s Cameron House cemented their reputation, and in 2010 the band was invited to play landmark venues, including Yonge-Dundas Square, The Horseshoe Tavern and The Peterborough Folk Festival. Their full-length debut album, My Father and the Hunter, was released independently in 2012. The Strumbellas signed with Six Shooter Records, releasing their second album, We Still Move on Dance Floors, in 2013; it won a 2014 JUNO Award in the Roots & Traditional Album of the Year – Group category.

The band’s third studio album, Hope, was released in 2016. The first single from that album, “Spirits,” topped the Billboard Alternative Songs chart, and enjoyed mainstream radio airplay in Canada and a number of European countries. The band were featured performers on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert, among other national, late-night, American TV network programs. They toured globally in 2016 and 2017, visiting Australia, Europe, and North America, including high-profile festivals such as Bonnaroo and The Governor’s Ball. “Spirits” won a 2017 JUNO Award as Single of the Year, and earned them a SOCAN No. 1 Song Award as well.

The band has just released “Salvation,” the first single and video from their fourth studio album, on which they’re currently working. In the Fall of 2018, Strumbellas’ chief songwriter Simon Ward gave a SOCAN Songwriting Master Class at the Folk Music Ontario (FMO) Conference in Toronto, where he was very voluble and forthcoming about his songwriting process. In addition to breaking down the bit-and-pieces assembly of The Strumbellas’ world-conquering hit song “Spirits,” here are some the highlights of what he had to say…

  • “The first song I ever wrote was around age 12, for my dad’s birthday.”
  • “I obsess about music. I love it.”
  • “I have thousands of voice memos on my cellphone. I sing into my phone on the subway. I run out of the shower to sing a melody into my phone… I’ll put days of work into a song demo… My favourite thing is to make demos.”
  • “My overall message as a songwriter is, melody, melody, melody… If you don’t have a good melody, just throw it in the garbage… Once you get 10 seconds of amazing melody, you can start to talk about lyrics, arrangement, and production… Lyrics can be a tool to get to the melody, and you can use other tools to get to the melody, but you need to get to it… I love when people pour out their souls in lyrics, but the melody has to be there… Still, once I have a great melody, I’m not very good about building around it.”
  • “I have a short attention span, which usually means a short song, three minutes or so. I pour my heart and soul into it, even if I’m trying to make a big pop song.”
  • “It’s crazy how much ‘Spirits’ changed my life, and the lives of all The Strumbellas band members. I always wanted to have a song that went around the world.”
  • “For our current single ‘Salvation,’ it’s a 12-year-old melody, written before The Strumbellas.”
  • “I have a hard time avoiding depression, but I challenged myself to be positive on our next album… But I haven’t laughed in years… I love slow, sad folk music. I might be making some in the future as Simon the Island.”

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