“She ain’t pretty, she just looks that way.” It’s the hook that sticks with us. And the song that put Saskatchewan alt-rockers Northern Pikes into the Top 10. The rollicking bar-room tune from the Pikes’ third album, Snow in June, solidified guitarist Bryan Potvin as one of the group’s core songwriters. It was nominated for a Single of the Year JUNO, won for Video of the Year, and remains their best-known hit. Potvin takes a break from prepping gigs with Kane & Potvin (his new project with Grapes of Wrath’s Kevin Kane) to talk about writing about the “model from Hell.”

Snow in June was the third Northern Pikes record, but the first where you wrote so many songs. Whose idea was that?
I wrote a song on the previous record, Secrets of the Alibi, called “Hope Goes Astray” that ended up being the band’s biggest hit to that point. It was the first song I wrote that was good enough to bring to the boys and say, “What do you think of this?” and that gave me a lot of confidence. When it was time to do Snow in June, it was expected of me. The Pikes was the type of ecosystem that encouraged it. I think Jay [Semko, singer/bassist] felt more relaxed that other people were contributing.

With this song, you also become the band’s third singer.
Right. We had two lead vocalists initially. I was doing a bit of harmony, but my role was the guitar player. When I started writing songs, they eventually said, “Listen man, you have to learn how to sing these.” I still, in a weird way, consider myself a guitar player first. I love everything about guitar. But I was presented with different circumstances than I saw coming. I didn’t know I had this in me.

Songwriters often have to remind people that not everything they write is autobiographical, but in this case, this song was, right?
Well, sort of. I really was a dishwasher, yes. This person, she was a composite, a bit of a Ms. Frankenstein. The hook… it’s funny I’m just now remembering it. It came from watching an episode of [‘70s TV sitcom] Rhoda.  There was a scene where there’s this typical good-looking woman and she says, “I’m not beautiful, I just look that way.” So I wrote that down in a notebook, as a writer does. I thought it was very funny. It just sat there for a month or two. Then it was time to make hay. That acoustic jam was coming up and I would need to bring some songs. So I took that line and just riffed on it. I knew I had something special with the hook, so I’ve got to write around it and try not to mess it up. It was quick: you hear this all the time, but that song was written in about 20 minutes.

When did you know it was a hit?
The first time we played it live! We had the audience singing the chorus by the end of the first play. Then when [Virgin Records] heard “She Ain’t Pretty,” they knew it was the single that would open up the rest of the record.  I thought it was a really bold move by the record company, actually, to get behind it. You’ve got two records, you’re establishing this band, they’re doing well on MuchMusic, and then we throw a monkey wrench in – we have another singer. But it worked out pretty well.

Looking back at the awards, and the video, and the radio play, what do you think is the song’s legacy?
You know, a lot has happened with it but I still think it has a future. Like, this song is going to make a massive country hit for someone one day. It’s got that sassy lyric. An agreeable melody and chord progression attune to something country. I feel that it’s just waiting to be a smash.

Trashing the songs and recordings he’d been working on for the past five years was the best thing Samito ever did. That much is now clear: this adoptive Québécois’ hard-hitting first album is a hybrid of funk, electro, rock and traditional Mozambique music.

Initially slated for release last fall, Samito’s first album was to be called Xico-Xico, but it didn’t live up to the expectations of its creator. “I’d been working on it for too long,” says Samito. “When I listened to it at the very end of the process, I thought it was cool, but I was somewhere else completely,” says the artist, who admits it was partly due to differences between himself and a close collaborator at the time. “I decided to drop everything and start from scratch. Saying it happened quickly is quite an understatement. In about 20 days, I wrote and recorded a complete album.”

The frantic pace was encouraged by producer Benoit Bouchard, himself an accomplished musician, who ‘s worked with Chloé Lacasse and Fanny Bloom, among others. “He’s one of the first musicians I met when I got here 10 years ago,” says Samito, now 36. “As a matter of fact, he was my studio recording instructor during my studies. Last March, I played my very minimalist demos for him, and four days later we were in the studio with session players. We recorded everything over the course of one weekend.”

SamitoAlone, But Well-Accompanied

Working with drummer Jonathan Bigras (Galaxie, PONI), guitarist Funk Lion (La Bronze), bassist François-Simon Déziel (Valaire) and a few other collaborators such as top axe-man Olivier Langevin (Galaxie) allowed Samito to live a bona fide dream studio experience. “It was so much more interesting than working on my own in my basement,” he readily admits. “This album is the direct opposite of the other one. Even the writing is different… Instead of writing in the third person and being some kind of omniscient observer or narrator, I decided to accept my first person and to write about me.”

Through songs such as “LOL,” a critique of social media; a metaphor on assisted suicide entitled “Nara”; and “Tiku La Hina,” a story of identity, Samito shares his fears and inner struggles using a rhythmic mix of Portuguese and Tswa, one of the many languages spoken in his country of origin.

On “Here We Go My Old Friend,” he exposes his vulnerability and opens up about feelings of deep solitude. “Sometimes it feels like it comes with being an artist,” he says “It’s even worse for me because I’m an immigrant. I made a choice, as a teenager, to come here to love the American dream, but the road to the American dream is paved with failures and solitude. Even though I’ve totally integrated here, I’m still totally uprooted from my native land. As a matter of fact, it’s partly so I could be surrounded by people that I wanted to do a live album, something more spontaneous.”


Bringing the African Groove Back

The result is a spectacular meeting “between Mozambique and Lac-Saint-Jean,” the region from which producer Benoit Bouchard comes. A musician since childhood, Samito taps into all of his countless influences. “There’s gospel, rock, funk,” he explains. “There’s also a conscious attempt at bringing back a certain original African groove, a relatively edgy groove that you haven’t really heard in African pop music for nearly 20 years. The music over there now is too clean, as if Africans were attempting to copy the standard American format. The whole dark, visceral roots aspect of it has been expunged.”

Armed with this “cultural and historical melting pot,” the Révélation Radio-Canada 2015–2016 winner will go back to his hometown of Maputo this summer to shoot a video and release his album. “The recognition I’ve been getting over here for the last few months is starting to make waves over there. There seems to be growing interest,” says the artist, who left his country a decade ago to study music at McGill University. “But I’m especially anxious to play my album for my family. My loved ones know I almost gave up more than once and that the road to now was hard. I really don’t want to disappoint them.”

Feeling quite welcome ever since he arrived in Québec, Samito plans to improve his writing in French. “Words, to me, are the most important part of a song,” he says. “Even if I sometimes realize people couldn’t care less about lyrics if the music is good, I would still love to be able to write in French soon. Thing is, I don’t want to mess it up. For the past 10 years, I’ve seen countless artists from the diaspora who haphazardly attempted to sing in French. I want to take the time it takes to write and sing something good in French. I’m not sure exactly why, but I feel it’s something I owe the Québécois.”

Samito was awarded the SOCAN Prize at Bourse RIDEAU that was held in Québec City in February 2016. Among other things, the prize will allow Samito to be featured in a SOCAN showcase during the Rendez-vous Pros des Francofolies de Montréal alongside La Bronze on June 16, 2016, at 5:00 pm.

Guy BélangerOne gets this strange feeling from harmonica player Guy Bélanger, that of a man who blindly followed the path that unfolded before him, out of sheer instinct. Starting with an evening of celebration when, as a teen, he decided to switch from the recorder to the harmonica as his instrument of choice. “I didn’t choose it, it chose me,” he says. It continued with film and TV scoring, after having criss-crossed Québec as the harmonica player for Bob Walsh and Les Colocs.

Bélanger is a self-taught composer and musician, and his career is a singular one, littered with lucky breaks and accomplishments. But, mainly, he’s driven by a deep-seated desire to be where no one expects him. “I love saying that I’m out for fresh air with my harmonica,” he says. “I take it elsewhere to see if she’s there, and she always is.”

It was family ties that drove Bélanger to score movies, since his brother, Louis, is a film director. It all started with Post Mortem but really took off thanks to Gaz Bar Blues, a soundtrack he created alongside guitarist Claude Fradette. “We were really inspired, especially by Ry Cooder’s work on Paris, Texas,” says Bélanger. “Something was happening…” This chemistry worked out well for the duo, which went on to win the Québec Film Award for Best Film Score in 2003. This chemistry also exists between the Bélanger brothers, part of a brood of eight siblings from Val d’Or; to this day, their professional collaboration is still going strong. “Louis really fine-tunes his screenplays,” says Bélanger. “Everything is precisely calculated, dosed, thought through. It would be disrespectful to come to that with broad strokes and bombastic music à la John Williams. In any case, I would be unable to do that.”

Louis Bélanger is loyal to a brother who serves him well. Guy wrote the music for The Timekeeper (2009) and Route 132, alongside Ben Charest, which garnered him a second Québec Film Award in 2011. Les mauvaises herbes, Louis Bélanger’s latest film, marked a milestone for Guy because it was the first time he composed all of the movie’s music on his own. “I was ready for that,” he says. “It’s not that I wanted to work on my own in the studio; quite the contrary. But I did want to prove to myself that I would be able to.” On Les mauvaises herbes, therefore, the brothers agreed on something from the get-go. There would be no reference to reggae and the omnipresent ganja that comes with it. Guy found his inspiration after watching some of the rushes. “Louis shares his screenplay and filming moments during the principal photography,” says Bélanger. “Based on that, I send him music ideas upon which he then comments. Often times, Louis will ask me to strip things down. And then a little more. And a little more, still. Louis forces me to bare my music. I’m not there to underscore the emotions, I’m there to accompany them.”

Composing with the harmonica does come with its own set of challenges. “I don’t want to sound country or too bluesy,” says Bélanger. “I don’t want to sound like Neil Young or Bob Dylan. There’s something very convivial about this instrument. All of our grandfathers played it.” The fact that the harmonica sounds like singing, its resemblance to the human voice, makes it a distraction to a movie’s dialogue. This is why, sometimes, Bélanger will write with his harmonica, then call upon a friend to transpose the melody to another instrument such as the guitar, which was the case on Les mauvaises herbes.

Bélanger also seeks to surprise listeners and trump his own instrument; disguise it, if you will. That’s especially the case for his work on the TV series Séquelles, which airs on Série+ this spring, a series directed by his brother, and whose music he scored with longtime collaborator Claude Fradette. “For this thriller, we’ve created an anxious, atonal atmosphere,” says Bélanger. “It’s all about texture. It was a delicate layering process where I doubled, and even sometimes tripled, the harmonica tracks. The instrument is completely transformed: we made it say something completely different.”

Bélanger also wrote for Louis Saya’s Les Boys TV series, and through it all never stopped his work as a musician. To him, those are two sides of the same coin that inspire each other and stimulate his creativity. Examples of this abound: To wit, he’ll play two concerts at l’Astral during the Montreal Jazz Fest. Back in 2014, he released Blues Turn, a record that garnered him the 2014 Harmonica Player of the Year prize at Toronto’s Maple Blues Awards, as well as a nomination at the International Blues Challenge in Memphis. He’ll also appear on Céline Dion’s next album. And he’s been rehearsing in his garage for a new album he plans to release next November. The line between those two universes is so fine that Bélanger never hesitates to play music he’s written for Gaz Bar Blues or Les mauvaises herbes onstage. ‘I really dig doing that,” he says. “Those compositions are sometimes no longer than 30 seconds in the context of the movie, but on stage, me and the gang take off for 7 to 10 minutes. It’s wonderful.”