Long before mash-ups were a thing, Canadian rockers The Kings found success by combining two different song fragments into one memorable track. At first, their label Elektra tried to release just “Switchin’ to Glide” on its own. But the band had always conceived it as a segue from “This Beat Goes On,” and it wasn’t until radio was serviced with both parts of the song as one track that it took off – spending more than 20 weeks on the Billboard charts. Co-founding guitarist John Picard (a.k.a. Mister Zero) recalls those early days and reveals why being a one-hit wonder is something to be proud of.

The Kings must be the only band that can claim to be from Oakville and Vancouver. How did you guys come together?I’m a lyricist, and I first met Sonny [Keyes, keyboards] in Vancouver. He was a great piano player who wrote songs like Elton John and Bernie Taupin – the kind where the lyrics came first. We started writing together, and decided we needed a band. I thought of David [Diamond, bass/lead vocals] who went to the same high school as me in Oakville. I knew he was in some full-time cover bands, doing the bar circuit. Sonny and I presented him with a tape, and we found out Dave was like Sonny – he could really write. He became our singer, and with Max [Styles, drums] we became WhistleKing, which we later changed to The Kings.

How were songwriting duties divided up?
We all contributed. You either have ideas, or you don’t. You can’t fake it. Fortunately, all the guys in our band have ideas. Sonny and I did most of the writing, but if someone had an idea, we’d always give it a shot. We had enough faith in each other for that.

“We never made a million dollars, but we had a song that people love and has stood the test of time.” – John Picard of The Kings

What was the live scene like for you then? As a songwriter, how did you feel about playing covers?
We used it as a way to get more gigs, you know? We played Cheap Trick, The Cars, Elvis Costello songs. And we learned if we put on a bit of a show, it went over well with the bar owners. So even though we were a hippie prog band at heart, we could deliver a high-energy set, with original music. But we were never like those bands that would just toss in some shitty song of their own in the middle of the set. We would change up the cover songs. I never learned how to play someone else’s guitar solo. I made it my own. We put our own stamp on it, so the covers and originals were seamless.

You say you considered yourselves “prog” but The Kings are often referred to as new wave. What do you think of that?
New wave was a marketing device, a bandwagon. Just like in the ‘90s, when every A&R guy went to Seattle looking for any band in a plaid shirt. It was like that, but with skinny ties. We started out like a normal rock ’n’ roll band, then gradually did more prog-rock stuff, longer songs. Until at one point, we said, “We should try writing some hits.”

Well, your hit isn’t a typical three-minute pop song. So how did that happen?
True. “This Beat” and “Switchin’,” they weren’t complete on their own, so we thought maybe it would be neat if we stuck ‘em together.

What did Bob Ezrin bring to the experience?
Bob taught us everything we know about recording. We met him at Nimbus 9 Studio in Toronto and he took our tapes down to Elektra Records in L.A. The story goes that when the executives played it, some kids outside heard it through the window and started dancing. Since Bob had just done the No. 1 record in the world with Pink Floyd’s The Wall, they figured “let’s give him some dough to record these unknowns.” So we had a budget.

You recently released a DVD called Anatomy of a One-Hit Wonder. So are you embracing that term?
Pre-emptive strike. [laughs] We consider that an honour, to have had that hit. We never made a million dollars, but we had a song that people love and has stood the test of time. When we read the comments on our YouTube videos we know people haven’t forgotten us, and that makes all the hard work worthwhile. It’s a pretty amazing feat for some guys from Toronto.

There are those who say that writing a hit song requires a formula or a method. Others will tell you it’s pointless to try to force it – the song will come to you or it won’t; it’s as if songs are floating about in the ether and the writer’s job is simply to be open to them – writer as receptacle, as medium, as dream catcher.

Tobias Jesso Jr. has been trying to catch a dream. His dream: to write songs that would be heard on the radio. But his initial attempts amounted to little more than a rude awakening.

The 30-year-old Vancouverite started his music career playing bass in local band The Sessions and then for pop singer Melissa Cavatti, a gig that relocated him to Los Angeles in 2008. The end result was… well, not much. When that project folded, Jesso found himself living in an apartment in L.A.’s trendy Silver Lake neighbourhood, where he spent the next couple of years trying to write songs he hoped other artists would record. He had a method: model his songwriting on what was currently successful.

“Adele was the first person who ever asked me to write a song with her.”

“I would just listen to the radio and challenge myself to write a song that could compete with whatever I was listening to,” says Jesso. “I was probably listening mostly to Adele, or whoever was on the radio at that time.” His method proved unsuccessful. “I don’t know if I had the right idea or not because it didn’t work. It was more trying to challenge myself to write any kind of song, rather than the right kind of song.”

In 2012, after four years in L.A. trying to nudge into the music industry’s fast lane, his music career was stalled on the on-ramp. Then, in the space of one week, he had three big hits – but not the kind he was hoping for. The first hit he took was a painful break-up with his girlfriend. Then came a literal smash when he was struck by a hit-and-run driver while riding his bike. The very next day he received another bullet: news from back home that his mom had been diagnosed with cancer.

The Universe seemed to be delivering a pink slip. At 27, he said goodbye to Hollywood and retreated back to his parents’ house in North Vancouver to lick his wounds, his music biz dream receding in the rear-view mirror.

With his instruments still back in a storage locker in L.A., his only musical outlet was the piano his sister had left behind – an instrument he’d never really played before. When he wasn’t working for a friend’s moving company, he sat his lanky 6’7” frame in front of the keys and explored.

“I usually play the guitar or the bass,” says Jesso, “so when I went home, there was a piano there, and I just started there.” As he began to find his way around the black and white keys, chord progressions and melodies started to materialize. Things began to take shape. The pain and the disappointment were stirring something that found voice at the piano. He followed his feelings. “I think I had my first song after playing for about a week,” Jesso says. That first song was called “Just a Dream.”

Meanwhile, Jesso learned that one of his favourite bands, Girls, had split up. He tracked down an e-mail address for the band’s bassist, Chet “JR” White, and sent him a sympathy note, appending the demo song. White responded almost immediately, and the two talked on the phone. With White’s encouragement, Jesso continued to write more songs on the piano. A month later, he had written a tidy collection of demos – sincere, heartfelt piano ballads.

White loved the songs. Not only that, he offered to produce an album and guided Jesso to sign with Matador imprint True Panther. For the recording sessions, Jesso got production help from White and other notables including Patrick Carney of The Black Keys, John Collins of The New Pornographers and Grammy-winning producer Ariel Rechtshaid (Vampire Weekend, Haim, Usher). Danielle Haim (of Haim) played drums on the plaintive track “Without You.”

His debut album, Goon, was released in March 2015. Accolades started rolling in from publications like Pitchfork and Spin. Jesso got invitations to appear on The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon, Conan and Jimmy Kimmel Live. In April, he signed a publishing deal with Universal Music Publishing Group. In July, Goon was named to the Polaris Prize short list. He set out on his first headlining tour.

The songs on Goon have been compared to those of 1970s singer-songwriters like Randy Newman, Harry Nilsson, Todd Rundgren and Emitt Rhodes – “Without You” bears the same stamp of sincerity and heart-rending directness as the song of the same name brought to No. 1 by Nilsson (and written by Badfinger’s Pete Ham and Tom Evans) – even though most of these names weren’t even on Jesso’s radar. “There’s a lot of different comparisons that I’ve heard, that I’ve been like, ‘I didn’t even know that person when I had most of my songs written,’” he says.

Perhaps what Jesso shares with these kinds of songwriters is the tendency to go straight for the heart in the music and lyrics, and get his feelings across as directly as possible in a way that moves the listener.

“When I’m writing the songs, when I hit a chorus that I really think is cutting me, like ‘Without You,’ I’m really, really thinking ‘Man, this chorus really moves me.’ It’s something I felt. So when you give that into your writing, it’s almost like putting love into cooking or something; people can feel it when they eat it, or feel it when they hear it.”

Apparently the songs Jesso had cooked up were being felt and heard all the way across the pond. Back in January of 2015, before Goon had come out, British superstar Adele tweeted a little tweet to her 20 million followers. It was a link to Jesso’s YouTube video for his song “How Could You Babe” accompanied by five words: “This is fantastic, click away.” It received over 130,000 views in two weeks. To say that Jesso was over the moon would be an understatement. He must have gone simply supernova when Adele’s management later reached out to ask if he’d be interested in co-writing with her.

“She was the first person who ever asked me to write a song with her,” Jesso says, still a bit incredulous at that fact. “That’s been a dream of mine since I started writing songs and heard her music,” says Jesso. “Ever since then I was like ‘This is the type of thing I would love to do, is write a song for someone like this’ – that sort of naive dream.”

Naive or not, the dream became reality when the two met up in L.A. to write songs together. Over the span of a few days they worked on a lot of ideas. One of the fruits of their collaboration, “When We Were Young,” will appear on Adele’s new album, 25, due in late November. It’s rumoured to be the album’s next single, a follow-up to the record-breaking “Hello.” The British songstress has said it’s her favourite track on the album. Another song they co-wrote will appear on a limited edition of 25 that will be available through Target.

As if collaborating with Adele wasn’t remarkable enough, during one of their writing sessions they were joined by another pop music heavy-hitter: Sia, the Grammy-nominated, million-selling Australian artist who’s also penned many hits for the likes of Beyoncé, Rihanna, Britney Spears and Katy Perry. The three of them ended up writing the song “Alive,” intending it to be a song for Adele’s album. When Adele’s camp shuffled it to the back burner, Sia recorded it herself. It was released in September as the lead single for her forthcoming album, This is Acting.

“Just imagine me in that room with these two voices as my first experience in collaborative songwriting,” Jesso says, his voice sparkling with the memory. “It was amazing.”

Somehow Jesso has managed to occupy a unique spot where the hip intersects with the Hot 100. Critically acclaimed album. Darling of Pitchfork. Friends with Haim. Hangs with Adele. (The day before this article was uploaded, Adele interviewed Jesso in British newspaper The Guardian.)

But best of all, his dream of being a hit songwriter is coming true. How has this happened? When he first tried to write hits, back in that apartment in L.A., his method was to try to write tunes like the ones on the radio. That method got him nowhere.

“It wasn’t until I moved back home to Vancouver and started writing the songs that were really more personal to me, and writing them the only way I could at the time, that it started to resonate in a real way,” Jesso says. “I do think there is something to that. I don’t know whether it’s vibrations or the way something resonates, or honesty, or whatever it is, but there’s some unseen, unheard thing that people can just pick up on, and I think it has to do with authenticity.”

When he found his authentic writing voice, his songs found an audience. Their acceptance opened doors that ultimately got him invited to collaborate with two of the biggest artists and songwriters in the business. The results so far: a song on the most anticipated album release of the year and a Top 40 single. Not bad for a guy who never thought he’d catch his dream.

“When I was writing my demos [for Goon] back in Vancouver, I had about one percent hope of being in the music industry,” Jesso says. “I was 99 percent sure I was not going to be in the music industry for a career. But maybe that one percent is a spark that I kept lit – who knows? Now it seems very likely that I can.”

What are the odds that a fusion of African and Country music gives birth to an intense friendship between a Senegal-born Canadian and a Scotsman? Well, that’s what happened to Élage Diouf and Johnny Reid, two musicians seemingly worlds apart, after playing together.

Flashback to March 26, 2011. It’s JUNO Awards night in Toronto. Élage Diouf is in the banquet hall, mingling with the fellow revellers at his table, when he suddenly stops talking. Among the song excerpts announcing the nominees in the Country Album of the Year category, he hears a magnificent voice. It’s Johnny Reid’s. “When I heard his voice, I knew there was something special about it, I was convinced he would win,” says the Dakar-born musician, now living in Montréal. And it turned out he was right. Five minutes later, it was Diouf’s turn to step onstage to accept the JUNO for World Music Album of the Year, for his first solo album, Aksil. Later in the evening, they met and had a chance to get to know each other.

“We met through melody, because of a shared music trip, and then we became friends.” – Élage Diouf

Éliage Diouf, Johnny Reid

Photo: Federico Ciminari (CBC Montreal’s Rendez-Vous)

Flash forward to June 2011. Diouf is named 2011-2012 “Révélation Radio-Canada – World Music.” Among his rewards, he’s asked to pick one Anglophone artist with whom he’d like to collaborate. He chose Johnny Reid. The Scottish musician is quite busy, however, having just released three back-to-back double-platinum albums and a DVD, but he agrees to spend a few days in Montréal to collaborate with Diouf.

Flash forward again, to April 2012. Diouf and Reid meet again in Studio 12 at the CBC in Montréal. The two musicians immediately bond. “We met through melody, because of a shared music trip, and then we became friends,” says Diouf. “Élage is amazing! This guy is like sunshine! What a wonderful spirit. I walked into this room, and we connected musically, personally, emotionally… Man, I’ve never experienced anything like that before,” reminisces Johnny in his thick Scottish brogue (still present, even though he left Lanarkshire almost 30 years ago). “It’s really special… Who would have guessed it, right? That this black guy with dreadlocks from Senegal and an average white guy from Scotland would bond so strongly… It just shows how music is more powerful than race: music doesn’t discriminate, it unites people!” he adds with an intense mix of excitement and emotion.

The song they created together, “Just One Day,” is a truly universal ballad. It’s a song that channels an incredible energy through these two artists’ amazing voices. A concert-goer captured this clip of a concert at Toronto’s Massey Hall where the joy of these two men of working together is obvious. It’s passionate, magical.

Canada, a haven for all musicians

Élage and his brother Karim arrived in Canada in 1996 after being hired by Diamono Ballet for a series of concerts in Québec. They loved it so much that they decided to stay. The two brothers would then meet Dédé Fortin and his Colocs and collaborate on their final opus, Dehors Novembre. Élage is credited with some of the lyrics of the incredibly famous reggae song “Tassez vous de d’là,” on which he also sang the Wolof sections with Dédé. Later, they would tour North America, South America and Europe with Cirque du Soleil, as musicians in the Delirium show. Back in Montréal, Élage launched his first solo album in 2011 and, very recently, his second, entitled Melokáane.

Johnny Reid, Élage Diouf

Photo: Federico Ciminari (CBC Montreal’s Rendez-Vous)

As for Johnny Reid, he arrived in Canada at age 13, brought here by his father, a mechanic, who wanted a better life for his family. Reid would live in Québec for four-and-a-half years, while studying at Bishop’s University in Lennoxville, which is where he met his wife and the mother of his children. His musical career started modestly around 1997 when he had a few hits on the Canadian country charts. In 2009, however, things took off for him: five songs in the Top 20, then Dance With Me, which hit the top of the country charts and third on the Canadian album chart when it came out. Two more albums for EMI, as well as two Christmas albums, helped him break the American market. He sold more than a million copies and toured extensively to sold-out arenas throughout North America. Johnny Reid now lives in Nashville.

A bond beyond music

Nowadays, Diouf and Reid share much more than a passion for music. They’re dyed-in-the-wool friends that talk about English League football, joke around and have a natural complicity. “I love people,” says Diouf. “When I play music with people, talent is important. But when there’s a connection, it’s so much better: you can communicate better, know that person’s likes and dislikes better, create better and the possibilities are multiplied,” says the percussionist and singer.

“I feel so blessed to have the chance to do music, meet wonderful people like Élage,” says Reid. “Music is a powerful medium, a wonderful platform to speak about love, about positive things in the world. I am a very fortunate man to live this life,” adds the very likable singer and father of four.

The journey isn’t over for the two compadres. Johnny Reid is preparing a Canadian tour of 50-plus dates that will take place during the winter of 2016. He’s invited Diouf to be a part of his band, offering him a chance to make his talent shine in front of a whole new audience. One more example of Johnny Reid’s authentic generosity. What another one? Last August, as reported by CBC News, he gave up part of his fee to allow promoters in Kuujjuaq to book him for a concert in the Great White North. Turned out to be a magical show as much for the artist as it was for his fans. Goes to prove there’s more to life than money.

Johnny Reid launches a new album titled What Love Is All About on Nov. 13, 2015. More than ever, his humanist values and love shine through on this album, whether it’s the love of a couple, for a friend, a parent, a child…

As for Diouf, once the tour with Reid is done, he’ll go back to his projects, chief among them being an idea to create an orchestral piece written for instruments one never hears together. “We must dare, innovate, try stuff no one’s tried before,” says Diouf. He also needs to learn to do deal with his newfound star status in Senegal. “People recognize me in the street and call me by my name… It’s weird, I need to get used to it,” he says with a big smile in his voice.

The future looks bright for these two men, with hearts of gold that are all about positivity and humanist values.