What would you do with a year to yourself, just to write music? No recording or touring obligations. Just you, your instrument, and the muse. In 2016, Chilly Gonzales conducted this experiment, and the result is his latest album, a collection of instrumental piano tracks called, simply, Solo Piano III.

“I didn’t put myself in front of an audience, or a camera, or use social media,” says Gonzales. “To sort of see what happens to my brain chemistry when I don’t have to do anything that I feel has to cross the void to another person… What happens if I can really get lost in the music?”

The new Solo Piano III is 15 songs, with each song dedicated to a person of interest to Gonzales, from athletes, to inventors, to classical composers, to pop stars. It’s the third in a trilogy, following 2004’s Solo Piano and 2012’s Solo Piano II. Each is, partly, an exercise in using pop structures for his abstract instrumental music, and they’ve each “crossed over.” Solo Piano II was long-listed for the Polaris Music Prize, for example.

“I actually had the feeling the pieces were writing themselves,” he says of the new record.  “I had the luxury of time, to not make any final decisions before I’m good and ready. Rather than, ‘Oh, I have to go back on tour, so I have to finish these pieces.’ At the end of the sabbatical, I had 15 or 20 new ideas that weren’t leaving the piano.”

Born Jason Beck in Montréal, he and his brother Christophe (now a screen composer in L.A.) were schooled in music at a young age by their maternal grandfather, who Gonzales says instilled his “respectful connection to music.” In the 1990s, Beck began by playing drums in Son, an alternative rock band signed to Warner Music Canada – which produced a radio hit, “Pick Up the Phone.” He soon re-located to Berlin, and still remains in Germany. There, he adopted the stage name Chilly Gonzales and a new persona: rapping over piano and electronic keyboards, often while wearing a velvet robe and cracking jokes. An upcoming retrospective documentary Shut Up and Play the Piano features some choice archives from this period, which he admits was thankfully short-lived.

Still, the Chilly Gonzales character remains ambitious and outrageous, regardless of what music he’s playing. “Franz Liszt said he was possessed by the Devil,” says Gonzales. “I call myself a musical genius in the same way; it’s not meant to be taken literally.” The man his friends call “Gonzo” broke a Guinness World Record for longest solo-artist performance in 2009 (27 hours, 3 minutes, 44 seconds). He’s created a series of YouTube videos called Pop Music Masterclasses, in which he breaks down the musical elements of pop hits like “Shake it Off” by Taylor Swift, attracting millions of views. He’s written columns for The Guardian about the correlations between rap and classical music, published a best-selling book of piano pieces, and earlier this year, created his own music school.

Called The Gonzervatory, it selected seven musicians for a week-long, all-expenses paid music workshop in Paris with Gonzales, and guest professors including Jarvis Cocker, Peaches, and Socalled. What was originally designed as a performance masterclass quickly turned into a songwriting one.

“As I dove into what I wanted to tell [students] about performance, I realized we needed to address the songwriting issue,” he says. “Because there are ways to compose in which you already have the stage in mind, and that shortens the distance between the abstract idea when you’re alone, and its final form.

Working With Drake
Gonzales has increasingly been called in to consult with pop’s A-list, as an expert in the art and science of harmony. It’s how he ended up working with Drake on the rapper’s multi-platinum 2013 album Nothing Was the Same, contributing piano to the song “From Time.” “It was very interesting to see Drake work,” he says. “How he thinks he’s written a chorus, and then he’ll write something even more catchy, and what he thought was the chorus becomes the verse. You get these pieces… where it seems every part of the song could actually be considered a chorus. It’s very high-pressure, and not my usual musical world, so very interesting for me to soak that in. I had a temporary visa into Drake country… [but] I’m not there to brainstorm higher concepts for songs, or as a holistic collaborator, or adviser. I’m there to fix musical plumbing.”

“It’s something I learned from Jarvis Cocker when we were writing Room 29… He would perform [my piano pieces] while he was trying to come up with the lyrics. Instead of coming back from a tour and thinking, ‘I finally know how to perform these songs,’ but you’ve already committed [them] beforehand to a record.”

One assignment for the students mimicked a co-writing experience with Feist. They had to pick a song title out of a hat, then compose on the spot. It’s a technique he found success with when working on her JUNO Award-winning, Grammy-nominated album The Reminder. Their track “Limit to Your Love” – which later became a hit in England for James Blake – originated with the title, and then the two “performed” the song as if it had already been written. “I think 85% of what you hear on the final version was improvised in the moment,” Gonzales recalls. “It about erasing the barrier between composer and performer.”

Where to next? A solo piano tour starts this fall, booked through to spring 2019. Beyond that, he wants to take The Gonzervatory idea into year-round programming, for both students, and teachers. “As I grow older, I start to think about what might still work when I’m 60, the sort of connection to music that I want,” says Gonzalez. “What I want is to be around young musicians. Feed off their energy and transmit to them my energy.”

If Men I Trust’s musical journey is a well-paved one, it’s because the band members laid down every single cobblestone in it. Although the trio evolves in an environment where one has access to everyone else’s two cents, it prefers that if you want something done right, you do it yourself.

Longtime friends Jessy Caron, bass, and multi-instrumentalist Dragos Chiriac founded Men I Trust in 2014, and gained full power in 2015 with the addition of Emmanuelle Proulx on vocals and guitar. Strength in numbers.

Men I TrustWe speak with Dragos on the eve of a key concert in Men I Trust’s tour, their show at the Festival d’été de Québec. Sure, the band has gigs in Copenhagen, Zurich and, earlier this month, even flew to Egypt, but a homecoming gig in a huge venue is pretty special. “We’re playing the Impérial,” says Chiriac. “It’s much bigger than the venues we usually play. And crowds during the FEQ are always maxed.”

“Finally, we’re getting some good musicians in Egypt,” read a post on Facebook about ten days earlier, when Men I Trust landed in the kingdom of Pharaohs. But just how does an electro trio from Québec City end up on the bill of an Egyptian music festival? “Our followers are sprinkled all over the world,” Chiriac explains. “It’s hard for us to tour intensively in a given region, because at the end of the day, we’re not that well-known. We are known a little, but all over the globe.”

This global sprinkling of followers is, according to the band’s co-founder, a complete fluke. But one thing’s for sure: everywhere they go, they sell out the venue. “They’re small venues, but they’re always packed,” says Chiriac. “What we like to do are very intimate shows for a very specific crowd.”

Although the band does list Montréal as its hometown on social media, it is a bona fide “Made in Québec City” group. “You see, most places we go, even when we say Montréal, people don’t know where that is, so imagine saying Québec City,” says Chiriac. “It’s sad to realize that even in the States, people are barely able to locate, even approximately, where Montréal is on a map.”

But ultimately, the band’s origin doesn’t matter, because the welcome the band gets in their niche music scene is unanimous. “It’s quite surprising to get to a town we’ve never been to before, and people still buy our t-shirts,” says Chiriac. “The power of the internet helps us a lot. We have a ton of plays online. Every time we release a new song, we gain new followers. Our social network following doubles every six months.”

And whereas emerging bands often actively look for a record label to show them the way, Men I Trust doesn’t. “We’ve had a lot of offers, but we’re not interested,” Chiriac admits. “We manage all of our stuff without a problem. It’s about 10 to 15 e-mails per day.”

The trio practices an aesthetically cohesive do-it-yourself approach. “It’s a big plus not to have to wait for a team to spring into action,” says Chiriac. “We can release a song and video, aligned with our basic idea, in two weeks. And by making our own videos for each song we release, we consolidate the band’s universe.”

The time-consuming part of their business is bookings. That’s why the band has delegated those for the U.S. and Europe. “Everything else – production, recording, image, photography – we love doing it ourselves, and we have the know-how. As long as we can make it work, we’re gonna keep doing it that way,” says Chiriac.

The band’s appeal comes from catchy, mellow melodies that willfully target a niche audience. “It’s not a commercial style,” says Chiriac. “We don’t play on the radio. We do appear on certain playlists and specialized media.”

He says Men I Trust want to obey the silence. “We want a music that breathes, music that takes its time, even in more uptempo songs. Even when it comes to images, we consciously prefer long sequence shots, and distance. It’s a calculated choice.”

Two new songs were recently introduced onstage, notably in Québec City. They’ll both be on the upcoming album, planned for February 2019, at the end of a lengthier and more substantial recording process.

Meanwhile, the band keeps on touring, and their calendar has more than100 gigs left in 2018, from September on. “I think we’ll write the album in August,” sats Chiriac. “We’ve got a small 2-week break then…”

Susie Yankou couldn’t choose between screenwriting and music, so she just “threw everything at the wall” to see what would stick. And while the former brought the Toronto-born artist to Los Angeles for film school, it was ultimately the latter that took off faster. So, Yankou now focuses full-time on songwriting and performing under the moniker of BARKLEY – though she admits that “both will always be part of my life.”

As a songwriter, Yankou channels her storytelling skills to write conversational lyrics, as she does on her latest single, “3AM,” a synth-pop anthem about an unattainable lover. “I always really loved writing dialogue,” she explains. That style of plain-spoken honesty and narrative-building has paid off so far, especially when combined with musically infectious hooks and Yankou’s gorgeously soaring vocals.

BARKLEY honed her writing skills at SOCAN’s Kenekt Song Camp while living in L.A., and calls her move to the city “legitimately life-changing.” She says her short time there felt like “writing songs in paradise” and, most importantly, it taught her “to just let yourself be in awe of the talent around you, and to follow people’s ideas.”

While her own instincts are an integral part of the process, her time writing with others has hammered home a lesson she learned from the song camp. “The song is only as good as the weakest writer in the room,” she says. “I’ve learned to come prepared to sessions, but also not be precious about my ideas. My number one rule is probably to let the best idea win and to not have an ego about where it came from. If the song is great, that’s a win for everyone.” And so far, BARKLEY is definitely winning.