Chloe Charles could have made one of the most spirit-crushing albums in recent years, for which she would be totally forgiven. But she didn’t, and With Blindfolds On is a testament to her irrepressible musical spirit.

In the space of a year, the Toronto- and Berlin-based singer lost several family members, tragedies she touches upon in the song “Through Your Eyes.”

“Through Your Eyes” was written to “work through the strange and confusing feelings of loss, and also for my family,” says Charles. “Each verse is for a specific family member, written from the perspective that when you lose someone, you not only lose them but you lose a piece of yourself, as nobody will ever see you through those same eyes. Every time I sing this song, I’m thinking of my family members. I’m taken back to them, often hear their voice, their laughter. At times it’s very trying, but for the most part, I feel closer to them when I sing it.”

In addition to dealing with those losses, the bi-racial Charles seems to also be dealing with the subtle racism she sometimes finds in the music industry, and marketing types who don’t know what to do with her. These experiences manifest themselves in several of the album’s songs.

“People misjudge me based on the colour of my skin and attempt to box me into [only] jazz, or soul, or R&B, even before ever hearing a note,” she says. “However, I just make music which doesn’t have a race, and shouldn’t. As well, I’ve been urged many times to create music with a different sound, something more cohesive, something more ‘radio,’ something easier to market.”

“I want people to feel more than just entertained after my concert. I want them to remember those feelings and roll through them alongside me.”

Charles shared an excuse she hears often – “Your music is amazing, but we don’t know how to market it” – and calls it ridiculous, “because if you’re good at marketing you should be able to find a creative way to market anything that you deem good.”

Despite these trials, Charles has achieved considerable critical acclaim. She launched the self-produced With Blindfolds On, her sophomore album, with two sold-out shows at hip Toronto club The Burdock in late May of 2016. Publicity for the launch included a national-television performance on one of the last episodes of CTV’s Canada AM, and coverage in NOW magazine. Her critically acclaimed 2013 debut album Break the Balance received major accolades from Billboard magazine, the German edition of Rolling Stone, Mojo, The London Times and Elle magazine. Charles has toured Europe extensively, and has also won a 2014 Sirius/XM Indie Award and Harbourfront Centre’s Soundclash Award.

She feels artists are more stylistically promiscuous than ever before and says “music needs creative people around it who appreciate discovery, experimentation and risk-taking rather than approaching music and artists as a commodity.” She isn’t fazed by narrow-mindedness and lives by her philosophy that music should be “creative, fearless and push boundaries.” So it’s no surprise that With Blindfolds On sees Charles brilliantly straddling pop, folk, electronica, chamber pop and R&B, appealing to those whose tastes don’t fall into one specific music genre.

Her smoky, versatile and powerfully captivating voice and deeply felt, honest songwriting continue to be the stars of her records. Nowhere is this more evident than on the album’s lead track, “Black and White,” which won the 2014 John Lennon Songwriting Contest in the Pop Category. Co-written with her friend and fellow SOCAN member, singer-songwriter Steve Fernandez, “Black and White” was composed a year after her father passed away. Hearing her describe the creative process behind it is heartbreaking.

“I was still struggling with feelings of hurt, anger and abandonment,” says Charles. “We had a deep talk, and I explained the story of my relationship with my father to Steve. I ended up expressing things I hadn’t had the courage to say to my father while he was alive. Steve just began writing down pieces of what I was saying, and from those snippets we developed this song.”

Charles says she tries to write songs that “have some sort of emotional pull on me, that are based on true experience, so that I’m better able to share that sentiment with the audience,” she says. “I want people to feel more than just entertained after my concert. I want them to remember those feelings and roll through them alongside me.”

Aliocha Schneider is mainly known for his acting work in Québec TV productions and a handful of Canadian movies (Closet Monster, winner of the Best Canadian Film Award at the 2015 Toronto International Film Festival [TIFF]) and Québec feature films (Ville-Marie, with Monica Belluci and Pascale Bussières). He was also consecrated as the  Rising Star at the 2015 TIFF. Québec youth have adopted him as one of their favourites, following popular roles in such productions as Taktik, Yamaska, Les Parents and Le Journal d’Aurélie Laflamme.

Niels Schneider’s younger brother boasts a résumé that suggests his next step would be Hollywood, or La Croisette, but the 22-year-old has decided to tread a new path: music!

“I wrote my first song when I was 15, inspired by the chords to Bob Dylan’s ‘Lay Lady Lay,’” says Aliocha, who chose to use only his first name for his musical career. “I was in charge of evening entertainment at a summer camp back then, so I was able to try out my song that night around the campfire, where I slipped it in between my covers of Cat Stevens, Jack Johnson and John Lennon. The next day, a camper was humming my chorus. It might sound trivial, but I was ecstatic! It gave me the confidence to do it again.”

Thus, with his songs and a record deal with Audiogram, as well as a publishing deal with Éditorial Avenue, he hired Samy Osta – the producer from France behind the most recent albums by Feu! Chatterton and La Femme – and will release his first EP on Sept. 9, 2016.

When asked about his inspiration, the young songwriter says, “Our fleeting emotions, sensations and thoughts. What I’m interested in, what I seek, is to be able to capture those shapeless, ephemeral things and crystallize them in a song, so that I can feel them again and – if I’m successful – make others feel them, too.”

All the songs on this first EP will be in English, but Schneider doesn’t exclude the possibility of writing in French at some point. “It’s true that it’s easier for me to write in English; it comes more naturally, for some reason. The Francophone artists that I admire all have a very personal and singular way to sing that language. I haven’t found mine, yet. When I try, I sound like a wannabe Jean Leloup. I’ve tried to sing one of my own songs in French, but it doesn’t work, even with Prévert,” the singer explains, conscious of the fact that he’ll have to answer the same question over and over again in the coming months.

With feelers already well deployed in the direction of France – the EP will be launched here and there simultaneously in the fall – chances are L’Hexagone will rapidly fall for this handsome blonde. “We’re already building our team over there: label, booking, etc. It’s important for me to have a presence in both places, since I was born in France, but grew up in Québec.”

And what’s next? What will the second half of 2016 hold in store for him? “Play live as much as I can!” he says. “I’ll spend a bit of time in France this fall. Next will be the album!”

The term “lifer” can refer either to a criminal serving lifelong jail time, or a person sticking to one job for their whole career.

The tough task of survival in the Canadian music business may sometimes make it seem like a self-imposed life sentence, but we recently interviewed four Canadian singer-songwriters who are more than content to fulfill the second definition.

Two of these artists, Lee Aaron and Ron Hawkins, have enjoyed periods of genuine commercial success over the course of their long careers, while Kyp Harness and David Leask have worked outside the commercial boundaries, earning a decent living and immense respect from their peers.

All four have worked as recording and performing artists for more than 20 years. We wanted to find out what keeps them creatively energized, productive, and economically viable.

David Leask

David LeaskPrior to emigrating to Canada in the early 1990s, Scottish-born folk singer-songwriter David Leask worked as a financial adviser. “My financial advice should have been ‘don’t go into the music business’,” he says jokingly.

His commitment to songwriting, and love of performing, has sustained him over a recording career now spanning 20 years and five albums, beginning with 100 Camels in 1996. He’s earned a JUNO nomination and taken top honours in multiple international songwriting competitions.

Reflecting on the milestone year, Leask says “I feel comfortable and happy with what I’ve done on all my records, but I’m more of a look-forward guy.”

His well-received new album The Clarke Hall Sessions was recorded live in Port Credit, Ontario, with Justin Abedin and Sean O’Connor. It includes five songs written in Nashville, with three written right in the SOCAN House there. “Working On Faith,” a co-write with Bill DiLuigi, was cut by a young U.S. artist for a top gospel label, while other co-writers included Daryl Burgess, Tim Taylor and Tom Jutz. “It’s been a big thing to have the opportunity to go down there and work with some great writers,” says Leask of his SOCAN House experience.

He’s no stranger to writing trips there, recalling a period when “I was trying to hang my hat on being a writer as my path,” he says. “I never stopped performing live, though. That’s where my bread and butter comes from, so I was still out there playing, singing songs from previous records and testing out new ones.

“That combination of being a writer and performer is important. The energy that comes back from performing confirms this is something worth doing. It’s much tougher if you’re just a writer in your basement, trying to write a hit.”

Leask has also written with the likes of Suzie Vinnick and Jay Semko, and had songs recorded by Vinnick, Alex Runions, Mandy Ringdal, Twin Kennedy and more.

“My commitment to music has never really waned,” he stresses. “It’s a constant road of hills and valleys, but I’ve found enough creative fuel along the way. Things change over time, as you grow and develop as an artist and individual.”

Kyp Harness

Kyp HarnessToronto folk-rocker Kyp Harness has often been described as “a songwriter’s songwriter,” given the peer respect he’s received. Those loudly singing his praises have included Ron Sexsmith (who has covered Harness songs), Daniel Lanois, Bob Wiseman and Mary Margaret O’Hara.

Though never scoring significant commercial success, Harness has remained prolific over a recording career that has just turned 25. “I don’t usually reflect on stuff like that, as I’m just doing it every day,” he says. “But then you realize, ‘Holy shit, I have 13 records out!’”

His body of work was recently augmented by a strong new album, Stoplight Moon. “I do feel that on every one of the records there’s some great stuff,” he says. “I won’t say everything I’ve ever done is gold, but I get a lot of enjoyment out of my music, so I’m proud of it in that sense.”

Commercial imperatives have never fueled Harness’ work. “Artists produce art because that’s what an artist does. You don’t know if it’s just meant to be a fringe thing, but every day you create something as an act of faith. I feel I don’t have a choice other than to create, so let ‘er rip!”

Harness acknowledges that “there have been periods where I went through darkness, doubt and questioning, but I seem to be someone for whom this has always felt like a calling. Ultimately, you’re not doing it for the end result.

“If you’re writing an episode of Who’s the Boss, you’re trying to find a certain slot and the royalties come later. I’m aiming at something higher and different. I’ve been doing it so long now that it doesn’t make sense to do anything other than aim for the best version of what it is I do.”

Harness has also kept his creative fires burning by writing in other forms. He has had his own comic strip, Mortimer The Slug, and critiques of his comedy heroes Charlie Chaplin and Laurel and Hardy were both published by a scholarly imprint.

His first published novel, Wigford Rememberies, recently appeared via Harbour Publishing. “I’ve been writing like that, concurrently with music, all these years” he says, “and this is the first one accepted. Readings in Toronto and Ottawa went over well, and I love not having to carry my guitar around!”

Music remains a key passion, and the collaborative aspect keeps Harness energized. “I love the sense of aliveness and spontaneity that occurs when playing with people,” he says. “Things happen that can’t be predicted. Your fellow musicians breathe life into it, and you want to do it for that experience alone.”

Lee Aaron

Lee AaronKnown primarily as a hard rock singer and songwriter, Lee Aaron has had a career that dates back to the early 1980s. Once dubbed “The Metal Queen,” she scored major commercial success in Canada, Europe and Japan, earning 10 JUNO nominations and going double-platinum for her 1989 album Bodyrock.

Business and financial troubles (including a bankruptcy) later intervened, but Aaron’s stylistic diversions into jazz, blues and alt-rock (the 2preciious project) brought critical credibility. She has returned to her hard rock roots with well-received new album Fire and Gasoline.

“I’m now committed to making music for the right reasons,” says Aaron. “I get to write music simply because it’s enjoyable.”

She does confess to some earlier questioning of her career choice. “It’s a tough business, and you’re going to have some failures along the way if you’re in for the long haul,” she says. “You also put yourself out there to be criticized, misunderstood and/or dismissed by an industry that knows nothing about you personally, so you need to develop a thick skin.”

Aaron is still deeply in love with making music. “The creative process of taking a seedling idea and turning it into a song, with an identity, then taking that into the studio where musicians breathe life into it, is so exciting,” she says. “I view producing as creating a sound painting with layers of color, texture, movement and space, then refining that until it stirs something in your soul.”

The do-it-yourself approach also keeps her energized. “It’s a whole lot more work,” she admits, “but if something gets screwed up, the only person I can get mad at is me. I also don’t ever have to wear red spandex shorts again!”

Aaron tours more selectively these days, explaining that “with a young family, the kind of touring I used to do wouldn’t work. Minimum time away, maximum impact is my approach. It keeps it fresh to play ‘Whatcha do to my Body’ 25 times a year, not 250.”

Contemplating her eventful career, Aaron says, “I’ve made choices that were not monetarily motivated, but were the right choices for me. The big payoff is creating a piece of music that resonates with people.”

Ron Hawkins

Ron Hawkins

Photo: Bob Ciolfi

Toronto indie-rock troubadour Ron Hawkins embraces the term “lifer” with pride. At a recent solo show he said, “I haven’t had a real day job since 1990.” Since then, he’s had a highly productive career, first as chief singer-songwriter in 1990s faves The Lowest of the Low (LOTL); then as leader of The Rusty Nails; and now as the head of a reunited LOTL, plus newer band The Do Good Assassins, and as a solo artist.

“Having three bands on the go keeps me motivated,” Hawkins explains. “My manager suggests I may have a higher profile if I focused a bit more, but for me it’s about keeping yourself interested. I’m certainly living a blessed life, where I can write songs and then go ‘I wonder who those are for.’”

Recently-released solo record Spit Sputter and Sparkle is Hawkins’ 15th album since 1991’s LOTL debut Shakespeare My Butt. He played most of the instruments on the new album and recorded primarily at home, a process he finds liberating.

“I can do this because of technology that wasn’t around 20 years ago,” he says. “In the early days of The Low, I’d write songs sitting on my bed with an acoustic guitar in my one room punk-rock flophouse. Now I have a high level of demo capability, so the excitement is a cycle. Doing it begets doing it more.

“It’s a real treat to spend the time and energy experimenting at home, with no clock, then go into [top studio] Revolution Recording to add drums, horns and strings and have $75k worth of microphones on the drum kit.”

There have been life lessons learned and wisdom gained along Hawkins’ journey. For instance, he won’t repeat the intense touring schedule of LOTL in its heyday. “I can’t ever imagine going back to that,” he says. “Back then, part of the problem, but part of the solution, was that we were drunk and high all the time. You could just lose days. Now I’m painfully aware of time passing.”

Hawkins declares “I’m quite comfortable in the knowledge that my personal audience is about one-tenth as large as The Low’s audience. I realize that happened to all my heroes, like John Lennon and Joe Strummer.”

The personal creative satisfaction of the work keeps him fueled. “First and foremost, you’re entertaining yourself the whole time,” he says. “That makes this easier than most people’s jobs.”