On La Musica Popular de Verdun, Montréal’s Clay and Friends have managed to combine their stage antics with devil-may-care studio experimentation.

Clay and FriendsAt the crossroads of hip-hop, soul, funk, reggae, pop and folk, the band’s EP is remarkably varied. As a matter of fact, its creators fully embrace its eclecticism. “I don’t think anyone will ever say that Clay and Friends is a coherent and homogenous band,” says singer and multi-instrumentalist Mike Clay with a smirk. “I respect people who are able to develop and fine-tune a specific style, like D’Angelo on Voodoo, for example, but that’s not what we’re after.”

To find the guiding thread of what could very easily have become a big mess of influences, the quintet found inspiration in the creative groundswell that gave birth to música popular brasileira, a Brazilian musical genre that was popularized in TV shows during the ’60s. First perceived as the heir to the bossa nova throne, the genre took several twists and turns that, as the years went by, made it more akin to a hybrid musical movement that married traditional and modern, rather than a well-defined genre. “It mixed bossa and samba to funk and pop,” says Clay. “I watched a lot of videos from that era and, I have to say, they are unbelievable musicians, very inspiring. And they inspired me to do a kind of ‘best of’ of our influences: La Musica Popular de Verdun.”

Recorded in the brand new Verdun studio of the band’s beatboxer Adel Kazi, this second official EP (the band considers its 2013 and 2014 releases as mere demos) was created as a reaction to its predecessor, Conformopolis, released two years ago. In hindsight, the now-independent band realized that project was a compromise between its artistic vision and that of its then-label.

“To be totally transparent,” says Clay, “we wanted to regain the confidence of people who listen to our stuff and who, just as we did, couldn’t find any correlation between the Clay and Friends they see in concert and the Clay and Friends whom they heard on that first album. We wanted to be as good as our songs are.”

To do so, the singer-songwriter took advantage of his creative trips abroad to write the core of Clay and Friends’ new songs. Clay – who earns a living as a ghostwriter for several Canadian and American artists (whom he can’t name) – then called his good friends Clément Langlois-Légaré (guitar), Pascal Boisseau (bass), Émile Désilets (keyboards), and his partner in crime since day one, Adel Kazi.

After five years of fine-tuning, the quintet’s modus operandi is well honed. “I take my tunes to Clément and he comes up with crazy arrangements for my very basic three-chord compositions,” says Clay. “Then it’s on to Adel, he’s the chemist, the one who fine-tunes and transmogrifies the sounds. Then it’s on to Émile and Pascal, who bring their organic touch, and a live feel. They played a big role on this EP.”

The band’s fans are the sixth member. Thanks to the audio recordings of some of their shows, the musicians know exactly what songs galvanize their audience. To wit, “OMG,” which came about after a particularly inebriated fan yelled “Oh My God!” during one of the band’s shows in Trois-Rivières, as well as “Going Up The Coast,” where one can hear the crowd singing in unison with Mike Clay.

That song, an endearing travelogue of the band’s tour of 300 shows in two years, has a special meaning for its creator. “It’s the story of our tour, a collection of moments that we lived together,” says Clay. “Nights spent in rental cars, and relationships that ended because of our prolonged absence. It’s a very exhausting way of life, but I’m slowly learning to draw a line. Back in 2016, I was the tour manager of our first European tour. It was totally absurd, like 35 shows in 40 days. I recall playing on a beach in Italy for about 100 people and I was not enjoying the moment at all…

“Now I’m more attuned to the signs that reveal themselves to me when we leave for a long period of time. I exercise, I eat well, I don’t drink every night, and most important of all, I sleep. Some of the guys in the band get away with just two hours of sleep, but not me. I need to break the image I used to have of the invincible artist. The documentary on Avicii really opened my eyes about this. Seriously, his team literally killed him from exhaustion.”

In short, after the record launch at a sold-out Ministère, the band is taking time to breathe. They’ll tour high schools in the spring, and Europe next summer. As for the rest, Clay and his friends are waiting to check the audience response before filling up their day-planners. “I used to be a compulsive player,” he says. “I had this old-school mentality that if we don’t get offered gigs in venues, we’ll just go play in the street, or at a party, it doesn’t matter. Now, we have a booking agency [Rubis Varia] that’s helping re-frame all that. Instead of diluting our value by playing 15 times a month, we’re going to wait for the right opportunities.”

When Madison Kozak was 10 years old, she won a contest to perform in front of thousands at the Havelock Country Jamboree in rural Ontario. It was a moment that changed her life, and made her realize that music was something she wanted to pursue. “I felt this unforgettable adrenalin rush connecting with the audience,” she recalls. “At that time, I was singing all cover songs, and I saw the way people sang the lyrics as if it were the soundtrack to their lives… It hit me that music is something that connects people, and I just knew that was something I wanted to be a part of.”

To do that, to dive head-first into the music industry, then-14-year-old Kozak did what many aspiring country singer-songwriters do: she moved to Nashville. Now in her second-to-last semester at Belmont University, where she’s a music business major, Kozak believes being “a small fish in a freaking ocean” helps drive her to work harder, become a better songwriter, and work her way back to performing in front of thousands – but this time, singing the words to her own songs.

A big step towards achieving that dream is her upcoming signing to a successful publishing company, which Kozak will do this year with Big Loud Shirt, home to writers like Craig Wiseman (Blake Shelton, Brooks and Dunn) and Florida Georgia Line’s Brian Kelley. It was an opportunity that arose in one of her Belmont classes, where she presented songs to a panel of publishers, which included Hannah Wilson from Big Loud Shirt. “She immediately took me under her wing, and showered me with awesome advice and support,” says Kozak.

Forever adhering to the idea of “writing the truth,” Kozak hopes her music – which includes released singles like “Trailblazer” and “First Last Name” – can make others feel the way her idols make her feel. Idols like Loretta Lynn, Shania Twain, and Taylor Swift, who make her feel “that I’m not alone, and that I can do anything if I put my mind to it, and am nice to people.”

“Like I said, I believe music connects people, in which case I hope I can be a bridge,” she says. “God knows in this day and age, we can never have too much of that.”

Love can wear anything from scuba diving gear to confetti. On Petite plage, Ingrid St-Pierre’s lyrics are about getting married, and the concept of “us” in day-to-day life – motherly love, love that ages, love that’s ageless, first-date love, love lost forever, and self-love, even when it’s hanging by a thread.

Ingird St-Pierre, Petit Plage“I gave myself permission to go where I’d never gone before,” says St-Pierre resolutely. Anchored in the present, and in the heart of emotional life, she’s poised to deliver her fourth album, a collection of all-too-human stories, carried by a groove we’ve never heard from her before, and that she wears like a custom-fitted dress.

“I feel like a lot has changed, artistically and on a human level,” she says. “I’ve had a wake-up call about a lot of things in my life. I feel freer, and it shows in my arrangements and lyrics.” If her voice sounds more grounded, she believes it’s because she’s “more grounded in life.”

Her major artistic influences are avatars of calm, dream-like worlds, like those created by Sufjan Stevens and Bon Iver, but the stylistic field is vast, and sometimes you have to err in order to find a better way home. “I love Regina Spektor’s immense freedom, for example,” says the St-Pierre. “Even if she’s a woman at a piano, just like me, and she does a lot of ballads, she can also do other tempos without being untrue to herself. That’s where I decided to go.”

Petite plage wasn’t created under the pressure of creating an album, but rather because St-Pierre had things to say. “Stories are more important than songs,” she says, adding that she was convinced there wouldn’t be an album. “I really had a lot of doubts,” she admits.

SOCAN’s Kenekt Québec Song Camp was among the major triggers for the creation of Petite plage. “My minutiae and fine-tuned nature is still there, but the freedom to write without restriction and fear became really important while I was there,” she says. “I also realized that the artistic barriers I had were those I set for myself, out of fear of losing myself, or of straying from what people expect of me.”

She was propelled by an entirely different writing method thereafter. “I felt like all my songs already existed, and that all I had to do was to let them come to the surface,” she says. “Also, it’s an album I wrote in my head.” So, how does one write without writing? “When you become a mom, you can spend your whole day at a café in front of a blank page. I found inspiration in my daily life, I was writing when I gave birth,” she says, laughing. “But as soon as I sat at my piano, everything just flowed out of me.”

St-Pierre admits to having put a lot of pressure on herself, bu.t not anymore. “No one was asking me to be the perfect mom, the perfect artist. I did that to myself,” she explains. “While I was writing my songs, I would ask myself, ‘Does the music universe really need another song? Why should I add one more to the lot?’ In the end, each song on this album was created purely out of self-satisfaction.” The past two years have also taught her to choose herself, and do her best. “My son never sleeps. I haven’t slept in two years,” she says, laughing softly.

The song “La lumineuse (lettre à mon fils)” is among the singer-songwriter’s greatest songs, the kind that make listeners’ eyes well up with tears. “I wrote it for my son, sure, but also for myself, in part,” she says. “It’s a maternal song, but also a song of kindness. You know, it’s OK to wish good things for yourself. Petite plage really is just that. It’s me giving myself a hug.”

As our conversation continues, I tell Ingrid that “63 rue Leman,” a song from her 2015 album Tokyo, was the soundtrack to an emotional family moment, the day when my grandparents sold their house. The song runs like a movie; you can almost see and feel the walls and their wallpaper. Her writing is just that precise. “I’m so moved when people tell me things like that,” says St-Pierre. “When I sing a song on stage, it’s like I press a Play button in my head and a movie starts, I see the same images. Each song is a place, a home to which I always return.”

She meets people and hears their touching personal stories after her shows, but St-Pierre believes it’s important to provoke a communion, meetings, between generations.

“When my friend Khoa Lê told me, ‘I’m leaving for Vietnam and I’ll film images for your music video,’ [“Les joalliers”), I immediately said, ‘If you’re going to Vietnam, I’m going too.’ The video isn’t staged, we really filmed it in a place where people go to dance at 4 a.m. I simply mingled.”

Petite plage stands like the light of a winter day, like a lamppost that doesn’t turn off even when the day dawns. “It’s a positive album, and I want people to absorb it. It’s so easy to absorb negativity, while beauty is tougher,” she says. We’ll work on that.