For most music lovers, she’ll always be J.Kyll, cofounder of Muzion, pioneer of the Québec rap scene and one of the most relevant voices to have emerged from it. In nearly a decade, however, Jenny Salgado has also made a name for herself in the field of screen and stage composing: her musical score for the feature film Scratch (by Sébastien Godron, 2015) earned her a nomination at the Gala du cinéma québécois, and two awards, at the Canadian Screen Awards, and the Chicago International Movies + Music Festival.

Salgado is adamant that the transition from rapper to screen composer was a natural step in the direction that she herself had traced since the foundation of Muzion. “I did all the productions for Muzion,” she reminds us. “I would even say that music came into my life before words and literature; the impetus to rap came as much from the lyrics as it did from beat-making, so maybe some people see songwriting as a second string to my bow [as a rapper], but the truth is, those strings came at the same time on the bow.”

Still, she admits that opportunity makes the thief: “Like many things in my career, it’s like paving stones appear in front of me and all I need to do is step on them,” she says, recalling the phone call from documentary filmmaker Nicole Giguère, who was the first to suggest that she write an original score for her film On me prend pour une Chinoise ! (freely: They think I’m a Chinese woman!) about international adoption.

“What she asked me to do was quite bold: mixing urban music – hip-hop – and Chinese music,” Salgado explains. “She forced me to dive into a completely different universe, and I stepped up to the challenge. It was a turning point, whereas for Scratch, I fell back into my comfort zone and composed from my roots in hip-hop and street music. In that movie, music was central, it was almost a character in and of itself. My music was well-received, and I think that’s when people in the industry realized that something was abuzz about me…”

Anyone who’s met J. Kyll knows she doesn’t mince words. Nowadays, the pioneer throws her entire talent at the service of a film or stage director’s vision. Last fall, Christian Fortin asked the composer for a soundtrack for his production of King Dave, presented at Théâtre Jean Duceppe. This line of work also requires a balancing act on the part of the screen composer: finding a balance between the director’s commission and the composer’s unique voice. Being versatile means adapting to the filmmaker’s vision, while finding a way to add her own signature to the soundtrack.

“There’s a zone in the middle where you need to find your place,” says Salgado. “I guess one of the reasons I get asked to work on projects is my ability to approach a project while making it mine a little: being at the service of a production – a film, a play – that’s not me, that’s not mine, that’s not my word, my purpose, or my vision, being entirely at its service, while finding something personally creative in it, and offering my own editorial line. I’ve managed to achieve that on every project I’ve worked on so far, but it’s a new challenge every time. That’s part of the trip: finding a way to fit in someone else’s vision.”

She then moves onto the difference between composing for films versus composing for the stage: “When you get the footage from a film for which you’re composing, everything has a time-code telling you exactly where the music is supposed to go; a stage play is more fluid, each performance is different. You must be able to create music that’s flexible enough to follow the content. It takes something that’s structured, but still flows with the words, or the bodies in the case of a choreography – I really like to compose music for bodies. It helps my creative process to have performed [with Muzion] and to have planned the flow of a show, with moments designed to make the crowd react in a specific way. I try to transpose that into my work composing for film or stage productions.”

This, in the case of cinema, raises the question of the expectations linked to these first cuts, which often include reference music – works already recorded, often well-known pieces, that are used to indicate the intention or the emotion that the moving images illustrate. “Those infamous temp tracks!” says the composer. “I’ve had some proposed to me even for stage plays… They’re part of the hurdles I have to get over. The danger with that is what used to be called ‘demophobia’: the fact that musicians get used to the sound of the demo version of a song and become dissatisfied with the clean, mixed version.

“It’s a bit the same with temp tracks; they become embedded in the minds of the film crew. Once everyone is used to seeing these images and hearing a given track, what you need to do is compose a new piece that will succeed in de-throning the original. The trick is finding the right emotion in the original composition, what makes it best adapted to the scene, in a way that’s even better than the reference song. It’s always a challenge, but that’s the name of the game!”

Kae Sun has previously sung in pidgin over Afrobeat rhythms, but nowadays, it is the ever-changing world of R&B that occupies his thoughts. In February, the Montréal-based singer-songwriter, born in Accra, Ghana, released the mesmerizing mini-album Midnight and Other Endings, in which he further explores modern R&B, a quest that started on his previous album, Whoever Comes Knocking, released in 2018 on the Moonshine label. “It’s the abstract, impressionistic side of songwriting that I’m interested in, right now,” he explains.

The new cultivators  of R&B provide fertile ground for him, as he follows in the footsteps of Moses Sumney, serpentwithfeet, and to a certain extent, Frank Ocean. As Kae Sun (born Kwaku Darko Mensah Jr.) readily admits, such comparisons have the advantage of delineating his aesthetic choices. “There’s this quality that I find in these artists – especially Frank Ocean – that has to do with the way they write songs,” he says. “I’m interested in that because I studied writing and poetry. They have a singular way of linking words and music, whereas I used to say things more directly, while trying to be lyrical. Lately, I’ve noticed the emergence of a new generation of R&B composers who are interested in poetry in a different way, which I find very interesting.”

Arriving in Canada as a teenage international student, Kae Sun began composing and producing his own music upon graduation, while based in Toronto (his family has since moved from Ghana to the Atlanta area). His previous releases melded soul, folk, pop, reggae, and occasionally, the rhythms of his native country. “I’ve only recently turned to R&B, but I’d say there’s always a little bit of Ghanaian influence in my music,” he says. “And besides, the musical culture is so rich in Ghana that it’s naturally bound to leave its mark on what I do. But those influences are more subtle and direct.”

In this regard, Kae Sun is the product of his sonic environment. As a child, he was influenced as much by the American and British pop that was played on the radio as by the distinctive kind of gospel music heard in Accra. And LAO, inevitably, by highlife – the fusion of jazz and traditional Ghanaian rhythms that emerged in the mid-20th Century, whose influence has extended far beyond the borders of the country. Nigerian Afrobeat, in fact, is largely dependent on the Ghanaian sound. A modern, more pop-reggae-funk version, which emerged among the Ghanaian diaspora in Germany, dubbed “burger-highlife,” plays extensively in Kae Sun’s memories of radio.

The other formative musical ingredient of the musician was passed on to him by his father, a great fan and record collector of soul music. “Stevie [Wonder], Marvin [Gaye], the Ohio Players, all of them were played at home. I have eclectic musical tastes!” says the musician, who makes music in his small home studio, often starting from ideas that come to him while playing guitar, his main instrument.

“The melody always comes first, then it’s on to the lyrics,” Mensah Jr. explains. Even if you have the most beautiful words, they always need good music – I believe the melody is truly what drives the song. Then, sometimes, I’ll hear a beat someone made and I’ll take notes, I’ll try to find melodic ideas that can go with it.”

While he wrote and produced a lot of his first projects, Kae Sun turned to his Montréal-based collaborators, and mainly to beatmaker Yama//Sato, for Midnight and Other Endings. “For this project, I was looking to achieve a slower, more flowing, hazy sound,” he explains. “Yama//Sato creates very atmospheric productions,” which are the perfect backdrop to the artist’s delicate voice and tender songs. “My songs are about desire, the desire for intimacy, of course, but also to have a place to call home, a home port. I’ve moved around a lot in the last few years, so I wanted to express this desire for a place of my own, this desire to love and be loved.”

When he left Toronto a few years ago – a city where the R&B scene seems more valued than in Montréal – “There was a lot of interesting stuff going on, at least from a music-industry perspective,” says Kae Sun. “But I believe that artists, creators, have to be able to extract themselves from the industry. Creatively, I feel more comfortable in Montréal. The cultural scene is so exciting, there are so many good musicians, creators, talent from different backgrounds: designers, visual artists, filmmakers, etc. Yes, Toronto has the wind in its sails right now, but the scene is very cut-throat. I felt that creatively, going back to Montréal was the right move for me.”

Emma BekoHip-hop flows right next to blood cells in Emma Beko’s veins. The young singer-songwriter, who we discovered as one half of Heartstreets, released her first solo album, Blue, in January 2021. The songs are captivating, full of dark, vivid, haunting emotions, and take us to the deep-rooted heart of a hybrid sound where hip-hop, R&B, and pop come together.

“Yes, music comes from very deep inside me. I fell in love with hip-hop beats when I was six years old,” says Beko. “My half-brothers watched Musique Plus in the late ’90s and early 2000s, when rap was huge.” Born in Budapest, Beko grew up with her mom, a ballerina, in Montréal and then New York City. “It wasn’t long before I wanted to dance, too,” she says. “I joined a hip-hop dance troupe when I was 11 and later, I got into graffiti. I surrounded myself with everything hip-hop-related, and I embraced all of its codes – except rapping, which intimidated me.”

Even though she was utterly impressed by rap battles, and wrote a lot, nothing pointed to the fact that she’d one day participate in such a way. “When I moved to New York City at 15, I decided to re-invent myself,” she recalls. “I started hanging out with people who listened to a lot of hip-hop and I decided to trust myself.” Her insecurity gave way to a desire to show people that there are other voices. “I can’t sing like the girls in TLC, but I’ve got my own thing going, a more raspy voice. You don’t need a pretty voice to rap,” she giggles.

Beko was back in Montréal two years later, and music was already at the centre of her life. As the years went by, she allowed herself to feel and express emotions that were hers alone. “My solo project had been brewing in my mind and in my heart for a few years; I wanted to find out who I am when I’m on my own,” she says. It was during one of SOCAN’s Kenekt Québec song camps, to which Heartstreets had been invited, that the stars aligned, and her desire to follow their trail became a reality. “I so wish I could go back to a song camp as a solo artist,” she says. “That’s where I met Rymz [featured on one of songs]. My life was never the same after that song camp. As soon as I got back from there, I called J.-P. Beau Geste, my producer, and we started making tracks two days later.”

Asked about the origin of her musical vibe, Erykah Badu is the first name that pops up. “Just like her, people often wonder if I’m rapping or not because there’s a melody beyond the beat,” Beko explains.

Only when she’s completely alone does Beko dare to put everything she is on paper, so her ideal writing context is an empty room, at night, with a cold beer. “It comes more naturally at night, for me,” she says. “‘MHS’ came out in an hour just, because I had the right set-up. I often write very corny or weird stuff, but when I’m on my own, I don’t feel like I have to judge myself, and that allows me to go to the logical conclusion of those ideas. Some gems end up coming out of that process. I need to write bad stuff in order to write good stuff.”

And if, these days, a little drink helps her get into a state that’s conducive to elicit the memories she wants to set to music, it’s because excess is no longer part of her life. “I like having a drink when I write music,” says Beko. “I used to consume quite a bit, but nowadays, I’ve quit smoking, I don’t do drugs, and I barely drink. I just need a couple of beers in my studio to feel O.K. re-visiting painful parts of my life, but softly — it allows me to write the nicest things.”

Quills, Rymz, and Karelle Tremblay join Beko’s solo project, which she’s eager to present in a more direct way. In mid-March of 2021, she presented a virtual live show with an impressive stage direction that offered a taste she’ll not soon forget. “I was afraid my expectations might be too high because I’ve waited for so long, but it was the biggest high I’ve had in a long time, and I would do it again every day,” she admits.

With an independent project that requires an inordinate investment of time and energy, the singer-songwriter sets the bar very high: “I want to live comfortably from my music,” says Beko. “I want my style of music to gain international recognition, and I want to deeply love all the songs I offer to my audience. I’m demanding, I know!” she says, laughing.