“I knew I wanted to become a composer from a very young age,” says Stéphanie Hamelin Tomala with conviction. “I composed my first piece when I was 10, and my teacher helped me transcribe the sheet music. Then, when I was 13, I saw Lord of the Rings. Howard Shore’s music! That’s when I knew I wanted to become a screen composer.” She achieved her goal a few years later: nominated in the Emerging Artist category at the recent Gémeaux gala, Stéphanie’s career took off.

Stéphanie Hamelin TomalaShe’s animated by a passion for both music and movies. “I’m very attracted to sci-fi,” says Tomala, who distinguished herself with the original score for the short film Area 51 (Lee Gallagher, 2018) that earned her a first prize from the SOCAN Foundation in the Best Original Score – Animation.

“I really enjoyed that project, because it’s a mix of sci-fi and animation, which is one of the hardest media for which to compose. That’s because animation often has a lot of very rapid changes in the emotional spectrum, and you need to compose music that follows those changes. It’s demanding, it’s a challenge, but that’s what I enjoy the most.”

Tomala even says she planned her entire education according to her goal of becoming a screen composer. A violinist by training, she turned to the piano while she was in high school, “because a teacher told me that I needed to learn to play the piano if I dreamt of becoming a composer. Whenever a teacher gave me advice, I’d listen!” says the musician, before adding that the piano is like “a small orchestra that I can use to imagine the arrangements of a piece for an actual orchestra.”

After graduating with a Master’s degree in Composition from the Université de Montréal, she then obtained a graduate degree in Film Music at Université de Québec à Montréal (UQAM), and continued her training in Lyon, France. “There aren’t that many programs to learn screen composition in Montréal, at least [there weren’t] back then. I had to go out and get all the training I could,” before getting into the business. Since then, she’s penned music for some 60 short films, as well as feature films and television productions. “I really enjoy inter-disciplinary work, as long as there is a story behind the project that can inspire me,” she says.

Tomala is adamant that she’s the most comfortable when dealing with the constraints inherent to a director’s vision. “The directors I work with guide my work, sometimes with precise musical references, sometimes not at all, which leaves me free rein,” she says. “I prefer working from reference music, but not already placed on the images of a scene, because it often means that the director wants something very similar to the reference piece. I still prefer that they send me one or two pieces of music in the style that they’re looking for. From there, I’ll ask myself, ‘Why this sound or that style? What do they like?’ And based on that, I look for inspiration for my own vision… or their vision!’

She cites the influence of John Williams, “one of the first models you turn to in the business”; Italian composer Dario Marianelli, a loyal collaborator of director Joe Wright (his score for the film Atonement won him an Oscar); and the late Icelandic composer Jóhann Jóhannsson, who scored three of Denis Villeneuve’s films (Sicario, Arrival, and Blade Runner 2049). “His way of mixing textural music and melodies brought about a different way of writing music,” says Tomala.

Women are still under-represented in the field, but she insists on highlighting the contributions of the great Rachel Portman (‘”he uses strings a lot in her music, which I really like – I’m also a violinist, there’s a connection!”) and, more recently, Iceland’s Hildur Guðnadóttir, who was Jóhannsson’s assistant.

“We need more women in this business, especially in Québec,” says Tomala. “Personally, I know about 40 who are already working in this field, or who’ve expressed the desire to pursue such a career. The problem is, it’s difficult for them to stand out. And that’s something that’s dear to my heart: giving a space to women in screen composition.”

Live music is back! The Manifesto festival of music, arts, and culture celebrated its 15th Anniversary with a live concert at CityView Drive-In on Sept. 11, 2021, featuring performances from Savannah Ré, Notifi, Charmaine, Baebe Ruth, and JAHKOY. Check out our photos from the event below, taken by SOCAN Video Editor Brad Ardley.

Karen Kosowski, SOCAN No. 1 Song Award

SOCAN’s Melissa Cameron-Passley (left) presents a SOCAN No. 1 Song Award for Tim Hicks’ “What A Song Should Do” to co-writers Emma-Lee (centre) and Karen Kosowski (right).

She may work behind the scenes, but the list of hit singles that Karen Kosowski has had a hand in is long and impressive, straddling multiple genres, formats, and countries.

The Nashville-based Canadian songwriter, producer, musician, SOCAN No. 1 Song Award winner, and SOCAN Song Camp 2019 alumnus has co-written and produced country and pop tracks for artists like Brett Kissel, The Washboard Union, Emma-Lee, Tryon, Melanie Dyer, and breakout country star Mickey Guyton; she even produced Guyton’s contribution to the Metallica tribute album The Black List. But whether she’s working in country, pop, country-pop, or country-pop-metal, Kosowski clearly has star-making production skills – and a talent for collaboration.

That ability to work well with others is part of the reason why Kosowski decided to settle in Nashville after several years as a singer-songwriter and producer in Toronto. “I’d been drifting into country songwriting for a few years, and I felt drawn to Nashville and its whole musical community,” she says. “The thing that makes Nashville songwriting unique is just that there’s so much of it happening, all the time. And everyone is very open to collaboration. People are writing together every day, sometimes twice a day. It’s unlike any scene I’ve ever been part of, and it’s amazing.”

Karen Kosowski, SOCAN Song Camp

Kosowski (right) recording a guitar track from Lindsay Ell (left) at the CCMA/SOCAN Song Camp in 2019.

Kosowski was trained in classical piano as a child in Winnipeg, picking up a guitar in high school and teaching herself to write and produce her own folk-pop songs. “I started producing long before I knew what I was doing,” she says, “and it’s been a multi-decade process of gradually building up to what I’m doing now. I started getting asked to produce for other artists around 2005, based on the stuff I’d been doing for myself. Probably the biggest thing I produced in Toronto was a single for the band Tryon, who, coincidentally, are from Nashville. It made it into the Top 40 on U.S. pop radio, which is pretty great for an independent band.”

In Nashville, Kosowski’s songwriting and producing developed together as she found a niche that sits somewhere between pop and country. “I tend to gravitate toward projects that are a blend of both,” she says. “I like to mix elements from one with elements from the other and just see what happens. I think it’s progressive, and fun.

“My relationships with artists often start with writing sessions, and then producing stuff I’ve written with them,” she adds. “But if they’re loving what I’m doing, then inevitably I also end up producing other songs for them that I haven’t written. That’s all part of it. I approach it as a tailor-made creative process. Everything you do in the process of producing the record, even writing the song, informs the next step. It’s an organic building process. You’re not done until you’re done, and each idea inspires the next one. Every artist is different, and I just want to help them say what they want to say and customize the experience for them.”

Karen Kosowski

The four co-writers of the song, “What Are You Gonna Tell Her?” Clockwise from top left: Karen Kosowski, Victoria Banks, Mickey Guyton, Emma-Lee.

Right now, Kosowski is particularly excited about her work on the new album by Mickey Guyton, the first Black woman to be nominated for a Grammy for Country Performance. Kosowski even got to play piano behind Guyton’s performance of “Black Like Me” at the 63rd annual Grammy Awards ceremonies in March of 2021. “That’s a great example of a relationship that started with a writing session,” Kosowski says. “I was in Canada at the time, and I changed my flight to come back and write with Mickey because I’d always been a fan of her music.

“I’m so glad I did, because it started a years-long process of writing together that’s built into me getting to work with her on all the amazing stuff she’s doing now – including playing piano with her on The Tonight Show, which is a bucket list item for me. I feel lucky to be involved in such an inspiring project, working with someone who wants to say something meaningful, and is open to creative exploration with their music. That’s the kind of artist that I’m looking to work with.”