Viviane AudetOn May 1, 2017, director François Jacob’s documentary Sur la lune de nickel A Moon of Nickel and Ice) will have its North American première during the prestigious Hot Docs festival. A chronicle of life in the Siberian mining town of Norilsk, its music was written by Viviane Audet and her partner, both in life and in the studio, Robin Joël Cool. It’s their eighth feature film or short film original score, ninth if you include the music for Anaïs Barbeau-Lavallette’s TV documentary Ma Fille n’est pas à vendre (My Daughter’s Not For Sale). We talk with her about her newfound passion for screen composing, and its impact on her multi-disciplinary career.

We were forewarned that Audet is always on time. She’s even early for our rendezvous in a Le Plateau café, on a rainy ideal for binge-watching movies.

Right from the get-go, Audet is loquacious about Sur la lune de nickel, which was “filmed in one of the most polluted cities in the world, a mining town built in an old gulag, and populated by isolated people who work in the mine,” she says. “We recorded the music at the NFB’s huge, magnificent music studios, with its giant screen, incredible control room, a grand piano. It’s the first time we worked in such ideal conditions. We asked Yves Desrosiers to sing a Russian folk song, which we had re-arranged. He was amazing, and we were ecstatic…”

When Audet talks about scoring films, her green eyes light up. The actress, writer, composer and singer, who Québec audiences have seen on television (Belle Baie, Nos étés), in the movies (Frissons des collines) and onstage – both solo and with her indie-folk band Mentana – has added a new talent to her repertoire, after becoming proficient in the art of writing music for moving images. It happened more or less unwittingly, and with a lot of help from director Rafaël Ouellet.

Viviane Audet“I acted in his first movie,” she says of Le Cèdre penché, completed ten years ago. “We didn’t know each other, but he got in touch with me to ask if I would act in his movie. He’d also asked me to write two songs for that project, so it truly is he who introduced me to writing music for films.”

Her first big break, however, came in 2012. Ouellet had asked Audet and her beau Robin, who’s also a member of Mentana, to play roles in his latest film, Camion. “Rafaël lived in the flat below ours, he heard us rehearse our Mentana material,” says Audet. “After the photography was done, he asked us to score the movie because the composer who was supposed to do it had dropped out at the last minute.” Ultimately, Camion’s score of minimalist folk – so typical of Aubin’s work, as well as Mentana’s material – earned her, Robin and Érik West-Millette the 2013 Jutra Award for Best Original Score.

They were hooked. “I don’t know if being an actress is an advantage for me when the time comes to write movie scores,” says Audet. “Maybe because of the way I approach a story? I don’t know. What I do know, however, is that after moving into recording, I feel I’m much more comfortable writing music for images than for words at this point of my professional career. I trust my instinct much more when I compose for images. Right now, I should be working on my third solo album, but I find writing words rather painful. And even when I do have words, writing music for them, it’s strange… It’s like I discovered myself [elsewhere]. It’s like that was it, me, writing music for images. It comes more instinctively, if you will.”

Robin Joël Cool

Robin Joël Cool, Viviane Audet’s partner in life, in the studio, and onstage.

Thus, Audet and her colleague’s creative process is largely based on their perception of the moment projected on the screen. She admits there’s a lot of improvisation involved: “We don’t write sheet music,” she says. “Only when necessary – say, when we hire French horn players to record with us, someone will write their scores based on our demos.” They do come up with a main theme, a well-defined melody that informs the rest of the piece, all of it framed with more or less precise indications from the directors, “who are generally very generous in the sense that they offer us a lot of reference music already edited into the scenes we have to score,” she says.

“I’ve also noticed that directors are increasingly interested in working with songwriters, people who don’t necessarily do anything but screen music. Take Dear Criminals, for instance: they did the score for Anne Émond’s Nelly, or Milk and Bone, who did Podz’ latest movie, King Dave. They’re going off the beaten path, and I mean that in a good way, since there are a lot of well-established, expert film composers. Besides, there aren’t many girls doing this!”

Well, there’s one more, now, and she’s convinced that she’s made a place for herself in this field where she can combine her love of music and her love for acting. Alongside her partner once more, Audet will soon finish scoring Les Rois mongols, Luc Picard’s next movie set during the October 1970 FLQ crisis in Québec.

 

 


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AHI

AHI’s introduction to folk music wasn’t through mainstays like early Bob Dylan or rocker Bob Seger. In fact, the Brampton artist’s first taste of folk came from a different Bob — Bob Marley. For AHI (pronounced “eye”), folk isn’t a genre defined by a distinct sound, but an ethos bound by one’s acoustic instrument, storytelling abilities, and voice. Those are the qualities that make up AHI’s sound, one that’s captured the attention of music fans across Canada – and even Rita Marley, Bob’s widow.

In 2013, AHI’s cover of Marley’s “No Woman No Cry” – a stripped-down acoustic rendition that places the spotlight squarely on his raspy yowl – was featured on Marley’s official website. Along with that highlight came a personal note from Rita herself – which AHI initially thought was spam. “Once I realized it was real, I was honoured,” he explains. “Bob Marley is the primary reason why I believed I could become a singer. He taught me that music is medicinal and revolutionary.”

Since then, AHI’s music (which he sometimes refers to as “indie soul”) has been featured on CBC’s Hello Goodbye, his track “Ol’ Sweet Day” charted on Billboard’s Spotify Viral 50, and this year he was a JUNO Master Class finalist. As he continues to work on music, he hopes that his successes can help broaden our perceptions of what folk music can be, especially when it comes to racial diversity.

“The biggest challenge was convincing myself that I belonged in the folk community,” AHI reveals, of finding representation in folk. “I’ve noticed an active effort on the part of the folk community to not only be inclusive, but to celebrate their diversity. It’s an uphill climb, but the climb has made me a better and smarter musician.”

Partner

Partner’s online bio casts a pretty wide net of topics under their songwriting ambitions. Among the themes the duo hopes to “freely explore” in their songs are time, memory, intimacy, friendship, Canadiana and sexuality.

And so far, they’ve already achieved many of those – all before even releasing a full-length album.

To Sackville, New Brunswick, natives Lucy Niles and Josée Caron, no topic is too big or too small to write about. On “The Ellen Page,” they celebrate actress Ellen Page’s coming out; on “Comfort Zone,” they speak on the importance of safe spaces, be they physical or mental ones.

Sonically, Niles and Caron deliver their messages over raucous power chords and reverb galore, with garage-punk-pop drawing comparisons to bands like Weezer, Nirvana and Hole.

“We’re always striving to evolve and become more inclusive, lyrically,” Niles explains. “We’re also always striving to become better songwriters, better performers, the best we can be in every way.”

A full-length album is on the way, Niles promises. Recorded with Beliefs’ Josh Korody, it’s been in the works for a year now. While they’ve been working on some songs for as long as three years, Niles says, “The album as a whole might hold a few surprises — you’ll just have to listen and find out!”

Stella Rio

Stella Rio is a student of jazz, but also a lover of pop and R&B. All of those influences coalesce in her songwriting, especially on her single, “Don’t Go Away” — a beautifully crafted melody at its core, delivered with a soulful, jazz-inflected vocal flair. It’s a style uniquely her own, and it’s paid off in the past year.

Having trained under a local jazz artist at a young age, the Toronto singer-songwriter’s musical DNA will always include her exposure to that genre. “That was probably the moment when I realized how powerful music truly is,” Rio recalls. “I love that jazz can take you away to a different era. At the end of the day, when I need inspiration, I go back and listen to my favourite artists, like Ella Fitzgerald and Billie Holiday.”

All these years later, Rio is still perfecting her mix of classic jazz and current-day pop. She’s now working closely with Kuya Productions, the team who most recently helped Alessia Cara put out hits like “Here” and “Seventeen.” Through Kuya Productions, Rio even earned a writing credit for British pop group Little Mix’s track, “F.U.”

Rio’s upcoming six-track EP promises to be filled with personal experiences, focusing on her preferred subjects of love and heartbreak. As she admits, “I see myself as a romantic and a dreamer.”


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It’s (almost) the end of the world as we know it, but for the moment, Katie Stelmanis feels fine. When I connect with the leader of electronic pop outfit Austra, she’s “in this weird tree house, in Amiens, a small town in the north of France – kind of in the middle of nowhere. It’s pretty sweet, actually!” The space is serving as her (literal) green room for a local show that’s part of a six-week European tour. While it certainly makes for a nice change from the usual graffiti-and-band-stickered backdrop you find in most backstage areas, it’s also the perfect setting to talk about Stelmanis’ latest album. It’s a record that’s consumed with deep thoughts on the state of our planet – and what humanity must to do to protect its proverbial rickety treehouse before its supporting branches collapse.

Future Politics is the third album Stelmanis has released under the Austra name, but, as its title suggests, it’s the first to really point her usual inward gaze outward. Informed equally by Naomi Klein’s eco-conscious critiques of capitalism, and the utopian promise of ’70s science fiction, Future Politics grapples with the fragile state of civilization – socially, economically, environmentally – but sees hope in technology’s mobilizing and liberating potential. By sheer fortuitous coincidence, the album was released on January 20, 2017, the same day a certain egomaniacal reality TV show host was inaugurated into the highest office of the world’s biggest superpower, effectively putting his itchy-Twitter finger on The Button. It’s a circumstance that has elevated Future Politics’ songs – whether the house-throbbed title track mission statement or the electro-shocked Mother Earth address “Gaia” – from speculative social commentary to unofficial soundtrack of #TheResistance.

Of course, such an outcome was the furthest thing from Stelmanis’ mind when she holed herself up in Montréal two years ago to start writing the record. “Future Politics is obviously more political than anything I had ever done, but I also wrote it before we’re in the position we’re in now,” she clarifies. “This was before Donald Trump was even on the horizon, before Brexit happened. I was just unearthing these problems on my own that I wanted to bring to light, and then they exploded into this neo-right wing movement. I don’t know if I could do it in the climate that exists today. I definitely wouldn’t make the same record right now.”

But for all its focus on the big picture, Future Politics also contains some intensely personal songs, like “I’m a Monster” and “I Love You More Than You Love Yourself.” For Stelmanis, they all come from the same unsettled place. “With a song like ‘Gaia,’ I wasn’t intending to write about climate change,” she says. “I was writing about the emotional reaction to reading about climate change and the degradation of the environment. It was based on a very real reaction and, to me, that reaction is not that different than breaking up with somebody.”

As Stelmanis tells it, writing in isolation – first in the midst of Montréal’s “cold, dark, depressing” winter, then in “colourful, warm, sunny” Mexico City – was a deliberate attempt at cutting herself off from the outside world, after spending the previous four years constantly touring and recording collaboratively with core bandmates Dorian Wolf (bass) and Maya Postepski (drums). “I always like to go to the opposite of what I’ve previously done,” she says, and it’s a theme that recurs throughout her musical career. Raised in Toronto, she received classical training for piano and voice as a child, only to turn her back on a future in the conservatory by picking up the guitar in her teens. “I don’t know why I started playing it, because I didn’t listen to guitar music,” she says. “I guess I liked Ani DiFranco. I used to do open mics, even though I didn’t really know how to play acoustic. I’d just do Spanish style; like, the strumming would be really fast and intense.”

“I wasn’t intending to write about climate change. I was writing about the emotional reaction to reading about climate change… To me, that reaction is not that different than breaking up with somebody.”

Alas, Stelmanis’ proverbial path to Lilith Fair was road-blocked when she befriended Emma McKenna, who inspired her to switch to electric and form Galaxy, a scrappy, punky power trio in the Sleater-Kinney vein. But once that short-lived group ran its course, Stelmanis pursed a solo career in earnest. In 2009, she released a debut album, Join Us, that bore evidence of her classical training, through its baroque piano arrangements and operatic vocal flourishes, but shot it through a mischievous, synth-freaked DIY spirit acquired through her time in the indie rock trenches. The record was released through the Blocks Recording Club, the Toronto co-operative that nurtured the rise of everyone from violinist Owen Pallett to hardcore heavyweights F__ked Up. And in the latter’s guitarist, Mike Haliechuk, Stelmanis found an unlikely mentor.

“I would send him tracks and he would offer advice,” she says. “It sounds counter-intuitive, but Mike has more of a pop mentality. He was able to make my songs more listenable, with more classic, regular structures and arrangements.”

With Haliechuk’s help, Stelmanis produced the demo that eventually landed her an international deal in 2010 with Domino Records under her new name: Austra. Though as Stelmanis sees it, “there wasn’t really a definitive transition. It happened really slowly. The Austra songs were more developed and more thought-out. They were recorded and mixed professionally, as opposed to the Katie Stelmanis stuff, which is way more DIY. I think Austra is just a more normal version of Katie Stelmanis.”

But if Stelmanis viewed that shift as a natural progression, to those who had followed her career up to that point, the contrast was blinding. Where the ultra-low-budget video for the calamitous 2009 track “Believe Me” sees Stelmanis and friends cheekily traipsing through the woods to stage a cosplay showdown between puritans and witches, the visual for Austra’s debut single, “The Beat and the Pulse” (initially issued as a 12-inch on Haliechuk’s One Big Silence imprint) introduced a much darker, more disturbing vision. Over the song’s icy, strobe-lit electro thump, Stelmanis presents herself as the peroxide-blond high priestess of an underworld strip club populated by mutant, demonic lap dancers.

That aesthetic boldness carried over to her live presentation, which has grown more elaborate and choreographed as 2011’s Feel It Break and 2013’s Olympia elevated her to the international touring circuit. Where Stelmanis once meekly tucked herself behind an electric piano when playing solo, with Austra, she holds court centre stage, dramatically punctuating her vocal ascensions with arm gesticulations like a goth Stevie Nicks.

“It was just a matter of becoming older, more mature and more comfortable in my own skin,” she says. “In the beginning, I just couldn’t take myself seriously and the imagery reflected that: it was always a bit tongue-in-cheek, and a bit of a joke, but that was just me being totally insecure in front of a camera. And over time, it’s become a learned thing. Now that I’ve been in front of the camera more, I’m a lot more comfortable with it. It’s easier to try to take yourself seriously and present an image you’re imagining in your head. But that definitely takes some courage.”

However, even as Future Politics cements Stelmanis’ reputation as one of the most striking and provocative voices in contemporary indie pop, she admits she’s still acclimatizing herself to certain aspects of life in the limelight. As the lines between the underground and mainstream have become ever more blurred, it’s not uncommon to see artists from the former realm take a crack at writing songs for artists who dominate the latter—think of Justin Vernon’s dalliances with Kanye, or Dirty Projectors frontman Dave Longstreth picking up credits on Solange’s A Seat at the Table. But when Stelmanis’ label recently suggested she collaborate with a seasoned L.A. song doctor, with the goal of shopping of the results around to the highest-paying diva, she couldn’t quite work up the gumption to accept the offer.

“Like, how would that work?” she ponders with a laugh. “It seems like such a cheesy thing to do. Like, does one person do the chorus? I can’t even fathom it. Writing is such a super-vulnerable thing for me, because 90 percent of what you do is probably terrible. So being in a room while other people are hearing that 90 per cent would be horrible! The world only ever hears the top 10 percent of what you’re working on.”


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