1969, Connor SeidelSongwriter and producer Connor Seidel – who’s worked with Charlotte Cardin, Matt Holubowski, and David Lafleche, among others] – invited a dozen of Québec’s best musicians to the Tree House studio in St-Adèle to embark on the ambitious 1969 project, a refreshing evocation of the naïveté and sweetness of the era’s folk records.

“To me, Joni Mitchell’s Clouds and Nick Drake’s Five Leaves Left are the anchor points of this project. It’s very soft and genteel music. Ultimately, it’s storytelling for the silent generation,” says Seidel.

1969, erotic year, as Serge Gainsbourg put it. Yet, there was also Woodstock, the Vietnam War, protest movements of all kinds – this period of social unrest also gave us music that was much more politically charged.

“Initially, I wanted to use classical guitar on all the songs, with string arrangements and flutes, to fully incorporate these elements and echo the way this music was anchored in ethereal melodies,” says Seidel. “1969 is not a pastiche, it’s much more a state of mind. We didn’t compress the sound, it’s raw; we even used the same ribbon mic for all the voices.”.

Each song is the subject of a short video where the musicians share their thoughts. This is what Jason Bajada says about his collaboration: “Connor and I fell in love with a Neil Diamond album from 1969 (Touching You, Touching Me). I love artists that are able to walk the cheesy line, to dip their toes in and it’s all good.”

“Live recordings are a feature of the records of the time, and it made my job so much easier,” says Seidel. “Musicians don’t feel the pressure of trying to be perfect in such a relaxed context. We threw open the windows and doors of the studio when it started getting really hot. Louis-Jean [Cormier] went out on the terrace to record his song (“Même les Loups versent des larmes de joie”) and the sound of cicadas and insects can be clearly heard in the background. Ariane [Moffat] climbed on the roof for her recording: nature sounds are part of the process. And with Ariane, it’s special, because when she got to the studio, she composed a melody on the piano that immediately gave its meaning to the song, and we recorded it in a single take.”

About the Treehouse studio, located in Sainte-Adèle, Seidel says, “I’ve worked there for almost four years now, it’s my creative grotto. With the help of Ghyslain-Luc Lavigne, who co-produced the project with me, I was confident that the live sessions would be properly recorded.”

A project of this scope, with such a stellar cast, could take months to see through, a luxury Seidel didn’t have. Each artist showed up with their lyrics and melody. Everything recording needed to be wrapped up in a single day.

Elisapie, Safia Nolin, Half Moon Run, Antoine Gratton (who penned all the string arrangements), Matt Holubowski, Les sœurs Boulay, Elliot Maginot, and Claudia Bouvette are also part of the assembled collective. “Claudia’s pop music, which I’ve worked on, is at the opposite end of the 1969 mindset,” says Seidel. “I also love it when she sings with just a guitar or a ukulele. We wrote “Post Mortem” with a super-dramatic harp and voice a capella arrangement! It turned out to be one of my favourite songs on the album.”

Philippe Brault and Joseph Mihalcean delicately handle three short, luminous instrumentals that they create themselves, and that divinely slip into the continuous flow of the album. “I wanted to get out of the normal framework of a song, and add long cinematic interludes,” says Seidel. “These two have done amazing work in the realm of movie soundtracks.”

Bajada best summarized the atmosphere of these sessions: “Connor loved the idea of watching two individuals just waltzing, dancing together, thinking they’re alone in the world, but there’s someone in the other room watching them and hoping the moment drags on. Except in the end, everyone goes home.”

1969 is an album that sits outside of time, and outside of today’s production standards. The completion of such a project is in itself remarkable, and the pandemic was worth such a well-executed look in the mirror.


“I came up pop, but I’m not blowing bubbles” —  Lights (from the song “Jaws”)

One could spend quite a lot of time trying to define what exactly pop music is in the year 2022. Vancouver singer-songwriter Lights would know more than most. Her last two albums, 2014’s Little Machines and 2017’s Skin & Earth, both won JUNO Awards for Pop Album of the Year. She prefers the term “alt.pop” to describe her left-of-centre musical style. But on her new record, PEP, Lights makes it clear that she has no interest in staying in any one lane.

PEP began pre-pandemic, when Lights was writing “just for the fun of it.” At about 24 demos, she shot the new music off to her label, Fueled by Ramen. (Lights signed to the American imprint best known for alternative acts like Fall Out Boy and Twenty One Pilots back in 2019.) Their response encouraged her to think outside the pop (or alt.pop) box.

“They were like, ‘You don’t have to make a pop record. You can make whatever record you want. Why don’t you make a rock record?’” recalls the singer. “All I need is my label to tell me I don’t have to make hits. When you’re not trying to write something for pop radio you get something really authentic and cool, and still with pop sensibilities. That’s kind of what this record is. Like Lights choruses, but with a different kind of energy.”

This isn’t to suggest that Lights is a rock act now. The sticky choruses, bright synths, and – dare it be said — peppy attitude that have defined Lights’ music are still prominently displayed. The 13 songs on PEP are fast-paced, and clock in at under 45 minutes total. But on tracks like “Prodigal Daughter” and “Jaws,” she also lets loose a kind of roar that shows off her heavy rock influences. Let’s not forget that Lights’ 2008 debut EP was released by Canadian punk label Underground Operations, and that she’s collaborated with metalcore heavyweights Bring Me the Horizon.

“I grew up listening to metalcore, and screamo, and emo, and post-hardcore,” she explains. “And what I took from that was the emotional sensibilities. There’s a lot of vulnerability in those lyrics; like, extreme vulnerabilities. Like, I’m gonna let my emotions hang out on my sleeve and be really poetic about it, then I’m gonna let ‘er rip in this part. Yet it’s all very melodic. I think that is probably the genre that inspired my music the most, even though sonically, it doesn’t seem that way.”

Behind the scenes, PEP boasts an impressive list of female creators and crew. Lights handled much of the album’s production on her own, but committed to finding and enlisting female talent, such as engineer Elisa Pangsaeng; mastering engineer Emily Lazar; co-writers Michelle Buzz (Katy Perry, Bebe Rexha) and Jenna Andrews (BTS, BANKS, BROODS); and drummer Jess Bowen (The Summer Set, HAIM).

“I had a goal going in to work with 50 percent women,” says Lights. “And I achieved that goal. It’s challenging when the talent pool is 97 percent male. But the more people see it, the more we’ll have it.”

As with her last album Skin & Bones, PEP is accompanied by a comic series, conceived and drawn by Lights, called The Clinic. The storyline and colour palettes are all tied into PEP’s artwork and videos, and are as much part of the album as the songs themselves.

“Music is the heart of it, but there’s so much more,” says Lights. “I think that’s why people have stuck with me for this long. There’s gonna be a whole world around it.”

Publishing: Sony set up success

When asked about her longtime music publisher, Sony Music Publishing, the first thing Lights says is “they’re like family.” The songwriter’s relationship with Sony goes back to her teenage years, when she co-wrote the song “Perfect” with Luke McMaster (of McMaster & James) for the Canadian music-themed TV series Instant Star, and has remained solid throughout her 17-year-career. In those early days, Lights says mentorship from Sony’s David Quilico and Gary Furniss truly helped set her up for success. “They taught me so much about music,” she recalls. “I was 18. I’d just moved to Toronto and didn’t know anyone, really, except my manager at the time. And they would sit me down, play me songs that stood the test of time, and show me why. They put me in all kinds of [song] camps, where I learned how to exercise my ability to create with another person in the room. They were more than just a publisher, and I was very grateful for having them when I was young and getting started.”

Singer-songwriter Sara-Danielle has just released her second EP, Another Self, but she’s already pining to return to the studio for her next project, and she might even do it alongside producer Jesse Mac Cormack once again, since he served her songs so well. “Plus, lately, I feel like writing songs by working on the lyrics first,” she adds. “It’s like I want to say more precise things, whereas I used to start with the music. Nowadays, I feel like starting with the lyrics will lead the music to manifest itself on its own, according to what I want to share.”

Sara-DanielleAs with most of us, the last two years have been a time of soul-searching for Sara-Danielle, who fortunately didn’t have to put her budding career on hold: the EP was ready months ago, and was released by Simone Records when it was scheduled. The wait was worthwhile: her offering is a mix of mature pop songs, gently tinged with soul, and refined by Mac Cormack’s orchestrations, achieving a perfect balance between acoustic instruments and synthetic flourishes. (Drummer Louis René contributed to the recordings).

However, during the pandemic, Sara-Danielle “felt a lot of relationships change. The songs I’m writing these days are a bit of a sequel to the EP,” meaning a reflection on her relationship with others, with her friends, but also a reflection on the feeling of loss of freedom imposed by self-isolation.

“I want to feel free and, I don’t know… Feel like I’m moving forward. As we’ve all felt these last few years, I felt trapped, stuck. I’m really anxious for things to move forward again. I’m getting impatient!” insists the musician, who started her solo project six years ago, and launched her first EP, Healing (2019), as a lyricist.

Sara-Danielle enjoys the music of Liana La Havas and Lana Del Rey, and you can hear it. “I love Liana La Havas’s powerful yet soft aura, I find her very inspiring,” she says. “I love sparse music with catchy R&B rhythms. I love stuff like that, where you feel the rhythmic pulse,” which one hears in her own output. “I think it’s actually fun that it’s devoid of ornamentation and totally gentle.” As for Lana Del Rey, “she uses her voice in very special ways, especially on her most recent album,” says the artist. “I also like to play with my voice to create textures and atmospheres. For my EP, I wanted to create something that mixed the organic side of R&B with electronic textures.”

That, too, is easy to hear, just as her formal training as a jazz singer at Université de Montréal is noticeable, in the way she controls her voice effortlessly. This training was the logical next step after completing the Musique et chanson program at Cégep Marie-Victorin. Less obvious is the fact that she learned music through traditional Québécois repertoire.

“My first instrument was the violin,” says the Gatineau-born musician, whose mother is a Franco-Ontarian. “I was introduced to music through Québécois reels which I listened to and played in my childhood and teens. My father’s a good singer, and he played mandolin, and my grandmother was involved in the traditional music community, so there was a lot of jamming going on at home!”

Yet, by growing up on the provincial border with Québec, Sara-Danielle was mostly exposed to Anglophone pop. “That’s my inspiration, I wrote my first songs in English,” she says. She started by dreaming of an international career in English, although for awhile, she felt overshadowed by her friends who were pursuing projects in French. “I saw them being invited to Francouvertes, for example, and I’d think to myself: ‘It’s really saddening that there are no contests or showcases like that for Anglo artists in Québec.’ I felt like I was falling through the cracks. So, I figured that if I couldn’t participate in those contests, I needed to surround myself with a great team. I sent demos everywhere, and that’s how I found my manager and my label.”

Her collaboration with Jesse Mac Cormack has finally allowed her to strengthen her musical identity, even though the Montréaler – currently releasing his new album, SOLO – is known for having his own signature sound, regardless of the projects on which he’s invited to work.

“It’s undeniable that he has his brand – you immediately know when an album was produced by him when you hear it,” Sara-Danielle readily admits. “I’ll be honest: I hadn’t thought about that when I walked into the studio; all I wanted was to work with someone who was a good fit. Such a fit between two musical personalities is important, just as important as being able to listen to the other. The fit was immediate between us, and he didn’t try to impose his sound on my songs. I showed up with my compositions and he just embellished them, naturally.

“I found it helpful to get to the studio with well thought-out compositions, lyrics, music, structure, and a good idea of where I wanted them to go, sonically. My ideas were clear enough to guide Jesse; he knew the direction I wanted to go in, like ‘the rhythm I hear is more like this, or that.’ He was the perfect complement to me, I never felt like he was taking up all the space.”