As Chairmen of Québec’s rap scene, the six members of Dead Obies are the very incarnation of the bold, up-and-coming new generation. Raised on American rap in the late ‘90s and early 2000s, they were mainly inspired by diverse and multi-lingual literature. They truly broke onto the scene in 2013 with Montréal $ud and followed up with this year’s Gesamtkunstwerk, a critical and popular juggernaut that was, however, shunned by the industry’s institutions – who can’t stand the “Frenglish” used by the band throughout their œuvre.

Resilient combatants driven by a desire to be the flag-bearers of a polyphonic culture, the band stands and delivers. “At the end of the day, we speak French with our audience, in all of our releases, etc.,” says Jo RCA, one of the band’s rappers. “I come from a South Shore Francophone family who parks their car in the driveway. As a general rule, a 51% ratio of French content is required to be considered Francophone, but for some obscure reason, an institution like Musiaction requires a 70% ratio. Thing is, there’s basically just Dead Obies who fall into the category. Lucky for us, Bonsound, our label, can and wants to support us. But it does send a weird message,”

Create, Right Here, Right Now
Beyond the ire of public funding – the band has been asked to refund an $18,000 grant from Musicaction for failing to comply with their Francophone content ratio – the Obies clearly know what their audience wants: the album was at the top of the sales charts in Québec when it came out, and fifth in Canada overall. This feat was accomplished without much help for the usual commercial suspects who, to this day, turn a blind eye on locally sourced rap.

The situation is basically impossible to explain from a logical standpoint. On the one hand, you have the institutions and other major networks who basically just don’t know how to handle this phenomenon; on the other, you have the millennials and their cultural identity anchored in both official languages – and a few mouse clicks – who are yelling for more, more, more…

And it’s precisely in that somewhat disconcerting, spontaneous divide that Dead Obies strive and become perfectly relevant. They stand and deliver.

A Six-Headed Hydra
“We roll with peeps from both sides of the Main,”

they rap, referring to Montréal’s Saint-Laurent Boulevard, a major north/south axis that serves as the historical and symbolic boundary between the Francophone community to the East and the Anglophone community to the West.

 The band operates as one beat-maker fuelling five very distinct voices and lyrical styles, and their creative process is achieved around those distinctions. “We work as a unit, we influence each other, we set each other on different trains of thought, and even rhymes,” says Jo RCA. “We want our material to be representative of each one of us. Our differences also influence our creative process, and therein lies the Dead Obies’ unity, what makes our cell so complex and wide-ranging. The connection between each and every one of us is mind-blowing.”

Their songwriting often resides in something rather intangible, like the zeitgeist of each member’s individual reflections, but always using an infallible equation: “We are all very abstract thinkers, it’s probably our strongest common creative denominator,” says Jo RCA. “We hate when everything is easy, spoon-fed, when there is no second, third, or fourth degree. Our tracks must be able to breathe and have a life of their own. I think we’ve made great strides towards that goal on the new album.

“Our main goal is simply to create great tracks that, we hope, the audience will react to. When we come up with a track, we play it back to each other for months. And then comes the time where we feel it’s time to release it to the world. It can sometimes be strange to witness how a song created spontaneously, in a specific moment and state of mind, ages. It happens all the time to me: I’ll listen to an old song of ours and hear something completely different than what I remember I intended when I created it!”

One thing’s for sure, few artists are in a better position than Dead Obies to unequivocally claim its own relevance in a not-so-inclusive cultural landscape. On both sides of the Main.

Shawn Hook prefers to do it with two other people.

Please. We’re talking about songwriting.

“I do like the power of three,” says the 31-year-old Nelson, B.C., native. “I think there’s something about having three people in a room that can complement each other’s weaknesses and strengths. I prefer to do that now as my working arrangement.”

Hook is on the line from North Hollywood, where he’s been doing promo work for his latest single, “Sound of Your Heart,” as well as getting in some writing sessions. He still maintains his abode in Vancouver, but he also keeps a place in L.A., which makes sense now that his career there, and elsewhere south of the 49th parallel, is unfolding like the proverbial lotus blossom.

One need only glance at the songwriting credits on his latest album to see that he speaks the truth about the power of three; five of the seven compositions were written by Hook and two other writers.

But collaborating with other songwriters didn’t always come easy. Though he was apprehensive about it at first, Hook discovered that the key for him was to find co-writers with the right balance of attributes. Once he started to work with writers that complemented him well, things began to take shape.

“There are certain writers that I have great chemistry with. You just click, it’s like another language.”

“There are certain writers that I have great chemistry with. You just click, it’s like another language,” Hook says. “I really enjoy that process, because I think one of my big weaknesses as a writer is that I tend to overanalyze what I’ve done, and sometimes I’ll kill a really good idea. The saying is ‘paralysis by analysis.’ I’ve found myself in that situation before.”

The artist and songwriter formerly known as Shawn Hlookoff was born in South Slocan, B.C., and grew up in nearby Nelson. He began studying piano at the Royal Conservatory of Music in Vancouver at the age of four. In high school, he played piano and trombone in the school’s jazz big band before his teacher urged him to play piano in the jazz combo. Later, he performed as a trombone player and back-up vocalist with a disco cover band called Shag and enrolled at The Art Institute in Vancouver to study audio engineering.

He released two albums under his original name, and in 2008 he became the first artist/songwriter to sign with ABC Studios in Los Angeles, which helped get his songs placed in ABC-TV shows including “Life in Faith” on Eli Stone, “She Could Be You” on Kyle XY and “Be Myself” on Greek. His song “Without You” premiered on MTV’s series The Hills. His music was also featured in other series, including Samurai Girl and General Hospital.

Simplifying his last name to Hook (what better name for a pop songwriter?), he released his official debut album Cosmonaut and the Girl on EMI in 2012. Produced by Jon Levine (Nelly Furtado, K’Naan, Selena Gomez), it featured the singles “So Close,” “Every Red Light” and “Two Hearts Set on Fire.” In 2012, he released the holiday single, “Follow the Lights.”

But things really started rolling with the 2014 hit single “Million Ways,” which climbed the Billboard Canadian Hot 100 higher than any of his previous songs. More recently, “Sound of Your Heart” reached No. 23 on the Canadian Hot 100 – getting a leg up by being featured in promos for Season 20 of The Bachelor – and upon its international re-release in early 2016, it entered Billboard’s Mainstream Top 40 chart and reached No. 1 on its Dance Club Songs chart.

Both songs appear on his latest album, 2015’s Analog Love, his first release since signing on with major U.S. label Hollywood Records. And because Hollywood and ABC are branches of the same parent company, Hook’s American songwriting and recording contracts are now consolidated under one roof.

He’s since appeared on Ellen and more recently, Jimmy Kimmel Live, and this past April he made a splash up here when he performed “Sound of Your Heart” on the 2016 JUNO Awards broadcast, where he’d been nominated for the Fan Choice Award.

“That was amazing,” says Hook of his JUNOs star turn. “As a kid, whenever I’d watch an award show, I’d run to the piano and pretend I was playing on the award show, so that was literally a dream come true. My mum and dad were there, and my sister was there, and my best friend was there, my girlfriend was there. It was a really special night for me.”

After shouldering all the writing and producing responsibilities for his first two albums, Hook began to see the power of collaboration while creating the songs that would grace his 2012 album Cosmonaut and the Girl.

One of his first co-writers was Shaun Verreault from Wide Mouth Mason. The two wrote “Every Red Light,” the first single from Cosmonaut. Writing with someone of Verreault’s calibre really opened Hook’s eyes to the power of collaboration. He watched the way Verreault wrote lyrics, and he learned that his songs can benefit greatly from working with someone who approaches songwriting in a different way.

“We’re there to write, so you can’t be too precious with anything; the best idea wins.”

“So, learning that, I kind of kept that in my mind going forward. I’ve had the chance to really learn from the best,” Hook says. “I’m getting in rooms now with some really top writers. A couple of weeks ago I was with Ryan Tedder [songwriter/producer for Madonna, U2, Adele, Beyoncé, among others] in Colorado. He’s super-proficient and it’s nice to be on the same level in the sense of collaboration – we’re there to write; there’s no egos in the room. You can’t be too precious with anything; the best idea wins. The more I do it, the more I learn that that’s what it takes to get there.”

Hook has tried all the usual approaches for writing songs – from what we might call the Nashville approach, i.e., getting in a room with other writers, to the pop music approach, i.e., producing beats and then coming up with top-line vocal melodies. But what works best for him more often than not is the more traditional way.

“The most successful method I’ve had with all my big songs, especially with ‘Sound of Your Heart’ recently, was just starting from scratch at the piano and vocal, or guitar-vocal, and building it from there,” he says. “I find sometimes writing to a beat really kind of paints you into a corner. Sometimes it works. Sometimes you have a DJ that’s married to a certain track, and he or she’s just looking for the right top line, but I prefer to start from scratch because I feel like I’m more creative and there aren’t as many constraints on the writing process.”

He takes pride in being a well-rounded songwriter, which obviously helps when you’re collaborating.

“Sometimes in a session I’ll take the role of just top-line; I won’t touch the music,” he says. “Other times I’ll come up with the music, and I might not have the chorus melody but I’ll come in with lyric ideas, or editing. I kind of take on whatever role fits the best with whoever I’m writing with. Or I’ll just write from scratch and start songs myself, and produce myself as well. So it all depends on the situation.”

So now that he’s been finding success with his music and his songwriting efforts, surely things must be getting easier.

“I always thought when I was younger [that] one day it’ll be easier as a writer,” says Hook, “but it’s harder now because I feel like I’m trying to raise the bar more and hold myself to another standard.”

It would seem that when it comes to setting goals and aiming to attain levels of professional accomplishment, the horizon is ever shifting for Shawn Hook. So what does the horizon hold? Where will this road lead him?

“I just wanna continue on this trajectory,” Hook says. “Having success thus far with ‘Sound of Your Heart’ has really opened up a lot of doors for me in terms of who I get to collaborate with now, and I just want to continue on this road and this journey and take it to the highest level I can take it.”

Lately, it’s a journey that’s been keeping him extremely busy. Currently he has three (there’s that number again) agendas that fill his day-timer. He’s promoting his new single across America, which included the Kimmel show, as well as popping into radio stations in various cities to shake hands and sometimes perform a song. He’s also preparing for a slate of live shows this summer at festivals such as the Calgary Stampede, the Pemberton Music Fest, Edmonton Ex, Canadian Music Week in Toronto, the iHeart Radio Fest and the Much Music Video Awards. And on top of all that, he’s making his next album.

It seems any way you add it up, the road to No. 1 always requires three things: work, work, and more work.

“It’s been busy. Not much time to see family lately, which sucks,” Hook admits. “But, y’know, it is what it is. Gotta make hay while the sun is shining. There’s a lot of pressure, but I enjoy it. So hopefully we’ll have a good record by September.”

That sounds like something Shawn Hook’s fans can count on.

Twenty years after its modest beginnings at Zest, on Bennett St. in Montréal’s infamous HoMa district, the showcase/contest Les Francouvertes has become a must-see event. And even though the list of past winners is impressive in and of itself, what has truly established the event’s reputation is its impact on Québec’s music scene for the past two decades.

Wednesday, April 13, 2016, 11 p.m. Montréal’s Lion d’Or is bustling with excitement as Sylvie Courtemanche, the Director of Francouvertes, is about to announce the three artists who will duke it out at Club Soda during the finals of the 20th Anniversary edition.

Tonight is the third and last semi-final, and provides the occasion to award many generous prizes amongst the 21 contestants. In the end, Mon Doux Saigneur, Caltâr-Bateau and La Famille Ouellette are chosen as the three finalists. The ultimate winner will also grab a $10,000 cash prize.

That night, some faces are clearly disappointed, but others are downright euphoric. “We’ve unsuccessfully registered to participate for four years and now we’re headed for the finals… You bet I’m effing flabbergasted!” says Caltâr-Bateau’s bass player, Étienne Dupré. “Funny thing is, I also drum in Mon Doux Saigneur… It’s going to be a big night for me!”

“It’s fun to see that the feedback is so good,” says Mon Doux Saigneur’s frontman, Émerik St-Cyr, in a much calmer tone. “At the very least, it gives me hope that I’m not crazy, and that following one’s passion might be a decent way to earn a living.’

David Bujold’s band, Fudge, barely missed making it to the finals, and he’s a bit disappointed. “I find it hard to finish fourth,” he confides. “We came so close…”

The guitarist and songwriter is far from a loser, though, and he leaves the contest with a few prizes, including a $1,000 cash prize awarded by SOCAN for his song “Ju.” “I’ve participated in a certain number of contests so far, and the best song prize always seemed out of my league, so despite not making it to the finals, this is a great night.”

Mere inches away, members of La Famille Ouellette can barely contain themselves. “We REALLY didn’t expect this,” admits J-S Houle, the band’s keyboard player and singer. “Our first show as a band was in the preliminary rounds. The Francouvertes became our excuse to crawl out from the shadows and launch our own project, as a bunch of friends.”

Love at First Sight

Eight years ago, electro-pop trio La Patère Rose also played its very first show during Francouvertes” preliminary round. A few weeks later, they won the contest’s 12th finals.

Éli Bissonnette, the founder and head honcho of record label Grosse Boîte, was a member of the jury that night. “It was the first time I saw them on stage and they totally blew my mind. I wrote to them the next day, and shortly thereafter, we had signed them,” he remembers. “We don’t necessarily come to Francouvertes scouting for a new artist to sign, but we’re never immune to love at first sight. The same thing happened last year with Émile Bilodeau.”

Francouvertes Loco LocassSomething similar also happened on Feb. 7, 2000. That’s the night rap trio Loco Locass won the now-legendary final round where they beat, among others, Les Cowboys Fringants. “We hadn’t even played 10 shows when we won that contest. That’s where we learned how to really work a crowd,” reminisces Chafiik. “We knew the Cowboys were electrifying onstage, so we gave everything we had during the finals.”

Among the jury members was Patrice Duchesne, who at the time was artistic director at the Audiogram label. “For a band like us with basically no stage experience, Les Francouvertes was quite a fast track,” says Batlam. “It was the launching pad for our album and, ultimately, for our band – because Audiogram re-released our album a few months later.”

More recently, François Bissoondoyal of Spectra Musique also made a pleasant discovery. “Francouvertes was instrumental in us signing Philippe Brach,” admits the label’s director. “We’d had an eye on him for a while, but seeing him in a spacious venue with a good P.A. and a captivated audience was very helpful.”

Obviously, Francouvertes is not just about the winners. Last year, Eric Harvey, a talent manager for Ambiances Ambiguës and founder of the Duprince imprint, spotted singer Rosie Valland, who didn’t make it to the finals. “I’d heard her first EP, but it’s when I witnessed her stage presence during the semi-finals that I decided to approach,” he recounts. “The Duprince label was officially launched in September 2015 with the release of her album.”

Beyond the Label

Karkwa finished second in 2002, and their “defeat” was far from being just that. That year, remembers Sylvie Courtemanche – the director of Francouvertes, who’s been involved in the event from the start in 1996 – the winners were the now defunct reggae band Kulcha Connection. “Later, Louis-Jean Cormier admitted to me that finishing second was the best thing that ever happened to Karkwa. It was like the kick in the ass they needed to up their game,” says the woman who became the  Francouvertes  director in 2005, when it moved from Zest to Lion d’Or. “Winning the Francouvertes when the time isn’t right can be harmful.”

Karim Ouellet

Karim Ouellet also finished second in the contest. Already signed to a label when he participated in 2011 – something that’s no longer possible under the contest’s new rules – the singer had no specific goals.

“It was my manager who told me about Francouvertes for the first time. I’d just released an album and we were looking for ways to promote it,” says the Coyote Records artist. “The thing was, I’d already done [the Festival International de la Chanson de] Granby and I didn’t really feel like doing another contest… But it wasn’t long before I figured out that Francouvertes was more interesting, particularly because it’s a contest that is attuned to the local scene.”

A year before, Bernard Adamus, who was part of the Grosse Boîte roster, was in the same situation. With his Brun album already out, the singer-songwriter decided to use the contest as a way to gain stage experience. “All I was looking for was assurance and credibility. I’d get a big adrenaline rush every time I’d get onstage,” recounts the artist. “I remember it was a special feeling, because I knew half of the bands I was playing with. I’d run across them at some point or another, at Quai des Brumes or Inspecteur Épingle.”

Although it’s true that the local folk microcosm has always been an important hotbed of talent for the contest, things are slowly changing.

Bernard AdamusThis year, for example, several finalists – notably Ponteix, Cy, Simon Daniel and McLean – were from outside of Québec. “Maybe it’s the HayBabies effect,” says Courtemanche, referring to the Acadian band who won the contest in 2013. “It’s quite frequent that a band influences the cohorts that follow. For many years, we got a lot of demos that were clearly influenced by Karkwa or Les sœurs Boulay.”

Miles away from the sound of those artists, the current trio of finalists – all of them from Montréal – bring a breath of fresh air to the contest, if only by their imposing orchestration and their bold musical hybridization.

“This year is really special, says Courtemanche. “We’re dealing with large bands with arrangements that are a lot less sparse than last year… Let’s just say it’s a lot more expensive in beer vouchers!”

The Francouvertes Finals
Club Soda, May 9th