“I know where I’m going, and I’m not the type who hesitates and questions themselves a thousand times once I have a plan. On the other hand, I do take time to properly analyze things; I never make a decision on a whim. I trust my abilities and my team.”

So says a very pregnant Catherine Simard, who welcomes us to her terrace on a hot July day. During our interview, she reclines lightly, hands on her belly, in what comes across as an introspective stance – the better to take stock of the last, dazzling year at her agency La Maison Fauve, her “Little Company,” as Alain Bashung sings in the film of the same name.

“I actually hope that we don’t grow,” she admits. “The game plan was to have no more than six employees, and to take on just a few projects, but to complete them from A to Z. We have two motion designers, 3D animators, and designers – who also make video content for Star Académie, that we outsource, which allows us to be even more diversified – who are part of the team, especially for the virtual reality project Astéria.”

Catherine Simard, Patrice Michaud

With Patrice Michaud

La Maison Fauve: booking, management, and record label. Like so many small businesses in the music industry, the agency is multi-pronged. Skills are diversified by providing one or more of these components at a time. Its roster includes artists as diverse as Michel Rivard, Eli Rose, Vincent Vallières, Dominique Fils-Aimé, Philippe Brach, Patrice Michaud, and newcomer Ariane Roy, chosen as this year’s Révélation Radio-Canada and among the SOCAN members to Watch in 2021.

“Artists often question themselves, and they like knowing that we have a plan,” says Simard. “We’d only been around for 18 months when the pandemic hit. We were lucky, because many of our artists were in a songwriting phase, so we didn’t take too big a hit from shows being cancelled or postponed. And we got management fees as revenues. Streaming revenues also helped. But that said, because we’re a small company, we were able to cut our operating costs without touching the employees’ salaries; it was essential for me to keep my team. To top it all off, Patrice Michaud ended up hosting Star Académie, so diversification definitely helped us.”

Before establishing La Maison Fauve, Simard was General Manager of Spectra Musique, one of the branches of Équipe Spectra, founded by Alain Simard – the father of the Montréal International Jazz Fest and the Francofolies de Montréal, among other cultural institutions. But why in the world would Simard walk away from Spectra, her own father’s immensely successful enterprise?

“A combination of factors,” she replies. “Motherhood played a big part – I wanted less pressure, less work, not having to commute downtown to the Bell Centre, where Spectra has moved. But in the end, I work just as much here, except I dictate the pace. Our offices are 10 minutes’ walk from home, and the daycare centre is two blocks away – can’t beat that when it comes to work-life balance. I can be more involved without having to go out and see shows three nights a week. I was in charge of 20 artists at Spectra Musique, it’s very demanding,” she says laughing. “I no longer have to convince the people around the table to buy my ideas – if I have bad numbers, it’s on me. I’m totally comfortable with that.

“My father honestly believed I would thrive as the head of Spectra Musique after he sold his business to evenko. I would have had more growth potential with that company, but my goal isn’t to lead 25 employees and manage millions. With the pandemic, I clearly saw all the benefits of having my own business, and the flexibility to make my decisions.”

Catherine Simard, Vincent Vallières

With Vincent Vallières

Several artists at the end of their contract with Spectra Musique have followed Simard on her new adventure. Brigitte Matte (Anacrouse), who headed Spectra’s live-show branch at the time, was already Michel Rivard’s agent – a task she now shares with Simard. “Managing an artist is the most time-consuming aspect of everything,” says Matte. “But Michel is served better, no doubt! My four boys (Michel, Patrice, Philippe, and Vincent) followed me to Maison Fauve, but it was crucial for me to make space for women.”

After being on the Polaris Prize short list, jazz/R&B singer Dominique Fils-Aimé has fulfilled ed all expectations of her, and her live shows sell out in no time. “We have a big tour of Europe planned for her,” says Simard, clearly proud of her overseas booking partners. “Dominique had a label and a manager, I think she’s truly an exceptional artist. Developing an artist abroad – finding agents, establishing partnerships – is quite a task when you’re not in charge of record sales and distribution.”

Eli Rose was crowned Breakthrough Artist of the Year at the 2020 ADISQ Gala, and in 2021, it seems Ariane Roy is on her way to a similar feat. “Developing an artist without a good manager is like working for nothing,” says Simard.

Is there something missing in Québec’s music industry? “Two things,” she says. “Improved sharing of streaming revenues through a federal bill, and better visibility for French-language new releases on these platforms. Right now, you have to be determined to find it,” says Simard. “Also, we have to make sure that music gets to the ears of the younger generations. Renewing our audience is a priority, for me.”

What’s in the plans for Simard in the coming months, aside, obviously, from giving birth? “There will necessarily be too much on offer for the level of demand,” she says. “And it’s likely to go up, because during a year without shows, many artists went into a creative phase. A lot of records are going to come out at the same time and the artists will bump into each other on tour… The year ahead ain’t gonna be easy!”

As music fans awaited the Polaris Music Prize 2021 shortlist, the organization’s Executive Director, Claire Dagenais, spent her last week certifying it. Weeks before, on June 28, 2021, Polaris announced that Dagenais would be departing the organization after 11 years, just one year into her role as Executive Director – after its founder, Steve Jordan, moved to CBC Music as Senior Director. But while some found the declaration surprising, Dagenais says that the COVID-19 pandemic was the biggest surprise announcement, one that changed the trajectory of her time as the head of Polaris.

“COVID hit, literally, the week I was officially announced as Polaris [Executive Director],” she says. “We were supposed to put the press release out on March 12, [2020,] but that day the JUNOs announced they were cancelling, so we postponed the announcement until March 16. It [the pandemic] threw a wrench in a lot of ideas, especially learning how to be the face, voice, and authority of an organization in a year where we had to throw everything out – we couldn’t lean on what we’d done before.

“And it wasn’t just COVID. There were really important social justice issues that were happening: anti-Black racism, anti-Asian racism, Indigenous colonialist impact, #MeToo sexual harassment, [all] coming to the forefront. Like [they did with] everybody, they touched and impacted us, and we wanted to make sure that we were engaging in those conversations properly. We were making sure that even though we were busy, we weren’t ignoring real things that were going on around us in real time. I’m incredibly proud of what we did.”

Navigating an unprecedented year with a small but dedicated team of creatives, Polaris was able to maintain the forward-thinking trajectory for which the organization has become known – 2020 saw the $50,000 prize awarded to Montreal rapper Backxwash, the first trans winner. [Editor’s Note: Chaka V. Grier, the author of this story, was part of the 11-member Polaris Grand Jury for 2020.]  It was just the latest win to celebrate new rising voices, which have included Lido Pimienta, Kaytranada, and Haviah Mighty. And in 2020, the Polaris Prize was presented in a virtual awards show, in lieu of its usual in-person Gala, that featured dynamic music videos created by each nominee and up-and-coming filmmakers. Dagenais says that without the team, within and outside of the organization, the festival wouldn’t have gone as beautifully as it did.

“Even though our salaried team is small, we have people, our contractors, grant writers who we’ve worked with and go back to regularly, who are all A-plus individuals,” she says. “I think too often those individuals don’t get their glory or the appreciation for how much they actually put in. And they do it because they love it, not necessarily because it’s going to get them a yacht anytime soon. The only way great things happen is if there are people who believe in you and who work with you. We owe it to them to try and be our best, be transparent, and do the best we can, even if it’s not our ideal situation. Always show up.”

Lessons Learned
A solid foundation keeps an organization going during unexpected changes. Here are three lessons Dagenais learned while leading a team during the pandemic.
A: “Being able to lead and pull through a crisis has as much to do with what you did before the crisis as what you do during. Being prepared, organized, and having a great team that’s engaged, passionate, and empowered means you can delegate, and often the best solutions are a team effort.”
B: “Having systems and procedures in place means you have a road map to follow when the rain starts coming down hard. And having guiding principles and mandates means that you maintain integrity and continuity of purpose as you navigate new terrain.”
C: “Finally, ask for help and be transparent. Talk your ideas out with partners, colleagues, anyone who understands your organization, who may [also] be able to think outside the box.”

As Dagenais uses her current time away from the music industry to re-focus on her young family, Polaris’ first employee – “Technically, Steve [Jordan] was the first employee, but in terms of straight-up employees, I was the first one,” Dagenais corrects with a chuckle – recalls the days of going from summer help, to welcoming some of Canada’s biggest music names to the gala. Asked what she thinks Polaris’ greatest impact on music has been thus far, she says the first is the way that it removed the velvet rope between artists and fans.

“It was never so exhilarating as when we opened up a few small tickets to the general public,” says Dagenais. “It was always just artists and media and industry people the first few years that I was working there. When we moved to The Carlu we were able to open balcony tickets to the general public, and it was really interesting to start having conversations where artists would say, ‘I’m sitting at a table, but my friend is getting GA (general admission). Where can I see them?’ And I would say, ‘Oh, anywhere. There’s no velvet rope separating this person from that person.’”

But most importantly, Dagenais says that the longlist may have been the biggest game-changer for her personally.

“What I love about the long list, and about Polaris in general, is that we present everything equally,” she says. “Without genres, there’s no way for people to pre-judge and pre-cast-off artists. Having genre categories is not a bad thing, but when you look at the long list, because it’s just listed, it forces you to open your mind. There are types of music that I may have been more resistant to giving a try because I was like, ‘Oh I’m not 100 percent into that, so I don’t know if I’m going to like that.’ But when it’s presented on a list without any sort of borders or barriers, you’re like, ‘Well, let me try that.’ It’s happened to me multiple times.

“Sometimes people create rules for themselves around what they like, and they don’t like, and I think Polaris gives you permission to step outside of those rules. And we also give you permission to not like something but still appreciate it. Something can not be for you, but you can also still appreciate that it has value for someone else.”

The 2021 Polaris Prize winner, chosen from this year’s short list, will be announced on Sept. 27.

For many, one of the pandemic’s silver linings was extra family time. Quarantines, self-isolation, remote work, virtual schooling, and the prolonged domestic existence caused by the coronavirus – especially for musicians used to touring, live gigs, and studio work – forced artists to re-examine how they earned a living, and to develop new skills.

For classically-trained musicians (and SOCAN members) Drew Jurecka and wife Rebekah Wolkstein, who met in music college and perform together in the Payadora Tango Ensemble, this meant taking a deep dive into the unknown world of video production. They decided to take their three daughters along.

Thanks to his ongoing production work and a steady stable of clients, Jurecka, a veteran of the Toronto music scene – who’s written for or played on more than 150 albums, and created arrangements for artists ranging from Hailee Steinfeld and Dua Lipa to Bahamas and Royal Wood – already had a home studio built before the pandemic hit. So, he was kept busy. Meanwhile, Wolkstein saw her regular gigs vanish overnight. She was also tasked with helping her three daughters – Sylvie (8); Annie (6); and Maya (one-and-a-half) – complete their schoolwork. This left a void that she needed to fill. That’s how the Wolkstein Jurecka Family Orchestra was born.

Flash back to March 2020. When COVID-19 suddenly cancelled all of Wolkstein’s performances, she set about to create a family music video. The first was their take on the Shirley Temple tune, “An Old Straw Hat.”

“I’ve always loved jazz, and grew up with Rodgers and Hammerstein musicals and stuff from the Great American Songbook,” is how Wolkstein describes the choice. Drew produced, recorded and arranged the song while Rebekah filmed the video. Both created simple choreographed moves for the daughters. The response was overwhelming; the video has already eclipsed 15,000 views. Wolkstein was on to something. Not to mention, she was also having fun.

So, they made another video, “Like My Sister.” The mother of three wrote this original song in between nursing Maya. The composition speaks to the joys – and the pains – of sibling bonds. “Sylvie and Annie were fighting, and it got me thinking about their relationship,” says Wolkstein. “So, one night, rocking my baby to sleep with my iPhone in my hand, I typed out the lyrics. I had to edit it down and make sure it had the best rhyme scheme, but all the material came easily and straight from watching how my kids do, and do not, get along throughout the day.” In this newest video Sylvie and Annie play violin, piano, harp, and sing, while baby Maya also dances and sings along.

What’s next for the The Wolkstein Jurecka Family Orchestra? Wolkstein has already penned a new song: “Years from Today,” on how children yearn for adulthood and adults yearn for childhood, and just needs to rally the family together to shoot the video.

On top of the orchestra’s success, Jurecka recently received his first-ever Grammy nomination, for his string arrangement work on the Dua Lipa song, “Don’t Start Now.” During the pandemic, the married couple also found time to collaborate and co-write songs together for the first time. “This project has definitely brought us into a different creative sphere than we were in before the pandemic, which has been a lot of fun,” says Wokstein.

“What’s come out of this experience for Rebekah and I is that it gave us a framework to collaborate as creators of music,” says Jurecka. “We’ve always had a good collaborative relationship as players, and have worked together in groups, but we hadn’t really done any co-writing up to this point. We’ve even pitched a few kids’ TV shows, and landed one synch in a pilot – which I can’t name until it airs.”

Charmed listeners can support the family orchestra on Patreon.

Tango in the Dark

As if motherly tasks, writing songs in the middle of the night, and playing the odd virtual show weren’t enough, Jurecka and Wolkstein also made a film with their band (Payadora Tango Ensemble) and PointeTango – a group of talented ballet/tango dancers from Buenos Aires. Tango in the Dark features the dancing of Erin Scott-Kafadar and Alexander Richardson, and the score is original music composed by the ensemble. Richardson is also the director of the movie, which takes a journey into the shadows and the mysteries of the city, and tells a tale of two dancers moving to the rhythms of the night in the Argentine capital. You can stream the film online and pay what you can, and it’s also set to be part of various Fringe Festivals in 2021-22.