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.

Le party est pogné – which means “The party is on,” and is the name of Lendemain de veille’s sophomore album – shot to the top of Francophone sales chart as soon as it was released.

Lendemain de veille“I took two screen shots to make sure it was true,” says Marc-André Rioux during our Zoom interview. On his baseball cap is the inscription “J’ai soif” (“I’m thirsty”). Behind him were the corn fields of St-Louis-de-Gonzague, near Beauharnois (Québec), where all five members of the band are from.

“There’s something highly simple that defines us: never forgetting where we’re from,” says Rioux. “As a matter of fact, it’s the subject of [our song] “Notre histoire.” It’s about remembering that we were conceived in a hay wagon not far from here. We’re not about to pretend we’re someone else.” There was The Fab Four, now here come The Farm Five!

Lendemain de veille has tallied more than three million cumulative plays on the usual digital platforms, and have been playing on the Énergie radio network and CKOI in Montréal. They have no less than three different songs in rotation on commercial radio, thanks to their finely crafted country-rock.

“We know our music was never conceived for radio, but then we look at our followers on Facebook and realize our audience is much broader than we expected,” says Rioux. “We play agricultural rock and we love instruments like the banjo, the fiddle, lap steel, mandolin, accordion – we listen to a lot of La Bottine souriante – so we never know from one song to the next where we might end up.”

Which is to say, there’s a marked difference between the more roots roots of the first album, 1 000 bouteilles, and their second one, firmly rooted in the country genre. Songs such as “On était saoul,” “Bière au ciel,” “Une bonne bouteille de vin,” and many others, would’ve been entirely at home at Deux Pierrots, the now-defunct Old Montréal live music bar where the band played for a decade. “That’s how long it took us to write our own songs. We’ve always existed to play live and party with people,” says Rioux.

Le party est pogné was recorded during the pandemic. As with many a production during this protracted period, each member recorded their bit separately, and the recorded tracks were then assembled.

This time around, the guys categorically refused to tame down, and consciously avoided overly complicated arrangements. “Un tour à maison,” “Gars de campagne,” “Notre histoire,” and “Mémère Tremblay” show that Rioux et al. know how to write a bunch of like-minded songs, with light-hearted verses and bubbly choruses. “Cowboy,” a honky-tonk-tinged roadhouse blues, was even selected as the official song of the 2020 Festival Western de St-Tite.

“The large country family is composed of people who don’t judge each other. They drink cold beer from a can and listen to good music,” Rioux says. “The rodeo at Grandes Estrades is like a mini-Bell Centre during a Habs game. People scream like you wouldn’t believe. We played there for six straight years, thanks to Bob Bissonnette, who’d recommended us highly.” What better way to sell beer like crazy?

That also means that you might have heard their “Medley Cayouche,” a set of the New Brunswick singer’s best songs, as the title makes clear. “We went to visit him to give him a case of Alpine beer, his favourite brand, a tray of shots, and copies of our albums, and he got there just after us on his Harley-Davidson. What a sight, with the wind splitting his beard right in the middle. He’s quite an imposing man, but thankfully he liked us. We spent the afternoon with him and he played some unreleased songs for us. When we stepped inside his home, we could literally see his song titles. When he sings that he has a portrait of his dad on the living room wall, he means it!”

With this unexpected success, it’s now a given that this second will open up new horizons for Lendemain de veille, and the band has already been nominated twice at the 2020 Country Gala. “The raison d’être of Lendemain de veille has always been to play festive and uniting music,” says Rioux, “so there was no way a global pandemic was going to prevent us from being as festive as ever!”

“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!”