Radio-Canada recognized her as the Breakthrough Jazz Artist of the Year in 2019, and this month, she’s on the cover of Châtelaine magazine, not to mention her 2020 JUNO for Best Jazz Album last summer. Dominique Fils-Aimé is one of the most prominent Canadian musicians of the moment, in all markets and languages. Her new album Three Little Words comes out Feb. 12, 2021.

Dominique Fils-Aimé She’s known for her ability to tame the blue note, making it work for her with ease, to write her own songs, and to tackle monumental classics like “Strange Fruit” without batting an eyelash, delivering an excellent rendition. To hear Fils-Aimé’s voice for the first time is to believe in the reincarnation of revered giants like Billie Holiday. It’s believing that, in the end, jazz has never died – even though Montréal has long since lost the El Morocco club, and other leading institutions of the golden age of cabarets and big brass sections. It’s as if she belongs to another era; a lost paradise.

On her third solo album, the final episode of a trilogy that started with Nameless in 2018 – a musical triptych imbued with a thirst for emancipation and freedom – Fils-Aimé extends her range, and her horizons. The album opens with “Grow Mama Grow,” a soul song with doo-wop tones, that also incorporates a clarinet score that evokes both the klezmer tradition and Arabian sounds. It’s difficult to choose one of two worlds so far away from each other, and that’s is precisely the point.

“There are influences that intersect, that have blended together to create something else,” says Fils-Aimé. “I allowed myself to use all the warm influences that I’ve listened to in my life. Music that comes as much from Latin America, as from the Ivory Coast or Cameroon, as from the Arab world. I fed off all that, and allowed myself to use everything I had consumed, and bring it out in this album.”

The album’s first three songs also borrow quite a bit from the Motown era, in large part because of the genre’s typical handclaps, mingling with joyfully repetitive choruses, and divine vocal harmonies that are entirely sung by Fils-Aimé herself. One would think they’re listening to an old vinyl record by The Supremes at the beginning of “While We Wait,” but the rest of the song quickly transforms into something closer to Gospel… something downright spiritual.

“My sister studied music, and her CD collection was almost like being in a record store,” she says. “Every day, while she was at school, I’d go shop in her collection, and I would choose one or two albums, not more, just so she wouldn’t notice. Some I played a lot more than others. I remember one Aretha Franklin album that I must’ve kept for about a month. I was fascinated by her voice. Those are among the first songs I memorized, even though I didn’t speak English.”

From catchy soul, the singer-songwriter switches to the blues (“Could It Be”) before entering a more introspective, meditative segment, made up of contrasting, sometimes luminous laments. The title piece breaks with this sadder yet hopeful passage, filled with a desire for redemption. From the very first bars, the percussion integrated into “Three Little Words” announces new colours, and an unexpected taste of African music – reminiscent of Fatoumata Diawara and Oumou Sangaré. What Fils-Aimé offers here is really in the same register as what these two Malian women are producing.

“It’s true that it’s different from what I’ve done in the past,” she says. “I wanted to get back to the roots, with primal rhythms that are really hard-hitting. Percussion has that effect on me. They hit me and make me want to move. There’s something incredibly organic about a taut skin vibrating over some kind of wood pillar. Percussion is almost visceral.”

Doing It for the Right Reasons

It’s common knowledge that Fils-Aimé dabbled in photography  public relations before veering into music, but it’s definitely not because the singer was unaware of her own talent, or discovered it late, or by chance. She sang from a very young age. “I’d record myself on the answering machine when my mom wasn’t home,” she says. ”I’d sing songs that I liked, because I was curious to hear what I sounded like. I still remember how shocked I was when I heard myself for the first time, but I didn’t care, because I loved singing so much. I told myself that I’d sing in key eventually. I’d also sign up for the school talent shows to overcome my stage fright. I’ve always loved going towards things that scare me, because you feel so strong when you confront them!”

If Fils-Aimé resisted her destiny as a solo artist for so long, it’s in large part because she preferred remaining in the shadows. Not because shy, but because discretion becomes her. “I started making music professionally with a friend who’s a filmmaker,” she says. “We founded a small company and I wrote music for her videos. I always felt more comfortable with the idea of composing, and not necessarily being a public figure.”

Even as a child she rejected the idea of having a career in music. While some would sell their souls – or their moms – to become stars, the Montréal singer has always feared celebrity. She’s the antithesis of an influencer or an “Insta-babe” turned singer. “I have to admit fame has always scared me,” she says. “There’s something about it that I find truly frightening. Right now it’s fine, there are a few people who know me, it’s totally manageable. It’s not like I’ve become a superstar, but sometimes I find it intense to have more attention than before, or more people who recognize me. It’s always bizarre for me.”

Her current wave of success wasn’t part of the original plan. In fact, Fils-Aimé’s participation in La Voix (the Québec franchise of The Voice televised singing competition) was prompted by a researcher who found her most obscure recordings online and convinced her to give it a go. “I was really expecting to stay underground, to interest only a few niche radio stations, very, very specialized,” she says. “I would’ve been fine to remain a more obscure artist, but in the end, I’m not going to turn my back on the fact that there are more people interested in what I do than I expected; I’m grateful for that. It allows me to reach more people, and do them some good.”

Sharing the love: that’s what motivates Fils-Aimé to tame her fears. It is an ideal that’s wise and altruistic, and in complete contrast with the race for likes at the root of social media.

Todor Kobakov doesn’t think of himself as a jack of all musical trades, but the range of his work suggests otherwise. The multi-talented composer, musician, and producer has scored films and TV shows of many different genres; released Pop Music, a solo album of devastatingly beautiful piano melodies; created gorgeous string arrangements for the Stars’ Set Yourself on Fire; enjoyed a pop radio hit with Major Maker; and produced Odario’s recent hip-hop EP Good Morning Hunter, to name a few highlights. Even during the pandemic, Kobakov has been busy writing scores, including for the comedy Faith Heist – on which he’s collaborating with emerging composers TiKa Simone and Iva Delić – the “indie/artsy” Peppergrass, and a documentary on artificial intelligence (AI).

Kobakov’s upbringing in a musical family in Bulgaria, his studies in classical piano at U of T, his early jobs working on music for commercials, and his friendships across Toronto’s music scene have all contributed to his skills in using sound to enhance visuals.

“It’s not a talent, it’s a lot of hard work,” he says. “I’ve been working on music for a long time. I think my classical training has given me good discipline. In my solo work I’m more into electronics, which helps with film production, and being in the music industry helped me produce other artists. It’s nice to jump from project to project. It doesn’t matter what genre it is; I’m just trying to bring out the best in an artist and help with their vision.”

Helping realize a director’s vision can be complicated, of course. “It’s always different,” he says. “I try to extract the most important part of the story early on, and enhance it. I’m trying to help navigate the flow, and there’s a lot of repair work if the flow lacks energy, or a scene is not romantic enough, or too romantic.”

The Chet Baker biopic Born to be Blue (starring Ethan Hawke) was a unique challenge for Kobakov and collaborators Steve London and David Braid: creating a score about a jazz trumpeter without using jazz trumpet. “Figuring out what my lead instrument would be took a long time,” Kobakov recalls. “It ended up being a Rhodes piano going through a pedal that makes it sound like a broken record. That added a nostalgia element. And everything was very slow and dreamy, because he was always high. At the same time, the director didn’t want it to be too dark, so that was an interesting balance to achieve.”

“Once we popped the bizarre electronics score on it, people got it”

Kobakov often works under the radar to subtly transmit atmosphere and mood. “I don’t want the score to jump out at you, I just want to support the story,” he says. For the TV series Cardinal, he wove the sounds of the northern landscape into the score. “I’m always trying to find elements to subconsciously enhance the story,” he explains. “It was filmed in North Bay, and I went out and banged on some trees to get sounds for the score’s percussion elements. I’m trying to get into the fabric of the story as much as possible sonically, so the work reflects the surroundings.”

And for Faith Heist, Kobakov created percussion sounds with fellow composer TiKa Simone’s voice. “Instead of a shaker and tambourines, we used the human voice, which adds a whole other dimension,” he says. “It’s tangible, you can relate to it.”

Sometimes he works against preconceptions – in the score for the CBC-TV Indigenous comedy/drama Trickster, for instance, which leaned on electronics. “We wanted to blend the worlds,” he says. “We wanted it to feel like things are normal, but something is not quite right. The score helped, especially in the first episode, when nobody was sure what the show was about. Once we popped the bizarre electronics score on it, people got it.”

Kobakov enjoys the challenge of finding a balance between the instruments, the background sounds, the visuals, and the expectations of the listeners. “Film is an interesting thing,” he says. “It’s like a band where everybody’s got their part and if everything works you have a great piece of art, but if the drummer is soloing all the time, it’s distracting. The risks I’ll take or the experiments I do might be a little different, but I tell clients I’m not changing the rules, just the sounds. That seems to be working for me.”

It’s mid-January 2021, and professional songwriter and singer/artist Lowell, is busy wrangling an unruly track that’s been eluding her. “I’ve been trying to crack [this song] for about three years,” she says. “I’m confident it’s a hit, and so far, that’s about all I know. I’ve written and re-written it about 30 times over different chords, different beats, different approaches to the concept. I’m banging my head against the wall, but sticking with it because it’ll make me rich someday. I’ll let you know in 2030,” she jokes.

It’s this puzzle-like experience, inherent in the songwriting process, that drives the Toronto-and-L.A. based musician. At three years old, she began playing the piano; at 14, following the unexpected death of a close friend, Lowell turned to songwriting during the grieving process. “I learned very quickly that songwriting could be a tool for me to cope with my emotions, and all the loneliness I felt as a teenager,” she says.

Now, barely out of her teenage years, she’s collaborated with the likes of Demi Lovato, Charlie Puth, and bülow – with whom she, and five others, co-wrote “This is Not a Love Song,” a SOCAN Pop Music Award winner in 2019. And her own pull-no-punches singles, “Lemonade” and “God is A Fascist,” are also making an impact (after a CBC Music hit with “The Bells” in 2014). Lowell says both were written during a particularly trying time.

“I was definitely at a breaking point when I wrote those songs,” she explains. “I’d been travelling back and forth between L.A. and Toronto, bi-weekly, for about a year, and I really felt like I was writing and writing and writing, but it wasn’t paying off. I just wanted to go home, but I knew I was so close, and I just had to stay one, two, three more months and I’d get somewhere.

“There are a couple of lyrics in there that say it all: Don’t know why I still make music/Why I gave you up to pursue it/Still the same shit still hollow/Still saving up for that condo. I don’t really consider myself to have made it by any means, but I’m happy to report I’m not still saving up for that condo.”

Today the writing process itself is what drives her. From setting to instruments, Lowell treats each song according to its own requirements.

“My process isn’t super-regimented,” she says. “I’ve written so many songs in so many different ways. I’m constantly looking everywhere for inspiration – movies, books, fights with my partner, or my friends – or my friends’ fights with their partners and their friends. By the time I land on something good, I always forget how I got there, so I just keep trying new things.

“I do, of course, have some amazing voice memos of me waking up in the night with a dream song idea. They often end with me fading out and then snoring,” she amusingly explains. “As for instruments or places [to write] in my house, I actually try to avoid hanging out with one instrument for too long. For me, inspiration is all about change, so I try to move around to different rooms in the home, go for a walk, pick up a new synth. My best songs seem to come from my subconscious, so I try not to get too routine in my routine.”

Ultimately, Lowell says collaboration has been crucial to her growth. “Collaborating is such an important tool to have if you want to be a songwriter,” she says. “I’m not saying you have to write with people all the time – in fact, being an independent writer is also useful at times – but I don’t know a lot of successful writers who don’t co-write. The fact is, you’re writing for the masses. How are you going to do that from one singular perspective?”

Five Tricks of the Trade

  1. “‘If the bones are good the rest don’t matter,’ so start with the hook. Love to [the late] busbee for that one.”
  2. “Don’t stare at the page too long. Your subconscious is really useful when writing, so once you have a title or a concept, try just hopping on the mic and seeing what comes out.”
  3. “I spend a lot of time studying and analyzing hits. I find it really helpful to see what works and what doesn’t work, in a broad sense. There’s not an exact science, but there are definitely tools you can learn that will help guide you and improve the ‘hittiness’ of your hooks when you’re stuck.”
  4. “I think this one is really important: Try not to get too down! I’m one of the most self-deprecating, self-hating people I know, but I know I’m not alone. When everyone is always posting their achievements online – ‘Hey I wrote a smash today,’ or whatever – it’s easy to just really hate yourself. The truth is I probably write, like, one good song a month, maybe. It’s OK to suck sometimes, it doesn’t mean you suck.”
  5. “Great ideas do get squashed in bigger rooms. I try not to put a song idea to bed before I’ve auditioned it to a few other team members.”