Émile Proulx-Cloutier“I’m looking for the movie within the song,” says Émile Proulx-Cloutier, author, composer, singer, filmmaker… and let’s stop there, because otherwise, his resumé will fill the whole screen. On this polar Sunday morning, we meet at a café not to talk about his television, documentary, or stage play work, but about his songs – and the movies hidden within them. Twelve in total, featured on his sophomore album Marée Haute, launched in November of 2017.

“How do you tell that story?” says the creative powerhouse. “Does it need an army of brass, or just a simple electro beat? Waves of strings, or all kinds of instruments no one has ever heard about? That’s the question. To me, music must serve the story.”

The story first, the sonic cosmetics after. Each of these 12 new compositions is a universe unto itself, with a beginning, an end, and a message. Music underscores the verb, and the singer’s breath has to be perfectly calibrated to the story. On Marée Haute, the music is very diverse from one song to the next, yet the album as a whole is cohesive. As theatre people say, he achieves a unity of tone. Boileau summarized the concept in L’Art poétique:  “Qu’en un lieu, qu’en un jour, un seul fait accompli/tienne jusqu’à la fin le théâtre rempli.” (“In this place, on this day, one thing achieved / A theatre full until the end.”)

The artist was 26 when everything gelled between his cinema studies, his acting career, and his love of song. “All of a sudden,” says Proulx-Cloutier, “I realized that telling a story, enjoying words, caressing the keys of a piano, getting on stage to play characters and situations… Wait! Songs are the crossroads [of all that]. Above all, they’re a way for me to do all the things I love.”

Like writing, for one. For Proulx-Cloutier, a song is written in the same fashion as a movie script. “Do you know what screenwriters do when they don’t know how to close a scene?” he asks rhetorically. “They write moments down on Post-Its and play around with them. That’s what I did with ‘Retrouvailles.’ I wrote that song on cue cards. Thirty-six sentences. And then I found out how to tell that story.”

As above, each song is a universe unto itself. Memories from high school resurface on “Retrouvailles” (“Reunion”). The wear and tear of the working life on the body and soul of a labourer on “Mon Dos” (“My Back”). Illness and a father’s last breath on “Derniers mots” (“Last Words”). And his adaptation of Marc Gélinas’ and Gilles Richer’s “Mommy, Daddy”, a classic of Pauline Julien’s repertoire, and of Dominique Michel’s before her. It becomes even more relevant when Proux-Cloutier’s character in the song asks why native languages no longer exist in the mouths of First Nations communities.

It was obvious on his first album, and still is on Marée Haute, that Proulx-Cloutier sings for a reason. His songs are messages. “My fun side comes out on stage; I do say a lot of silly things!” he says. “Not to be entertaining, but as a diversion, to make people open to the tragic revelation of the next song. It keeps the pendulum swinging.”

In Proulx-Cloutier’s creative process, words usually come first. Ideas, pell-mell, he explains, smartphone in hand. “On here, the notepad app contains about 600 entries,” he says. “I sometimes wake up in the middle of the night to write. Anywhere, I open a page and start writing about what’s going on around me. At all times, songs are ripped from real life.”

It’s a life spent between theatre stages, film sets, and his family. Albums need a deadline to come to life; having been invited to be the spokesperson of Saguenay’s Regard sur le court métrage festival in March, 2017, he promised the organizers that he’d present a unique concert composed “of 80 percent new material,”  he says. “I told them I would break in 10 songs.” It was the proverbial kick in the ass that he needed, spurring him to go through the 600 notes buried on his cellphone. “I had to finish the album!” he says.

Fours years after entrusting Philippe Brault with finding the best way to sing his films on Aimer les monstres, Proulx-Cloutier tapped composer, arranger, violinist and producer Guido del Fabbro for his second album. “When I met Guido, I first told him, ‘I want to have a hand on the wheel, but not both,’” he says. It was his way of giving the producer all the latitude he wanted to dress up his images and melodies.

“I had been such an interventionist on the first album, always looking for justness, that I did not give Philippe the latitude he needed,” says Proulx-Cloutier. “This time around, I gave it my all in the compositions, but I left the production and orchestration entirely to him.” Compared to his first album, Proulx-Cloutier says he freed himself a lot when it came to the harmonic progressions of the compositions on Marée Haute. “I had fun with form,” he says, “and I allowed purely musical, instrumental, moments to exist. It gives the arranger the space they need to be free. I’m constantly looking for stories and images, but this time, I embraced the idea that music can also tell the story.

“Songs,” he adds, “are the places where everything is possible at minimal cost. Doing a stage play means asking the people to come, there’s a lot involved. Gilles Vigneault said songs are like a pocket mirror. Something you carry with you, and something in which you can ‘scope’ yourself with, whenever you feel like it. It’s a portable art form. Not a minor art, but an art of miniatures. It’s miniature cinéma.”

The Québec hip-hop scene is bustling with fresh talent. Here are three who’ll undoubtedly attract the attention of both audience and media in 2018.


FouKi, QuietMikeFouKi’s reputation has soared considerably since he released his first mixtape Plato Hess (a phonetic twist on Plateau-Est, a hip Montréal neighbourhood) in November of 2016. Thanks to the success of his reggae-tinged track “Gayé,” which garnered more than 120,000 views on YouTube, the rapper quickly regitered on the radar of pre-eminent hip-hop label 7ième Ciel, and a firm offer rapidly followed.

For the 21-year-old rapper, the label proffered the deal at just the right moment, because it pushed him to surpass himself artistically. Instinctive but not thoughtless, his writing is constantly refined, and increasingly allows him to navigate more easily “between being serious and being facetious,” between deeper and then more playful subject matter. “I write happy lyrics that make you wanna vibe, and more introspective ones,” he says about this album, where he notably touches upon artistic concerns, and his take on male-female relations.

It’s worth pointing out that FouKi has a major ally by his side: producer QuietMike, who will used this first album to renew his signature organic hip-hop vibe, largely based on piano and acoustic guitar samples. “I sample the Québécois repertoire more and more, because it’s easier to get a clearance down the road,” says FouKi. “Now that we’re signed to a label, we can’t just steal music like we used to,” admits the composer who, early in his career, had extensively pilfered his parents’ record collection, with a particular fondness for the soundtrack to the movie Le Fabuleux destin d’Amélie Poulain. “Working with samples is still what I prefer, because there’s always an original texture that you can’t just reproduce with a synth.”

The proximity and complicity that exists between the two long-time friends is what matters most. FouKi writes mainly at home, after improvising bits and pieces while walking about, or cooking pizzas at work. But he readily admits being unable to create a song if he hasn’t heard the music first. “Everything starts with the beat,” he says. “Initially, I test-drive some flows, I’ll rap over it using just onomatopoeia, and then I come up with a meaning and lyrics. Ultimately, when I rap something stupid, it’s really just because the onomatopoeia has taken over,” says the young man, who’s recently been included in the Top 10 list of songwriters to watch by Radio-Canada’s premier literary program, Plus on est de fous, plus on lit!. “Otherwise, there are some lyrics that I work on more than others, sometimes for weeks. They’re like dictation with holes.”




Marie-GoldThe year 2018 starts with a bang for rapper/producer Marie-Gold and her quartet, Bad Nylon. Her third mulit-song release, on Jan. 12, 2018, was highly anticipated on the local rap scene since her first single, “Rappa,” which announced a slightly heavier musical direction than on the previous two EPs, from 2015. The new EP, by Marie-Gold – and her accomplices Zoz, Kayiri and Audrey Bélanger – offers nine tracks with laser-sharp focus on dreams of riches, female friendships and professional ambition.

But Marie-Gold is aware that such theme-based, multi-headed creations have their limits. That’s partly why she’ll also present her audience with a different, more intimate side of herself later this year. “When I started, I wanted Québec’s rap scene to have its girl band,” she says, “but now I feel more like making music that represents me. I want to establish myself as an artist, I don’t want to be pigeonholed as a girl rapper,” she says, adding that her solo career is about to start in the coming months with the release of videos and singles.

The 25-year-old Montréaler will use this new beginning to delve into themes “that dig a little deeper,” like her relationship with money and love. “It’s partly due to the stuff I listen to nowadays, stuff like Brockhampton and a lot of French rap,” says Marie-Gold. “I don’t really listen to joke rap, and I want people to sincerely relate to what I say.”

In order to prop up this more personal and thorough artistic approach, Marie-Gold will leave Bad Nylon’s typical party mood and old-school influences behind. Motivated by a desire to widen her horizons, the composer is currently exploring the rich universe of jazz by collaborating with, among other things, a trumpet player.

Inspiration usually arrives in her home studio, and she allows herself creative freedom. “I often try to reproduce the vibe of a song I really like and, ultimately, I end up going somewhere completely different,” she says. “Once I have my beat down, I write my verse in one go, according to the emotion I want to express.”


RowjayThanks to his “international” French accent, his highly articulated flow, and his relentless production work for rising stars of the Québec hip-hop – such as Freakey! and Doomx (of Planet Giza fame) – Rowjay is one of the few rappers in the province to have found some success in France. For the time being, it’s still nascent, but recent metrics on his Soundcloud page are telling: the vast majority of the tens of thousands of plays he’s garnered are from Francophone Europe.

Launched early in January of 2018, his fourth project – and first EP – Hors catégorie moves even further away from his earlier satirical approach. A fan of Roi Heenok in his teens, Rowjay has now distanced himself from this caricatured influence to build a character of his own, with a distinctive set of references and unique discourse. Clearly present in the lyrics of his third album, Carnaval de finesse, launched at the tail end of 2016, the rapper’s motivational message has now taken on a slightly edgier dimension this time around.

“It’s actually more of a call to revolt,” says Rowjay. “Each of the last three or four years, we’ve worked on a project, getting better and better at it, establishing ourselves more and more,” says the rapper, while decrying the media under-exposure he gets in Québec compared to the numerous mini-tours of France that keep raking it in.

Hence the concept on Hors catégorie. Comfortably sitting between two fires, Rowjay doesn’t identify with the street rap scene of artists like Enima or Izzy-S, any more than he does to that of the more “mainstream” scene of Loud and Alaclair Ensemble. “I feel like no one does the kind of music I do in Québec,” says the Italian Montréaler, who describes his style as “St-Léo trap”, in reference to Saint-Léonard, a predominantly Italian borough on the northeastern part of the island of Montréal.

To this end, the contribution of his talented producer friends is indispensable. “I can’t write a song if I haven’t heard the beat. It’s just necessary for me,” says Rowjay, adding that the creative process for this EP was especially complex, given that his collaborators were all busy on other projects. “I’m constantly brainstorming, thinking of new concepts. I’m equally influenced by video games like Mario Odyssey and Zelda as I am by fashion design, for example.”

Exco Levi has won five JUNO Awards for Best Reggae Recording in the past six years, an enviable track record by anyone’s standard, but he’s not a household name… yet. Nobody’s working harder to change that than Exco Levi himself.

“We have to understand life, and realize that life, in itself, is a challenge,” says Levi, born Wayne Levy in the countryside town of Harmons, in Jamaica’s Manchester parish. In his songs, he typically remains positive while facing sometimes harsh realities. “Nothing comes easy, and you have to just work hard… In Canada, as a musician, especially when you sing reggae music, it’s a constant struggle to get out there… But in spite of the hardship, you can also project a positive energy.”

Levi comes by that optimistic attitude naturally. He started in Gospel, singing hymns in the choir at school; now, as a Rastaman, he sings reggae songs often deeply rooted in social comment and spiritual or philosophical concerns – as evidenced by his JUNO-winning songs, “Bleaching Shop” (2012), “Storms of Life” (2013), “Strive” (2014), “Welcome to the King” (2015) and “Siren” (2017).

Typically, Levi’s new album Narrative stays on that constructive tip, ranging from the sweet lovers’ rock of “Feel Like Dancing” to the conscious roots of “Old Capital” to the anti-war anthem “Frontline Soldier.” Elsewhere, “Burn” (featuring renowned reggae star Sizzla) recalls Bob Marley’s “Burnin’ and Lootin’,” “Don’t Cry” references Marley’s “No Woman No Cry” in the chorus, and “Maga Dawg” evokes the song of the same name by Peter Tosh. But if you tell Levi that he’s a natural heir to those pioneering originators, he’s quick to deflect such praise.

“I’m a part of it,” he says. “I don’t want to say me alone, because that would be a ‘self’ thing. And reggae music is not really a ‘self’ thing, it’s a movement of people. There are so many artists in this time that are still bringing the torch of Bob Marley and Peter Tosh. They already set it for us, and we’re just transporting the good deeds and the good tidings from their time to now.”

Similarly, if you claim Levi – who’s played throughout Europe, and in Dubai, Zimbabwe, Malawi and elsewhere – as a prime ambassador for reggae music, he’s quick to share the glory.

“Not me by myself,” says Levi, who himself lives in the suburban Toronto neighbourhood of Brampton. “I give thanks that I was blessed with the opportunity to perform in all of these different parts of the world… and there are so many reggae artists who are not from Jamaica: Alpha Blondy [South Africa], Gentleman [Germany], Alborosie [Italy]. In any part of the world, there are artists there who are moving with this spiritual, majestic vibration. I’m truly honoured to be a part of that.”

As for his songwriting skills, Levi emphasizes that his path is largely an instinctive one, where the beat of the rhythm – or “riddim,” in Jamaican patois – often leads the way.

“Sometimes, when you hear a riddim, it automatically tells you something.”

“We’re doing a project soon and they’re asking for written music,” he says. “But reggae music plays on feel… I can say that 75 percent of the musicians in Jamaica have never seen a written strip of [sheet] music. We play on feel, we play our feelings. That’s what makes reggae music different.

“Sometimes, when you hear a riddim, it automatically tells you something. For instance, when I heard that riddim for ‘Feel Like Dancing,’ it just told me… Like ‘Maga Dawg,’ I just heard the riddim and it told me what it needed… And the next stanza, you [might have to] tell the riddim.”

Riding his riddims as far as they’ll take him, Levi is as hardworking and ambitious as he is humble. At press time, he’s vying for a spot performing on the JUNO Awards live television broadcast later this year, only one of his many goals for 2018.

“There’s nothing that happens for Exco Levi in music that surprises me,” he says. “My whole life is déja vu. From a tender age I could see everything that would happen. All my JUNO wins, I could see that from [when I was] a youth growing up in Jamaica. I could see greatness.

“The thing is, in whatever your endeavor is, if you can’t see it here,” he says, pointing to his head, “you’re not going to see it in the physical [world]. You have to see it and work on it.”