Texas troubadour Townes Van Zandt once famously wrote that he sang “for the sake of the song.” Music industry veteran, SOCAN member, and hit co-writer/producer John Dexter subscribes to this philosophy.

“It’s all about the song,” says the executive, who chats with SOCAN after a trip to London, Paris and Cannes meeting with music labels, managers and publishers. “The song is the most important thing. The feeling it creates. A songwriter has to know where the bar is. To develop the skill of objectivity so they can hit the target.”

Sage advice from one who knows. Songwriter/Producer Dexter is President of A&R Lab — a hit-oriented open-source music production and independent A&R company. He’s also the president of indie record label Reliant Music, distributed by Warner. His clients compliment Dexter’s dexterity, and his ear for identifying melodies that possess the right ingredients to make their way up the charts.

“The song is the most important thing. The feeling it creates.”

Dexter on “Call Me Maybe”
I noticed Interscope was breaking a lot of artists that had been introduced to them by other artists on their roster. Marilyn Manson via Nine Inch Nails, Eminem, 50 Cent and The Game via Dr. Dre, etc… We decided to sign and manage up-and-coming producers because they’re plugged into a lot of developing artists. We signed producer Ryan Stewart… who called me one day saying he met this girl from Canadian Idol, who was back in Vancouver looking for a management and record deal. He asked if I wanted to meet her. Carly and I had coffee and talked for a while. She was obviously very talented, and driven, and had a flair for artistic and accessible songs. I set up an audition for Carly with Jonathan Simkin to see if 604 Records would be interested in signing her. After she played, he said he couldn’t sign her to the label right now, but would be interested in doing a co-management deal. So that’s what we did… Carly met Justin Bieber at the JUNOs that year… “Call Me Maybe” was sitting at No. 11 on the iTunes singles chart, and was either platinum or approaching it when Bieber heard the song on the radio and started tweeting about it. It jumped straight to No. 1. He then signed her to his and his manager’s label for outside of Canada. It was amazing to watch, and I was happy to play a part in it.

“I initially learned about making hits by listening to Top 40 radio, trying to really hear what makes a song a hit, comparing my songs to them, and then doing everything I could to make my songs as good,” says Dexter. “Sometimes, it worked!”

It did. The music man claims 13 Top 10 singles and 10 Top 40 hits, and more than 43 million albums sold worldwide, in his career. He’s also contributed songs to three Academy Award-winning films, including Top Gun and Nebraska. During this time, he’s also helped artists such as Carly Rae Jepsen, who he co-managed during the time of her mega-hit “Call Me Maybe,” which sold more than 21 million copies worldwide and hit No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 (see sidebar). In 2016, A&R Lab helped singer-songwriter Andrew Allen  achieve multiple successes: “What You Wanted” hit No. 17 at National Hot AC and No. 8 at National AC Radio, and his Christmas release “Favourite Christmas Song” hit No. 6 at Mainstream AC.

Dexter says the reason that some songs hit and others miss because artists often focus on the wrong things. “Songwriters need to place their attention on the details, and be rigorous and objective in their approach to crafting hits,” he says. “You have to be ruthless with your melodies. Is my chorus honestly as good as Ed Sheehan’s in ‘Shape of You’? If not, throw it out and re-write until you think it is.

“It is all about the feeling and urgency. Whether it’s ‘See You Again’ by Wiz Khalifa, Meghan Trainor’s ‘All About That Bass’ or Rihanna’s ‘Umbrella,’ if you want hits, you always have to go for that one-listen smash. But you have to have a sense of how to get there; you can only do that by being brutally honest with yourself and your co-writers. If they’re not up for it… next!”

To discover that next hit-maker, A&R Lab’s team of industry veterans listen to songs just like a radio programmer would in their weekly advertising meetings. “We have two dozen new songs to listen to, and room to add only two singles,” Dexter says.

If Dexter remains unmoved within the first 30 seconds of listening to a single, it’s on to the next song. “What many creative people don’t realize is that a stage of contemplation is extremely important,” he says. “There are many stages of creativity and that’s the one that’s often overlooked while people are just producing, producing, producing. What happens without that stage of contemplation is that the producing becomes formulaic, repetitive, and lacks inspiration. That then leads to dissatisfaction, and to things not lining up quite as you would like.”

According to Dexter, that period of contemplation is super-important, so artists can think, ‘what do I want to happen here?’

“It dissolves attachments and in that, a quieting happens with which you can listen to your intuition,” he explains. “This process can lead you to less situations that are challenging, and lead you to places you need to be as opposed to situations that are distracting. When you pause and step into the spirit of exploration, incredible things can happen.”

It’s why Dexter says North America’s hit-making mecca of Los Angeles often feels like a conveyor belt, where everyone is just trying to chase a hit.  “Having a hit is the best feeling in the world,” he says, “but I remember when I lived in Los Angeles, if I had a song on the charts and it lost its bullet, I would call the artist manager, call the label, etc. It was like my whole self-esteem depended on the song going from No. 11 to No. 5. Then you jump on the treadmill and do it all over again.

“I learned that ultimately, you have to write songs and release singles for the right reasons – to give people love, authenticity and your spirit,” says Dexter. “The listener recognizes that, and it feels familiar to them because you’re talking to the part in them that’s the same as you. Once you have a song like that, then you create the production to support it. That’s how you have hits.”

In the course of his career, Dexter has worn many hats. How, one wonders, has he weathered the storm in the ever-changing, unpredictable music industry? “By re-inventing myself quite a few times,” he says. “Staying inquisitive, leaning into challenges, learning new skills, and listening to my intuition as closely as I can.”

Looking ahead, what’s next for the A&R Lab team? “Our priority is to develop new songwriter/producer relationships and to expand our creative team,” Dexter says. “We listen to every song that’s sent in, and are always on the lookout for that next songwriter who is collaborative, competitive and super-talented. So hit us up!”

What Haitian-born singer Fwonte wants to accomplish, through the bold musical mixtures on No Wanga 2, is to gather and combine all of the world’s cultures.

Alongside his producer and loyal “wizard” Vincent Letelier (a.k.a. Freeworm) – who gave a uniform sound to his rich alloy of hip-hop, electro, kompa, rara, and various other influences, such as Malian and Middle-Eastern music – the Montréal-based artist offers an idealistic brew that celebrates the power of social diversity.

Fwonte“When I started working on this EP,” says Fwonte, “there was this massive influx of migrants in Europe and North America, and I heard many people wonder if this wave of new people would create societal unrest. My answer was to integrate musical styles from all continents in my music. I wanted to show that if such heterogenous genres could live together in a single song, humans were also able to do so.”

Optimistic, but not naive, the creole singer doesn’t shy away from more overt criticism. On “Ansamn,” co-written with renowned Haitian DJ and producer Gardy Girault, Fwonte sings about the lack of solidarity he felt during a recent trip to his native Haiti. “I saw how people were living each for themselves, as if they were trying to get by focusing only on their own issues, not caring for their community,” he says. “I believe the only way to take the country out of the chaos it’s in is by all working together to move things forward.”

But Fwonte mainly insists on the value of hard work, perseverance and dedication. The “No Wanga” is imbued with those values. “In vaudou, the wanga is a sacrifice carried out by the priest in order to allow you to reach a specific goal,” Fwonte explains. “For example, it can be a prayer of a special fragrance that puts people around you in a trance. The message I want to give to young people is that what matters most isn’t the wanga, but work. God helps those that help themselves… Don’t go to wanga thinking it’s your path to success.”

Introduced to vaudou music by his mother’s family, Fwonte was raised by his paternal grandmother after suddenly losing his parents when he was merely three. “She’s the one who introduced me to kompa and evangelical songs,” he says. “All that music was still very much in me when I started listening to hip-hop in my teens. I was drawn to art early on in life, and that worried my aunts and uncles who lived in Florida and were paying for my education. They wanted me to quit all that and pick a different professional path, but my granny told me to ignore them and to do what I like.”

In Montréal, the culture was inclusive.”

It was while working as a graphic designer at the turn of the last decade that the artist decided to go all-in with music. To this end, he moved to Montréal, where his girlfriend’s family lived. “I wanted to kick-start my career, and I was torn between moving here or to Florida,” says Fwonte. “After comparing them, I preferred Montréal’s vibe. In Haitian music events in Florida, the only community present was mine, just as in Port-au-Prince. In Montréal, the culture was much more inclusive, and I already knew and enjoyed a few of the local artists like Luck Mervil and Muzion.”

A mere month after arriving in Montréal, Fwonte participated in a benefit show for Haiti after it was hit with a major earthquake. That night, at the now defunct Club Lambi, he met his musical partner, Vincent Letelier, with whom he would go on to record the majority if his first EP, Men Mwen. Known back then as Mr. OK, the rapper quickly became a new breakthrough artist on Montréal’s World 2.0 scene, growing alongside two of its main representatives: Boogat and Poirier.

Seven years after his near-instantaneous integration, Fwonte couldn’t be more satisfied with his musical evolution in Québec. “If I’ve done one good thing in my life, it’s coming here,” he says adamantly.

That doesn’t mean he’s immune to feeling homesick now and again, as one can hear on “Chagren” and the very touching “Grann,” a very personal homage to his grandmother that still stirs him emotionally. “The first time I sang that one on stage, I started to cry,” says Fwonte. “That had never happened to me before; the emotion choked me up. When I was a kid, my granny was always a little worried about my future, and I just wanted her to know that she doesn’t have to worry anymore, that I’ve got a career going, a family. And that, in the end, all that I was missing was her…”

Das Mörtal

With the renewed interest for the New Wave sounds and the electroiclash tornado of 15 years ago, is there anything substantial left of the pith and day-glo marrow of the music of the ‘80s? Yes, resoundingly responds Cristobal Cortes, whose synthwave grooves he releases under the Das Mörtal moniker: “The important thing is to find inspiration there, not imitation,” he says. “It’s when you try to imitate that you get stuck in the past; just being inspired by the ‘80s allows you to create something contemporary.”

It would indeed be unfair to boil down the sound of Das Mörtal to the old beats and synths of the Depeche Mode years. His first album, Always Loved, sees the Santiago, Chile-born Montréaler set a course for dance music that’s inspired as much by the techno and progressive house of the ’90s and 2000s than it is by the rugged electro sound of 30 years ago. It’s as much Human League as it is Tiga, as much Men Without Hats’ “The Safety Dance” as it is Daft Punk’s “Harder, Better, Faster, Stronger.”

“To me, Das Mörtal is a big mish-mash, I mean, a lot of experimentation,” says Cortes. “I can do a super-disco number and follow up with a techno track, but it all belongs to a very well-defined sonic universe. The project has a smidge of a cinematic feel, inasmuch as each release is a story unto itself. They’re not songs that were compiled randomly; they have to tell a story from beginning to end.”

The story he tells on Always Loved is simple and straightforward – a requisite when you consider half of the tracks are instrumental. It’s the story of a man who meets a woman in a club, they spend the night together, until, “when morning comes, they tell each other, ‘See you around, maybe.’” The pulsating rhythms, drenched in fat shiny synths, make you want to both dance and… well, you get the picture.

If the latter is part of human nature, dancing doesn’t necessarily come easy to everyone. It’s after exiling himself to Berlin about 12 years ago that Cortes understood that. “Back then, the Montréal electronic scene seemed to be chasing its own tail,” he says. “Everything was all about SAT and MUTEK, that repetitive, minimalist house and techno sound that I couldn’t stand anymore.”

Let’s just say he had slightly more aggressive musical compulsions, being a fan of hardcore electro-industrial productions from the now defunct German label Digital Hardcore Recordings (Alec Empire, Atari Teenage Riot). “That’s what Berlin was to me,” says Cortes. “Electronic music with a much more punk attitude, that was close to metal, and we seldom heard in Montréal. So I moved to Berlin, hoping to make my own music, inspired by that energy and sound – and also hoping to discover new ways to make music.”

Back then, Cortes’ stage name was Elektro-boy, and he hung out with local producers, notably ones releasing on Ellen Allien’s more techno-oriented label BPitch Control. It’s by working with those musicians that he realized what he hadn’t understood in Montréal: the people’s need to dance, and the role of the dancefloor’s master –  the DJ.

“I finally understood the DJ culture that I was trying to run away from. All of a sudden, it wasn’t boring at all.”

“I learned that you can do a lot more than I thought as a DJ,” says Cortes. “I never thought that way of doing things would allow me to fully express myself. Back then, Native Instruments released Traktor [a mixing software for DJs] and BPitch got a promo copy of the latest version. That tool freed and captivated me. I said to myself: ‘Oh! we can use all kinds of effects, it’s like doing sound collage, but live.’ I finally understood the DJ culture that I was trying to run away from. All of a sudden, it wasn’t boring at all.”

Following a handful of singles and EPs, Das Mörtal found a home in Lisbon Lux, partners that allowed him to disseminate his music outside of Québec dancefloors. Lately, he’s played live in France, Hungary, Russia and Great Britain. “When I get booked here, it’s mostly to DJ… and that’s fine with me!”, says the self-taught musician, who composes by ear, with a good sense for rhythm and a lot of intuition.

One last, burning question: why re-mix of Céline Dion’s “Je danse dans ma tête”? “I love that song!” says Cortes. “As a matter of fact, I hate the expression ‘guilty pleasure’: I believe we’re entitled to love whatever we want. I happen to like that Céline song, it reminds me of my youth. Mind you, I don’t like anything else she’s done… Maybe it’s the slightly kitsch side of it? It’s got a good groove, it still sounds good today! Of course, it’s an old hit, but it has all the makings of a good dance hit.”