Justin Gray has had a 25-year career as a professional songwriter, amassing a personal catalogue of some 1,500 songs.  He’s worked with John Legend, Luis Fonsi, Mariah Carey and Joss Stone, and had song placements in movies like Sisters, The Lego Ninjago Movie, Oz The Great and Powerful, and in TV shows like Hawaii Five-0 and Hannah Montana. Still, he’d grown “completely dismayed” with how poorly organized songwriters are – “including myself,” he readily admits.

Gray had a personal problem he needed to solve:  How could he upload and quickly search his songs in a database, preferably from his smartphone, in order to pitch a song for a placement?  And how would he know if his co-writers have pitched it, and to whom?

“There is very little communication between co-writers after the fact, and If I were to draw a circle around their relationships —  their managers, their publishers — that grew very frustrating for me, not being able to organize that data,” says Gray.

MDIIO logoTo solve the problem for himself and his peers, the Los Angeles-based Canadian, through his company Songistry, has launched a service called MDIIO. It’s “an easier way for our songwriter community to collaborate, network, pitch and monetize music,” says the MDIIO website.

The user can embed each registered song with as many as 90 points of metadata, such as lyrics, collaborators’ contact info, performing rights organizations, master owners, beats per minute, musicians, and so on, thereby improving accuracy – and payment. Gray had once been notified by SOCAN that dozens of his songs had been uploaded with the wrong IP (intellectual property) number.

“We’re trying to clean up the process of data management in songs, while at the same time linking a global community, because it’s collaborative,” says Gray, the founder and chairman of Songistry, which developed MDIIO. “If we can help find opportunities, that would be amazing too.”

Those opportunities are numerous: A user can post a project to MDIIO’s community, privately or publicly, and can customize it.  For example, he or she can look for instrumental music for a documentary; search for four- or five-star rated songwriters and ask them to submit songs; post the payment amount; and even license music directly from within the application. “We do all of the transactions within it, so for the user who’s licensing the song to you, they don’t have to pay a lawyer, and you don’t have to pay agency fees on top of that,” says Gray.

Songistry debuted in 2013 under Gray, who later brought in tech-savvy Albertan Curtis Serna from the energy and gas sector, as President and CEO, and the concept evolved. The new MDIIO service is an acronym for Music Data Information In and Out.  He’s hoping it catches on, with users saying, “Oh, did you MDIIO the song yet?” in the same way people now use “Google that” or “Shazam it.”

“Our number-one goal with MDIIO is to help everybody in music build viable opportunities and networks to help really propel their careers forward.” – Songistry’s Justin Gray

MDIIO is beneficial to any and all songwriters, he says, no matter how prolific or accomplished, and is offered absolutely free to SOCAN members with a six-month activation code: SOCAN6FORFREE.

“It doesn’t matter if you’ve written 10 songs, or 1,000, or none,” says Gray. “It works on so many levels. We try as much as we can to link any of those songs that you’ve written to potential opportunities that may be out there. Maybe there’s an opportunity to place a song on a TV show, or to place a song with an artist. Maybe you’re living in rural Saskatchewan, and you create music, but there’s somebody who writes Spanish lyrics in Majorca. We’re really trying to encourage collaboration on a global level, and connect the dots.

“Of course, anything that you collaborate on, within this connection that you’ve made through MDIIO, hopefully we can help monetize that relationship down the line, so it’s really about creating.

“I’d rather not use the term ‘social network,’ because it’s not, but [we’re] creating this global community where we connect people to people, songs to opportunities. And it’s not just songwriters. The platform is meant to encourage music supervisors to come on, and there’s huge advantages for them. We have music publishers and record labels who are already using it.”

Songistry logoDuring the soft-launch of the past four years under the Songistry name, the service acquired 1,500 users in the beta phase, and converted half of those to MDIIO users, says Gray. “We haven’t done any branding on it,” he says. “We haven’t done any marketing on it. We really wanted to take the time to make sure that it worked. These early users were people that were founding users, legacy users, that we felt gave us a good base for expansion.

“If you’re in a writing session with two other songwriters, and one writer is using MDIIO, that’s the best kind of marketing that we can have, because it’s validating a platform to other users, from somebody that’s already on our platform within our community,” Gray explains.

“We want to use the word ‘community’ because that’s really what it is. For us [songwriters], you can kind of use Facebook and LinkedIn and Soundcloud in a sort of inelegant manner to try and do this; we just wanted to put it into one very cohesive, very robust application that’s fun and sticky. It creates a deeper level of communication between collaborators, and opportunities.”

MDIIO makes its money from subscriptions – which offer users even more opportunities for networking and uploading more songs, for example – and collects a commission of any placements that comes through the site.

“I wanted to make sure that the percentages that we take are less than what those percentages would be in the real world,” says Gray. “For example, there are a lot of placement companies here in the U.S. and everywhere in the world where they’ll take up to 50 per cent of any placement fees that they would get on a song.  That feels absurd, so we wanted to make sure that we cut that percentage down to as low as 20 per cent.

“So if someone is paying a subscription fee, and they get a placement, that comes down to 20 per cent, one time. We want to also act as a temporary publisher for somebody, if somebody’s in the middle of going from a publishing deal to another one, and they need someone to help administer their copyright, then that percentage reduces down to 10 per cent.

“Obviously I wish that we could be philanthropic in that way, but we do need to keep the lights on somehow,” says Gray. “We feel that this is the least we can do in order to help build our platform, and help it grow… We can provide these sorts of recurring administrative deals, so if a songwriter wants us to administer their copyrights, we can do that, and in 30 or 60 days – or whenever they want to end that deal, because they’re doing a new publishing deal somewhere else – they can just let us know, and get their rights back.

“We want to be very transparent.  We really are trying to help songwriters. Our number-one goal is to help everybody in music build viable opportunities and networks to help really propel their careers forward. Songwriters, artists, managers, labels, publishers, and music supervisors alike. Too many, songwriters especially, feel a sense of helplessness after they’ve finished their recordings. ‘What now?’ is a common phrase I encounter daily. MDIIO will close that gap for everyone.”

“After each show, there’d be this guy who’d come to me and say, ‘You made me cry with that song for your son.’ I don’t want that anymore,” says Dany Placard matter-of-factly. Spring has not sprung, but for Placard it’s time for a spring cleaning, and that starts with the songs that make up the singer-songwriter’s repertoire. “A lot of them I got rid of,” he goes on, as if to underline the musical and lyrical departure of his splendid and surprising sixth solo album, Full Face.

Dany PlacardWe reach him in Paris, where he’s touring as the bassist for Laura Sauvage during her European stint. He undertook his spring cleaning before getting on the plane… He bought all of his albums on iTunes “because the actual CDs were stored in [his managment team] Costume Records’ offices.” Out of his entire repertoire, he picked 25 songs, many of which he’d never played live, and some even dating back to his first solo album, 2006’s Au rang de l’église.

“I listened to everything. So, see, songs like ‘Santa Maria’ [2014], or ‘Au pays des vieux chars,’ my ‘country-er’ songs, if you will, they just don’t fit in my universe right now,” he says. “Same for the more personal songs I’d written on Démon vert [2012], the songs for my kids… I don’t feel like making people cry anymore. I want to take them with me on a journey. I want to move them, but in a different way. I want to make them think. About the lyrics. All that has a lot to do with depression.”

“That” refers to Full Face, a recording that was necessary to Placard’s mental health. A record that’s a reaction to his previous records, and to an entire year spent in the studio working on other people’s music. “I did eight productions and lost myself in the process,” he explains. “When you produce, all you do is listen to other people talk. Then, you put your ideas on the table, but in a messy way, trying all kinds of stuff. It’s draining.”

To shake off his studio funk, he needed to get back to writing. That finished him. “I said to myself at some point: You need to start writing. And that’s how I ended up not wanting to go out anymore: no happy hours, or record launches, or anything else,” says Placard. “I spent a good three months at home with just my family. They’re the ones who helped me, who made me want to smile again.” From this professional and creative exhaustion came a record “that I’m proud of, now”, says Placard, assuring us that he’s now doing well.

The songs on Full Face are like nothing we’ve ever heard before from Placard. Yesteryear’s folk-rock and country have disappeared. “I’ve been wanting to do something more ‘out there,’ more grandiose,” he says. “I wanted strings and keyboards, I waited to used keys, because they’re back in fashion now.”

But above all else, he forced himself to write differently. “As soon as it started leaning towards folk, I left the song behind,” says Placard. “I tried composing with guitars I didn’t use for that activity before. I bought new ones, I tuned them differently. As soon as I hit a familiar writing pattern, I moved away from it immediately.”

The same was true for guitarist and co-composer Guillaume Bourque, the only member left from his old band. “He bought a four-string, baritone guitar, just to see if he could write differently, to break his old habits,” says Placard. “I would come up with a basic idea, a musical theme I’d come up with on the guitar, and he would try to come up with a different one on top of it. He would say, ‘Let’s try and add a chord or two in there, just to break the mould, so it sounds less square.’”

Guitars are one of the key elements on this gem of an album, one that’s surprisingly groove-oriented, and miles away from Placard’s usual raw folk sound. Two-thirds of the album tackles, head-on, the depressed state he was in for a few months. Despite that, he insisted on creating an album with luminous music, despite the dark lyrics.

“I said to the boys, look, we all know how I’m doing,” says Placard. “You’ve read the lyrics and heard how I sing them, but I don’t want us to go there musically. I don’t want a musically ‘deep’ album. I want something dynamic, rhythmic – there are even some world-music rhythms on there.”

The spring cleaning isn’t over yet, says the singer-songwriter who believes that Full Face – and his burnout – is the beginning of a new creative cycle.

“I already have a new band project I’ve started with some friends,” he says. “I started writing new songs right away, because I don’t want to wait another three years before I release a new album. I think it’s going to move further away from folk, without becoming full-on rock. I’m 41, you know, I no longer have anything to lose. I prefer trying stuff rather than boxing myself into a crowd-pleasing format. That being said, I don’t think I’ve disappointed my audience, because I know they’re loyal.”

Photos in story by Ronald Labelle

 At 73, Robert Charlebois still is an amazing performer, in complete control of his prodigious body of work. On Oct. 16, 2017, both his immortal repertoire and the exceptional man behind it will be celebrated at the Montréal SOCAN Awards Gala.

Young Robert CharleboisOn that night, he’ll receive the aptly-named Lifetime Achievement Award celebrating the outstanding success of a SOCAN member throughout his career. To Charlebois, this honour is a wonderful recognition. “It goes to show that if there’s one thing everybody agrees on, it’s longevity,” he says. “Nobody really understands what talent is, but careers that have spanned 40, 50, or 60 years always mean something.”

Yet, in the early ‘60s, nothing hinted at such a long career for the future enfant terrible of the Québec music scene – back when he was just a piano accompanist for Jean-Guy Moreau, his friend and fellow citizen of Ahuntsic (a popular neighbourhood in the north-central part of Montréal). The latter, a singer and comedian popular on the boîte à chansons circuit, he specialized in imitating the great chansonniers. “He was very meticulous and he’d ask me to play a few tunes while he went backstage to change,” says Charlebois. “The thing is, people were there to laugh… They didn’t appreciate it at all when I sang!”

Robert Charlebois then came up with a song that was typical of the era, and classic in the sense that it was inspired both by his father’s love of American crooners like Sinatra, and hi mother’s love for French chansonniers like Charles Trenet. A fan of Chopin, he learned to play the piano at boarding school, even though he never actually learned to read the “tiny black notes,” and later discovered rock n’ roll as a teen, especially Chuck Berry and Jerry Lee Lewis. “Those are the basic ingredients of who I am, somewhere between Elvis and Maurice Chevalier,” Charlebois summarizes with a laugh.

Following the advice of Marcel Sabourin – who taught the young singer during his stint at l’École nationale de théâtre du Canada from 1962 to 1965 – to “let his creativity explode”, he wrote several songs and gave solo shows. Meeting chansonnier and poet Jean-Paul Filion in a coffeehouse would turn out to be particularly memorable.

“He saw me singing “La Boulé and got into it right away,” says Charlebois. “He told me that if I could come up with 10 or 12 more like that, he’d introduce me to this guy named John Damant. Not long after, I met with that producer in my best suit and white shoes. He said, ‘We’re not gonna make you do a 45… We’re releasing an album right away, because you’re of the Vigneault and Léveillée calibre.’ Six months later, I was back with a bunch of songs, and we recorded the whole album in a single afternoon.”

Robert Charlebois 1970sA critical success, Vol. 1 paved the way for its successor, released in 1966. Almost repudiated by its author, it went rather unnoticed and Charlebois realized he needed to change his approach. “If writing well is writing like no one else, I figure singing should be just the same,” he says. “In other words, why try to be a Gilbert Bécaud No. 2 when there’s one already?

“Back then, there was a lot of cultural entitlement going on: Bretons wanted to sing like Bretons, and we, too, were realizing that we are not French. So, on my third album, I integrated words from the Québécois patois. My writing was still between two chairs, but it didn’t sound like anything else playing on the radio.”

Determined to broaden his horizons, the twentysomething left to explore the American West over a period of three months. He was invited to stay at Michel Robidoux’s sister’s place – Robidoux was his friend, who introduced him to the electric guitar – and met several important musicians, including members of The Byrds and Big Brother and the Holding Company, Janis Joplin’s band. “That was at the height of flower power, just before the Charles Manson thing,” says Charlebois “One open door led to another, and all thanks to the international language of the blues. I was on the porch of a beachside motel, and when I heard a guitar, I’d reply with the right chord. I met people that way and, one thing leading to the next, I ended up being invited to a party at Peter Fonda’s place, and it was like the entire planet had been invited. There was food, drinks and weed for everyone! Three months later, I was back in Montréal with the same five-dollar bill in my pocket as when I left.”

Re-inventing Everything

It was with a fully-integrated desire to re-invent everything that the singer-songwriter began the writing several new songs. Alongside his commune mates, he took great pleasure in de-constructing and re-constructing sentences written by Claude Péloquin. That’s how, in a single night, “Lindberg” came to be written.

“Claude wrote on cigarette packs, beer cases, scraps of paper,” says Charlebois. “One night, the girls [Louise Forestier, Mouffe and Sophie Clément] gathered all those scattered writings and brought them to me. I cleaned it up and found an intro, and the hook. I showed it to Vigneault, and he said it was impossible to sing and that I’d never manage to turn that into music. I took that as a challenge… Louise and I sat down and found the harmony, and we sang the song to friends of Claude’s who happened to pass by. They kept asking us to sing it again, while lighting up joints. Not that I condone drug use, but I’d lie if ‘psychedelia’ didn’t play a role in how we saw music as a territory to explore. Call it a collective creation,” says the artist, whose song will also be recognized with the Cultural Impact Award, alongside co-writer Claude Péloquin, and their publisher, Éditions Gamma, during the SOCAN Gala.

Emblematic and ground-breaking, that song set the stage for the creative process of Charlebois’ fourth album, which was imbued with a sense of urgency, and involved the collaboration of a few select peers such as the Nouveau Jazz Libre du Québec quartet, Marcel Sabourin, and Gilles Vigneault, who penned the lyrics of “La Marche du Président.” “That, too, was written in a single night, and that was the time Vigneault tried weed for the first time!” he laughs. “Louise and I went to his second-story place in Québec City. I had the basic melody already in mind, and Gilles jumped right in with his pen.”

Recorded in a single night and mixed over a period of several weeks at André Perry’s renowned studio in Brossard (a suburb on Montréal’s south shore), Robert Charlebois Louise Forestier was tepidly received. “It took six months before radio got on board with it,” says the icon. “We were booed when we opened for Jean-Pierre Ferland… We were even excommunicated by cardinal Léger because of the line ‘une crisse de chute en parachute’! [In English, ‘a fucking drop with a parachute,’ but the point of the excommunication was that the swear word ‘crisse’ is derived from the word ‘Christ,’ as a vast majority of Québécois swear words are derived from the church.] On the other hand, the people who liked the album really loved it. Over in France, people saw an energy there that existed nowhere else in Francophone music at the time,” remembers the man who played the hallowed Olympia, in Paris many times in the following years, before going on tour with Léo Ferré. “I, for one, was convinced of one thing: for once, I knew exactly where I was headed.”

Robert Charlebois L’OsstidchoProfoundly changed by a Frank Zappa concert he attended, Charlebois convinced his friends Louise Forestier, Mouffe and Yvon Deschamps to create a multidisciplinary show that they would play at the colourful Paul Buissonneau’s theatre, the Théâtre Quat’Sous. Two days before the première, in May 1968, Buissonneau resigned as artistic director for the show, unable as he was to manage the troupe. “Ton hostie de show, fourre-toé-le dans l’cul” (“shove your fucking show up your ass”), he told Charlebois, who saw in that a great opportunity to re-name said show L’Osstidcho.

“He wanted us to wear small paper hats, but I’d just come from California and seen what an eclectic show can be,” says Charlebois. “He also thought we played too loud, but all we wanted to do was play some rock. We fired him and re-imagines the show by giving ourselves room to improvise. At the end of the first show, the room was completely silent for a good two minutes. We were freaking out, we thought it was the flop of a lifetime…  And then, everybody jumped up as one and applauded for about 10 minutes. We were blown away.”

That show, which was born in a turbulent socio-political context, was instrumental in Québec’s cultural awakening, on par with monuments like Michel Tremblay’s Les Belles-sœurs and Réjean Ducharme’s L’Avalée des avalés.

The Stage as a Proving Ground

The following decade, too, was to be marked by that manifest and dynamic cultural awakening. The Superfrancofête, held on the Plains of Abraham in 1974, was one of the finest examples, thanks to the presentation of a concert titled J’ai vu le loup, le renard, le lion (I’ve Seen the Wolf, the Fox and the Lion) that assembled three key artists of the Québec music scene: Félix Leclerc, Gilles Vigneault and Robert Charlebois.

“The idea was to put on a big party to celebrate our Francophone playground, regardless of anyone’s political sensibilities,” says Charlebois, who, despite many  accolades, once defined himself as “un gars ben ordinaire” (“just an ordinary guy”) in his beloved song “Ordinaire.” “I remember Félix was slightly afraid of me. He’d told Gilles, ‘I know you , Gilles, but do you think we can trust the young one who threw his drums at the Olympia? Apparently he uses drugs and all that.’ As a welcome when I went to visit him at his place, he said, ‘Park your car the other way around, it’ll be easier to leave!’ [laughs] But we ended up having a lot of fun. We got drunk on gin and tonics and we laughed a lot.”

As many artists whose popularity peaked in the ’70s, the turn of the next decade marked the beginning of a somewhat more tortuous path. “When the disco era came about, I felt confident I could get through that, but in hindsight, I can’t pretend it was a great period,” Charlebois readily admits. “I, too, succumbed to the temptation of a beatbox and synths. It was fine back then, but it’s just not my world. What I like is the cultural and character confrontations that are typical of an orchestra.”

It’s partly why the man chose the stage over the studio for most of the ‘90s and early 2000s. Only four albums of original material were released during that period, notably Doux sauvage and Tout est bien, released in 2001 and 2010, respectively, on the La Tribu imprint.

“No one expects anyone’s album anymore, and I’m no exception to that rule,” says Charlebois. “Anyway, in the era of streaming, I predict the death of the agonizing Francophone music industry within 20 years. By that point, all that will be left are amateurs who write bad songs,” he laments. “Hopefully, I can still surprise you. I’m going to New York soon to meet a producer from Brooklyn. Apparently he’s a miracle worker, and I figure that maybe meeting new people will take me in new directions.”

Until the release of that possible album, it’ll be re-examination time for Robert Charlebois. After all, 2018 marks the 50th anniversary of both that ground-breaking fourth album and the monumental L’Osstidcho, which suggests that the SOCAN Gala Awards are probably just the first few drops of a torrent of awards he’s about to receive.

But for the masked singer, those highly nostalgic anniversaries are far from the sign of a coming retirement. Indeed, the legend is touring again in France next March and April.

“I’d have gone for longer, but my musicians and wife won’t let me!” says Charlebois. “A month-and-a-half seems rather short, but to visit 40 cities, it’s not that long, especially since I can’t do one show after another as much as I wish I could. Sometimes I compare myself, and I see bands like the Rolling Stones who play a lot less shows than I do in a year, although we don’t have the same level of energy, either. Still, music is an extreme sport. And it’s the only sport I practise.”