Not even vicious Maritime storms can dampen Erin Costelo’s spirits these days. Interviewed between East Coast shows, the Halifax-based singer-songwriter/producer explains that “driving over the bridge from PEI, it felt like the van was going to blow off! My glasses flew off my head in the parking lot.

“Not much could happen that could make me [feel] down right now, though. I feel I have the best band in Canada, and I’m so happy playing with them. Everyone has an individual voice and personality, and they’re making sure they serve the songs really well.”

That band features Blue Rodeo drummer Glenn Milchem, bassist Anna Ruddick (Ladies Of The Canyon), guitarist Clive MacNutt (Costelo’s longtime collaborator and life partner), and keyboardist Leigh Fleming-Smith (Matt Mays).

These are also the players featured on Costelo’s new (and fifth) album Sweet Marie, recorded over 10 days in a timber-frame home by the ocean. Its creation is the subject of a documentary filmed by friend/peer Amelia Curran that will air next year.

Initial reviews are enthusiastic, and it was a Top Five add to Americana Radio in the U.S.. “We’ll soon tour there for a month, then Europe next year, but I love playing so much it doesn’t feel like a burden,” she says.

Costelo is rather a late bloomer as a performer. “I didn’t start making my own records until I was 30, and the playing I did was in other people’s bands, as a pianist and background singer,” says Costelo. “I always gravitated to the behind-the-scenes thing, and that’s what I love about producing and writing. With the last record [2016’s award-winning Down Below the Status Quo] and this one, though, I’ve reached a turning point in playing live. I feel really comfortable and happy there now, so you might have to get the hook to get me off the stage!”

Costelo’s skills as a songwriter and producer have long been in evidence, and are vividly showcased on the self-produced Sweet Marie. Describing her compositional process, she explains that “a lot of the writing I’ll do is at the piano. It’ll be harmonically based at first, as I’ll start with chord progressions, and sing melodies over the top of that in an improvisatory way. Lyrics come after, and I’ll edit them for a long time.

“That process has started to shift as I’ve begun co-writing more. I’ll start to think about the lyrics at the beginning, and what that song may sound like, and I’ll write the melodies and harmonic progressions based on the lyrical content. That is different, and challenging.”

On Sweet Marie, Costelo opens herself up lyrically. “As writers we sometimes filter things – ‘I don’t want to be too political,’ or ‘I don’t want to get too personal, as I want people to identify with the broader aspects of the writing.’ Here, I let that go and wrote 100 percent of what I was thinking and feeling. I think when you’re really honest in a record, people identify with it. They find themselves in the songs.

“As writers we sometimes filter things… I let that go and wrote 100 percent of what I was thinking and feeling.”

“I really wanted to be a little more vulnerable vocally here, so it wasn’t just me singing ‘big voice’ through the whole album There are moments of fragility, which I think worked well.”

That “big voice” is nonetheless a powerfully soulful instrument that’s helped her grab attention. Costelo’s eclectic musical style defies easy genre definition, and she says, “I always worry about self-description. As a true Gemini, I’ll get bored with something, then want to try something new.”

On the other side of the console
Costelo’s studio skills are placing her in demand as a producer for other artists. She helmed Kaia Kater’s acclaimed new record Grenades, and an album by Leanne Hoffman coming soon, and would love to see more women tackle production. “Without seeing a lot of female role models, women won’t make that choice, so it’s really important for women to be visible in those roles,” she says.

“I’m not offended if people put me in a genre they really like. Sometimes I get called a jazz artist. I don’t self-identify as that, but I have been influenced by it, so that’s OK. The same with soul. No-one has called me a hip-hop artist, but you never know, with the next album!” she laughs. “The ‘Americana’ umbrella has been great, as the definition of that is the influence of American music, including gospel, soul, folk, country, and jazz. That’s a nice fit.”

Costelo has recently been co-writing with Grammy-winning Gospel/soul artist Mike Farris (a label-mate on noted U.S. imprint Compass Records) and Halifax soul singer Jessie Brown. “The first person I co-wrote with was Stephen Fearing,” she recalls. “Because he’s so experienced, that was a daunting task, but he immediately made me feel comfortable.”

One Fearing co-write, “Titanic,” appears on Down Below, The Status Quo, with three others included on Fearing’s 2012 album Between Hurricanes. Another co-write, “Try Try Again,” is on Blackie and the Rodeo Kings’ album South, a delight for Costelo.

“Any time you‘re acknowledged by someone you consider great is a real thrill. So many things  can get you down in this industry, that there’ll always be something that feels like a little setback. Try to take those moments that feel like wins, hold them very closely, and remember them constantly. Right now the trajectory is up.”

Since 2016, AHI has been on an amazing winning streak.

The soulful, folk-pop singer-songwriter, born Akinoah H. Izarh (he goes by his initials, AHI, pronounced “I”), initially found his way onto a Spotify Top 50 folk playlist in 2016. Then in 2017, he won the Singer-Songwriter/Folk Award from the Canadian Songwriting Competition, and the Stingray Rising Star Award (for his song “Ol’ Sweet Day”) at the Folk Music Ontario (FMO) conference. The following year, he won the FMO’s Recording Artist of the Year Award.  Early in 2018, he was invited to play the prestigious NPR Tiny Desk Concert for National Public Radio, broadcast across the U.S. Since then, he’s been signed to the U.S.-based record label Thirty Tigers (home of songwriters extraordinaire Jason Isbell, Patty Griffin, and Sturgill Simpson, among others). He was also signed to a booking agency, Paradigm Talent, which arranged for him to open a live show for legendary soul singer Mavis Staples at Toronto’s Massey Hall. He recently performed “Made It Home” live on the national U.S. television show CBS This Morning. And he’s had his current album In Our Time submitted for consideration at the Grammy Awards. As AHI sings on the album’s opening song, “Breakin’ Ground”: “Since the blessings started pouring down / See, I’m already losing count.”

“When I wrote that, I probably wasn’t in as optimistic a situation” says AHI. “I was probably struggling, probably having a hard time in the music industry. But you’ve still gotta write those things that inspire you… You know it’s gonna come. I always knew, in my career, that when it rains, it’s gonna pour. I always had that mind-state: It’s gonna happen, and when it happens, it’s gonna happen fast.”

It couldn’t happen to a nicer guy. AHI is so guileless, genuine, and charming, — whether in his songs, onstage, or in his personal interactions with listeners, and without being too saccharine about it – that he seems to win over everybody he encounters. He’s so unpretentious that his choice for an interview location is a Tim Hortons in the Jane and Finch neighbourhood of Toronto, near where he lives.

AHI followed a unique path toward his career in music. Before he was earning a living with it, he was something of a traveler, backpacking everywhere from Ethiopia to Trinidad to Thunder Bay. It was in a small town outside of the latter, in a now-shuttered truck stop, where he broke down – then realized his life’s destiny. “It was a revelatory experience,” he says, “at that moment, where I came to grips with the fact that I’m gonna do music for the rest of my life. I was dabbling in music, playing around with it, I wasn’t taking it seriously. I wanted to travel the world. I was soul-searching. Having that breakdown moment just changed my life… [to] pushing forward, and focusing on what you can accomplish.”

“I always knew, in my career, that when it rains, it’s gonna pour.”

Propelled by his acoustic guitar, distinctively raspy voice, and an occasional “whoa-oh” choral chant, or string quartet, AHI’s music on In Our Time celebrates life’s joys, even as it acknowledges the daily struggles. He writes songs about moving forward with firm conviction (“Breakin’ Ground,” “Straight Ahead”); about social conscience rooted in daily experience, and the need to stand up for equal rights and justice (“We Want Enough,” “In Our Time”); and about how love and family are worth more than gold (“Made It Home,” “Five Butterflies”).

Family is crucial. “Every time I back-packed, the theme that I found was, stay put, go back home,” says AHI. “Stop searching, the answers are on the inside… That was always the re-occurring message that I got. So home will always be an important thing to me. Whatever home means to different people, I know we all have some sense of home. Or some sense of not having home.”

What do AHI know about writing songs?

  • “Write everything. It doesn’t matter if it feels uncomfortable, doesn’t matter if it’s outside of your genre, just write everything that comes to you.”
  • “If people don’t respond to what you’re creating, keep creating. They will respond, at some point, if it’s honest.”
  • “Before you write your songs, have ideas written down, and make sure you’re editing, and editing, and editing… You can always write something better.”

Trying to maintain his own home – with his wife/co-manager Ashaten, and their three young, home-schooled children – AHI is starting to navigate the process of touring without them. On the road at his level, bringing them along would erase any of the living that he’d make to sustain the family after the tour ends. So he’s feeling out the situation for now.

Happily, he can take the family along for songwriting trips, and write mostly at home. “I have a book of titles,” he says of his writing process. “One day I went through the dictionary and I wrote every word that I thought sounded cool. On my computer, I have a folder of, just, lines. I’ll just write a line, or a sentence that sounds cool. I have another folder of melodies, and I dream a lot of melodies. At some point, some of these things should all fit together somehow. Mainly, I’ll pick up my guitar and play… If I have a melody, I‘ll try to figure out where it is on the guitar. Or I‘ll start strumming my guitar and something will just come out. It used to be rare for me to have lyrics, and then write music to them, but now I’m more open to doing it that way.”

Working in Nashville changed his songwriting perspective, too. “I always say, before going to Nashville I was writing songs, but after coming back from Nashville, I became a songwriter… [They write with] efficiency, creativity, everybody’s working fast, go-go-go, but they’re also creative, and willing to try things… and it’s not just country. Every person who goes, and plays on country albums, has a passion for some other kind of music.”

Having already accomplished so much, what’s next for AHI? In early 2019, he’ll be the opening act for Lauren Daigle and Scott Mulvahill, on a national tour of soft-seat theatres across America. Like the song says, he’s still breakin’ ground.

Through his ultra-realistic and deeply touching stories, Matiu has created his own furrow of protest songs, far from grand political theories, and close to what makes the people of his community, Maliotenam, tick.

“I’m interested in the human side of people,” says Matiu. “I observe what goes on around me, and I express my humble point of view as sincerely as I can,” says the 32-year-old Innu artist, who sings in French, English, and in his native tongue, on his debut album Petikat – which means “slowly” in Innu.

Matiu (a.k.a. Matthew Vachon) has a raw and uninhibited writing style that’s disarmingly natural, and shines through in his music as much as it does in an interview. The opening song on Petikat, “Jean-Guy,” attests to his talent as a lyricist, and his ease in conveying his daily life. It’s a nod to a cousin who had to overcome drug problems, and it presents the dilemma that many people face in his community, a reservation of 1,300 people located near Sept-Îles, about 10 hours Northeast of Montréal.

“We have to choose between staying on the reservation, or leaving,” says Matiu. “We’re confined to an area about two square kilometers, we don’t see much… And often, people aren’t even aware of their potential. All they can see is a job as a carpenter, in a mine, or at Wal-Mart. You might find a kid who loves video games, but that’s all it’s ever going to be, a game. No one will ever tell him that he could be the one designing the game!”

In a way, “Jean-Guy” is also a discussion Matiu had with himself. Captivated by music ever since he bought himself a guitar in his early twenties, it took a while for him to believe in his own capability. “I didn’t know where to go, what doors to knock on,” he says. “I was quite disconnected.”

Supported by friends who constantly congratulated him, and spurred him on, the singer-songwriter participated in the second season of the TV show Le Rythme, “a kind of Star Académie for First Nations,” that aired on the APTN channel in 2016. One of the judges of this competition was Steve Jolin, the founder and director of the labels 7ième Ciel and 117 Records. “He really dug what I was doing,” says Matiu. “He didn’t sign me on the spot, but he followed what I was doing.” In the months that followed, the young man proved a standout performer at the Festival international de la chanson de Granby and in the Chansons rassembleuses component of Petite-Vallée. “He saw that I was interested in music,” says Matiu, “and that my interest was genuine, so he signed me to 117 and we got our subsidy… From that moment on, I had no choice but to make an album!”

“I call it bipolar folk.”

After breaking onto the scene with his first, eponymous EP in August 2017, Matiu has now spent the last few months working on Petikat. For this carpenter by trade, and father of a five-year-old daughter, the challenges were plentiful. “My work in life is doing renos with my bag of nails and steel-toed boots,” he says. “Let’s just say I don’t have a habit of opening myself up that much! And there I was, having to write songs, not knowing if they were any good, or even relevant… Plus I didn’t want to offend anyone in my community, and I wanted to avoid making big statements. Sure, there’s a level of protest in my songs, but nothing extreme or nasty.”

Co-produced with Luc Charest – a member of the now-defunct band Kalembourg, whom he met “in another life” (when he worked as a stagehand in Sept-Îles over a decade ago) – Matiu’s debut full-length album is firmly rooted in the North American folk tradition. “I call it bipolar folk,” he says. “I’m very much a guitar-and-voice guy, I was raised with Cat Stevens and Neil Young. But when the time came for me to find my style for this album, I didn’t want to hide my other influences. It goes from ZZ Top on ‘Nuitsheuakan’ to Red Hot Chili Peppers on ‘Far Away.’”

So far, Matiu’s bipolar folk has made an impact on the youth in his village. But his music has yet to make an impact on neighbouring communities, at least not as much as another Maliotenam band – Kashtin – did 30 years ago. “Where I’m from, people who go see a show at the community centre want to dance,” he says. “I rarely see shows with chairs, or other types of events that would fit with my type of music. Ultimately, it’s a bit as if I was offering a new style. People often say that what I do is ‘refreshing.””

Just back from a four-gigs-in-four days “tour,” including an album launch performance during Coup de cœur francophone in Montréal, Matiu remains very realistic about his ambition. “I for real don’t have any expectations,” he says. “And besides, I don’t have a lot of free time to embark on a lengthy tour. What matters the most to me is to stay close to my tribe, and the landscapes that inspire me.”