Seldom has such unanimous praise been lavished by the public, the media and the music industry on a group’s début album. All it took the Gaspé duo of Stéphanie and Mélanie Boulay to become the sensation of the Quebec music scene in the first half of 2013 was a recording titled Le poids des confettis (The Weight of Confetti), a 13-song album, mostly of their own composition.

Some might call this instant success, but it didn’t quite happen that way for the young sisters, if you factor in some 10 years of trial and error, and considerable touring experience as backup singers for major Quebec artists. Les Soeurs Boulay needed that exposure to hone their distinctive sound and develop a sparse writing style that goes straight to the heart.

Mélanie: “We started singing when we were little girls. We both sang in the school choir and sometimes performed duos at the end of the school year. Later, we went our separate ways, but both of us studied music. Stéphanie sang on tour for Kevin Parent after her graduation in Montreal. I was already writing songs on my own, and Steph too. It was really hard – nothing sounded right. We had yet to find our sound. The Soeurs Boulay project was born sort of accidentally a couple of years ago. We recorded a Simon & Garfunkel song, “The Boxer,” and posted the video online. Some of our friends told us it was great stuff, yet it was just this thing recorded on Steph’s computer. The sound was really poor, but people wanted to hear more!”

Stéphanie: “So we decided to put a show together! One thing was for sure – we did not want to sing covers. Instead, we took some of Mélanie’s songs and some of my own and worked on our vocal harmonies. Our repertoire of original songs had reached a total of about ten songs by the time we took part in the Francouvertes festival last year. The next thing was to set some time aside for us to write during the tour that followed. It was intense, but we were eager to ride the wave. We felt the wind was on our side. For once in our lives, everything was nice and easy! People offered to help us find venues – how could we let the opportunity go by?”

Paroles & Musique: Much has been made of your professional experiences with major stars like Michel Rivard and Kevin Parent. What did that bring you?

Mélanie: “Mostly a close look at the music industry. Watching those people with years of experience continue to give their all to their music and their concerts was an inspiration to us – we could see that they were in this business for the right reasons. Sometimes when it gets too involved and we’re tired, thinking about this helps us put things back in perspective. We’re so lucky to be able to make music!”

Stéphanie: “But these experiences also left traces musically. As backup singers, we had to come up with new harmonies almost on a weekly basis, which was great training for us. We sang for Dany Placard, Chantal Archambault, Alex Nevskyall this repertoire was new to us, and now it’s part of our musical background somehow. Today we try to refine our vocal harmonies so that they are not always a third above and below the lead vocal melody – we’re introducing more unison singing right now. One thing you learn from working with other artists is to how to listen and know your place. While they are singing, you need to pay attention to rests, so you can catch the ball and throw it back. We do the same thing with our own music now – it’s airy, it’s got some breathing space. It doesn’t have to be crowded all the time.”

P&M: You perform two songs penned by Stéphane Lafleur of Avec pas d’casque. How did this come about? Why do these songs suit you? Performing third-party material is a double-edged sword, since it may invite comparisons.

Mélanie: “We really wanted a Lafleur song, so we approached him. He turned us down initially because he was too busy, but he called us back after a couple of weeks to see if he could learn more about us so he could feel more comfortable writing a song for us. We confided in him for two solid hours, as if he was someone we’d known for 10 years! Finally, he went, “OK. Let’s write a song.” He put words in our mouths that we would not normally have had the nerve to use in a song addressed to a guy, like ‘Take off your clothes!’”

Stéphanie: “It’s like he helped us take our art further because what we’d planned to do on this album was to stop censoring ourselves and be as real as we could possibly be – vulnerable and strong at the same time. Our other new songs were all about assertiveness and the quest for personal identity, and we had felt that Lafleur could provide us with words that we would not have the guts to write, but wouldn’t mind singing. For us, there was no shame in having someone else write something for us because, although we’re keen on making it as singer-songwriters, what we really, really enjoy doing is perform lyrics we love and can identify with.”

This summer, Les Soeurs Boulay performed as part of the Montreal FrancoFolies festival as well as in the concert presented by this year’s finalists in the Francophone version of the SOCAN Songwriting Prize before the opening of the festival on June 12 at L’Astral. In July, they had dates in France and Belgium, including an appearance at the Francofolies de Spa. In the fall, it will be Quebec’s turn – and the duo has bookings until 2015! That’s what you call entering people’s hearts through the front door.

Unheralded, Stéphane Côté started making his way from Quebec City to the larger world of show business some 20 years ago. Yet, although he managed in that period to shine at music competitions, release album after album, work with major artists, perform extensively here and in Europe, collect more than his share of kudos and attract a solid fan base, this 41-year-old self-taught artist remains insecure to this day.

“I’m never quite sure,” he candidly admits, “particularly where I am concerned. Things are going slowly, but they are going. Someday I’ll just have to come out of my cocoon.” Quite the understatement when you consider that Lynda Lemay, another seasoned singer-songwriter, was moved to tears when she was offered an opportunity to sing “Au large de nous” (“Away from Us”) with him on Ballon d’héliHomme, his fourth and most recent album.

Côté’s lingering self-doubts may well go back to his childhood years in a household where both parents were deaf and where there were no words and no music. “My decision to become a songwriter may have been a reaction to that. I’ve always been fascinated by words. When I was 14, a friend gave me a guitar and taught me my initial chords. However, I only wrote my first songs six or seven years later. For me, writing my own songs was a formidable prospect.”

In the meantime, Côté performed covers of songs by Paul Piché, Michel Rivard, Beau Dommage and Jim et Bertrand before discovering the work of French singer-songwriter Georges Brassens, his ultimate inspiration.

“That did it,” he explains. “I learned to sing all the tunes of his compilation albums by heart. I thought his lyrics were so right – simple and complex at the same time.”

Gradually, Côté started composing original songs, but had to wait for five years before finding the nerve to perform then in public, notably at the Saint-Ambroise and Granby music competitions and festivals, where he reached the finals and the semi-finals respectively.

“I couldn’t believe it! Then I took part in other competitions, played bar gigs and ended up competing at the Petite-Vallée festival, which I won in 1999 at the age of 28. This is when I realized that the universe was sending me a message and that I was meant to keep going as a singer-songwriter.”

Rue des balivernes, his first album release on the Studio Sismique label (the first single was fittingly titled “Chemin d’escargot,” or “Snail Road”), was critically acclaimed, if only for its bright lyrics, and its release was followed by more than 150 concerts in Quebec, France, Switzerland and Belgium.

Discovered by producer Marie Bujold, who took him under her wing, Stéphane’s songwriting career was underway, and he never stopped writing or composing since. “I have a daily routine. I get up early, make my coffee, start looking for excuses, and eventually sit down to write for three to four hours. I always start with the melody and add the lyrics later on without worrying too much about length. I write about states of mind, about feelings, about the things that make me laugh or cry.”

As if by accident – it’s funny how talent attracts talent – Côté soon began partnering with recognized creators. First, there was Réjean Bouchard, who produced the shifting ambient atmospheres of Le Cirque du temps, Côté’s sophomore album. Then there was Alain Leblanc, who toured with him from 2007 to 2012, helped him “become comfortable on stage” and went on to arrange and produce Des nouvelles, his third opus. Ballon d’héliHomme, which was released last spring, was produced by Éric Goulet because Stéphane “felt a need to be more spontaneous with more introspective tunes. I now realize that people really identify with what I am going through.”

Côté’s folk and country sounds and colourful lyrics deal with topics ranging from relationships to human behaviour to the meaning of life. “I wrote ‘Du soleil et du vent’ (‘Sun and Wind’) at a time in my life when I felt a great need for space and light,” the songwriter recalls. “The lyrics of ‘Une lettre’ emerged as a tribute to the late Bruno Fecteau. ‘Ballon d’héliHomme’ is all about disillusion, but it ends on a hopeful note, with the prospect of madness as a refuge. In a way, it’s the album’s flagship piece.” One of the album’s cuts, “C’est vrai,” a piece about love and friendship, is a duo with Brigitte Saint-Aubin.

Going forward, Stéphane Côté plans to continue to explore his gifts as a lyricist. “I would like to write for other artists, as I did before with the young Valérie Lahaie and with Lina Boudreau,” he says. But not immediately. Right now, Côté is committed to successive tours of France and Quebec, but you can bet that the titles of his fifth album will soon start floating around in his creative mind.

“I want well-matured songs,” he cautions. “I don’t feel like rushing into things.” A familiar refrain!

Tell us about the creation and development of your publishing company.
Éditions Dakini was born at the same time as Productions EM, the management company and label it is part of. That was in 2001, and it was obvious from the start that our publishing arm could not flourish without some form of control in all related areas.

I started out as a producer in a small town in the South of France where I programmed no less than the jazz artist Tony Pagano on the first night. Later on, my taste for music was definitely confirmed by exposure to outstanding artists such as Véronique Sanson, William Sheller and Stephan Eicher as part of special World Music Day presentations of the Taratata music show on French television. In 1997, I moved here to Quebec – I must admit that, a little earlier, you had sent me one of your best representatives, Gilles Vigneault, who was staying at a hotel in the South of France where I was working and told me all about Quebec.

In 2002, with the release of IMA’s first album, our publishing activities started expanding thanks to Frédérick Baron’s contributions as a lyricist here (for Mario Pelchat, Marie-Élaine Thibert, Bruno Pelletier, Renée Martel, etc.), but also in Europe. In parallel, Éditions Dakini developed new songwriting collaborations such as the writing partnership between Catherine Major here and Marie-Jo Zarb in France.

Then came new singer-songwriter discoveries like that of Laurence Hélie, in 2008, which yielded a debut album, an ADISQ Award and two SOCAN Awards. In the fall of 2012, I received my first SOCAN award in the 10 most performed Francophone pop songs of 2011 category for a song co-written by Frédérick Baron and Céline Dion and performed by Marc Dupré. Éditions Dakini are now expanding internationally with new singings to be expected soon.

In your opinion, what have been the most dramatic changes in music publishing in the past five years?
Needless to say, digital broadcasting and distribution have turned our work habits upside down in the past five years. Some countries have completely done away with traditional physical supports. On the plus side, this helps us reduce some costs, increase the number of promotion platforms and, in the end, discover more new artists. On the minus side, we still have a long way to go before fair management of the varied rights for the use of musical works on all of these platforms can be achieved.

What are your short- and medium-term plans for your publishing company and the authors you represent? Are you in a new artist signing mode, for instance?
Éditions Dakini is currently busy with the promotion of Frédérick Baron’s Humeurs Variables album while preparing for the release of Laurence Hélie’s next album, à présent, le passé. We are also dealing with the administrative and editorial follow-up of dozens of works written by Frédérick for other artists whose upcoming albums are scheduled for a 2013 or 2014 release. Éditions Dakini also just signed a very promising artist, Tina-Ève Provost, whose first EP is going to come out in the fall of 2013. Plus we recently signed international agreements. As for new artists, Éditions Dakini’s is constantly kept to the ground.

How about your repertoire? How do you grow and develop it locally and internationally?
Éditions Dakini represents two groups of works – those of our own songwriters that are performed by other artists, and those that are self-performed. We value good administrative and editorial management and invest heavily in the distribution and promotion of our singer-songwriters’ works. Internationally, Éditions Dakini has just signed sub-publishing agreements with France, Luxembourg, Belgium, Switzerland, Lebanon, etc. – as well as with South Korea for Laurence Hélie and Frédérick Baron.

As a music publisher, are you also a member of other organizations or advocacy groups?
As a music publisher actively involved in the creative and promotional process, I am happy to leave the representational aspects of the business to elected officials and the collectives and associations I am a member of. These are the defenders of my rights, and they have my full confidence.

What does the future of music publishing look like in regards to current technological changes?
Being an optimist, I dare hope that our governments will rapidly adapt to the digital reality and understand our creators’ financial plight. They should also recognize that culture is not a luxury, but a necessity. Without it, countries gradually lose their identities and become unable to stand out and shine internationally.