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.”


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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.”


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SEAN LEON

Prolific, Toronto-based rapper and screen director Sean Leon boasts an artistic range and clear-eyed vision that sets him apart, with a style that changes all the time. He founded an artistic collective called IXXI, or The Initiative, in 2012, and has now seen that bear fruit with the 2017 breakthrough success of his colleague and friend Daniel Caesar. Leon’s relentless, obsessive love for music translates into his songs, and he often makes dark aesthetic choices in his music that can be powerful and affecting. Originally from Toronto’s Eastern suburb of Ajax, he dropped out of high school to pursue music, and often spent more than 20 hours each day in the studio. He’s confident, brash, even arrogant—and his new audio/screen project, CCWMTT, released late in 2017, is poised to break him through to widespread commercial success in 2018.

 

 

BÜLOW

Bülow is a 17-year-old artist currently finishing high school in the Netherlands, but planning to move to Canada. Born Megan Bülow, she’s also lived in Germany, the U.K., and the U.S., and began busking on the streets of London, England, when she was only 11 years old, and was discovered at a summer camp in 2016. Her first release, “This is Not a Love Song,” racked up thousands of spins on SoundCloud and earned playlist action on Spotify, despite her being a virtual unknown. After writing and recording with producers in Toronto, London, and The Hague, Bülow has released her debut, three-song EP, Damaged Vol. 1, and her bouncy, catchy, subtle electro/R&B/pop songs are gaining some serious traction. She’s already begun earning rave reviews and drawing tens of thousands of listeners for her immediate, honest songs, and has recently signed a deal with Canada’s Wax Records.

 

 

JOE COUPAL

Fresh out of college, Joe Coupal went straight to work with award-winning Toronto music/post-production audio house Eggplant LF, editing music and scores for television series. After several years spent editing, mixing, and arranging screen music written by other composers, Coupal seized the opportunity to attempt his own submission for an onscreen song. It’s a testament to his talent that he won this first pitch he ever composed, for the hit original Netflix series True and The Rainbow Kingdom –  the creative team for which includes Pharrell Williams’ i am OTHER (sic) company. After he won the pitch on his single episodic, call-to-action song (“The Wishing Tree Song”), the impressed True creative team decided to have Coupal and Eggplant submit theme ideas as well. His work earned him first prize in the animated category of the 2017 SOCAN Foundation Young Audiovisual Composers Awards. Coupal’s success has only grown since then, and looks to continue to do so in 2018.

 

LOUD

The tsunami prompted by the late-2017 release of Une année record (A Record Year), the rapper Loud’s first solo album, shows no sign of abating, as evidenced by the frenzy surrounding his sold-out concerts, and his ever-increasing buzz online. By all accounts, 2018 is the year when the Québec rap scene will anoint this versatile singer-songwriter, who initially made his mark as one-third of Loud Lary Ajust. France is also hungry for him, and his album will be released there thanks to a partnership with a Universal subsidiary. In other words, he’s poised to have…  a record year!

 

 

 

 

ELI ROSE

Having emerged into the public eye as on- half of the duo Eli et Papillon, her participation in SOCAN’s very first Kenekt Québec Song Camp, in 2016, literally changed the course of her career. Thanks to Kenekt, she met Marc Vincent (Ruffsound), Mike Clay of Clay and Friends, and Étienne Dupuis-Cloutier (DRMS), and later Jeff Marco Martinez Lebron (Realmind). This group became the core of a new urban-music sound, an irresistible pop/hip-hop hybrid, of which her single “Soleil” was only the first shiny glimpse. This explosive piñata is about to burst wide open in 2018 – and not just at home in Québec, but overseas as well, where Rose has already generated a lot of interest.

 

 

 

 

GEOFFROY

The Montréal songwriter and multi-instrumentalist is the perfect example to prove that an international development strategy, carried out with determination and conviction, always bears its fruit when one has a solid musical offering. Since the release of his 2017 debut album of sophisticated electronic pop, Coastline, Geoffroy has crossed many an ocean and border, and has developed a taste for such travel. Already, his 2018 calendar is quickly filling up with European, American and Canadian gigs. He’ll also set some time aside to write and produce new material, which should be out in Spring, as well as a sophomore album slated for late 2018 or early 2019.


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