It seems appropriate that our conversation with Alex Cuba comes exactly one year and one day after the acclaimed singer-songwriter from Smithers, BC, won his first-ever Grammy Award. That was in the Best Latin Pop Performance category, for the album Mendo, and came after three earlier nominations.

“I found out [that I won the Grammy] in the most Canadian way possible, driving home in a snowstorm,” says Cuba. “I’d just played two symphony concerts in the Okanagan, beautiful shows that made me feel properly back onstage after lockdowns. Some areas lacked cell service, so my U.S. publicist couldn’t reach me. When he finally did, he said ‘I need a quote. You just won a Grammy!’”

Cuba is no stranger to awards. He’s previously won four Latin Grammys, including a Best New Artist nod in 2010, along with two JUNO Awards, and, most recently, a 2022 SOCAN Hagood Hardy Award.

Alex Cuba, Quiero Quedarme

Click on the image to play the Alex Cuba video “Quiero Quedarme”

He’s certainly not resting on his laurels now, with multiple projects on the go. His first release of 2023 is the track “Quiero Quedarme,” the third advance single from an EP arriving later in the year.

“I see this project as a perfect marriage between my organic vibe and the electronic elements,” says Cuba. “During the pandemic, as I was building the album that won a Grammy, I started writing these songs I saw as having an electronic soul feel.

“It’s a completely solo record, with one voice, one guitar, and at least 20 songs. This is connected to my recent solo tour, which was so inspiring. I’m doing this because I’m concentrating on songwriting.  Everything you hear now is so hook-focused that the art of writing songs, with bridges that feel natural, seems to be becoming rare. For this acoustic album I already have seven pieces recorded. It will be primarily Spanish, as I want it to be very honest and soulful, and that’s easier with my mother language.

“One of the most important things to me in music is melody,” he continues. “A melody can contain huge amounts of information, and it’s capable of making people feel something. I believe that’s why this solo Canadian tour I just finished was such a success. It was just me onstage, and people were crying, laughing, having a blast.

“I believe melodies are the gift in music. You can spend three months, or years, writing lyrics to a melody that you have. Most people can do that, but the melody is the true gift, the one that comes from you don’t know where.”

“My fans stay because I keep them guessing where I’ll go next”

Cuba continues to challenge himself musically, as is showcased on the stylistic variety of his catalogue – one that features Latin, soul, pop, and rock elements. “My biggest pride in music is that in eight albums, no song of mine sounds like another,” he says. “My fans stay because I keep them guessing where I’ll go next. That’s a healthy thing for a musician and songwriter. If you only do one kind of music and you get your fans used to that, then when you want to do something different, you’re trapped. I’m so happy to have that freedom creatively.”

Unlike so many peers, he has reason to feel grateful for the pandemic. Unable to maintain his usual busy touring schedule, he took the opportunity to build a home studio, which has provided a huge boost in his creativity.

“I recorded Mendo, the Grammy-winning album, in my living room,” he says, “but I’ve now turned our garage in the back into a studio. It has a stable temperature, so my instruments stay in tune. I get lost in there, and that’s so inspiring.”

Aaron Miguel, La Aguja

Click on the image to play the video of Aaron Miguel’s “La Aguja”

This new facility gives Cuba the opportunity to pursue some of the production work he’s now being offered. “What I’m proudest about with my Grammy is that it says ‘Alex Cuba – Artist, Producer, Engineer,’ so it feels like three Grammys in one. The morning after I won, I was flooded with texts and e-mails from artists wanting me to produce them. I’m looking forward to spending more time at home working on productions, while being careful that it never feels like a job.”

Some ongoing production work has been with Aarón Miguel, an artist Cuba signed to his record label, Caracol Records. “I’m also finishing up music for Mi Tierra- Homeland, an audio book by David Lindes, an American friend of mine,” says Cuba. “It’s a brilliant book about migration trauma, with songs to the stories, and I’m adding instrumentation to, and producing, those.”

He’s also excited about yet another future project. “You’re the first person to know about this, and it’s called Voices of My Family. I’m recording songs with members of my family, and I see this as a potential mini-documentary, where I travel to Cuba to record and film more.

“I hope I can keep borrowing from the infinite universe of music. I believe music is the biggest gift we have.”

In 2018, Bonsound, one of the most important corporate entities on Québec’s music scene, decided to grow in a new direction: music publishing. The organization tasked Marie-Ève Rochon, their experienced booking agent, with developing the new department. And she did: “what I like about the world of publishing is that there’s no two days that are alike,” she says.

Bonsound was already involved in album production and marketing, concert production, and career management. Music publishing – a rapidly growing field, thanks to the many opportunities available to songwriters through synchronization (the use of music in screen productions) – thus completes the range of services offered by the company, which celebrates its 20th anniversary in 2024.

As the licensing and publishing executive for Bonsound, Rochon learned the ropes of the business as she was building her new department. As she started, she “signed up for a training session offered by the Association des professionnels de l’édition musicale [APEM] and I learned a lot from that,” she says, also acknowledging the importance of the person she refers to as her mentor in the business, David Murphy. His experience as a music publisher led him to found his own company specializing in music and screen rights management, and who assists Bonsound with its administration.

Bonsound, Marie-Ève RochonRochon offers some insight into the thinking of Bonsound’s founders that led to the development of the publishing department. Various factors emerged with the transformation of the music industry, starting with the need to diversify the company’s revenues. “We got a Gold record with one of Lisa LeBlanc albums, but we’ll probably never see that happen again,” she explains. The decline in record sales revenue spurred record labels to rely more heavily on show production, and look into synchronization.

What’s more, “Established publishers already manage huge catalogues of works,” says Rochon. “We felt there was room for us to offer support to Francophone artists, which, in parallel, allows us to get involved in the creative side of songwriting.” Which they did by organizing song camps with musicians from the Bonsound roster.

“There’s nothing redundant in the publishing trade, not even the administration side of it,” says Rochon. “But as far as learning the trade, I took advantage of the structure that was already in place at Bonsound, which is where I learned accounting,” a skill that’s essential to publishing. “I don’t find it boring to make sure everything is properly declared, following up on requests, etc. I was lucky because I started from scratch in publishing, but I had experience and a structure behind me.”

The job of a music publisher, essentially, is to develop and exploit a catalogue of works; at Bonsound, that’s roughly 500 songs by 20 artists. But this approach is measured in terms of dissemination as much as in terms of income, and nowadays, a large part of that happens through placing songs in advertising, and film and television productions. This means the success of a publishing organization depends in part on how close its ties with those sectors are.

“Bonsound has invested a lot of energy in international development over the last two or three years,” says Rochon. “We participate in a lot of networking events and showcases to get in touch with music supervisors” – who are key players in the new music economy, acting as brokers for music used in screen productions.

Rochon says she receives about 30 music requests (briefs) a week from music supervisor with whom she’s in contact, looking for the right song for a new TV series or ad. Most calls originate in L.A., and the rest are from the rest of Canada, and Europe. It’s essential to prepare playlists specific to the needs of music supervisors, and to be pro-active and pitch them new works by artists represented by Éditions Bonsound.

“The important part is establishing and maintaining contacts,” says the publisher. “We’ve created a newsletter for our music supervisors, where we inform them of our new releases. Canvassing is a long-term job, and the risk of boring our music supervisors is very real, because you can imagine those individuals are constantly solicited!”

In five years, Rochon’s work has paid off. “But I still see the department as a start-up,” she says. “We’re brand new in the publishing world, so we’re still in the investment stage. It’s something we’re building slowly, but it’s promising,” she says, mentioning that Bonsound has also built a dedicated website for music supervisors.

Her work is also accomplished through a synergy with the label’s other departments. “When you get a sync project, it’s very useful when that artist’s manager is sitting at the desk next to yours!” says Rochon, who also collaborates with songwriters. “There’s still a lot of education to be done with artists about the role of the publisher,” she acknowledges.

“And also education on being well-equipped. For example, when an artist is recording an album, we’ll recommend that they make sure they have the instrumental versions of the songs, or the stems,” separate tracks of the elements of a song that are easy to share. “That’s very important when you want to get in the world of advertising.”

Eight years is an eternity in hip-hop. It’s even longer in Canadian hip-hop. And yet D-Sisive, a self-identified “43-year-old Canadian dad,” is on a quest to become “the most famous-est rapper in the world.” If that wasn’t audacious enough, the artist born Derek Christoff claims he can do it in three months’ time.

Never mind that Christoff announced that goal… three months ago. The point, for the Polaris-longlisted and JUNO-nominated rapper, was to set a goal that could kickstart the creativity of an artist who once dropped two albums a year between 2008 and 2014. In 2009, he won SOCAN’s Echo Songwriting Prize (now without the “Echo” in its name)  for his song “Nobody With a Notepad,” co-written with Rob “Muneshine” Bakker, from a shortlist that included Joel Plaskett, Land of Talk, and Timber Timbre. He’s likely the only rapper to have had both Ron Sexsmith and Fucked Up’s Damian Abraham guest on his records. Now D-Sisive is on track to release two EPs a month, while posting podcasts and vlogs, and hosting monthly Zoom listening sessions with fans, all part of a subscription project he calls Knoblich Gardens.

D-Sisive, Knoblich Gardens, Episode 1

Click on the image to play the video for Episode 1 of Knoblich Gardens

Despite his bold, WWE-kayfabe-style boasts, Christoff is realistic. “Music has changed completely in the last eight years,” he says. “At my peak, I was in the conversation: not that it means anything, but I was in the CBC lists and Vice articles about Canadian rap. Now: it’s like I was never there. Everything is different: from the sound of the music, to sub-genres of hip-hop, even down to people who work in the industry. I feel like a brand-new artist starting at zero.”

He’s taken an extended break before. An acclaimed battle rapper in the late ’90s, he laid low for six years while battling depression. When he returned in 2008, it coincided with a slowly evolving addiction to Percocets, which he’d been prescribed after a brutal bout with mononucleosis in 2005. The son of an alcoholic, he didn’t drink or do any kind of drugs before then, not even painkillers. Like many people, he didn’t realize that Percocets are not unlike synthetic heroin. He soon learned that his siblings were also using, and he now had access to a cheap, steady supply.

“You’d think my siblings would try and talk me out of it, but it turned into an enabling situation,” says Christoff. “I could have said no. But my life was turning dark. My dad was getting sicker, his addiction was getting worse, and these pills became an escape for me. Things slowly progressed. It wasn’t like I dove in really quick.”

The addiction and other life events caught up to him after 2014’s Raging Bull EP. He checked into rehab in 2017 and was determined to start recording again. His doctor advised him to slow down, and not risk a relapse. Instead, Christoff took a factory job with a 5:00 a.m. shift and focused on family life as the father of three daughters. It wasn’t until October of 2022, during a weekend getaway with his wife, that she advised him to put up or shut up: “I don’t want to hear your ideas anymore!” she told him. “I want to hear you rap.” Two days later, he posted a video to social media announcing the ambition of the Knoblich Gardens project. Fifteen minutes later he got a message from Muneshine, his longtime collaborator. “So, uh, yeah, I just saw your post. You’re fucking insane. But let’s do this.” Three weeks later, the first EP dropped.

Around that time, he posted a before-and-after picture on Instagram: on the left, he was a drug-addled disaster from years past; on the right, he was clean, had lost weight, and was the proud father of twins. He then got a DM from a fan, whom he’d met on University Avenue in Toronto the day he checked himself into rehab in 2017. The fan wrote, “Your music helped me get through dark times and shitty moments in my life. I’d always wanted to meet you. As we were exchanging words on the street that day, all I could think was, ‘I don’t think he’s going to live much longer.’ I wanted so badly to take a picture with you, but I couldn’t do it, because I didn’t want that to be the last memory of someone I admired so much.”

D-Sisive, Knoblich Gardens, Episode 2

Click on the image to play video for Episode 2 of Knoblich Gardens

Now that he’s back in the game, he’s heard his share of naysaying. “I have friends who say, ‘No one wants to hear someone rap at your age.’ And I’m, like, ‘Where is that proven?’” He cites the third-act career of El-P, the 48-year-old who now headlines arenas as half of Run the Jewels. “El-P has proven that age doesn’t matter, as long as you make amazing shit that people can relate to. Maybe young kids don’t want to hear old rappers if they’re not delivering anything they want to hear.”

Despite likely industry perception, there’s an audience of older hip-hop fans who appreciate someone with life experience: 43-year-old rap fans exist, so why can’t a 43-year-old rapper succeed? “I don’t know who created this narrative that you turn 40 and you don’t listen to music anymore, you just sit in silence and stare at the wall all day,” says Christoff. “I also have 23-year-old people who listen to me, and I know that because I get messages from them – but they have to go digging to find me.”

On one of his recent podcasts, Christoff said, “I haven’t made so many mistakes – I’ve made every mistake.” Asked about that directly, he laughs and says, “That’s my life. That will be on my tombstone. As long as you learn from those mistakes, and don’t make them again.”