Foreign Diplomats“I really enjoy reading album credits when there’s a ton of guest musicians and collaborators alongside the band members,” says Élie Raymond, the chief songwriter for Foreign Diplomats. The indie pop-rock band, from the Laurentian mountains of Québec, has just returned from a European tour and will hit the road in La Belle Province to promote the songs on Monami. It’s their latest album, launched last summer – and it has plenty of those musical encounters so dear to the singer-guitarist.

There is, indeed, a lot to read in the credits of Monami, the band’s second album since Raymond founded the band in 2010. There are friends a-plenty, starting with Elliot Maginot, who officially does backing vocals on four songs, “but he’s all over the album,” Raymond says. Choses Sauvages’s Marc-Antoine Barbier and Philippe Gauthier Boudreau also appear. “They’re very good friends, we’ve even been ‘studio roommates,” says Raymond. The Therevox synthesizer, which offers the very first note on the album opener “Road Wage,” is played by Besnard Lakes’ Jace Lasek.

Inviting so many friends into the studio “gives the whole thing a collective feeling,” says Raymond. “One of my favourite bands is Broken Social Scene, and there’s so many members in that band, plus all their friends that pitch in during the recording of an album. I really dig that. It adds different colours of voice and instrumentation.”

It lends a project more of a festive spirit, which is something Raymond and his Diplomats colleagues – Thomas Bruneau Faubert, Tony L. Roy, Charles Primeau, and Lazer Vallières – insisted on, in order to broaden the horizons of the band’s sound.

Raymond considers Monami “much more luminous than our first album [Princess Flash, 2015], which was a total breakup album. It was dark and bitter from beginning to end, but this one is considerably lighter.”

Monami was written on the road, Raymond says, adding that it’s about “being in love or wanting to find love, yet being afraid of being in love. We sought a more dynamic sound, because Princess Flash was very claustrophobic. We opened ourselves to poppier choruses, and opened the studio doors to our friends, so that they can come and play with us – so that people would hear that we had fun recording this.”

Monami is indeed the complete opposite of their first album. There’s an obvious smile in Raymond’s voice when he sings the band’s shameless pop songs, with catchy choruses. There are brass, strings, and synths peppered throughout the groovy rock numbers; they were written to please, but manage to avoid clichés, even though that’s what the singer-songwriter was aiming for.

“Sometimes, you can’t over-think things when you’re writing a song,” he admits to have finally understood. “Increasingly, I try to write in a simpler way, and stop looking for deep metaphors,” citing “Fearful Flower” as an example, the album’s closer – which ends with a French verse: “Ma fleur/Oh oh/Je t’aime à la folie/Mais tu as peur de ton ombre…” (My flower / Oh oh / I love you like crazy / But you’re afraid of your own shadow).

“That’s one of the first songs I wrote, fully intending to keep things as simple as possible,” says Raymond, who adds that he found inspiration in Québecois folk tales, such as Chasse-galerie, which is referred to in the song’s English lyrics (“Flying boat, where will you land?”). “I love the work of artists such as Bill Callahan, his lyrics are so simple, yet so well crafted. I also love Silver Jews,” he adds, referring to the band of singer-songwriter David Berman, who died suddenly in August of 2019, saddening Raymond. It’s obvious even to an untrained ear that he’s a big fan of the Beatles, his voice even sounding like that of Paul McCartney.

“I make demos of the album’s songs that I then send to the rest of the band, and the whole team,” he says. “We’d then go over them to fine-tune [the songs], and find what each song’s hook would be. The whole album was a quest for striking melodies, and we even re-worked the lyrics the find the right word to sing in the right spot.

“Lately, we’ve been composing together, because we feel like creating sonic experiences rather than well-crafted songs. We’re trying to do new stuff with our instruments so that we have a better direction when the time comes to write new songs. It’s tinkering, major tinkering!”

After a quick perusal of the compositions Jared Miller lists on his website, it wouldn’t be a stretch to presume that “no” might not be a part of his vocabulary.

Jared Miller

Jared Miller, left, having fun with the orchestra.

With 43 works listed, starting with solo piano works in 2006, there aren’t many kinds of commissions, long or short, full orchestra or small ensemble, that the 31-year-old (now living New York) hasn’t refused. Fresh off a trip to Spain, where he led the National Youth Orchestra’s performance of his SOCAN Foundation/NYO-commissioned piece, Under Sea, Above Sky, the globe-trotting Miller is on the phone from Nashville. There, two days hence, he’ll witness the U.S. première of Ricochet – Reverb – Repeat with The Nashville Symphony. (That piece was commissioned by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada, for the Victoria Symphony.)

Born in Los Angeles, Miller’s family moved to Burnaby, B.C., when he was one year old. He stayed in the province for the next 20 years, and did his undergraduate work at the University of British Columbia. “Then, much to my surprise and delight,” he recalls, “I got into Julliard for the Master’s program. So, I moved to New York nine years ago to do my master’s there, and I also got into their Doctor of Musical Arts program. I continued there for another five years, and have been freelancing ever since.” From 2014 to 2017, when he earned his doctorate, he was Composer-in-Residence for the Victoria Symphony, commuting back and forth between New York and B.C.

It’s not that Miller’s goal was simply to be productive; the consistent quality of the work puts lie to that notion. In 2012 he won both the ASCAP Morton Gould Award and the Juilliard Orchestra Competition (for 2011/2012), and he has three SOCAN Foundation Awards for Young Composers (2011, 2015, and 2019).

How does he explain his relentless creativity? “It’s part of my personality that I can’t focus on one thing for too long,” says Miller. “As a result, I sort of take on many different projects, sometimes working on some at the same time.” But it’s not just the quantity or quality of Miller’s work that’s most exciting. That element is provided by the eclectic creativity and wit of the composer.

Traffic Jam, his first commissioned work, was for the 2010 Vancouver Winter Olympics. One might think that a newbie composer with his first big paying gig would write something serious, monumental, and somehow heroic in nature for such an epic athletic event. Instead, “I wrote a satirical piece about the traffic and construction problem that Vancouver was having as result of the Games,” says Miller. Since then Traffic Jam has been performed by symphonies all over the world.

In 2017, commissioned by the Toronto Symphony Orchestra (with an assist from the Victoria Symphony), he wrote Buzzer Beater, an aural ode to the Toronto Raptors that has the musicians mimicking the horns and whistles of an intense basketball game.

Also in 2017, Miller was hired by the Detroit Symphony Orchestra to write a piece, which he called Lustre. “[I was] given carte blanche to write whatever I wanted to,” he says. “For that particular piece, I did a bit of research on the rich musical history of Detroit.” Focusing on the precursors of modern EDM, Miller delved into the sounds of the early House and Techno dance music, which were invented in Detroit. “I tried to re-imagine and re-create the different techno sounds you’d hear in the techno track, but in an orchestral context,” he says.

Over the next several months Miller will be making appearances across Canada (Oct. 27 in Hamilton, Dec. 10 in Montréal, Jan. 29 in Winnipeg), and you can be sure he’ll be conjuring up more than one new project while on the road. “If not working on several pieces at a time I’m always thinking about several pieces at a time,” the prolific composer confesses. “I’ve noticed that that’s how I work best.”

Ajay Bhattacharyya hopes he doesn’t have a signature sound. The B.C.-born (now L.A.-based), Grammy-nominated songwriter and producer – who goes by the name Stint – has been making music for almost a decade. And with some of the biggest names in the business, too, from Demi Lovato, Carly Rae Jepsen, and Lana Del Rey to Gallant and NAO. But that success, according to him, is because of his ability to grow, adapt, and continually experiment.

“As soon as I notice myself doing one thing too much, I try and squash that, because I never want to become predictable or boring,” he says. “I’ve made a conscious effort over time to try and shed any ego when going into sessions, because I want to be there for the artist to fully realize their sound and style. If I’m bringing too much of who I am into the room, it stops being as much about them, and I’m not into that.”

Bhattacharyya’s malleability can be traced back to his origins, when he attended Vancouver Film School. Originally, his goal was to “get a job working in audio at a videogame company doing sound effects,” but music soon found its way into his career, when he was asked to soundtrack a friend’s film. “From that point, I just kept tripping and falling into more music gigs,” he says.

Stint’s work now spans songwriting, producing, mixing, re-mixing, and engineering – an all-in-one package. But songwriting seems to be the part he’s most passionate about, because “it’s the area I’m still the weakest at.”

So far, he says the biggest lesson he’s taken, from working with others, is that less is more. “Creating a sense of expectation and then surprising the listener,” he says. “And making sure there’s connection between the vocals and the listener, like the feeling that they’re singing directly at you. Most of my favourite pop music has that quality to it.”