The 2023 edition (and 10th Anniversary) of the Gala Country, which celebrates the Québec country music community – is upon us! Here are the five SOCAN members nominated in the Breakthrough Artist category.

Justin Legacy

Justin LegacyJustin Lagacé changed his stage name to Legacy, something that’s easier to sell abroad, and he comes from the same country stronghold as Ghys Mongeon, who was among SOCAN’s new faces of country in 2020.

Legacy looks more like Everlast than he does Laurie Leblanc, or Matt Lang – each of whom looks exactly like what we imagine a country singer would. The artist from the Outaouais has an exceptional baritone voice, one that commands  attention, and serves as a major asset that he welds to his hip-hop roots. What we have here is a singular, innovative, and fresh artist in the country ecosystem.

“I’ve always listened to country music,” he explains. “I’ve been playing music since I was 12 years old. Now I want to make new country in English. And it’s really important to me that you don’t hear a Francophone accent. When I sit down to write, it feels like my pen naturally gravitates towards English.”

Now 24, Legacy’s experience as a semi-finalist on La Voix (the Québec franchise of The Voice TV singing competition) in 2019 taught him a lot. They’re incredibly long days, but Éric Lapointe put a lot of trust in me,” he says. “We even worked on a country cover of a Colocs tune. But through it all, I stayed true to myself.”

Two EPs – Tempted, Pt. 1 and Pt. 2 – revealed an initial bundle of high-quality songs that would feel right at home on American charts. They were released by Balistique musique, a label founded by former Montréal Alouettes football player Étienne Boulay, and top-tier producer John-Anthony Gagnon-Robinette. One listen to “Broken Man” and “Small Town Prayer” and you’ll have no doubt about his future.

Francis Degrandpré

Francis Degrandpré

Another former contestant on La Voix three years ago, this Berthierville-born artist has garnered six nominations. The 30-year-old songwriter took an unpaid leave of absence from his job as a correctional officer to devote himself entirely to country music.

“Country music chose me, but I was on the fence: do I sing in French or English?” he says. Inspired by the new country sounds of Americans Luke Combs and Morgan Wallen, Degrandpré finally chose French, “but I was afraid my songs would sound corny,” he says. It appears singing in the same language as Oscar Thiffault is far from a heresy.

Released in May 2022, his album Soir de quai gave him wings, and his songs “Ta toune préférée, “Colorado,” and “Bang Bang” have resonated strongly throughout Québec. “I like sentences that aren’t too polished, just as if I was talking with my buddies. I think we found the right recipe,” says the guy who defines himself as a romantic seducer, with a cavernous voice.

He introduced himself at Montréal’s Corona Theater in March of 2023. “I felt I was on the right path when I realized the audience knew the lyrics to all 11 of the album’s songs, and not just the three on the radio,” says Degrandpré. Then, on August 18, he became the first Francophone artist from Québec to play on one of the two main stages of Montréal’s Lasso festival.

Sandrine Hébert

Sandrine Hebert Things didn’t let up for Sandrine Hébert after she was a contestant on the 2022 edition of the Québec TV singing competition Star Académie. Averaging three shows a week, she gives more than 150 performances a year. Beside being nominated in the Breakthrough Artist category, she’s also on the ballot for the People’s Choice Award.

“I truly felt the impostor syndrome when I heard the news,” says Hébert. “I wondered if I truly belonged in that group.” Born in Coaticook, a city in Québec’s Eastern Townships, this singer-songwriter was still working with horses at a vet not that long ago, but she quickly made a ton of contacts, and now manages to earn a living from her shows. But not yet from her songs.

Star Académie made me want to create original material,” she admits. “Toby Gendron and Sylvain Michel helped me with the creation of my song ‘On part s’une ride,’” she says. “I needed tools and I knew it. The melody that I was offered was the inspiration for the lyrics. “Comme des fous” (2023) is more nostalgic and visceral, because I’m singing about my dad, and it’s a nice continuation alongside “Noël chez nous,” says Hébert, about her three most popular songs to date.

“I’ve been making music for four years, and I can feel I’m not at my full potential yet,” says the artist, who admires Canadian country singer Jess Moskaluke. “It’s hard for me to sort through the various styles you can hear in my music.” Her first EP will be released in 2024.

Guillaume Lafond

Guillaume LafondGuillaume Lafond is nominated in several categories – Contemporary Country, Songwriter, Song of the Year, Album of the Year, Male Vocalist, and Breakthrough – and is at the peak of his career (so far) with his excellent song “Rien à faire,” a fearsome earworm.

Born in Saint-Constant, and now based in Richelieu, the 2021 Star Académie alumnus has joined forces with Mario Pelchat (2Frères, Paul Daraîche, Guylaine Tanguay) to give us a more intimate country flavour. Accompanied by his acoustic guitar, Lafond’s reassuring voice floats over musical structures that are airy and bluster-free. His album, À destination, has also been nominated at the ADISQ Gala.

“I’ve loved country since my teens, and giants such as Hank Williams, Johnny Cash and Merle Haggard all touched me with their truth-filled songs,” he says. You clearly understand that the man places a lot of importance in the authenticity of his message and craft.

His creative partner is David Laflèche, a musician who delighted everyone two years ago by leaving behind the TV shows where he was a regular house-band musician to launch the very intimate Every Day Son. “We listen to the same type of country music,” says Lafond. “David doesn’t mince words, and didn’t hesitate to change lyrics here and melodies there; I’m super-open to that,” he adds, with the humility of a beginner.

“We completed the album in three weeks,” he says. “David enlisted veteran Nashville musicians like Russ Pahl, who plays pedal steel. The result is 10 country, folk, and rock songs, my first compositions and my first 10 songs in French. I found inspiration in stuff that happened in my own life. It’s my story, ultimately.”

Isa Morin

Isa MorinIsa Morin’s first, seven-song EP, Je t’aime comme ça, was released in 2023. It’s an excellent showcase of full potential for the Beauce-born singer-songwriter, who writes her country, folk, and pop songs with her life partner.

Morin, previously a contestant at the Festival international de la chanson de Granby and the Cégep en spectacle contest, is also a survivor: she had a brain tumour removed in 2020.

“You must always push forward,” she says. “That health scare got me in touch with my emotions, and that influenced the way I write songs. I’ve started writing them on my own, but I write way better when I’m working from a melody. It had been 25 years since I’d written song lyrics. I wanted to write with greater eloquence, so I took classes in writing circles. Each text is rooted in an emotion. It’s important to me that my songs are unlike any other; I want to avoid the comparison game.”

The recording process during the pandemic took about two months. One of her favourite songs, “Hockey Mom,” came quite naturally: “We had one hour left in the studio. We recorded my voice with and without music. It was an unlikely moment that changed a lot of things, because I’d been singing alone with my computer for six years!

“I was brought up listening to our local country radio, and my father is a singer, and so was my grandfather.”

Gala Country, 10th edition (2023)
Hosted by Guylaine Tanguay
October 26, 2023, Club Soda, Montréal


Arielle SoucyArielle Soucy introduces multiple versions of herself on her first full-length album, Il n’y a rien que je ne suis pas. Following two English EPs, Shame and Waterway (2020), and Unresolved Collection (2021), her debut album gives us a glimpse into her French writing through words imbued with an appeasing melancholy where sadness is distilled in profound reflections that she delivers as if they are mantras.

The precise idea for the project’s title came to Arielle Soucy after seeing a drawing by American artist Sister Cody on Instagram: “He advocates multitude, a way of being many things,” she recalls. “He drew a picture of two characters talking to each other. One says Who do you think you are? and the other replies Who do you think you are not? I thought it was full of truth. If you allow yourself to judge others about something, it’s probably because you can’t accept that you carry it too,” she explains.

Music entered her life as early as primary and secondary school and it is through musical theatre and the various instruments of the school band in which she played the flute that she was introduced to the stage. Later, studying classical singing at Concordia University, she fine-tuned the facets of her voice in order to better understand and use it at her will. “I was still a brat, she giggles. I took jazz singing classes on the side. I wanted to know the classical technique, but in the end it just confused me. It’s only when I finished school and took a break that things fell into place.” Once she was equipped with the necessary tools, the singer modelled her own voice: “It took a while, but everything was thought through,” says the singer who has a voice that is truly distinct from anything we’re used to hear.

In her lyrics, the singer-songwriter evokes the most incommensurable questions (the lyrics have been freely translated, here): “Am I alive? Will I have enough time?” she sings on Pardonne-moi, or “Daddy, do you know I’m the one who cared for your cat after you died? Do I have to believe in God, believe in God, so you are still with me?” she sings on Élégie. But beyond all the questions, there are just as many affirmations that resonate like massive doubts that penetrate us and get stuck in our minds through sheer repetition: “I might be loving you—I can’t be sure, if it’s a game I don’t think I will win,” on Talk To Me (this lyric is in English on the album), “I’m wandering around a little washed out, a little lost in my timeline. I don’t think I’ll ever be by your side,” on Ottawa, “Bottle me up so you can pick one thing at a time and round out life with lightness and forget my name,” on Une chose à la fois.

Click the image to play Arielle Soucy's "Il n'y a rien que je ne suis pas"

Click the image to play the Youtube video of “Il n’y a rien que je ne suis pas”

And Arielle doesn’t just switch from French to English from one song to the next; she also does it within her songs. A good example is the album’s title track which begins in English before switching to French. “It can be a little treacherous at times, but I started writing it in English and I thought the sentence There is nothing I am not was just as beautiful in both languages. I just didn’t want to choose.” And although she had never released French songs before the ones on this album, people who heard her sing in French spurred her along to dot it again. “It was a challenge for me, but I was committed to write one song in French for every song I wrote in English,” she explains.

Carried forward by the necessity of channelling emotions that were, at times, still raw, she admits the creation of her album was all about letting go. Co-produced alongside Alexandre Larin (Larynx), all the songs had been constructed solo on the guitar by Arielle. “It was hard to let someone in,” whispers the artist who self-produced her previous two EPs. “Alexandre helped me push my songs a little further. I needed another weirdo like me who does everything all a once.”

While some start with the music and others with the lyrics, Arielle Soucy starts with the feeling. It’s therefore an impression, an emotion or a sensation that becomes the core of what will come next. “I love writing lyrics, but it’s harder than writing music, for me,” she confides. “Words are there to complement the emotion, which is almost always a kind of sad-happy nostalgia.” Automatic writing is at the root of many of the album’s tracks, yet there had to be an intense period of pondering after she opted to work on a typewriter. “You type words and can’t remove them,” she exclaims. “There’s something about the machine that clarifies your intention.” And of all of the songs in her repertoire, Pardonne-moi is the first she mentions when asked what text she feels is the most important she wrote. “I can’t believe I wrote it,” she admits. “It’s about thoughts that invade us and take over and prevent us from being clear. And as long as you don’t have clarity, you’re unable to know what you need.”

At the antipode of self-censorship, she is constantly pushing herself to write, morning, noon and night, even if it is just a few words in a notebook, because those words could become important, down the line. “I wrote a lot of songs with a looper,” Arielle Soucy explains. “It has given a certain flavour to my songs. I like working from something short, a melody or a sentence I like, and build on that. I like canon music, harmonies, and bass riffs that repeat endlessly.” Her lyrics and the way she delivers them thus become intertwined as she manages to harmonize her own voice over and over again, giving the impression she has countless backup singers. Similarly, words and sentences are repeated as if they contained a secret message that we will come to understand if we just think about it a little longer. And that is how, without any form of premeditation, Arielle Soucy’s songs find their home: they inhabit us.

Dominique Fils-Aimé was supposed to be on tour when she found herself flat on her back, bed-bound. The Montréal-based singer-songwriter was injured, and forced to cancel tour dates. But as she focused on recovery, and feeling “gratitude through the pain,” something wove its way to her: her fourth album, Our Roots Run Deep.

Dominique Fils-Aime, Our Roots Run Deep

Select the image to play the YouTube video of the Dominique Fils-Aimé song “Our Roots Run Deep”

“It came out in one shot – in a week,” she explains, at the Dark Horse Espresso Bar, during a recent trip to Toronto, “in the order that’s now on the album. I could tell what the story was. It was from the roots, all the way up to feeling that the plant world was us [humans], ending with me as a plant in the sunshine.” Fils-Aimé tilts her head back and smiles. “I imagined the little leaves on top of the trees taking in the sun. That’s how I knew it wasn’t just me, but spirit.”

Our Roots Run Deep begins her second trilogy, and this time, it’s all about her deep connection to Mother Earth as a healer, and source of inspiration and love, as well as the heart chakra. The chakra system has driven the energy behind Fils-Aimé’s work from the start, and she often uses it, and visual art, as initial stages to tap into an album’s theme, message, and energy. Her first trilogy began with the blue and blues-inspired Nameless (2018), to the fiery-red, jazz-driven, and JUNO Award-winning Stay Tuned! (2019), to Three Little Words (2021), and its sunlight-yellow theme that celebrated soul, disco, and freedom. Today, it’s all about green, blossoming, and the heart.

“In the past, I took everything I could from emotional states,” says Fils-Aimé. “Resilience was a huge inspiration for me. It was about meditating on how our roots [African Diaspora] go way deeper than the 200 years of trauma we went through. There’s way more inter-generational wealth than trauma, and this is what we use to heal, and ensure that the trauma and the joy can co-habitate.

“There was way less brain work,” she continues. “Less reflection, more feeling, love. It’s all the heart. I feel that, for the first time, I was truly open and vulnerable, in a way I haven’t necessarily been. I was maybe 75, 80 percent in the past, but now I’m getting to 95, closer and closer. And that’s the journey.”

Fils-Aimé has become known for her petal-like layering of vocals, all of which she tracks herself, including the masculine voices. She also continues to work with Jacques Roy, who helps translate the emotion of her songs into instrumentation. “He’s been directing from the beginning, so he knows me well,” she says. “He does the upright bass, as well, on the album. And he’s kind of a translator to the musicians. Since I don’t write music, I’ll say, ‘I want to feel this,’ and then he’ll translate it so musicians get it.”

What are the challenges of being a Québec-based artist working to break out in Canada (and the world)?

“Truth be told, I know I haven’t really felt confronted by these challenges, because my manager was probably facing them for me, while I was focusing on the music. I’m definitely grateful for that. Something I do believe, though, is that starting local, and growing as organically as possible, will lead to the music reaching outwards, in due time. Allowing the team to build, at the same pace as a community of listeners who truly connect with the artistry, is worth giving it time. They’ll both be needed to establish stable and long-lasting relationships with new territories.”

She also cites the inclusion of percussionist Elli Miller Maboungou and trumpeter Hichem Khalfa as important collaborators on Our Roots Run Deep. “I wanted to make sure there was percussion on this album to bring us back to the roots,” says Fils-Aimé. “And the trumpet to be another voice singing, so that we remember that voices can come in all shapes and forms.”

Fils-Aimé released her first EP independently in 2015, after having no luck signing to a label. That all changed when she met EnSoul Records co-founder, Kevin Annocque, and she’s been signed and managed by the label since 2016. She now sees her body of work reverberate among fans who find it a healing balm in a trying world. “Meeting people who say, ‘I felt this way,’ or ‘I needed a boost, and I listened to that song,’” she sighs, “I can cry. It makes me feel like, OK, I’m not insane. It’s not in my mind. Music has this power, and I will continue to use it, because if you do it for the right purpose, it will pick up somewhere. That feels amazing.”

And for Fils-Aimé, it’s this healing nature of art, song, and music that she hopes to inspire in others. “There’s a story of a hummingbird who sees a forest burning,” she says, likening her work to the parable, “and he gets this little drop of water, and the other birds laugh at him and say, ‘What are you doing?’ He replies, ‘I’m bringing my drop, and if we all bring our drop, we might put out the fire.”’ She smiles thoughtfully as she concludes. “Every drop matters.”