At this point in his life, Pierre Kwenders has spent as much time in Kinshasa, Congo, where he was born, than in his adopted home city, Montréal. “It’s difficult to detach myself from the city that saw me grow up, and even more difficult to ignore the fact that it’s the city that made me the man that I am,” muses the musician. As a matter of fact, he promises – in large part through his second album, MAKANDA at the End of Space, the Beginning of Time, launched earlier this month – that he’s never far from either Kinshasa or Montréal. “I pay tribute to the former and actively participate in the culture of the latter,” says Kwenders.

Four languages and multiple musical styles converge in the music of Pierre Kwenders, née José Louis Modabi’saka. No recipe, no ingredient list and no mould. He’s a noble representative of music that can’t be pigeonholed, and carries one very broad message: “love, sharing and happiness,” he says. “Because one needs to be able to love in order to share, and in sharing there is happiness. That happiness is what gets us through life.”

MAKANDA was produced in Seattle alongside Tendai Maraire, one half of hip-hop duo Shabazz Palaces. For Kwenders, therein lies the project’s distinctive character: the producer allowed him to further embrace his disregard for convention. “He’s the genius behind the project’s music,” says Kwenders. “While in the studio, we all wanted this album to be better than our expectations. The various musical layers are a way to travel to different worlds while orbiting a single sun.”

Those travels can be heard in the multi-layered music, where different styles exist in a symbiotic and harmonious way. Even those who were introduced to Kwenders as a member of the hip-hop community will be compelled by his work in what he calls “moderate hip-hop.” “As far as I’m concerned, I do pseudo-rap on songs like ‘Rendezvous’ and ‘Woods of Solitude.’”

As far as the electro rhythms are concerned, they’re reminiscent of the Moonshine experiment, a Montréal club night co-created by Kwenders that occurs on the first Saturday after a full moon. “Moonshine’s identity is very much based on fraternity, community, perseverance and sharing happiness,” he says. “That’s what I’m trying to convey with MAKANDA.”

Although the artist is at war with categories, and abhors the “world music” moniker, people still try to pigeonhole him. To him, what makes music special is that it serves the same purpose in all cultures: it comforts. “It’s with us through joy and pain,” he says. “The context may vary when one looks more closely to the geography, or ethno-musicology, but what it makes us feel remains the same in any context. I think all barriers fall, naturally, once we understand that.”

MAKANDA is what allows Kwenders to say more about it. As a matter of fact, he’s now all-in with his passion for music, having ditched his parallel career as an accountant. Through its rhythms, languages and themes, MAKANDA obviously talks about the Congo, but also about identity. And although Québec is increasingly confronted with questions about immigration, and the arrival of new cultures, Kwenders believes that music will always be the most personal expression of self. “Some will say fear of foreigners is a human trait, but I prefer to believe in the saying that goes ‘Alone we run faster, but together we travel further.’ Let’s come together and make Québec a nation proud of its diversity, rather than the opposite.”

MAKANDA, it would seem, has liberated the human being behind the artist. Kwenders has given us an album voluntarily void of musical categories, and whose complexity belies the simple message of sharing the joy. “I feel like a young boy or girl who reaches adulthood, leaves the family home and decides to tackle life head-first,” says Kwenders. “I think MAKANDA means I’m ready.”


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Ralph Murphy has been writing songs, as he likes to describe it, “since God wore short pants.” And he’s had a lot of success over the decades.

The iconic, Nashville-based SOCAN member, a 2012 Canadian Country Music Hall of Fame inductee, penned the No. 2 Jeannie C. Riley hit “Good Enough to Be Your Wife” in 1971; co-wrote (with Bobby Wood) the 1978 Crystal Gayle chart-topper “Half the Way”; co-wrote (with Bobby Wood again) the 1980 Ronnie Milsap No. 1 hit “He Got You”; and most recently enjoyed a No. 2 U.K. hit via Sir Cliff Richard, with the Paul Brady collaboration “21st Century Christmas” in 2006.

He’s also had his tunes covered by Randy Travis, the late Don Williams, Ray Price, Shania Twain, Kathy Mattea, Little Texas and – on the other side of the Atlantic – Brotherhood of Man and Vanity Fare.

So you could say that the 73-year-old Murphy knows a thing or two about songwriting – and in a career that’s lasted more than a half-century, he admits it boils down to this: the more things change, the more they stay the same.

Ralph Murphy’s five biggest tips for hit songwriters

  • You will always write the second verse first.
  • Get over it.
  • If you don’t have a personality, rent one, because personality goes a long way.
  • No unexplained details. No speed bumps. No three-syllable words in a two-syllable spot.

Use the pronoun “you” within 30 seconds for your next No. 1.

“The only things that change are vocabulary and technology,” says Murphy, whose book Murphy’s Laws of Songwriting: How to Write a Hit Song has been endorsed by some of the art form’s most celebrated tunesmiths. “Structure remains the same. The new Taylor Swift song [“Look What You Made Me Do”] is exactly perfect fourth form – it changes rhyme scheme in the pre-chorus and uses the pronoun ‘you.’  The bridge – or what I call ‘the two-minute wall’ –  is right on the money.”

Murphy – whose Picalic Group of Companies joint music publishing venture with Roger Cook also scored a No. 1 with Crystal Gayle’s version of another Bobby Wood co-write, “Talking in Your Sleep” – hosted a SOCAN House Song Camp at this year’s BreakOut West conference and festival in Edmonton last week.

SOCAN picked more than a dozen songwriters to attend this interactive workshop. Murphy had a game plan in motion: “I look at all the No. 1 records from last year, and the way that they’re structured,” he says. “I then listen to all the participants’ songs, make them re-write them that day and play them first thing in the morning. And then I give them an assignment based on structure and a title – all the same title.”

Murphy will be listening to a dozen or more songs with the exact same titles, to discover just how closely his students follow his instruction. “Every single one will be different, which is fascinating,” says Murphy.

Murphy, who was born in Saffron Walden, England, before he emigrated to Canada at the age of six, was 16 years old and living in Wallaceburg, ON, when he got “floored” by The Beatles, just like everyone else. Only he decided to move where the action was when he hit 19 in 1965

“The only things that change are vocabulary and technology. Structure remains the same.”

“I got a one-way ticket on a boat going to Liverpool,” he recalls. “It was The Kinks who wandered into a club where Jack Klaysen and I were playing. After the show, they said, ‘You guys are really good – what are you doing in Liverpool?’ And I said, ‘That’s where it is – that’s where all the shit is happening over here.’ And they said, ‘No – they come here and sign us and we go to London, where all the studios, and managers, and producers, and record companies are.’ I said, ‘Well, we’re screwed – we’re almost broke.’”

The Kinks’ roadies offered the duo a spot in their van, which was traveling to London the next day at the ungodly hour of 5 a.m. “Jack and I took the offer,” says Murphy, “and three months later we had a record deal with Tony Hatch producing. He taught me so much about songwriting.”

The duo signed with Pye Records, with Murphy landing a Mills Music publishing deal. They were known as the Guardsmen, and later the Slade Brothers, and opened for U.K. tours by The Byrds, The Walker Brothers, The Hollies and Wayne Fontana & The Mindbenders.

In 1969 Murphy moved to New York and ended up producing April Wine’s 1972 classic album On Record – featuring their first two national hits, “You Could’ve Been a Lady” and “Bad Side of the Moon.” He also produced the follow-up, Electric Jewels, and later did the same for Canadian acts Mashmakhan, Shooter, and Brutus, among others.

Then Nashville unexpectedly beckoned. “I accidentally had a country hit – I was drawing on my Wallaceburg roots – and I had a huge No. 2 hit with Jeannie C. Riley called ‘Good Enough to Be Your Wife,’” Murphy recalls. “I won an ASCAP Award for it in 1972, and flew down to Nashville because I had never been. I fell in love with the town. I was just having children and the kids were getting mugged in the playground. Everyone and everything said, ‘Go to Nashville.’”

Upon landing, Murphy discovered a universal truth about songwriting. “The structures that I’d been taught in England, that worked in pop and rock ‘n’ roll, also worked in country,” he says. Murphy identifies seven of them in Murphy’s Laws and says that only three forms are used effectively. He also knows whether a song has the potential to be a hit in the first 60 seconds of hearing it. He says the only aspect of songwriting that his hit formula doesn’t pertain to is electronic dance music, because it’s “generally 120-130 beats per minute, and is made for people who are dancing.”

Murphy says the best time to write is in the morning, when ideas are fresh. “Late at night, when alcohol is added to the equation, and drugs, and whatever, you lose your focus. It becomes more personal,” he says.

“Impersonal music is what I write, because it can be taken anywhere by anyone. They’re anthems. Every day I want to write the ultimate song – one that will invite people, that will include people, that will make them feel loved and make them want to sing it.”


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Call it a case of no musical holds Barred. As is readily apparent on their new, third album, Queens of The Breakers, there’s no readily identifiable signature to the sound of Montréal-based trio The Barr Brothers. It’s a freewheeling, eclectic amalgam of many different styles, from rock to folk, blues to world music.

To singer-songwriter and guitarist Brad Barr, principal architect of their sound, “these elements are all getting filtered through my kaleidoscopic lens, and that ties them together. That’s a more abstract thread or centre point than what The Ramones were working with, for example.

“When I was developing as a musician,” says Barr, “I really opened myself up to everything, from straight-ahead bebop, to Hindustani classical music, to punk rock.

“For me, there’s a thread through most of it that many people would call the blues,” he continues. “I rarely use that word, as it implies an African/American South style. For me, it’s a cross-cultural feeling that exists in so many kinds of music, from Japanese to Malian to Moroccan. It’s that pentatonic trance/droning thing, and I feel that’s where my musical heart lives.”

“Everybody needs some kind of centre. I’ve never been a fan of really progressive or complicated music. It has always come back to something reduced, which allows either the improviser or songwriter to expand upon it in the moment.”

Joining Brad in the band are his brother Andrew (on drums) and Sarah Page (on harp), and the group’s music is published by Secret City Publishing. Their 2011 self-titled debut and 2014’s Secret Operator both earned international critical acclaim, with the latter becoming a genuine breakthrough record, notching more than 60 million combined streams.

“You keep singing it in the hope that a lyric arrives and points the way for a song.” – Brad Barr of The Barr Brothers

Brad explains that, going into Queens of the Breakers, “our only real aesthetic target was to make something a little more buoyant than the last two records, something that didn’t feel as weighted down, or over-contemplative.”

A different approach to the songwriting was taken too. “With the earlier records I always came to the band with the songs more or less finished,” says Barr. “Then it was a matter of everyone applying their impulses to those songs.

“Here, we really went at it as a group, just improvising for a month,” he continues. “We found a little studio in a remote Québec cabin and we’d do week-long stretches, improvising around the clock. A lot of the basic sounds and the songs’ DNA came from that, which I then took and tried to shape into songs.

“It was rather the inverse of the other records, in that sense. It proved to be difficult for me, as I was used to starting a song on my own, in a private space. This time it was, ‘Now we have this riff or vibe, and I need to figure out what this is, and how to sing on it.’ It could be a melody that spins as you’re walking around doing your daily things. You keep singing it in the hope that a lyric arrives and points the way for a song.”

As on the earlier albums, the group invited other players and harmony singers to flesh out the sound, but Barr stresses that a lot of the work was done in the group’s studio as a trio.

“We wanted to check what that music sounds like,” he says. “It was also important for Sarah to redefine her space. Since the last record, she had made a huge leap on the harp sonically, mostly based on some technical discoveries on how to amplify the sound. She was interested in seeing what that was capable of within a trio context.”

It’s been 12 years since Brad and Andrew Barr re-located to Montréal from the U.S. Raised in Rhode Island, they were based in Boston with their previous band, The Slip. They’ve since become popular members of the city’s musical community, and have planted strong personal roots.

“I now feel legitimized in saying I’m from Montréal,” says Barr. “I took it one step further by buying a house with my brother here. We both have children with Canadian wives, so it doesn’t look like I’ll be heading home anytime soon!”

He does admit to increased reflection upon his troubled homeland these days. “That feeling has started to take hold,” he says. “It didn’t for a while, as I was just happily swept up in the love I had for Montréal, and the community I was becoming a part of, and the freedom of this city.”

Analyzing the impact of Montréal upon his music, Brad explains, “it comes down to the people we’ve met and the musicians we’ve played with. People like the Patrick Watson and Plants and Animals guys. There are good allies here, people who encourage you, and things that keep you going, and working, and motivated, and feeling good, and that allows you to blossom as an artist.

“The vocabulary and works of Leonard Cohen likely wouldn’t have become such an influence on me if I hadn’t moved to Montréal. That one majesty alone has inspired me a lot.”

Barr also cites his late friend Lhasa de Sela as another inspiration. “When I was writing the second track on the new record, ‘Look Before It Changes,’ it was so clear to me that that was her effect on me.”


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