In this digital day and age, with a music industry that continues to feel a little weak in the knees, a fresh-faced new band on a major label will sometimes only get one album to make their mark or forever be cast into obscurity. But in the indie music world, you can actually chart a band’s slow growth as songwriters and then hear them truly galvanize as a band.

Halifax-via-Montreal group Wintersleep’s current and fourth release New Inheritors is easily the band’s crowning moment. The bandmembers finally seem comfortable in their own Chuck Taylors, and the album boasts lush and dense arrangements that still allow them to stretch out. “We were really able to feel different areas and go places we haven’t gone before for this record,” explains singer and guitarist Paul Murphy. “It’s really important for us to push ourselves into uncharted waters. We really don’t want to do the same record twice, so if we get into similar ground or if it sounds like we’re starting to repeat ourselves, we generally won’t go down that road.”

“It’s really important for us to push ourselves into uncharted waters.” – Paul Murphy

With the success of Wintersleep’s third album, 2007’s Welcome to the Night Sky, the world quickly came knocking on its door. The group won a 2008 Juno Award for Best New Band and was hand-picked by Sir Paul McCartney as one of the opening acts for his show on the Halifax Common in July 2009. The hugely successful song “Weighty Ghost” was included in the book The Top 100 Canadian Singles by Bob Mersereau in 2010, and was featured on the TV series Being Human this year and the movie One Week in 2008..

Consequently, the group toured so much that it began almost literally living out of a suitcase. To most songwriters, the road can be a creative vacuum of long drives and busy days, the climate for songwriting being much friendlier in small bedrooms in front of flickering computer screens or in dank rehearsal spaces with overflowing ashtrays. Wintersleep – all of whose four members are credited with songwriting in the band – managed to do the impossible within the tour cycle, carving out half of the songs on New Inheritors during sound checks and the rare day off.

“It can be hard trying to concentrate on writing while being on the road, because it can be so draining and you’re really just focusing on the shows,” says Murphy. “Whenever we’d have a couple of days off or a sound check, the skeletons of songs would just start to appear. Those songs on the record were like little snapshots of the cities we’ve been in and the places we’ve seen.” 

Track Record

  • In January 2011, the band performed “Weighty Ghost” on Late Night With David Letterman and received a huge surge of digital hits in the following days after the broadcast, resulting in a stronger fan base in several key markets.
  • While Wintersleep remains a top priority, members of the band have always played elsewhere as well, with half of them performing in another group, Contrived. Drummer Loel Campbell works as both a touring and recording member with Holy Fuck, Land of Talk, Hayden and others.
  • Wintersleep’s last two records were produced by famed Scottish producer Tony Doogan (Mogwai, Belle and Sebastian, David Byrne)


Thomas “Tawgs” Salter still gets goosebumps every time he writes a song.

“I don’t think there’s anything better than writing a song, recording it, listening to it, and seeing people reacting to your idea,” he says. “You write a song and hopefully you transfer the emotions from your songs. Whether it’s a dance song, or an introspective look inside, good songs transfer emotion from the speaker to the listener.”

Whether it’s a dance song, or an introspective look inside, good songs transfer emotion from the speaker to the listener.”

Salter started dabbling in the songwriting when he was 16, though he admits these first attempts weren’t very good. It wasn’t until 1999, at age 23, that he wrote the song that first got him noticed. He was signed to the record label Sony Music Canada with his band Dunk, but didn’t have a publishing deal. The band never took off commercially, and Salter’s wife was then pregnant, so he thought he needed a publishing deal to achieve some financial stability. He got a $1,800 loan from his mother-in-law, bought a computer, and wrote the song “Silver Lining.”

It was strong enough to impress Gary Furniss, president of Sony ATV Music Publishing Canada, who asked Salter to join his team of songwriters. Twelve years later, Salter’s still working with Furniss and vice-president David Quilico, and still enthused about them.

“They allowed me to continue songwriting,” he says. “Even in the lean times, when I didn’t have much coming in, I didn’t have to go out and get a normal day job. They allowed me to turn into a songwriter and let my ideas blossom.”

Today, Salter germinates his ideas at his home studio in Ridgeway, Ontario, working up to 16 hours a day. In return, he’s had some songs placed with some major-league artists, having written for everyone from Lights to Colin James to Josh Groban. It was the song “You are Loved (Don’t Give Up)” – which he wrote for Groban’s Awake album  in 2006 – that gave him his biggest break (and a big challenge).

“My publisher had heard Josh was looking for songs,” Salter recalls. “I’d written a string of songs years before that. In a one-week period, I wrote about 10 songs. One, ‘You are Loved,’ they decided to submit. I didn’t think anything would happen. But out of 175 songs, they called me back, said they loved it, but they wanted rewrites.

“At the time I had, like, $1,000 in the bank, two kids, and it was a crazy time,” he says. “I worked for two months straight and rewrote the song three times. I remember getting off the phone with the A&R person and she said it needs a melody that is more classical – When writing for an artist like that, you need to think about the lyrics with nice open vowel sounds for big, long notes. As soon as I hung up the phone, I had the verse melody in my head. I spent a lot of time working on the lyrics and most of it came out. It really opened a lot of doors for me.” 

Track Record

  • · Salter co-wrote “Higher Window” on Josh Groban’s current album Illuminations.
  • · Salter co-wrote “Beautiful Like You” with Lee DeWyze, who won season nine of American Idol. 
  • · “Don’t Let Me Fall,” which Salter co-wrote with recording artist Lenka, was featured in a television commercial for Telus in Canada; a Sears 2009 Christmas commercial; a Coca-Cola advertisement entitled “Follow the Bubble”;  and in the re-booted teenage TV drama series 90210.

“The best advice I ever got was from Ricky Byrd, [the guitarist] from Joan Jett & The Blackhearts,” says Fefe Dobson about songwriting. “He told me, ‘Writing is a muscle that you gotta work every day to get stronger, just like working out at the gym.’ He told me, ‘Write every single day even if it’s just rubbish.’”

The rubbish she obviously discards, but the gems have been released on two major label albums, 2003’s self-titled debut and 2010’s Joy. The platinum-selling pop singer shares writing credit with 17 people on Joy, including Kara DioGuardi, J.R. Rotem, Kevin Rudolph, Thomas “Tawgs” Salter, Nicole Hughes, Andrea Wasse, Jon Levine and esteemed veteran producer Bob Ezrin, and there were even more collaborations that didn’t make it to the record.

“So many people have come in and out of my life who have taught me something, from Joan Jett to Cyndi Lauper to Bob Ezrin to Dave Lichens and Billy Steinberg — so many,” says Dobson. “I couldn’t choose just one.”

In the early days, Jay Levine and James McCollum of The Philosopher Kings, Prozzak and Left Hook Productions took her under their wing for her first album. “I was a little shy at first because I didn’t know if I was any good,” says Dobson, now 26, “but I knew that I liked to write and I had been writing before I met them. Jay was very passionate about me writing how I felt about my life and my childhood and expressing the teenage drama that I was going through, so he really just let me be free.”

Managed by Chris Smith (Nelly Furtado), Dobson signed to Island Def Jam. With hits such as “Bye Bye Boyfriend,” “Take Me Away” and “Don’t Go (Boys and Girls),” the self-titled album went platinum in Canada was certified gold in the U.S.. However, the follow-up album, Sunday Love – for which she co-wrote songs with such artists as Joan Jett, Nina Gordon and Cyndi Lauper – kept getting its release date pushed back and was eventually shelved as Dobson was dropped by the label.

Undeterred, she kept writing and working on what would become Joy. Smith put it out on 21 Music and her U.S. label eventually re-signed her.  Joy has done fairly well in Canada considering the retail landscape, selling 10,000 physical units, according to Nielsen SoundScan, and 240,000 paid downloads of the singles “Stuttering” and “Ghost.” At press time, the latest single was “Can’t Breathe.”

Her songs have received close to 20 synchronization placements (movies, TV, commercials) and have been covered by Miley Cyrus (“Start All Over”), Selena Gomez (“As A Blonde,” “Round & Round”) and 2007 American Idol winner Jordin Sparks (“Don’t Let It Go To Your Head”). And taking Ricky Byrd’s advice, she continues to write every day.

“I’m writing in a very mystical way,” Dobson discloses. “The other night I had a dream and I made myself wake up so I could remember the melody and record it on my phone instantly.” 

Track Record
* She woke up with the chorus for “Bye Bye Boyfriend” after falling asleep in the studio.
* Her song “I Want You” has appeared in TV ads for the movie Whip It, Drew Barrymore’s directorial debut.
* She performed Ike & Tina Turner’s “River Deep, Mountain High” at the Rock and Rock Hall of Fame induction ceremony in 2010.