Guy BélangerOne gets this strange feeling from harmonica player Guy Bélanger, that of a man who blindly followed the path that unfolded before him, out of sheer instinct. Starting with an evening of celebration when, as a teen, he decided to switch from the recorder to the harmonica as his instrument of choice. “I didn’t choose it, it chose me,” he says. It continued with film and TV scoring, after having criss-crossed Québec as the harmonica player for Bob Walsh and Les Colocs.

Bélanger is a self-taught composer and musician, and his career is a singular one, littered with lucky breaks and accomplishments. But, mainly, he’s driven by a deep-seated desire to be where no one expects him. “I love saying that I’m out for fresh air with my harmonica,” he says. “I take it elsewhere to see if she’s there, and she always is.”

It was family ties that drove Bélanger to score movies, since his brother, Louis, is a film director. It all started with Post Mortem but really took off thanks to Gaz Bar Blues, a soundtrack he created alongside guitarist Claude Fradette. “We were really inspired, especially by Ry Cooder’s work on Paris, Texas,” says Bélanger. “Something was happening…” This chemistry worked out well for the duo, which went on to win the Québec Film Award for Best Film Score in 2003. This chemistry also exists between the Bélanger brothers, part of a brood of eight siblings from Val d’Or; to this day, their professional collaboration is still going strong. “Louis really fine-tunes his screenplays,” says Bélanger. “Everything is precisely calculated, dosed, thought through. It would be disrespectful to come to that with broad strokes and bombastic music à la John Williams. In any case, I would be unable to do that.”

Louis Bélanger is loyal to a brother who serves him well. Guy wrote the music for The Timekeeper (2009) and Route 132, alongside Ben Charest, which garnered him a second Québec Film Award in 2011. Les mauvaises herbes, Louis Bélanger’s latest film, marked a milestone for Guy because it was the first time he composed all of the movie’s music on his own. “I was ready for that,” he says. “It’s not that I wanted to work on my own in the studio; quite the contrary. But I did want to prove to myself that I would be able to.” On Les mauvaises herbes, therefore, the brothers agreed on something from the get-go. There would be no reference to reggae and the omnipresent ganja that comes with it. Guy found his inspiration after watching some of the rushes. “Louis shares his screenplay and filming moments during the principal photography,” says Bélanger. “Based on that, I send him music ideas upon which he then comments. Often times, Louis will ask me to strip things down. And then a little more. And a little more, still. Louis forces me to bare my music. I’m not there to underscore the emotions, I’m there to accompany them.”

Composing with the harmonica does come with its own set of challenges. “I don’t want to sound country or too bluesy,” says Bélanger. “I don’t want to sound like Neil Young or Bob Dylan. There’s something very convivial about this instrument. All of our grandfathers played it.” The fact that the harmonica sounds like singing, its resemblance to the human voice, makes it a distraction to a movie’s dialogue. This is why, sometimes, Bélanger will write with his harmonica, then call upon a friend to transpose the melody to another instrument such as the guitar, which was the case on Les mauvaises herbes.

Bélanger also seeks to surprise listeners and trump his own instrument; disguise it, if you will. That’s especially the case for his work on the TV series Séquelles, which airs on Série+ this spring, a series directed by his brother, and whose music he scored with longtime collaborator Claude Fradette. “For this thriller, we’ve created an anxious, atonal atmosphere,” says Bélanger. “It’s all about texture. It was a delicate layering process where I doubled, and even sometimes tripled, the harmonica tracks. The instrument is completely transformed: we made it say something completely different.”

Bélanger also wrote for Louis Saya’s Les Boys TV series, and through it all never stopped his work as a musician. To him, those are two sides of the same coin that inspire each other and stimulate his creativity. Examples of this abound: To wit, he’ll play two concerts at l’Astral during the Montreal Jazz Fest. Back in 2014, he released Blues Turn, a record that garnered him the 2014 Harmonica Player of the Year prize at Toronto’s Maple Blues Awards, as well as a nomination at the International Blues Challenge in Memphis. He’ll also appear on Céline Dion’s next album. And he’s been rehearsing in his garage for a new album he plans to release next November. The line between those two universes is so fine that Bélanger never hesitates to play music he’s written for Gaz Bar Blues or Les mauvaises herbes onstage. ‘I really dig doing that,” he says. “Those compositions are sometimes no longer than 30 seconds in the context of the movie, but on stage, me and the gang take off for 7 to 10 minutes. It’s wonderful.”

“She ain’t pretty, she just looks that way.” It’s the hook that sticks with us. And the song that put Saskatchewan alt-rockers Northern Pikes into the Top 10. The rollicking bar-room tune from the Pikes’ third album, Snow in June, solidified guitarist Bryan Potvin as one of the group’s core songwriters. It was nominated for a Single of the Year JUNO, won for Video of the Year, and remains their best-known hit. Potvin takes a break from prepping gigs with Kane & Potvin (his new project with Grapes of Wrath’s Kevin Kane) to talk about writing about the “model from Hell.”

Snow in June was the third Northern Pikes record, but the first where you wrote so many songs. Whose idea was that?
I wrote a song on the previous record, Secrets of the Alibi, called “Hope Goes Astray” that ended up being the band’s biggest hit to that point. It was the first song I wrote that was good enough to bring to the boys and say, “What do you think of this?” and that gave me a lot of confidence. When it was time to do Snow in June, it was expected of me. The Pikes was the type of ecosystem that encouraged it. I think Jay [Semko, singer/bassist] felt more relaxed that other people were contributing.

With this song, you also become the band’s third singer.
Right. We had two lead vocalists initially. I was doing a bit of harmony, but my role was the guitar player. When I started writing songs, they eventually said, “Listen man, you have to learn how to sing these.” I still, in a weird way, consider myself a guitar player first. I love everything about guitar. But I was presented with different circumstances than I saw coming. I didn’t know I had this in me.

Songwriters often have to remind people that not everything they write is autobiographical, but in this case, this song was, right?
Well, sort of. I really was a dishwasher, yes. This person, she was a composite, a bit of a Ms. Frankenstein. The hook… it’s funny I’m just now remembering it. It came from watching an episode of [‘70s TV sitcom] Rhoda.  There was a scene where there’s this typical good-looking woman and she says, “I’m not beautiful, I just look that way.” So I wrote that down in a notebook, as a writer does. I thought it was very funny. It just sat there for a month or two. Then it was time to make hay. That acoustic jam was coming up and I would need to bring some songs. So I took that line and just riffed on it. I knew I had something special with the hook, so I’ve got to write around it and try not to mess it up. It was quick: you hear this all the time, but that song was written in about 20 minutes.

When did you know it was a hit?
The first time we played it live! We had the audience singing the chorus by the end of the first play. Then when [Virgin Records] heard “She Ain’t Pretty,” they knew it was the single that would open up the rest of the record.  I thought it was a really bold move by the record company, actually, to get behind it. You’ve got two records, you’re establishing this band, they’re doing well on MuchMusic, and then we throw a monkey wrench in – we have another singer. But it worked out pretty well.

Looking back at the awards, and the video, and the radio play, what do you think is the song’s legacy?
You know, a lot has happened with it but I still think it has a future. Like, this song is going to make a massive country hit for someone one day. It’s got that sassy lyric. An agreeable melody and chord progression attune to something country. I feel that it’s just waiting to be a smash.

For Dan Swinimer, the key to a successful musical collaboration of any kind is mutual respect. “First of all, respect everyone,” he says. “Unless they give you a reason not to, why wouldn’t you? Secondly, the power you give artists, writers or young producers when you give them confidence and a reason to carry on, is unbelievable.”

The Victoria, B.C.-based songwriter, producer and owner of Manicdown Productions has plenty of experience that supports that approach; writing, producing and touring with bands including 99.3 The Fox’s Vancouver Seeds contest winners Superbeing and Beyond the Fall as well as Todd Kerns, before ultimately joining the band Jet Black Stare (JBS) in 2007.

“We signed with Island/Def Jam and everything seemed great,” he says. “Our first single was Top 30 in the U.S. Then the recession hit and it literally ended almost overnight. We were opening for the biggest bands in the world and then it was over.”

It was a tough pill to swallow, but along the way, Swinimer met people whose belief in, and respect for him fueled his confidence. “That’s why I went from being a terrible songwriter to having some success,” he says. “Giving people respect is the right thing to do on many levels and – if you need to look at it this way – it’s good for business because it empowers people to do better work.”

“I will never work with people that I don’t want to work with. I don’t care how talented they are or how much they’ve got going on.”

Constantly cutting someone down, he believes, drives potentially viable artists out of the business. It nearly happened to him. “I came back after the last JBS tour with my tail between my legs,” he says.” It was pretty much a Spinal Tap kind of tour.” JBS were also touring Canada where they had very little in the way of a live draw. “So promoters were basically screaming at me that we were getting paid too much,” he says. “It was a humiliating experience.”

Following that tour Swinimer decided to get out of the business. Shortly thereafter, however, he wrote a song, “Welcome to the World,” for his four-year-old daughter. It was the first time in a long time he was writing purely for pleasure. He sent it to his parents, they sent it to Swinimer’s cousin, Stephanie Beaumont, a successful country singer in her own right, and she sent it to Ron Kitchener, head of RGK Entertainment and Open Road Recordings.

That changed everything. On the strength of subsequent songs Swinimer sent to Kitchener, a series of writing sessions in Nashville were arranged. There, he stayed at the SOCAN House, and met and befriended professional hit songwriter Tim Hicks, an artist he’s written with numerous times since.

“I was excited after I decided not to let music hold me hostage anymore,” he says. “It freed me of stress, but now I had this opportunity and decided to give it a try, but with one iron-clad rule: I will never work with people that I don’t want to work with. I don’t care how talented they are or how much they’ve got going on.” His mission statement, one he’s cleaved to since, without exception, is “Love what you do and love who you do it with.”

Case in point, his first signing to Manicdown Productions in 2011 – a development deal with 17-year-old Madeline Merlo, during which he secured Merlo a recording contract with Open Road and a publishing deal with Nashville’s Rogue 11 Publishing. Merlo’s first two singles, “Sinking Like a Stone” and “Alive,” produced and co-written by Swinimer, became country radio hits in Canada, earning Swinimer and Merlo a Canadian Country Music Awards and multiple British Columbia Country Music Awards nominations.

“The things I look for in an artist, I think, are different from what some other people look for,” says Swinimer. “Madeline is sweet, kind and obviously has talent, but she also has something I feel I’m sensitive to: when she walks into a room it’s like somebody flicked the lights on. It’s a charisma that she doesn’t have to try for, the kind of thing you can’t teach.”

Although Swinimer spent most of his life working in rock ‘n’ roll, he grew up in an environment suffused with country music. His dad was an avid country fan, and he spent time every summer in Nova Scotia with musician relatives – including his great uncle, Fiddlin’ Jim Swinimer, a Nova Scotia Music Hall of Fame inductee who toured with Hank Snow.

Early love of rock notwithstanding, since his time in Nashville, most of the people Swinimer’s developed and written with are country artists, and include Tim Hicks, Heather Longstaffe, Elizabeth Lyons, Billy Currington. Lanie McAuley, Danica Bucci and Jojo Mason.

Jojo MasonThe path that led to signing to a development deal with Mason in 2014 was the result of a strange series of events. “I had a co-write during the day,” says Swinimer, “and we were arguing about a line, ‘sipping moonshine out of a jar,’ which I did as a kid, but the guy I was writing with didn’t think it made sense. That night I go to this Christmas party, Jojo shows up and pulls a jar of moonshine out. So I started talking to him, taking selfies and sending them to the guy I was writing with.”

Like Merlo, Mason just had something. “He lit the place up and completely changed the mood,” says Swinimer. “Everyone was drawn to him.” Although Mason was a country fan, he’d never sung for anyone before, but based on the energy that Swinimer saw in him, they arranged for a session.

As it turned out, Mason also had an exceptional voice. “I’d like to take credit for his vocal ability,” says Swinimer, “and have people assume that I was a genius in taking this guy who’d never sung and converting him into a singer, but I can’t. We worked on the details, but 90 percent of what you hear of Jojo Mason, he had before I found him.”

“A big thing with someone who hasn’t done a lot of writing is, you have to convince them that there’s no such thing as stupid ideas.”

Providing opportunities for young, talented artists is immensely important, Swinimer says. When he started working with Madeline Merlo, she wasn’t a songwriter. He suggested she work on her songwriting, explaining that it would be a different experience singing her own words, and that the more skills she had, the easier it would be to make a living in music.

Madeline Merlo“A big thing with someone who hasn’t done a lot of writing is, you have to convince them that there’s no such thing as stupid ideas,” says Swinimer. “Some of my best ideas have come from my worst ideas. It happens often.”

Conversely, playing the egotistical “I’ve had success and you haven’t yet card, he says, is counter-productive. “I respect people who’ve had success,” he says, “but once you’re in the room working together, just get the best out of the person sitting across from you. And the first, most important thing to do in order to get the best from them is to make them feel comfortable; to value their ideas and make them confident and brave enough to not fear throwing out an idea that doesn’t work. You need those ideas. They’re not going to be what we’ll use, but they may change my thinking about something.

“It’s the end result that counts,” he says. “Everything you do is aimed at getting a result that you can be proud of and maybe will resonate with people. I work with a lot of artists who don’t have a ton of experience as songwriters. Watching them grow – that development process – is part of what I take the most pride in.

“Madeline’s become an amazing songwriter and one of my favourite people to write with, but the first time we wrote she was quiet and nervous. I had to dig to get ideas out of her. Now she’s amazing, and writing on a lot of her music. You get this fatherly feeling of pride when someone you’ve worked with, who you’ve watched work hard and struggle, grows and becomes successful. So that decision I made in the early days, to only work with people I wanted to work with, because I stuck to it, meant everything changed in my career and my life.”