Isolation has its advantages.

Growing up in the tiny northern Mennonite hamlet of La Crete, Alberta, about 250 km south of the Northwest Territories border, Brad and Curtis Rempel were cut off from the type of media exposure the rest of us take for granted.

For example, you might be surprised to learn about the kind of music the brothers Rempel – known musically and professionally as High Valleydidn’t have on their radar.

“We’d never heard of Michael Jackson until we moved to Nashville,” admits Brad. “We’d never heard of Led Zeppelin, or Nirvana, or any of these other famous bands people think we’ve heard of.”

No “Stairway to Heaven”? No “Billie Jean”? No “Smells Like Teen Spirit”?

Ricky Skaggs was one of only three albums we were allowed to listen to when we were growing up,” says Brad, during a recent promotional trip to Toronto. “We didn’t have any radio or TV, so all we had was bluegrass music. So we’d heard of Ricky Skaggs, and Del McCoury, and Ralph Stanley, and stuff like that.”

It’s an interesting circumstance, because if you think you hear echoes of Mumford & Sons or The Lumineers in High Valley’s rollicking rhythms, spirited harmonies and stomping beats – on such songs as “Dear Life” and “Young Forever,” from the duo’s fifth and latest album, Dear Life – the Rempels claim they were Mumford before Mumford was Mumford.

“What we’re doing now is what we did for the first 15 years, but nobody heard it,” says Brad. “In brutal honesty, we tried to make that music for a couple years in Canada, but we felt pressured to fit in, and write and record music that sounded like normal country radio.

“What we’re doing now is what we did for the first 15 years, but nobody heard it.” – Brad Rempel of High Valley

High Valley“We bought our way out of our record deal two-and-a-half years ago, and finally we said, ‘OK, now we’re going to do what we always done.’ Then we started hearing Mumford & Sons, The Lumineers and the Avett Brothers on pop radio, and I called Curtis and said, ‘Hey, they’re playing bluegrass music on pop radio. I wonder if they’re going to start playing it again on country radio soon.’

“So we went back and started making the same kind of music we’d always made.  If you listen to the record our family made when I was four years old – and I had two songs on it – in 1988, it would sound a lot more familiar with what we’re doing today than everything we made in between. It’s what we should have stuck with the whole time.”

While U.S. audiences are just beginning to discover High Valley, thanks to a deal inked with Atlantic/Warner Music Nashville – and the song “Make You Mine” (recorded with the duo’s childhood hero Ricky Skaggs) – Canadians have known the hit-making band since 2007, stretching back to their trio days when brother Bryan was a member. They scored three Top 20 hits with “Love You for a Long Time,” “Trying to Believe,” and their first Top 10, “Rescue You.”

Brad Rempel also won a 2016 SOCAN Country Music Award for “Make You Mine,” and has earned four SOCAN No. 1 Song Awards, all for topping the CMT Canada Countdown Chart: one in 2016 for “Come On Down,” co-written with Jared Crump (SESAC) and Frederick Wilhelm (BMI); two in 2015, for “Make You Mine” and “She’s with Me,” both co-written with Seth Mosley (SESAC) and Ben Stennis (BMI); and one in 2013, for “Let it Be Me,” co-written with Crump and Philip Barton (BMI).

After brother Bryan Rempel high-tailed it to spend more time with his family, Brad and Curtis had the latitude to return to their basics. “We figured we’d rather be at the front of a line of people doing this sound than the 25th-best version of the bro country sound, which is what we never fit into, although we almost pretended to fit into it for a couple of years,” Brad explains. “Our music has naturally been about faith, family and farming, those kind of things, and for me to be able to write old-school songs using the bluegrass language.”

“Rescue You” was also responsible for putting a solid songwriting team in place: Brad, his pal Stennis, and Grammy-nominated producer Mosley, also a member of Me in Motion, a Christian rock band. The trio is so comfortable with each other that their creative process is actually pretty enviable.

“Ben’s wife and his kids; me, my wife and our kids; and Seth, his wife and their child, we all go to the beach together, multiple times a year, to Pensacola Beach in Florida,” says Brad. “We’ll write during the day, go to the beach, come back and record. A lot of the lead vocals on Dear Life were me holding a mic in my hand in the beach house, singing it for the first time.

“We just wrote the song, I sang it, and that’s the vocal that’s on the record. So ‘Dear Life,’ ‘Don’t Stop,’ ‘Memory Making’ and ‘Young Forever’ were all recorded at the beach. We love writing that way. We love recording that way. Zero of the songs on this record that I had anything to do with were written on [Nashville’s] Music Row. I bought this old farmhouse in the country, so we worked at the farmhouse, or at Seth’s house in Franklin, Tennessee, or at the beach house.”

Brad describes the process, one in which he says suffers no pressure. “At the beach we have a makeshift studio,” he explains. “For several tracks on the record, Seth would literally bring a laptop, use Logic [recording software] and say, ‘I want to test my skills and only use the built-in skills that came with Logic on my laptop.’ I literally sang sitting on a chair, holding a studio mic in my hand for some of the songs. And we recorded some at the Castle, where Al Capone used to hang out in Tennessee.

“Warner was really cool,” Brad continues. “We signed with Warner Atlantic, and all of a sudden we had this budget where we could record anywhere we wanted to, which was mind-boggling. But we still went to Seth’s place to record it just like County Line, the last record. We’re cheap, stingy, Mennonite kids. We don’t really want to change anything.”

In terms of subject matter, Brad says he’s inspired by nostalgia. “It’s very, very easy for things to give me memories of my childhood,” he says. “It’s very important with me, with our kids, that everything we’re doing are things that we’ll remember in positive ways. What if I fly on this airplane and I never see them again? What are they going to remember? I think way too much about that stuff.

“So there’s a song called ‘Memory Making’ – that’s one of the beach songs. My wife Rebekah came up with the title for ‘Dear Life.’ I had come home and she said, ‘Man, our kids are growing up so fast – I feel we’re hanging on for dear life.’ And I said, ‘Man, that’s a great song title.’ We saved it for the next beach trip, and I told the guys, and we wrote it like a diary. Hopefully the album is like a diary: here’s what we’re thankful for; here’s what we’re scared of… and here’s what we’re proud of.”

With “Young Forever” recently placed on the ultra-popular video game Madden 2017 and ESPN picking it up for college basketball broadcasts – and “Make You Mine” denting the U.S. country charts – High Valley’s big-picture musical philosophy is offering something fresh and different.

“People call it Americana, and folk, and Mumford, and we just call it bluegrass, though we hired a very progressive producer who pulls it into a much more 2016 vibe,” says Brad. “Then we come at it with all the banjos, and mandolins, and acoustic instruments we can find. It’s like this tug of war where it ends up being the High Valley sound that we’re definitely proud of. It’s definitely different from normal country radio, for sure.”


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Few Québec artists can boast a creative pace as intense as Souldia’s. Since the fall of 2015, the emblematic rapper from Limoilou (a popular Québec City neighbourhood) has launched five albums: two as a band member (Les poètes maudits with Facekché and Fils de l’anarchie with Northsiderz), one as a duo (Amsterdam with Rymz), and two solo ones (a compilation of b-sides titled Les archives vol. 3 and his official fourth album, Sacrifice).

Over 10,000 copies later, the 31-year-old artist is happy, but exhausted, by the year that’s just ended. “I didn’t have a single weekend off,” says Souldia. “I’d get offstage for one album’s tour, and embark on the next one the day after… Let’s just say I was swamped. The coolest part, though, is to see my audience grow. I’ve met a lot of death metal fans with face tattoos at my concerts… I think they dig the aggressive aspect of my music.”

And yet, Sacrifice is less incisive than 2014’s explosive Krime Grave. Created with renowned hip hop producers such as Gary Wide, Ruffsound, Ajust, Hotbox and DJ Manifest, the tracks are mellower, and the rapper’s flow, often augmented by a strong Auto-Tune, is more melodic.
Souldia

 

“The atmosphere is a lot more relaxed,” Souldia concedes, “but my lyrics are just as hard. Hard, but not as violent, even though I have trauma relating to that. I launched my previous album with a very intense video about a bank robbery. I’ve grown up a bit and I asked myself what kind of musical legacy I want to leave my future kids. And I don’t want to leave them only dark videos with AK-47s in them.”

So, instead of painting everything black, Souldia has decided to seek the light by talking about his desire for freedom (“Corbeau”), his new relationship (“Skeletor”) and his love of being on stage (“Overdose”). Obviously, he also settles some scores (“La liste noire” [“The Blacklist”]) and re-visits some of the darker moments of his life, namely once when he made his mother cry “between two clients buying coke over the phone” on the powerful “Inoubliable” (”Unforgettable’).

“I’ve matured a bit, but I’ll never go soft,” says Souldia. “That small core of violence will be inside me until I die. All I can do from now on is making sure it comes out in a good way. I try to stay away from overly-depressing lyrics, because in the end, I write to give people some feelings. I don’t want to wrap them in a bubble that makes them want to hang themselves.”

But despite this new level of consciousness, Kevin St-Laurent knows all too well that his alter ego Souldia will always evolve in the margins of the Québec music industry. Ignored by most media, shunned by commercial radio, and kept well away of TV studios, his music is doomed to shine only on the Internet, most notably on Spotify and YouTube – where its success is quite enviable. “At this point, I couldn’t care less about the mainstream. With social networks, I’ve become my own media outlet,” says the artist, whose Facebook page has more than 34,000 followers.

“At this point, I couldn’t care less about the mainstream. With social networks, I’ve become my own media outlet.”

The effect is that the information is much more centralized, and a lot less skewed by the sensationalism that is the lot of the few generalist media of his hometown. Released from jail earlier this decade, after a three-year stint for possession of a loaded firearm, Souldia was the object of dubious press coverage for many years after that.

“When I came out, the first show I gave was at the Imperial, and half of the crowd were cops with shields and dogs,” he says. “It drew a lot of journalists that were looking to give me bad press. Sometimes, it was completely ridiculous… Like on the day after an album launch, they would write stories saying that everything went just fine, after all,” he remembers, with a grin.

“It’s a lot better, nowadays. The police show up at my launch for a few minutes and they leave,” he says. “But when I’m being interviewed, they always start by asking me about my stint in the joint. I don’t mind talking about it, but I’ve recently decided to remove that info from my official bio. I want to put the music forward.”

Active for the past 15 years on the Québec City rap scene, Souldia boasts an increasingly impressive musical vocabulary. This fourth album, an assessment of his tortuous past, is a testament to the major sacrifices he’s had to make after choosing a life in music, following a visit to his deepest, darkest places.

“There are years where I would’ve made a lot more money with crime than with rap,” Souldia confides. “It was really hard to not give in, to stay the course, but I soldiered on and now it’s starting to pay off. It’s a long and exhausting process, but I can now say that it’s possible.”


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Despite The Brooks’ growing reputation, it still wouldn’t be unfair to qualify the band as “Montréal’s best kept secret”.

Founded by renowned musicians with eclectic backgrounds – over the years, the band’s eight members have played with the likes of Yann Perreau, Fred Fortin, Yanick Rieu, Kroy and… Michael Jackson! – their soul-funk roots are rapidly becoming a very serious endeavour, one whose musical identity is like a breath of fresh air over the city.

“It’s been many, many years now that Montréal has renowned for its indie-folk-rock bands; but for everyone else, who need a break from that, there’s The Brooks,” laughs Alexandre Lapointe, bass player and unofficial leader of the gang of merry pranksters.

The best way to discover The Brooks is during one of their “Soul Therapy” events at Dièze Onze. This small Plateau Mont-Royal club is the band’s birthplace, and the place where they’re re-born each week, playing on Wednesdays for a capacity, pumped-up crowd that keeps on growing. Their success has caused them to look for another, bigger venue, but The Brooks still prefer the unique intimacy of Dièze Onze. “Initially, the idea was a three-month residency with a revolving cast of singers, but I think we ended up having a little too much fun doing what we do ourselves, because we’re going to celebrate our third anniversary, soon!” says Lapointe.

Being on stage also had a transformative effect on the original project, which was much more modest and anonymous. “We’re all session musicians working on a ton of different projects, so it’s not always easy to get everyone together,” Lapointe admits. “Initially, we thought we’d go into the studio and concentrate on instrumental tracks for the movies (the band has notably scored Stéphane Lapointe’s Maîtres du suspense) or videogames. Even recording an album wasn’t part of the plan.” But the pieces of the puzzle slowly fell into place. The band took to the stage, until they comprised eight pieces, including a groovy, charismatic character that naturally ended up on the mic.

Among the many vocalists with whom The Brooks shared the Dièze Onze stage in the early days was Alan Prater – who, besides being a solid singer, has played trumpet and trombone in Michael Jackson’s live band. A frequent collaborator at first, Prater became a full-fledged member of the band and a crucial component of their most recent album, the contagiously funky Pain and Bliss. And although he’s collaborated with Valaire on their recent Oobopopop, his loyalty to The Brooks is total. “At first, Alan was mainly supposed to do brass, but he quickly started singing melodies, and it clicked immediately,” says Lapointe. “He brings so much to the table through his energy, his stories of the good ol’ days, but also with his lyrics that are sometimes very personal. ‘Mama,’ for example, really is inspired by his mom.”

The Brooks, Pain and BlissThe maternity theme – omnipresent in the band’s day-to-day dealings, since three of the members recently became fathers – is also reflected on the album cover, which depicts a mother and child. The drawing style of the cover illustration is reminiscent of certain Afrobeat albums of the ‘70s; The Brooks tapped Nigerian artist Lemi Ghariokwu, who was behind many Fela Kuti album covers – and also a musician whose influence on the band rests side by side with Stax and Motown.

“You know, we’re not just a bunch of musicians, we’re also music-loving friends; we have vinyl evenings where each of us brings two or three records and we spend hours playing music for each other,” Lapointe explains. “Even though we do all kinds of musical styles professionally, we never had to discuss the kind of music we were going to do together; we just started jamming and that’s what came out, as naturally as can be.”


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