Thor Simonsen is on a mission.

The entrepreneurial owner of the Iqaluit-based, full-service record label Hitmakerz  is determined to help Nunavut musicians and recording artists attain sustainable careers through a number of initiatives.

One of these programs, Arctic Hitmakerz, finds a Nunavut collective of musicians traveling to remote Northern communities in Canada’s largest territory – usually in schools – to offer workshops on songwriting, recording, and instrumentation.

“Our program is designed to be held over a long weekend,” says Simonsen. “We usually have a concert on Friday night, and then Saturday and Sunday are our workshops. In some communities, there’s also a talent show, and concerts where the students perform a song that they’ve written.”

“The feedback we get from our community is just so overwhelmingly positive.” – Thor Simonsen of Hitmakerz

But here’s where Arctic Hitmakerz excels: the equipment they bring includes a laptop, a microphone, headphones, and a MIDI keyboard – all of which they leave behind, enabling the students to further experiment and express themselves.

“We teach them how to use it, so they have a way to  record themselves and start their own learning processes,” says Simonsen. “We also provide an all-Inuit crew of instructors – and they’re usually notable artists in Nunavut. We’ve had Kelly Fraser and Angela Amarualik sing and speak in Inuktitut.”

In 2019 alone, Hitmakerz traveled to a dozen remote Northern communities, reaching thousands – and Simonsen says the response has been tremendous. “The feedback we get from our community is just so overwhelmingly positive,” he says. “In most communities, there are schools that have some sort of musical programming, but there’s definitely a lack of resources in terms of instruments, and especially recording equipment. So, that’s where we found we can add a lot of value by providing a small recording set-up for each community.”

Nunavut, with its 35,000 inhabitants spread over 1.8 million kilometres, faces greater challenges than most communities, especially when it comes to career development. Even in the capital of Iqaluit, there are no major venues to play – and there’s also the inflated costs of living, where a container of orange juice sets you back $27.

Angela Amarualik, Hitmakerz

Angela Amarualik

“It’s difficult to create a sustainable career,” Simonsen acknowledges. “Travel costs are pretty prohibitive. It’s pretty expensive to get around up here. Travel and lodging eats up most of our budget, so it’s quite challenging to put on the workshops.”

Distance is another trial. “Nunavut is the largest region in Canada and we’ve only been in one of the three areas in Nunavut so far,” says Simonsen, who admits that the Canadian Federal government and other organizations usually foot the bills. “We’ve been to 13 communities, and normally for a workshop we’ll travel two to six hours north of Iqaluit, and Iqaluit itself is a three-hour flight north of Ottawa.”

But the results speak for themselves, as in the case of Igloolik-born singer and songwriter Angela Amarualik. “Angela started out as a student in Iqaluit when we started there in 2017,” says Simonsen. “She used the studio, took the songwriting workshops to heart, and within two years she released her own self-titled album, which was nominated for three Indigenous Music Awards. She’s doing another workshop with another company now, and performing across Canada, but it’s a big milestone to have her come back to Hitmakerz as an instructor. She’s teaching other youths and inspiring them by example.”

Recently, the Hitmakerz label released Ajungi (pronounced eye-U-nee), an impressive 12-track collection featuring a variety of Nunavummiut artists, ranging from Aocelyn, FXCKMR, and Kelly Fraser to Angela Amarualik, Stuart Qiyuk, and others.

Ajungi is an extension of the work we’ve done with our workshops in our communities,” says Simonsen. “What we find is that there’s a huge pool of talent that the rest of Canada has never heard of… and because we’re able to give them access to studios and inspire them to take the initiative to pursue these careers, we’ve been able to put together this album of artists from across Nunavut.

“We signed them to our studio in Iqaluit, have them professionally produced, mixed, and mastered, and we think we’ve created a holistic album that’s palatable to Southern listeners. It’s one thing to perform and sing songs and tell stories through our native Nunavut, but it’s another thing to try and communicate these ideas and these feelings and these stories to the rest of Canada, and the world.”

The album offers insightful electronic and hip-hop glimpses into Nunavut life through the eyes of its creators – and some proceeds raised by the project are earmarked for Kamatsiaqtut Nunavut Helpline. “We felt it was important to donate to the helpline since many of the songs were about mental health issues, and it’s a pressing issue in the North,” says Simonsen.

Just how pressing became evident when Hitmakerz received the tragic news that  singer-songwriter Kelly Fraser, who was nominated for an Indigenous Music Album of the Year JUNO Award in 2018 for her sophomore album Sedna, committed suicide at her Winnipeg home on Christmas Eve, at the age of 26. Her importance to the Nunavut music scene was such that even The New York Times published an obituary.

Simonsen says Fraser was “a pretty important part of our team. We really wouldn’t be where we are without her. Hitmakerz was basically founded through the production of her album Sedna. She definitely leaves a big gap in the Inuit music scene. We’re hoping to continue to do the work that she started, which is basically to inspire Inuit Youth and help them pursue their dreams.”

Speaking of dreams, Simonsen says that it’s Hitmakerz’ intent to earn a few Grammy Awards for Nunavut. “We’d like to expand our team, get our game professionalized, and be able to really monetize this music so the artists can be doing it full-time.”

Music is a conscious choice that Maude Audet made 10 years ago. Her third album, Tu ne mourras pas, presents itself as a declaration to the trade that she’s chosen and learned. It’s also permeated by the need to re-invent our daily lives after losing something we love. Like Boris Vian in L’évadé, Maude Audet throws a big, solid request out into the universe: “Pourvu qu’ils me laissent le temps” (“I hope they give me enough time”). Time to live, time to not die, and time to re-learn to love oneself differently.

On the song “Nos bras lâches,” she talks about a place that no longer exists, where “we had time.” “My new songs talk about what happens after you fail,” says Audet. “Things didn’t work out, but you’re not dead. That brings us to a renaissance, a place where you didn’t expect you’d end up. I talk about grief, but not just about death: griefs that we have to live through when we realize our relationship with someone won’t be the one for which we were hoping.”

That’s how, ultimately, the title song set the tone and gave a meaning to the project. “Basically, what I’m saying is that when we lose someone, one way of keeping them alive is to remember their laugh, their voice,” says Audet. During the 2018 edition of Coup de cœur francophone, she was given “carte blanche” to build a show with several guests. Among them was her partner, actor and writer Fabien Cloutier, who delivered a moving and humorous text about his father. It was  through this examination of what’s left behind after a departure that Maude Audet gave birth to Tu ne mourras pas: “Et mes rêves deviendront notre escale une trêve aux vides des départs. Je saurai me rappeler la douceur de ta voix qui me dit que pleurer m’apaisera” (“And my dreams will become our port of call, a truce amidst the emptiness of departures/I will remember softness of your voice telling me that crying will appease me. It’s also through a planned yet fortuitous meeting on the stage of the Maison de la culture Maisonneuve that she bonded with Philippe B, who co-wrote and sings “Couteau de poche” with her.

Ten years ago, Audet decided music was going to be her be-all and end-all. Following a career as a stage director, she decided to take a leap of faith and put songwriting first, although she was a latecomer to the trade. “Stage directing is a very hard and precarious line of work,” she says. “I was well recognized by the people around me, yet I still worked at a moderate level. If I had done costumes for Robert Lepage and travelled the world, if things had worked out for me, I might not have made that choice, I might also not be as happy as I am today,” says the artist, who considers herself to now be in the right place at the right time.

“I learned this trade by doing it, and it’s been 10 years now,” says the singer-songwriter. “Ten years ago, I could barely play three or four chords on the guitar. It’s a bit of a crazy decision, when I look back [on it] now.” Whereas a good many artists have mastered their instrument since grade school, and have been writing songs since their first school talent shows, Audet’s musical beginning was a leap of faith that came with the demand for incredibly hard work in its wake. It was, in the end, the decision a woman who chose herself through music. “I took singing lessons, and worked on my guitar playing,” she says. “You can hear my progress on all fronts. Even if I lost both hands tomorrow, I’d still find a way to keep creating. I’m a creator, first and foremost. I managed to accomplish everything, I just had to work harder.”

Writer Erika Soucy once again walks alongside Audet on the emotional paths of her lyrics. For Audet, this represents a consistency that takes her back to the creative modus operandi used during the production of Comme une odeur de déclin (2017). “That hasn’t changed: an independent eye, a different writing style with a great sensibility, that’s not afraid of challenging me,” she says.

Audet’s “desire to move towards orchestral pop” explains why she left her usual grungier side behind. “It’s a framework I’ve always liked, and my producer, Mathieu Charbonneau, is really into it,” she says. Timbales, gongs, flutes, choir, bass, and guitar. Maude prepared all of the arrangements that, for her, come to mind at the same time as the lyrics. “Mathieu wrote all of it down on sheet music for the musicians,” she says, “because it would take me two days just to write one line of it,” she adds with a giggle.

Imperfect love is key to the songs on the album, even in the opener “Laura” – a song that came out “in a single jet.” “It’s older people that allow themselves to dream and act a little crazy,” says Audet. Being open to changing everything, to loving, and to never stop learning; these are just a few of the lessons we can learn from Maude Audet.

Tarun Nayar’s career takes place on and off the stage. A founding member of the outfit Delhi 2 Dublin, co-founder (with Asad Khan) of the digital label Snakes x Ladders, and artist manager, in 2019 he became the Executive Director of 5XFest, after serving as its artistic director since 2016.

Once known as City of Bhangra, the Vancouver-based festival had successfully put traditional Punjabi music and culture on the map in Vancouver, but waning numbers and interest signaled that it was time for a change. 5XFest, a South Asian millennial festival inspired by the SXSW and Afropunk fests, officially launched in 2018.

Over his 15 years as a performer, tabla player Nayar – who’s trained in Indian classical music, and later developed a love for creating genre-less sounds in Delhi 2 Dublin, by fusing beats from all over the world – noticed an unmistakable absence in the faces to which he performed.

“So many [South Asian] kids grow up playing music, and music is so much a part of the culture,” says Nayar. “And yet at all of these festivals we were playing – largely in non-South Asian spaces, everything from Burning Man to some crazy festival in Bali – you just wouldn’t see any Indian people, either onstage or in the crowd. And I was like, there’s a disjoint here, especially in Canada.”

5XFest was created to address that disconnect. “Young South Asians have to decide whether to go to the wedding reception to listen to South Asian music, or to the club to listen to Drake,” says Nayar. “There’s no place where they can be the totality of themselves. We’re the only festival of our kind in North America, and possibly the world. I’ve gone to a lot of festivals in India and Asia, and we’re the only ones really championing this South Asian youth culture in a meaningful way, and actually connecting with young people.”

When not working from his home office, Nayar connects with the 5X Festival team. It’s a “super-tight” team of four, primarily young women, that expands to more than 100 (including volunteers, and skilled volunteers they call “special ops”) as the festival draws near, as well as the digital marketing team Skyrocket. The festival has also formed a team dedicated to 5X Press, a new initiative that fosters year-round engagement, reaching 10,000 subscribers weekly. “[It] talks about all the great and interesting things happening in the South Asian world, globally,” he says.

Nayar believes all these initiatives will help South Asian youths connect with their global family. ““There’s a bunch of really cool kids doing awesome stuff, and they’re not getting opportunities,” he says. “In my experience, by giving [them] those opportunities, it’s pretty mind-blowing what they can do.”

Tarun’s Tips to Prep for Success

Know what you want: “It helps when there are strong goals, a sound business sense, and realistic expectations. I provide advice and guidance for a lot of people, [but] the artist I decided to manage, Khanvict, is someone who has a track record of connecting with people. There’s not the initial three years of wondering if people will like what this guy does, because he’s been killing it in the South Asian world for years. He came to me with a specific goal: ‘I really want to do mainstream festivals and events.’ That’s a very defined problem, and we’ve been working really hard.”

Be Ready: “So many questions come to us. Kids hit us up by e-mail, like, ‘Yo, I want you to manage me.’ Alright, send us your links. And they don’t have any music up. They don’t have any social media presence. What do you want me to manage here?”

The right manager-artist fit matters: “There’s so much time invested into building someone’s career and taking them from one level to the next. It really has to be someone that I’m in love with as an artist, and person.”