This is the first in a new series for Words & Music, called “How did the song happen?” The idea is to look not only at how a hit song was written, but to also go behind the scenes to reveal all of the music-industry activity – like music publishing – that led to its writing, and that brought it from finished demo recording to commercial, critical or artistic success.

For the first one, we fittingly examine “First Time,” a song co-written by SOCAN member Jenson Vaughan (who’s co-written for Madonna and Britney Spears, among others), along with Shy Martin and Fanny Hultman, and production team Hitimpulse. “First Time” is also co-published by his publisher Ultra Music Media.  Written at a song camp in Stockholm, the song found its way to huge commercial juggernaut Kygo, and now it’s gone Platinum in Canada and Australia; Gold in France, Italy and Denmark; and Silver in the U.K.  “First Time” reached the Top 10 on the Billboard U.S. Dance Club Songs and U.S. Hot Dance/Electronic Songs charts. It has earned 250 million streams on Spotify, 58 million views on YouTube, and 22 million on Vevo. Here’s how it got there…

SOCAN member co-writer Jenson Vaughan discusses how he co-wrote “First Time”:

Shy Martin

Shy Martin

When I was a young, we used to sneak booze from my friends’ parents liquor cabinets, and go drinking by the train tracks that ran parallel to Windmill Road in Dartmouth, where I grew up.  There was one park in particular, by my house, that we used to go to. We called it Three Bump Hill, because it had a hill with three bumps (how original, I know).  It’s a nostalgic place for me, so much so that I named my music publishing company Three Bump Hill.

Fast forward 20 years, and it’s day one at an Ultra Music Media/Ten Music songwriting camp in Stockholm, Sweden.  I’m paired up with production team Hitimpulse from Germany, and local songwriters Shy Martin and Fanny Hultman.  We got off to a great start, finishing our first song in just a couple hours, and decided to write another, Thank God).  Hitimpulse starts with some cool chords, and Fanny and Shy start right away with some interesting melodies.  It becomes clear pretty quickly that the song has a nostalgic feel, and we decide to write about our youth; love, loss, sowing our wild oats.

It was one of those “dream” sessions, everything flowing effortlessly, and all the pieces quickly fitting.  Lyrically, I drew on some of my own experience such as “getting drunk on the train tracks” with my friends, and “your dad’s black Honda was our Maybach,” which is really how we felt whenever we got the keys to my friend’s car.  It was just really cool to be able to include personal lines like this, and give Dartmouth, of all places, props in the song.

Once the camp was over, we all went our separate ways.  But we all felt we had something special with the song, and in tandem we all started shopping it.  Hitimpulse especially loved it, and had actually planned to release it as their own single, feat Shy Martin.  But it wasn’t long after that Shy e-mailed us saying her management sent it to Kygo’s people and he loved it.  However, a few months went by, and we weren’t getting any confirmation from Kygo that he would release it. I kinda lost hope, when out of the blue, I got a call from Patrick Moxey [Founder & President of Ultra Music Media] that went exactly like this: ‘Hey Patrick, what’s up?’ ‘Hey Jenson, so, it looks like your song “First Time” will be Kygo’s next single, and it’s going to feature Ellie Goulding.’”

Patrick Moxey, founder and President of Ultra Music Media, discusses the behind-the-scenes work that fostered the writing of “First Time,” and placed it into Kygo’s hands:

Patrick Moxey

Patrick Moxey

Ultra were having our Stockholm songwriting camp, and we were thinking very much about getting the right writers together. Ultra was sending Jenson there for the camp, and I had met Shy Martin’s manager Anna Cornelia, and her producers. So I said, “Anna, let’s get Jenson and Shy Martin in together.” Then it was co-ordinated by our U.K. A&R team, Tracy Fox and Paul Arnold… [Producers] Hitimpulse were there, who are our artists on Ultra Records…

The original impetus bringing it together was the idea of, “Jenson, great writer, who in Sweden would understand his vibe?” I thought, Shy Martin. And then we had Hitimpulse coming up from Germany, as great producers. That gave us the chemistry, and that chemistry came up with “First Time.”

It was actually Shy Martin’s camp that sent the demo to Helen [McLaughlin, then head of A&R] at Sony Sweden, who was working with [both] me and Kygo. He heard the record, loved it, and it got placed. Hitimpulse liked the idea of Kygo cutting it, with them being involved as writers on the song. It was created, it ping-ponged back and forth a little bit – “Is it going to come out with Hitimpulse?” – but then the Kygo possibility presented itself, and Hitimpulse thought that was a good idea. So it just flowed very naturally, to become a great single, which has done over 250 million streams on Spotify. It’s been an absolutely huge record, and a huge hit for Jenson Vaughan.

It’s tremendous teamwork, and that fundamental statement is true: by creating chances, you create luck. If we hadn’t sent Jenson to Stockholm, if he hadn’t gone in with Shy Martin, if Hitimpulse hadn’t been there from Germany… Each one of these things took a little effort, [and together] you create the chance for that to happen.

Milk & BoneIt’s been just shy of three years since Laurence Lafond-Beaulne and Camille Poliquin unmistakably arrived in the Big Leagues. Their Milk & Bone duo is a bona fide success, a love-at-first-sight story between the audinece and their mysterious universe. In the wake of their debut Little Mournings album,  they’re now welcoming us to Deception Bay, the place where two people meet, both wanting to get back on top, using the lessons of past mistakes to get there.

We meet with Laurence and Camille in a Montréal café, where they’re already giggling when we arrive. “We’re going into stand-up comedy,” Camille says facetiously. “We’ll be our own opening act: I’ll tell jokes and Camille will laugh,” Laurence adds.

Although such comedic leanings aren’t really part of the duo’s career plan, it’s telling of their uncanny ability to sing about sorrow with such a luminous approach. “All our lyrics are about real emotions,” says Camille. “We write them because we need to, but we’ve listened to an incredible amount of pop music in our lives, so that’s why it’s instinctively more luminous – like pop can be when we get to the arranging stage [of the process].”

You never said why you went away / We’ll meet again in Deception Bay / You promised you would be here to stay / We’ll meet again in Deception Bay

So the title track paints a picture of a place where one collects stories that didn’t have pleasant endings. It holds all the hope created when precious moments are gone. “Deception Bay is where you send everything that’s ever disappointed you,” says Camille. “It’s a shameful place, it’s hard to visit, but it’s still somewhere important, because it’s what makes you stronger afterwards – even though it’s painful.”

“That titles really worried us, even though we knew for a fact that the album had to have that title,” says Laurence. “We thought having the word ‘deception’ in your album title was like giving ammunition to critics who might not like it. Let’s hope people see the poetic side of it.”

A Time for Compromise

Teamwork requires some degree of sacrifice, and that’s true no matter what the field; but managing to create a common oeuvre from two distinct visions requires a particular approach. For Milk & Bone, there’s no need to find common ground somewhere between two poles; Camille and Laurence present themselves as complementary elements.

“I believe that the simple fact of working with someone who manages things differently than me has made me more sensitive to others,” says Laurence. “Everyone thinks everyone works the same way, that there’s only one way of doing things, before they try working as a team. Camille is very inspiring to me, and she challenges me. A large part of me always tries harder because I want her to be happy.”

As for Camille, that bond is nothing short of family. “A boyfriend, a girlfriend, best friends, these are all things that can be broken,” says Camille. “But we’re bonded by our project. It truly feels like being sisters. Even though we’ve seen each other at our worst, we know we’ll always take care of each other.” “This is not the type of relationship where you just walk away if things go south. It requires that you take care of the situation,” adds Laurence.

“We didn’t feel like setting any limits for ourselves. The only truth in creation is that we can do whatever we want.” – Camille Poliquin, Milk & Bone

Thinking About The Future

Three years ago, Milk & Bone was sketching out a project on an empty white canvas. Today, the duo has received both the critical and popular seals of approval, and the two young women have paid their dues.

“We know people are anxious to hear this new album, and that’s very motivating,” says Laurence. “If the first one hadn’t been welcomed as warmly as it was, we would’ve gone into the production of this second one with a bit of bitterness,” adds her bandmate. “People believed in us when we had yet to prove we were worth it,” says Laurence. “SOCAN gave us its Breakthrough Artist Award in 2015. They saw something in us from the start, when we were nothing more than two young women who had decided to give it a go. We never expected them to take us under their wing so much.”

Deception Bay contains songs with titles such as “BBBLUE, :’)” and “Tmrw,” which will surely irk more conservative types, and titillate fans who enjoy something unique. Milk & Bone revisit form and blow the framework to smithereens. “On the first album, we did things by the book, with a capital letter at the beginning of each word, but we don’t actually work that way, says Camille. “We didn’t feel like setting any limits for ourselves [this time]. The only truth in creation is that we can do whatever we want.”

Beyond getting rid of the framework, the duo has created its own: a unique visual identity. “All of that is calculated,” says Laurence. “We’re aware there are much higher chances people will appropriate what we do if they can wrap their head around the song’s entire cohesiveness.” “I consume as much music as I do images,” says Camille. “It’s perfectly normal to me. That’s why, even though we don’t make an official video for each song, we’ll come up with a unique visual identity for all of them, so that people can turn themselves off, and let themselves be impregnated by an image while they listen. We know our songs will end up on YouTube in that fashion. It’s important to us that everything that’s related to the consumption of our songs is unique.”

At Home Everywhere

Their electro grooves didn’t only resonate in Québec, and their sound quickly travelled abroad. Can one calculate the exportability of music? “I don’t know,” says Camille. “But I know that if you over-think it, it won’t work. To us, the only reason that it connects with people is because it reveals us. To intimately connect with someone, we need to feel it ourselves. It’s got nothing to do with singing in English or not.”

Whereas sophomore albums are often a source of performance anxiety for artists, the road was much less torturous because of their first effort’s confidence-instilling success. “We wanted to take everything we liked about the first album and take it to the next level,” says Camille. “I only felt stressed out once the album was totally finished. It instantly became imperfect, because we couldn’t work on it anymore. But I really can’t wait for people to hear it,” says Laurence.

When the’re sitting at their keyboards and console is when Camille and Laurence are in control. Aware that the “singer who only knows how to sing” cliché is still strong in the music business, they decided, once more, to go on tour as a duo. “We’re surrounded by truly respectful people in our day-to-day lives, we don’t feel that kind of pressure, but we still felt it made more sense to us to play as a duo the music we compose as a duo.”

True, highly confident partners in crime, Camille Poliquin and Laurence Lafond-Beaulne allow us to gently sway on their never disappointing bay. It’s filled with strong voices that know how to guide sorrow toward calmer waters. “We’ve truly become better musicians since the first album,” says Laurence. We’ve evolved.” “We’re solid,” says Camille, “and although I‘ve doubted my own ability to make it in this trade I’ve chosen, I’ve reached a point where I can allow myself to be whatever the fuck I am.” It needed to be said and it couldn’t be more true.

Zen BambooZen Bamboo is a quartet from Saint-Lambert, on Montréal’s South Shore, that still rehearses in someone’s basement. Léo Leblanc, Simon Larose, Charles-Antoine Olivier and Xavier Touikan are tracing their own path as the proverbial and cliché “band from the ‘burbs” who dreams big; they feed the myth, and build their identities around it.

Their core audience, mainly young adults, frenetically consumes everything the band releases. “Some people are convinced we’re uber-cool, and that’s what surprises us the most,” says Simon Larose, Zen Bamboo’s lyricist and singer. Despite the fact that critics already foresee a future where big-name comparisons abound, the band members refuse any kind of pigeonholing, something they find “boring and unimaginative.”

After recording shoestring-budget demos last summer, the boys broke their piggy banks and cut 16 tracks with the help of producer Thomas Augustin (of Malajube fame), which they’ve since been releasing slowly. The four-song EP Volume 1: Juvénile, released last July, was followed last November, by the six-song Volume 2: plus mature, plus assumé – this time on the Simone Records imprint. “All the songs are from that one recording session,” says Larose. “So when we use the term ‘mature,’ it has more to do with the song selection than any kind of evolution between the two EPs.”

Maturity isn’t the first thing that comes to mind when you first meet the boys. All four are quite dissipated, and so deep in derision that you might think they’re making fun of you. To wit, they’ve all been saying for years that they’re all 19 years old, a claim which a quick Facebook search completely invalidates.

“If we’re going to argue about our maturity, I’d offer the fact that we drink less and three of us now attend university full-time, while Léo just got his Cégep diploma. Wouldn’t you call that wisdom?” asks Larose. “Plus, Volume 2 has a lot more reverb,” adds Charles-Antoine Olivier. “Normally, the more the reverb, the more the mature.” That’s not true of Mario Pelchat, we retort. They consult, not all entirely aware of who we’re talking about. (Mario Pelchat is a Québec crooner whose audience is mainly middle-aged women).

While a conversation with Zen Bamboo is more often than not chaotic, and frequently interrupted by buffoonery, their stage presence is seriously killer. The four members are clearly motivated by a desire to truly perform, so far convincing everyone that they have a bright future – to which they respond with laughter, convinced that their material is excellent, but that a wide audience is still not yet on the eve of materializing. “It’s that 10,000-hour thing,” says Simon. “If you do any task for 10,000 hours, you become expert at it. So, obviously, we’re getting better at it. If we kick ass onstage, it’s because we rehearse a lot.”

To them, “the switch is off” when they’re onstage. According to Simon, it’s the right place to think outside the box. If, for example, it’s not recommended to jump around and flail one’s arms on the bus, Zen Bamboo believes that it should be the opposite onstage. “I’m not about to start following any kind of etiquette onstage,” says Simon. “I’m not taking drugs, I’m not bungee-jumping. The stage is where I totally let go.” Their magic stems from such spontaneity. “The only time we tried to plan things was in Granby [at the Festival International de la chanson, in 2015]. We wore costumes, CAO [Charles-Antoine] wore a safari hat, and it was our worst show ever.”

Simon’s singing voice, at times nonchalant, at others high-pitched, but always unique, is at the centre of the band’s very precise arrangements – which reflect the amount of time spent rehearsing them. “I write the music and lyrics as a dialogue,” he says. “They’re mutually influential. Often, I’ll just spew words into my phone’s notepad, and later I’ll sit down and make sense of it all. It always takes a while before anything good comes out of it. I rarely like what I do. When I’m mulling over a song, I just get anxious.”

The band feels a need to come at topics from off the beaten path. “On ‘Si c’est correct,’ I like the fact that we talk about fucking from the angle of not doing it, in the end,” says Simon. “I like that fact that we’ve captured a sentiment that we rarely hear about. The one-night stand that doesn’t happen, people don’t talk about that.”

Releasing an EP every now and then is a curious approach, although it’s not uncommon to feel like releasing an album has no true meaning anymore. “We’re constantly recording,” Simon says. “I hate the classic Québécois circuit. I write two songs a week, I have 95 in the bank, making me neurotic. I have to get it out.” Zen Bamboo’s next goal is to play at every possible festival during the summer of 2018. “The festival of canned pork, of potatoes, of beets. We’re gonna play them all,” says Simon. “And we’re going to release music. A lot of music. Too much music. Very often.”