When screen composer, songwriter, and producer Hamish Thomson was six years old, growing up in Powell River, B.C., his father – a seasoned bagpipe player – signed him up as a drummer with the local pipe and drum band. Though he was so small he could barely lift his drum, Thomson was hooked. “That was the start of my career in music,” he recalls.

As much as he was enamoured with the music, however, Thomson struggled to read the notes he was supposed to play. Diagnosed with dyslexia and synesthesia (a condition which allows him to see music as colour), Thomson’s earliest teachers encouraged him to feel the music instead, rather than fixating on the notes. “If I slowed down, I could almost see the notes as a painting,” he explains.

But even after completing music school, forming a touring trio, Big Tall Garden, in Vancouver, and signing a deal with Nettwerk Records as a solo electronica artist under the name The Hermit, Thomson continued to grapple with imposter syndrome, worried that he would be “busted” for not being able to read music. Instead, the Nettwerk team asked him where he saw his career going. Though he was only in his mid-20s, even Thomson was surprised by the clarity of his vision: he wanted to be a screen composer.

In time, he began performing to integrated visuals, inviting his audiences to “see and feel the music, and to let them into my brain a bit.” Finally, as his music began to land film placements, Thomson quit his day job and turned his full attention to creating tracks for licensing, and to producing music out of his Vancouver studio, as well as working as a session player.

“Sometimes I couldn’t even see, I was crying so hard”

His first opportunity to compose for the screen came when a film director friend asked Thomson to score his 2016 independent feature, Grand Unified Theory. “My palms started sweating,” he laughs. “I remember thinking, ‘I don’t know if I’m ready.’” But Thomson took up the challenge, drawing on his synesthesia to compose in colours designed to fit the mood of each chapter in the film. “It opened my eyes to trusting in the process, and in myself,” he says.

Soon after, Thomson connected with director Martin Wood, who was preparing to shoot a number of episodes of the television drama Chesapeake Shores for the Hallmark Channel. Without telling Thomson, Wood went to the network and pitched him as the composer for the series. Though it was a longshot, they said yes.

But the day before Thomson learned that he had the gig, he got the worst news of his life: his 14-year-old son, Lachlan, had taken his own life. Two weeks after his son’s death, however, Thomson was in the studio, channelling his grief into the creative process.

“Sometimes I couldn’t even see, I was crying so hard,” he says. “But as soon as I pressed ‘Play,’ I don’t know what happened, but the music just flowed out of me.” He has since scored more than 40 television episodes and movies, including the 2020 Netflix original, Operation Christmas Drop, which involved creating an original score for orchestra.

When work slowed down at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, Thomson finally had a chance to take stock of what he’d been through in the last five years. He also found himself with the urge to make music for himself again.

“After Lachlan passed, I felt the urge to write lyrics and sing,” he says, acknowledging that he had not felt vulnerable enough to do so in the past. The result is a new six-song EP, Gone Gone Gone, which sees Thomson delving into his shadow side, and finding his own voice in a new way.

“It has re-stoked that fire within me,” he says. “What a gift it’s been to have these opportunities to be doing film scores, and also to be writing songs again, doing that kind of creation. It’s been really rich to have all of those layers present themselves…to have all of my loves come together.”

It’s mid-January 2021, and professional songwriter and singer/artist Lowell, is busy wrangling an unruly track that’s been eluding her. “I’ve been trying to crack [this song] for about three years,” she says. “I’m confident it’s a hit, and so far, that’s about all I know. I’ve written and re-written it about 30 times over different chords, different beats, different approaches to the concept. I’m banging my head against the wall, but sticking with it because it’ll make me rich someday. I’ll let you know in 2030,” she jokes.

It’s this puzzle-like experience, inherent in the songwriting process, that drives the Toronto-and-L.A. based musician. At three years old, she began playing the piano; at 14, following the unexpected death of a close friend, Lowell turned to songwriting during the grieving process. “I learned very quickly that songwriting could be a tool for me to cope with my emotions, and all the loneliness I felt as a teenager,” she says.

Now, barely out of her teenage years, she’s collaborated with the likes of Demi Lovato, Charlie Puth, and bülow – with whom she, and five others, co-wrote “This is Not a Love Song,” a SOCAN Pop Music Award winner in 2019. And her own pull-no-punches singles, “Lemonade” and “God is A Fascist,” are also making an impact (after a CBC Music hit with “The Bells” in 2014). Lowell says both were written during a particularly trying time.

“I was definitely at a breaking point when I wrote those songs,” she explains. “I’d been travelling back and forth between L.A. and Toronto, bi-weekly, for about a year, and I really felt like I was writing and writing and writing, but it wasn’t paying off. I just wanted to go home, but I knew I was so close, and I just had to stay one, two, three more months and I’d get somewhere.

“There are a couple of lyrics in there that say it all: Don’t know why I still make music/Why I gave you up to pursue it/Still the same shit still hollow/Still saving up for that condo. I don’t really consider myself to have made it by any means, but I’m happy to report I’m not still saving up for that condo.”

Today the writing process itself is what drives her. From setting to instruments, Lowell treats each song according to its own requirements.

“My process isn’t super-regimented,” she says. “I’ve written so many songs in so many different ways. I’m constantly looking everywhere for inspiration – movies, books, fights with my partner, or my friends – or my friends’ fights with their partners and their friends. By the time I land on something good, I always forget how I got there, so I just keep trying new things.

“I do, of course, have some amazing voice memos of me waking up in the night with a dream song idea. They often end with me fading out and then snoring,” she amusingly explains. “As for instruments or places [to write] in my house, I actually try to avoid hanging out with one instrument for too long. For me, inspiration is all about change, so I try to move around to different rooms in the home, go for a walk, pick up a new synth. My best songs seem to come from my subconscious, so I try not to get too routine in my routine.”

Ultimately, Lowell says collaboration has been crucial to her growth. “Collaborating is such an important tool to have if you want to be a songwriter,” she says. “I’m not saying you have to write with people all the time – in fact, being an independent writer is also useful at times – but I don’t know a lot of successful writers who don’t co-write. The fact is, you’re writing for the masses. How are you going to do that from one singular perspective?”

Five Tricks of the Trade

  1. “‘If the bones are good the rest don’t matter,’ so start with the hook. Love to [the late] busbee for that one.”
  2. “Don’t stare at the page too long. Your subconscious is really useful when writing, so once you have a title or a concept, try just hopping on the mic and seeing what comes out.”
  3. “I spend a lot of time studying and analyzing hits. I find it really helpful to see what works and what doesn’t work, in a broad sense. There’s not an exact science, but there are definitely tools you can learn that will help guide you and improve the ‘hittiness’ of your hooks when you’re stuck.”
  4. “I think this one is really important: Try not to get too down! I’m one of the most self-deprecating, self-hating people I know, but I know I’m not alone. When everyone is always posting their achievements online – ‘Hey I wrote a smash today,’ or whatever – it’s easy to just really hate yourself. The truth is I probably write, like, one good song a month, maybe. It’s OK to suck sometimes, it doesn’t mean you suck.”
  5. “Great ideas do get squashed in bigger rooms. I try not to put a song idea to bed before I’ve auditioned it to a few other team members.”

Jérôme Beaulieu was ecstatic on my computer screen. Gilles Peterson, the instigator of the early-’90s acid-jazz movement, and founder of the genre’s beacon label, Talkin’ Loud, had just played Misc’s freshly released track “Mad” – from the album Partager l’ambulance – on his BBC Radio 6 show.

Misc“It’s always been clear to me,” says the pianist, “that the Misc adventure couldn’t be confined to the province of Québec. We make niche instrumental music, and that means your market needs to be international, if you have any hope of earning a living with it. We did get visibility through the Révélation Radio-Canada Jazz 2013-2014 (back when the band was called Trio Jérôme Beaulieu), and that allowed us to tour. But it’s not enough. We’re developing the market in France and Great Britain. They love our style of music there.”

It’s true that the three teasers dropped on YouTube ahead of the release of Partager l’ambulance (“Mad,” “Le Preacher,” and “Superman se pointera pas”) are quite intriguing. The animated shorts seem to evoke the global, anxiety-inducing crisis that Misc is trying to evoke with a symbolic raft, that carries an ambulance, and floats on the clouds with the help of a makeshift parachute – an idea created by illustrator Christophe B. De Muri.

“Re-inventing the jazz trio is ‘in’ at the moment,” says Beaulieu. “It’s also a reflection of the way we consume increasingly eclectic music; musical genres are harder and harder to define, anyway. Having access to all the music that exists with a single click can become dizzying.”

The trio went through two bassist changes – one of them went on to become an osteopath – since the release of their debut Misc  in 2016 and Misctape Vol. 1 in 2017. At that point, the future of Jérôme Beaulieu’s trio was somewhat uncertain. “I don’t have a Plan B,” he says, “and there won’t be one!”

Then luck struck: Maurin Auxéméry, of the Montréal International Jazz Festival, gave them a challenge: re-visit the music of an artist that inspired them for a single show. The trio picked James Blake’s eponymous album of introspective electronica, released in 2011.

“It’s music that has no points of reference for a jazz trio,” says Beaulieu. “It’s so granular and electronically processed that we thought, ‘My God! What a trip! There are no clear sonic references.’ That show allowed us to integrate a whole new sound spectrum, and to adapt it to the trio’s very organic sound. His sonic references pulled us out of our universe, yet still allowed us to remain true to ourselves.”

Partager l’ambulance is directly inspired by this innovative homage to Blake, and heavily influenced by (the now defunct) Esbjörn Svensson Trio (EST) – Svensson being the Swedish explorer of the possibilities of the piano trio. Beaulieu, drummer William Côté, and bassist Simon Pagé locked themselves up in their studio, a batcave of endless possibilities.

“We added a whole bunch of sound effects,” says Beaulieu. “Our modus operandi is that everything in our music has to be tweak-able. The last thing we want is to become prisoners of a sequence that goes on and on; the interaction, on which jazz is based, must remain. There’s all kinds of stuff. For example, I put a piezo microphone (designed for guitars) inside the piano, so I can run the signal through effects pedals, and I also have a volume pedal, so I can control the balance between the piano and the electronics in real time.”

And when that piano plays thrums, one feels stuck to the ceiling. The vigorous rhythm section follows it in every detour and the melodies on Partager l’ambulance are timeless and compelling. In other words, we’re ultimately treated to something miles away from the usual jazz trio offerings. Misc isn’t the type of act to jump on any bandwagon. This album is openly aggressive.

“We had no idea the pandemic was coming when we recorded this in 2019,” says Beaulieu. “It’s the news that gave us this sense of urgency, especially when it comes to the environment.”

The trio has unquestionably crossed a threshold, that of a charming, precarious balance of its new music and its past. Misc seems to be able to cut creative jazz by the yard. And it’s probably as intense live as it is on record. So here’s to being able to experience it in person someday!