Feeling like I can be anything I wanna be, but I know I’ll always be my greatest enemy… I’m trying to break out of this feeling like I’m in a casket / I can’t get past it, all of this madness… I don’t wanna feel this come down — “Greatest Enemy,” The Strumbellas

When you’re living in hell, you’ll try anything that helps you even if it hurts /
I welcome the pain / Won’t give up the chase / I’ll find my way back to myself / The only way out is through, the only thing I can do is find my way back to myself
— “Back To Myself,” Serena Ryder

The coronavirus pandemic hit everyone in the music industry hard. Some experienced situational depression or bouts of anxiety, sadness or lethargy. Others, already clinically diagnosed, had their symptoms compounded by the uncertainly of a global health crisis.

The Unison Benevolent Fund, Canada’s emergency financial and counselling charity for the music industry, went into overdrive from the moment COVID-19 shut down the live music sector in March of 2020 – to ensure that there was enough funds in the coffers to support the thousands of people struggling with the immediate loss of their livelihood.

“In 2020, there was a massive increase in counselling services and calls into Morneau Shepell. It was more than double what we’d seen in previous years,” says Unison’s executive director Amanda Power, speaking about the outsourced HR well-being provider, now called LifeWorks. “With that said, looking at the stats for 2021, counselling services have actually started to decrease. We’re now at the point where we’re trending to where we were prior to the pandemic. I think people are seeing a light at the end of the tunnel.”

Over the summer, Unison also introduced Togetherall, a free, online, peer-to-peer mental health community that – like all Unison’s services – is anonymous. “Since we launched [in mid-June], we’ve noticed a good number of people using the program,” says Power.

Artist development funding body FACTOR (the Foundation to Assist Canadian Talent on Records) also has a section on its website dedicated to mental health resources, linking to the Canadian Mental Health Association, Arts’ Health Alliance, Over The Bridge, and Unison. And behemoth Bell Media – while often under fire for its potentially “triggering” one-day Bell Let’s Talk campaign – distributes funds year-round to mental health organizations and causes, out of its commitment  to contribute $155 million by 2025.

But how has the pandemic affected musicians who have already been clinically diagnosed with a mental health disorder? Serena Ryder and The Strumbellas’ frontman Simon Ward have both bravely gone public with their struggles, and written about it in song, so SOCAN reached out to learn how they coped.

The Strumbellas had postponed tour dates in early 2020 – just before the global pandemic brought life as we knew it to a screeching halt anyway – but it wasn’t until February of 2021, and the release of the topical “Greatest Enemy,” that the band put out a press release revealing the reason: “[Simon] Ward realized that the depression he had been dealing with for the past 15 years was no longer something he could deal with on his own. Ward was hospitalized and placed under doctor supervision.”

“I took a hiatus from life in general, so being in COVID made it harder, but I became a hermit anyway,” Ward tells SOCAN.  “I was in such rough shape that I didn’t feel COVID as hard as others. I was sitting at home by myself for the most part anyway, so I wasn’t being social. I think my path would’ve been pretty similar.

“My strategies getting through COVID while in a depression were, I would go for walks, and I spent a lot of time with the kids and my wife. We played board games, always ate supper together, and I was as social as I can be. I meditated a lot. I did a lot of therapy.”

The one plus is Ward didn’t feel the guilt he normally would have for cancelling a tour. “Because of COVID, we couldn’t have toured anyways. so that was a big stress relief for me,” he says, adding, “I’m doing better, but I gotta be straight with you: I’m still in it.  It’s now been a year and, oh God, a year and eight months, and I’m still going through a depression. it’s the longest stretch I’ve ever had to go through. I’m better in some ways, and in some ways I’m the same.”

Ryder, on the other hand, is feeling brilliant, and for years now has used her past struggles to help others on their journey to mental wellness.

In 2015, she became a spokesperson for Bell Let’s Talk. In a 20-minute segment on CTV’s W5 in 2017, Ryder opened up further about a tour cancellation in 2010 which started with “a super tight chest,” fatigue, and anxiety, and developed into a debilitating six months during which she was bed-ridden. She was diagnosed with bipolar disorder and deep depression. She also became a public speaker, supporting mental wellness, and won the 2018 Margaret Trudeau Mental Health Advocacy Award.

In March of 2021, Ryder released an album, The Art of Falling Apart, chronicling her struggles and recovery, song by song. Today she’s feels like a whole new person, since taking major steps towards her own wellness.  She was already prepared for life’s uncertainties when she cancelled a tour more than a decade ago, or had to delay album-tour-album cycles, so COVID didn’t throw her for a loop.

“For the last three years, I haven’t suffered from any really big ups or downs,” she tells SOCAN. “A lot of that came from how I chose to not drink alcohol anymore. It really changed my life; actually, all of the symptoms that I used to experience when it came to mental wellness really just fell off. It’s been pretty amazing.”

Stressing that everyone is different, Ryder explains that her own wellness regimen consists of yoga and breath work, specifically Kundalini yoga and its “breath of fire” exercises, “different things to just move my body around.” She says dancing for three minutes also helps.

“That was the biggest thing for me with mental wellness during the pandemic; I knew it was going to be a really difficult time for a lot of people,” says Ryder.  “And for people who haven’t experienced any mental health issues, they were starting to experience them, because there’s so much that was unsure. Many people started experiencing anxiety that had never had it before, panic attacks, or depression.”

Along with her “womanager” Sandy Pandya, Ryder started a record label, ArtHaus, and a four-week online wellness program called The Art of Wellness. It started in October of 2020, and they’re nearing their 20th edition. Each 90-minute Zoom group session is moderated by a different counselor — ranging from therapists to doctors —and participants can choose whether or not to be on camera, and are free to ask questions.  She calls it a safe space to heal.

“It’s based on finding your own personal toolkit,” Ryder explains. “Everybody knows what they need best. It’s just that there are people on the other side of it to help facilitate what you know you already need.” They also offer specialized sessions for Black, Indigenous, and People of Colour, as well as LGBTQ2S+ people.

“This time for me has been great because of all of the stuff that I’ve been through,” she says. “When it comes to mental wellness, I was able to be of service. That’s really been such a nourishing part of this lockdown for me, to be someone that can be there, and that knows what it’s like.”

Growing from a specialized publisher to a larger, curated catalogue that grows daily, Toronto-based Nagamo Publishing is filling a void. Its desire: to strengthen Indigenous representation in the film and television industry. So far, the upstart company – which has grown organically over the past year-and-a-half – is succeeding. And it shows no signs of slowing down.

Nagamo’s goals include providing Indigenous composers with opportunities to showcase their talent, as well as giving clients access to their music, which spans all genres and all First Nations. The roots of this venture were planted four years ago, when well-known publishing house Bedtracks’ president and co-founder Oliver Johnson created a production library of Indigenous music called Storytellers. In 2020, the Aboriginal Peoples Television Network (APTN) acquired the organization, which has morphed into Nagamo Publishing.

“The original idea was to build a niche playlist of Indigenous production music to pass around to clients and producers,” explains Nigel Irwin, Nagamo’s co-Creative Director, and also one of its composers. “It was a great door for me to step into. At the time, I was making music, but I didn’t know much about production music… My role just grew organically.”

Until now, there was a lack of Indigenous production music easily accessible, and available, to which the screen industry could turn. According to Irwin, there are a couple of reasons for this untapped potential in the market.

“First, finding composers who are focused on production music is a very specific ask. Since most musicians go down the ‘artist’ route, the pool is already small,” he says. “Indigenous communities also feel like a small pool, but it’s growing fast; there’s just a bit of a disconnect when it comes to opportunity, and potential clients knowing what’s out there.”

Nagamo PublishingSecondly, there was the challenge of Indigenous composers seeing the opportunity as well. Before joining Nagamo, Irwin worked as a facilitator for Indigenous youth programs, and travelled to reservations all across Canada. “I would meet tons of talented kids, but none of them had the mind-set that they could move off the reservation and find a job in this dynamic and cool industry,” he says. “Part of Nagamo’s mission statement is to wave the flag and tell these future composers, ‘There’s an opportunity here.’”

Thirdly, the Canadian music industry didn’t widely consider Indigenous representation before the new era of diversity, equity and inclusion mandates, which Irwin says ultimately is a good thing, allowing for “new people at the table.”

When it comes to Nagamo’s current catalogue, the roster is diverse. That, Irwin adds, is a big selling point. “The moment we tell them it’s Indigenous, there’s so much ground to cover,” he explains. “I like to compartmentalize our music into two broad categories: contemporary and traditional. For example, a Tribe Called Red did a lot for mainstream Indigenous exposure in the area of EDM/dance music, and that’s one style of music we carry in our catalogue.”

Nagamo offers something in many styles, to match any mood a film or TV production is after: from orchestral works and high-energy drum sounds that lend themselves well to epic scores, to acoustic music and traditional throat singers. Irwin name-drops a few of the artists with whom Nagamo is currently working: Jesse Doreen of Six Nations; Andrew Joseph Stevens III (a London, Ontario, based Mi’kmaw artist known on TikTok as Drives the Common Man); Mimi O’Bonsawin, a Métis artist with Abenaki roots; and Jacob Hoskins from Vancouver.

Irwin is also really excited about the recent signing of PJ Vegas — Nagamos’s first artist outside of Canada. Vegas is an award-winning singer-songwriter and trap-beat composer from Los Angeles, whose father Pat is a founding member of 1970s Indigenous American funk-pop band Redbone (best known for their hit song “Come and Get Your Love”).

When he’s not discovering new artists to add to the Nagamo roster (mostly via word-of-mouth these days), Irwin, who traces his indigenous heritage to the Enoch Cree Nation, still finds time to compose.

“As the face of the company my role is to curate and build, but I’m also given time to work on my own art, which is important,” he says. “I’ve got a few things lined up for shows coming soon on CBC’s The Nature of Things. It’s just so exciting… Everywhere we turn we get encouragement. People are really interested now in Nagamo.”

This year, Nicole Beausoleil was honoured with the ninth annual Christopher J. Reed Award, presented by APEM (the Association des professionnels de l’édition musicale), with the support of SOCAN during the Rendez-Vous Pros des Francos. Beyond the tribute paid to her during the event, the award highlights and celebrates her involvement with artists and her outstanding contribution to the recognition of their rights, both here and abroad.

Nicole Beausoleil

Photo: Marie-Michèle Bouchard

The founder and President of Productions Nicole Beausoleil has worked in the field of copyright for more than 30 years. Through her business, she’s been working alongside screen composers since 1996.

“I grew up in a household where music was everywhere,” says Beausoleil, still marvelling at the fact. But it was while she was actually creating music herself that she was struck by the importance of the rights attached to it. “The day comes where you don’t have a choice but to look into copyright,” she says sincerely.

While she was working at SOCAN precursor organization SDE (the Francophoine counterpart to PROCAN), Beausoleil cut her teeth among a group of colleagues and mentors who “were mostly women,” she says. “I worked with Joanne Pouliot, who was a role model for me when I started. Towards the end of my time at SOCAN, I was in charge of A-V [audio-visual]. That’s when I realized I was cut out to work in screen composing.”

Although working an environment that was predominantly female didn’t stand out to her at first, she now recognizes that the people around her, when she began, played a role in shaping her career. “I was quite young when I started out, and I didn’t think along those lines, then,” she explains. “But later I realized that being encouraged to move up the ladder changed everything. The fact that I expressed a desire to move into a new role was valued. That gave me the confidence I needed to create my own job later on.”

Among the key moments that confirmed this choice, in hindsight, Beausoleil names those instances when an artist needs someone who understands their publishing rights. “When you’re working on a TV series and you know there’s a problem with the royalties, but you manage to untangle the dossier, it’s a success that feels great every time,” she says. “Making music for television is more often than not high-pressure work, so it’s that much more satisfying to know that I’m able to render my composers’ work highlighted and respected.”

Beausoleil remembers 1996 as a time when being a freelancer wasn’t in vogue. “The producers I worked with had a hard time taking me seriously, but I won them over after awhile,” she says. “I never hesitated to travel and present my reports in person, as a way to show that I was invested. Nevertheless, the first five years were hard. I had to explain a ton of stuff to everyone.”

“It never fails: I’m always impressed by the quality and beauty of the music composed for our TV series”

Pierre Flynn

Pierre Flynn performs at the ceremony awarding the Christopher-J.-Reed Prize to Nicole Beausoleil. (Photo: Marie-Michèle Bouchard)

For Luc Sicard, Éric Lemoyne, Dazmo, and other screen composers, Beausoleil is a vital bridge between music creators and the production. The repertoire she administers includes more than 600 audio-visual works distributed throughout the world. Her clients include most of Québec’s major production companies.

“The number of A-V works sold internationally that we have in Québec is quite exceptional,” she says. “That means the work I do is vital. One needs to be perceptive and meticulous. It’s a trade where you often find yourself between a rock and a hard place. You have to be there for the composer and their publisher, and do your darndest to serve everyone’s best interest.”

But despite all the hard work, Beausoleil is mainly driven by her passion. “I use the word ‘work,’ but it has a different meaning for me,” she says. “My trade is highly niche. If you tell people you manage an artist, they know what you do, but when I tell people I manage publishing for A-V works, people have no idea what I’m talking about,” she says, giggling. “Luckily, everyone around me is also driven by passion. The people I’ve worked with over the last 30 years have become my friends.”

One of her favourite times of the year is the launch of the fall TV season, which is when she can see the results of her efforts onscreen. “I’m a big consumer of TV series and films,” she admits. “It never fails: I’m always impressed by the quality and beauty of the music composed for our TV series. Music becomes a character in and of itself. It’s a very important aspect of a series’ success.”

She also hopes to see an increasing number of women composing for local series and films. “We always refer to the same examples when we talk about the place of women,” she says. “I think the door will open a little wider when a movie that was produced here [in Québec], and whose score was written by a woman, gets worldwide distribution.

“Screen composing is something that’s often a side gig to a career as a musician, but we’re lucky enough to live in an era where one doesn’t necessarily have to choose one over the other. That’s why I believe the possibilities are there, and the revolution in our trade is near.”