The deep, abiding love men have for their trucks is the subject of the latest single from the platinum-selling James Barker Band, “New Old Trucks.” It’s also what makes huge numbers of country music fans relate to the song, according to singer/guitarist James Barker, who wrote it, along with Jordan Minton, Hunter Phelps, and Casey Brown, at Brown’s house in Nashville.

When the songwriters gathered to share ideas, they discovered that both Minton and Phelps had the song title in their notes. “We all knew what it was going to be about,” Barker says. “It instantly clicked when we heard that phrase. And the fact that two of us already had it – we were, like, ‘It’s a sign.’ It was really quick to write. Casey is such a good producer, and he was building up the track as we were doing it, and it just kind of came together.”

Things are also coming together for the James Barker Band, who toured the U.S. and Canada in 2021, and have a popular multi-channel livestream series, with 200 million global streams. In the past few years, the band has amassed six gold-certified and two platinum-certified singles, which include “There’s A  Drink For That,” “Just Sayin’,” “It’s Working,” “Lawn Chair Lazy,” “Good Together,” “Summertime,”  “Chills” (platinum) and “Keep It Simple” (platinum),  and a gold-certified EP (Game On). Barker also recently landed his first publishing deal, with Keith Urban’s Kobalt-administered BOOM, and the band has signed a U.S. record deal with Sony Music Nashville and Villa 40.

“New Old Trucks” is a nostalgic ode to beloved trucks, especially a specific one. “Off-white 350 Farmer Four / Gotta pump the throttle, gotta slam the door,” it begins, continuing with lines about the “dent from a fencepost I didn’t see coming,” and a chorus that goes, “Daddy had it for the first hundred K / I drove the rest, wouldn’t sell or trade / That many miles of memories for a million bucks / ‘Cause they ain’t making new old trucks.”

“Dierks said, ‘This song is about my truck!’”

“People relate to it because it’s real,” says Barker, who grew up in rural Ontario, along with bandmates Taylor Abram, Connor Stephen and Bobby Martin. “I never had a truck that I inherited from my dad, but my best friend in high school did. And another buddy cranked a fencepost in a field, and had to drive his truck around with a dented door for four years. Every time I hear that, I laugh.

“Shared experiences are such a key part of songwriting. It’s kind of the magic of it – finding a way to pull those same memories out of the listener, but not being so specific that they can’t relate to it. And that’s what we shot for with this song: making listeners think of their own first truck, or the one they still drive.”

That’s what made country star Dierks Bentley (with 17 of his own Billboard U.S. No. 1 Country singles) want to contribute a vocal to the track, after the band’s AR representative played him the demo while they were – of course! – driving in a truck. “Dierks has this old truck that he inherited from his dad, and it’s a white Chevy with a 350 in it,” Barker explains. “So he said, ‘This song is about my truck!’ It sounds contrived, but we didn’t know that when we wrote it. He was, like, ‘I want to sing on this song,’ and he did. It was wild.”

Those shared experiences also led to a smooth songwriting session. “It’s a back-and-forth process,” Barker explains. “We’ll get the pulse of everyone in the room – who’s more of a lyricist and who’s more melodically inclined – but everybody contributes and molds things. Somebody has to be the first to play something, and somebody else will say, ‘That’s cool, but what if this chord changed here instead of here,’ or something. And that’s how that song went. That’s how it always goes. It’s never one person having the whole thing figured out; it’s always all the writers.

“Writing should feel intuitive,” he adds. “Everybody has biases from what they’ve listened to, and you kind of need everybody’s collective melodic memory to make sure you’re doing something that’s going to be intuitive for other people. I feel like that’s what happened with ‘New Old Trucks.’”

La Zarra Fatima Zahra is a late-blooming artist, but she’s already attracting a lot of attention in Europe,  thanks to a voice that rivals those of Edith Piaf or Barbara Streisand. Known under her alias, La Zarra, the young woman based in Longueuil (a South-shore Montréal suburb) has been signed by Universal Music Canada and Polydor France, and her debut album Traîtrise (Treachery) will be launched Dec. 3, 2021.

“I can’t really explain the success I’ve had these last months,” says Zahra, who seems a little bewildered, because although she’s always harboured a deep interest in music, she was actually pursuing another career path.

“Until very recently, I was a hairdresser,” she says. “Those years of experience were really helpful. I fine-tuned my ears listening to Barbara [Streisand] while I worked. I’ve never taken singing lessons or vocal coaching, and I can’t answer when people ask what key I’m singing in,” she giggles. She grew increasingly bored with her chosen profession, and when she suddenly became allergic to hair dyes, it struck her as a sign that a career in music could become more than a dream. “Except I wouldn’t have the maturity I have with my music if it weren’t for hairdressing,” she says.

A few years ago, she met Montréal-based producer Benny Adam (Rymz, Tizzo, Zach Zoya), which provided an opportunity to get acquainted with her own musical persona. That seed grew slowly, over a period of a few years, until it became a bona fide project: she decided she would pitch a few song ideas to the producer. “The few songs we created together were an instant hit in Europe, and a record label gave me the tools to start exploring more songs, alongside musicians,” says Zahra. The auspicious star that shines for her on the other side of the ocean even earned her a nomination as the Francophone Revelation of the Year at the NRJ Awards on Nov. 20, 2021.

It’s never the same, for her, when it comes to writing a new song. “Sometimes it starts with a melody or a sentence I really want to use,” she says. “I sing about love, friendship, relationships, but my songs are generally more about over-arching feelings that they are specific stories. It can start from hatred, joy, anger, but in the end, it’s always about emancipating myself. I’m still on the path between the woman I used to be and the woman I want to become.” One thing clear to Zahra is that since music has become the focus of her life, she never feels like she’s working. “It’s not work, to me,” she says. “I sing when I’m cleaning my apartment, and verses just come to me. When I’m in a creative mood, it can go on for quite awhile, and ideas just pour out of me.”

Unlike some success stories rooted online, through shares and likes, La Zarra owes her meteoric rise only to her talent being noticed – and celebrated. “I don’t like showing off, and I just don’t understand the very concept of ‘influencer,’” she says. “I started being popular when industry types started saying something was happening. I really wanted an old-school career. I wanted to work with a label that signs me, and then tells me to start working. Step by step, I’m observing the audience react to my presence in the musical landscape. I’m earning new fans, one by one, and I believe it’s the only way to build a career in music that will last. And that’s exactly what I want.”

After producing her music with no time constraints, using the tools required to make the process run as smoothly as possible, the time will come for La Zarra to get onstage – but she says she’s not yet fully comfortable with that idea. “Music is so new that I haven’t had time to get acquainted with the stage,” she says. “In a studio you can do one more take, if you’re filming a video you can warm up, but on a stage, you can’t lie. We’re starting work on my show, and I’m re-arranging my songs so they feel more organic and natural. That’s the real challenge.”

Although she plans to promote her album in France first, she’s convinced that reaction overseas will eventually be translated as strongly in Québec. “I am Québécoise, but I also know that the French market is difficult, which is why I want to take advantage of my success,” she says. “In the end, I want to be successful in both markets. I’d also like to promote my album in Northern Africa. And then… there’s the rest of the world.”

“I got into music because of my health issues,” confides Céleste Lévis, a 26-year-old songwriter originally from Timmins, Ontario. “I had to undergo brain surgery when I was 14 because it was compressing my spinal cord. Nowadays I’m doing so well. I have to go round-trip to Toronto once a week for a treatment to deal with the pain. My headaches sometime radiate all the way down to my legs. The only moment I’m not in pain is when I’m high on adrenaline because I’m singing. But as soon as I’m done, the fun is over. That’s why I write songs: so I can move forward!”

Celeste LevisHer fourth album, Si tu veux tout savoir, is unencumbered by frivolous things, and offers eight straightforward, bona fide folk-rock songs. It was produced during the pandemic alongside her husband, multi-instrumentalist Marc-Antoine Joly, in the basement studio of the couple’s Ottawa home.

“The goal,” according to Lévis, “was to achieve an indie rock band sound with more emphasis on the drums, and songs that are more pop,” says the artist, mostly known for her duets.

Are they love songs? “I’ll remain vague on that topic; it’s not really an album about relationships,” says the newlywed. “It’s a snapshot of the last 12 months, so if you want to know everything about me, you have to listen to them!”

From this rather unusual endeavour rises a genuine personality, all of whose stories have a common thread, a shared ambiance and atmosphere. “I’ll arrive in the studio with melodies, chords, and the lyrics,” says Lévis. But during the pandemic, I kept asking myself if I’ve said and sung everything. I was afraid of that.”

Guitars “intertwang” perfectly in order to get the best of her head voice. “I’ve always had a deeper voice, but this time around, I understood that it’s an instrument, and I pushed myself to sing more nuanced notes and more complex melodies,” she says. “I was afraid of that voice, but I’ve decided to embrace it.” Although there are no songs that seem revolutionarily innovative, one can definitely hear a major influence from the American duo The Civil Wars, among other charming contradictions.

Flashback to 2015, when Lévis was living in Montréal’s Hochelaga-Maisonneuve neighbourhood, and a contestant on La Voix (the Québec franchise of The Voice TV singing competition). “Moisi Moé’ssi,” by Fred Fortin, is one of the songs she sang, while playing her Gibson SG-200 with great detail. “It represented me well, even though it wasn’t one of my songs,” she says. “I’d already played talent shows like Ma première Place des Arts [2013] and the Festival international de la chanson de Granby [revealed at Ontario Pop]”. After her journey on La Voix, she was signed by Tandem Musique, and then opened 18 shows for Francis Cabrel. Six songs in 20 minutes, every night.

How hard is it to sing in French in Northern Ontario, despite trailblazers like Robert Paquette and Cano? “Contact Ontarois during Rideau in Québec Cityc, and the Trille Or gala every other year, give us better visibility and the context is generally more favourable for the province’s songwriters,” says Lévis. “I also had the chance to record live sessions at Madame Wood studio in Montréal in the midst of the pandemic, to boost the songs from my album Donnes-moi le temps [2018]. I’m serene as far as that’s concerned; the communications and promotion networks are increasingly efficient.

“Ontario’s Francophone community knows how to find itself, even 10 hours’ drive apart!” she continues. “We’re lucky, ’cause there ain’t a lot of us. On the other hand, there’s generally one venue per town where we can play, so once you’ve played one place, it might take three or four years before you play it again.”

In 2020, she released a Christmas album, Noël Tout autour, which she managed to write during the pandemic. She notably covers Robert Charlebois’ “Marie-Noël. Avec des mots qui grimpent au ciel.” She will tour that album throughout Ontario, with an additional stop in Montréal.