On a cold, mid-December 2016 night in Toronto, there’s a man singing onstage at The Royal Theatre – usually a movie house – on downtown College Street. Though he’s backed only by a guitarist, and says almost nothing in between songs, his every raspy vocal turn and physical move is rapturously greeted by a sold-out house. Strangely, he’s singing in almost total darkness for the entire performance, with just one dim spotlight from directly overhead – like a shadow in the night.

Clearly, this is one singer-songwriter (and SOCAN member) who appreciates the value of mystery – and who, perhaps, is striving to make it all about the music, while handily maintaining his anonymity, and protecting his personal life.

Meet Allan Rayman, hotly tipped as one of Toronto’s (and Canada’s) next-big-things, due to break out worldwide in 2017. Rayman has already signed a worldwide deal for his 512 Productions label with Communion Records, run by Mumford and Sons’ Ben Lovett; played a sold-out small-theatre tour of North America, headlining over James Vincent McMorrow; grown a rabid cult audience for his music; and is doing a First Play Live performance taping for CBC in Toronto today (Jan. 24, 2017).

But since he steadfastly refuses to be interviewed (for now), and offers no explanations of his work, we’re left on our own to interpret the sound and sense of his music, and the imagery of his videos.

Sonically, Rayman sets his gruff, soulful, sometimes folky vocals and R&B melodies against hip-hop beats. Both on his first album Hotel Allan (initially dropped as a free download), and live, he’s used voicemail messages from a female voice who’s in conflict with him. Lyrically, writing in the first-person, he tends to darkly describe the wreckage of romantic relationships, and often conflates love, sex and death with a heavy sense of dread. It’s intense, and usually riveting. Sample lines include, “I’m a bad habit that you can’t shake,” “I need a selfish kind of girl,” “I am the reason that you let me go.”

Visually, Rayman’s work is even more fascinating. In the videos for three songs from Hotel Allan (“27,” “Beverly” and “Graceland”), the visual aesthetic is that of low-budget, 1970s, updated-film-noir, American “road” movies. He released them one at a time, then revealed a greater purpose by combining them into a narrative short film, The Wolf and The Red Dress –  that saw his male and female leads meet in a diner, make love in a motel room, deal with her presumably shooting him, and awake in an earthly afterlife. In “Beverly,” the shooting is performed by a woman in a wolf mask, a recurring visual motif in his videos. And elsewhere: during the intermission at The Royal Theatre, eight girls in wolf masks and summer dresses lingered, and posed for selfies, on the lip of the stage. For the video of the song “Faust Road,” he used what looks like an old German-expressionist, black-and-white film of the Faust story from the 1920s, solarized and slightly “treated,” visually.

Rayman releases his second album, Roadhouse 01, on Feb. 24, 2017. The first single, “Repeat” –  a duet with the equally fast-rising Jessie Reyez – that premiered on Zane Lowe’s Apple Beats 1 program, no less – delves even deeper into his attraction to darkness and fear. As Rayman writes:

She swingin’ moods just like my mother do
I see the tension overcoming you
The cruel intention starts to shine through
I couldn’t help but fall in love with you

Rayman is poised to conquer the mainstream. But does he want to? As he writes in “27,” “I feel this fame is pending / With all my idols gone I’m afraid of 27.” Like The Weeknd before him, Rayman is hiding in the shadows as he makes his first few albums; if, when, and whether he ultimately chooses to step fully into the light, and even embrace it (like The Weeknd did) is anybody’s guess.

Dear CriminalsInstead of seeing music as an end in itself, Dear Criminals see it instead as a starting point. By effortlessly transcending art forms, Montréal’s electro-folk trio is following its own course and accumulating major projects, the most recent being scoring the movie Nelly.

When we reach the members for this interview, they’re on the road from Rouen to Vendôme, in northwestern France. They’ve just finished a seven-night run of the stage play Les Lettres d’amour, which they scored, and now the three amigos are embarking on a mini-tour that’ll take them to such unusual venues as a chapel, a movie theatre, a lycée (high school) and an old brothel.

“For real, though, it truly is completely different from one night to the next,” says singer and multi-instrumentalist Frannie Holder. “The real challenge is adapting to each environment.”

Band member Charles Lavoie continues: “Our songs are not designed to make people groove in a bar. On the contrary, they’re quite well-suited to being played outside of a conventional setting. I think we, as individuals, are even an incarnation of that peculiarity, because we’re constantly stepping outside of the music world.”

Formed in 2013, Dear Criminals was born of a desire to do things differently. All three members are involved in various musical projects, most notably Random Recipe and b.e.t.a.l.o.v.e.r.s, and all three wanted to go outside of the typical music industry cycle of launching a record and then touring in support of it. “We wanted to do things our way,” says Vincent Legault, a jack-of-all-trades musician. “We decided on a more pragmatic approach and wondered how we could survive in the music world without having to sign with a record label. It’s from that point that opportunities to express ourselves through other media started happening.”

The catalyst of the whole adventure was no doubt their participation in the OFFTA live art festival in 2014. In the wake of the critical success of the their second EP, Crave, Dear Criminals were invited by actress and stage director Monia Chokri to join her for the creation of Foire agricole, a show that saw the band cover, in its unique, electro-minimalist way, the hits of female pop icons like Britney Spears and Mitsou.

So, on top of introducing the band to Montréal’s theatre scene, the event – whose backdrop was the commodification or women – allowed the band to embark on a deeper reflection on the scope of their art. “It was the first time that we talked so profoundly of the meaning behind our artistic objective. Those questions have become indispensable to what we do, now,” says Lavoie.

As a matter of fact, there were many discussions leading to the creation of the Nelly record. Inspired by Anne Émond’s most recent film, itself inspired by the life of writer Nelly Arcan, the EP required several months of reflection and creation. “We felt that the dark, erotic and fragile side of our music was very close to Nelly Arcan’s writing. So when we saw in the papers that Anne was working on a movie about Nelly, we called her up to let her know we were interested,” Holder recalls. “She quickly accepted and told us she didn’t want a conventional movie soundtrack. We then dove into Nelly’s body of work with an analytical eye, seeking something universal. During the process, we realized that the universe we were creating was so rich, we could re-appropriate it.”

Thus, the band’s seventh EP includes re-worked versions of the songs and themes one can hear in the movie, and it stirs a stark emotional contrast, with its muted textures and chilling atmospheres. “We gave ourselves a lot of leeway for this album,” says Lavoie. “It was unavoidable, because of the very nature of Nelly’s personality and body of work.”

The band’s projects are as plentiful as they are diverse, and the trio’s ability to write and compose quickly ensures its stability. Not counting the aforementioned projects, Dear Criminals released two EPs in 2016, on top of composing the score for the TV series Fatale-Station as well as the contemporary dance recital Things Are Leaving Quietly, In Silence, “We just didn’t have the luxury of screwing up!” says Frannie Holder when asked what the band’s secret is for such an intense production schedule. “Luckily, there are three of us, so there’s always one of us who can take the lead.”

Nelly (movie)Their next challenge: a project involving the Académie de l’Opéra de Paris in 2018. As a matter of fact, the musicians took advantage of the French excursion to start brainstorming with stage director Marie-Eve Signeyrole. “It’s a show that looks at eroticism in Generation Y. There’s still a lot of stuff to clarify, but we know we will adapt baroque pieces, among other things,” Lavoie reveals.

Other than that, the next few months will allow the band to catch its breath a little. “We all can’t wait to sit down and think about our future. It’ll feel good to just touch base,” admits Legault. “Right now, I feel we’ve neglected Dear Criminals as a band and focused a little too much on Dear Criminals, the company. What’s happening to us is super-cool, but we can’t wait to start composing from scratch again – just for the fun of it.”

Patrice Michaud burst onto the scene with his second album, Le feu de chaque jour, and its massive single “Mécaniques générales” (which won the Prix de la chanson SOCAN in 2014) – now, he’s back with a third album where he’s allowed himself a few bold moves without turning his back on his signature simplicity. We flipped through his Almanach with him.

Success is a strange, savage beast. Most artists spend their whole career hunting it down, but once they’re face to face with it, some freeze and let it run away from them. When singer-songwriter Patrice Michaud crossed paths with it after “Mécaniques générales,” he stared it down and immediately tamed it.

“Popularity – and I say that tongue in cheek, because it’s not like people stop me on the street all the time – isn’t something that bothers me at all,” says Michaud. “I make music and release it on records in the hope that people will listen to my songs and come see me onstage. Art for art’s sake is not my thing! I seek a connection with the audience, and even though it was sometimes tough to manage work and private life in the past few years, I don’t regret a single thing.”

Michaud’s candour could surprise some, but it’s precisely that simplicity and directness that’s made him one of Québec audiences’ favourite artists. Michaud, like his music, is frank and accessible. His teenage-looking face sits atop a beanpole figure that bears no resemblance to any kind of rock-star stereotype. He has a knack for creating intimate and timeless songs, that are nonetheless anchored in their epoch, and that grab your heart before settling in your mind.

“When people do stop me in the street, I always get the impression they only half recognize me,” he admits. “Often, they’ll sing a bit of one of my songs to me, and I love it, because it means I’ve moved them with what I do in life, with the songs I write, not because of how I look. They don’t like me because I appear on game shows or talk shows on TV, but because of the one thing I want to do in life, and that makes me really happy.”

“I’ll never go in a studio thinking, ‘OK, I need “Mécaniques générales” number two.’ There’s no shorter path to disappointment!”

So Michaud certainly isn’t complaining about the fact that he struck a chord in such a vast audience with “Mécaniques générales.” And although past success is never a guarantee of future success, he also knows that his excellent current single, “Kamikaze,” is in heavy rotation on both commercial and public radio. This first impression bodes well for his upcoming Almanach album.

“I’ll never go in a studio thinking, ‘OK, I need “Mécaniques générales” number two.’ There’s no shorter path to disappointment! Still, I have to admit that it somewhat changed my approach, because it allowed me to develop my interest towards the efficiency of pop songs. It basically is with that song that I’ve grown from the pared-down folk sound of my early days. But let’s be clear, ‘Kamikaze’ has nothing in common with it, one way or the other. Frankly, I wasn’t even sure it was the right material for a single.”

A Fresh Start

Michaud is the first to admit it: Almanach is his most heterogeneous album to date. He hasn’t abandoned the folk-rock sound he’s been perfecting since he began his career, but one can still sense an openness to new sounds and new ways of doing things. First, a desire to groove, but foremost, a desire to challenge himself, one that his new collaborator, jack-of-all-trades producer Philippe Brault, understood right away.

“If I compare myself to certain people in my entourage, I can readily admit I’m not much of a music connoisseur,” Michaud admits. “But I’ve caught up in the last two years; I probably listened to more music during that time than in the rest of my entire life! I’ve tuned my ear to production values, and also quite a bit to the search for certain tonalities. Before I started, I spoke to Philippe about what I was looking for, and a lot about my favourite band, Doctor Dog [a Philadelphia band that’s very influenced by the sounds of the ‘60s and ‘70s]. His face lit up immediately, because he understood that we were going to have fun.”

But although the recording process was fun, the birth of Almanach wasn’t easy. Inspiration just wasn’t there, and Michaud was left wondering when he would actually be able to write again, until a proverbial fairy godmother crossed his path. “A new friend (TV host France Beaudoin), who I call my benefactor, lent me her cabin so I could retreat to write, and it really helped,” says Michaud. “That’s where I created, quite rapidly, the song ‘Anse Blanche.’”  That magnificent and contemplative song features the guitar work of Brad Barr (of The Barr Brothers) and Michaud’s decidedly very apt writing, where he sings that the St-Laurent river is his “Main” (referring to Montréal’s St-Laurent Boulevard, dubbed “The Main”).

Also, in order to flex his composer muscles, he also found inspiration in others, notably deciding to do a French adaptation of the song “Temazcal” by the American supergroup Monsters of Folk (M Ward, Conor Oberst, Mike Mogis of Bright Eyes and Jim James of My Morning Jacket). “Thing is, I don’t speak English, so I adapted their song in a very liberal way,” says Michaud. “It was a simple writing exercise, but when we actually produced the album, I thought it fit perfectly at the tail end of it.”

It’s been said before: Michaud has a knack for finding the right phrase. His carefully and passionately crafted lyrics are at the very heart of his approach. But don’t you go congratulating him for the magical phrase around which “Kamikaze” is built (“Love is not a thing / It’s a place”). It was lifted straight out of Réjean Ducharme’s novel Le Nez qui Voque. Call it poetic sampling.

“It’s not the first time I nod to a writer, but here it’s the very core of the song, so we needed to clear it with the publisher, Gallimard,” says Michaud. “It’s something I launched in the universe without any hopes of success. I actually believed that the odds were 90% that I wouldn’t even get a response, 7% I would be denied, and a small possibility that it would work. And they said yes! It means a lot to me, because Ducharme is a huge influence for me.”

The People’s Almanach

On his third album, Michaud admits being at peace with the idea that he “writes the same song over and over,” and he also introduces new voices. There’s Ariane Moffatt’s voice, majestic and ethereal on the duet “Les terres des la Couronne,” and also that of Loïc, his four-year-old son, who is the narrator on “Tout le monde le saura,” a grave yet luminous text that akin to a prayer for an uncertain future.

“I’d promised myself I wouldn’t include a spoken word piece on Almanach because I’d done so on the previous two albums<” says Michaud. “But since I rarely keep my word, I ended up doing it with that text, but I didn’t want to read it myself. We tried all kinds of versions: male, female, polyphonic… and after testing it with my son, I found that the piece took on a whole new meaning. He probably didn’t understand what he was saying, but he did it with an immense smile, and I was very moved by his interpretation.”

It’s also from this piece that the album’s title comes, the strange Almanach which Loïc pronounces like it’s some kind of exotic fruit. “I have a love-hate relationship with my song titles,” says Michaud, when asked about the meaning of that title. “That’s because I’m the biggest fan of titles, in all art forms, and that’s made me extremely exacting about my own. This one came late in the process, but I like Almanach, it’s a beautiful and slightly intriguing word. The almanac was a book that compiled important information on harvests, moon cycles and weather patterns, as well as anecdotes, recipes and useless news. In other words, it was a grab-bag of the practical and the useless, both sacred and profane, and it was originally distributed by door-to-door salesmen. In the end, it reminded me of what I do quite a bit…”

The image is indeed quite appropriate: one easily imagines Patrice Michaud as a door-to-door poet, wandering country roads to pitch his songs to the good people. He’ll settle for wandering from venue to venue during his upcoming tour, which begins in February – and which we imagine will be a long and fruitful one.