When Charmaine first started writing songs as a teenager, her goal was to use her natural talents to help her family get out of a rough patch. At the time, her dad had lost his job and the family was living in a motel. She signed up to perform at a talent show at Lee’s Palace in Toronto, where an A&R rep from Warner Music Canada was going to be present.

“I was underage, so my mom had to come with me, and I had to wait outside the venue until it was my turn,” says Charmaine. “Then I went inside, performed, and everything’s been kind of magic since.”

Born in Zimbabwe, Charmaine immigrated to North America as child, living in Chicago, Stevensville (Michigan), and Nashville, before eventually landing in Toronto. Although the city’s diverse population introduced Charmaine to new global sounds, it was the raw and energetic down-South rap music she grew up listening to in Nashville that had the biggest influence on her music. Her latest single “WOO!” is a feminist anthem filled with swagger and a relentless beat.

“We wanted a turn-up vibe, a song that women could listen to when they’re out with their friends, having a blast,” says Charmaine. “It’s about being really content with the woman that you are, and not allowing anyone who is not of value to penetrate your vibe.” Later this year, Charmaine will release her debut EP with Warner Music Canada.

More than just a lyrical theme, female empowerment drives her mission as an artist. “I feel like a lot of local female artists don’t get the recognition they deserve,” she says. “There’s a good amount of us who are super-talented and making amazing music, but it’s like we always have to compete against the men, and we get lost in the shadows. I’m just trying to bring light towards the female rap scene in the city, to show we can do it, too.”



35Is country music on the brink of a comeback in Quebec? If the quickly expanding pool of artists from every region of the province, the diversity of styles being played, and the ever-growing number of festivals, labels, and radio shows are anything to go by, it certainly looks like the chickens have come home to roost.

We asked Nadia Houle, CEO of Culture Country; Karo Laurendeau, country singer and host of the show Destination New Country; and Melissa Maya Falkenberg, journalist and columnist, to help us select five new artists who deserve to gain more attention from the general public, and whose progress we should be watching closely over the next 12 months.

Brittany Kennell

The 32-year-old Montréaler has returned home after a 10-year exile to the U.S. Kennell spent a whole decade studying at Boston’s prestigious Berklee School of Music, and followed her dream all the way to Nashville, country music capital of the world. She’s played at both the Blue Bird Café and The Basement, mandatory rites of passage for any dedicated apprentice.

Aa a contestant on The Voice, Brittany was selected by county star Blake Shelton, husband of songstress Gwen Stefani, after having presented three songs. This is major visibility.

“Mostly, I just wanted to learn,” she says. “At that point, I was still waitressing at a restaurant and not at all ready to embrace a full-on career. During the six-week production period, we were all confined to a hotel. It was quite bizarre.

“Singing the national anthem at a Habs game makes me far more nervous than having performed three songs for millions of American viewers. Everyone knows the lyrics!” Fun fact about Brittany: her great-grandfather was Calixa-Lavallée, who composed said hymn!

The music of Brittany Kennell brings a breath of fresh air and a sense of clarity. Her simple ballads, adorned with a wisp of anguish, and her vibrantly intense vocals, convey a certain sensuality through her country sound. A short but feverish embrace, as previously served up by artists like Casey Musgrave, Sheryl Crow, Bonnie Raitt… “My goal is to find my own voice among modern and traditional country artists, without copying anyone,” the singer says.

Wishing to re-launch her career in Quebec, she soon met Joëlle Proulx of l’Agence Ranch, who then became her agent. All the commentators agree: Kennell is on the brink of worldwide fame. For the last few months, she’s been busy making videos, jogging in the Old Port, and refining her marketing strategy with Proulx: Artifice and Warner Music are new to the team, and Kennel is already booked for the St-Tite and Lasso Festivals. “I live a more balanced life in Montréal,” she says.

Phil G. Smith

>

All the elegance of a skillful lasso throw. He seems poised to become a phenomenon of this brand-new decade. Thirty-year-old Philippe Gaudreault has even found the perfect alias: Phil G. Smith. It doesn’t really get more “country” than that…

Hailing from the Ottawa Valley, Smith never felt the urge to start a punk band after seeing Blink 182 perform at Montebello’s Rockfest. He’s never even set foot there. “I prefer Gatineau’s Hot Air Balloon Festival!” he says. “That’s where I first caught the country bug, especially after hearing bands like André Varin, and Chakidor.

“Singing country music in French is a dream come true for me,” he continues. “When I realized it was possible to write genuinely great songs, like Les Cowboys Fringants, Kaïn, or Vincent Vallières have been doing, I jumped in. I also benefit from the influence of performers like Tim McGraw and the Zac Brown Band, whom I’d catch at Ottawa’s BluesFest. I’m exploring the gap between two worlds.”

Smith is smart as a whip,a poised interviewee, an artist with two EP’s already in circulation, founder of the Disques Far-West label, one half of the Wild West duo, propagator of country-rock, and fulfilled business owner; he seems  to possess a boundless enthusiasm for discovery.

His rock-forward style of country has resulted in his recently opening for the band Kaïn. Smith will also take part in the first edition of Lasso, the first large-scale country festival to take place in Montréal.

After having launched his first records in 2019, and having garnered four nominations at the Country Gala, Smith is sure to turn heads throughout 2020; he’s playing with a full deck.

Véranda

The francophone Bluegrass duo Véranda, comprised of actor Catherine Audrey Lachapelle (her District 31 TV show character having recently died) and string instrument virtuoso Léandre Joly-Pelletier continues merrily on its way, without a care for fashion, and other such dictates that the music market throws at them.

“We’re completely obsessed with old country music, bluegrass, and folk,” says Lachapelle. The couple, who met during bluegrass nights at Barfly in Montréal, harbour a noble wish: “We want to adapt it to our culture, using our words.”

Bluegrass is about finding joy in sadness, and bearing witness to death in life. “Especially when it comes to murder ballads, explains the guitarist, whose vocal stylings are clear and heart-wrenching. The EP Woodland Waltz, launched in 2019, and Yodel Bleu, a French-language EP launched last year, are intricate works. “From the start, we always aimed to stay close to the American style,” specifies Joly-Pelletier, “we wanted to maintain a traditional feel.”

No one could rightly accuse them of being mere revivalists. Instrumentalists deserve recognition, but lyrics and storytelling are almost as important. “As a duo, we like to take the time to write, take the time to fine-tune particular sections,” says Joly-Pelletier. “Sometimes, we’ll only play songs we like just for the fun of it. Music is constantly swirling around us.”

“We’re currently putting the finishing touches on a full album which we hope to launch at the start of 2022,” says Lachapelle. “A few singles might drop by next fall, but we still aren’t signed to a label.”

Véranda’s videos are exquisite, and their love of the genre is palpable. Thanks to them, country music is branching out in a manner rarely seen in Québec. Lucky us!

Tomy Paré

“Mixed background, no ID, with Native blood in the family.” This is how 44-year-old Tomy Paré introduces himself. A newcomer to the world of country music with his remarkable EP À perpétuité, the singer-songwriter hails from Neufchâtel, near Québec City, arrived in Montréal at the age of 28, and has honed his craft playing in bars  for years.

He perfected his innate talent for composition and song writing by claiming his spot at the Ma première place des arts contest in 2008, and by learning from Luc de Larochelière at Granby’s École Nationale de la chanson in 2005.

“Songwriting has always come easily to me,” says Paré. “And I write all my own songs, except for Luc’s [who gifted him “Mes ambitions”]. But I also enjoy receiving texts from authors.” After launching two EP’s hovering at the edge of country music, Paré decided to take the plunge for À perpétuité and hired well-known musicians – like Jean-Guy Grenier, an expert at the pedal steel guitar. Tomy’s gamble is starting to pay off.

“Patrick Norman helps me out with my guitar playing, he gives me advice,” says Paré. “He invited me to appear on his TV show Pour l’amour du country, in 2018. Since last year, I’ve been practising my thumb-picking a lot, I want to improve. Initially, I was labelled a country singer because of my voice. I do sing a lot of love songs, but telling stories is just as captivating, like on “Tomahawk.”

For the time being, Paré doesn’t have a band. “I hire freelancers and I have a brand-new team, so we’ll see how things develop throughout the year,” he says. “At the moment, I’m writing the next record, which should come out in 2022. One song at a time.”

Ghys Mongeon

Steadily doing his own thing, Ghyslain Mongeon eventually found himself at the helm of the Ottawa Valley’s distinctive country culture. Can an artist still be called “emerging” at 36 years old? Although Mongeon’s situation may seem somewhat absurd, the prolific singer-songwriter’s straightforward yet masterful country stylings could be described as free-spirited. He barely leaves his hometown, even though he did perform five years in a row at the St-Tite Western Festival.

His interpretation of intimate, painful experiences can deeply move the listener, with minimal pretense. His most recent album, Chasser l’ennui, being a prime example.

“The song ‘Une dernière fois’ is about a disagreement I had with my sister, and the fact that she passed away before we could reconcile,” says Mongeon. “Each song is linked to a real-life event. For ‘Pu Capable,’ finding inspiration was extremely easy: I was caught in traffic and the lyrics just came to me! I put my phone on hands-free mode and rattled off every thought that passed through my head.”

“The song ‘Chasser l’ennui’ is about couples separating, there are so many these days. I’ve been through it myself… La Pêche is the name of the municipality I live in, and the song is a sort of love letter. I find it difficult to write about a particular subject, that’s why my second album took four years to complete.”

Mongeon is solid as a rock. Every Saturday, his Ça va bien aller virtual get-togethers have streamed live on Facebook, from his living room, since March 2020. A true dynamo, he sometimes ends up playing for more than four hours. “It’s not work, it’s simply good fun. I want to reach out to people. Onstage, I’m in a trans-like state!” he laughs.

“I’m a Quebecker, through and through. I sing with my accent; I don’t try to disguise it. I sing like I speak! My style is definitely country, but I’d also call it traditional. I’ve found what suits me and I won’t stray from this path. I have no desire to offer a ‘new country’ sound.”



“As an artist, my role is not to conform to what the audience wants me to do. It’s me showing them my world,” says Haniely Pableo, better known as Han Han. It’s a Friday afternoon and the operating-room nurse is enjoying a well-deserved day off. Her voice is raspy with fatigue, but her words are far from weary.  “I’m quite aware of what their world is,” she continues. “Especially being in North America, being an immigrant, being a person of colour, and someone who grew up in the East, I’m already immersed here. I know their world, but they don’t know mine.”

In 2014, HanHan released her eponymous EP. It was fierce and honest, rooted in cultural pride, in both the languages in which she exclusively rapped – Tagalog and Cebuano – and its use of traditional instrumentation. Her vocal style defied the stereotype of the sweet, passive Filipina, and her lyrics called everyone out: misogynist, destructive colonial legacies, and divisions among the diaspora. Yet from the beginning, the emcee’s path to music was rooted in an urgent need for self-expression and community.

In 2008 – two years into re-uniting with her mother in Canada – Pableo began taking a poetry workshop. A serendipitous string of events unfolded, guiding her to an artist-rooted community of like-minded poets, musicians, performers, and activists. Her new artistic family helped her create a career in music that she never imagined. Today, even with growing recognition, and her debut full-length album, URDUJA, slated for 2020, Pableo remains unmoved by suggestions she become more “mainstream” and “accessible” by performing in English.

“I read this article somewhere that said crossing over to the Western audience shouldn’t be considered the highest privilege, because the Western audience are the ones missing out on a lot of creative culture beyond the borders of the West,” she says. “I’m different than most of the female artists I’m usually lined [up] with in festivals, but I never feel that I don’t have the power. When I’m on the mic, I have the power.”

And the community she found a decade ago remains her greatest source of power. “I’m grateful that I have [this] community, and it’s primarily women – we do different things, but our values are aligned.”
________________

In her Toronto home, Casey Mecija, the multi-disciplinary artist and new mother, is pondering how integral community and collaboration have been to her own artistry, most notably as the lead vocalist and songwriter for orchestral-pop band Ohbijou. “I’m energized by collaboration,” she says. “Much of my work with Ohbijou was about what music can produce [when we’re] in collaboration with each other.”

Nonetheless, in 2016, Mecija went solo with the release of her contemplative debut, Psychic Materials. “It was an opportunity for me to focus and reflect inward, prioritize my songwriting voice in a way that I hadn’t. It was a channel of autonomy.”

Music as a space for personal exploration and revelation has driven Mecija for much of her life. At first a strategy of integration by her parents, to help their Canadian-born children weave into the fabric of the larger community, it soon became Mecija’s sanctuary. “Music as a form didn’t insist that I knew how to say the things that I wanted to say,” she says. “It’s poetic. It’s about emotion. And for me, sometimes expressing my feelings through words was difficult.”

But as a second-generation Canadian, in a society that often ignores or flattens people of colour in order to fit pre-conceived ideas, she’s faced inherent challenges.

What does Filipinx mean?
The term Filipinx is born out of a movement to create space for and acknowledge non-gender-binary members of the formerly “Filipino/Filipina” diaspora in the white-centric, binary places to which their parents decide to move (e.g., Canada, the United States, etc.). The gender-neutral “Filipinx” is also seen as a way to de-colonize identity, since the gendered terms were brought about by Spanish colonization. It’s one way to be more inclusive and respectful of that community.

“There’s often conflations of the colour of one’s skin to the sound of one’s music,” she says. “It’s easy to say that someone who’s Filipino, or Filipinx, plays Filipinx music. I don’t displace that affiliation – because I am Filipinx, and what I produce is from my embodied experience – but sometimes I think that that association can be lazy. And, I’m not from the Philippines, so being second-generation can have a disorienting impact on [my] relationship to a geography that I don’t particularly know.” Mecija incorporates what she calls the “messiness” by surrendering the need for neat, easy conclusions about self and society.

“The songs [don’t] arrive at any concrete conclusions about who I am and where I’m from, [or] who I desire,” she says. “My lyrics are in process, they’re in search of something that I know I’ll never find an answer to, which is much like my quest for what my cultural identity means here in Canada. I don’t deal with issues of gender, sexuality, culture, in ways that are too explicit, either. For me, those are nuanced conversations, nuanced experiences.”
________________

For Vancouver-based, multi-disciplinary, gender-fluid singer-emcee Kimmortal, making music that explores identity, dismantles colonialism, and transforms society is a bold mission. And lyricism is their tool. Starting as a dancer, Kimmortal grew to revere hip-hop culture, one founded in resistance and hard-earned self-love.

“I grew up in the suburbs of Surrey, where all the white kids around me listened to Christian rock,” they say. “I saw hip-hop and rap – Black music – as the antithesis to this. I found my style and self in hip-hop. I also learned about my Filipinx community through the lens of rappers like Blue Scholars, Bambu, Rocky Rivera, and Kiwi Illafonte.”

Rap’s insistence on, and even veneration of, authenticity also felt right to them. Their candid, vulnerable music brings an intimacy to hip-hop that’s reminiscent of Lauryn Hill. In 2019, their stellar release X Marks the Swirl showcased a voice impossible to ignore.

“You can tell a wack rapper apart from an awesome possum through [your] honesty, owning who you are, and how you hold your self and story,” they say. “I focus on whatever I’m going through at the time – reflections on my community, on radical love with self and others, [on] doubt and anxieties, as well as the magic and possibilities.” Most importantly, their music is a space for those who’ve long been oppressed. “I speak to the queer and Filipinx and POC community, which is the same community that speaks to me,” they say.

When asked if having the prefix “Filipinx” preceding discussions about their music is inhibiting, the answer is a resounding no. “It’s important to note, because I am who I am: queer, Filipinx, “Canadian” on unceded Indigenous [Coast Salish] land. More Filipinx artists [are] speaking about our diverse experiences, and further complexifying the single narrative. We’re not just [going to] be homogenized as Asian – we have a distinct history.”

And it is these distinct voices that all three artists want championed, while also being cautious about the “new voices” trope. “It’s important to question the rhetoric of ‘emergence,’” says Mecija, who cites an industry that, to this day, prominently focuses on white, hetero-normative artists. “People have been creating music in this city and Canada for a long time – Maylee Todd, Phèdre. There all of these artists that understand themselves as being Filipinx.”

Kimmortal agrees, and finds it heartening that many are looking to each other, not the purported “mainstream” for appreciation.

“Recognition is fleeting,” they say. “Filipinx in the diaspora are tuning into each other through the internet, and our ancient wisdom. De-colonization is something many POC communities are coming to. Many of us are on land that is not our ancestors’. We begin to question our own cultures – like, who the fuck is King Philip, anyways? And what [does] it mean to be Filipino outside of our colonial history?”