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.”
Photo by , From left to right / De gauche à droite : Claude Brazeau (Ghys Mongeau), Daniel Daignault (Tomy Paré), Kevin Beaulieu (Véranda), Vickye Morin (Phil G. Smith), Lindsay Kennell (Brittany Kennell)
Five Québec country-music rookies to watch
Story by Claude Côté | March 10, 2021
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.
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.
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!
“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.”
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.”
Photo by Yannis Davy
Malika Tirolien: Aiming Higher
Story by Olivier Boisvert-Magnen | March 4, 2021
Nothing on Québec’s music scene sounds like Higher, Malika Tirolien’s sophomore album. Alongside renowned NYC composer Michael League (of Grammy-winning jazz-fusion band Snarky Puppy), the singer-songwriter lays the foundations of her “high soul,” an airy mix of soul, jazz, R&B, and hip-hop.
“If by ‘clash’ you mean ‘a fresh sound that we rarely hear here,’ then you’re absolutely right. It’s exactly what we were aiming for,” says Tirolien when we point out the unique character of her project. “With ‘high soul,’ we wanted to create an original and unique sound that was ours.”
Despite its lack of roots in Québecois musical culture, this hybrid genre has deeply American sources, as evidenced by its similarity to the work of Kamasi Washington, Thundercat, Erykah Badu, and other artists who cross Black music with more ambient and psychedelic overtones.
In the studio, “high soul” is crafted with a great deal of precision. “We placed the microphones and instruments in a specific way,” says Tirolien, also a member of the band Bokanté, as is League, her New York accomplice. “Michael decided to use only three mics to record the drums, which yields a more ‘oval’ and enveloping sound. We also recorded everything at a frequency of 432 Hz, which gives a more natural sound than the 440 Hz typical of pop music. That frequency is supposed to bring us into a state of relaxation, and connection with nature. It’s quite an esoteric belief – you either believe in it or you don’t – but to me, it fit with the album concept.”
The second part of a four-elements-themed quartet of releases, Higher represents the air. Hence its ambient and spiritual themes, flowing logically from the more down-to-earth, rooted concept of Sur la voie ensoleillée, her first album.
This time around, the Guadeloupe-born singer-songwriter invites us on “a psychedelic trip from anger to forgiveness.” The first three songs are a clear warning that this will be an intensely emotional trip. “It’s a suite in three movements,” she says. “First, on ‘No Mercy,’ you have anger, fire, and the urge for revenge. It’s important to go through those feelings if you wish to let go of them, instead of repressing them. Then, once you’ve dealt with all that, you can think about changing. That’s ‘Change Your Life.’ Finally, on ‘Better,’ you’re in the realm of my life’s mantra: mindful thinking. I consciously choose my thoughts so that they remain positive. The idea is not to be toxically positive, but to remain in control of our thoughts when things aren’t going so well.”
And although Higher is an “aerial” album, Tirolien still tackles very real, earth-bound topics. “Prière” re-visits a poem written by her grandfather, Guy Tirolien, challenging head-on the the falsified (and very white) history that’s been perpetuated for centuries in America. “It’s one of the direst consequences of colonization,” she says. “It should be a matter of fact for Black people to learn and know where we’re from. We must be proud of our history,” says the adoptive Montréaler.
Elsewhere, on “Sisters,” she advocates for greater solidarity between women. “Women have competed against each other for a very long time,” says Tirolien. “Reading anthropological writings that dealt with the subject, I understood that it dated back to the time when we had to try to please men, and compete to be protected by the strongest man. It’s in our cultural DNA, but we don’t need it anymore! I’m happy to see that, lately, there’s slightly more unity among women, especially thanks to the mobilization behind the #metoo movement. It’s important to stick together, ’cause we still have a lot of challenges to face.”
The creation of the 11 songs on Higher required a full three years. In their New York studio, Tirolien and League fine-tuned and arranged their musical direction for two of those three years. It was a long-haul endeavour that allowed the artist to learn a lot about herself. “I tend to be a perfectionist and to focus too much on the result rather than the process,” says Tirolien. “I sometimes have a hard time enjoying the present. Thankfully, Michael is there to pull me in the opposite direction.”
Nearly a decade after meeting in a Montréal venue, where she was opening for his band Snarky Puppy, Tirolien says she’s especially happy to have found in Michael League a musician who complements her so well and makes her evolve so much.
Last year, a Grammy nomination for Bokanté (for Best World Album) reminded Tirolien of the importance of going international rather, than limiting themselves to the Québec market. “A lot of change has to happen in Québec for R&B/soul music to be truly accepted,” she says. “Just trying to find a label for myself here showed me how much work remains to be done. I was told, word for word, that my music would never work,” she laments, noting that there’s still no Québec musical gala that rewards her musical genre. “So, while we wait for things to change, I still want to produce myself. I have no choice but to aim higher.”