Francesco Yates is a young singer from Toronto who may just be the next big thing in pop and R&B. He began playing music at age 11, and it soon became his life, as he signed his first deal with Atlantic Records at 16. Now, at only 18, he’s already received glowing accolades from taste-making publications like Complex, Billboard, The Source and MTV U.K., as well as personal praise from such pop heavyweights as Pharrell Williams, Timbaland and Justin Timberlake. “My goal is to make people happy with my music,” says Yates. “If I can pull that emotion out of people from my music or live performance, than I’ve done my job.” Catch Francesco on tour this fall with Texas R&B singer SoMo.
“Many musicians would like to have the opportunity to compose movie soundtracks and television music. I understand why. It’s a fascinating job. It pays well. But you’re not going to get there on talent alone.”
Coming from James Gelfand, a composer who has scored 60 films (Pinocchio 3000, Cyberbully, Swamp Devil) and 200 TV series episodes (Sous un ciel variable, Jack Paradise, Virginie, Crusoe), this assessment might sound a bit surprising. Sitting in front of his piano, an instrument that has taken him to the world’s leading jazz festivals over the years, the Montreal musician talks rapidly, as if to accommodate several ideas trying to come out at once. His answers to our questions are somewhat convoluted, but he doesn’t seem to care. “I don’t use a filter when I’m being interviewed,” he explains. “I speak my mind.”
“When a producer brings you his comments, you listen to him and say yes.”
At 55, Gelfand, a winner of many SOCAN composition awards, looks back on his past work lucidly, and in a straightforward manner that the future John Williams of the film composition world might find enlightening. “What’s really going to help you along, in this profession, is your ability to deconstruct a film script, to figure out what makes the characters tick, to understand the emotional mood of each scene, and to feel the dramatic tension of the story,” he says. “You have to be able to establish a connection with the director, such that you can understand his movie without having actually seen it. But most of all, you have to realize that you’re not in this type of work to please yourself. The client’s expectations must come first,” claims the much in demand composer whose list of customers includes the likes of HBO, PBS, NBC, Lionsgate and Lifetime.
“I remember working stubbornly on a film score trying to produce something unique,” says Gelfand. “I was racking my brain to create something different, something deep. When I finally presented the result to the director, he asked me to come back with something more accessible. Of course, I was disappointed, but I took it in stride. I don’t argue with clients. When a producer brings you his comments, you listen to him and say yes. You have to know how to choose your fights. In the case I just mentioned, I came back to the director with a simpler score that was bordering on cliché. He loved it!”
That day, Gelfand understood that, as a composer, self-satisfaction must come from personal projects rather than from commissioned works. Besides working on the music of some 30 albums, the JUNO and multiple Jazz Report award winner has released eight albums of original compositions. “Initially, I had no idea I was going to end up writing film and television music,” he says. “In the late 1980s, I was approached at a corporate show I was giving, by a corporate video producer, who said he sometimes needed musicians to write themes for him. He hired me for one of his projects. Shortly thereafter, Michel Donato [with whom Gelfand released the Setting the Standard album in 1996] asked me to contribute music for the Radio-Canada Sous un ciel variable television series. I never looked back.”
A quick look at Gelfand’s repertoire is enough to appreciate the enormous breadth of his composing talent, from the epic orchestrations of the action film Exploding Sun to the pop-style children’s music of the The Mysteries of Alfred Hedgehog series, to the techno-sounding score of the National Geographic Channel’s Naked Science documentary. “Flexibility is the key to success in the film scoring business,” he stresses. “The more musical genres you can master, the more doors will open for you. If you can only write in one particular music style, you’ll soon be pigeonholed, and you’ll be losing contracts. When I was young, I studied jazz, but I also played classical music at home. As a teenager, I played in rock bands. I even accompanied pop artists onstage. You have to keep your opportunities wide open. Being able to improvise in any style is paramount. ”
Gelfand speaks from experience. Over the past two months, he has worked on three unrelated projects – scoring the Christmas movie North Pole, co-scoring the psychological thriller Forget and Forgive with his wife (the pianist Louise Tremblay), and writing the music of The Prodigal Son biblical musical. “Some weeks, I don’t get much sleep, but at least I’m not boring myself to death.” Still want to be the next Ennio Morricone?
“When you’re in a punk band, people never ask you about songwriting.”
So bemoans Jonah Falco, drummer for F***ed Up. Since springing from Toronto’s hardcore scene in the early 2000s, the band has gotten its share of ink. Initially, for its unpredictably wild live shows, from which lead singer Damian Abraham is known to emerge bleeding from the head; for being banned from entering MTV studios after a predictably wild in-studio performance that resulted in significant damages; for the band’s very name, unprintable in most newspapers. In other words, for being punk.
After they signed to Matador Records in 2008, more attention was paid to the actual music, mostly for how “un-punk” it was. The Chemistry of Common Life, with its ambitious layering of textures, and unconventionally long songs (i.e., more than 3 minutes), won the 2009 Polaris Music Prize, and 2011’s David Comes to Life, a self-proclaimed “rock opera,” was named the No. 1 album of that year by Spin magazine. Now, the band critically acclaimed for pushing the boundaries of hardcore presents Glass Boys, a reflection on aging and ambition that’s both raw and complex.
“I wanted the record to be about coming to awareness that as a 32-year-old, you’re probably someone your 22-year -old self would have hated.” – Damian Abraham of F***ed Up
“I wanted the record to be about coming to awareness that as a 32-year-old, you’re probably someone your 22-year -old self would have hated,” explains Abraham, who shares lyric writing duties with guitarist Mike Haliechuk. “The songs are about getting old, and having to accept that the things that worked for you then don’t necessarily make sense for you now. Weirdly for me, I worked through some things in the process of writing, which I haven’t in the past. I hesitate to use the word transformative, but I came out feeling a lot better.”
With six full-time members (including guitarist Josh Zucker, bassist Sandy Miranda, and guitarist/backing vocalist Ben Cook), F***ed Up learned early on that jamming out song ideas all together in a room was ineffective. Songwriting has thus evolved into a process of splitting up and coming together. “We wrote the shell of the record as five people, fine-tuned it as three people, then recorded it almost all separately,” says Falco.
If the words “songwriting” and “hardcore” don’t seem to belong in the same sentence, try this match: F***ed Up, featuring Gord Downie. The Tragically Hip singer’s appearance is just the latest in the band’s tradition of guest vocalists, who have included Dallas Green (Alexisonfire, City & Colour) Sebastien Grainger (Death from Above 1979), Katie Stelmanis (Austra) and J. Mascis (Dinosaur Jr.), whose voices complement and contrast Abraham’s harsh, screaming style. These guests are often conceived from the beginning, as part of Damian’s songwriting process.
“When I’m writing and I hear the lyrics and where they’ll fit in the song, normally I’ll have different people singing, in my head,” he says. “It’s never my own voice. That comes later, almost like a translation, in the studio. And I’ve been fortunate enough that I’ve been able to reach out to some of these people and say, ‘I’ve got a song for you, would you come in and I will sing around you?’ It’s almost like casting.”
Abraham first met Downie as a customer in the video rental store he worked at. Later, the two musicians got to talking backstage at a City & Colour gig, then struck up a regular e-mail correspondence. When Damian sent Downie the lyrics to “The Art of the Patron” and asked him to sing on it, Gord was in. “I never once dealt with management or a label, he just showed up. He truly is the most down-to-earth, totally awesome, chill human being. It was surreal how normal it was.”
Normal. Another word that isn’t used much in this band’s universe. F***ed Up began as – and remains – a glorious accident, an experiment that has succeeded far beyond the dreams of its members, mixing musical sounds and ideas that shouldn’t go together, yet do. This is the spirit of punk rock, as they see it – not adhering to the convention of genres, but breaking them.
“You can always bend the rules,” explains Falco. “The thing that makes something F***ed Up is this really conflicted intersection of melody and not-melody. Maybe overreaching, the amount of lead guitar tracks, or doing something that is like squeezing into a shoe that’s too tight. Basically, going well beyond any reasonable amount of ambition. Like, ‘OK, we’ve got a great song. Cool, let’s put more stuff on it!’”
JONAH FALCO’S LESSONS LEARNED
- Say yes to everything. “My invitation into F***ed Up was an e-mail: ‘Do you play/have access to drums?’ I said yes to both, neither of which were true.”
- Build a mystery. F***ed Up initially used fake member names, created an enigmatic logo, and released their music in very limited editions with minimal credits. “When you make information hard to find, it creates demand.”
- During writing and recording, take all the time you can to craft the songs to your satisfaction. “After it’s done in the studio you can no longer exert any control over it.”
Publisher: Songs of Beggars Music, Mattitunes Music (ASCAP)
Discography: Hidden World (2006), The Chemistry of Common Life (2008), David Comes to Life (2011), Glass Boys (2014)
SOCAN member since 2005 (Cook), 2006 (Haliechuck, Zucker), 2007 (Falco), 2008 (Miranda), 2010 (Abraham),