JESUS CMPLXX had a dream job. He was an marketing representative at Sony Music for 10 years, working with everyone from Destiny’s Child to Tony Bennett, and making a six-figure income. It’s a rare job in music that many only dream of, but it ultimately wasn’t his dream. “I think my heart always knew I wanted to be an artist,” the now-producer says, reflecting on his decade-long former career. “But I was fearful of not making any money doing it.”

Passion overcame JESUS CMPLXX’s monetary concerns though and he eventually left Sony and struck up a musical partnership with Sway Clarke. Together they formed the band Freedom or Death, which found some success, including a major-label deal in the U.S. But the project would evolve over the years, first to focus on Clarke’s solo efforts, and in recent years, on JESUS CMPLXX. (Clarke is still a frequent collaborator, but JESUS CMPLXX is a new and separate solo outing.)

“It’s the reaction of going back and taking control of what I wanted to do from day one: make music for myself,” says CMPLXX, describing his experiences working for and with labels. “If I’m not making music, I’m not a happy person.”

JESUS CMPLXX is coming from a place of true freedom, where the artist can play with genres, mixing R&B, electronic, and dance elements into a wide-ranging sound that challenges listeners to break down sonic barriers, and explore something new. Part of that experimentation includes working with other artists such as JHYVE, Aleesia Stamkos, and Clarke, who all appear on the next EP. As he lists his new collaborators, CMPLXX adds, “I’m smiling as I share this… So I’m in a good place.

“As artists, we all need validation,” he continues. “But no longer do I need it from the industry. I had that and it imploded. The great thing about music now is, it’s very clear if you reach people or not. If I do, great. If I don’t, I’ll just keep going.”

Singer-songwriter Jessica Mitchell is doing alright.

She’s a four-time Canadian Country Music Association Awards (CCMAs) nominee, and at the organization’s 2018 awards gala, she sang “No Fear” in a show-opening medley of Hall of Fame inductee Terri Clark’s hits, along with Meghan Patrick, Suzy Bogguss, and Clark herself. In 2017, she performed “Only Love Can Break Your Heart” at Massey Hall for the Canadian Songwriters Hall of Fame induction of Neil Young.

Mitchell’s Mates: Some of her co-writers

  • Tom Cochrane
  • Patricia Conroy
  • Todd Clark
  • Robyn Dell’Unto
  • John Goodwin
  • Tim Hicks
  • Stephen Kozmeniuk
  • Lindi Ortega
  • Meghan Patrick
  • Deric Ruttan
  • Gavin Slate
  • Dave Thomson
  • Matthew Tishler

Mitchell is also enjoying the benefits of a management deal with the RGK Entertainment Group, and her performances are booked by The Feldman Agency. After entering the Slaight Music “It’s Your Shot” competition about five years ago – even though she didn’t win – she garnered a publishing deal with the company. Though Slaight is most often thought of as more of an incubator than a publisher, they hired someone in Nashville to pitch her songs, and have been very supportive.

“When I first started working with them, I was in Nashville so often,” says Mitchell. “That’s why I wrote as many songs as I did – ‘cause I was constantly going there… I started doing my co-writing in Toronto, and that’s when I bonded with Gavin [Slate], and Todd [Clark], and Stephen [Kozmeniuk] – the Toronto crew, who are all now in Nashville! It took a long time, a good four years, to filter through hundreds of co-writers to find ‘my people’…It’s a small group… But that being said, I love the experience of writing with new people as well, so I try to do that.”

And what’s the source of that co-writing process, for Mitchell?

“Conversation,” she says. “Conversation is so important. If you’re not having a conversation with your co-writer, what’s the point? ‘Cause it’s a very personal thing…

“I know [some of] these people so well. It usually starts with, ‘Hey, how are you? What’s going on? What’s happened to you lately?’ And normally, an idea will spark [from that]… I’m not one of those people who, like some writers, write stuff or sing little melodies into their phone. If I’m stuck on an idea, it’ll come up again. If I forget it, it’ll come up again, Same with melodies…

“In Nashville you have to write kind of quick. It’s a three-, four-hour thing: Write, record, demo, ‘Bye,’ and you’re done. So a lot of songs get written very quickly, and you change stuff later, if you don’t like it.”

Inspired by the raw honesty and storytelling of country music, Mitchell believes that at the heart of every piece of music is pain and loss.  Her hope is that sharing these personal experiences will forge genuine bonds with her audience. Several of the songs on her current album Heart of Glass – like the title track, “Don’t Love Me,” and “Bulletproof” – are, at least partly, about people hardening themselves in order to not get hurt by love.

Staying sane on tour

Mitchell is in the midst of a long round of touring, and offers a few tips for surviving on the road:

  • Self-care. “Eating healthy, I do a lot of yoga. You can go on a treadmill every day, even if it’s just for five minutes.”
  • Packing cubes. “I just discovered these! They organize your suitcase [in little sections]. It’s important to be organized.”
  • Sleep. “Lots of it. And no drinking on show days.”

“I think that’s life, that’s a big part of life,” says Mitchell. “Thick skin in this business is necessary, and in relationships, and with family. I’ve spent a good portion of my life with my guard up. And every once in awhile when I let it down, it feels like bad things come of it. Trying to remain open to possibilities, and positive things, is super-important, but I also think you really need to watch yourself these days…”

Unless you’re performing for Neil Young – in which case, you mostly watch him.

“I feel like it was an out-of-body experience,” says Mitchell of performing in front of Young at Massey Hall. “You’re on the stage, but you’re almost, like, looking at yourself from somewhere else in the room. And you’re looking at Neil looking at you. It will probably go down in history as the coolest moment I’ve ever had, so far… You walk out on the stage, and you’re, like, ‘Not gonna look, not gonna look, not gonna look.’ And I bee-lined [with my eyes] for him and I didn’t look away. I think I looked at him the whole time. It was amazing. What a trip.”

“In my mind, right now, it’s as if I was starting all over again,” says Stéphanie Boulay, as she’s about to launch her first solo album, Ce que je te donne ne disparaît pas, out Nov. 2, 2018. “Nothing is won in advance and, to be honest… I don’t want to win anything, strangely enough. Of course I like this album, I want it to do well, I want people to like it. But in the end, I’m not attached to the results that much. It was more of a need, a necessity, than it was something planned. My whole being wanted to create songs.”

When Les soeurs Boulay took a sabbatical, in November of 2017, so that Mélanie could enjoy her pregnancy, Stéphanie figured she’d travel and take it easy. “It lasted a month,” she says. “I was unhappy. Deeply. It’s one of my flaws – not that I advocate being a workaholic – but it’s more powerful than I am: it’s like I exist through creating.” That’s why today, she exists as a single female artist, via the album’s eight original songs, which she’ll play on stage with her musicians during the next Coup de cœur francophone. “I feel like a teenager,” she says. “Like it’s my first show at Cegep en Spectacle!”

The new collection of songs gives us a new perspective on this solo sister, who moves away from the country/folk sound of her duo, and embraces classic “chanson française.” As for the melodies and ornate orchestrations, “the songs stretch out but seem positioned in an era, because we listened to a lot of music from the late ’60s and ’70s,” she says. Some Jacques Brel, some Leo Ferré, “Canadian music,” probably a hefty dose of Leonard Cohen, and even Gordon Lightfoot’s first few albums.

Boulay readily admits that ensuring her solo album was a departure from the duo’s sound was something of a challenge, but says it wasn’t really deliberate. “When we started working on it, Alex [McMahon, producer] and I didn’t actually say to each other that we wanted to go elsewhere, it just happened naturally through the flow of our inspiration,” she says. “It was a time when I started listening to Brel and Françoise Hardy again, and Alex told me he could totally hear my songs played that way. We listened to all kinds of different stuff, even Brazilian music, and the songs just inspired us, effortlessly. It’s as if our two brains connected and decided to go in the same direction.”

“I felt like I had some kind of transcendent fever while I was writing.”

This symbiosis was very helpful for the hasty writing, “at the very last minute,” of an album that was initially planned as an EP. “I had five songs,” says Boulay, “all written pretty much at the same time, in February.

Then, [album opener] ‘Ta Fille’ was born, that was the most important piece coming out.” It’s a touching, solemn song that sets the tone of the album. “I can feel that if it wasn’t for the #metoo movement a year ago, this album would’ve been different,” says Boulay. “There’s a lot of vulnerability on it that I wouldn’t have dared to admit before. And female solidarity. it’s a sound that I live even more since #metoo. I sing a lot more about friendship than about love on this album. Like on ‘Des histoires qui ne sont jamais finies,’ which was inspired by my experience at SOCAN’s Kenekt Québec Song Camp – and all the friendships I developed while I was there, surrounded by the creative force of all those people. The song ‘Ta fille’ is not just about vulnerability, it’s also about solidarity. It’s about looking at yourself and saying: Hey, do you feel like that, too? Well, fuck it, let’s speak up about it! It’s a statement.”

As early as last May, after two months of writing, five songs had been recorded. “Then, ‘Les Médailles’ just came to me, and we went back in the studio,” says Boulay. “That’s when Éli [Bissonnette, head honcho of her label, Grosse Boîte] asked if I had more songs, because six is an EP, but with eight, we can call it an album. I was lucky, like I was connected to something, I’m not sure what, but the songs just came to me. Just like that. I felt like I had some kind of transcendent fever while I was writing.”

To wit: Boulay was walking along the road to the pier at Carleton-sur-Mer, in Gaspésie, where she’s from, when the song ‘Sauvage et fou’ just appeared. “It just fell on me,” she says. “I ran to my room and finished it that night. The next weekend, I was at the cabin and I remembered something Alex had told me, ‘You remind me of a coyote stuck in a trap who prefers to chew off his own leg to dying in there. You should write a song about that.’ And I wrote ‘Le piège.’ We went back to the studio, in extremis, two weeks before the deadline, to record those two songs!”

As soon as it’s released, this first solo album, which she considers an aside, will be behind her. “My sister and I have already gotten back to work,” she says. “I think we have about half an album already written. I look ahead. As much as I’m proud of my solo album – I cherish it, it’s my baby, my jewel – I now appreciate the presence of my sister Mélanie in my life even more.

“I believe that I have a very conventional and square way of writing, whereas my sister is more creative,” says Boulay. “I’ll write more classic melodies, but Mélanie will find a twist that makes it unique. I’m also in a hurry: if it’s good, I move on. Mélanie can work on a single sentence, or a snippet of melody, for hours, until she is satisfied it is perfect. And the way she plays is also in your face. She’s solid, legs straight, she knows where she’s going, whereas I’m much more fragile.”