Jon Vinyl doesn’t look back at his first foray into songwriting very fondly. “It went horribly,” he says with a laugh. “It was really hard for me to put how I feel into words, follow it with a catchy melody, and on top of that, sing in the proper key.” Even though the process was rough at first, the gratification the now-21-year-old Pickering, ON, native got out of creating something musical “felt amazing,” and he was instantly hooked.

Fast-forward a few years to the present day, and Vinyl (born Jonathan Hamilton) has figured out a songwriting formula that works for him; one that draws inspiration from his everyday life, and comes out in the form of gorgeous, sparkling R&B vignettes. Influenced by some of the genre’s biggest heavyweights, from Luther Vandross to Frank Ocean, Vinyl’s delivery is thoughtful and measured, taking its time to transform thoughts on fleeting romances (“Cherry Blossom”) and past experiences (“Nostalgia”) into expansive melodies that immerse the listener in Vinyl’s personal sonic universe. “My music being relatable is something that matters most,” says Vinyl. “Knowing that my lyrics may help someone who’s going through something makes this journey worthwhile.”

One of Vinyl’s biggest goals is to perform in front of thousands of fans, and see them shout his lyrics back at him one day. It’s a work-in-progress, but his music did find a way to reach thousands, if not millions, early on in his career when a rather famous high school friend of his shouted him out on social media: Shawn Mendes. Mendes shared “Nostalgia” with his fans, and as a result gave Vinyl a big boost. It’s a friendship that he still values today, and he says the two have lots of “in-depth conversations” about music and life.

“We talk about the trials and tribulations of songwriting, honest lyrics, and writer’s block,” he says. “The one thing we always realize after speaking is that our passion for music exceeds all doubts in the end.”

It’s an important and confident perspective to have, as Vinyl readies himself for his next big step. In 2019, he’ll release his debut EP, to an audience surely waiting to sing his songs back at him.

Bryan Adams and Jim Vallance have written so many pop songs together since 1979, as the idiom goes, they could do it with their eyes closed. But three years ago, the pair took on a coveted project that neither anticipated would be such an enormous learning experience, and a hell of a lot of work: writing the score for a Broadway show, Pretty Woman: The Musical.

“I don’t think either Bryan or I quite understood what we were signing up for,” admits Vallance. “We haven’t taken on other projects, and we’ve done very little outside writing, away from Pretty Woman.  It’s just been all-encompassing for the last couple of years.”

The musical is based on the 1990 blockbuster film Pretty Woman, starring Richard Gere and Julia Roberts, written by J.F. Lawton, and directed by the late Garry Marshall, who was a key part of the Broadway show’s development until his death in 2016. It’s the street corner-to-penthouse story of bright, feisty prostitute Vivian Ward (played by Samantha Barks) and wealthy ambitious businessman Edward Lewis (Andy Karl), adapted closely for the stage by Tony Award-winning director and choreographer Jerry Mitchell.

“It was all about creating the best songs we could.” – Bryan Adams

After out-of-town previews for five weeks in Chicago earlier this year, the Broadway production officially opened in August at the Nederlander Theatre, to glowing reviews. The companion cast recording — which Adams and Vallance produced in just two weeks, after the new male lead role was cast and songs finalized — is out now in digital and physical formats.

It was director Mitchell who had the final say. He told Adams and Vallance not to be too “on the nose” — for example, “if an actor’s walking down the stairs while he’s singing, you don’t want him to sing, “Here I am, walking down the stairs,” explains Vallance. He also prevented them from being too metaphorical, or have any meaningless words that simply sounded good. “We thought we could sneak something past Jerry, but he catches everything,” Vallance laughs.

The songwriters willingly accepted the direction as students of this genre, even though they’re not used to that for Adams’ own albums. No one tells the singer of such enduring global hits as “Cuts Like A Knife,” “Run To You,” “Summer of ‘69” and “Straight From The Heart,” with 75 million albums sold, to go back to the drawing board, or change this and that. “With the musical, every song, every line of lyric, every word, has to serve the story,” says Vallance.  “The director was very particular about that.”

Jim Vallance, Bryan Adams, Pretty Woman

Working on Pretty Woman in the studio. (Photo: Angie Bambii)

“We would just listen to what he had to say, and go back and start doing some sketching,” says Adams. “People that have a lot of experience writing musicals, they understand the format, the buttons that have to be pressed throughout the course of a musical. We didn’t know that, so it was a bit of a learning curve. But I don’t know that there was a hard or fast rule on how to create this. It was all about creating the best songs we could.”

But Vallance, far more detailed and forthcoming than Adams when discussing the writing process for a musical, in a separate interview, says that there are some rules.  He explains what he learned from the director:

“There’s some real critical points… We discovered this as we went along. Again, the director, the producer, the book writer were all very helpful, but also very particular at making sure that we check those boxes and hit those points,” Vallance begins.

“Obviously, the opening number is a big deal.  It has to draw the audience in, and that lyric went through two or three re-writes over a two- or three-year period. The end result wasn’t quite where we started out, but the director wanted the character, who’s called Happy Man, to very obviously be a narrator.  He’s literally in the opening number, over three verses, describing Vivian, Edward, and where they’ve come from, where they’re going. He even says in the lyric, ‘Pay attention, I’m going to be your guide for the whole evening.’  That’s where the lyric ended up, but it didn’t start out that way.  The opening number is critical.

“The closing number to Act I is another place where you have to leave the audience wanting more, because there’s an intermission.  Second song in Act I is what in Broadway is traditionally called the ‘I want’ song.  This is something we didn’t know. Virtually every musical ever written has an ‘I want’ song.  In My Fair Lady, it’s ‘Wouldn’t It Be Loverly.’  The ‘I want’  song is where the main character tells the audience, literally, what they want, what they hope to achieve over the course of the next two-and-a-half hours, and over the course of the story,” he continues.

Adams Songs at the Movies

  • “Heaven” and “Best Was Yet To Come” — A Night in Heaven, 1983
  • “Hiding From Love” — Class, 1983
  • “Try to See It My Way” — Voyage of the Rock Aliens, 1984
  • “Everything I Do (I Do It For You)” — Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, 1991
  • “All For Love” — The Three Musketeers, 1993
  • “Have You Ever Really Loved A Woman?” — Don Juan De Marco, 1995
  • “Star” — Jack, 1996
  • “I Finally Found Someone” — The Mirror Has Two Faces, 1996
  • “Here I Am” — Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron, 2002
  • “I’m Not The Man You Think I Am,” “It’s All About Me”, “Rely On Me”, “Too Good To Be True”, “Gift Of Love” — Color Me Kubrick: A True…Ish Story, 2005
  • “It Ain’t Over Yet” — Racing Stripes, 2005
  • “Never Let Go” — The Guardian, 2006
  • “Mysterious Ways” — Cashback, 2006
  • “Way-Oh” and “By Your Side” — Jock of the Bushveld, 2011
  • “Nobody’s Girl” — TalhotBlond, 2012

“We wrote three or four different ‘I want’ songs. Each one would last for maybe six months of rehearsals, and then the director would come to us and say, ‘It’s not quite right. It needs to be more like this.’ It wasn’t for lack of us giving him what he’d asked for, but the goal posts kept moving, too.  As the rehearsals evolved, as actors came in, and even brought some of their own sensibilities to the project, the director would re-think a scene, and then send us back to write a whole new song.

“The ‘I want’ song was three or four songs over two or three years.  That was a difficult one to get.  ‘Anywhere But Here’ is what it’s called.  The other critical point is what they call the 11 o’clock number.  That’s the second-to-last song.  That’s another spot where things get wrapped up, story-wise.  Our song is called ‘Long Way Home.’ That was one of the first songs we wrote and presented, back in 2015.  That song stayed in almost unchanged through the whole course of the project.  Finally, the closing number [‘Together Forever’]. You want to send the audience home happy.

“We get a standing ovation every night, which is nice. I’m guessing the closing number does what it was intended to do,” Vallance concludes.

The resulting two-act score — available in sequence, including preamble and reprise, on Pretty Woman: The Musical (Original Broadway Cast recording) — features 20 original songs, from the opening number, “Welcome To Hollywood,” to punchy big finale, “Together Forever.”

Many have that Adams sound (“It’s sort of unavoidable, that’s how we write,” says Vallance).  The Latin-flavored tango “On A Night Like Tonight” recalls his Oscar-nominated hit “Have You Ever Really Loved A Woman?” There’s a familiar feel, from the lyrical phrasing of the ballads “Freedom” and “You and I,” to the injection of rock in the driving duet “You’re Beautiful,” the stomping “Never Give Up,” and the anthemic “I Can’t Go Back.” But the duo also venture beyond the familiar, with the jazzy “Don’t Forget To Dance,” and even include a rap in “Never Give Up.”

“I’m proud of it,” says Adams. “It was a lot of work. It was a lot of fun, and I think the cast is great. We went through a lot of work to get to this point. I was saying the other day, I wish I was stepping into another one right away, because it’s got my head in that space at the moment.”

Perhaps Summer of 69: The Musical? We could find out whatever happened to Jimmy and Jody, and the other guys from school…

“Did I stop to breathe?”

The first words of “Waltzing Disappointments,” the opening song on Pascale Picard’s fourth album, The Beauty We’ve Found, are evocative. “A song about depression; that sets the mood, doesn’t it?” she says, with a tinge of irony. “The message is clear,” she says about her album. “That’s where we’re going! It’s not post-partum depression; I battled depression when I was younger.”

Pascale PicardThrilled by the solo adventure on which she embarked on years ago, Picard has built a brand-new, light-alloy fuselage for herself, 18 months after giving birth to her daughter, and four years after her previous release, All Things Passed.

“When I started writing songs, my pain was my inspiration,” she says. “My life was very tumultuous when I was a teenager, I was truly unhappy. I talked about suicide a lot, and about all the dark thoughts that inhabited me. But it was too intense to express in French. It would’ve split me right in half. Writing about it in a second language allowed me to open up a bit more. Plus, my English got better with time.

“Having a child means I’m not alone in my own, tiny universe,” she continues. “It’s changed me profoundly. I’ve become hyper-sensitive in general. Everything seems more beautiful, or sadder. I look at everything with a magnified heart.”

Like a sneak peek inside a secret closet, this ethereal, pared-down album sees Picard baring the darker side of her moods – over layers of piano and strings, a few guitar licks courtesy of Simon Pedneault, and a silky, harmonic dialogue devoid of sonic overload. All this was achieved with the ideal musical accomplice, multi-instrumentalist Antoine Gratton, a maestro of textures, who offered Picard the perfect musical setting.

“The themes are rather sombre,” she admits, “but I do believe we all need to see both extremes of our souls. I didn’t set out to make a darker album. Antoine and I really connected, and we were all-in. He managed to dress up the songs without altering the demos I’d made.” In other words, the musical magic happened, but without any clearly defined rules.

Recorded in two six-day sessions at b-12 studio in Valcourt (where the collective project Sept jours en mai was recorded in 2015), the nine songs composed by the creator of “Gate 22,” her mega-hit, transcend the endeavour. “I didn’t want to punch in and out, 9 to 5,” says Picard. Both new parents, Picard and Gratton invited their own parents over, so that they could take care of the kids while the duo was working in the next room.

“I look at everything with a magnified heart.”

Picard is happy to share her varied sources of inspiration. “‘The Beauty We’ve Found’ is like the carpe diem song on the album: love isn’t permanent, but you shouldn’t stop yourself from loving someone because of that. ‘Witch Hunt’ is clearly a dark song, feeling rejected, the intolerance of others… ‘La tempête’ is the only song in French on the album, and it talks about the death of my step-mom, three years ago, from cancer. ‘Too Little Too Late’ is about alcoholism, collateral damage, etc.”

There are no drums on the very country “Rock Bottom,” and “In Town” sounds like it’s straight out of a Quentin Tarantino movie. “That song tells a story I could totally see made into a video,” says Picard. “It has a slight alternative-trash side to it that I like.”

One thing’s for sure, The Beauty We’ve Found is an essential bedside record. The lyrics are more accomplished, thanks in part to her participation in Xavier Lacouture’s writing workshops in Tadoussac. “It’s the first time I’ve developed tools for writing,” says Picard. “For a self-learner like me, that’s a bonus.”

Picard is now 36 years old. When Me Myself & Us came out in 2007, her English-language songs immediately shot her to the stratosphere of show business, and to immense potential for international success. Aside from the infectious “Gate 22,” several more radio hits came out of that album, and turned the spotlight on her. The woman from Québec City, who grew up in Sainte-Julie, then Charlesbourg, and Beauport, before settling down with her family in Stoneham, is an avid snowboarder.

“A lot of people asked me to sing ‘Sorry’ last summer [during her solo tour],” she says. “It had been quite a while since I played that song!” The context, however, is very different from when she started. “I played bars and I would get asked to play all kinds of stupid stuff.”

What advice would today’s Pascale Picard have offered to the 2007 version of herself? “I would sing ‘Whole’ [the new album’s closing song], which is about believing in yourself, and listening to yourself.”

We would be remiss if, after her generous conversation, we didn’t talk about the fact that Picard was invited (along with The Stills) to open for Paul McCartney at his 2008 concert on the marking Québec City’s 400th Anniversary. “People still stop me in the street about that,” she says. “I was really at the top, back then. The ‘it’ artist. We didn’t even do a sound check. There were snipers on the roof of the Concorde hotel! If Paul had come a year before or after, I wouldn’t have been the one they called to open. If he’d come this year, Hubert Lenoir is the one they would’ve asked!”