The Motorleague

Toiling on the road for the past decade, The Motorleague have flown largely under the radar of mainstream media. Thanks to the success of the band’s current single “All The Words,” trending on Canadian rock radio, that broader anonymity is a little harder to maintain. This rise in popularity was hastened by these East Coast rockers returning to their roots.“We started off as a much punkier, rougher outfit,” says singer/guitarist Don Levandier. “We never really wanted anything other than to see the country and play the venues we’d hear about out East. As we kept touring and getting paired with bands from every genre imaginable, we lost a lot of the East Coast punk angst. We wanted to work harder at being a band that didn’t need to be ashamed of where we were from, or that would be embarrassed to play alongside a national touring act.”

With their latest release Holding Patterns – their first since 2013’s Acknowledge, Acknowledge – that’s exactly what this Moncton, foursome did, though they still injected their sound with the raucous rock, big riffs, and punk attitude that started their musical journey together. Holding Patterns captures the energy and enthusiasm of The Motorleague’s live shows. Besides Levandier, the band consists of bassist Shawn Chiasson, guitarist Nathan Jones, and drummer Francis Landry. For Levandier, the melody or guitar riff is what always guides his muse.

“The chords and structure of the songs always come afterwards, and are usually more flexible than not,” he explains. “The vocal melody or guitar hook is the entry point. Often a vocal melody or riff idea will just embed itself in your subconscious until you find yourself humming it, desperately trying to get to an instrument to find the chords and see if it’s a real thing. I’ve often dreamt songs, where the band will be rehearsing a new song in a dream – only to wake up and put it to paper.”

Maddison Krebs

For singer-songwriter Maddison Krebs, to say that 2016 was a whirlwind is an understatement. The 19-year-old Albertan started the year by dropping her sophomore record, Bull’s Eye. The lead single, “Pink Roses,” earned Krebs three Alberta Country Music Award nominations for Female Artist, Song, and Video of the Year. Then, in September, just as she prepped for her first trip to Nashville, she signed to music publisher ole’s red dot artist development program, after winning its second annual “on the spot” competition during Country Music Week.

“It’s been crazy!” she says of the year, as it’s coming to a close. “It’s cool how it all worked out. I’m excited for what next year will bring.”

Krebs was first brought to a wider audience two years ago when her debut album, Your True Love, was nominated for the Association of Country Music in Alberta’s 2014 Album of the Year. What 2017 will bring is uncertain, although Krebs knows there will be many more songs. Currently, she’s working on a new EP, writing fast and furiously down in Nashville, with a wide variety of collaborators.

Krebs cites her great-grandmother as the biggest influence on her path toward songwriting. “My great-grandmother introduced me to old vinyl records.” Says Krebs. All those classic songs that I learned to appreciate at such a young age.”

Looking back on her writing this year, Krebs is proudest of a couple of songs, “Midnight Slow Dancing” and “A Little More Nerve.” The former she calls “a slow burner,” that’s “sweet and speaks to heartache.” The latter is about self-defiance, being who you are, and never changing that – a common theme Krebs mines in her songs. “There’s always an overall message about empowerment,” she says.

Sebell

A songwriting nomad and a sometime musical enigma, who collaborates with just about anyone, Sebell is now a rising star. The question is, who will the native of Salmon Arm, BC pen a song with next? In the past year, he’s written with artists as diverse as Banners, Shawn Hook, Chord Oversreet (of Glee), Stephen Kozmeniuk (Madonna, Kendrick Lamar), Jimmy Harry, and Reuben and the Dark.

These days, the 32-year-old songwriter splits writing time between Los Angeles, Nashville and Toronto. Sebell, whose real name is Greg Sczebel, is no stranger to accolades; A JUNO Award winner, he’s also won Billboard’s WorldWide Song Contest and the grand prize in the international John Lennon Songwriting Contest – twice. Recently, he co-wrote Paul Brandt’s Top 10 Country single “I’m An Open Road.” His single, under his own name, “Till the Sun Burns Out.” hit No. 6 on Billboard’s Canadian Artist chart and No. 15 at Top 40 across Canada.

What’s the secret to Sebell’s success, and what advice does he have for aspiring songwriters?

Keep your head down and write, write, write,” he concludes. “Write with people who are completely different than you. Write with others who write just like you. Write with the veterans and the kid who’s just starting out. Challenge yourself, but don’t limit yourself. The career as an artist and songwriter can be a long game, but if you sharpen your skills and put the time in, it can really pay off.”


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Considering all the upcoming releases announced in the early months of 2016, Québec’s hip-hop scene was clearly going to have an exceptional year. On many levels, enthusiasm for the genre was even greater than expected. Here, then, is an overview of the great leaps forward for this historically marginalized scene this year, and the challenges ahead.

“Québec hip-hop, be it Franco or Anglo, is currently the biggest pop movement [in La Belle Province]. Whether or not [the practitioners of] other musical trends like it… we must admit that local hip-hop is the main focus of attention for young francophones,” wrote music journalist Alain Brunet on his blog last November.

Although the claim has been expressed many times over the last few years, it gained considerable credibility once it was stated by this highly respected scribe, a regular contributor to La Presse. It confirmed that, well beyond its more-than-respectable audience and sales numbers, Québec hip-hop was no longer relegated to the margins of the music industry, and could now hope to shine brightly at its centre.

Steve Jolin

Steve Jolin, Disques 7ième Ciel

“Rap took its rightful place in 2016. It was quite a pivotal year in the evolution of our scene,” says Carlos Munoz, head of the Silence d’or label which represents, among others, Shash’U and Rymz.

At the forefront of the local rap scene since 2003, when he founded his 7ième Ciel label, Steve Jolin also looks back on 2016 in an extremely positive way. “We’ve had great years before, but we were still largely ignored,” he says. “But this time, the mainstream media finally acknowledged us. But in fact, rap was so dominant in so many areas that they simply no longer had a choice.”

And it’s true that Québec hip-hop had a lot of shining moments in 2016. As far as sales are concerned, many artists – Dead Obies, Rymz, Souldia and Koriass, among them – broke the 5,000-copies mark. Add to that the popular and critical success of Alaclair Ensemble, KNLO, Brown, Loud Lary Ajust and Rednext Level, all of whom toured extensively throughout the province for most of the year, as well as Enima’s and T.K’s tour de force, accumulating tens of thousands of views on their respective YouTube channels. And one would be remiss not to acknowledge the international buzz created by Longueuil-based Kaytranada, who became the first hip-hop artist to win the prestigious Polaris Prize.

In June, the opening outdoor concert of the Francofolies de Montréal music festival was undoubtedly the hip-hop event of the decade (see feature picture). For the first time ever, Laurent Saulnier and his programming team tapped only rap groups to kick off their festival.

Koriass, Tout le monde en parle

Koriass, Tout le monde en parle

“It just never stopped,” reminisces Carlos Munoz while thinking about the highlights of 2016. “But the presence of Koriass and Dead Obies on Tout le monde en parle really helped. [The show is an extremely popular, two-and-a-half-hour, Sunday-night talk show that regularly has a 1-million-plus audience.] Most industry types watch the show, so it was quite the general awakening about rap. For many viewers, the rap ‘monster’ was coming out of the shadows.”

Koriass admits that being interviewed by Tout le monde en parle host Guy A. Lepage last February was beneficial for his career, despite having been invited on the show because of his openly feminist statements. “If that’s what it takes for the general public to discover rap, I think it’s a positive thing,” he says. “From what I can tell, a lot of people came to see me live after hearing my opinions on TV.”

But despite being fully aware of all those significant positive changes, Bonsound’s co-founder, Jean-Christian Aubry, is slightly more critical. He doesn’t believe Québec rap is on the cusp of becoming mainstream, let alone dominant, in the province. “We’re still very far from that,” says Aubry. “We’re still evolving in a market dominated by ‘proper’ Franco Pop,” says the owner of the label that represents a diverse mix of artists, from Lisa LeBlanc and Safia Nolin to DJ Champion and Dead Obies. “Even with a phenomenon like Malajube, back a few years, we still only made tiny dents in the mainstream, at best.”

Streaming and Radio

To counteract this so-called lack of openness, the Montréal-based imprint makes sure it has a very strong online presence and totally embraces streaming platforms. Dead Obies’ acclaimed second album, Gesamtkunstwerk, scored very well on Spotify, especially thanks to the inclusion of their track Where They @ on a highly popular playlist in France. “We were very successful this year because of that,” says the label boss. “We’ve been learning how to use the machine instead of being afraid of it. So when it finally becomes lucrative, we’ll already be experts at maximizing revenues for our roster of artists.”

Silence d’or and 7ième ciel adopted a different approach. In order to avoid declining sales, both labels adopted a case-by-case approach by refusing to immediately release the albums of their main artists (Koriass, Rymz) on the major streaming platforms.

Thus, it took eight months before Koriass’ Love Suprême appeared on Spotify. “In that specific case, I knew fans were anxiously waiting his new album and that a single $10 or $12 sale on iTunes was the equivalent of many tens of thousands of streams, says Jolin. But then, I also see that Dead Obies went straight to streaming and still sold super-well, so I question my decision… I’ve never been quite into streaming, but increasingly, I realize that we need to work on that.”

This year, 7ième Ciel’s founder has also devoted a lot of effort to cracking the mystery around another medium: radio. Without going as far as saying they were fruitless, his attempts weren’t conclusive. “If it’s rap, it is extremely difficult to get into rotation,” he says. “Yet when I look at charts in France and the U.S., rap is dominant. But here, despite selling 12,000 copies of his latest album, and being invited on all the big TV shows, Koriass still won’t get radio play.”

Recently, however, the rapper from Saint-Eustache [an off-island suburb Northeast of Montréal] saw his song “Plus haut” go into heavy rotation on NRJ. Not featured on Love Suprême, the song was composed for a group of children during the Journées de la culture.

“It’s a very luminous and consensual song that has no Anglicisms or swear words. I think radio’s afraid of going outside of that framework,” says Koriass. “The thing is, music directors have an immense power over the careers of musicians. That’s why there’s a considerable amount of false buzz, meaning artists that earn a living from radio royalties but never sell out their concerts. Meanwhile, most Québec rappers sell out their concerts but barely make ends meet.”

For Carlos Munoz, the current state of commercial radio holds very little appeal. “I really don’t care to hear one of my artists sandwiched between Taylor Swift and the Cowboys Fringants.” He says. Determined not to have to make any compromise for radio play geared towards “sappy ballads,” Silence d’or’s head honcho dreams of a day when an urban radio station will take over the FM dial.

Steve Jolin shares that ideal. “I’ve even met with the executives of major broadcasters about this, and all they told me was that the radio market was already highly segmented,” he says. “In other words, I was dealing with bosses that don’t know rap and don’t really give a fuck. I’m convinced that a large part of the 25-to-30 demographic who get in their cars to go somewhere would be totally down with an all-rap station.”

2017, The Year of Challenges

While he waits for such a day, the head of 7ieme Ciel remains optimistic. 2017 will be a year fraught with challenges and the businessman intends to do everything required to meet them. Over the course of the next few months, he’ll accompany Koriass on a mini-tour of France. “It’s a tough market to break into, because rap is a highly territorial and identity-based music,” he says. “We’re making encouraging progress over there, but we have modest expectations. We mainly hope that the French will get that Québec rap is more than Roi Heenok,” he jokes.

Munoz will also attempt a French incursion with Rymz in 2017. “We’ve noticed that there’s some interest, albeit small, since six percent of our sales come from the European Francophonie,” he says. “France is quite a chauvinistic country, culturally, so we need to get there with something strong that’ll surprise people.”

Dead Obies

Dead Obies

And that’s precisely what Dead Obies did during their last foray to France. Two years after attracting the attention of the French generalist press (notably Libération), the sextet toured there again last fall and managed to appear in a few more specialized publications, such as the hip-hop magazine Grünt. “The next time we go, we’ll be able to get a good headline slot,” says Aubry convincingly.

As for Québec, the Bonsound cofounder will make sure he keeps up the pace so that Dead Obies’ journey continues to be as successful. One of the band’s main challenges will be to sell out the M Telus venue (formerly Métropolis) at the end of the summer.

As for Steve Jolin, he hopes Québec rap will keep taking its rightful place with “quality projects.” Following the province-wide L’Osstidtour show, which will culminate this winter at Club Soda, and features Koriass, Brown and Alaclair Ensemble, the Abitibi-born label director will assemble more musical extravaganzas that remain secret for the time being.

Munoz hopes that 2017 will be the year when Québec rap will widen its diversity. Even though it’s ebullient at the moment on YouTube, thanks to acts such as Enima, Lost & White-B, and Jackboy, street rap is still shunned by most of the province’s media. “I’m glad there’s more openness towards hip-hop, but the downside of it is that it’s only a very specific, homogenized genre that I don’t find ‘raw’ enough that gets all that attention,” he explains.

While it’s true that there are a few newcomers whose time is overly due to break into the scene, Jolin says he’s not overly concerned. “The artists that make it here often have honed their skills,” he says. “It’s not like in the U.S. where the flavours of the month come and go. The next generation is almost here. We just need to be patient.”


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When we catch up with screen composer Amritha Vaz in July of 2016, she’s attending the prestigious and challenging Sundance Institute Music and Sound Design Labs at Skywalker Sound, located within Star Wars mastermind George Lucas’ Skywalker Ranch in Northern California. Vaz is here to participate in workshops and creative exercises under the guidance of leading film composers and film music professionals, who are acting as creative advisors. Each composer/director team has their original scores for new, independent film scenes performed live by a chamber orchestra.

“You’re teamed up with these phenomenal filmmakers and given a couple days to score some pretty challenging scenes, and you can’t help but feel instant panic that you might fail, big time,” says Vaz. “But then you remember, ‘Oh yeah that’s the point. If ever there was a safe place to try new things and take risks, it’s here.”

Fittingly, she’s sitting in a room with a poster on the wall that says “Make Mistakes.” “It was such a gift to be mentored by Harry Gregson-Williams, Christophe Beck and Edward Shearmur,” says Vaz. “There’s so much to learn from artists who can work at that level, not just creatively, but balancing all the time pressures, technical issues, responding to different opinions — including one’s own! — and second guessing… I also learned so much from my composer fellows, the Skywalker sound designers, and the whole Sundance team. Everyone was so generous with their time and so honest about their journeys. It’s funny, I came here expecting to only learn writing tools and techniques – and while I’ve definitely gained a deeper knowledge of my craft, I’m leaving with something far more valuable: that every single one of these people you admire is telling you that you actually deserve to be here.” This was the third year that Vaz applied for the program, and she finally got in, so the support is appreciated.

Amritha VazVaz is no stranger to film scoring, of course. Most recently she scored two films for Film Independent’s Project Involve lab, as well as for the documentaries Made in India (PBS) and Music for Mandela. And before that, Vaz had already been contributing to film scores for years. Born a Canadian of Indian descent, and now residing in Los Angeles, the multi-instrumentalist has worked extensively as an assistant composer to Oscar- and Emmy Award-winning film and TV composer Mychael Danna, on movies such as 500 Days of Summer, Pomegranates and Myrrh, and Cooking with Stella, among others.

So how did she meet the Life of Pi film composer, who draws from South Asian musical traditions as well as Western ones? “When I first saw him, he was actually wearing a T-shirt that had Hindi script on it that said ‘desi,’ which in Hindi basically means ‘local’ or ‘one of ours,’” says Vaz. “I was, like, ‘Oh, really? You think you’re from the ‘hood, do you?’ I was just kidding. It was funny, and he was great about it. After hearing him talk, I could see how he came at Indian music from such a great angle, and I loved the way he talked about film music… It was about finding your voice, and when he told his story, it just really connected with me. The fact that he also did a lot of quirky Indian films, as well [as mainstream ones], meant that I knew of his work. Later I contacted him and apologized for giving him such a hard time. I realized I was actually really proud to call him ‘desi.’

“I feel like the industry as a whole is starting to want to diversify their teams – not only because it’s important to be more inclusive, but also because these candidates are really good at what they do.”

“It’s probably the least likely thing to happen, which is that you go to attend a composer’s lecture and six months later you end up working as their assistant” says Vaz. “I was incredibly lucky to have gotten my start with another Canadian composer, Tim McCauley. Then less than a year later I got another break and started working in Mychael’s Hollywood studio. When you start working as an assistant, you might be exceptionally lucky to land a writing gig, but more often, you’re earning your way to that position. Perhaps because I hadn’t formally studied film scoring, I was keenly aware of my huge learning curve, so I was just as eager to learn how to set-up Logic templates and sync video, as I was to soak up musical insights. Being a bit of a tech nerd probably helped, but even then. there was so much to learn! April Lebedoff at the Vancouver SOCAN office definitely got more than a few desperate emails asking for help on how to fill out cue sheets. Eventually I was lucky enough to write additional music for Mychael, and we even co-wrote two scores together.”

Vaz learned a lot from being an assistant composer to Danna, from about 2008 through 2013. “I gained experience and insight into high-level film scoring, the art of incorporating world music and how to write both sparse and highly orchestrated scores,” she says. “He’s always encouraged me to ‘go to concept’ with my writing, to challenge me to go past what’s obvious, and think about how you can contribute to the bigger narrative, while still striving to write something beautiful. After all that, then there’s the art of graciously letting it all go when what you’ve tried doesn’t land and you’re back to square one. I’m not saying I’ve mastered any of those things, but I’m definitely trying!”

Amritha VazVaz travelled a path of many twists and turns before she ended up where she is today. She started off in her teens as a classical violinist, but a harsh bout of tendonitis at 16 (“so bad I couldn’t even get dressed, or open doors”) led her to India to study Indian Classical Music, which encourages improvisation. She started creating music, joining bands, and jamming. But the tendonitis wasn’t entirely resolved, so she embraced her other passion – for social justice. Vaz earned a degree in Political Science, followed up with a Master’s in International Development Studies Program, then law, and then went to work in South Africa. She returned to Vancouver, and when the search for work as a lawyer was proving unfruitful, chose to help out some old art-school friends who needed some music for a short film they were shooting.

“My grandfather worked in Bollywood, so maybe that’s why I thought it’d be fun to try, but I had no idea I would be so instantly hooked,” she says. “It was so much fun to collaborate and contribute to storytelling in that way, but there was another light that went on. When I was working in Africa, I learned about musical theatre groups that were having more success building AIDS awareness than traditional policies, and I started to wonder whether I could do something similar with my love of music. Not long after the short film, I met Tim McCauley, and he kindly gave me the opportunity to write on a CBC documentary about Hungarian refugees, and suddenly I saw that film scoring could be that connection between these two worlds.”

As a socially conscious mother, and woman of colour, working in a very rich, white, male-dominated industry, Vaz has a distinctive viewpoint on her film scoring craft. “While it’s no secret that women and people of colour have faced discrimination in this industry, I do think things are changing,” says Vaz. “There are a lot of champions out there, and I feel like the industry as a whole is starting to want to diversify their teams – not only because it’s important to be more inclusive, but also because these candidates are really good at what they do, and they bring new and exciting perspectives that haven’t really been heard before.”

Vaz’s next project is a feature-length documentary that’s in keeping with her views. “Little Stones is about four female artists from Senegal, Brazil, India and Kenya, who are making profound change in the lives of women, specifically fighting female genital mutilation, domestic violence, sex trafficking and extreme poverty,” she says. “They have no funding, no money. They’re just acting on their own, but just doing these amazing things… women who have a vision, who have an incredible story to be told.”

AMRITHA VAZ’S ADVICE FOR YOUNG SCREEN COMPOSERS

  • Find your voice. What’s unique about you and your sound? You can learn the technical things, but finding your voice is really key.
  • Create a supportive composer/artist community – this can be a lonely field so it’s important to have other supportive artists from whom to learn, collaborate and with whom to sometimes commiserate.
  • Build your team – at first you’re doing it all yourself, but as you take on bigger projects, you’ll need musicians, score mixers, Pro Tools assistants, contractors, orchestrators & assistants you can rely on to help you succeed.
  • Join composer organizations – to build alliances, enrich your skills and find mentors.
  • Have fun – sounds corny, but where possible I try to find the joy in what I write, as I really do believe that in the end what moves me often resonates with other people, too.

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