TiKA the Creator (a.k.a. TiKA Simone) admits that talking about her feelings can be difficult at times. So instead, she chooses to sing about them.

The Toronto R&B artist first began writing music when she was 14, and even though it wasn’t encouraged – a middle-school talent show judge once told her that she “didn’t think singing was for me” – it remained an integral part of her life. Throughout the years, Simone has been an avid supporter of the city’s thriving music scene, working as a curator and promoter. But, when a bout of depression hit her, her love of music took a different form.

“Music was the vehicle for learning how to describe my trauma, dissociation, depression and overall mental illness,” she explains. “I find it less embarrassing to sing about my pain in a language that everyone can understand, versus being misunderstood in regular conversation.”

That cathartic process is “free-flow” for Simone, who also meditates when she records. As a result, her melodies often manifest as airy and light, emanating a positive sensibility. She doesn’t shy away from her heavy experience, but delivers it with levity, soothing listeners like a much-needed balm in a sometimes overwhelming world. So far, it’s earned fans, and opening slots for the likes of John Legend, Ne-Yo and SonReal. Soon, she’ll be heading out on tour in Europe.

“Music is powerful,” says Simone. “As a person, I strive to live in the light because there have been far too many instances where I could have died and didn’t… While it’s important to be real, it’s also important to elevate past what I know, and my childhood pathologies. I hope listeners find peace within themselves.”

In addition to the tour, Simone is looking forward to releasing a debut full-length album with an accompanying short film this year. She excitedly adds, “There are many firsts I’ve never done, that I’m about to do.”

Depression digs deep. It hides. It waits. Often, it seeps in slowly, and materializes when you least expect the darkness. That’s exactly what happened to hit Canadian country singer-songwriter Tebey (a.k.a. Tebey Ottoh). Though he’s battled anxiety and depression ever since he can recall, one of those unexpected episodes came on strong a couple of years ago, and didn’t let go.

“I was getting overwhelmed by the music business,” Tebey says. “It’s a tough business, and it wears on you. The BS I have to deal with every day is tremendous. As I get older, I don’t have the tolerance sometimes for it. I just hit a wall. I wasn’t feeling very creative, and didn’t want to do music anymore.”

Tebey opened up earlier this year about these struggles with mental illness – penning a letter for Bell as part of its Let’s Talk Day campaign. “I wanted to be honest with people,” he says.

Sometimes writing songs helps artists heal. Not this time. Not for Tebey, at least initially. The support of his wife, and a sabbatical with his family, travelling throughout Asia (South Korea, Thailand, and Tokyo) provided the respite the songwriter needed to get in the right frame of mind to let the muse back in. He also admits that he was afforded the luxury to take some extra time off, without immediate financial worries, after “Somebody Else Will,” which he co-wrote for American country artist Justin Moore, was a Billboard No.1 in 2017; it was Tebey’s first No.1 single South of the border, as a songwriter.

We catch up with Tebey in Toronto on the release date for his new six-song EP Love a Girl — a collective effort between Tebey and Danick Dupelle (Emerson Drive), his co-producer and “co-captain,” who helped him push the envelope and take the songs in a new direction. It’s Tebey’s fourth recording, following a period of producing records for others, and writing, or co-writing, hit songs for a diverse range of artists, from pop to country stars – including One Direction, Cher, Fifth Harmony, and Big & Rich.

His own first single from Love a Girl, “Denim on Denim” – co-written with fellow SOCAN member Kelly Archer and American songwriter Nathan Spicer – is an infectious, country-leaning song that’s already climbing the charts at interview time. The rest of the five cuts fuse Tebey’s pop sensibilities with his love of mainstream country. “We took some chances with this record,” he says. “I think we succeeded.”

Take the title cut, “Love a Girl.” Lyrically, it’s definitely a country song, but production-wise, it’s something else entirely. “I believe that song is as far to the pop side of things as we’ve ever been,” says Tebey. “The lines today are blurred, especially with country music fans. They’re listening to Chris Stapleton one minute, and five minutes later they’re kicking the new Drake! I wander around the campgrounds at festivals like Boots and Hearts, and I hear their playlists.”

“Who’s Gonna Love You,” written for Tebey’s wife, is another song that, at interview time, was expected to garner a lot of airplay. Lyrics like the following are ones likely to resonate with listeners:

I’ve been known to steal a couple of curly fries from her side of the table on a date
I’ve been known to flip the finger to the guy driving slow over in the fast lane
And when I steal the covers on the bed, or lose a twenty on a stupid bet
She shakes her head, smiles at me and says, who’s gonna love you if I don’t?

“I talk about all the stupid things I do daily that drives her mental,” says Tebey. “I’m sure people will smile when they hear those lines and say, ‘That’s me!’”

When it comes to writing lines that linger long with listeners, he believes a memorable melody is still the key to a great song. “That’s one thing that will never change,” says Tebey. “Production, and what’s hot at the moment, will always change, but classic melodies won’t… They’ll be around forever. Think about a song like, ‘I Want it that Way’ by Backstreet Boys, or classic songs by Journey. Those are melodies that’ll never go out of style. Using the latest sounds and the hottest production is fine, and keeps things current, but melody is still king.”

Tebey admits he’s a melodic songwriter. Melodies come naturally to him, but they also come very meticulously. “Often, I have to grind them out to find them,” he says. “I also don’t settle. I need to explore every option with that melody before I can say, ‘This is the best it can be.’ It’s one of the things younger songwriters don’t do. They settle, and don’t even know they’re doing it. There is a big difference between a good melody and an undeniable melody.”

When asked if there are any undeniable melodies on the new EP, Tebey laughs, then says, “You don’t swing and knock it out of the park every time!”

Tebey’s Top Three Tips on Co-Writing

  • “Write with people that don’t write the same style/genre that you do; the variety is good.”
  • “Collaborate with people you enjoy working with, and write with people that challenge you. That’s a big one. I love working with people who are better and bigger songwriters than me. You can always learn. I’m learning constantly.”
  • “Every session is different. The more you write with people, the more you understand their process. Still, there’s no magic formula. You need to continue to work at it, and be 10 per cent better than everyone else all the time… that’s what I strive for.”

When it comes to the craft, Nashville-based Ashley Gorley is one of his songwriting heroes, but Max Martin is Tebey’s touchstone; someone who hits more home runs than most. “To me, he’s the greatest pop songwriter of all time.” [Martin is a Swedish songwriter who’s won the ASCAP Songwriter of the Year Award a record 10 times, and has the third-most No.1 singles on the Billboard charts, behind only Paul McCartney and John Lennon. He’s written or co-written songs with the likes of Taylor Swift, Katy Perry, and Pink, to name a few.]

Hit singles and sales aside, for Tebey, a song’s success lies more in how deeply it resonates with listeners. “When people spend their hard-earned money to download your song, that’s when you know you’ve connected with them,” he says. “No. 1 songs may not necessarily connect with fans, even if they’re big radio hits. I want to write songs that connect with people. It’s a crapshoot, though. You never really know what’s going to hit. There’s no secret formula. You just write your best songs and use your gut instinct.”

Another key is honesty. “You can’t chase stuff,” he says. “That’s what’s important. As a writer, or for upcoming songwriters who might read this, my best advice is, it’s important to be yourself. You can’t be someone else: all the best bands, artists, songwriters, etc., do what they do best, not what someone else does best.”

Besides writing melodic songs, what Tebey also does best is help others face their demons. Born in Peterborough, and now based in Nashville, at interview time the country star was going to return home at the end of the month for an annual golf charity event he started last year, expected to raise about $25,000 for mental health projects through the Greater Peterborough Health Services, Your Family Health Team Foundation. “It’s a cause that is so close to my heart,” he says.

On Viens avec moi, a rock opera where prog-rock, magic mushrooms, and Lucien Francoeur all converge, Les Hôtesses d’Hilaire poke fun at the fragile and/or disproportionate egos that are a-dime-a-dozen in the music ecosystem.  

In 2003, Wilfred LeBouthillier was crowned the winner of the first edition of Québec televised music competition Star Académie. Last week, Serge Brideau, the hirsute teddy bear of a man and leader of Les Hôtesses d’Hilaire, had dinner with the second-most-famous artist to sing “La ballade de Jean Batailleur.” “He’s among the first people to have heard the album, because I wanted him to understand I wasn’t trying to insult him,” says singer Brideau about his fellow artist, with whom he shared classes at W.-Arthur-Losier high school in Tracadie, New Brunswick.

But why would LeBouthillier be insulted by Viens avec moi? Because the rock opera tells the stories of a fictional version of Brideau – an ever-emerging artist hero who, slowly but surely, gives in to his ego and to cocaine – and of Kevin, a cutie-pie whose ultimate goal is to showcase his vocal chords on TV on Sunday nights. One can see that Wilfred and Kevin seem to be one and the same, with the exception that, as far as anyone knows, Wilfred is not a magic mushroom aficionado (more on that later).

At a time when basically everyone has taken to dissing any artist who participates in a music-competition reality TV show, along come Les Hôtesses d’Hilaire, with their over-80-minutes-long, authentic, carnival of a rock opera. But what does selling one’s soul mean, in an era where everyone sells their image at a discount price on social media?

“The irony of it all is that I had never really watched La Voix [the Québec franchise of The Voice TV singing competition] before,” says Brideau on  the phone from his manager’s house on the banks of the Petitcodiac River. “I forced myself to do it, because I wanted to absorb the show’s philosophy, and see what the millions of people who watch that show every week like about it. It’s fascinating how every time someone belts out a note, people go nuts. That’s not singing to me. You sing because there are words that move you. It’s not a body-building competition.”

The grotesque caricature proposed by Les Hôtesses d’Hilaire – a mixed bag of prog-rock, theatre, and pop song parody – would be rather unoriginal, if the band didn’t also mock the underground and its tendency to glorify its own downtrodden-ness. This side is incarnated by Serge, who comes to disappear in an abyss of self-glorification and endless intoxication. “You know, I’m not judging anyone, especially those who do go on La Voix,” says Brideau. “I know everyone is in survival mode in the music world. Everybody takes a different road to get to the same point, which is making a living from music. Saying ‘I have integrity’ is all fine and dandy, but if you’re still living at your parents, or off of your girlfriend, it’s not worth much.”

On the Art of Not Trying Very Hard

“Sometimes, things happen when you aren’t really trying… Life is fucked up that way, you know?,” Kevin is told, in the dressing room at Centre Bell, by a Lucien Francoeur- turned-prophet, before he turns the young artist on to the sinuous but revealing road of psychedelic drugs that will, ultimately, allow him to break free of his format prison.

Says Brideau, “We were opening for Aut’Chose, and Lucien really said that to me while talking about the success of “Rap à Billy.” ‘Look here, Serge, I worked my ass off on my songs since the ’70s, for nothing, then I wrote ‘Rap à Billy’ in ten minutes on the corner of a table, and that’s what put me on the map.’”

And while drugs drag one of Viens avec moi’s characters towards the proverbial rock-bottom, they also allow sweet little songbird Kevin to broaden his horizons. “Psychedelics, mushrooms and LSD might make you see things you’d rather not see,” says Brideau. “Whereas amphetamines, cocaine, those are drugs that make you forget, and imbue you with a confidence that’s not always warranted. Both types of drugs play an important role in the story, because the guy who micro-doses ‘shrooms has an awakening, while the guy who does coke self-destructs.”

Even though he doesn’t (thankfully) go to the same extremes as his alter ego in the story, Brideau does admit to a certain fatigue when it comes to the never-ending road to success. So why continue? “Because I like being on stage with the boys,” he says. “I often think about the “Blues du businessman,” and it could be me, a 50-year-old ambulance driver, strumming his guitar at a party, drunk and pathetic. I would’ve missed out on this life.”

Serge’s double undergoes a redemption right out of a gossip rag, when, ultimately, he’s gobbled up by the infernal machine of the talent show Pousse ta note (Push Your Note), where he ends up as a judge. He then sings a hymn to temperance called “Obstacle émotionnel” (“Emotional Obstacle”), a hilarious song, whose lyrics seem to have been composed by a Roger Tabra emulator, and whose music sounds like it was composed by a Michel Pagliaro at the end of his rope.

So, everyone has their price? “Yes!” says Brideau. “Musicians who end up coaching on La Voix have their price. I have no idea how much money they make, but they certainly don’t do it out of passion for that show. They grow old and their priorities change. It’s perfectly normal to make decisions like that when you spent years doing something that doesn’t pay much and you realize you’re growing old. Far be it from me to judge that. It’s easy for me to say that I can’t be bought: I’ve never been offered something that forced me to consider it, even for a moment. And you know what, I’d love it if La Voix invited Les Hôtesses on. But it would have to be live! That would be my only condition. I’d go for a smaller fee, as long as it’s live.” Does anyone have Stéphane Laporte’s phone number?

Les Hôtesses d’Hilaire will open for Galaxie during the Francos on June 14, and they’ll present their rock opera on November 1st during Coup de cœur francophone.