Since quitting university a decade ago to pursue artistic endeavours, Jayli Wolf has blossomed into a multi-hyphenated creative talent. Anishinaabe/Cree and queer, she’s a singer-songwriter, producer, poet, actor, and video director, who first gained attention in Once A Tree, a folk-accented duo with husband Hayden Wolf.

Jayli Wolf, Welcome Child, video

Select the image to play the YouTube video of the Jayli Wolf song “Welcome Child”

They released two EPs and three full-length albums between 2013 and 2021, when Jayli debuted as a solo artist with the EP Wild Whisper, which earned a JUNO Award nomination for Contemporary Indigenous Artist of the Year.

Released in September of 2023, her second solo EP, God Is An Endless Mirror, showcases Wolf’s evolution as a songwriter, and she’s delighted at the response to it. “Now, I’m reaching people I’d like to hang out with,” she tells us, from her farm in Creston, BC. “They’re starting to see the real me, and that’s attracting people with the same interests – like nature, spirituality, and rescuing animals.

“When I first started making music, I was really doing it for other people, and to make money,” she continues. “The stuff I was putting out to the world felt inauthentic to me, but going through a spiritual re-awakening a couple of years ago has totally changed everything. Now, I just have to be truthful, and honest ,and tap into what’s going on in my heart, for the music I want to release.”

God Is An Endless Mirror features a hybrid of organic folk and electronic sounds. “I went really inward with the lyrics here, and started out with more folk elements,” she says. “Hayden and I then added electronic elements, sometimes at the end, after the song was done. We wanted to make it atmospheric, bringing that energy of my spiritual awakening into the sonics, alongside the organic sounds.”

The Wolfs have a well-tested method in their songwriting and recording collaboration. “The lyrics are all mine, and most of the melody, but Hayden is my producer,” Jayli Wolf explains. “I’ll freestyle lyrics, then sometimes I’ll start playing the song on a guitar, and he’ll come in and add a beat, or different instruments, to it. He may take a song to a different place by changing up just one instrument on the same melody. He puts his own spin on the production, and I really trust his ears, so it’s a great partnership.”

Her very first solo single and video, “Child Of The Government,” has had an impact beyond the statistic of more than a million YouTube views; it also won Best Music Video at the Venice Short Film  Awards, and placement on CBC’s Top 10 Canadian Songs of 2021 list.

Jayli Wolf, Child Of The Government, video

Select the image to play the YouTube video of the Jayli Wolf song “Child of the Government”

The song drew upon the real-life experience of her father, a survivor of the infamous Sixties Scoop in Canada, that tore Indigenous children away from their families. “The lyrics for ‘Child of The Government’ came out in five minutes,” says Wolf. “I wasn’t even sure I was going to put it out, as it was so personal. Often, I’ll just write music as a catharsis for me, and for my own healing, without sharing it with the world. I checked with my dad that it was OK to share it. He thanked me recently, as I think telling his story through my music was healing for him, too.”

In tandem with her musical career, Wolf has been a prolific actor on television and in short films, including such TV series as Mohawk Girls and Trickster. In 2021, she was nominated as Best Supporting Actress in the American Indian Film Festival, for her role in Run Woman Run. Wolf has put her acting and filmmaking experience to good use by creating multiple music videos for her material, which have generated impressive viewing numbers.

 She’s giving her music and poetry priority over acting, at present. “When I was acting, it was just so hard to concentrate on getting another project done, and I really feel that right now my music deserves my focus,” says Wolf. “I’m working on an album and a book of poetry, and I’m running a farm and have rescue animals, so I’m definitely keeping busy!”

Winner of the 2021 SOCAN Foundation Awards for Emerging Screen Composers, Montréal composer, arranger, and musical director Medhat Hanbali describes himself as a film buff who makes music. It’s a way of underlining that his profession, screen composer, implies an intimate knowledge of cinema, “in the same way that you need to know video games if you’re going to compose for that medium,” he says, in a conversation about the trade and how it’s learned.

Medhat Hanbali, Francois Couture“I always say that composing music for film is like designing a garment for a supermodel,” says Hanbali. “You have to take the supermodel’s measurements to create a garment that is tailored to them uniquely,” and in the same way, adjust the music “frame by frame” so that it fits a precisely to the scene, taking into account the characters, locations, shot and camera movement.”

It’s tailor-made music, which we don’t hear enough of in Québec, laments the composer. After studying jazz and pop composition, and then digital music at Université de Montréal, Hanbali earned a Master’s degree in Film Music Composition at the prestigious Berklee College of Music.

He firmly believes that teaching of film music composition should be done by practitioners, and this is reflected in the works composed for film and television here. “Composers don’t learn enough about film,” he says. “How is it that someone who graduates from university, and ends up in the film industry, doesn’t really know how to speak its language? You have to understand the medium you’re working in, and the same goes for TV.” Television is a universe in which Hanbali has evolved, notably by composing the music for Si on s’aimait encore (TVA) and Mouvement Deluxe (Teletoon).

“We don’t have a strong soundtrack culture – there aren’t many specialists like Michel Corriveau, for example,” he says. “In Québec, we often promote a star system: we hire stars to create music for TV shows, rather than specialists, and these stars very often come from the world of songwriting. They’ll be asked to compose a bank of music, and the production company will draw from it for its editing. I call that making music videos; it’s not screen composing.”

“We tend to confuse picturesque music and screen composing,” says Hanbali. “Let’s use this comparison: it’s like not being able to tell the difference between a poet and a lyricist. It’s not because your stuff has rhymes and imagery that you’re a lyricist,” whereas the lyrics have to meld with the music, in his example. Composing for the movies or television “is imagining at what precise moment the music needs to occupy more or less space, how it interacts with the image, the frame or even the angle of the shot,” he says.

And, obviously, fulfilling the needs of the directors. That, to Hanbali, is a creative engine: “Creating music with absolute freedom is a handicap, for me; I work better within a set of constraints. I need a well-defined sandbox to play in. Constraints, whether they’re time-related, budgetary, stylistic, creative, or whatever, are stimulants for my imagination. This is what makes screen composing so exciting: each mandate is a whole new adventure.”

Maybe it’s just an impression, but it feels like today’s filmmakers are looking for atmospheric music rather than big themes that stay with you, we point out. “A composer always has the leeway to compose big themes,” says Hanbali. “I believe there are many issues at play here. This is due to the ever-decreasing time allotted to composition: we often have six to eight weeks to make a feature film, which means composing, arranging, recording, mixing, and so on. Composers work under deadlines that are simply insane. Then there’s the use of what we call temp tracks,” which is to say music borrowed from elsewhere, applied to the images during an initial edit, which serves as a reference point for the composer. “They’ll say, ‘Write something that sounds like that,’ and I’m supposed to come up with something that matches those criteria, but without really knowing what the director likes or needs.

“I remember when Denis Villeneuve directed Arrival,” he says. “Countless projects after that used Arrival’s music as temp tracks. It always cracks me up when I hear that piece of music in other projects! The same goes with Stranger Things: after that came out, everyone wanted ‘80s-sounding stuff!”

Medhat Hanbali will be giving a training session for the Société Professionnelle des auteurs et des compositeurs du Québec (SPACQ) on March 2 and 3, 2024, « Démystifier le métier de compositeur à l’image et gagner en vitesse de création » (“De-mystifying the job of screen composer and gaining creative speed”). For more information, or to register, visit the SPACQ website.

For years now, before every show, Terra Lightfoot huddles with her bandmates and they shout the following mantra: “To the healing power of rock ‘n’ roll!”
It’s no coincidence that the award-winning songwriter’s new record is called Healing Power. But that’s only a part of the story. The album took five years to germinate; it’s filled with joy, sorrow, and all the emotions in between. Produced once again by Gus Van Go (The Beaches, Arkells), Healing Power is a pop-rock gem. The record is about slowing down, taking stock of – and acknowledging – one’s feelings. Finding gratitude in the little things.

The big things, career-wise, have already fallen into place. CBC Music calls Lightfoot “One of Canada’s best all-around musicians… an amazing tour de force, the complete package.” Guitar Player magazine says she “has a huge voice and a big and gutsy guitar tone to match.” The Globe and Mail says she “cuts like lightning to a tree.” She plays marathon tours (eight countries across four continents, so far), has opened for Willie Nelson and for Bruce Cockburn, and recently launched her own record label Midnight Choir. In 2019, conceived, created, curated, produced, and co-headlined The Longest Road Show, an all-female touring revue.

When Words & Music catches up with Lightfoot, she’s at the tail end of a solo mini-tour of the West Coast, on a double-bill with her fellow ace guitarist, Ariel Posen. The singer-songwriter is travelling with her new husband Jon Auer (songwriter/guitarist for now-defunct American power-pop band The Posies), whom she married in the summer of 2023 (which made one of her recent singles, “Cross Border Lovers,” even more personal than when she first wrote it). Their newfound love permeates the dozen songs on her sixth studio release; so does a re-discovery of everyday simplicity, even as a touring artist living in a quick-moving world. “You have to put in those moments of everyday joy,” says Lightfoot.

Was the musician spent after running at a rapid pace for far too long? Yeah, I was a bit burned out,” she explains. “Also, I didn’t have a good sense of what was happening around me because everything was moving too fast. It’s up to each musician to set the pace of what they’re going to do … I’m busy again now, but it feels different because I’ve integrated ways to handle it.”

Terra Lightfoot, Cross Border Lovers

Select the image to play the YouTube video of the Terra Lightfoot song “Cross Border Lovers”

“Handling it,” to Lightfoot, means making time on the road to appreciate Mother Nature’s wonders and bounty, rather than racing from town to town, and motel to motel. Without these pauses, the journey is a blur, rather than something beautiful. Lightfoot shares that, on her most recent tour,  in between gigs she and Auer have visited a Buddhist Temple in Austin, a Monarch Butterfly Grove in Southern California, and hiked by the sea in Mendocino.

The seeds for Healing Power arrived far from the California Coast. Alone, on a Swiss mountaintop a few years ago, Lightfoot had an epiphany beneath a European larch tree. As she gazed at the majesty of the vista and the mountains, standing alone in the Austrian Alps, the songwriter felt something. She started to sing and play guitar as if no one was watching. A flood of emotions, unlike any she’d felt in years, overcame her. Mother Nature was telling Lightfoot to find a better balance in her constant chase for success. This catharsis taught the musician a few other things – like it’s okay to write about topics she used to feel were taboo: friendships, addictions, and stories previously too personal to share in song.

“Friendship and community are among the most important things in our lives, so writing about that was therapeutic,” says Lightfoot. “I’ve also processed some anger on this record for the first time. I’m not an angry person, so that’s been cathartic … to write a song and say, ‘I’m actually a bit angry about that.’ I can let that out and process it. Hopefully, others can do the same. That’s what songwriting, for me, has always been about.”

The other important piece of Healing Power was finally bidding adieu to her long-time hometown of Hamilton. “That’s a big piece of the record… leaving the place that made me the musician I am,” says Lightfoot. “I now live in a house in the woods, with a pond, and it’s a place that I love coming home to after a tour; that makes everything better too.”

“Fired My Man” captures how Lightfoot felt about her previous existence. In the second verse she sings, “All my house plants were barely hanging on / It was emergency, ask you, it’s time I made it home.” “I literally I had to get friends to break into my apartment to water my plants sometimes,” she says, “because I wouldn’t know when I was coming back, and thought they were all going to die – as I ‘d been away more than a month. That song is about coming home, not even feeling like you’ve been there, and asking what it even means to have a home if you’re never there.”

New beginnings. Newfound love. A new home, and a new record. Life is good for Terra Lightfoot these days. To the healing power of rock ‘n’ roll, indeed.