After making his mark with a solo piano project and a subsequent foray in electro territory, composer Jean-Michel Blais is now exploring the world of orchestral music, presenting Aubades – an album recorded with 12 musicians, led by conductor Nicolas Ellis.

Jean-Michel Blais One could easily say that Jean-Michel Blais is addicted to risk-taking. He’d never composed for an orchestra before embarking on the creation of Aubades (out Feb. 4, 2022), a flourishing one-hour opus that’s nothing short of a symphony. As it turns out, it was a colossal project that pushed him to his limits.

“At some point, I came this close to just giving everything to an arranger,” he admits. “I felt like I bit off way more than I could chew, and then Nico Ellis would say, ‘You know, Jean-Mich, it’s the first time you’ve tried arranging, it’s the first time you write [the music out in notation], you have 100 pages, your score is 100 pages long, for a total of one hour of music, for 12 musicians.’ And it’s true that I put a lot on my shoulders… Would I do it all over again? No doubt, but not right away!” he says in a burst of laughter. “It’s quite intense. You get to a point where your brain hurts. it’s not easy to imagine 12 different voices at once.”

And yet, the newcomer to arranging took up the challenge without getting lost in it, carried by his unique chord combinations, and his characteristic harmonic progressions. In the end, it’s like his essence, his entire style, has been multiplied tenfold.

But even though he’ll likely gain new fans among various types of music lovers, Blais is worried he might lose some of his earlier fans in the twists and turns of his experimentation. “I know it’s not the smartest move, industry-wise,” he says. “When you hit, it’s always better to stick to what you know, cater to your target audience, and make money. The thing is, I’m afraid I’ll die a slow death doing the opposite.”

 An Extended Hand

One of Blais’ goals with Aubades was to bring “savant” music to the masses, to strip away the haughty, even aristocratic veneer that comes with his kind of grand orchestral flights-of-fancy. At least historically. “I’m not a revolutionary, I’m a popularizer, maybe,” says Blais. “A ‘democratizer,’ even though I know that’s not a word. That’s how I see myself.”

To achieve his goals, the pianist has taken the gamble of placing his collaborators at the very heart of the project, as if to remind us that it’s not robots who perfectly play his compositions. “What I was interested in was the life of those musicians, hearing them breathe, hearing their instruments creak, hearing them whisper,” he says. “It’s crucial for me to feel the humans behind the notes scribbled on paper. The studio is full of life… When you mic each individual, you start feeling their humanity. I think next time I’ll even mic [conductor] Nicolas Ellis, so we can hear his baton swingin’!”

Blais promises that he’s circling back to his first love after this ensemble work cycle. “I’m already pining to make a solo piano album,” he says adamantly, and stops short of proffering a release date.

Meanwhile, he flutters about from one style to the next, allowing himself the freedom to enrich his roadmap. The new assets he realizes will inevitably reflect on his more minimalist, but never stripped-down, musical offerings.

“I don’t want to do background music, you know, the kind of mezzo piano pieces that are so banal, you don’t even know who you’re dealing with anymore,” he says. “I’ve always been motivated by awakening people’s ability to really dig music, instead of just consuming it as a product or a sonic decor like Satie, or any Spotify list that you play in the background, like wallpaper. I believe that everyone can get into instrumental music for more than five minutes.”

And it’s all the easier to do when – flanked by brilliant musicians – Blais transports us to a universe as cinematic and enveloping as the one on Aubades.

It was just over a year ago, at the height of last winter’s pandemic lockdown, that a golden opportunity landed in the lap of Ashley Jane. “All of a sudden this is, like, ‘Oh, this is what you hear about when people talk about having a lucky break,’” she says. Working under a drop-dead, two-day deadline, the end result was the song “How Lucky Am I?” which will appear in the soon-to-be released feature film Press Play starring Danny Glover (Lethal Weapon), Lewis Pullman (Top Gun: Maverick), and Matt Walsh (Veep).

It wasn’t her first foray into soundtrack music. “After [my band] In the City released our first EP Changing Times, we found a lot of success with getting placements,” says Jane, whose songs have been featured on TV series such as Workin’ Moms, Heartland, Kim’s Convenience, and more.

It was no accident, though, that Jane was in the right place at the right time. It was because she’d established a successful songwriting partnership with Stephen Krecklo, who was initially approached by the filmmaker. As a result of the pandemic, Krecklo – who Jane had met at the Canadian Film Centre (where she and her In The City partner Timon Wientzek were the first songwriting duo to be accepted into the prestigious Slaight Family Music Residency) – found himself killing time on Twitch, the live streaming service that, though mainly for gaming, also offers music broadcasts and creative content “in real life” streams.

“All you can do is do your best”

Jane’s tips to get your song synched

  1. “Educate yourself on the role and job of a music supervisor before reaching out. Do your homework on outreach etiquette, and check out conferences and talks on music supervision – The Canadian Guild of Music Supervisors is a great resource for this.”
  2. “Be organized. Make sure all of your music is tagged with the right metadata, such as artist and songwriter, contact information, genre, performing rights organization (PRO), and more. Also, be sure to respond promptly to any requests, as timelines are often tight!”
  3.  “Write music you love, and the rest will follow. People can sometimes view writing for synch as its own artform, but I think if you try to write the best song you can, everything else will fall into place.”

Jane explains, “Stephen found himself in a like-minded community and, from time to time, he’d show some music that he had created. One day someone slipped into his messages, ‘I’m a director in L.A. working on a feature, and I’ve heard some of your music. I was wondering if you have a couple of songs that you could send to hit certain moments in our film?’ He called me and gave me a breakdown of what they were looking for. We didn’t know who this person was, it could have been anybody, but, lo and behold, it [was] in fact a director making a Hollywood film with some heavy-hitter names.”

They were given a two-day deadline.

“We’d worked together quite a bit for the last couple of years, but we’d never worked remotely before,” says Jane. “We’d always worked together in a room. It was an interesting experience having one of the biggest opportunities in our careers presented to us in the moment we weren’t allowed to leave our homes.”

The two went to work and submitted a track that, though a top three contender, didn’t make the final cut. The pair weren’t disheartened; in fact, they were thrilled. “When it comes to this sort of stuff,” says Jane, “all you can do is do your best. We felt that we’d done a good job, and  pulled this off over Zoom, having never written like that before. The fact that they thought it was a good song was enough for us.”

But it wasn’t enough for the filmmakers. A week later the director called again. Another song needed, and only two days to turn it around. This time they scored. “How Lucky Am I?” indeed.

It’s the personal relationships, which Jane has nurtured, that keep her busy. “I’m in a really unique position where, in Canada, I have great relationships with music supervisors,” she says. “After the initial placement, if they can see that you’re prompt and you’re reliable, the trust just builds, and builds, and builds from there. Every placement I’ve had has been an opportunity that has been presented to me by a director, or a producer, or a music supervisor, or another collaborator musically. For me, having a direct line both ways has been so beneficial. It’s just a quick way to build trust on both ends.”

Les LouangesLa nuit est une panthère, Les Louanges’ first album released in 2018 after its presence in the grand finale of Les Francouvertes, placed pawns on a chessboard much bigger than that of his own career. From behind his Les Louanges moniker, Vincent Roberge embarked on a musical journey as a song steward who defines his style one song at a time, allowing each one influence the next. On Crash, he paints an immense fresco of all the firsts of adulthood: the nicer ones that pull us upward, and the sadder ones that transform us.

While his debut left a lot to the imagination, and let the listener take their time to make sense of it all, Crash is anchored in a sometimes harsh, but always undoubtable, truth. “That crash is basically life hitting me head on,” says Roberge from the outset. “The pandemic forced me to take a step back, and that allowed me to digest stuff I hadn’t digested yet.”

That stuff includes the early years of a career that rocketed upward at lightning speed, but also the life-changing experiences one goes through in their early twenties. “I lived a lot of extraordinary things that ranged from exceptional to utterly stressful, but, through it all, I also learned to become an adult, and I did it while burning the candle at both ends,” says the singer-songwriter. “Each of these songs represents a very important event that had an impact, positive or negative, like a crash.”

Any song can be born out of chaos, but the timing for Les Louanges to create his sophomore album was totally unbalanced. After making the Polaris Music Prize short list, and completing a successful tour in Québec, he was forced to return from Europe just as things were taking off there. “The foundation of the song ‘Facile was when we came back from Marseille, because the pandemic was declared,” he says. “We were in a depressing AirBnB on Iberville Street in Montréal. We couldn’t go anywhere and I felt fucking alone that day. I was lying in bed playing pads on my keyboard controller. I played stupid chords and I thought they were so sad.” Eager to bring a truth to which  his audience could relate more, he wanted to keep that bit of desperation – the demo he saved on his phone was titled “Fuck It” – and turn it into something touching later.

All of that is part and parcel of Les Louanges’ quest for truth, which permeates all of Crash. He believes that the poppier nature of his new music stems from his effort to be concise. “I was tired of hiding behind 2,000 metaphors, I wanted to show that I’m able to create complex arrangements that support clearer lyrics,” he says. “I no longer want people to have to think about it to feel an emotion when they listen to my music. But if you really want to look for deeper meanings, you still can.”

Right in the middle of Crash, Les Louanges borrows words from Gaston Miron as an interlude. The poet’s words are sketched among the lighter areas of the generally quite dark album. “I wanted to achieve a balance between sadness and light,” he explains. “What Miron says, ultimately, is that it’s important to keep your sense of wonder. It’s good for you, and good for your art. Plus, one can feel wonder even from pain. If something touches you, there’s a reason for it. I think it’s like he’s preparing you for what you’re about to hear.”

After jokingly talking about a duet with Corneille for years with his musical accomplice and producer Félix Petit, Les Louanges began seriously considering an actual collaboration. “I always struggle to explain my musical style and, one day, as a joke, Félix said I do conscious R&B,” he says. “I truly believe the king of that genre is Corneille. Then, one morning, I was at Green Room, right next do Planet Studios. I get out of my car, it’s 9:00 a.m. and I hear, ‘Bro, is that Les Louanges?’ This dude gets out of his car, with tinted windows, and it’s Corneille. I know the chances were higher to stumble across him there than in the parking lot of Canadian Tire, but I still couldn’t believe it. I wasted no time and suggested a collaboration for the song “Crash.” I think even the universe was tired of waiting for things to happen.”

Ever since his first collaborations with producer Petit, the latter has been very successful with other artists who asked to work with him. Still, Les Louanges isn’t afraid that his distinctive sound will spill over elsewhere. “Félix truly carries my vision when we work on my tunes,” he says. “He’s a major part of my equation. He’s the twin I never had, and the only person who knows what’s going on in my head. He’s always right where no one else would think of being. Even if we’re at Le Roi du Smoked Meat at 3:00 a.m., he’ll order a veal chop while we have hot dogs and, in the end, we’re all thinking we should’ve ordered the same thing as him.”

Like every other musician, Les Louanges daydreams about getting back onstage, and even considered that aspect of things during his creative process – by including downtime amidst his dance-ier grooves, so that the crowd can warm up for what’s coming. “I kept getting flashes of being onstage while I was in the studio,” he remembers. “But as much as you’d love to control everything, songwriting is savage. You need to be that National Geographic guy who takes a picture of the pelican. You have to manage your ISO, make sure you’re using the right gear, wait for the right moment, sometimes you have to go right to the fucking middle of the jungle, and that’s the only time you’re going to get that great shot.”