Jean-Michel Blais Some people create chamber music, but Montréal-based pianist Jean-Michel Blais does apartment music. His living room is actually where he recorded Il, an album he sold online before it was picked up by Toronto’s Arts & Crafts imprint, last April.

“There was talk of recording that album in a chapel using a grand piano, but in the end I figured that music was best recorded in the exact conditions it was born in,” says Blais, an artist who loves to talk about daily-life sounds. Baby cries, birdsongs and other random sounds are scattered throughout this surprising album. Two of the album’s tracks bear the title “Hasselblad,” the brand of camera his photographer friend used to shoot the album’s artwork and, when listening closely, one can hear the camera’s shutter clicking distantly between the notes on the piano. The music is ethereal, uncomplicated, alive, a reflection of the 32-year-old composer and improv player who borrows as much from Romanticism and minimalism as he does from pop music, attracting, as his label has put it, fans of Radiohead as well as of Debussy.

Over the past few months, Jean-Michel Blais’ music has travelled well beyond the confines of his Mile End apartment in Montréal. For the Toronto launch of the album, he undertook a residency in the atrium of the Art Gallery of Ontario, where he proceeded to charm his eclectic and enthusiastic audience. Since its launch, the album has accumulated consistent rave reviews and a few major concerts – including one at the Montréal Jazz Fest – have begun appearing in his calendar.

If, at first glance, his presence in the catalogue of the Arts & Crafts label — a champion of indie bands – might seem awkward, he’s not the first iconoclastic ivory tickler to call the label home. The infamous Chilly Gonzales has long been a mainstay of the label, and the Montréal-born pianist also bridges the divide between the pop and classical traditions.

“I make no bones about it, he is totally an influence of mine,” says Blais. “But that one trait we mostly have in common is our communicator side. Just like he does, I love talking to the audience. I love to explain what I’m doing, because I feel it democratizes the experience and gives meaning to the music.”

“Except for the sound engineer’s salary, the record basically cost nothing to record, so I almost felt guilty for selling it, initially. Now that I’ve been signed, I can tell you that my label doesn’t share that feeling!”

Jean-Michel Blais And to think that until not very long ago, Jean-Michel Blais had given up on a career in music. “I got to where I am thanks to a series of happy coincidences,” explains the artist. “When Cameron Reed (Arts & Crafts’ boss) got in touch with me to tell me he stumbled upon my Bandcamp page and wanted to release my record, I thought it was a joke. I was a teacher in CÉGEP and I never thought I’d have a career in music. Except for the sound engineer’s salary, the record basically cost nothing to record, so I almost felt guilty for selling it, initially. Now that I’ve been signed, I can tell you that my label doesn’t share that feeling!” he says, laughing. |

Earning a living with music is a topic that will come up often throughout our conversation. Ever since graduating from the Trois-Rivières Conservatory, he’s had a surprising view of the classical music trade. “When I came out of the conservatory, I knew I wasn’t cut out for the academic worl,” says Blais. “I felt like piano and concert music were bourgeois entertainment, so I left to work in a Guatemalan orphanage.” Over the years, the young man travelled the world on humanitarian endeavours and took up studying psychology, leaving music behind for many months at a time.

“Sometimes, one needs to know when it’s time to leave one’s field fallow for a while,” he says. “That’s a rule of thumb in agriculture, but it applies to music, too.” The analogy is not a coincidence: between two explanations of his love of improv, he launches in a tirade about his aversion to boundless capitalism and our artificial and insatiable needs that drive us to produce, produce, produce… So when he starts talking about his desire for minimalism, one starts wondering if he’s talking about music or a broader state of voluntary simplicity.

“My music is by far more poetic than political,” he says immediately. “I like for people to make it their own and use the images they wish. But simply playing is an act of communion. When I travelled South America, I saw first-hand how much music can rally people. I understood the social role it can have, and felt I, too, could contribute.”


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MEGHAN PATRICK

From her humble beginnings in Bowmanville, Ontario, to her current position as a Canadian country/pop singer extraordinaire, it’s always been a musical journey for singer-songwriter Meghan Patrick.

Before starting out on her solo career, Meaghan fronted the popular Bowmanville new-country/bluegrass band The Stone Sparrows. She recently signed to Warner Music Canada and set to work recording her debut album. She focused on cutting her teeth as a songwriter, working with such varied top-line co-writers as Chantal Kreviazuk, Gord Bamford and Texas songwriter Rodney Clawson. “The whole process leading up to making this record has been amazing,” says Patrick. “I got to work with so many talented and wonderful writers down in Nashville, as well as Vancouver and L.A., who’ve become great friends.”

The resulting work payed off in a big way, producing her first solo album Grace & Grit, released in April of 2016. For the lead single, “Bow Chicka Wow Wow,” she even enlisted Nickelback’s Chad Kroeger, who co-wrote and produced the song, as well as a number of other tracks on the album. “When you’re able to make a connection with another writer the way I did, they help you turn your stories into a beautiful song, and it’s a truly special experience,” says Patrick. Attracting even more high-profile collaborators, Patrick teams up with multiple Grammy nominee Joe Nichols to deliver Grace & Grits’ duet, “Still Loving You.”

“I’m just chomping at the bit to get my music out there to new audiences, and get back to my roots of playing as much as possible!” says Patrick. She’ll be doing just that on the country festival circuit this summer.

SAYA

In this age of ubiquitous social media presence, a world of tweets and snapchats and YouTube clips, even most new artists already have a digital trail longer than some of the more established ones. In 2016, it feels almost more strange to have a difficult time finding any information on someone, especially a new artist. That’s what makes Toronto-born, L.A.-approved singer-songwriter Saya such a mystery.

She currently has only one track out on her Soundcloud, but the sexy, sensual, catchy, genre-hopping single “Wet Dreams” delivers a strong message; Saya is going to be a force to be reckoned with in the years to come. She’s only 21, but her sultry R&B/electronic sound, and the striking look of her Instagram and press shots, shows an artist ready to make some serious waves. The track has been receiving lots of love from tastemakers like Complex and tuned-in music blogs like Pigeons and Planes.

What’s she up to next? “This summer,” says Saya, “I’m developing my sound and pushing my limits as an artist. Trying to grow creatively and working with a variety of people in Toronto and L.A.” There you have it, a quote as mysterious as the artist herself. Keep an eye out for a new single. Soon you probably won’t be able to miss her.

CRISSI COCHRANE

Born in Nova Scotia’s Annapolis Valley, Crissi Cochrane has the heart of an East Coast singer-songwriter with a twist of Motown soul. She started recording in her teens, moving to Halifax to begin her college and music career. Not only did she start releasing her own solo music including 2010’s independently released and critically well-received Darling, Darling, she started an indie band called Gamma Gamma Rays and contributed vocals to the album of fellow Halifax musician Rich Aucoin.

Relocating to Windsor, Ontario in 2011 her sound drew even more on her influences of jazz, country and smoky soul. And, with Detroit just across the river, the Motown sound as well. She released her latest solo album Little Sway in 2014. Soon she found her songs blowing up on Spotify, with her single “Pretty Words” getting more than 4.5 million plays and finding a placement in the hit ABC show Nashville. Soon after, she was selected as one of the Top 10 Artists nationwide in CBC’s Searchlight competition in 2014.

Working hard as a touring artist and behind-the-scenes songwriter since then, in 2016 she had an idea to write cute, personalized love songs for couples who contacted her for Valentine’s Day. The CBC picked up the story and it soon went viral, drawing her thousands of plays. Cochrane says she’ll work to make it an annual tradition.

“It’s a special joy to write songs for people to share with their loved ones, and to learn what makes each love so special and strong,” she says. What’s next for her in 2017? “Between filling song requests throughout the year, I’m pre-producing my next album and gearing up for recording this fall.”


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Tegan and SaraWhen we congratulate Sara Quin of Tegan and Sara on the creation and release of eight albums, she laughs. “Well, to be fair, I only did half of it.”

OK, so even if the younger of the twin sister duo was only responsible for half of their creative output, it would still merit an extended round of applause. Over one million albums sold; JUNO Awards, the Polaris short list, and Grammy nominations; recording with dance music heavyweights Tiësto and David Guetta; touring with Neil Young and sharing the stage with Taylor Swift; performing at the Academy Awards; and writing songs like “Walking with A Ghost” (covered by The White Stripes), the double-platinum download, “Closer,” and the shiny new hit “Boyfriend,” from the duo’s new album Love You to Death.

Back when Tegan and Sara first emerged from Calgary, signing to Neil Young’s Vapor Label for their 2000 debut This Business of Art, this country’s music landscape was as full of rock as the Canadian Shield, with the Our Lady Peaces and Tea Parties about to give way to the reign of Nickelback. So the duo’s acoustic guitar-based music was dubbed indie, then later, alternative. But from the beginning, Tegan and Sara were making pop music. It’s just easier to hear it as such now.

Love you to Death continues in the trajectory they set upon in 2007 with The Con, which kicked into overdrive with 2013’s mainstream breakout Heartthrob – completing the group’s transformation into a full-on, Top 40, dancefloor synth-pop act. One without guitars, even.

“I’ve always struggled with describing us,” Sara Quin explains. “We identified with indie rock for a long time. I think that just meant we were sort of in the underground and we play guitar. On our early records, I hear a lot of our punk influences. We were writing in this really choppy, truncated way: two minutes, boom-boom. Very aggressive. Then by [2004’s] So Jealous, we were exploring arrangements, and the textures of what our music and voices could do. The Con was an extension of that.

Heartthrob was not as big a transition for us as it was for some of our fans.”

“We’re not trapped in thinking we can’t add things because it won’t sound like us. We have the benefit of having very specific voices, and the rhythms of our voices, that’s our signature. So Heartthrob was not as big a transition for us as it was for some of our fans.”

As it turns out, it’s great timing. Canada is now in a great era of pop music, from Justin Bieber and the Weeknd to Carly Rae Jepsen and Alessia Cara dominating the charts, both here and beyond. But a key difference between Tegan and Sara and their pop-minded compatriots is that when it comes to songwriting, they don’t work with a rotating team of writers, but almost exclusively with each other. [Notable exception: “Everything is Awesome,” theme song for The Lego Movie, on which they were brought in to sing.]

Over the years, that intense creative relationship has proven very successful, but also sometimes strained. In the new single “100x,” the lyrics “I told you that I needed out/ And I couldn’t stay / Couldn’t stay here one more day” will play as a straight-up relationship song, but it’s also about the times the pair almost split over wanting to go in different musical directions.

Of their unique writing partnership (and no, the twins do not possess telepathic superpowers), Sara explains how technology has allowed them to work more closely with less danger of interfering in their personal relationship.

“The process has definitely gotten easier,” she says. “Technology like Logic allows us to hone our craft without being dependent on studios. That process really hit its groove [for us] in the past eight or nine years – writing and recording ourselves before going into the studio.

“Also, computers actually allow us an intimacy. It’s never really worked for us to sit in a room and write together. [Now] I can write my songs, work on them alone, send Tegan the files, and then she can go in and add her own things, or even just take a crack at re-arranging or editing a part. It’s a much more effective collaboration.

“I think of it as fiddling with each other’s brains. I can see what’s she thinking – what parts she put in first, for example. And then I can tinker with it without hurting her feelings in person. When we first started out and we had to tell each other what we were thinking, it would often end in conflict. I think computer programs allow us to use our language, which is music.”

There’s one outsider who’s always invited into their creative process: the producer. In selecting this important member of the team, Tegan and Sara have consistently chosen producers who are also musicians. The debut was handled by Toronto singer-songwriter Hawksley Workman; Jon Collins (New Pornographers, Destroyer) and David Carswell (The Evaporators, The Smugglers) co-produced 2002’s If It was You and So Jealous; for The Con and 2009’s Polaris Music Prize-shortlisted Sainthood they enlisted Chris Walla (Death Cab for Cutie). Heartthrob’s team of heavyweights, including producers Rob Cavallo (Green Day, My Chemical Romance) and Greg Kurstin (Kelly Clarkston, P!nk, Sia) also used bassists Justin Meldal-Johnsen (Beck, Nine Inch Nails) and Mike Elizondo (Dr. Dre, Eminem). But it was Kurstin, a graduate of the jazz conservatory, and co-founder of the ‘90s alt-rock group Geggy Tah, who became Tegan and Sara’s sole producer on Love You to Death.

“Greg, he’s a genius,” says Sara. “He’s out of this world, a phenomenal musician.”

He’s also the man behind Adele’s mega-hit single “Hello,” which he also co-wrote. We joke to Sara that it was nice of him to still take their calls. “We were in the studio with him, working in blocks of time, and I knew he was in London working with Adele,” says Sara. “When ‘Hello’ came out, I was like, ‘How are you staying focused on our record when you were working on this massive, amazing song?’ But he’s so good at that. He’s very disciplined.”

It was Kurstin, along with Tegan, who convinced Sara that she had something special in the song “Boyfriend.” The first single from Love You to Death is a perfect piece of bouncy, summer pop perfection, about being in love with someone who isn’t ready to come out and commit.  “Kiss me like your boyfriend/And trust me me like a very best friend,” she sings, “But I don’t want to be your secret anymore.”

“I listened to the demo the other day,” she says. “I was so horrified! It’s not one of my best instrumentals. When Tegan and Greg heard it, they said this is absolutely a pop song and a single. I didn’t even know it would make the record. I was also worried that lyrically it was too obvious; silly, or something.  I knew I wanted to touch on gender identity, but also the roles we play in relationships regardless of sexuality. So there’s that bridge about The Crying Game and spinning the bottle, and things people may pick up on, or not. I really like that some people are going to go deep with it and others will just think it’s a fun jam.”

Fifteen years into her music career, Sara, 35, feels pretty rock-solid about the state of affairs for Tegan and Sara, both as artists and as businesswomen. And about her own abilities to translate what’s in her head and heart onto a record and out into the world.

“I look back and I feel bad that there were so many years I felt so insecure,” she says. “So bad about what I was doing. In a way, I guess it allowed me to have a certain vulnerability. But I wasted my twenties, oh man! Now, I declare what I want, who I am, and what I need, all the time. I know exactly how to get what I need.”


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