As a musical genre, blues faces a hyper-competitive international market, and is under-heard at home, so the international progress of our local artists should be celebrated exploits.

Dawn Tyler Watson

Dawn Tyler Watson

“It’s not surprising,” says singer-songwriter Dawn Tyler Watson, who’s just returned from the Legendary Rhythm & Blues Cruise, where she rubbed elbows with Buddy Guy and Taj Mahal, to name just a couple of the headliners. “Our vision of blues in Québec is popular. The way we play it, the style, the authenticity, the repertoire. I’m asked to play regularly.”

Watson demonstrated her versatility in her former eclectic duo with guitarist and singer Paul Deslauriers; they gave concerts in Russia, Australia, Morocco, Brazil, and all over Europe. It shows, as well, in her current role as a big-band singer in Ben Racine’s group, which is perfect for her. Only three months after undergoing triple-bypass heart surgery, she won top honours at the International Blues Challenge (IBC) in Memphis in 2017. She came out on top among 200 contestants. No wonder bookers and festivals are all over her since then.

“Artists who sing the blues in French can forget about developing their careers abroad,” says Brian Slack, a programmer, and Watson’s manager since 1997. “I have a hard time booking them even in Québec! International programmers are afraid of French blues. I’m very attuned to what others are doing,” he says, referring to festivals in Canada, the U.S. and overseas. “We need to create momentum, it’s super-important. Keep them in the loop continually. A blues artist, no matter where they’re from, has to release a well-produced album every other year. We pick the events. There are plenty of singers out there!”

The Montréal Blues Society’s role in the thriving career of many Québec artists shouldn’t be underestimated. Go-between, catalyst, source of information: this non-profit undertaking makes good use of social media, like everybody else. It’s they who send Québec artists to the IBC, as a pre-requisite for entry to the contest: all contestants must be sponsored by their local blues society.

Another can’t-miss event is the Canadian Blues Summit, held every other year in Toronto, serving as the Canadian Music Week or Bourse Rideau of the Canadian blues scene. It’s an undeniable career accelerator.

Steve Hill

Steve Hill

Steve Hill – Québec blues patriarch, winner of the 2015 Blues Album of the Year JUNO Award,  and a plethora of Maple Blues Awards – has been criss-crossing Europe for the past two years, both as a solo act, and with British legends Wishbone Ash, playing 1,000- to 2,000-seater venues. “Everything I make here, I re-invest in those European tours,” he says. “Tour expenses, my technician, etc. I lose money when I tour Europe, but blues is a business where you need to be seen. It’s an investment.”

His European press kit is to die for. Major British outlets like1 Classic Rock Magazine rave about the bluesman’s solo performances. Same goes in Germany, where rock and blues are highly appreciated: the press loves him. This summer, Hill will open for Joe Bonamassa on the German leg of his tour, and play in front of audiences of 10,000-plus.

Hill also took up another daunting challenge on Feb. 16, 2018: the Electric Candlelight Concerto, a 20-minute piece, in five movements, that he played alongside The Montréal Symphony Orchestra, under the direction of Kent Nagano, during an atypical Concert in the Dark at Montréal’s Maison Symphonique. In doing so, Hill entered the hallowed halls of classical music, an exploit that would have been unimaginable 20, even 10 years ago. Could his development abroad also benefit from this type of visibility? “The next morning, I was having breakfast with maestro Nagano at the Ritz,” says Hill. “There are discussions about playing this piece elsewhere in the world with other symphonic orchestras.” Hill, who does three or four Canadian tours each year, for at least the last five years, also benefits from SODEC subsidies.

Montréaler Michael Jerome Browne is a traditional blues specialist. His records on the Borealis imprint are a delight for purists and delta blues aficionados. Alongside the renowned Eric Bibb, Browne has travelled to all corners of North America. He hasn’t had a manager for the past decade and yet, next April, he’s booked for a series of 15 concerts in the U.K.

Jordan Officer has three albums of refined guitar stylings, and his new one is due in June of 2018. Even though he was awarded with a CALQ creation subsidy in New York City in 2013, he prefers camper-van pilgrimages with his family to the American South as a way to create contacts. Plus, year in and year out, a French booker steadily books him for 10 gigs. “It’s possible to develop anywhere, even outside existing networks,” says Officer.

Angel Forrest has been active in Canada for 30 years, and she, too, will release a new album soon: the live recording Electric Love. Just as her Québec brethren, Forrest also hires a European booker. In a few days, English audiences in Sheffield, Bristol and Glasgow, to name but a few, will have their first contact with the raspy-voiced singer. Then, she’s headed to Omaha, Kansas City and Minneapolis, in August. “It’s word-of-mouth in action,” she says. “And that necessarily requires concerts.” Forrest stays away from re-visiting blues classics, and presents audiences with her own folk and rock-tinged songs. She was one of eight finalists at the IBC in January 2018. “I was surprised,” admits the Anglo-Quebecer, “because my music is quite outside the box, and less conventional.” She won Female Singer of the Year at the 2018 Maple Blues Awards, yet she admits that “winning trophies is nice, but they don’t bring anything concrete.”

Mike Goudreau

Mike Goudreau

Guitarist Paul Deslauriers just signer a deal with renowned blues booker Intrepid Artist. His agenda now includes several concerts in Florida, including the Daytona Blues Fest, Omaha, Las Vegas, and a long list of other shows. Winner of four Maple Blues Awards this year, The Paul Deslauriers Band is in great demand all over Canada. He and his bandmates finished in second place in Memphis in 2016, and the sailing has been smooth ever since. “We’re no longer just a band from Montréal, for American bookers,” says Deslauriers. “The only way to build your audience is to play in front of people as often as possible.”

Ironically, the Eastern Townships’ Mike Goudreau is probably the one artist who’s the most popular in the U.S. and worldwide, yet he hasn’t played a single show in those territories. With 19 albums in the bag, TV programs and films are crazy about his music. Since 2007, we’ve heard his blues guitar composition in more than 100 American productions, such as NCIS (CBS), Gotham (Fox), and Hung (HBO), to name just a few. Even the 2016 European leg of the Forever Gentlemen tour, and 40 shows in Eastern Europe accompanying Garou, have nothing on his American success – proof that Québec’s blues has a little je-ne-sais-quoi that audiences everywhere love, even in the birthplace of that music.

Clearly, to paraphrase Dawn Tyler Watson it’s all about the way we play it: the style, the authenticity, the repertoire, and – no doubt – simply because these artists are so talented.

When songwriters put their creations out into the world, they typically do so as an act of faith, without a clear picture of just how their work will be exposed and received.

There’s no such mystery with the songs created by the BigDay Music team of Lee Baillie and Marc Rogers; they’re custom-written songs, aimed at a very small and completely targeted audience.

Toronto-based songwriter Baillie established BigDay, and she works closely with multi-instrumentalist and producer Rogers in crafting material to suit the wishes of their clients. The company name refers to the fact that their original compositions are designed to be played on a special occasion, most commonly a wedding, a milestone birthday or anniversary. Less orthodox commissions have been songs for a dog, and a law firm’s anniversary.

How the rights work for BigDay
Interestingly, all rights to BigDay recordings remain exclusively owned by BigDay Music, and cannot be monetized or resold at any time. Clients are granted a personal use license, in perpetuity, of their purchased recording. Performance royalties come into play if a BigDay song is played or performed at a venue Licensed To Play by SOCAN. For example, if a client plays their BigDay song during their wedding at a licensed venue, or a BigDay song ends up getting radio airplay, or is uploaded to YouTube. BigDay registers its songs with SOCAN to cover any of these types of situations, each of which would garner performance royalties.

The concept began organically. “I founded the company in 2014,” says Baillie. “Prior to that, as a labour of love, I was just writing songs for my family and friends, as gifts to celebrate their special occasions. These songs were shared, and as word spread, I was approached by others who wanted to commission songs for their loved ones, and the milestones in their lives. BigDay is the result.”

Baillie’s first customized song was for her brother. “He’s a great singer, and he sang that tune to his wife as a surprise at their wedding reception,” she says. “Shortly afterward, my grandmother Kitty was turning 95, and our extended family planned a huge birthday party at her seniors’ residence. I wrote two songs for her as a surprise, and she was elated.

“I think that moment made me realize just how meaningful personalized music is, for the family, as well as the person who’s the song subject.”

To have those “Kitty” songs professionally recorded and produced, Baillie tapped Marc Rogers, an A-list session bassist (Philosopher Kings, Holly Cole, Norah Jones) and producer. “I knew Marc through my roommate at the time, [noted singer-songwriter] Emma-Lee,” says Baillie. “I had a great experience, and I later decided to officially team up with Marc and launch BigDay.”

Rogers stresses that “Lee is the brainchild behind BigDay. She saw this as an unserved demand that no-one knew about, and it is such a good idea.”

Many early BigDay songs were co-produced by Rogers and his wife Karen Kosowski, an acclaimed songwriter/producer (Brett Kissel, Emma-Lee, Madeline Merlo). “Karen’s career has been exploding so she has zero available time to put into this now,” says Rogers.

“There’s a unique joy that comes from writing keepsake tribute songs that mean the world to a select few. It brings a whole new layer of meaning to the songwriting.” – Lee Baillie of BigDay Music

He’s happy to pick up the slack. “I really enjoy the work,” he says. “For instance, on a wedding song, I understand how important a part of one’s life that can be, as I’ve been married for 16 years. To be able to musically commemorate the inception of that journey is quite an opportunity.”

He also appreciates the chance to flex his musical muscles in a variety of genres. “As a session bassist, if you’re working for a pop artist, there’s an obsession with being up-to-date in the palettes and tones you use,” says Rogers. “In our custom songs, that’s not a concern.

“For instance, with one song, it was ‘they really like Spanish music,’ so I got to listen to old Paco De Lucia records and play nylon-string guitar. I haven’t done that since I was a teenager, so that was a fun challenge.”

The BigDay writing process begins with Baillie sending the client a detailed questionnaire, so she can get a sense of the personality of the song’s subject, as well as the preferred musical style.

“I’ve learned that people are much more poetic than they realize, when they candidly describe loved ones and share anecdotes, which makes my job as a songwriter much more inspired,” she says. “It’s a heartwarming experience to get a window into the loving way in which people view and celebrate one another.”

Baillie uses these notes “to pull out the gold nuggets of ideas and write the song with that information. I write and record it, adding vocals at my studio and laying down some piano chords. I send that to Marc, with the client notes on the genre, song references, or particular instrumentation they want. He does the full production, mixing and mastering, and always makes the track sound amazing.”

“My job is to dress the song up in such a way that it lives in the world that the client likes,” says Rogers.

“Instead of trying to make a piece you hope will appeal to the greatest number of people possible, you have the freedom to make a piece of music targeted at one very small, specific group of people to whom it’s going to be extremely meaningful, if you do your job right. There’s no other circumstance where you get that opportunity, and I love it.”

Baillie is equally enamoured of the concept. “While there’s a particular satisfaction in making music for the masses, there’s a unique joy that comes from writing keepsake tribute songs that mean the world to a select few,” she says. “It brings a whole new layer of meaning to the songwriting.”

If Toronto-born Matthew Tishler is feeling like a “Kid in a Candy Store,” it’s with good reason: the video of the song of that name – which he co-wrote for 14-year old singer, TV star and YouTube personality JoJo Siwa – has been viewed more than 74 million times.

But “Kid in a Candy Store” is only one of the latest of the L.A.-based Tishler’s accomplishments: over the course of his career, he’s been a writer, co-writer, or producer on projects that have sold a combined total of more than 15 million records, split between the Disney-saturated youth market and the foreign hemispheres of J-Pop and K-Pop.

“I’m unabashedly commercial and poppy,” says Tishler. “I’m able to work well with Disney because I’m able to fulfill a vision with them.”

He’s also able to write for youth. Tishler has worked with High School Musical star Ashley Tisdale, Liv and Maddie teen sitcom actress Dove Cameron, Girl Vs. Monster feature actress Olivia Holt, and Austin & Ally’s Ross Lynch, as well as penning the theme song for the TV series Girl Meets World (all Disney properties). Writing songs for TV is one of his niches.

“I met the Disney people when I was doing a lot of writing trips to Los Angeles in my early 20s,” says Tishler, now 31. “It was when Hannah Montana was really successful, and I always felt that those kinds of songs came natural to me. It works with Disney because our motivations are aligned: I really like what they do. I like writing songs for film and television, and I’m really compelled by that kind of storytelling and character-driven music. It’s been a natural fit.”

Tishler says that he does his job best when he gets into his collaborator’s headspace. “It goes back to that character. You have to put yourself in that mindset. You get a little silly and it helps just to talk to these artists and get to know them,” says Tishler, who recently completed 26 songs for a 52-episode Disney Jr. animated series that will air in the summer.

JoJo Siwa, in particular, has such a strong sense of who she is. The more you talk to her, you learn about what drives her, what excites her, and you get a big sense of who she is. Of course, it helps to collaborate. JoJo contributes a lot to lyrics, so we make sure it conveys her voice from a lyrical perspective.”

“I’m unabashedly commercial and poppy. I’m able to work well with Disney because I’m able to fulfill a vision with them.”

Another market that Tishler has developed for himself is the J-Pop/K-Pop arena (of Japanese and Korean youth pop) , where he’s written for the likes of EXO, Taeyeon, BTS, AOA, Koda Kumi and retiring J-Pop legend Namie Amuro.

Matthew Tishler’s top three tips for young songwriters:

  1. Follow your voice and find your niche. That’s proven to be so important to me, and I’m grateful for finding these niches, instead of banging my head against the wall and trying to do something that doesn’t come naturally.”
  1. Don’t compare yourself to others. It’s one thing to be inspired by talented people for motivation, but I try to resist any comparison, if it stems from competition or envy.  It’s a fast-track to feeling self-conscious. I get my best results when I’m looking forward, focused, doing my own thing.”
  1. “A piece of practical writing advice that has helped me: truly think about the context. It’s easy to just start playing music, so I try to put as much work as possible in before I play a single note. What are we writing? Why? Who’s listening? Really think deeply about the project, the artist, the moment in time, the desired tone, and intended outcome. Understanding these things before writing helps to organize my thoughts and give direction so the execution can be fun and so much easier.”

“We had three songs on her [Namie’s] album Finally, and it sold two million physical albums,” says Tishler. “That’s virtually unheard of. I can’t remember the last time anyone around here physically sold that, except maybe Adele.”

Tishler says he received his introduction to the Asian markets when he was still living in Toronto, via his manager, the late Brandon Gray. “He had some contacts in the market and sent my songs there,” says Tishler. “They just responded to the kind of music that I was making, in a way that I never would have expected. Analyzing it in retrospect, I think I know why. My strong suit as a writer is melody, and that’s the most important thing in that market. Lyric is my weakness, and it’s no surprise that my first success was in a market where they change all the words,” he laughs.

Despite his initial successes in those markets, Tishler didn’t visit South Korea until three years ago, and he’s scheduled to make his first trip to Japan this April. “For many years, we worked long distance,” he says. “I would write songs in Toronto and then, ultimately in Los Angeles, send them, and our contacts there would send us briefs and leads.  We’d write and do revisions, and then send them the finals. I’d never meet anyone in person. Now we go to Korea every year: we do a writing camp with one of the big labels in Seoul.”

For Tishler, Seoul was an eye-opener. “Being there in person, you really understand how important music is to them,” he says. “It’s embedded in the culture. They’re genuine music fans. They care about the songs; they care about the artists and it’s reflected everywhere you go.”

The challenges of writing in a foreign tongue still exist, but Tishler says he’s learned some techniques to cope with interpretation. “You learn little tricks on how to write melodies that will translate well, and that certain kinds of phrasing will work better,” he says. “Certain syllable counts will also work – but certainly the act of collaborating and creating with the local writers is an exciting challenge.”

But Tishler says the true litmus test is quality. “Ultimately, the best songs win.”