For Laura Sauvage and Julie Aubé of Acadian folk trio Les Hay Babies (the third member being Katrin Noël), flying solo is a way to release their creative overflow. Launched a week apart, their respective solo albums are the result of very different sonic journeys.

Julie Aubé, Laura Sauvage

Julie Aubé (left) and Laura Sauvage (right). (Photo: Eric Parazelli)

On Joie de vivre, her first solo outing, Julie Aubé chose to record using an analog 16-track console. “I wanted to experience that trip,” she explains, adding that during the recording process, she was “really into Black Sabbath, Thin Lizzy, Captain Beefheart,” and ‘60s psychedelic rock bands. “When we started recording, I realized that the tape I had ordered from the States was defective, it wasn’t cut right. It had an impact, barely audible, on the sound, but it shaped the experience.”

“It’s the exact opposite for me,” says Vivianne Roy, a.k.a.  Laura Sauvage, about her second solo album, The Beautiful, which delves into ‘80s garage-rock and new wave. “We used a digital console, but using old guitars and mics. We recorded as many layers as possible, because I really wanted to tinker with effects and sounds, play sequences backwards, add some noise on top of it… And then we cut everything that wasn’t necessary.”

These seemingly opposite ways of approaching songwriting are both tinged with an overwhelming artistic freedom that also infused the creative process for La 4ième dimension (version longue), The Hay Babies’ second album, from October 2016. Far from the pop compromise many young artists have to contend with after a meteoric rise, that album, recorded in a few days in a cabin, was a portrait of intense human and musical chemistry.

That lively and prolific energy carried over to both new projects, created in their spare time in between the various legs of The Hay Babies’ last tour. “Whether we’re working together, or each doing our thing separately, we never stop – because creativity is something you need to work on. If you don’t use it, you lose it,” says Aubé. “When I didn’t have this solo project, I’d sometimes spend two months with a song idea bouncing around in my head. Now, I can express it in my free time, and I feel more open-minded when we record as The Hay Babies.”

Julie Aubé, Laura Sauvage“All three of us are rarely together outside of touring. It’s more spontaneous to work alone,” says Sauvage, based in Montréal for two years now. “I really do see writing as my job. I think about themes and other ideas during the day, and as soon as I get home, I turn on my computer and grab my guitar.”

Sauvage, a very prolific singer-songwriter, has learned to trust herself over the last few years. With the support of Dany Placard, who encouraged her to record her first EP in 2015, she used her solo career as a platform from which to live one of her teenage dreams: producing albums. “There was no better way to learn this trade than to just start doing it,” she says. “I didn’t want to shoot myself in the foot by producing someone else… I was too afraid I’d do a shitty job.”

Aubé co-produced Joie de vivre with Marc Pérusse, and her solo venture also brought her a lot of self-assurance and autonomy, both in songwriting and recording. “It’s the type of experience that takes you further,” says Aubé, now based in Memramcook, about 30 km from Moncton. “For the first time in my life, I had to trust myself, because I couldn’t rely on Viv or Kat or Marc Pérusse, who weren’t there during the recording sessions. That was the biggest challenge.”

That learning process will continue soon, onstage. Used to being on stage alone with her guitar, Sauvage now wants to put on shows with her band, in order to triumph over solitude. “Being onstage alone is the loneliest thing on earth,” she says. “You go someplace, spend a whole day not saying a word, do your five-minute soundcheck, you eat alone, do your show alone, go to bed alone,” says the woman who opened for the Barr Brothers and Patrick Watson last year. “Now that I have my band, I’m learning to hold the front. Sometimes I wonder if I’m going nuts. It’s quite weird to be at the front of the stage without the girls. You really are naked onstage.”

Despite having only one solo show under her belt – and that was the one she gave during her record release earlier this month at l’Escogriffe in Montréal – Aubé knows what she doesn’t want. “I don’t want to do solo shows,” she says. “I want things to fucking rock! I already feel I tour quite a lot with The Hay Babies, all I’d like are a few shows a year with my band.”

In short, those new beginnings come with their own set of expectations and fears, and their own moments of excitement and uncertainty. Fully aware that she’ll return to the small venues where she’s played before with her trio, Aubé is optimistic about the situation. “Right now, there are six people on stage during the Hay Babies shows, plus our techs. That means there are fewer venues who can afford our show. I’ve always loved playing in dingy bars, so the prospect of starting all over again and re-living that period thrills me!”

Whereas solo projects often mark the beginning of the end for a band, the solo forays for The Hay Babies are more like rich interludes between albums. “Still, people get ideas,” says Sauvage. “People like to believe it’s way more dramatic than it is; we’re just doing it all for art.”

“Some people have a hard time understanding that we have a life outside of the Hay Babies,” says Aubé. “Even today, if I go to a café in Moncton, people ask me where the other two girls are!”

When Lights was 18, she moved to Toronto and legally changed her name to reflect her onstage moniker, intent on establishing a career in music. “There was no Plan B”, she recalls with a laugh.

It was a gamble that clearly didn’t require one: in the last decade, the alt-pop artist formerly known as Valerie Anne Poxleitner has released three albums; had her songs streamed more than 100 million times online; won a slew of awards including two JUNOs (for New Artist of the Year in 2009 and Pop Album of the Year in 2015, for Little Machines); and released dozens of videos, each garnering millions of views. In the process she’s also amassed lots and lots of devoted fans, including more than 700,000 who follow her on Twitter, along with over a million more on Facebook.

But when she started plotting her fourth studio album, Skin&Earth, due out later this month, Lights, now 30, decided she was ready to tackle another personal goal.  A longtime fan of comic books, she’d always imagined creating one of her own, and wondered about connecting it to her music.

“I think there are a lot of music fans that are comic fans, and a lot of comic fans that are into music,” says Lights, who saw the potential for a mixed-media crossover project that would give audiences the incentive to listen to an entire body of work, rather than simply streaming singles.

She imagined crafting a comic that would connect thematically with the songs on the album, while drawing a listener or reader into a story. And although she’d never created a comic before, Lights was undaunted. “I’ve always been someone who goes all the way into something,” she says. “It’s not that complicated for me.”

Born to missionary parents, Lights grew up travelling the world, and was home-schooled. She began writing songs as a child and credits her father, Eric Poxleitner, for encouraging her early efforts. “He really made me believe in myself,” she says. “I would write a song and show my dad, and he would act like it was the greatest thing he ever heard.”

It was a foundation that served her well as she sought advice on where to start with her new project. Reaching out to a number of comic book writers for advice, she connected with industry heavyweight Brian K Vaughan (Y: The Last Man, Ex Machina, Runaways) who encouraged her to try penning the story herself, rather than hiring an outside writer and artist.

“What I’ve learned is that if you really want to do the work, you can accomplish anything.”

Before long, Lights had roughed out a story about a woman named Enaia, navigating life in a desperate, post-apocalyptic world where everything – from the schools to the grocery stores – is run by a single super-corporation. In Enaia, Lights found something of an alter ego, and soon found that the character was allowing her to exploring darker themes in her writing.

For Lights, fiction uncovers truth
“A fictionalized character has allowed me to be more myself,” says Lights, who explains that she’s struggled with delving into darker subjects like sex, anger or violence in her music because her audience – many who may feel they know her thanks to her robust online presence – has tended to presume that everything she writes about is directly tied to what’s happening in her own life. “You can get trapped feeling like you can only talk about the stuff you’re experiencing at that very moment,” she says. If she writes about heartbreak, for example, people unjustly question the stability of her marriage to Beau Bokan (lead singer with the American metal-core band Blessthefall). “So accessing these topics through the character was helpful.”

With the storyline in place, Lights began the process of working on the album, opting to embrace co-writing, and push herself to work with new people. Channeling Enaia, Lights would arrive at writing sessions with a clear sense of what they needed to work on that day, an approach that she says enabled her to overcome the insecurities that sometimes come when working with strangers.

“I’d go in with the storyline and say, ‘This is what we’ll write about today.’ It became a conduit for immediate creativity, instead of starting the session by bantering about what we wanted to write about,” she says.

Both the writing process and darker subject matter also allowed her to experiment with her voice, discovering a new depth. “It was really awesome,” she exclaims. “It really let me open up a part of my voice, and let me sing with more soulfulness.”

While Lights and her co-writers generated 60 songs out of the year-long process, she chose 12 for the album, with each one describing a different part of Enaia’s story.

For the entirety of the songwriting process, Lights was also hard at work refining her skills as a comic artist. Turning to YouTube tutorials and drawing mentors when she needed them, she began the laborious process of sketching out her story, frame by frame, pushing herself to continue even when she felt completely daunted by her own ambition.

“I was chanting to myself through the hard work, ‘I’m actually doing this!’,” she says of the exhaustive process of creating her 160-page comic book. “That’s really the only way you can achieve your dreams.”

LightsLights acknowledges that even she is a little astonished by how much she’s been able to accomplish since turning her attention to creating Skin&Earth, especially given that she’s been doing it while parenting her three-year-old daughter, Rocket Wild (who herself boasts an impressive share of Instagram followers).

“I’ve surprised myself a lot,” says Lights. “Four records in, after 10 years in the industry, to be able to still surprise myself is awesome. Two years ago, I wouldn’t have believed I could do this comic. But what I’ve learned is that if you really want to do the work, you can accomplish anything.”

Lights, always cognizant of wanting to bring Enaia to life in some capacity, now sports the bright red hair of her comic character – just another manifestation of the fearless boundary-pushing she’s embraced in life and music.

“Now I have all these other things that I want to do,” she laughs. “Too often we shut ourselves down before we try new things because we doubt ourselves. I’ll never do that again.”

a l l i e admits that the first song she ever wrote was perhaps a little too long. It was a fusion of melodies and poetry, a new way for the artist to channel her first heartbreak. It was a cathartic moment, but more importantly, it was the beginning of what she calls an addiction to songwriting.

Since then, it feels like a l l i e hasn’t stopped creating. Over the last few years, the Toronto-based artist has put out a number of singles and EPs, a creative sampling of beat-driven R&B jams, often showing off elements of the jazz, reggae and soul music she grew up with in her musical household. Some of her collaborative efforts may sound familiar, as she’s embedded herself in a burgeoning scene of musicians and producers including Charlotte Day Wilson, Harrison, River Tiber and Birthday Boy. “Our community is super-strong and so supportive,” she says. “Everyone is so strong at doing their own thing, so when we come together it always works pretty naturally.”

All of that has culminated this year on her debut album, Nightshade, a record that’s been in the works for two years. While some of the music came to her naturally, a l l i e did hit a writer’s block. How did she get through it? She credits meditation, and an escape from the bustling city to focus and, as she says, “reflect in quiet spaces in nature.” The album was completed in a cabin in Bracebridge, ON, two hours outside of Toronto, where a l l i e says she finally got the clarity she needed.

As she continues to gain attention from colleague artists and critics alike, she hopes that people will grasp the album’s driving force of feminine divinity, and the determined voice of a woman fighting a male-dominated industry. “We’re divine, we nurture, we give life,” she says. “At this point, we want our strength to be acknowledged, and we want to see a world where gender equality is reflected in every way.”