Blues (noun): Melancholic music of black American folk origin, typically in a 12-bar sequence. It developed in the rural southern U.S. toward the end of the 19th Century, finding a wider audience in the 1940s as blacks migrated to the cities. This urban blues gave rise to rhythm & blues and rock ‘n’ roll.

Blues is an omnipresent genre, but it’s rarely in the spotlight. While it’s always acknowledged this “melancholic music” birthed rock ‘n’ roll, modern mainstream rock listeners tend to shun traditional blues. That’s fine with Steve Strongman. As a purveyor and champion of a genre that boasts a legendary line of guitar-slingers – like Robert Johnson, Muddy Waters, and Otis Rush – the blues course through Strongman’s veins and flow from his fingers every time he picks up his Gibson electric guitar. The singer-songwriter believes it’s his role to help keep the genre alive, and to educate the masses of what blues really means in the 21st Century.

“We have to continue to push the parameters of what people think blues means, because everything sounds like the blues,” says Strongman, a 2013 JUNO Award winner in the Blues Recording of the Year category (for A Natural Fact). “Even heavy rock stuff is blues-based.”

Strongman’s earned three Maple Blues Awards, and has toured with the legendary likes of B.B. King, Johnny Winter, and Buddy Guy. While Colin James recently returned to his blues roots (Blue Highways), as did The Rolling Stones (Blue & Lonesome), Strongman has always stayed true to his roots – as with his next (and sixth) album, No Time Like Now, which dropped March 10, 2017. The songwriter spoke with us in January 2017 at the Gibson Guitar Showroom in Toronto’s Liberty Village the day the album’s first single, “No Time Like Now,” was released.

“I was a huge Led Zeppelin fan, like many people my age. Then I realized where they were getting everything.”

All Strongman needed to feed his muse, inspire him, and seize the day, was a sense of urgency. He recorded the 10 songs of No Time Like Now with longtime friend, former bandmate and frequent producer Rob Szabo, mostly at Beulah Sound Studio in Hamilton, where the singer-songwriter hangs his hat these days.

“We wanted it to be a very exciting, guitar-driven record,” he says. “It’s still steeped in the blues – because anything I do is steeped in the blues – but there are a lot of other elements to this record that previously we hadn’t really focused on.”

While James and The Stones each pay homage to the genre’s legends with 100-percent-covers albums, Strongman offers nine original songs steeped in the blues, but that also rock out, and boast layers of soul. The only cover is a swampy take on Bachman-Turner Overdrive’s “You Ain’t Seen Nothing Yet” – an intriguing choice for a blues album.

“Rob and I opened for Randy [Bachman] a long time ago, and later I ended up playing with Randy’s son Tal,” says Strongman. “We’ve always kept in touch. When I was rehearsing with Tal, one time I stayed at Randy’s house in White Rock. He’s always been a huge supporter of my music and often plays me on his CBC Radio show. When Rob and I decided we were going to do a cover on this album, Randy’s songs came to mind. ‘You Ain’t Seen Nothing Yet’ just leapt out at me. We didn’t want to do that cover the way Randy did it because to me it’s a fantastic, massive hit. I tried to put my own spin on it.”

When Strongman sent an MP3 demo of the classic-rock anthem to Bachman, asking for his opinion (and his blessing), the Canadian Music Hall of Famer loved it, and even agreed to lend his guitar work to the finished track.

While musicians like Bachman, James, and The Stones discovered the blues early –  listening to, and learning licks from, the likes of Elmore James, Jimmy Reed, and Howlin’ Wolf guitarist Hubert Sumlin – Strongman’s attraction came via a more circuitous route.

“I arrived at the blues via classic-rock bands, because that was what I was into,” he explains. “I was a huge Led Zeppelin fan, like many people my age. Then I realized where they were getting everything. Growing up around Kitchener-Waterloo, having [blues club] Pop the Gator [that hosted the likes of Bobby “Blue” Bland, Albert Collins and Mel Brown] right there, you also got to see these amazing, world-class blues artists come through town, and that really resonated with me.

“I always think of myself as a guitar player first,” he adds. “Everything I do is steeped in the blues, but centered on guitar playing. I hear blues in everything, even in pop. Blues itself… people have an idea when they say the word. This record is just a continuation of what I’ve been working on.”

When it comes to crafting songs, does Strongman experience chills, like some other writers, when he knows he’s on to something good?

“That’s exactly the way it works,” he says. “I know when I hear something, and get a bit of a chill vibe, that it just feels right. You might spend eight hours one day and not get one word, and then the next day you get up and in 10 minutes you have two verses, and a chorus you love. You always try to strive for that ‘Aha!’ moment, where you say, ‘That’s it!’”

Gear Talk with Strongman

Here’s another in our series of articles dealing with songwriting duos. This time, we’re featuring the acclaimed performers and songwriters Karen Young and Coral Egan, a mother-daughter team whose recently released album Dreamers is being described as a “two-voice exploration” by the team’s senior half.  

It was written in the stars. It was only a matter of time. Coral Egan agrees, and Karen Young qualifies the statement: “We sang together on a recording before,” she says. That was before Coral began her solo career, and before the release of her 2004 album My Favorite Distraction, at a time when she was still learning her craft as a backup singer on her mom’s recordings.

Karen Young, Coral EganStill, a duo recording bringing their voices together and featuring both their names on the same album cover? It had to happen, but why right now? “I often say that my best inspiration is called ‘last minute!’” Coral explains. “I believe that once you’ve said, ‘This is it, the time is now,’ something good comes out of it – because you don’t spend much time thinking. The result is genuine.” Karen adds that before thinking of making a duo recording, the Young clan was toying with the idea of making “a family album with my brother, folk and country singer, and his daughter. What we had in mind was a project for four voices, not just two!”

“But there came a time when it all clicked into place,” Karen recalls. That was in December of 2014 on Télé-Québec’s Belle et Bum TV program, when Karen and Coral were asked to sing Joni Mitchell’s “River”as a tribute to the 14 victims of the École Polytechnique massacre in Montreal 25 years earlier. Coral recalls that they found and rehearsed their vocal harmonies in the car on their way to the studio. “It was all so very natural, easy, and joyful,“ says Karen. “We love singing together!” That was the definitive moment when they both realized that making a recording together was a possible, and even pretty nice, thing.

So the idea of a duo recording caught on, in spite of the anxiety caused an unexpected illness for Coral. The young musician has “fully recovered” from the symptoms of the Guillain-Barré syndrome, a rare auto-immune disease of the nervous system that seriously affected Coral’s mobility and reflexes, and forced her to stop working for a while. However, a duo concert last summer at the Festival international de jazz de Montréal re-kindled the duo recording project flame. The time to make it happen had come, and it took place in singer Louis-Jean Cormier’s Studio Dandurand over the holidays.

“I think that writing a song with someone else is something like a sweet dance. You have to find the right pace, the right dynamic.“  – Coral Egan

Karen Young, Coral EganOn the resulting Dreamers album, the two singers mix their strong, clear, nimble and perfectly compatible voices to create a superb sound. The two performers also chose the right material, a blend of covers (of a Catherine Major song, for instance), sacred songs and Brazilian music influences. The stunning performance of harpist Éveline Grégoire-Rousseau –  who’s worked with Karen Young (as have Pierre Lapointe, Philippe B, and Ingrid St-Pierre) – provides a unifying element.  “It’s a very interesting instrument,” says Coral. “It’s both harmonic and percussive, and the airy tone of the harp goes very well with our voices.”

Could it be said that this “two-voice exploration” is more a reflection of the mother’s musical universe than that of the daughter? “One of the influences you don’t hear on the album,” says Coral, “is soul music. I grew up listening to Stevie Wonder, and my love for his music still greatly influences my creative choices and my singing voice. Of course, Karen loves soul music too, but it’s not part of her musical influences. I think she wouldn’t have felt comfortable if I’d forced her to sound like a soul singer!”

“We did try that kind of duo for a concert. We worked on some sort of a soul medley that didn’t pan out,” Karen laughs. “But I truly love the songs. I ‘ve always wished I were able perform Marvin Gaye’s “Trouble Man,” for instance, but it’s not my strong suit. I believe that the eclectic choice of the album’s material is more like me, although what we were trying to convey was our whole shared musical life. Everything I gave her and taught her. It’s our personal musical history, in some way.”

The creative achievement here was in the search for balance, if not compromise, between two musical worlds that; they’re different, but linked together in a filial bond. That experience will definitely be continuing, since tour dates have been set, and a second album may be in the offing. Would they be tempted to write original songs together?

“There might be a reason why that’s not happening,” says Coral. “You can’t force it. The reason we haven’t written something together yet is simply that we’re not ready!  But this album has taught us things we didn’t know about ourselves. I learned, for instance, that I can be forceful [in the recording studio], while my mother is more subdued, and more willing to trust the moment and the work of the musicians. Me, as soon as I get a flash of insight, I have to get it out right away, and to share it on the spot. I think that writing a song [with someone else] is something like a sweet dance. You have to find the right pace, the right dynamic.”

Just a matter of time, then?

De la reineThere’s a lot going on in Québec City. With so many SOCAN songwriter, composer and publisher members from the Vieille Capitale making increasingly important places for themselves in the industry, it wouldn’t be an exaggeration to talk about a Québec City music boom.
And out of that boom, many bands stem from a single venue: Le Pantoum. Located on Saint-Vallier Street, this rehearsal space-cum-studio and multi-disciplinary venue is one powerful engine on the emerging music scene of the city. Acting as an off-official showcase venue during Bourse RIDEAU 2017, Pantoum presented its own lineup of concerts where bands such as De la Reine were able to make themselves known on their own terms, for a crowd of already-acquired fans.

Comprised of SOCAN members Jean-Etienne Collin Marcoux (also a member of Beat Sexu, and one of Pantoum’s founding members), Vincent Lamontagne (X-Ray Zebras, Ghostly Kisses) and Odile Marmet-Rochefort (ex-Men I Trust), De la reine broke onto the scene in late 2016 with an alt-R&B and trip-hop-tinged EP that, as most work in the genres, is more comfortable in English than in French. Yet such is the challenge the trio set for itself.

“We’d had the opportunity to work together on side projects before, so with this band project, we wanted to try composing methods with which we weren’t familiar,” says Jean-Etienne about his band, which just celebrated its first year of existence. “All of us had more creative time ahead of us and we wanted to create something that belonged and resembled us more closely,” says singer Odile Marmet-Rochefort. “Not that the other projects didn’t interest us anymore, but we really wanted this one to be truly ours! And to do it in French, too. Because even though French lyrics were harder for me, they were also more important.”

Marmet-Rochefort’s voice rides atop resolutely jazz and R&B sounds, imbued with pop melodies. “It’s the first time I committed to writing,” says Odile, who shares writing duties with Jean-Etienne in De la Reine.
The band will tour throughout the spring alongside their Pantoum buddies Harfang, and want to ramp up their concerts even more (“with a brass section”, if Marmet-Rochefort has her way), hiring more musicians (“we’d love to have Frank Lafontaine on keys!”) and, ultimately, launch a full-length LP within 18 months.