Kevin Anthony Fowler could make history at the JUNOs.

This year marks the first time he’s received a JUNO nomination, in the Contemporary Christian/Gospel Album of the Year category. It’s also the first time that a Jamaican native has been nominated in that category, and that two Black JUNO nominees hail from Saskatchewan. Dione Taylor, who’s up for Blues Album of the Year, is the other artist.

Taylor says she hopes the nominations challenges the “thinking that Black people and Black musicians coming from Saskatchewan is such a strange idea.” Fowler, whose stage name is K-Anthony, grew up in Falmouth, Jamaica, now calls Regina home, and agrees with Taylor.

“Although there are a lot of Black people and Black musicians in Saskatchewan, we are still a minority,” he says. “I hope these nominations give other Black musicians hope, and puts Saskatchewan in the spotlight.”

And perhaps they’ll bring attention to the challenges that Black artists in smaller Canadian cities face making music and getting heard.

The singer previously lived in Yorkton, Saskatchewan (population 19,643, as of 2017), where he says country and rock reigned, and finding a producer who understood Gospel and other Black music styles was hard. “I had to expand my search to Regina and Saskatoon which are more culturally diverse,” he says. “This meant driving between three to five hours, sometimes in harsh winter weather, to record at a studio.”

Fowler says his music slowly began “getting support in Yorkton and the surrounding communities because it was different, and I guess people found it to be intriguing. My songs began getting airplay, which lead to several TV interviews.”

“The words paint a picture, and bring your listeners on a journey with you”

Interestingly, Fowler had a hard time getting love in his native Jamaica, too. His biggest challenge, he says, was not getting airplay. “Reggae and dancehall are the two most popular genres there, and even our Christian and Gospel music is influenced by those sounds,” he says. “My style of music had a more Christian contemporary and R&B vibe, so maybe [the tastemakers felt] it wasn’t ‘Jamaican sounding enough.’” Fowler says a producer once suggested that he leave the country to find success because there wasn’t an audience for his sound in Jamaica.

His sound began to take shape while he attended the Seventh Day Adventist Church in Falmouth. He was a member of the youth choir and would often re-arrange old hymns that were sung in church. “The younger people wanted something they could identify with,” says Fowler, so he gave the hymns an R&B twist.

He says his songs are inspired by personal experiences, the Bible, and current events, and that the best songs come out of being “honest with yourself and trying to frame your pain and experiences into words. Sometimes the words are hard to find, but when you do find them, it captures what you want to say, paints a picture, and brings your listeners on a journey with you.”

We ask Fowler if the pandemic has strengthened his faith. “I see how God has been faithful to me and my family,” he says. “All of our needs are provided. It reminds me of an old hymn that says, ‘Now every morning is Thy Love.’

“I know these are sad times for everyone, and even more so for people who have lost loved ones,” Fowler adds. “I truly want to provide some hope through my music.”

Charlotte Cardin, PhoenixIn March 2020, when the whole world ground to a halt, Charlotte Cardin had to show as much restraint as she’s capable of to avoid asking her team to re-open the sound files and do another round of fine-tuning on the songs for her first album.

“When the pandemic hit, I did everything I humanly could to avoid re-opening the album, which was by then going through mastering,” she admits with a laugh. Perfectionist much? Obviously. But is it a quality or a fault in this case? “I believe it’s a quality,” she says. “It’s important. The trick is to avoid being obsessive about it.”

With 117 million streams and counting, Charlotte Cardin is the most popular Québec artist who has yet to release a full-length album – you know, that dozen or so songs, sharing somewhat of a common theme, that we used to encode on vinyl, or a compact disc. In light of the phenomenal, and enviable, success of her two EPs, Big Boy (2016) and Main Girl (2017), why not stick with that strategy? In other words, what’s the use of a full album in the era of the playlist?

“Releasing my first album is a symbolic milestone that’s quite thrilling to me,” says Cardin. “I thought it was important to make a debut album, if only ’cause I felt like making one. I still listen to full albums,” the musician says, speaking from the heart, before moving on to more pragmatic considerations. “An album allows me access certain things that wouldn’t have been possible with EPs. The industry is evolving, sure, but we’re still just in the middle of a shift. People don’t consume music as they used to, but the media still expects albums. Take the example of France: before I announced I was coming out with an album, I was barely invited on TV anymore.”

Embarrassing Things

The choice was obvious from a media standpoint, but it’s also very wise from a strictly musical point of view, as Phoenix allows us to really get to know the 25-year-old singer, all her facets, all her vulnerabilities, her anger, her hopes, her fears – whether she’s singing about the incommunicability of love (“Phoenix”), the feeling of lightness following the end of a lame relationship (“Passive Aggressive”), the fear of seeing a friend sink into darkness (“Sun Goes Down (Buddy)”) or her furious desire to free herself from the need to please, with which women are too often plagued (“Anyone Who Loves Me”).

“I’ve shared embarrassing things,” she writes in the “booklet” for the album (released by Cult Nation in Québec, Atlantic Records in the U.S., and Parlophone in France). How embarrassing, exactly? “I share super -personal and raw things, that I haven’t romanticized to make them more polished or relatable,” says Cardin. “I needed to touch some wounds that had been there for a long time, but that I didn’t dare to face. That’s when I was confronted with lots of little moments of shame and sadness that I never took the time to heal. Stuff I never thought I’d share… and ended up sharing!” she bursts out laughing, as if appalled by her own shamelessness. Then a brief moment of silence. She seems hesitant to go into this in more detail.

“The songs speak for themselves, but obviously, a song like “Good Girl” [about emotional dependency] doesn’t paint a pretty picture, even though I’m aware that a lot of people, a lot of women, will feel like that at some point in their life.”

For the singer-songwriter, it would have been inconceivable to write these heady songs without actually delving deep into the innermost recesses of her heart. If his album took so long to be released, it’s largely because learning to let go of all the masks takes some getting used to. “We live in a fast-paced society fraught with superficiality and I wanted to explore emotions that tear me apart,” says Cardin. “And when things go too fast, we don’t allow ourselves to fully feel them.” Feeling things to the fullest; there’s the non-negotiable condition she requires to write choruses that ring true.

Outside of any other consideration, whether she talks about casual sex (on “Sex to Me”), or she indulges in suave tongue-twister lines like “A fistful of kisses / For a list full of bitches” (on “XOXO”), Cardin definitely breaks with her girlish image on more than one occasion on Phoenix. This journalist hesitated to use the word “girlish,” and Cardin herself suggested “sweet.” “I love singing those lines!” she exclaims. “I derive a lot of pleasure from them because in my daily life, sadly, I guess, I swear a lot. I feel truer to myself when I express myself in my songs like I express myself in everyday life.”

Re-learning to Write

Born to an epidemiologist mother and a biotechnology patent agent father, who both love music, Cardin wrote her first song at the age of 13 or 14. “We were asked to write a poem in my English class and I took the project to the next level,” she says. This less than memorable attempt still cemented her modus operandi for the coming years: write as soon as the inspiration is there. This approach, however, is less than ideal when you’re expected to write a debut album in a reasonable amount of time.

“Having to write a whole album in a limited period of time, disciplining myself, being rigorous, serious – I’d never done any of that before,” she says. “I had to re-learn how to write music.” She threw out the first 10 months’ worth of drafts in the creative process that led to Phoenix (“Nothing I wrote gave me the butterflies [in my stomach]”) before turning to co-writing, with her manager Jason Brandon, who produced or co-produced most of the album with Marc-André Gilbert.

“The main reason it took so long is because I underestimated the time I would need,” says Cardin. “I thought I could write much faster than I actually can. I had to face my own limitations. I was writing while I managed expectations. What do people want to hear? And that wasn’t the right approach.”

Like one of her favourite bands, Radiohead (whom she quotes on “Romeo”), Cardin had to ignore expectations, put her own apprehensions in the closet, and “free herself” from the weight she had placed on her shoulders. (On the day of our interview, the expression “free myself” punctuated her sentences like a mantra.) This long gestation allowed her to explore the possibilities of her voice, which has never been as close to that of a soul singer as it is on “Anyone Who Loves Me,” and its chorus, which morphs into an unequivocal warning: “We’re not your fancy dolls / You better set us free / Or else we’ll fuck you up”.

“Because I toured so much, my voice developed a resilience that it didn’t have before,” she explains. “I realized I was able to go above and beyond with my vocal performance. I like singing in a relaxed, laid-back kind of way, but I also like to belt one out from time to time. The fact that “Anyone Who Loves Me” had more vocal and emotional involvement goes hand-in-hand with the theme of the song, which is directed at anyone who tries to tell women what they should do, or what they should be.”

In the end, Phoenix is the story of a woman who had to learn to be herself again, but also, like any work through which an artist truly reveals herself, it’s an invitation to empathy, a hand on the shoulder. “It’s hard to get in touch with our repressed feelings, but that’s what makes it possible for us to understand ourselves and others better,” says Cardin. “It’s by facing our own feelings that we manage to have compassion for others, and be true to ourselves.”

Laurence Lebel is blooming in the musical spring with the speed of a cherry tree. “I was given the keys to a label and to the management aspect of things, and I now oversee both departments,” she says.

Laurence Lebel, ArtificeArtifice, the Québec City-based company specializing in radio promotion (notably for Louis-Jean Cormier, Les Louanges, and all the artists signed to Bravo Musique) has, for the time being, only a postal address in Montréal, and no offices. It also manages 13 artists, handles media relations for 16 more, nine directly under the Disques Artifice banner. It’s also active as a publisher and digital distributor. Lebel’s enthusiasm is obvious. “I couldn’t have asked for a better work environment,” she says.

Although she’s new to the field of artist management, the contracts she takes on are based on the human touch, above all. “There’s a whole personal side to manage beyond digital strategies,” she says. “About 95 percent of my personal and professional decisions are based on instinct, on the little voice inside me.”

Those who know her have all been struck more than once by her radiant smile, her communicative laughter, her proverbial good humour. Arriving from Sherbrooke in 2010, Lebel has been active in many aspects of the Québec music industry.

“Finding work in the music biz isn’t easy; everyone wants to work in that industry,” she says. “It can be upsetting when you struggle to find your place; I was anxious, and I even thought of leaving everything and getting a degree in human resources. My greatest quality? I’m very resilient. Biggest flaw? Letting go.”

At 33 years old, in a Montréal-based music ecosystem comprised of journalist friends, podcasters, behind-the-scenes employees, broadcasters, press agents – her “gang,” as she calls it – Lebel is one of the faces of a generation for whom the promotion of emerging Francophone music is a passion.

“I’m always at record launches, like everyone else, trying to see what partnerships are possible with my projects,” explains the music lover. And how are prospects recruited? A question of flair, of course, but there must be something more to it…

“With [the band] Super Plage, who we signed last summer, we met during three months to get to know each other, hanging out in parks drinking bee,r and following the evolution of their musical project,” says Lebel. “For the marketing strategy of the album Super Plage 2, we absolutely wanted to opt for YouTube in the 10 days preceding the release of the album, a new song being unveiled each day – which increases the traffic on the platform. It’s always a question of tone, and not losing the true nature of the project. There are artists who experience a lot of difficulties with social platforms, and others who embrace them. I always tell musicians, ‘Don’t force it if it doesn’t come naturally.’’

Lebel got her first job in music in the punk section at HMV. Her mother, the illustrious country singer Renée Martel, daughter of the legendary Marcel Martel, had this philosophy for her own daughter: “She didn’t want to introduce us to her world (showbiz) unless my brother and I asked,” says Lebel.

In Montréal, she landed a position at the student radio station CISM, managing volunteers and programs. A year later, she signed a four-year contract with SOPROQ, the collective management society for the rights of producers of sound recordings and music videos. “That’s where I learned about metadata. and the whole background of a song,” says Lebel.

She then moved to Believe Digital and Dep, where she was in charge of distribution, an adventure that lasted four years – until the latter declared bankruptcy. Three weeks later, she started a new job at Audiogram in digital marketing. “It was my first experience at a record label,” says Lebel. “At first I didn’t want to work for a single brand and only identify myself with its artists, except Audiogram. My father and I listened a lot to the music by Lhasa, Pierre Lapointe or Daniel Bélanger – they rocked my childhood – so it was like going back to my roots.”

She stayed there just short of two years. “I don’t have a Bachelor’s degree in Communications, or web training, I learn as I go,” says Lebel. “I was going from job to job because I’m easily bored, if I’m not stimulated by new things, and I can’t take on new projects. The more time went by, the more I became interested in artist management. By that time, I knew I’d learned everything there is to know about managing socials.”

Catherine Simard, who’d just founded La Maison Fauve, took Lebel under her wing to help with the marketing and management coordination of Eli Rose. Eight months later, filled with certainty about her future in management, Lebel left with the firm intention of starting her own company to work on her own projects.

Finally, at the end of March 2020, in the middle of the pandemic, Laurence was officially hired by the President of Artifice, Alex Pouliot.

What does her mother think of Lebel’s career path? “When I started working in the industry, I often heard, ‘Oh, you’re Marcel’s daughter!’ Today, it’s, ‘Oh, You’re Laurence’s mother!’” she says, laughing.

“It makes her laugh because when she does TV appearances, she meets musicians, journalists, or researchers who know me,” says Lebel. “She’s very proud of my background, and of the fact that I didn’t play the ‘daughter of’ card.”