La Zarra Fatima Zahra is a late-blooming artist, but she’s already attracting a lot of attention in Europe,  thanks to a voice that rivals those of Edith Piaf or Barbara Streisand. Known under her alias, La Zarra, the young woman based in Longueuil (a South-shore Montréal suburb) has been signed by Universal Music Canada and Polydor France, and her debut album Traîtrise (Treachery) will be launched Dec. 3, 2021.

“I can’t really explain the success I’ve had these last months,” says Zahra, who seems a little bewildered, because although she’s always harboured a deep interest in music, she was actually pursuing another career path.

“Until very recently, I was a hairdresser,” she says. “Those years of experience were really helpful. I fine-tuned my ears listening to Barbara [Streisand] while I worked. I’ve never taken singing lessons or vocal coaching, and I can’t answer when people ask what key I’m singing in,” she giggles. She grew increasingly bored with her chosen profession, and when she suddenly became allergic to hair dyes, it struck her as a sign that a career in music could become more than a dream. “Except I wouldn’t have the maturity I have with my music if it weren’t for hairdressing,” she says.

A few years ago, she met Montréal-based producer Benny Adam (Rymz, Tizzo, Zach Zoya), which provided an opportunity to get acquainted with her own musical persona. That seed grew slowly, over a period of a few years, until it became a bona fide project: she decided she would pitch a few song ideas to the producer. “The few songs we created together were an instant hit in Europe, and a record label gave me the tools to start exploring more songs, alongside musicians,” says Zahra. The auspicious star that shines for her on the other side of the ocean even earned her a nomination as the Francophone Revelation of the Year at the NRJ Awards on Nov. 20, 2021.

It’s never the same, for her, when it comes to writing a new song. “Sometimes it starts with a melody or a sentence I really want to use,” she says. “I sing about love, friendship, relationships, but my songs are generally more about over-arching feelings that they are specific stories. It can start from hatred, joy, anger, but in the end, it’s always about emancipating myself. I’m still on the path between the woman I used to be and the woman I want to become.” One thing clear to Zahra is that since music has become the focus of her life, she never feels like she’s working. “It’s not work, to me,” she says. “I sing when I’m cleaning my apartment, and verses just come to me. When I’m in a creative mood, it can go on for quite awhile, and ideas just pour out of me.”

Unlike some success stories rooted online, through shares and likes, La Zarra owes her meteoric rise only to her talent being noticed – and celebrated. “I don’t like showing off, and I just don’t understand the very concept of ‘influencer,’” she says. “I started being popular when industry types started saying something was happening. I really wanted an old-school career. I wanted to work with a label that signs me, and then tells me to start working. Step by step, I’m observing the audience react to my presence in the musical landscape. I’m earning new fans, one by one, and I believe it’s the only way to build a career in music that will last. And that’s exactly what I want.”

After producing her music with no time constraints, using the tools required to make the process run as smoothly as possible, the time will come for La Zarra to get onstage – but she says she’s not yet fully comfortable with that idea. “Music is so new that I haven’t had time to get acquainted with the stage,” she says. “In a studio you can do one more take, if you’re filming a video you can warm up, but on a stage, you can’t lie. We’re starting work on my show, and I’m re-arranging my songs so they feel more organic and natural. That’s the real challenge.”

Although she plans to promote her album in France first, she’s convinced that reaction overseas will eventually be translated as strongly in Québec. “I am Québécoise, but I also know that the French market is difficult, which is why I want to take advantage of my success,” she says. “In the end, I want to be successful in both markets. I’d also like to promote my album in Northern Africa. And then… there’s the rest of the world.”

Naming your new record label End X Music (End Times Music) amidst an ongoing pandemic reveals a rather dark sense of humour, as the independent imprint’s co-creator Donovan Woods acknowledges.

“The name came up during the pandemic, but the idea for the label preceded it,” says the acclaimed Toronto-based songsmith. “It doesn’t really feel like the end of the world, but we’re just trying to get ahead of the curve on that.”

End X Music is a co-venture of Woods and longtime manager Michelle Szeto, of Paquin Entertainment. Based in both Nashville (where Szeto lives) and Toronto, End X Music is distributed internationally by The Orchard. It officially launched in September of 2021, to early positive reaction.

“The response from people like Spotify and Apple has been very encouraging,” says Woods. “They’ve been an important part of what I’ve been able to do as an artist, and it’s fun to watch them get excited about something new.”

To Szeto, “it has solidified for us how much of a community we’ve built on both sides of the border. The reaction from the streaming industry has validated how hard we’ve worked to build Donovan’s label, Meant Well, over the last five years.”

First Up: Cassidy Mann
Cassidy MannCassidy Mann, a Manitoba-based pop-folk singer-songwriter, is the first signing to End X Music. She began songwriting in her early teens, releasing a self-titled EP at age 15, followed by 2013 EP, Blue Skies & Bright Eyes, that earned her a Western Canadian Music Award nomination (for Aboriginal Recording of the Year) in 2014. Her 2021 single “Election Night” was the first release from the label, followed by “Stop A Heart” in early November. “There will be an album eventually, but we’re not in a rush,” says Szeto. Donovan Woods is effusive in his praise of Mann’s talent and potential: “The thing that impresses us about an artist is if they present what seems to be a fully-formed artistic statement,” he says. “They know what they want to sound like and what they want to say. I think Cassidy is ahead of the game there.” Woods and Mann have already had a couple of co-writing sessions together.

Woods – a renowned, JUNO-winning folk/roots singer-songwriter – has achieved his impressive international success (more than  220 million global streams) in true do-it-yourself (DIY) fashion through Meant Well. “We’ve developed an understanding of how a label works and the decisions that need to be made,” says Szeto. “It’s a shared brain trust.”

Says Szeto about working with other artists, “From being thrilled about some of the opportunities presented to Donovan, we started talking around three years ago about doing that with someone else. The only problem was that we couldn’t agree on anybody!”

That changed when they simultaneously, separately encountered young Winnipeg singer-songwriter Cassidy Mann (see sidebar). “Donovan was a mentor at a songwriting competition, and I was on the jury,” says Szeto. “After coming across Cassidy there, we messaged each other, ‘Have you heard this girl?’ She was certainly a catalyst in making End X Music a reality.”

Mann is the first artist signed to the label, and her single, “Election Night,” was its debut release. Woods confirms that “going forward, my music will come out on the label, too.”

At present, there are no plans for a publishing component. Woods signed an exclusive publishing deal with Concord Music Publishing a year ago, and Mann is self-published.

For future label additions, Woods and Szeto will consider both Canadian and international artists, in a variety of genres. “Our focus will be on songwriters, whether a solo artist or a band member, but that can still be pretty broad,” says Woods.

The label’s mission statement reads, in part: “The core of End Times’ mission is transparency and adaptability.” Woods reaffirms that goal, stressing that “we want to have everyone understand where things are coming from and why, in a fully transparent way.”

The deep, abiding love men have for their trucks is the subject of the latest single from the platinum-selling James Barker Band, “New Old Trucks.” It’s also what makes huge numbers of country music fans relate to the song, according to singer/guitarist James Barker, who wrote it, along with Jordan Minton, Hunter Phelps, and Casey Brown, at Brown’s house in Nashville.

When the songwriters gathered to share ideas, they discovered that both Minton and Phelps had the song title in their notes. “We all knew what it was going to be about,” Barker says. “It instantly clicked when we heard that phrase. And the fact that two of us already had it – we were, like, ‘It’s a sign.’ It was really quick to write. Casey is such a good producer, and he was building up the track as we were doing it, and it just kind of came together.”

Things are also coming together for the James Barker Band, who toured the U.S. and Canada in 2021, and have a popular multi-channel livestream series, with 200 million global streams. In the past few years, the band has amassed six gold-certified and two platinum-certified singles, which include “There’s A  Drink For That,” “Just Sayin’,” “It’s Working,” “Lawn Chair Lazy,” “Good Together,” “Summertime,”  “Chills” (platinum) and “Keep It Simple” (platinum),  and a gold-certified EP (Game On). Barker also recently landed his first publishing deal, with Keith Urban’s Kobalt-administered BOOM, and the band has signed a U.S. record deal with Sony Music Nashville and Villa 40.

“New Old Trucks” is a nostalgic ode to beloved trucks, especially a specific one. “Off-white 350 Farmer Four / Gotta pump the throttle, gotta slam the door,” it begins, continuing with lines about the “dent from a fencepost I didn’t see coming,” and a chorus that goes, “Daddy had it for the first hundred K / I drove the rest, wouldn’t sell or trade / That many miles of memories for a million bucks / ‘Cause they ain’t making new old trucks.”

“Dierks said, ‘This song is about my truck!’”

“People relate to it because it’s real,” says Barker, who grew up in rural Ontario, along with bandmates Taylor Abram, Connor Stephen and Bobby Martin. “I never had a truck that I inherited from my dad, but my best friend in high school did. And another buddy cranked a fencepost in a field, and had to drive his truck around with a dented door for four years. Every time I hear that, I laugh.

“Shared experiences are such a key part of songwriting. It’s kind of the magic of it – finding a way to pull those same memories out of the listener, but not being so specific that they can’t relate to it. And that’s what we shot for with this song: making listeners think of their own first truck, or the one they still drive.”

That’s what made country star Dierks Bentley (with 17 of his own Billboard U.S. No. 1 Country singles) want to contribute a vocal to the track, after the band’s AR representative played him the demo while they were – of course! – driving in a truck. “Dierks has this old truck that he inherited from his dad, and it’s a white Chevy with a 350 in it,” Barker explains. “So he said, ‘This song is about my truck!’ It sounds contrived, but we didn’t know that when we wrote it. He was, like, ‘I want to sing on this song,’ and he did. It was wild.”

Those shared experiences also led to a smooth songwriting session. “It’s a back-and-forth process,” Barker explains. “We’ll get the pulse of everyone in the room – who’s more of a lyricist and who’s more melodically inclined – but everybody contributes and molds things. Somebody has to be the first to play something, and somebody else will say, ‘That’s cool, but what if this chord changed here instead of here,’ or something. And that’s how that song went. That’s how it always goes. It’s never one person having the whole thing figured out; it’s always all the writers.

“Writing should feel intuitive,” he adds. “Everybody has biases from what they’ve listened to, and you kind of need everybody’s collective melodic memory to make sure you’re doing something that’s going to be intuitive for other people. I feel like that’s what happened with ‘New Old Trucks.’”