Songwriter Laurent Bourque came to a very uncomfortable conclusion about the sophomore album he’d just completed, some two years after he’d released his first, the critically acclaimed Pieces of Your Past.

Pieces had earned him the Stingray Rising Star Award in 2014, and launched him into extensive touring, back and forth, across multiple borders and waterways. Bourque says, “I toured for two years, and it was great experience. It brought me to Europe for the first time, and it was a blast, but at the end of my final European tour in the Fall of 2016, I was just really, really sick of how I was performing, and my habits onstage, and everything just felt really stale.”

As a solo performer, sometimes accompanied by his drummer (and occasional co-writer) Jamie Kronick, Bourque felt a strong desire for change. “I didn’t feel like me anymore,” he says, “playing the songs on that album. Which is natural, people grow and evolve.”  But the new album he’d just recorded didn’t sit well with the Ottawa-born, Toronto-based artist.

So he scrapped it.

Making as bold a move as any newcomer in the creative world ever could, Bourque canned the unsatisfying album and then set himself three highly improbable goals: He would write 100 new songs; he would start learning how to write with others; and, most frighteningly, he would learn to play and write on a brand new instrument – the piano. These were mountains to climb, but he set no deadlines.

Never skip a SOCAN party!

Laurent Bourque met up with David Monks from Tokyo Police Club at a SOCAN Grammy party in Los Angeles. The end result is one of Blue Hours’ most outstanding tracks, “Wait & See.”

“We kind of hit it off, we talked a lot about songwriting over the few hours that we were there. I told him I was going to write, like, 100 songs, and he thought I was crazy. But he was really interested in doing that, because he’s a guy who writes a lot. Then we just Uber-ed over to a rehearsal studio in L.A. called Bedrock, where there’s writing rooms with a piano, and you can get a guitar in there for an extra 10 bucks.  We rented it out for three hours and ended up with ‘Wait & See.’ On a personal note, there was something really significant about that day for me. I think it was my first L.A. co-writing trip… I was elated after leaving the session, because I was so excited about the song.”

Setting down to write was as easy as breathing to Bourque, but doing it with someone else, and trying to do it on a completely foreign instrument, brought a lot of excitement and energy to the process. Changing instruments mid-career had had a profound effect, because Bourque found writing at the piano completely different from writing on guitar.

“It is for me, because I know very little about the piano,” he says. “I’ve been playing guitar since I was about nine, so I know the guitar extremely well… What that led to, eventually, was a bit of predictability. If I put a couple of chords together, I knew where I would end up going. But in terms of the piano, it was completely new. I had no instincts at all, so it was just about trial and error. Everything felt different, and everything that ended up coming out was extremely different.”

He describes the new music on the final, recently released second album Blue Hour as more melodic and more layered. “I think what I ended up doing is, because I’m not a very proficient player, I wouldn’t end up writing melodies with my hands, it would force me to write the melodies with my voice,” says Bourque. “I mean, ‘Blue Hour’ is a song that has two chords in it, and that’s it, and that’s partly because at that time I wasn’t much better than that. I didn’t really know what I was doing. It forced me to have better melodies with my voice because my skill was so rudimentary with my hands.”

In the end Bourque made his way through about 50 co-writing sessions out of the 150 songs he ended up with at the end of his journey. Only four or five of the co-writes made it onto Blue Hour but the repercussions of Bourque’s songwriting metamorphosis will probably be heard for years to come.

Gillian Smith was nine when a music teacher visited her Halifax school to play his violin for the students. She was instantly drawn to it. “I loved the sound and wanted to learn it as soon as possible,” she recalls. In the years that followed, Smith let herself be led by her passion for the instrument, developing a love for the music of contemporary composers along the way.

So when it came time for Smith to conceive of her first album, she knew where to turn. “I knew I wanted to do an album of music for solo violin,” she says, acknowledging the long history of music for the instrument, dating back to Johann Sebastian Bach’s powerful compositions. But she also knew that she wanted to perform contemporary work written by women, who continue to be under-represented in classical music repertoire.

The result is Into the Stone, which includes the music of five composers, all of whom are Canadian (and all but one, SOCAN members): Ana Sokolović, Alice Ping Yee Ho, Veronika Krausas, Katie Agócs (BMI), and Chantale Laplante. Recorded at First Baptist Church in Halifax, the album was produced, engineered, and mastered by Jeremy VanSlyke on his Leaf Music label, with financial support from FACTOR.

“Each of the pieces featured on the album is a really great piece,” says Smith. “Each one has a specific and dramatic story, and a dazzling array of colours, textures, and timbres. I was really drawn to these pieces; each has its own sound world.” The album’s title is drawn from Krausas’ composition of the same name, which was in turn inspired by a line from a poem by Canadian poet Gwendolyn MacEwen, that asks, “What lives inside the stone? Miracles, strange light.”

“My top priority is to serve the composer in terms of being true to what they’ve put on the page.”

“I would say that each piece on the album is rooted in a tradition of violin playing – and not taking us too far outside of that – but also expanding the possibilities for the violin,” says Smith, describing contemporary violin music’s range of sounds, created by doing things like playing close to the bridge of the instrument, or plucking its strings. She also revels in the music’s polyphony, which draws multiple melodic voices from a single instrument at the same time.

In creating the album, Smith says she worked hard to serve each composer’s original vision, while also putting her own mark on the music. “My top priority is to serve the composer in terms of being true to what they’ve put on the page,” she says. “Beyond that, it’s a process of imagining for yourself how you want it to sound and to bring it to life.”

What lives inside the stone? Five pieces.
Inside the Stone, by Veronika Krausas
Cinque danze per violino solo, by Ana Sokolović
Caprice, by Alice Ping Yee Ho
Versprechen, by Kati Agócs
Le ciel doit être proche, by Chantal Laplante

She connected with each composer early in the process of creating the album, getting to know each a little better in the months that followed. Indeed, when Smith launched the album at Toronto’s Glenn Gould Studio in October of 2019, one of the composers, Alice Ping Yee Ho, joined her on stage to talk about her piece, Caprice, which demands both technical skill and musicality.

Smith, who holds degrees in violin performance from the Eastman School of Music and the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, as well as a Doctor of Musical Arts from the University of Minnesota, says she’s excited about the chance to expand the audience for contemporary Canadian classical music. She’ll be playing music from the album as part of a concert at Acadia University, where she teaches part-time, in January of 2020, with more concerts to come.

“I’m really passionate about music being written now,” says Smith, “and really enthusiastic about exploring that repertoire as much as possible and playing that music as much as I can.”

Solitude may be an art, but sitting day in and day out in a room writing music can become depressing for an artist. Martin Roy suffered from exhaustion as he was completing the soundtrack for the seventh, and final, season of the Québec television series La Promesse in 2012. “I was also experiencing touring fatigue,” says the bass player, who was often seen playing behind the likes of singers Jean Leloup, Ingrid St-Pierre, and Daniel Bélanger, and who’s one of Dumas’ most faithful collaborators. “I needed a change of pace, a renewal.”

Martin Roy, Luc SicardAt about that time, his old guitarist friend Luc Sicard happened to be experiencing the same type of professional and existential angst. After spending more than 20 years in a dark studio writing television, film, and advertising music, he was looking for a way to do things differently.

“What was getting to us were those long hours of working by ourselves, and of having to look after everything. We thought, ‘Why couldn’t we share the load?’” says the veteran composer in his partner’s basement studio, in Montréal’s Rosemont neighborhood. So a partnership that began for personal reasons soon proved to be a boost for the duo’s professional output. “For me, on my own, two series at the same was too much,” says Sicard. “But, together, we can handle three of them all at once.”

Since 2015, the pair has scored the TV programs and series Marche à l’ombre (winner of a 2018 Gémeaux Award), Karl & Max, L’Heure bleue, Le Monstre, La Faille, and Victor Lessard (winner of a Gémeaux Award for Best Original Music for Fiction in September of 2019).

Pretty prolific guys, you say? Well, who were the two tough, hooded stuntmen who appeared from nowhere in a back alley to teach a lesson to Jo Barbeau (Antoine Pilon) in Marche à l’ombre? You got it: they were Roy and Sicard! They thought that the (fictional) beating that they were able to give Barbeau on that occasion, at Francis Leclerc’s invitation, was such great fun that they’ve been calling themselves “The Hooded Ones” ever since.

“You can only get a good series if you give free rein to creators.” – Martin Roy

In the studio, the partners allow themselves to be brutally frank with each other. No masks are tolerated. “It’s like in Star Trek, permission to speak freely,” says Roy, while absent-mindedly strumming his splendid Hofner electric bass. “Between the two of us, ego never is a barrier.”

By far the pair’s more talkative half, Sicard gets excited when dsicussing the open dialogue that takes place between the two of them. There’s lots of it because, contrary to other scoring teams, they both work on each and every series or film cue (instead of dividing the scenes between themselves beforehand).

“Martin shares his ideas with me, I share mine with him, and we take it from there,” says Sicard. “We collide with each other, we look at it every which way, and we don’t get hurt. On the contrary, we get stimulated! When you’re 25, and starting in the business, you’re not able to go there, you’re still fragile, but us, we have the advantage of having grown up. If Martin tells me, ‘This is a shitty idea,’ we just trash it, and find other ideas five minutes later! I’m not about to try to convince him that it’s a good idea. We have no time to waste on that kind of stuff! Anyway, we can’t be worrying that we’re going to let a good idea slip through our fingers: ideas are a-dime-a-dozen!”

No resource is more renewable than ideas. But for them to blossom, those who produce them need some wiggle room. This principle is under attack, now that traditional television is losing ground, and that major distributors are yielding to panic.

“A fear syndrome is developing,” Roy was sad to say. “An author can write a super scenario, and it’s going to be completely watered down, because people on high are wondering if ‘the average viewer’ will be able to understand it. Radio-Canada is not calling us directly, but we can sense this fear that starts from the top, and trickles all the way down to us. When you’re writing TV music, you’ve got to like what you’re watching. You’re not showing them a playlist, but investing a piece of yourself, a piece of your heart, a piece of your soul. Broadcasters don’t realize this, but they stifle the product by creating that fear. You can only get a good series if you give free rein to creators.”