Straddling rap and slam poetry, and strongly influenced as a child and teenager by his native Benin’s rhythms, Le R has just released his first full-length album, Cœur de pion (A Pawn’s Heart), a poetic and evocative hip-hop album crafted by a world traveller with a big heart and an intellect to match.

“As a child,” Le R recalls, “I listened to a lot of classical and instrumental music on radio because of my parents, and also to the French variety programmes my mother was fond of. Then, as a teenager, I discovered rap. The French group IAM was all the rage in Benin at the time. Some of my friends were getting albums from relatives, and we would pass them around between us. I didn’t know enough English yet to be able to understand Anglophone rappers.”

“I’m not here to offend, but to speak out. Earth is my village.”

Le R’s passion for music developed organically: “In Africa, music is part of the fabric of life” he says. “People catch street rhythms by osmosis. For me, it was just a matter of natural immersion. On my mother’s side, all my uncles played a musical instrument – the guitar, for one, which I learned from them – or sang in a choir. I started studying theory with a cousin at the age of 12 or 13, although I was not necessarily planning on a music career back then.”

As a youth, Christian Djohossou (as Le R was then known) would write down the lyrics of the songs he liked and learn them from cassettes. “I was not being influenced by African artists at the time,” he says. “I was looking for something else. Older people were proud of our homegrown talent, artists like Angélique Kidjo, for instance, but I was more attracted to rap. That’s how I discovered the Francophone collective Bisso Na Bisso from Congo, whose album I played constantly.”

In spite of his attraction to music, Djohossou was preparing for a “serious” profession. “My parents were providing me with a traditional education, and I would never have dared to tell them I wanted to be an artist,” he says. “They would have accepted that, but they could see that life wasn’t easy for a musician. When I moved to Canada, I chose Ottawa because I thought I could pick up some English there while using French in my everyday life. I was coming here to learn computer engineering, but as soon as I arrived some 12 years ago, I got myself some music production instruments. It took me a long time to mature as an artist, remaining an amateur for a good 10 years before being able to make a living with my music. All self-employed people fight that same battle all the time!”

For his self-produced album, Le R surrounded himself with a team of exceptional musicians, including Sonny Black for the mix (and as a producer on two songs). “I met Sonny when I was working with Yao, who is in my circle of friends,” says Le R, “and we hit it off. He did an outstanding job mixing the album. He knew instinctively what I was trying to express.” There was also Samian, who co-wrote “Immortels” and sings it with Le R on the album. “I met him in 2013 when I opened for him,” he says, “and I had a lot of respect for him. So I told him about my recording project, and provided him with a soundtrack and a topic. It was a no-strings-attached joint effort based on connection and collaboration. The subject was personal and introspective. I was lucky to have him onboard.” As for the young Sudbury artist Patrick Wright, Le R met him in 2012. “We jammed together, and I loved his songs,” he says. “We kept in touch, and I invited to play a song at one of my shows, and it went well. So I asked him to contribute to the music of one of my songs [“Irréversible”].”

Yao and Djely Tapa also joined the team, but, for everything else, Le R wrote both the music and the lyrics. “I also produced the words and the music, and when they blend correctly, the result is cogent and flawless,” he says.

Now a force to be reckoned with on the world music scene, Le R took part in a variety of events this past summer. “I took my album everywhere – Festival International Nuits d’Afrique, Festival Franco-Ontarien, Word Pride, Franco-Fête de Toronto, you name it,” he says. “This fall, I’ll be travelling as part of preparing for my next album. It will be a period of creation and introspection. The chances are that my next album will be called Détours, and I already have a few songs in the bank. I’m not rushing anything because Cœur de pion still has a long way to go.”

Le R wisely warns against the potential pitfalls of songwriting. “You’ve got to resist falling into the trap of becoming disconnected from yourself,” he explains. “To be creative, you have to be connected to your inner being at all times. You’ve got to be in touch with your own creativity and follow the momentum.” As for creative inspiration, the artist says, “I take some distance from my political side because I’m a pacifist. I connect with the poetic aspect of things, as I do in ‘La cité des 333 Saints,’ where I talk about the golden age of Timbuktu. It’s a hopeful song, because if there was a golden age at one time, there can be another. I always believe that things will come full circle. I stay positive. I don’t point fingers. I blame nobody for the ills of the world. Without being too much peace-and-love, I disagree with the culture of confrontation. I’m in music to carry a message of peace. I’m not here to offend, but to speak out. Earth is my village.”

Last winter, Chantal Archambault released an intricately crafted five-song EP called L’amour ou la soif (Love or Thirst), a spontaneous self-produced effort that worked surprisingly well. “I had left for the cottage without asking myself too many questions, with next to nothing to work from, and came back with a few demos that sounded much better than what my musicians and I had expected,” the red-headed artist from Val-d’Or, Québec, recalls. The result is available through Bandcamp or at concert venues, but not in stores.

For her sophomore album, Les élans (2013), Archambault called on her colleague Dany Placard to help as a producer. On this new collection, she plays all the instruments while acting also as producer and sound engineer. A trained psychoeducator, she has remained a self-taught musician: “I’m a Jill of all trades,” she explains. “I’ve always been playing music or singing, but I quit studying musical theory because I disagreed with my teachers’ approaches. So I am self-taught, and not specialized in anything. What I am offering musically is quite simple – so I need to surround myself with the right people.”

“There’s something that speaks to me in country music – it’s in me, it’s me.”

Asked if she could elaborate on the meaning of the intriguing title she chose for her EP (Love or Thirst), Archambault explains that it’s “less about physical thirst than about a spiritual yearning. I’m 33 now, but I didn’t start my musical career in my early 20s like most musicians. My first album, La romance des couteaux (The Knives Romance), came out in 2010. They’d told me that I would develop as an artist over time, so I didn’t really have specific expectations. However, after the release of my second album three years later, I experienced a low point, and I felt that my career was not taking off the way it should. I was a bit of a disappointment because I had invested a lot of time and energy in that album. I was waiting for something to happen. It felt like an inner thirst that was not being quenched, and I realized that a lot of people around me were experiencing similar feelings. I had moved away from the attitude of gratefulness and appreciation with which I had approached my musical career until then, and I wanted to go back to that state of mind, start doing things for the right reasons, become more loving and grounded. As a society, we tend to want more and more of everything. There’s a lack of love at some level, and nothing is never enough. That’s what the “thirst” of the title means.”

Archambault has found a way of balancing her professions as a psychoeducator and a singer-songwriter to her own satisfaction. “As an artist, I’m not necessarily comfortable with being the centre of attention. I find this a bit strange, and at odds with the respect due, for instance, to people working in life-saving professions. I found myself a job in a daycare centre where I’m working with children with special needs. I get to choose my own hours, which is great for an artist. It provides me with a few hours when I stop thinking about myself. I meet lots of new people. I even host small-scale music workshops. I need this balance, and I can truly say that I’ve found my career’s G-spot,” she says, bursting into a radiant smile.

The folk-country scene has been visited over the past few years by a number of exciting newcomers – female newcomers, more exactly. I’m thinking of Lisa LeBlanc, Les Hay Babies and Les sœurs Boulay, to name only three. Where does Archambault place herself on the creative blood line going from Renée Martel (who included a cover of Archambault’s “La barque” on her Une femme libre album) to Mara Tremblay? “I’ve always listened to lots of women musicians. I was a Tori Amos groupie in high school. I loved Sinead O’Connor and Alanis Morissette. As for the folk-country influence, my mother listened to Johnny Cash albums while she was pregnant with me. He was her favourite singer, and apparently I reacted to his music before I was able to walk or talk! There’s something that speaks to me in country music – it’s in me, it’s me. These days I listen to Eleni Mandell or Lucinda Williams.”

Chantal Archambault indulged in a small fantasy on L’amour ou la soif, where she inserted a musical interlude recorded live in a Costa Rica church where dozens of women had gathered to sing, with the building’s front doors wide open. “In my travels,” she explains, “I was able to see how music is being integrated into people’s daily lives in many countries. It’s become a rich collective experience.” That too, is a way of dealing with that inner thirst.

It was a hit for both shock-rocker Alice Cooper and folksinger Judy Collins, charting in the U.S., the U.K., across Europe and in Australia in the ‘60s and ‘70s. And it was written by Canadian guitarist Rolf Kempf, who continues to record and perform in and around Vancouver. Alice first heard “Hello, Hurray” through his producer, Bob Ezrin, who met Kempf at a Toronto party. With Cooper’s version of the song appearing prominently this past summer in the latest X-Men blockbuster and the documentary Super Duper Alice Cooper, Kempf reflects on how “Hello Hooray” came to be.

How did you get from playing Hamilton coffee houses to writing songs in Los Angeles in the ‘60s?
I was at McMaster University studying English, hanging around with these guys, Dave Morrow and Renny Heard. We played Lovin’ Spoonful and Byrds and a bit of Beatles. And we recruited Dennis Murphy, who later made his name as a producer. We were called Colonel Popcorn’s Butter Band, and we got as far as playing Yorkville in Toronto for about a week. Syd Kessler, who became a big jingles guy, became our manager. He had a contact in Los Angeles – a producer of bubblegum – and much as we bridled at the thought, Syd was very persuasive, and bought a car, and we headed for the border. At our first meeting with the producer in L.A. Dennis got into a fistfight on the guy’s desk. It did not end well.

Is it true you wrote “Hello Hooray” on a borrowed guitar sitting by a pool in Laurel Canyon?
Yes. A girl I had been staying with was really into Eastern mysticism, which was very much in the air at the time. And do you know that second Doors album? Strange Days? The one with the circus people on the cover? That’s kind of the vibe that was floating in my head, a kind of carnival atmosphere. I went down to the pool one day with a joint and a guitar and that’s what came out.

And this is the house where you played it for Judy Collins?
She came to the house, yes. At that time, Judy Collins wanted to go more rock, so when I played her all my songs she was very polite and listened but then asked me, “What else you got?” So I said, “I just wrote this thing” and she liked it right away. But she didn’t really “get” it. She thought “second son” was about the birth of a child but I was writing about the rebirth of man. But who am I to complain? It was a hit and got a publishing deal with Elektra from it.

What about Alice Cooper’s interpretation? Because like Judy he also changed lyrics. But his is a rather theatrical version, which sounds like it was closer to your original intent.
Alice really got it. He made the song better and stronger, more bombastic.  His outro, “I feel so strong,” I think is perfect for the tune. He also made it shorter. Mine was over five minutes long and Alice made it just over three, which was an important factor in having a radio hit, even in the ‘70s. The thing is, “Hello Hooray” was never meant to be a hit. I wrote it when I didn’t really know how to write songs. I just put different segments together and they fit.

Is having one song that is so well known than anything else you’ve done more of a blessing or a curse?
It’s more of a curse. Alice Cooper’s version was so popular at a time when I was still an acoustic guitar player playing acoustic venues, and they hated Alice Cooper. I couldn’t even do the tune at my own gigs!

Alice continues to perform the song live. What about you?
Recently I have performed it at the Paralympic Games in Vancouver and the B.C. Disability Games. It’s a great song for athletic events,actually. I’m 67 now and I’m technically retired, but I don’t even want to [be]. I feel like I’m better now than I’ve ever been.