American Idol second runner-up Leah Marlene is in the passenger seat talking with us on the phone, as her dad, Honeymoon Suite guitarist Derry Grehan, takes his turn behind the wheel, bound for Los Angeles. The Toronto-born, U.S.-based singer-songwriter is moving to Hollywood, after the public fell in love with her voice and infectious personality each week on season 20 of the national TV talent search.

“I sure am. Yeppers. We’re about to go into Colorado in the next hour or so. We’re getting there,” says the bubbly 20-year-old, who joined SOCAN as a young girl when her dad registered her song “Someday” with his band’s performing rights organization of choice, even though she lived in Normal, Illinois, from age three to high school.

Registering with SOCAN
“My first song I released when I was, like, in eighth grade, and I didn’t know what I was doing at that point. So my dad just got me signed up to SOCAN… I could go with ASCAP and BMI, but SOCAN is really great, because there’s a little bit more attention to detail…  Ever since I put myself out there to them, they’ve been really supportive of me… They’re really trying to do whatever they possibly can to help me out.”

“I still have deep roots in Ontario, but didn’t live there for much of my life,” says Marlene. “Obviously, my dad plays shows all the time, so we’d come to see his shows and visit family.”

She attended Nashville’s Belmont University for two years, but dropped out in 2021 and moved home. In September of that year, the SOCAN Foundation recognized her talent – before she was chosen for Idol – as one of five recipients of its Young Canadian Songwriters Awards. Marlene already knew she was auditioning for American Idol producers when she won the $5,000 cash prize for her song “Spacesuit.” “That’s one of those songs that was so instrumental in my journey as a producer, and a writer, and an artist,” she says. “I’m really proud of what that was at the time.”

Marlene has written other songs since, including “Flowers,” the track she penned right after Idol’s “Hollywood Week” round in December of 2021, when she found out she would be in the program’s Top 24. “I wrote it from a place of ‘I can’t even believe that this is happening,’ and then that song kept applying to my journey,” she says. “Every step of the way, it just got more and more real.”

When she performed it on the Idol finale, she struggled to hold back tears, overwhelmed by “everything,” she says, not just the lyrics:

Where there’s a way out
There’s another way in…
The new life is growing in the layers you shed
Even the pavement gives way to the flowers

“That was a really hard night, because you’re going full speed for weeks and weeks and weeks, hustling so hard, and you’re just exhausted, but it’s the best experience of your life,” says Marlene. “And then all of a sudden, you’re about to get onstage, and I’m, like, ‘Oh crap, this is it. It’s all over after this episode.’ I didn’t care at all where I placed. And so it all hit me right before the episode started.

“It was already really emotional, and the entire time when I was onstage I was trying to hold it together. But on the side, I was sobbing the entire episode. I’m not even a crier, but I just could not pull myself together… It was just crazy to be where I was in that moment, and singing that song to so many people, whereas a year ago I would’ve never dreamed in a million years that I’d be on that stage. It was just the epitome of what that song was about: that moment on Idol.”

When she was done, Idol judge Lionel Richie said, “Props to your songwriter side, that was a great song.” His fellow judge Luke Bryan said, ‘The song is just tremendous.” And their colleague judge, Katy Perry, was moved to tears, and gave her Marlene of the best compliments that could be paid to a songwriter: “You are a brilliant messenger.”

“All I want to do,” says Marlene, “is make something that means something in this world, and to people. I don’t want to create recycled sounds, and the recycled words, that you’ve already heard a million times before. I want to create something new, and meaningful, and important. That’s a really deep drive.”

She brings up a comment made by one of her favourite artists, Madison Cunningham, who apparently said she didn’t want to write something somebody wouldn’t want to get tattooed on their body. “That is it right there. I don’t want to write something unless it’s worthy of getting tattooed. I don’t achieve that all the time, but that’s what I’m always constantly striving for.”

Father Knows Best: It starts with a song
“It’s a huge advantage growing up with somebody that’s done the whole career in the industry already, and knows the do’s and don’ts. A huge advantage I had from that was knowing that the songs are the most important thing. If you can sing, it’s great; if you can play, great; but the songs are the longevity in anybody’s career. Even financially, you can still get royalty cheques 40 years after you released the song. So the fact that I had that knowledge earlier on, to start writing and really putting focus into my writing, was amazing.”

As she looks to the future, Marlene says that when Idol ended in late May of 2022, “you’re kind of falling off the edge of the earth, and you’re trying to figure it out as you go.”  Still, she’s taken some major steps in just two months.

“The first week after Idol, I was, like, ‘Oh my God, what the hell do I do right now?’” she says. “I was ready to work my ass off like nobody’s business. Never had so much fire… But there’s so many directions you can go in; I needed to get together a game plan. So, I just called every single person I knew in the industry and got advice, and feedback, and connected.”

She decided to spend June of 2022 in Nashville, writing songs and taking meetings, and now has a booking agent and attorney on her team (though no manager or music publisher yet).  By the time the interview concludes, she’s one state closer to her new home, in middle of Kansas.

“I’m moving out to L.A. to write my ass off,” she says. “Just write, write, write, write, write. I want to put out a project that really is everything I could have ever dreamed a project to be. So that starts with a song. That’s really what I’m focusing on.”

Originating from Maliotenam, an Innu community on Québec’s Côte-Nord, Matiu has made a name for himself through his folk songs, ones that travel through his blood before resonating in speakers. Following a 2017 EP and a 2018 debut album, Petikat, he’s back with his sophomore effort, Tipatshimushtunan (“tell us” in Innu) where he endeavours to tell his story. Over nine songs, where Innu and French intermingle, he tells tales that are potent as a scream.

Louis-Jean Cormier, Matiu

Louis-Jean Cormier, Matiu

“I rarely tell stories. Normally, I’m the type to talk about what I think of life in general,” says Matiu explains, seemingly as surprised as we are by the direction he’s taken. “Now, I’m telling stories, and that’s something new.”

Produced by Louis-Jean Cormier, Tipatshimushtunan allowed Matiu to try new things outside of the “guy-with-guitar” realm in which he was firmly rooted. “Just before going in the studio, I broke my thumb and couldn’t play guitar,” he says. “Louis-Jean took care of the guitars, and I think there’s a reason for everything. He’s from Sept-Îles, and I figured we’d connect easily because of that, and we did.”

The discoveries didn’t stop there. “In the studio, there were all kinds of keyboards that I’d never seen before,” says Matiu, laughing. “We had no choice but to try all kinds of things.” His good friend and pianist Alexis Dumais had a blast with everything he could get his hands on. Marco Dionne (drums), Mathieu Désy (acoustic bass), and Alex Métivier (sound effects and backing vocals) rounded out the troupe.

For musicians from Indigenous communities, an identity quest is a necessary passage that’s always very moving. “Trying to make sense of things when your language is about to disappear with your own generation will never be an outdated consideration,” says Matiu solemnly. He repeatedly mentions the notion of being “torn apart” between the desire to know his own culture and roots, and being integrated in society. “I want to live on the woods like my ancestors, but I also know I need to pay my bills and put bread on the table,” he says. “That dilemma is painfully true for Indigenous people.”

The album’s title track was also made into a documentary music video centred around residential schools. “I’ll never be the spokesperson for the Innu,” Matiu readily admits. “There’s way too many stories to tell, and I’m only one person with one experience.”

But the most moving song on the album is “4 flasheurs,” the story of a man driving around looking for his sister. “I really wanted to talk about all the Indigenous women that are murdered or have disappeared,” he says. “I didn’t live through that, but I know people who did. I wanted to put myself in the shoes of a guy whose big sister has disappeared, leaving behind a kid that’s sitting on the back seat.” The image of a slow-moving vehicle with its hazards on was the starting point of the story, a striking image that summarizes the whole story. “That song truly took me out of my comfort zone. If you close your eyes, it’s almost like a movie,” he adds.

As for his live show, Matiu wants to give himself the latitude to explore any avenue afforded by his new songs. “It’s a trip, we dance, and we jam,” he says with joy. “Sometimes it’s on a more punk-rock tip, other times it’s just me and my guitar, like on that song for my mom (“Mom”). “Nos belles chansons,” when you listen to it, feels like being in a runaway train. I’ve always joked I make bi-polar folk. These days, I’m even more all over the place.”

While re-telling the recording process, Matiu reminisces about Louis-Jean Cormier’s biggest challenge: “Respecting my influences,” he confides. “My generation is already in trouble. If we don’t share our own culture with each other, it’s too late. From the time I was born until I went to school, I only spoke Innu. I didn’t understand anything at school, and I’d come home crying. One day, at lunch, I tried saying ‘fork’ (‘fourchette’), but I never managed to get one. Then my parents started speaking French with us at home. Innu came back into my life later on, when I wanted to speak and sing it.”

Matiu doesn’t think all Indigenous languages are dead, but they’re definitely been told it’s “last call.” Thankfully, and he’s adamant about it, all doors are wide open for artists who wish to sing about their roots. “We’re invited to festivals and to perform for wide audiences and our stories are passed on,” he says. “We’re being heard.” There are, indeed, languages that will always have a story to tell.

Long before the pandemic, indie-folk duo the Fortunate Ones – led by musical and romantic couple Andrew James O’Brien and Catherine Allan – encountered isolation and uncertainty.

After achieving success with their 2015 debut album The Bliss, released on Rose Cousins’ Old Farm Pony Records, this hard-working pair experienced burnout. Two songs from their 2015 album, title track “The Bliss” and “Lay Me Down,” reached No. 1 on the then CBC Radio 2 Top 20. They won the Canadian Folk Music Award for Vocal Group of the Year in 2015, and were nominated for a JUNO Award for Contemporary Roots Album of the Year in 2016. In 2018 they released Hold Fast, after which they toured extensively, and saw their song “Northern Star” reach No. 4 on the CBC Top 20. They were exhausted, but appreciative.

In 2019, their lives changed suddenly, when an injury revealed a tumour in O’Brien’s hand. Surgery, and the subsequent slow recovery, left him unable to play guitar – forcing the duo from St. John’s, NL, to slow down even more. When O’Brien started working at the Inn by Mallard Cottage, he enjoyed the distraction of changing beds and booking reservations. “I was just working on the reception desk, and I honestly was relieved and happy to be doing anything other than music at that point,” he says.

Allan, worried for O’Brien, and their lives on and off the road, took some time to reflect. She wrote “Clarity” as a means of figuring out what to do. “I started writing that song out of desperation, just seeking something but not knowing what it was,” she says. What the couple was seeking, and finally found, was acceptance of their place in the world.

Their surroundings helped. They spent a pandemic summer residing in a beautiful saltbox house by the sea in the community of English Harbour. Allen describes the isolation as “purposeful” rather than “just being marooned by yourself,” while O’Brien found the experience humbling, and a good reminder that “we are not the be-all and end-all of everything.”

This deep introspection led to the songs on their new album, That Was You and Me, that express love and loss, and lyrics that are rich with metaphors inspired by the natural beauty of Newfoundland. For instance, in “Anchor,” love is compared to an ever-changing river, and time to an endless sea. The song also conveys the uncertainty of relationships and the importance of supporting one another, hence one lover is the anchor to the other’s line. Another standout, “Heavy Heart,” confesses to fear that the heaviness your partner is feeling might pull them away from you. As is evident everywhere on the album, love, trust, and letting go are the only ways through the inevitable hard times.

The pandemic complicated their recording timeline with Toronto-based producer Joshua Van Tassel (Amelia Curran, Sarah Slean), who devised a backup plan to produce the album with the Fortunate Ones recording – not just demos, but actual finished songs – from their home in the Maritimes. Luckily, they were able to record the album in person, making for some magical moments. Their single-take recording of “It’s Worth It (For Leo)” brought tears to Van Tassel’s eyes, since he’s currently a father of young children. And it’s no wonder why: O’Brien wrote the song to let his own ailing dad know he did a good job raising him.

That Was You and Me is stacked with deeply personal yet universal songs about family, love, and finding one’s place. Their harmonies warmly wrap around each other in a way usually achieved only by siblings, or by those with an undeniable connection (like Gillian Welch and David Rawlings). Paradoxically, the bittersweet lyrics both pierce and soothe, forcing the listener to feel their feelings, yet letting them know everything’s going to be okay. The result is music that’s both grounding and uplifting.

Nowhere is this more evident than in the chorus of “Day to Day”:

I’m learning to find my way
Own the mistakes I’ve made
Hoping to finally say
I’ve found some meaning in the day to day

The Fortunate Ones faced isolation and uncertainty by connecting to themselves, to each other, and to their love for music. As a result, That Was You and Me is a balm for anyone navigating difficulty – which is all of us, especially in this (post-)pandemic world.