Pierre Fortin, Charles Perron and brother Sylvain and Sébastien Séguin had met a few times since putting a hold on their activities as Les Dales Hawerchuk. But one December night in 2015 at Saint-Sacrement, things were about to get serious.

As he was heading to the Mont-Royal avenue bar and venue, Séguin knew the only thing on the day’s agenda was the return of the Dales. As a matter of fact, in his pocket he was holding what would amount to throwing oil on the band’s still smouldering embers: a demo of his latest two songs, which would become the basis for their fourth album.

“It was a year ago almost to the day. We’d given ourselves some leeway to explore other things. Some of us became fathers, others found stable jobs, but we all wanted to come back to rock ‘n’ roll. We were thirsty, hungry for more,” says Séguin, who wrote the majority of the band’s new songs on Désavantage numérique, released on Nov. 25, 2016.

Les Dales Hawerchuk“I played my two songs for them,” Séguin continues. “They all loved it, and we immediately started talking about our comeback. The first thing we did was set some rules. No more playing in Shawinigan on a Tuesday night. Not that I have anything against Shawi – on the contrary, we’re going back soon – but it’ll be on a Friday or a Saturday, so that everyone can enjoy themselves without worrying about the next day. The rest of the time, we’ll spend with our loved ones. We also wanted our comeback to be carried by explosive, pedal-to-the-metal, new songs. We were done with compromising to get airplay on commercial radio. We don’t give a fuck.”

And that last point seems especially important to the singer and guitarist. Essentially born of the success of its 2005 song “Dale Hawerchuk”, the Lac-Saint-Jean-based band had garnered massive support from commercial radio and Musique Plus, who were thirsty for rock back then. All over the world, bands like The Strokes, White Stripes and The Hives were ruling the airwaves. Abrasive electric guitars were all the rage, and that was the wind beneath the Dale’s wings.

“When we recorded our second album, we tried repeating that feat with the single ‘À soir, on sort,’ but the result wasn’t the same. And thus the pressure for more radio hits started to wear the band down. Our third album was released in 2011 and our record label, C4, folded. That didn’t help. But the break did us a lot of good. We’re back, but we’re not putting any pressure on ourselves. We just want to tour our usual venues and have some fun.”

“We needed to step away from hockey and talk about other stuff. Yet, these days, I’m inspired to write a song about Radulov.” – Sébastien Séguin, Les Dales Hawerchuk

And this return to their roots can be heard right from the first few notes of Désavantage numérique, a titled that translates as Penalty Kill, and inspired by declining record sales, and one of the very rare hockey references on the album. Such nods are typical of the Dales. “It’s totally by design,” says Séguin. “We needed to step away from hockey and talk about other stuff. We’ve grown up. We don’t have the same preoccupations as a 25-year-old kid anymore. But that said, lately I’ve been inspired to write a song about Radulov.”

In the meantime, Les Dales Hawerchuk are focusing their attention on gasoline. As a matter of fact, someone will have to explain this fascination for gas that all musicians from Saguenay-Lac-Saint-Jean seem to have. There was Galaxie’s Tigre et Diesel, then Fred Fortin’s Ultramarr, not to mention the band named Gazoline, and the Séguin brothers sing about their love of gas-powered machines and the smell of exhaust on more than one of their songs.

“We’re kinda born into it,” says Séguin. “We rode Ski-Doos and ATVs when we were kids. Around the Lac, gas stations are family-run businesses. Not so much anymore, but back in the day, you didn’t say you were going to fill up at Esso or Shell, you said you were going to fill up at Perron’s or Martel’s, the families that ran gas bars. Gas-powered machines are part of our DNA. We always hear about the smell of our grandma’s strawberry or blueberry pies, and it’s true they smelled amazing, but I remember the smell of my dad after a Ski-Doo ride just as much.”

Those two odours came together and gave us a generation of big-hearted rockers. A generation still leaving its mark on the history of rock in Québec, as the Dales are.

One bottle of scotch. Four bottles of wine. Forty-eight beers. For most, that’s a decent long-weekend haul at the liquor store. For Séan McCann, that was just another day at the office.

As a multi-instrumentalist for Great Big Sea, McCann helped supply the foot-stomping, pint-spilling backbeat to Canada’s pre-eminent party band for 20 years. And in that context, the aforementioned booze inventory – the contents of his personal daily backstage rider – simply comprised his tools of the trade. As he’s inclined to say, “that band was a great place for an alcoholic to hide.”

But five years ago, at age 45, McCann summoned the will to quit drinking – and shortly thereafter, his band. “I was sober for my last tour, and it was brutal,” he recalls. “I think my bandmates expected me to fail, because I had tried to quit and failed before, and that failure left me depressed many times. It was a hard place to be. But that was it – I was like, ‘I want to survive.’”

Following his split from Great Big Sea, McCann embarked on a different sort of touring: to mental hospitals, recovery centres, and wellness conferences, spreading a music-as-therapy message to fellow addicts.

But while speaking at a 2014 event in London, Ontario, McCann was forced to confront the fact that his alcoholism wasn’t simply an occupational hazard of playing with a rowdy roots-rock band. During a Q&A with the audience, one attendee stood up and revealed his addiction was the aftershock of being molested by his minor-league hockey coach. Following that confession, McCann publicly acknowledged for the first time that he, too, had been repeatedly sexually abused by a priest he had befriended as a teen.

“I was still in denial about that, even when I quit drinking, even though it was the cause of my problems,” McCann says today. “I put my past right out in the open in a big way and, man, did I ever learn a huge lesson that day, and take a huge load off.”

Since that moment of reckoning, McCann has channeled his experiences into two homespun solo albums – 2014’s Help Your Self and this year’s The Sean McCann Song Book Vol. 1: You Know I Love You – that promote an inspirational, self-help philosophy.

But these modest, self-released efforts are contributing to a much larger conversation happening across the Canadian music industry about mental-health awareness. And it’s one that’s uniting disparate bands and brands – from Serena Ryder’s spokesperson role for Bell’s Let’s Talk campaign to Fucked Up growler Damian Abraham’s advocacy work for VICE. More and more artists are opening up about their struggles with addiction, anxiety, and depression, in the hope of effecting change – whether it’s to simply make fellow sufferers out there feel less alone, or pressure governments to re-think their entire approach to mental healthcare.

Crazy.” “Crazy on You.” “Let’s Go Crazy.” “Crazy in Love.” The history of pop music is essentially one of celebrating psychosis – of rendering mania in euphoric and heroic terms. This poetic license extends to how we view the artists themselves: From Brian Wilson to Kanye West, we romanticize eccentricity as a byproduct of genius. And when big-name artists suffer a public breakdown, it’s easy for us armchair psychiatrists to chalk it up to the pressures of fame. Then we sit back, grab the popcorn, and watch the inevitable comeback narrative play out on the awards show stage.

But for the average working musician – the sort who can’t afford to treat their troubles with a six-month stint at an elite rehab facility – mental illness is less a public soap opera than a private hell: a mundane, insidious condition that threatens their very livelihood.

As any musician will tell you, touring is one of the least secure, most strenuous means of eking out a living. And it’s beset by all sorts of extreme factors – financial uncertainty, long hours, claustrophobic travel conditions, uncomfortable sleeping arrangements, mind-numbingly repetitive routines, unhealthy eating, loneliness, homesickness – that can prove perilous for those with a pre-disposition to anxiety and addiction. The supports that exist in traditional workplace environments – HR departments, counseling, stress leave – just aren’t there for you when you’re trying to figure out whether your $50 gig will buy you enough gas to make it to the next town.

From an outside vantage point, Carmen Elle appears to be living the dream. Her electro-pop ensemble DIANA debuted in 2012 with a blog-buzzed single (“Born Again”), which lead to deals with renowned labels (Paper Bag in Canada; Jagjaguwar in the U.S.) for their album, and a foothold in the festival circuit.

Carmen Elle

Carmen Elle (of/de DIANA)

Most musicians in her position would be eager to capitalize on that momentum by releasing a follow-up album. For Elle, the prospect absolutely terrified her. Heavy touring for DIANA’s Perpetual Surrender album had the effect of exacerbating travel-related anxieties she’d been battling since she was a child; each concert became an endurance test in whether she could make it through a whole set without triggering a full-blown panic attack.

“It’s more acute than just having nerves, or needing to have a drink and feeling okay afterward,” Elle says of her onstage jitters. “I had a really bad panic attack onstage last summer in Montréal – I feel like I blacked out. I remember staring at the exit sign the whole time, and I felt so close to just ripping my guitar off and running, like, ‘I’m gonna puke! I’m gonna die!’”

DIANA have just released their sophomore effort, Familiar Touch, a record that “I really didn’t want to come out,” Elle admits, fearing the promotional commitments that lay ahead. “I’m just not built for touring the way other people are. As a band, we’ve had to change the way we communicate. Before, [my bandmates] withheld a lot of touring information until the last possible second and they hoped I would just come through. They’d get super-stressed approaching me with tours, and I got super-stressed being on tours, and we all started to get cranky and resentful. But I’m more open about the things I feel I can’t do, and they’re accepting of that.”

Elle’s also grateful for her bandmates’ ability to ward off her encroaching anxiety attacks with well-timed doses of humour. She recalls a drive through California where she was convinced she was suffering from altitude sickness. Their response? To laugh in her face. “Sometimes,” Elle says, “just somebody pointing out the absurdity of your situation is helpful.”

Newfoundland singer-songwriter Amelia Curran can likewise attest to how small steps can lead to great strides. For much of her adult life, Curran has grappled with anxiety and depression, and in her experience, she’s learned that “sometimes, the solutions are so simple it’s disappointing. It can come down to nutrition and sleeping habits and checking your blood-sugar – and those are things you flat out lose on the road if you’re not very disciplined,” she says. “Corporate Canada and bureaucratic Canada are fast to adopt mental health in the workplace as a platform, and that’s really great for office structures. But for musicians, we have to define our workplace, and it gets really complicated, even without a mental-health struggle.”

Amelia Curran

Amelia Curran

To that end, Curran has partnered with the Unison Benevolent Fund, a non-profit charity founded in 2010 by music industry veterans Jodie Ferneyhough and Catharine Saxberg that provides assistance to musicians and attendant workers – both in the form of 24/7 counselling (by phone or webchat) and financial aid (procured through major sponsors, including SOCAN). “There was nowhere in the Canadian music community for people to go for emergency relief,” says Unison executive director Sheila Hamilton of the Fund’s formation. “Musicians are workers; they’re on the road and they have the same stressors as regular people. If they need help with paying the rent and groceries, we offer short-term assistance to get them on their feet.”

Curran is but one of many renowned artists who’ve campaigned on behalf of Unison, but her activism goes way beyond advocating for her fellow musicians. In 2014, she and filmmaker friend Roger Maunder released a video featuring various notable, placard-wielding Newfoundlanders –McCann included – to raise mental-health awareness and dispel the stigmas surrounding it. The video’s viral momentum inspired Curran to launch a website, It’s Mental, to lobby the Newfoundland and Labrador government to implement long overdue mental-healthcare reforms. “These are decades-long struggles for minimal services in a lot of rural areas,” she says. “We’re ignoring entire communities of people until something horrible happens.”

It’s an effort that would’ve seemed improbable to Curran just a few years ago, when her depression got so severe, it would sideline her for months at a time. Coming to terms with mental illness is a deeply personal matter, and many understandably opt to suffer in silence rather than deal with the potential consequences, from social ostracization to diminished employability, of disclosing it publicly. But as the likes of Curran, McCann, and Elle have seen, courage can be contagious, transforming an isolating affliction into a communal cause. And as their stories show, conversation can be just as potent a remedy as pharmaceuticals.

“I’ve talked about depression and anxiety a whole lot,” says Curran, “and it’s something that I live with and balance and manage to varying degrees of success. But even now, I underestimate the value of my own story. If that’s something that speaks to other people and helps them, then I’m not shy about it.”

Her friend McCann offers a more succinct prescription: “A secret can kill you. The only way to defeat a secret is to tell it.”

Music publishers help nurture their songwriters’ careers in myriad ways, whether a writer has enjoyed big commercial success or they’re just finding their feet on the first few rungs of the music industry ladder.

“Every single situation is unique,” stresses peermusic Canada Inc. (Peer) Managing Director Neville Quinlan. “The Tragically Hip, Sarah McLachlan, they don’t need us in the same way a newer writer does.”

The real heavy lifting typically happens with writers who are working to get established or seeking to branch out into different genres or different areas of the business like writing for film and television.

“Nobody is going to be hot all the time,” observes Quinlan. “Careers move in cycles. We help our writers do what they need to [in order to] keep their careers going during those inevitable lulls.”

“Peer came at a dark time in my life and they’ve stood by me through thick and thin.” – Hawksley Workman

Hawksley Workman

Hawksley Workman (Photo: Dustin Rabin)

One Peer writer who has persevered through ups and downs is Hawksley Workman, who signed with Peer in 2010.

“Peer came at a dark time in my life and they’ve stood by me through thick and thin,” says Workman. “I was going through the divorce phase of the major label part of my career, and it was uncomfortable, with all the feelings of failure and inadequacy that surround that.

“But Neville and Cheryl [Link, Director, Film/TV and A&R] still saw me as somebody who could be worth a million dollars one day and that’s a really nice feeling.”

Peer has worked hard on Workman’s behalf, landing him significant TV placements, setting up and helping finance co-writing trips around the world, even assembling a makeshift studio for him at Peer’s Toronto office for the recording of 2010’s Meat and Milk albums.

“Other than my agent, who’s been with me since day one, the longest professional relationship I’ve had has been with peer,” notes Workman. “They believe in me and I believe in them.”

By the time Peer signed Workman, he had several albums under his belt and had built an international reputation. But Canada’s music publishers frequently dive in much earlier than that, to kick-start a young career.

Gary Furniss

Gary Furniss (Photo: Jamie Quaile)

The day we reach Sony/ATV Music Publishing Canada President Gary Furniss and Vice President Creative David Quilico, they were popping champagne with Toronto’s Kiki Rowe to celebrate their freshly minted deal with her. The publishers had been watching and working with Rowe for months before the contract was drawn up. They’d paired her with more established writers to see how she performed, and they flew her to New York and Los Angeles to meet with music supervisors, and with the Sony/ATV affiliates who’ll represent her in the U.S.

“When you’re considering signing someone, obviously they’ve got to have the talent,” says Furniss. “But they have to have a great attitude and work ethic, and Kiki has both. You don’t know if they’re going to go all the way, but you know they’ve got what it takes if the right pieces fall into place. Our job is to help make that happen with the right producers and the right co-writers.”

Says Rowe, “When I played them my music I could tell how excited they were. They genuinely like my sound and they believe in me. What more could I possibly ask?”

Furniss and Quilico felt strongly enough about dance duo USS that they financed the recording of their first album in 2008, and introduced them to Coalition Music for management services. The publishers went a similar route with Elise LeGrow, footing the bill for her 2012 debut EP, which contained the Top 10 hit “No Good Woman.”

Toronto’s Red Brick Songs was similarly supportive of a recent signing, Vancouver-based Nygel Asselin. Excited about his production work on Dark Eyes by Half Moon Run, Red Brick Creative team Jana Cleland and Amy Eligh invited Asselin to a writing camp they run every two or three years, to see how he would perform. He ended up co-writing “Drifting,” a song that became a lead-off single for U.S. group On An On.

Jana Cleland & Amy Eligh

Jana Cleland & Amy Eligh (Photo: Chris Robinson)

“‘Drifting’ is probably our biggest song to date,” says Cleland, noting that she and Eligh believed in the song so much, they released the demo and streamed it online to generate interest. “We sign writers we already love, then we expose them to new environments and new co-writers. We try to find the right magical connection that will make sparks fly. We want to find the right writers that are going to gel and create something spectacular.”

Says Asselin, “I don’t know how they do it, but they’re really in tune with my musical style. Sometimes they push me outside of my boundaries and get me to try something new. They set me up with the SOCAN [“on the Farm”] writing camp in BC a month ago that introduced me to people I had never written with before. The networking that comes from it is tremendous.”

Like larger music publishers with affiliate offices around the world, Red Brick taps into its network of international sub-publishers to spark support and co-writing opportunities. “We’re a community of music publishers,” explains Cleland. “We’re competitors, sure, but we’re also colleagues.”

Peer is constantly flexing its affiliate muscles in an effort to bring about co-writing opportunities. Says Quinlan, “We have offices everywhere and we’re always going to be just a couple of degrees of separation from anybody one of our writers wants to work with.”

That’s how peermusic Canada’s Royal Wood ended up writing with U.K. producer/songwriter Jamie Scott. The pair was in a London studio when we reach Wood on the phone in late November.

“I’ve never been happier in my life or felt more grateful,” says Wood, fresh off a writing trip to Los Angeles, and on his way to Nashville next. “I’m in a studio right now working on a console that the Beatles recorded Abbey Road on! Peer has put me in rooms with writers and producers who I probably wouldn’t have had access to on my own. People in the business assume you have cred just because you’re attached to a company like Peer. Doors open, that’s for sure.”