It’s no secret that music is a key component of any restaurant experience. It influences the atmosphere of the space and, by extension, the way customers experience it. Thus, restaurateurs that tailor their atmosphere through a wisely chosen music selection maximize their chances for success.

Louis McNeil is the owner of all four Cosmos restaurants in the Québec City metropolitan area, and he’s always placed music right at the heart of what sets his establishments’ customer experience apart from the rest; it’s what has ensured his success. “Twenty years ago in Québec City, there were no restaurants with an ‘atmosphere,’ only restaurants with tablecloths,” says McNeil. “We made a conscious choice to be a restaurant with no tablecloths. Music is definitely a big part of our customers’ experience.”

Twenty years ago, at the first Cosmos Café on Grande-Allée, the music was played via cassette tapes, later using 8-track tapes, and later using a system that played multiple tapes in a loop. After migrating to CDs, Cosmos began hiring DJs to make sure it kept that distinctive vibe.
Cosmos CoverA few years ago, inspired by the huge wave of boutique hotel and restaurant compilations à la Buddha Bar, Louis McNeil thought to himself, “Why not us, too?” Daniel Lussier, Cosmos’ head designer, recruited SOCAN member Alain Simard who, under the moniker Mr. Smith, created original music to fit with the restaurant’s unique personality. And now, the fourth album in the Cosmopop series was launched in November 2014.

“Cosmos can boast [that] it’s the only restaurant in Canada to have produced original music albums!” says McNeil. “Customers can buy the CDs in all of our locations, and it’s a great promo for the restaurant. It’s much more pleasant to see a CD cover than skewered chicken when you’re waiting at the bus stop. That way, we’re actually selling a vibe, a concept, an experience.”

There’s no half-stepping at Cosmos when it comes to sound quality: high-end speakers, acoustic panel baffles for better sound on the ceilings and walls, and anything else that’s required to give customers the best possible music experience. “We also don’t hesitate to put our equipment on display, like our amp banks right next to the kitchen,” says McNeil. “At Cosmos Lévis, we feature live music every Friday and Saturday night.”

Everyone can enjoy the Cosmos Ste-Foy vibe thanks to the restaurant’s website, where anyone can listen to Cosmos Radio, a web radio station that broadcasts the actual music being played at that location in real time.

Furthermore, throughout the years, Cosmos also played an important role in talent development. Such is the case of The Seasons, who honed their chops at the restaurant before breaking out on the international music scene. “We played there every other Thursday, we were kind of like the house band”, said Hubert Chiasson in an interview with Le Soleil.

Just like their owner, all four Cosmos locations – in Québec City, Ste-Foy, Lévis and Lebourgneuf – are creative, support creativity, and are passionate about food and music. In other words, they’re proudly Licensed To Play!

“I’m a failure as a songwriter.”

Coming from anyone else – say, your dentist or your local barista – this admission might not be surprising. Coming from Randy Bachman, it deserves a double-take.

After all, Bachman, as a founding member of two legendary Canadian rock groups – The Guess Who and Bachman-Turner Overdrive – has written or co-written a wealth of classic hit songs, including “Takin’ Care of Business,” “These Eyes,” “American Woman,” “You Ain’t Seen Nothing Yet,” “Let it Ride,” “Undun” and “Looking Out for No. 1.” Hardly the track record of a failed songwriter.

Surely he’s joking. Well, yes. But here’s the thing: he’s only half-joking. Let’s look first at the joking half of that statement.

“Nobody’s ever done a song of mine from a demo. I’ve had to record it myself, make it somewhat of a hit, and then it got covered.”

The joke is, of course, that Randy Bachman is about as successful a songwriter as you’ll find anywhere. He’s sold more than 40 million records worldwide, is credited with more than 120 gold and platinum albums and singles, and has charted No. 1 hits in more than 20 countries.

In addition to the chart successes and sales, his trophy case must rival Wayne Gretzky’s. Bachman has received 11 JUNO Awards and a dozen SOCAN Classics Awards (for songs with more than 100,000 airplays). He’s received the Order of Canada and the Governor General’s Performing Arts Award (with The Guess Who). He’s been inducted into Canada’s Walk of Fame twice – as a member of the Guess Who and as a solo artist. And he’s the only double-inductee in the Canadian Music Hall of Fame, first in 1987 with The Guess Who, and also in 2014 alongside his BTO brethren.

Nor are the laurels limited to his homeland. Last year, he was welcomed into the Musicians Hall of Fame in Nashville, and in 2011 the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers (ASCAP) gave Bachman their Global Impact Award. If you take that to mean he quite literally rocks the world, you would be correct.

His most recent honour arrived this past June when Bachman received the SOCAN Lifetime Achievement Award at the 2015 SOCAN Awards. “It was nice to get acknowledged for my classic hits – and I’ve got maybe 12 or 15 of them – that obviously that represented,” Bachman says, “but I’m always hungry for the next hit. I would have rather got what MAGIC! got, which was the Song of the Year. [It’s about] the new songs. I’m still a songwriter – still writing great, great, great songs.”

But here’s the not-so-joking side of things: Bachman is actually semi-serious about his “failure” as a songwriter. Or at least he’s been frustrated in one regard: the man who co-wrote “Laughing” isn’t so tickled that even though his classic songs have been covered by such artists as Lenny Kravitz and Mavis Staples, he’s been largely unsuccessful at getting established artists to record his own solo tunes.

“Nobody’s ever done a song of mine from a demo,” says Bachman. “I’ve had to record it myself, make it somewhat of a hit, and then it got covered. So my covers were ‘These Eyes,’ ‘American Woman,’ ‘You Ain’t Seen Nothing Yet’ – things that were already hits.”

You would think that with Bachman’s writing résumé, artists would be lining up to see what else he’s got. But whenever he’s hung out his “The Songwriter is in” sign like Lucy in the Peanuts comic strip, the queues haven’t materialized. Instead, it’s been crickets chirping. He even journeyed to the songwriter’s Mecca, Nashville, spending time there, on and off, from the late 1980s through to the late ‘90s, trying to break in to its well-established songwriting circles. No dice.

The experience left Bachman scratching his head. “Every song I wrote there – and there were some great songs – never, ever, ever got covered by anybody,” he says. “It just… it never happened. Finally, I gave up.”

Bachman still has his eyes on the prize, however. Once a hit-maker, always a hit-maker.

“I’d love to do a song for Céline Dion, a really, really incredible, great singer – that kind of thing,” he says. “And I’ve written songs like that, that are really high-class, heart-jerking, great vocal, three-or-four-octave-range songs that I can’t sing. I’ve got pockets full of those that I’m just waiting to play for somebody.”

Has he lost his songwriting mojo? Not according to him. In fact, he feels he’s a better songwriter now than when he was cranking out all those hits. “I get better all the time,” he says brightly. “Without a doubt, I would say I’m way, way, way better now than I was then.”

Although she still sits on the concert piano bench from time to time, these days you’re more likely to find Alice Ping Yee Ho in the composer’s chair, engaged in research, or fine-tuning her latest commissioned work. Over the past several years, she’s produced a truly astonishing array of notable intimate and large-scale works that reveal a collaborative spirit, an ambitious talent – and most importantly, a curious mind.

Many of the Toronto composer’s commissions have led to further collaborations. Ocean Child, for soprano and orchestra, won the composition competition that was launched last year by the PEI Symphony, as part of a series of festivities commemorating the 150th anniversary of the Charlottetown Conference. Mark Shapiro, the symphony’s music director, now has the composer working on a piece for Cantori New York, the acclaimed chamber chorus he’s directed for 25 years.

“I look back into my own culture. I find new sounds and new ways to communicate to the audience.”

The original texts for Ocean Child were written by Toronto theatre artist Marjorie Chan, whom Ho first worked with on The Lesson of Da Jing, the 2013 Dora Mavor Moore Award winner for Outstanding New Opera. Originally commissioned by Toronto Masque Theatre, the opera tells a hot revisionist version of a classic tale about Da Jing, the chief concubine of King Zhou, who has an ill-fated love affair with a music teacher.

“This opera was a big turning point for me because it uses Chinese instruments (pipa, erhu, and guzheng) intensely, alongside traditional Baroque instruments, which is new combination in opera,” says Ho, who grew up in Hong Kong, earned a Bachelor of Music degree in Composition from Indiana University, then moved to Toronto – where she received a master of music degree from the University of Toronto and put down roots.

“As a younger composer, I was into my individualism, but in the last 10 years, living in this multicultural city, I’ve had opportunities to do research into Chinese music and instruments,” continues Ho, who’s also had pieces commissioned and performed by notable Chinese ensembles in recent years. “Through these works, I look back into my own culture. I find new sounds and new ways to communicate to the audience, yet the music always reflects my own style. It’s important to me that audience experience these new sounds in ways that aren’t superficial, but rather in work that has depth.”

As the composer on Bridge of One Hair (2007), a massive three-year collaborative performance-installation piece linking diverse communities in Etobicoke, Ho dug into the music and storytelling of Somalia and Ireland. “It was so exciting and challenging for me to hear and work with people and ideas outside my own artistic life,” she recalls.

Ho, it seems, is always up for a challenge. In late May 2015, she helmed a three-day recording session of The Lesson of Da Jing at Toronto’s Music Gallery, which was followed by a public concert performance. “Producing was a new experience for me, and a little bit scary,” she laughs. “But I needed to be in control, because I have thought so much about what my ears desire to hear.” The recording will be released later this year on Centrediscs/Naxos, which last year released Glistening Pianos, a disc of Ho’s compositions for duo piano; the title piece received a 2015 JUNO Award nomination for Classical Composition of the Year.