“I came up pop, but I’m not blowing bubbles” —  Lights (from the song “Jaws”)

One could spend quite a lot of time trying to define what exactly pop music is in the year 2022. Vancouver singer-songwriter Lights would know more than most. Her last two albums, 2014’s Little Machines and 2017’s Skin & Earth, both won JUNO Awards for Pop Album of the Year. She prefers the term “alt.pop” to describe her left-of-centre musical style. But on her new record, PEP, Lights makes it clear that she has no interest in staying in any one lane.

PEP began pre-pandemic, when Lights was writing “just for the fun of it.” At about 24 demos, she shot the new music off to her label, Fueled by Ramen. (Lights signed to the American imprint best known for alternative acts like Fall Out Boy and Twenty One Pilots back in 2019.) Their response encouraged her to think outside the pop (or alt.pop) box.

“They were like, ‘You don’t have to make a pop record. You can make whatever record you want. Why don’t you make a rock record?’” recalls the singer. “All I need is my label to tell me I don’t have to make hits. When you’re not trying to write something for pop radio you get something really authentic and cool, and still with pop sensibilities. That’s kind of what this record is. Like Lights choruses, but with a different kind of energy.”

This isn’t to suggest that Lights is a rock act now. The sticky choruses, bright synths, and – dare it be said — peppy attitude that have defined Lights’ music are still prominently displayed. The 13 songs on PEP are fast-paced, and clock in at under 45 minutes total. But on tracks like “Prodigal Daughter” and “Jaws,” she also lets loose a kind of roar that shows off her heavy rock influences. Let’s not forget that Lights’ 2008 debut EP was released by Canadian punk label Underground Operations, and that she’s collaborated with metalcore heavyweights Bring Me the Horizon.

“I grew up listening to metalcore, and screamo, and emo, and post-hardcore,” she explains. “And what I took from that was the emotional sensibilities. There’s a lot of vulnerability in those lyrics; like, extreme vulnerabilities. Like, I’m gonna let my emotions hang out on my sleeve and be really poetic about it, then I’m gonna let ‘er rip in this part. Yet it’s all very melodic. I think that is probably the genre that inspired my music the most, even though sonically, it doesn’t seem that way.”

Behind the scenes, PEP boasts an impressive list of female creators and crew. Lights handled much of the album’s production on her own, but committed to finding and enlisting female talent, such as engineer Elisa Pangsaeng; mastering engineer Emily Lazar; co-writers Michelle Buzz (Katy Perry, Bebe Rexha) and Jenna Andrews (BTS, BANKS, BROODS); and drummer Jess Bowen (The Summer Set, HAIM).

“I had a goal going in to work with 50 percent women,” says Lights. “And I achieved that goal. It’s challenging when the talent pool is 97 percent male. But the more people see it, the more we’ll have it.”

As with her last album Skin & Bones, PEP is accompanied by a comic series, conceived and drawn by Lights, called The Clinic. The storyline and colour palettes are all tied into PEP’s artwork and videos, and are as much part of the album as the songs themselves.

“Music is the heart of it, but there’s so much more,” says Lights. “I think that’s why people have stuck with me for this long. There’s gonna be a whole world around it.”

Publishing: Sony set up success

When asked about her longtime music publisher, Sony Music Publishing, the first thing Lights says is “they’re like family.” The songwriter’s relationship with Sony goes back to her teenage years, when she co-wrote the song “Perfect” with Luke McMaster (of McMaster & James) for the Canadian music-themed TV series Instant Star, and has remained solid throughout her 17-year-career. In those early days, Lights says mentorship from Sony’s David Quilico and Gary Furniss truly helped set her up for success. “They taught me so much about music,” she recalls. “I was 18. I’d just moved to Toronto and didn’t know anyone, really, except my manager at the time. And they would sit me down, play me songs that stood the test of time, and show me why. They put me in all kinds of [song] camps, where I learned how to exercise my ability to create with another person in the room. They were more than just a publisher, and I was very grateful for having them when I was young and getting started.”

Whenever Toronto-born, Edmonton-raised R&B chanteuse Tanika Charles writes and records a new song, she goes to her surefire sounding board: her Dad Lennard.

“My Dad’s the best,” says Charles, whose 2019 sophomore album The Gumption created a lot of momentum for the now Toronto-based singer-songwriter. “He’s just taught me so much. And, you know, I’ll never forget when I first started singing, he said, ‘I only ask you to do one thing: enunciate… make sure people can hear what you’re saying, and make sure your story is true and pure.’ That’s how I’ve been rolling ever since.”

Lennard came in extremely handy when it came to feedback for some of the mixes of Charles’ new album, Papillon de Nuit: The Night Butterfly.

“There’s a song on the album called ‘Frustrated,’ and the title is so fitting, because I think it had maybe four or five different mixes,” Charles explains. “I sent each mix to my dad, and he’s, like, ‘Nope, that’s not it. Nope. That’s not it. Sorry, Tanika. No. no.’ And finally, I just decided, ‘Okay, this is what we’re going to do: We’re gonna put the bass up here, and I’m going to do this and I’m going to do that. So, we mixed it, sent it to my dad, and he’s, like, ‘That’s it!’  It wasn’t until the fifth one that we got his approval – and I literally made those changes with tears coming out of my eyes, because it wasn’t hitting the way that I wanted it to.”

Charles acknowledges that she’s her own toughest critic – and that, combined with pandemic woes and depression, led to making what she calls “the most difficult album to create.”

“Not only was it done remotely, but there was no inspiration, no motivation,” she admits. “It was just a dark time. After not performing, or singing, or doing anything except eating,  having to come up with this album was incredibly difficult. I struggled with my voice. I didn’t feel confident. I thought, ‘This is not how I wanna sound.’ Because, during the lockdown, I’d been listening to Yebba, who’s my absolute favourite artist, of course, Moses Sumney, just these incredibly powerful singers. I just felt inadequate. So, I struggled with this album.

 “There was no inspiration, no motivation”

“I wanted my third one to be passionate and honest, and I just couldn’t find myself.  Finally, when this album was done, I’d come out of the darkness and I felt stronger and brighter and, and vibrant – but only because I completed something in such a difficult time. I’m continually working on being and doing better vocally, and internally, spiritually.  I know that we, as artists, need to recognize that we put in a lot of work and we need to be proud of the milestones that we’ve accomplished.”

Charles should be proud of Papillon de Nuit: The Night Butterfly: 11 slices of soulful, classic, and contemporary R&B stylings, including the groovin’ “Different Morning,” featuring fast-rising rapper DijahSB; a funky duet with soul/Gospel singer Khari McClelland; and a coterie of producers and writing partners that include Scott McCannell, Ben MacDonald, and Chino de Villa on the production side, and Robert Bolton and Tafari Anthony on the writing side.

Swimming in Synchs

Tanika Charles – who might be remembered by TV audiences for her recurring role on Global’s Bomb Girls – has placed a lot of her music in other small-screen shows:  HBO’s Less Than Kind, ABC’s Rookie Blue, The CW’s Seed, CTV’s Saving Hope, and the CBC sit-coms Kim’s Convenience and Workin’ Moms, plus a nationally broadcast KFC commercial.  How does she do it? She credits her Milan-based label and music publisher Record Kicks. “I’ve been able to tour because they’ve released my music across Europe, and put my music in touch with stations, TV shows, and places I would never have access to as a Canadian artist,” says Charles. She also gives props to the late music supervisor Dave Hayman for placements: “Dave had been an integral part of my career, and supported me from Day One. Dave connected me with all of these show opportunities.”

“I prefer to collab with others,” says Charles. “When it comes to songwriting, there are people that are just way more prolific than I am. That’s what they do. I have to really experience everything to write a song effectively. And when I’m writing with other people – with Robert Bolton and Tafari Anthony – they would understand where I’m coming from. We’d receive music and I would express what this song in particular  makes me feel. I’d write a few words here and there, and then we’d elaborate on that.”

One particular standout: “Paintbrush and A Palette,” a funky, ‘70s- flavoured number with a lighthearted lyric. “That was actually the very first song I wrote for this album,” says Charles. “I love it because It’s bright and fun, and has something unique in its structure. I usually want to write sad songs about failed relationships, and this one gave us an opportunity to do something fun. And this song I wrote with Robert Bolton and Todd ‘HiFiLo’ Pentney. We were aiming for a D’Angelo-esque kind of vibe.”

While the jury is still out on how Papillon De Nuit: The Night Butterfly will perform in the public eye and ear, Charles has enjoyed a good run with her first two Polaris Music Prize long-listed albums Soul Run and The Gumption, and says she’s overcoming her shyness regarding self-promotion.

“I’m learning now to be okay with saying, ‘Hey, this is, this is my song,’ or ‘You can hear this song here,’ or ‘Take a listen to this album.’ I can honestly say that I’m quite proud of this one.”

1969, Connor SeidelSongwriter and producer Connor Seidel – who’s worked with Charlotte Cardin, Matt Holubowski, and David Lafleche, among others] – invited a dozen of Québec’s best musicians to the Tree House studio in St-Adèle to embark on the ambitious 1969 project, a refreshing evocation of the naïveté and sweetness of the era’s folk records.

“To me, Joni Mitchell’s Clouds and Nick Drake’s Five Leaves Left are the anchor points of this project. It’s very soft and genteel music. Ultimately, it’s storytelling for the silent generation,” says Seidel.

1969, erotic year, as Serge Gainsbourg put it. Yet, there was also Woodstock, the Vietnam War, protest movements of all kinds – this period of social unrest also gave us music that was much more politically charged.

“Initially, I wanted to use classical guitar on all the songs, with string arrangements and flutes, to fully incorporate these elements and echo the way this music was anchored in ethereal melodies,” says Seidel. “1969 is not a pastiche, it’s much more a state of mind. We didn’t compress the sound, it’s raw; we even used the same ribbon mic for all the voices.”.

Each song is the subject of a short video where the musicians share their thoughts. This is what Jason Bajada says about his collaboration: “Connor and I fell in love with a Neil Diamond album from 1969 (Touching You, Touching Me). I love artists that are able to walk the cheesy line, to dip their toes in and it’s all good.”

“Live recordings are a feature of the records of the time, and it made my job so much easier,” says Seidel. “Musicians don’t feel the pressure of trying to be perfect in such a relaxed context. We threw open the windows and doors of the studio when it started getting really hot. Louis-Jean [Cormier] went out on the terrace to record his song (“Même les Loups versent des larmes de joie”) and the sound of cicadas and insects can be clearly heard in the background. Ariane [Moffat] climbed on the roof for her recording: nature sounds are part of the process. And with Ariane, it’s special, because when she got to the studio, she composed a melody on the piano that immediately gave its meaning to the song, and we recorded it in a single take.”

About the Treehouse studio, located in Sainte-Adèle, Seidel says, “I’ve worked there for almost four years now, it’s my creative grotto. With the help of Ghyslain-Luc Lavigne, who co-produced the project with me, I was confident that the live sessions would be properly recorded.”

A project of this scope, with such a stellar cast, could take months to see through, a luxury Seidel didn’t have. Each artist showed up with their lyrics and melody. Everything recording needed to be wrapped up in a single day.

Elisapie, Safia Nolin, Half Moon Run, Antoine Gratton (who penned all the string arrangements), Matt Holubowski, Les sœurs Boulay, Elliot Maginot, and Claudia Bouvette are also part of the assembled collective. “Claudia’s pop music, which I’ve worked on, is at the opposite end of the 1969 mindset,” says Seidel. “I also love it when she sings with just a guitar or a ukulele. We wrote “Post Mortem” with a super-dramatic harp and voice a capella arrangement! It turned out to be one of my favourite songs on the album.”

Philippe Brault and Joseph Mihalcean delicately handle three short, luminous instrumentals that they create themselves, and that divinely slip into the continuous flow of the album. “I wanted to get out of the normal framework of a song, and add long cinematic interludes,” says Seidel. “These two have done amazing work in the realm of movie soundtracks.”

Bajada best summarized the atmosphere of these sessions: “Connor loved the idea of watching two individuals just waltzing, dancing together, thinking they’re alone in the world, but there’s someone in the other room watching them and hoping the moment drags on. Except in the end, everyone goes home.”

1969 is an album that sits outside of time, and outside of today’s production standards. The completion of such a project is in itself remarkable, and the pandemic was worth such a well-executed look in the mirror.