Clocking in at a mere two minutes, Toronto R&B singer Liza’s (pronounced LEE-za, a.k.a. Liza Yohannes) latest single “Congratulations” delivers a tautly-woven narrative of being genuinely happy for a past love who’s moved on with his life. With only a sinewy, nostalgia-tinged guitar loop for accompaniment, “Congratulations” deftly showcases Liza’s voice, conveying a genuine air of sincerity and magnanimity, when it could have easily delivered snark.

Liza wrote the song with Jay Century and Michael Bernard Fitzgerald at a 2018 SOCAN Kenekt Songwriting Camp on Pender Island in British Columbia, after stumbling on her ex while randomly scrolling through Instagram.

“I’d completely forgotten about him at that point, I had repressed that thought, I had moved on, really,” says Liza. “And it was like, ‘Oh, he’s here, he has a new girlfriend, and he’s doing this, and this, and this, and congrats.’ That was literally the first word that came into my head, and then this song came out as more of a conversation.”

Much like “You,” a standout song from Liza’s 2017 four-song February 29 EP, “Congratulations” centres around a basketball-playing beau – its photo artwork is a bunch of dead flowers over concrete court markings. It turns out that there’s a connection. “‘Congratulations’ was the last song I wrote about the person I wrote “You” about, so that’s sort of closing the chapter on that person,” says Liza. “I thought that was perfect: end of the decade, end of the year. And sonically, it felt like an end-of-the-year song.”

“Congratulations” is just the fourth track Liza has released since her 2017 EP, following the ethereal cool of singles  “Here to Stay,” “Passes Me,” and “Morning Glory,” but her deliberate approach is intentional. “Honestly, I’m a very big believer in quality over quantity. And I just believe that I don’t want to put out things prematurely,” says Liza. “In terms of my process, I’m a little bit of a perfectionist sometimes, where I’m very critical of my own work, and very critical of everything. Just because I want it to be the best thing I can put out. I want the next song I put out to always be better than the last. I want to always be progressively improving. And I definitely don’t want to oversaturate. I want my songs to live longer.”

“I want the next song I put out to always be better than the last.”

Writing songs alone, or with songwriter Kalvin, and rising producers like Akeel Henry, Liza’s sound not only incorporates the R&B she grew up with, but the music she heard from being raised in a home steeped in Ethiopian culture.

“I used to go every two years and spend a few months at a time in Ethiopia, immersing myself in the culture, the music in the language, in the food, everything,” says Liza. “ So that was me singing along to all these Ethiopian songs from the age of three or four. And because of that, I feel like it definitely influences the way I sing. It’s funny, but I never really considered it until multiple people came up to me and actually told me I reminded them of this Ethiopian singer, or that Ethiopian singer.”  Liza cites Aster Aweke, Mahmoud Ahmed, and Teddy Afro, as well as the Ethiopian jazz of artists like Mulatu Astatke, as primary influences in her musical life. Clearly, the sum of her influences is increasingly garnering more notices and justified attention.

Recently, she snagged a co-writing credit and background vocals on “Complexities,” a track on Daniel Caesar’s sophomore effort CASE STUDY 01, despite the fact she’s yet to meet Caesar. “I didn’t think it was going to be used on the album at all,” says Liza. “As far as I knew, [producer Alex Ernewein and I] were working on an idea for myself, and then I kinda forgot about the idea. And then, yeah, Alex kinda mentioned something about the [Daniel Caesar] album, but it’s something that I didn’t think was going to be on the album, so I was, like, ‘OK, I’ll wait until we see it online.’ But it actually came to fruition. It was a really wonderful experience.” The song is also co-credited to Ethan Ashby, Liam Mitro, and Sean Leon.

With her musical career on the upswing and “Congratulations” drawing a line under a rear-view mirror experience, a new project in early 2020 is next on deck for Liza. Despite already distinguishing herself early in her career, she’s clearly intent on growing as an artist.

“I feel like I’ve grown a lot as a person and as a woman. Just being more independent in various aspects of my life,” says Liza. “ I feel like all those things have really forced me to delve into a deeper space, through writing who I want to be, and who I am, and really understanding myself. I just think that I’ve really begun to understand myself more holistically, and that has come through time. I think my sound is going to be more mature because of that.”

When Callie McCullough was in the first grade, she wrote in her journal, “When I grow up, I will be a singer.” In reality, that passion to pursue music blossomed well before she even knew how to speak or spell. In fact, her mother says she was “born singing” first.

McCullough’s love of music stems from her musical parents, who filled their home with folk, country, rock, and blues albums. But beyond sound-tracking McCullough’s childhood with classic tunes by Gordon Lightfoot and Joni Mitchell, their day-to-day lives, performing onstage and recording in studios, helped shape her world-view: “It was all so normal to me,” she says.

That sense of normalcy led McCullough to pen her first song at 14, and soon after head out on the road to perform as a country duo with her mother. “She really showed me the ropes,” says McCullough. “How to book gigs, how to talk onstage, how to run sound and lights.”

By the time McCullough reached her twenties, though, she felt drawn to Nashville, away from her Ontario roots. On the heels of a tour with her family, she decided to pack up her station wagon and make the permanent move, as many other Canadian country up-and-comers have.

In early 2020, McCullough will release her solo debut six-song EP, After Midnight, which, coincidentally, involves co-writing and production by some fellow Canadian ex-pats in Nashville: Scotty Kipfer, Ryan Sorestad, and Dustin Olyan. Its first single, “Five Dollar Pearls,” is a honeyed ballad that takes its time to languish in its banjo flourishes, but most importantly shine a spotlight on McCullough’s endearing voice.

McCullough admits that she’s still going through “industry ups and downs” as she settles into the fast-paced world down South, but After Midnight was a passion project that kept her motivated. “I’ll do it forever, even if nobody cares,” she says, of making music, especially on her own terms – which may not always veer towards what’s trendy in country music right now. “I made this album to be exactly who I am,” she says. “We’ve unapologetically crossed genres and expectations in pursuit of making good music.

“No one knows what to call it,” she concludes, “and that’s fine with me.”

Tally’s and Mandee’s lives have changed radically in recent months. Signed by U.S. publisher Sony/ATV Music, these two Montréal songwriters, also known as Heartbeat, now have their eyes firmly set on worldwide pop success.

It all started in 2010 when the two women – who’d been invited to attend a writing session by Montréal producer The OC, now known under the banner of Retro Future – quickly discovered that they had uncanny chemistry. “We hit it off so suddenl,y that I invited her to my place immediately after to try and create something together. We did three songs the first night,” says Tally. “But we were really just looking at this as a hobby.”

Their first meetings provided the two artists with opportunities to get to know one another’s strong suits, and it turned out Tally was mostly interested in working on lyrics, while Mandee worked primarily on music. Mandee also acts as a singer on the demos that the duo sends to new artists, or to A&R reps hoping to discover new talents. “Our game is placing songs, not releasing projects. We’re what you might call ‘artists in hiding,’” Mandee explains.

“What we’re interested in is the root of things, the raw material of songwrting.” – Mandee, of Heartbeat

Over the next 10 years, the two experimented with a variety of styles, ranging from hip-hop to dance, through R&B, and more recently, reggaeton. They wrote songs for budding Canadian artists such as Benita, Keshia Chanté, Adam D, and Divine Lightbody, and joined forces with such renowned Montreal rappers as Rymz, Zach Zoya, and Nate Husser. The extent of their contributions varied from one artist to the next, ranging from a full song to a chorus or verse.

“Sometimes we were only there to stimulate an artist’s inspiration,” says Tally. “My good friend Nate, for instance, came to see me because he needed a new perspective on his creative process. He told me he wasn’t at all happy with the way his brain was working. So we sat down to talk, and we ended up writing ‘Tunnel Vision.’ That allowed me to talk about rougher stuff than I normally do. It was a fascinating exercise.”

This sort of behind-the-scenes exercise isn’t necessarily a cover for any shyness, or fear of the limelight. It’s simply a matter of taste and personal interest, as the musicians themselves insist. “Being an artist means that you have to do shows, look after promotion,” says Mandee. “All this cuts into your studio time. As for us, what we’re interested in is the root of things, the raw material of songwriting. We want people in the industry to recognize our strengths and call on us for that.”

That’s what happened in August of 2019 when Heartbeat was signed by Sony/ATV and Stellar Songs, a publishing company co-founded by Tor-Erik Hermansen (half of the Norwegian pop producer duo Stargate), and managed by British producer Tim Blacksmith and businessman Danny D.

It’s actually through the Danny D’s wife, originally from Québec, that their partnership took shape in the spring of 2018. At the time, Mandee was working in a tanning salon. “One day, an older gentleman came in with his wife, and sat down with me to talk as his wife was tanning,” she says. “He asked me what I was doing for a living, and I told him I made music. He said, ‘This is quite something, because my daughter is married to a big shot guy, someone really important in the music industry.’ He ended up giving me his e-mail address. I was a bit skeptical, but I shared this with Tally anyway, and we ended up sending him songs. Two days later, she answered us asking for more material. Then, after exchanging a few e-mails back and forth, we ended up meeting her, and her husband Danny D invited us to come down and see him in Los Angeles.”

So, in May of 2018, Tally and Mandee went down to L.A. at their own expense, and wrote 19 songs over two weeks. While they were there, they activated their contacts and met with Keshia Chanté, and ex-N’SYNC member JC Chasez. More than pleased with their work, Danny D promised them a contract… which failed to materialize. “That’s when we understood how the industry works,” says Mandee. “You can’t believe anything they say to you until something’s been signed.”

In October of 2018, their friend Barnev (a Céline Dion backup singer) invited them to return to L.A. to meet other important people. While they were there, their lawyer, Bob Celestin, one of the world’s top music lawyers, met with Danny D, and the subject of the promised contract came up again. “But we waited and waited, and got nothing. We felt pretty depressed up until the last day,” says Tally.

On that day, Rodney Jerkins, a.k.a. Darkchild (known for his work with Destiny’s Child, Lady Gaga, and many other pop heavyweights), invited them to his “huge mansion” and made a counter-offer to them right away. In the following months, two publishing companies, APG and Kobalt, followed suit, which put pressure on Stellar Songs and Sony/ATV officially to go ahead with an offer. Negotiations started in November of 2018 and finally succeeded in August of that year.

The name Heartbeat has resonated in the American music industry ever since. This summer, the two songwriters took part in a song camp in Miami for the Mexican singer Thalia, the wife of former Sony president Tommy Mottola. This was when they first flirted with reggaeton. “We were completely outside our comfort zone,” says Mandee, “but it was a fabulous, very enriching experience.”

“We’re keener than ever to touch on everything, and to experiment. We absolutely want to avoid finding ourselves in a box,” says Tally. “The minute one of our songs starts sounding too much like something else, we know we’re lagging behind. You always have to chase the next vibe.”