Talented and down-to-earth, Louis-Jean Cormier, the singer and guitarist for Karkwa, now has an audience all his own. Following a stellar performance at the most recent ADISQ Awards (when he received prizes for Best Songwriter, with lyricist Daniel Beaumont, Best Rock Album for Le treizième étage (The Thirteenth Floor), Show of the Year – Singer-Songwriter, and Critics’ Choice of the Year), the prolific artist takes a short break to reflect on the solo career he embarked on just over a year ago.

Booked into June 2014 according to his official website, Louis-Jean Cormier is a busy artist who, when we called him, sounded much more like a zen dad than a rock star, saying: “I’ve just made the kids’ beds and put the macaroni in the oven. I have the whole house to myself at the moment, which doesn’t happen very often.”

A little over a year ago, Cormier released Le Treizième étage, a début solo album that brought him more good luck than the proverbial thirteenth floor might be expected to have. Now that the dust has settled a bit, how does he feel today about his transition from group member to solo artist? “It’s like nothing really happened,” he answers, “because the actual transition period lasted from long before the release of my solo album until shortly thereafter. I’m well on my way.”

With his first entirely solo project, Cormier claims to have re-connected with himself as an artist. “I realized I’m a guy with ideas. In Karkwa, there were five of us making decisions… So I needed to prove to myself that I was able to make things happen by myself and not only by relying on my longstanding musical partners,” a test he passed with flying colours.

By getting more deeply in touch with his inner self, Cormier was able to re-connect with the anger caused and the consequences left by the recent “Maple Spring” of Quebec student protests. “I have a feeling that every artist who has created works in the wake of those events feels the exact same way. Thousands of people took to the streets – this was a true popular upheaval! My generation had not seen the likes of this very often compared to the previous one, who experienced the great protests of the 1960s and 1970s. I was impressed to see the likes of Michel Rivard, Richard Séguin and Yves Lambert joining us, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed… Plus, I was still under the spell of Gaston Miron’s poetry in the wake of the Douze hommes rapaillés recording saga.”

Cormier’s legitimate indignation finds its expression in some angry guitar riffs as well as in statements like Daniel Beaumont’s striking line for the second Treizième étage single, which reads, “We’re playing solitaire all at the same time.” Such anger, Cormier contends, is timeless. “It reminds me of Gaston Miron’s response when someone accused him of not writing with a modern pen, and the poet shot back that ‘modernist’ was just another word for ‘bygone.’”

Miron’s influence on Cormier’s writing is palpable. Although the songwriter’s imagery is more direct while the meaning remains somewhat encrypted, his aim was to come into his own as a songwriter. “For me, it’s important that listeners be left free to come to their own interpretation of my lyrics. I was looking for clearer imagery. That’s why I turned to [Tricot Machine songwriter] Daniel Beaumont. To me, he is a great Quebec poet of everyday life.”

One of the new things Cormier had to get used to in his new role as a solo artist was the placement of his own voice at the front of the mix instead of having it tucked away as part of a collective rock sound. And, in the voice department, this very winter of 2014, Cormier will serve as a voice coach for the extremely popular Quebec reality show La Voix, hosted by Charles Lafortune. Is he looking forward to this new role?

“Well, they approached me twice before and I brushed it off. They tried again this time by telling me exactly what I needed to hear – that they expected me to stick to my guns and be the contrarian element of the program! They gave me free rein for my team’s repertoire, which means I can choose songs that are less popular while remaining great classics in my mind. It’s a platform that has nothing to do with my role as a music creator and appeals more to my producer side (Lisa LeBlanc, Douze hommes rapaillés, David Marin). The prospect of having contestants sing lyrics by Miron and Martin Léon totally pleases me. Using this type of TV show to paint a more accurate and realistic portrait of what’s going on in Quebec music is the role I cut for myself in this new venture.”

As a fifth and sixth grade music teacher and a composer of works in a number of genres including stage music (he’s the brother of theatre director Martine Beaulne), Vincent Beaulne dreamed of forming a blues band for quite some time. “The problem was that bluesmen of my age were in too bad a shape and few and far between, so I decided simply to start a band with friends. I wanted to create original blues songs, and these men were willing to back me up in my project. They were all professional musicians – not blues artists as such, but buddies. That’s probably why we’ve been able to stick together for the past ten years,” the fiftysomething musician recalls enthusiastically.

Led by Beaulne on voice and guitars, Blues Delight now includes Laurent Trudel (voice, guitars, harmonica and violin), Dave Turner (alto and baritone saxophone), Gilles Schetagne (drums) and Marco Desgagné (bass). The quintet’s first foray into recording, the cheerful Rock Island Line album (2007), was followed in 2009 with Open All Night and, earlier this year, Working On It, another quality blues collection produced by band member Laurent Trudel and serving an amazingly vital fare including the blazing “Bad Girl” (a song about a Fender Stratocaster guitar), slower paced selections (“Let’s Go Downtown”), country music sounding pieces (“Outlaw”), slide guitar songs (“Bad Wind”) and demonic instrumental pieces (“Dirty Riff”).

“We’re not reinventing the wheel, obviously. All we can do is improve ourselves musically. On this new album, I believe our sound is much neater. We’re more confident and play better together. One song, “Ride the Sky,” is more representative of what I had in mind. I wanted to create a controlled jam effect with an intense one-chord song with everyone playing without stepping on anybody’s feet. Our previous mileage together as musicians makes it possible for us to do this kind of thing today,” claims Beaulne, who also serves as artistic director for the Montreal International Jazz Festival’s Blues Camp.

While Robert Langlois has remained the ensemble’s main lyricist from the early days, Beaulne eventually got over his fear of writing, contributing a number of lyrics to the band’s repertoire over the last few years. For the band’s leader, working with Langlois has turned into a very pleasant experience. “We’re old friends, brothers in arms,” he explains. “Writing with him has become easy and fun. We found techniques that are working for us. My favourite one is to write music on fully written lyrics. But this can also work the other way around. Sometimes I’ll come up with a musical verse or chorus before the music has been written – I’ll send this to Robert, and he’ll get started on the lyrics. He’ll show me a few words and I’ll be able to complete the song. Of course, the other musicians in the band all add their grain of salt too.”

“Because I have a job, I can afford to make blues music on my own terms.” – Vincent Beaulne

Turning to the comparatively weak state of the music industry in general and of the blues scene in particular, Beaulne remains realistic. “To survive, we have to keep moving and be on the road, but as we all have regular jobs, touring is out of the question. Besides, we’re past that age, and not interested. Because I have a job, I can afford to make blues music on my own terms. As producer of our recordings, I look after all financial matters. Blues music has a long history of being creatively rich, but financially poor. Right now, the scene is not doing well and can only improve. I am in awe of guys like Bob Walsh and Guy Bélanger who are making music on a full-time basis. They are the true bluesmen, the outlaws, the rebels. They command respect.”

As old troupers (Beaulne and Trudel have been playing together for the past 42 years), the five musicians have developed symbiotic relationships that produce exceptional results whenever Blues Delight takes to the stage. As Beaulne explains, “a show is a playground, a meeting place, a medium of exchange, and above all a great deal of fun. In my mind, I see music like life itself, like a great big circle. When all goes well, we all get an opportunity to meet in the centre. That’s how it goes when we give a show. I love to improvise, to get people to sing along, to talk to the audience as equals. The blues experience is something like what you feel among your own family. There is no gulf between the audience and the musicians. The personality of each individual takes over.”

Projects are piling up as the band prepares to celebrate its 10th anniversary in 2014 with a series of shows scheduled from February, a compilation album release in May and participations in blues festivals through the summer. Following the less active winter period, Blues Delight is hoping to visit Edmunston and to conquer new territories (such as Ottawa) in the early spring. Although the Quebec market remains paramount in his sights, Beaulne is still planning to take his blues music to Chicago and Europe once he reaches retirement age. “Nothing’s impossible,” he insists. “When you’ve been playing with the same musicians for a long time, you’re playing for the right reasons. We’re old sailors. When the waves misbehave, we know what to do. Getting old playing music is a cool thing that becomes even more fun and more intense as time goes by. Gone are the egos and anxieties. We are a happy bunch of fools. And, in case you were wondering – no, you don’t necessarily get wiser with time!

On an unseasonably warm Thanksgiving, Gordon Lightfoot is in an uncharacteristically reflective mood, sipping coffee and looking back on a career that has produced every kind of song imaginable: historical epics, romantic ballads, sea shanties, country ditties, folk-style protests and bluesy “toe-tappers,” to use Lightfoot’s quaint term for his uptempo numbers. Many became hits; many more are considered iconic, as quintessentially Canadian as a Group of Seven painting or Alice Munro short story. To say that he’s been prolific is like saying the CN Tower looms over Toronto.

Sitting in the kitchen of his sprawling home in North York’s exclusive Bridle Path neighborhood, the 75-year-old legend admits that these days his focus is strictly on touring and spending time with his family (a life-threatening abdominal aneurysm in 2002 kept him out of action for two years). The songwriting well hasn’t run entirely dry – his girlfriend, Kim Hasse, recently encouraged him to complete one unfinished song, “It Doesn’t Really Matter.” There are three or four others “on the back burner,” he admits, but to pull them together at this late stage, well, he feels there just isn’t time.

“It was a great run while I was doing it,” Lightfoot says about his compositional output, which resulted in an astonishing 294 published songs. “I was under contract for 33 years to record companies,” he says by way of explanation, adding “33 years” again for emphasis. “I had a band and a family, so I had a responsibility. When it was time to make the songs, I had to do that. Sometimes the pressure causes the job to get done, to keep things moving and make the next record.”

Uncommonly humble for a star of his magnitude, Lightfoot would  rather talk about his live show and rehearsing his band for the 65 to 80 North American dates he still proudly performs each year than his songwriting gifts. He’s more at ease discussing that, and his work ethic, good timing and good luck.

“Sometimes you just have to let the imagination do the work. You draw from an old scene, or something you experienced.”

He never fails to credit Ian and Sylvia – who recorded two of his earliest songs, “Early Morning Rain” and “For Lovin’ Me,” and introduced him to their manager, Albert Grossman – with his good fortune as a composer. And he often admits that he had absolutely no idea that his masterpieces “If You Could Read My Mind” and “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald” would become hits.

But Lightfoot is undeniably gifted. The craft and beauty of his work, dating back to 1967’s “Canadian Railroad Trilogy” all the way up to 1998’s autobiographical classic “A Painter Passing Through,” has inspired artists from Elvis Presley and Barbara Streisand to Bob Dylan and Judy Collins. Canadian songwriters have often covered his work, most notably on the 2003 compilation Beautiful: A Tribute to Gordon Lightfoot, which included Bruce Cockburn, Murray McLauchlan, Ron Sexsmith, Blue Rodeo, Cowboy Junkies and the Tragically Hip.

The roots of his craft can be traced to the Westlake School of Modern Music in Los Angeles, where, at 18, the Orillia, Ont. native studied orchestration and music theory. Returning to Canada with composition and sight-reading skills, Lightfoot launched his music career in Toronto – but took day jobs as a bank teller and a backup singer, dancer and drummer (under the pseudonym Charles Sullivan) to make ends meet.

Lightfoot’s first commercially recorded and released composition, “This is My Song,” appeared on 1962’s Two Tones at the Village Corner, a live duo recording made with his then singing partner Terry Whelan, a high school friend. But within months he’d released a single of another original song, “(Remember Me) I’m the One,” credited to simply Gord Lightfoot. A pre-folk, middle-of-the-road pop recording, it reached No. 3 on Toronto’s CHUM radio station chart. “We were aiming in a different direction at the time,” he recalls.