Nashville is known as “Music City” for a reason. You can’t walk 10 steps there without bumping into an aspiring artist or songwriter. Over the past decade, the town’s population has swelled even more, with a human influx inspired by the six-season run of the Nashville TV series. A whole host of Canadians are making their own Nashville noise, which is reason to celebrate. Among them are newly emerging SOCAN members Kathleen “Kat” Higgins, Jesse Labelle, and Sarah Troy Clark. These are their stories.

KAT HIGGINS

Kat HigginsCurrently signed to BMG Nashville through Patrick Joseph Music, Kat Higgins’ biggest songwriting credit to date is as a collaborator on the Carrie Underwood track “Mexico,” with Derrick Adam Southerland and Jamie Moore, released on Underwood’s 2015 album Storyteller.

But that isn’t Higgins’ first taste of success. For the majority of her life so far, she was part of Canadian country family trio The Higgins, who released two albums on Open Road Records. But her destiny was permanently altered when she first stepped on Nashville soil.

“The Higgins came to Nashville to visit, and as soon as I walked off the plane and out of the airport, I was heartbroken – because I knew I wasn’t going to want to be at home anymore in Canada,”  says Higgins, who began writing  songs when she was 13 years old. “My heart hasn’t left Nashville since.”

After The Higgins went on hiatus due to sister Eileen’s pregnancy, fellow Canuck and professional songwriter Deric Ruttan and his wife Margaret took Kat under their wing, offering sanctuary while she sorted herself out.

The Delta, BC, native says her tenure with The Higgins “got me in [writing] rooms that I would have never gotten in, because we had a record deal in Canada, and writers wanted to contribute to [our] singles.” Having written the bhangra-inspired “Mexico,” Higgins says at press time that she’s awaiting news on a track she hopes to have landed with an American male country artist. She’s placed her songs “Old Soul” on The Voice, and “Johnny Cash Heart” on American Idol.

Higgins hasn’t abandoned her performing career; she’s setting up a Canadian tour for 2019 and will release a few new songs on Spotify.

 

JESSE LABELLE

Jesse LabelleAfter a detour into pop music from 2009 to 2012, yielding hits that included “Easier,” Toronto’s Jesse Labelle has settled back into his comfort zone: country. “I was discovering myself as an artist,” says Labelle, who recorded at the time for Wax Records. “But even if you’ve listened to my earlier songs, they’re all stories, and the lyrics are rooted in country.” Even in those pop years, Labelle made most of his music in Nashville, which he’s called home since 2013.

The effort has borne fruit, with Labelle pushing himself both as a performer and songwriter – he’s opened for Keith Urban, Brad Paisley, Eric Church , Florida Georgia Line, and Thomas Rhett. He’s also made impressive inroads as a songwriter, penning songs with David Huff, Richard Marx,  Jeffrey Steele, Victoria Shaw, Hunter Hayes, Desmond Child,  Chris Wallin, and Deric Ruttan, to name a few.

Labelle’s latest claim to fame is as a co-writer on the new single from Austin Burke, “Slower,” which has already garnered 1.5 million Spotify plays, and at press time was tentatively scheduled to roll out to U.S. radio in early 2019.

Labelle plans to release an EP in February, and will be touring the U.S. substantially.

SARAH TROY CLARK

Sarah Troy ClarkA graduate of Boston’s Berklee Music, Sarah Troy Clark calls herself an “amoeba” who’s still finding herself as she toils away at her craft. The native of Bragg Creek, AB, has recently placed three co-writes on Obeds’ ambient pop album Projections – and sang on two of them: “The Valley” and “Arms’ Length.”

“That’s the highest-profile project I’ve been involved with,” says Clark, who adds that the pop scene in Nashville is currently experiencing some growth. Noting that her move to Nashville was precipitated more by economics than desire (“moving to any other city would have required crazy rent”), Clark is nonetheless enjoying her time working with her creatives, and has a number of songs on hold.

“I’m having a hard time holding back on my hope,” she admits, knowing that having a hold in Nashville offers no guarantees. While she’s released six albums independently on her own – some financed by Indiegogo – Clark is trying to focus on writing songs for other people.

“I just want to show up and be happy to do this, because it’s crazy I get to do this,” she says. “It’s even crazier that I might pull it off.”


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Formed in 2008 in Toronto, The Strumbellas are Simon Ward on vocals and guitar, David Ritter on vocals and keyboards, Jon Hembrey on lead guitar, Isabel Ritchie on violin, Darryl James on bass guitar, and Jeremy Drury on drums. Hembrey, James, Drury and Ward are all originally from Lindsay, ON.

The band’s self-titled EP was released in 2009, garnering critical acclaim and widespread coverage as a band to watch. An ongoing Monday night residency at Toronto’s Cameron House cemented their reputation, and in 2010 the band was invited to play landmark venues, including Yonge-Dundas Square, The Horseshoe Tavern and The Peterborough Folk Festival. Their full-length debut album, My Father and the Hunter, was released independently in 2012. The Strumbellas signed with Six Shooter Records, releasing their second album, We Still Move on Dance Floors, in 2013; it won a 2014 JUNO Award in the Roots & Traditional Album of the Year – Group category.

The band’s third studio album, Hope, was released in 2016. The first single from that album, “Spirits,” topped the Billboard Alternative Songs chart, and enjoyed mainstream radio airplay in Canada and a number of European countries. The band were featured performers on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert, among other national, late-night, American TV network programs. They toured globally in 2016 and 2017, visiting Australia, Europe, and North America, including high-profile festivals such as Bonnaroo and The Governor’s Ball. “Spirits” won a 2017 JUNO Award as Single of the Year, and earned them a SOCAN No. 1 Song Award as well.

The band has just released “Salvation,” the first single and video from their fourth studio album, on which they’re currently working. In the Fall of 2018, Strumbellas’ chief songwriter Simon Ward gave a SOCAN Songwriting Master Class at the Folk Music Ontario (FMO) Conference in Toronto, where he was very voluble and forthcoming about his songwriting process. In addition to breaking down the bit-and-pieces assembly of The Strumbellas’ world-conquering hit song “Spirits,” here are some the highlights of what he had to say…

  • “The first song I ever wrote was around age 12, for my dad’s birthday.”
  • “I obsess about music. I love it.”
  • “I have thousands of voice memos on my cellphone. I sing into my phone on the subway. I run out of the shower to sing a melody into my phone… I’ll put days of work into a song demo… My favourite thing is to make demos.”
  • “My overall message as a songwriter is, melody, melody, melody… If you don’t have a good melody, just throw it in the garbage… Once you get 10 seconds of amazing melody, you can start to talk about lyrics, arrangement, and production… Lyrics can be a tool to get to the melody, and you can use other tools to get to the melody, but you need to get to it… I love when people pour out their souls in lyrics, but the melody has to be there… Still, once I have a great melody, I’m not very good about building around it.”
  • “I have a short attention span, which usually means a short song, three minutes or so. I pour my heart and soul into it, even if I’m trying to make a big pop song.”
  • “It’s crazy how much ‘Spirits’ changed my life, and the lives of all The Strumbellas band members. I always wanted to have a song that went around the world.”
  • “For our current single ‘Salvation,’ it’s a 12-year-old melody, written before The Strumbellas.”
  • “I have a hard time avoiding depression, but I challenged myself to be positive on our next album… But I haven’t laughed in years… I love slow, sad folk music. I might be making some in the future as Simon the Island.”

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Although Jennifer Wilson has long had an appreciation of film music, when she first re-located from Toronto to Los Angeles in 1990 to study Scoring for Motion Pictures at the University of Southern California, she was simply looking for a new direction to take. After completing a Bachelor’s degree in Theory and Composition at the University of Western Ontario, and a Royal Conservatory of Music certificate in Piano Performance and Pedagogy, Wilson says, “I was toying with getting my Masters, but just felt I wanted to try something else.”

She’s since, scored film and TV projects including Rebellious (1995), Marry Me or Die (1998), and Del’s Crazy Musical (2010), and composed music for Princess Cruises, Ringling Bros., and Disney on Ice, among others. More recently, however, Wilson has been focusing on her online publishing platform, sheetmusicdeluxe.com, and developing new techniques and methodologies for music education.

Over time, her work in film composition, and a “visual sense” she says has always been part of her musical approach, have substantially influenced both her efforts as an educator, and her advocacy for composition as an integral part of the learning process for young music students.

“There’s something about movement – biking, walking, anything – that activates the creative process for me.”

Wilson was an early adopter of digital technology, but generally focuses on the act of composition over the technology with which it’s associated. “I made the decision a long time ago that I didn’t want to get caught up in the technical arms race of the business,” she says, adding that her preference is for a decidedly analog, “pencil and paper” approach to composition.

“I like laying everything out – over whatever surface area I need – because I like having everything visually in front of me,” says Wilson. “Left to my own devices I’ll mull over a harmonic palette and get comfortable with the musical DNA of the story, but I also like to move [while composing]. In Toronto I’d write on the subway. There’s something about movement – biking, walking, anything – that activates the creative process for me, and helps me get a sense of tempo, and a feeling for the characters.”

Working from the notes she makes in a variety of sketchbooks she carries with her, Wilson begins to visualize the overall structure of a work. “I basically lay things out like an architect would,” she says. “Then there’s a watershed moment where all of a sudden the notes start to fill themselves in.”

Wilson’s Tips for Young (and Not-So-Young) Composers

  • “Get comfortable composing without an instrument – letting things drop in, rather than making your fingers find everything.”
  • “Knowing is revealed by doing; so if you want to learn to write in the style of a Beethoven sonata, compose a sonata in that style.”
  • “It’s imperative to compose – commit to more composition, and don’t be afraid to fail.”

Having faith that that will be the case, even on challenging projects, is in part, a product of studying with legendary composers like Henry Mancini and Jerry Goldsmith, among others, from whom she took a valuable lesson: “It doesn’t matter how high up you get, you’re always going to have insecurities when you start a project,” she says. As an example, she references a story Goldsmith told about being in a spotting session, and being asked what he thought the music should be like. “He said he was thinking, ‘I don’t know. Why are you asking me? What am I doing here?’ So, even after scoring so many movies, you can still have a level of insecurity going into it, which in a way is reassuring.”

Assuaging that type of insecurity in students, particularly children, remains integral to Wilson’s work as an educator, and was a primary driver of her 2005 book, Composition for Young Musicians: A Fun Way for Kids to Begin Creating Music. “Children are really good at the creative process,” she says. “My personal belief is that composition should be a core part of music education. And at that time, it wasn’t emphasized in the private piano lesson environment. That’s what the book was about.”

In essence, it’s an effort to foster a love of composition in children, without limiting their innate creative instincts. “If a kindergarten teacher hands out a bucket of paint and a brush,” says Wilson, “children know what to do. The book was about getting to compositional tools and devices without going through the theory door.” And without a teacher showing the student 75 percent of the ‘how,’ and having them fill in the rest.

“It’s about learning by doing,” Wilson says. “I came at it very much as a film composer, saying, for example, ‘Let’s make music that sounds like snow falling. How can we do that on a piano? Well, the white keys look like snow.’ Later you can say, Okay, that’s called a pentatonic scale, and tell them why it can sound like snow falling, but you don’t say that going in.”


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