Maky Lavender “There’ll be lively songs that could be used to introduce events during the Olympic games, as well as dirtier stuff à la DMX,” Maky Lavender told us in January 2019 about his upcoming project. Nearly 18 months later, the rapper from the Pierrefonds borough of Montréal is glad he found the right words to describe his new album – which, back then, was merely an embryonic EP. “Wow! I don’t remember saying that, but it’s crazy on-point!”

Slated to be released last fall, …At Least My Mom Loves Me was released on Feb. 29, 2020, on the Montréal-based imprint Ghost Club Records. “Rappers often release all they have as soon as it’s recorded, but we preferred taking our time to polish the project,” says Lavender. “If a track wasn’t good enough, we tapped someone else to make it better,” he adds, mentioning singers such as Sophia Bel and Brighid Rose, rappers Speng Squire and Zach Zoya, and producers like Lust, Yuki Dreams Again, Dr. MaD, JMF, Max Antoine Gendron, and Rami B.

And although the public health crisis cost him his record release concert, the 24-year-old rapper couldn’t be happier about the reactions to his album so far. “I should have been sad [that the buzz was so short-lived], but I feel the current re-set that society is undergoing will benefit everyone,” he says about the cope of his album, which he dedicated to his mother, and which he believes is in synch with the current social climate. “Of course, I’ll do tons of shows and festivals, but right now, I have no choice but to relax, finally! I have time to do the stuff I should have done when I was younger – like going for a walk, playing my Nintendo Switch, taking time to talk with my parents…”

As a matter of fact, time is the central theme of …At Least My Mom Loves Me. Time that flies by and, consequently, pushes us to accomplish great things, or freezes us completely. And for a long time, it was the latter that had the best of Lavender. “I had a tendency to see myself as a loser when I was 16 or 17, mostly because I still hadn’t accomplished anything in life,” he admits. “My friends were graduating from Cegep and I was, like, ‘What am I going to do?’ I was the biggest hip-hop fan, I would go see all these shows, and I was both mesmerized and paralyzed by everything that was going on. In my mind, the people on stage were robots. It was impossible for me to ever get there.”

But instead of cultivating his anxiety, Lavender channelled his stress to guide his ambition. In 2017, he started from the beginning, which is to say he self-produced his first show – the West Island Nite Show at Pauline-Julien Hall. “Everyone was telling me not to do it because nothing ever happens on the West Island,” he says, “but it was important for me to conquer my borough before I could conquer the city. Shortly after, I released Blowfoam 2 [the mixtape that launched him on the local scene] and then I went downtown to do music. There was no way I could learn the business if I stayed in Pierrefonds!”

…At Least My Mom Loves Me is the story of this period of urban discovery and personal revelation, a sinuous coming-of-age story. The transition is presented with sincerity, self-deprecation, and humour, but also with a healthy dose of the braggadocio he inherited from American rap tradition. “Attitude is often a big part of this music and it has helped me,” he says. “When I was a kid, we were all wondering who was going to be the ‘Montréal guy,’ the one who would represent our city on the international scene. We had Céline Dion and Saku Koivu that kinda played that role, but nothing super-obvious. At some point, I decided that I might be that guy.”

“It’s often been the case in my life that people believed in my talent way before I did.”

But as with some of his favourite artists – like Jay-Z, Vince Staples, or Tupac – such exaggerated confidence comes with a downside. The album’s first single Bloom – Accompanied by a hard-hitting video directed by Alexandre Pelletier – is an eloquent illustration of Lavender’s vulnerable side. “I wanted to be honest about myself, my jealousy, my envy,” he says. “There were a lot of things that were going wrong in my life, but I knew that, hopefully, things were going in the right direction.”

And indeed, the song helped Lavender believe in himself: “To me, it was a song like any other, but the more people heard it, the more I understood that to them it was the best song I’d ever done so far. It’s often been the case in my life that people believed in my talent way before I did.”

…At Least My Mom Loves Me, which was created over a period of two years, almost never came to be. “I got disheartened after a few months,” says Lavender. “I sat down with big labels to try and create a partnership with Ghost Club, but nothing panned out… Doing Anglophone hip-hop in Québec is hard!” he says. “But I thought it would be stupid to not release this project for reasons I have no control over. So I decided to fight for this album.”

And it’s certainly not going to be another two years before he releases new material. When he’s not going for a walk, playing with his Nintendo Switch, or chatting with his mom, Lavender is currently finalizing a new mixtape. “It might be something like a Blowfoam 3,” he says. “Putting the album together was cool, but now I want to do something grittier and more energetic, à la DMX!”

As the COVID-19 pandemic upends the economy – mass layoffs, non-essential business closures, and schools shuttered indefinitely – the world has turned expectedly to artists for solace and hope. This, many artists are told, is the perfect time to write that massive hit, or unifying “We Are the World” song. But for many musicians, COVID-19 offers little inspiration; instead, it’s revealed how vulnerable their lives and livelihoods are.

Mark Marczyk,

Mark Marczyk

Balaklava Blues and Lemon Bucket Orkestra member Mark Marczyk, was watching Toronto gigs, European shows, conferences, and an extensive U.S. tour abruptly cancelled when he took action, quickly gathering artists and sponsors to create the ad hoc series URGNT in late March.

“A lot of times its been our [artists’] responsibility to respond creatively and emotionally in a way that expresses our humanity,” says Marczyk. “Not that everybody should be doing it, but our politicians, economists, and journalists have a specific role to fulfil, and I think our artists also have a role to fulfil. Let’s document this moment in history from our perspective. What is the beauty and tragedy of the crisis? And at the same time, have a practical response. Employment Insurance, and other, bigger support [plans] take months and applications, whereas we can get somebody to upload a video and put a hundred bucks into their bank account immediately.”

Since its first virtual show, URGNT has morphed, scaling back from Measha Brueggergosman’s Great Hall show to intimate home performances in order to adhere to the social distancing and gatherings rules. Marczyk says adapting, not giving up, is one of the greatest lessons they’re learning. But whether the series will grow beyond a crisis response depends on audiences.

“People donated online to the idea of doing shows in empty venues, that was compelling to people,” he says. “Now we’ve adapted our model. We might find that people are still really motivated by that, and want that experience. And if they don’t, then the reality is that we’re going to run out of money and not be able to do it anymore.”

Tamara Kater

Tamara Kater

For music manager Tamara Kater, watching how the fallout has affected her clients is disheartening. “The losses so far total more than $75,000 for the three months, and will be well over $100,000 if the summer festival season is also cancelled,” she says. “In comparison, my artists have recouped $2,400 in donations and online concert payments [as of late March].”

As she and her clients re-evaluate what comes next, she’s pondering if series like URGNT are a healthier alternative that will make touring less integral after the crisis passes.

“[Touring] is arguably the most demanding and caustic part of being a musician, not to mention how terrible it is for our environment,” she says, citing its gruelling emotional and physical effects. “The only silver lining of this terrible situation is if it provokes some honest dialogue about how unsustainable touring is, and what the industry can do to shift the balance to a more diverse revenue base for artists.”

Heather Bambrick

Heather Bambrick

Singer and JAZZ.FM91 radio host Heather Bambrick says her losses include a Newfoundland and Labrador tour postponed, the East Coast Music Awards cancellation [she was nominated for 2019’s Fine State, and set to perform], as well as lucrative corporate gigs shut down. She’s invested in adjusting her home studio to potentially allow her to still do voice-over work and other gigs, but her worries go beyond the financial. “We’re concerned about missed opportunities, losing momentum on certain projects, and whether or not an already struggling industry is going to be able to recover from this,” she says.

For now, she’s taking comfort that her return to radio is bringing audiences all over the world together. “Financially, it doesn’t add up to much, but it’s something, and I feel very blessed to be able to bring music, and hopefully some sense of normalcy, to listeners’ lives right now,” says Bambrick.

But while she embraces new means to reach audiences, the road still calls. “The new virtual performances are great ways for artists to give audiences ‘tastes’ of their performances prior to shows,” she says. “From a marketing or promotional perspective, I think this is definitely a thing we can use to our advantage. I also hope that audiences will miss seeing live music. For me, there really is nothing like being in the same room and experiencing the ‘vibe’ of a performance in person.”

Allison Russell, Birds of Chicago

Allison Russell, of Birds of Chicago

Allison Russell of the duo Birds of Chicago is also missing the road. “Trust me, when this is all over, I’ll be savouring every highway mile and red-eye flight,” she says wistfully.  “We’ve lost all of our shows into June; and we’re bracing to lose the entire summer – over half our yearly income.” Because of this, Russell views technology as a saving grace.  “We’re going to do our best to make our content more readily available for our community, via all the 21st Century modes we’re blessed with: Patreon, live-streaming concerts. As bad as this feels, when I think about how this would impact artists even 15 years ago, we’re in a better position to deal with this now.”

JUNO nominee Corin Raymond (managed by Kater) is drawing on the lessons of the road to bolster him. “Musicians live like actors: there’s always troughs and valleys between tours, between paydays,” he says. “So, having the point of view of a travelling musician might even be an advantage at a time like this.”

Corin Raymond

Corin Raymond

After Raymond returned to Toronto, following the JUNO Awards’ abrupt cancellation, and 40 shows halted, he noticed that even though gigs were cancelled, his fans were reaching out.

“I feel woefully inadequate when attempting to describe the support and love of my fans and what it means to me,” says Raymond. “I’m being crowd-surfed on their hands. Friends and fans have been sending me donations and beautiful messages – and real mail! – this past week, letting me know that my work is not forgotten. My life and livelihood are based on an economy of generosity, which inspires itself; love is like that. My job is to give people everything I have to give, sometimes a little more than that – and in return, my fans and friends pay me with money that feels like it’s been kept in their hearts to be spent only on something special. It’s a deeply rewarding way to get paid, because the money I make is an actual manifestation of real love, which doesn’t stop just because I’m off the road.”

Silver Linings?

Good can come out of this, and it involves music lovers, fans, and corporations.

“Encourage people to purchase CDs directly from artists so that the money they’re paying goes straight back to the artists, rather than to a third-party provider who’ll take a cut of the sale.  On Friday, March 27, BandCamp announced they would not take a commission that day, allowing artists to retain all sales income. There were some 800,000 items sold, resulting in artists being paid $4.3 million. We need more of that, right now!” – Heather Bambrick

“Even a modest uptick in the numbers of people buying merch, and actually purchasing albums [and] singles, in addition to streaming, would make a huge difference in artists’ bottom line.” –  Allison Russell, of Birds of Chicago

“This crisis only shines a stronger light on corporations [YouTube, Spotify, Apple] to be as creative in finding solutions for better compensation to creators as they were in disrupting the music business model in the first place.” – Tamara Kater [who cites the Spotify COVID-19 Music Relief Project as a good first step].

“I was crowdfunding last year to finish my latest album and accompanying book (Dirty Mansions, 2019). It really hit home just how ready my fans are to support me. So, my ‘Plan B’ will definitely involve launching something in the Patreon style, an arrangement to allow my fans and I to connect and inspire each other in an ongoing way.” – Corin Raymond

If the current situation makes everyone wish for simpler times, P’tit Belliveau already had both feet firmly planted in an era of calm, a place where life is simple. His first album, Greatest Hits Vol. 1, talks about rural life and paints vignettes of a worry-free daily existence.

P'tit Belliveau The album was done almost a year ago and I worked in construction when I wrote those songs,” says P’tit Belliveau. “A lot of the album is about my life in La Baie-Sainte-Marie. I talk about nature, living simply and about work.”

Jonah Guimond, as he’s known generally, talks about where he lives like you and I would talk about a friend. La Baie-Sainte-Marie, in Nova Scotia, is renowned for its tight-knit, almost entirely Francophone Acadian community, where musical rituals are central. “The fact that I sing exactly like we talk here is a side effect that I like, but it’s not intentional,” he says. If you ask about his linguistic roots, he’ll tell you he’s “acadjonne.” “I’m proud to expose people to that, and I use subtitles so that people can understand,” Guimond says. “It’s a happy result. Besides, I don’t know how I could speak any other way. I can’t write an album in Québécois, or in so-called international French.”

Music is second nature to him, but it’s a communal nature. “Everyone plays music where I’m from,” he says. ”People always have a guitar or a piano in their closet. My step-dad and his family are really into bluegrass. People are usually turned off by their parents’ music when they’re young. So I turned to electric guitars, producing and beat-making,’ he remembers, adding that it was when his grandfather gave him a banjo that he allowed himself to embrace his familial roots.

P’tit Belliveau wanted to release his album this spring, one year exactly after being a contestant in the Les Francouvertes competition. No matter what the situation is, he doesn’t subscribe to “what ifs.” “I didn’t want to make people wait,” he says. “Anything has the potential to become an opportunity, or a loss. We had a plan, we need to change the plan. We could have considered only the negative aspects, and tell ourselves we wouldn’t have live shows, but people have a lot of time to listen to music right now. I wasn’t going to sit with my head between my hands. I already have ideas for what’s next. It’s my first album, so I don’t have any standards for what’s normal.”

For Guimond, music comes first, in life as in songwriting. “I’ll write the whole instrumental track first and even use an instrument to sub for my voice, and then I’ll work on the lyrics, one line at a time,” he says. “I rarely write lyrics without music. Generally, I’ll listen to the beat over, and over, and over again, and then I write the lyrics.” The only time he wrote outside of his comfort zone, which is to say to a finished instrumental, was during a song camp in Tadoussac, and the results were “L’eau entre mes doigts” and “Moosehorn Lake.”

For Guimond, who now lives in Moncton, New Brunswick, this period of self-isolation isn’t so bad. “When I’m at home, I’m in my studio anyways, working on my stuff at any time,” he says. “My life really isn’t that different from what it was this winter. It’s same-old, same-old for me. Just an extra-long winter.”

And why start one’s career with a Greatest Hits? “I thought it was funny,” he says, while pointing out that the eclectic nature of this collection of songs is akin to a greatest hits album. P’tit Belliveau isn’t afraid of going in different directions with equal energy. “Before this project I was doing electro and hip-hop,” he says. “Right now I only do beats to keep my juices flowing, and I only keep the more refined ones.” What will come next remains nebulous. “Maybe a folkier vibe,” he says. “I have no idea if it’s good or bad, but that’s what sounds good to me right now.”

In the current, quiet chaos of unprecedented days, Jonah hopes his music has soothing powers. “I can’t imagine being stuck in an apartment in Montréal and only longing to be in the forest,” he admits, while specifying that the ultimate goal of his project was to take people out in nature, but musically.

“I hope people will find a bit of comfort and forget about their stress,” he says. “If you’re sad and you’re able to remember that we can go back to simpler things, hopefully we can imagine ourselves in some other place that makes sense.”