“Ta bouche sur la mienne et ton corps au mien” (“Your mouth on mine and your body on mine”) are the first words heard on Cassiopée, Mara Tremblay’s seventh solo album. The opener, “Ton corps au mien” is typical of the singer-songwriter’s favourite themes: love’s ardour and tenderness, friendship and intimacy.

Mara Tremblay

Photo: Isabelle Viviers

On this album, Tremblay returns to the essence of her beginnings, her own kind of rock, her untamed nature and, above all, the people. Some say work and family don’t mix well, but for Mara, the closer one is to their loved ones, the freer one is. And to her, that ideology also applies to work. “My kids are growing up and they play music,” she says, as if it’s self-evident. “It’s a dream come true, because they were too small to be in the band before.”

Cassiopée rapidly evolved into a family affair, where Tremblay bares herself even more than on the cover of 2009’s Tu m’intimides. The result is a warm, inspired cocoon that owes everything to this this kind of proximity. “My son Victor (Tremblay-Desrosiers) was there from the beginning,” she says. “It was obvious I wanted to work with him. No drummer understands me like he does. The first beat he ever heard was my own heart,” she continues, full of emotion. “We get along super-well. He doesn’t live at home anymore, so every time we get together to play, it’s a celebration. He’s incredibly open-minded and talented. He can play anything: jazz, rock, punk, rap.” Her other son, Édouard Tremblay-Grenier, plays guitar, and co-wrote two songs on the album, while her ex, Sunny Duval, is all over the place as a player and lyricist.

“I contemplate nature, the stars, love, and friendship, and that’s all I need to create, now.”

Happiness, whether personal or familial, can be felt throughout the album.  “The basic tracks for all the songs were recorded live,” says Tremblay. “It captures the energy that surrounds us, and in that energy, there’s a lot of love. I wanted this album to be like bathing in intense and positive emotions. I wanted to do something that was healing.”

Tremblay has always co-produced her albums, but on this one, she took a leap of faith and did it all on her own. “I was always involved in the artwork, the videos,” she says. “I always had a lot of freedom. I wouldn’t have been happy otherwise. I always did that, hand in hand with Olivier Langevin. He was just 18 when we recorded Le chihuahua (1999). That’s what I’ve always wanted, because I wanted to be able to say it is my music.” This time around, however, she admits to having somewhat lost touch with Olivier, possibly because on he was super-busy. “I said to myself, look, I’m gonna do it!” she says. “I used the same methods, and we’ve worked together for so long that I could hear him in my mind when I was working.”

Mara Tremblay

Photo: Isabelle Viviers

Having re-acquainted with her rock ‘n’ roll self, Mara even takes us on a little punk rock journey on “Carabine.” And her rich singer-songwriter journey has allowed her to perceive beauty and finesse. “When I listen to Papillons (2001), I realize I’m still the same person, only less tormented. My kids have grown, but I’ve remained the same. In my mind, now, we’re all the same age!”

Even the slimmest idea now allows her to write a lot, since she’s gained access to a new-found serenity. “I threw away what broke me,” she says. “I contemplate nature, the stars, love and friendship, and that’s all I need to create, now.” She hopes her stories will become part of our lives when we listen to them. And that’s the message she took with her onstage during her album launch, earlier this month: “This song is about that moment when you no longer know whether you are friends, or something else. It’s happened to all of us,” she said before playing “Le fleuve et la mer,” during the release party for Cassiopée.

Beyond Mara’s rock sensibility lies a long and enduring body of work, that finds her constantly re-inventing herself. On this offering, it stretches for miles, and and quite naturally becomes an embrace, thanks to its underlying maternal pride.

After establishing herself as a popular member of the Toronto singer-songwriter community, Emma-Lee packed up her pen and guitar and re-located to Nashville in February of 2017 to pursue her songwriting career.

She has no regrets about the move. “The city has exceeded my expectations,” she says. “I’ve definitely written more songs this year than any other year, as the city feeds that hunger.”

Living in Music City has actually opened up more opportunities for work with other Canadian artists and songwriters. “In Toronto, I would write with country artists but it’d just be a select few going there to write for their record,” she says. “Pretty much all the Canadian country music scene comes to Nashville, though, so I get to write with more of them, and that’s awesome.”

“I’m still a self-published writer,” says Emma-Lee, “but working with a publisher is something I’d like to do in the future. I do think the more you can do on your own, before that happens, puts you in a better position.”

She’s amassed an impressive discography of co-written songs recorded and performed by Canadian artists, with that list including Madeline Merlo, Michelle Treacy, Kira Isabella, Nice Pony, Victoria Duffield, Alee, Leah Daniels, SATE, Tia Brazda, and more. She’s excited that a song she co-wrote with longtime collaborator Karen Kosowski and Phil Barton will be on Brett Kissel’s new album, with other recent co-writes placed with Sam Drysdale and Stacey Kay.

“Seeing my name mentioned in Rolling Stone by Tom Petty was one of the coolest things ever!”

Along the songwriting road, Emma-Lee has had the opportunity to co-write with some of Canada’s premier songwriters, including Ron Sexsmith, Todd Clark, Donovan Woods and Gavin Slate. She has eagerly learned from all these experiences, and cites a session this year in Los Angeles with Brian West (Nelly Furtado, Maroon 5) as inspirational.

She’s a pro photographer as well
As well as her thriving musical career, Emma-Lee has been a professional photographer for the past decade, specializing in musicians and actors. “I was shooting all the time in Toronto, but I’m starting from the beginning again here in Nashville,” she explains. “Because I take pictures of musicians, the fact that I’m working with songwriters and artists all the time here is helping get the word out. I’m doing a shoot with [top Canadian songwriter] Tebey [Ottoh] here next week. What I love about doing my photography here is that I’m open to a whole new world of photo locations. I live in East Nashville, and there’s an old-time vibe on the streets that I love. That has reignited that spark of inspiration.”

“I left it thinking about things a little differently in how I approach writing,” she says. “You just never know when that will happen. A great thing about living in Nashville is constantly meeting someone new, and watching how they work. Gleaning from that, and bringing it to your own music, strengthens you as a writer.”

Emma-Lee first made a mark as a solo artist, earning critical acclaim for her earlier albums, Never Just a Dream (2009) and Backseat Heroine (2012).  A 2014 single she recorded in honour of a musical hero brought her a career highlight.

The song “What Would Tom Petty Do?” actually came to Petty’s attention, and he responded in Rolling Stone that “I don’t know what he would do. But thanks for asking.” To Emma-Lee, “seeing my name mentioned in there by Tom Petty was one of the coolest things ever!”

Her new record, Fantasies, is being released as two five-song EPs. Fantasies Vol.1 came out in October 2017, with Vol. 2 set for release in late January 2018. “Releasing smaller bodies of work will do you favours in the long run,” she says. “It gives people a chance to digest a small amount of what you are trying to say. I’m a music creator, and even I can barely listen to an entire album by somebody. If I admit that to myself then I have to be honest in the way I put out music.”

Featuring songs written in Toronto, Los Angeles, and Nashville, Fantasies is produced by Kosowski, who also co-wrote most of the material. Todd Clark co-wrote “Not Giving Up On You” with the pair, and a dance remix of that cut is faring well. “It has a half million plays on Spotify, so I guess people really love to dance,” says Emma-Lee. A co-write with Kosowski and Ron Sexsmith, “No Photographs,” will be on the second EP.

Emma-Lee is eclectic in her tastes as a singer and songwriter, but she calls Fantasies a pure pop record. “I’d say that this one is the most cohesive album I’ve put out,” she says. “Karen and I were definitely digging some ‘80s and ‘90s pop production at the time, and wanted to take a crack at some of that.

“Writing songs with and for other people, I realized I could indulge some of my stylistic tendencies there. I love working in different styles of music, but when you try to do that as an artist, it can be confusing for people to understand who you are.”

She began writing all her material alone, but Emma-Lee is now firmly wedded to the co-writing approach. “In my experience, bringing an idea to someone else I trust, and who I think has incredible ideas, then, without fail, every time that idea has gotten better,” she says. “Plus, I also just really like working with other people. It’s not as much fun to do it alone, to be completely honest.”


Sub-Publishers: BMG Rights Management Canada, Universal Music Publishing Canada

The story of the first Canadian rapper signed to an American record deal tells you more than just the history of hip-hop in this country, it tells you about this country itself.

Michie Mee was born in Saint Andrew Parish, Jamaica, in the 1970s, moved to Canada with her family at age six, and spent her early teens living in Toronto’s Jane and Finch neighbourhood and visiting her aunt in the Bronx. Her uniquely Canadian life experiences, attitude (and accent) – as well as world-class battle rap skills – captured the attention of early hip-hop heavyweights like KRS-One, who called her “Canada’s greatest, musically inclined intellectual representative for the rap industry on a whole, a major breakthrough for female MCs everywhere.”

The country caught on in 1991 with her debut album Jamaican Funk – Canadian Style, (First Priority/Atlantic) which produced a hit single of the same name and earned a JUNO nomination for Best Rap Recording. Today, while Caribbean-flavoured Canadian rap (e.g., Drake’s “One Dance”) dominates globally, the self-described “Jamaican taking charge” retains the title of First Lady of Canadian Hip-Hop, and continues to work as a rapper, songwriter and actor. Mee recently released “Thank You,” the first single from a new album coming in 2018. She spoke to SOCAN from her home in Toronto.

You had a few singles out but this was your debut full-length. Where did the idea for “Jamaican Funk” come from?
The idea was an album where one side would be reggae and one side was going to be hip-hop. But how do you do reggae in a Canadian style, since I was a Canadian artist? I met King of Chill of Alliance, a producer for MC Lyte, who was also on First Priority, and he had this song idea for “Jamaican Funk” – based on the [1980] record “Funking for Jamaica” by Tom Browne, which referred to Jamaica, Queens, New York. Our version came from the idea that I’m a Jamaican-Canadian girl. And “Jamaican Funk – Canadian Style” became the classic.

There’s also dancehall on there, along with the reggae and hip-hop. Why did you want to mix up genres?
I just liked music. I’m surprised I’m not a rock guitarist, actually, because I loved that too. I was the one always pushing hip-hop down at Caribana! It was natural for me, an honest representation of my culture.

How outside the box was it at that time to rap with Jamaican patois for an American label?
Back then, hip-hop had an accent – an American accent. Also at that time, Jamaicans in the media were being portrayed as violent, so it definitely wasn’t considered “safe” music for a label. And it was so early, for hip-hop. So here we were – my accent, plus a genre just being built. The good thing is there were no rules for us. And me being Canadian, and being a confident Jamaican, there was no fear in me that I couldn’t be an international artist. I wasn’t the first Jamaican rapper. The influence was there with people like Kool Herc. But what made me different was my Canadian perspective.

How did battle rapping influence your early songwriting style?
It made me competitive. “I’m the best, I’m not leaving,” wrestling attitude. Being dramatic. And funny. When you’re a woman you can use that as an asset. Because some of the battle raps were so personal, so catty, when it came time to do songwriting, there was a lot of second-guessing. Also, being young, and not knowing how things worked. I wasn’t even sure I was supposed to be in that studio with all those men. But here you are coming up with ideas. And if you don’t think they’re good enough, then you go home and write more.

Looking back, what’s your strongest memory of that song?
Performing on [local Toronto TV dance show] Electric Circus. I had just come back from Jamaica, and shopping in New York, and we came back to Canada and there was this brand new dance show and here we were. You’re telling all your friends, “come down to MuchMusic.” And everybody wanted to do that. We all met in the parking lot. And King Lou [from Dream Warriors] was there as the hype man. I’m still happy now just thinking about it.