Marilyne LeonardToday’s youth speaks up with its own voice. And that can be heard on Marilyne Léonard’s first mixtape, Vie d’ange (the title literally means Angel’s Life, but is also a homophonic wordplay [vidanges] that also means Garbage). She mixes singing and rapping with confidence, constructing songs with no user guide other than her inner voice.

“I always talk about what I go through, and I’m not about to start making up stories,” says the singer-songwriter matter-of-factly. She dubbed this short, eight-song album a mixtape based solely on its eclecticism. “Our inspirations are all over the place, and we just collated all of that together,” she says. “I think eight songs are enough for people to figure out who I am without giving enough time for people who don’t know me to get bored,” she adds, laughing. “I like the format, and it represents where I came from and where I’m going to, all at once.”

Emmanuel Ethier produced the first four tracks. “I didn’t trust myself enough to do it on my own,” says Léonard. “But after that, what I wanted was so specific that I couldn’t delegate. I brought the demos of four new songs [‘Mirage,’ ‘Dans la foule,’ ‘Vie de rêve,’ and ‘Quand tu parles’] to Marc Bell so he could put his touch on them, but it’s very true to what I’d done on my own at home. Ultimately, they’re the four songs that are closest to who I am right now.”

With both hands on the wheel of her musical story, Léonard dreams of independence and self-production, even though she is now a member of the Audiogram family. “When I’m more experienced, I’d like to go independent, but it’s always been my dream to build my career with a record company,” she explains. “I dreamt of telling my mom I’d signed with a record label. It’s truly thanks to Audiogram that I’m able to live what I’m living now, since I’m starting at the very beginning of the ladder.”

Her songs are honest slices of life, rooted in the present. Above all, everything starts with a guitar: “I always write with my guitar first,” says Léonard. “I look for cool chords. I find a cool sentence, and I find a melody to tie it to those chords. It’s quite a strange method,” she admits. “I never write all the lyrics. I do everything at once. It’s like a puzzle made of sentences, melodies, and chords.”

Hearing Léonard sing, you can hear the very specific character of her voice. It becomes a rhythm, an instrument. If you heard her sing a capella, it might almost feel like listening to drums, because the beat is so integral to her vocal delivery. “I listen to a lot of rap, so it obviously inspired me,” she says. “I also love ‘80s productions. I find inspiration in rap, but I’m also into ethereal and complex productions involving synths, and very lively bass, so I find a way to make all that fit.”

She unabashedly tells her audience that vulnerability isn’t a fault, and that the difficulties that arise as we go through the stages of life are normal. She hopes we identify with that and allow ourselves to make it a safe space where we can calm down.

“I want to say I want to love,” says Léonard. “There’s a music video with my girlfriend: ‘Dans la foule.’ Before that, I didn’t dare name the gender of my love interest. I was scared. But for the last two years, I’ve wanted to show off this pride, and this freedom. A guy or a girl talking about love using the word she is banal. I’d love to be one of those girls who are super-at-ease with that, and for whom difference no longer exists. Les Shirley, Calamine; many others do it. It’s relatively new for girls to speak up about this, and I’m glad I’m part of this youth cohort that’s waking up.”

On stage, the project will travel the same numerous directions that the mixtape hints at, but “it’s going to rock a little more,” promises the singer-songwriter. “I also do remixes on stage: La bohème, and a Drake song. People know those songs and they get on board with the show.”

She hopes music will allow her to travel, and in fact, she’ll soon head to France. The future is full of many different promises, and she plans to learn bass, and would also like to produce for other artists. “I’ll start by acquiring my own experience by fucking up my own stuff a thousand times,” she says, laughing. “I need to finish building my own puzzle.”

A six-year journey that multi-hyphenate Che Kothari set out on is about to come to fruition.

WondaGurl, 2020, Cameron Corrado

WondaGurl. Photo: Cameron Corrado

About 16 years ago, he started out as a photographer, who then migrated into video production, music production, and launching Gifted Management, then founding Toronto’s annual Manifesto festival,  ultimately turning to life coaching and philanthropy. As an advocate, one of his most important achievements was co-founding the movement, which raises around $18 million per year for public youth arts initiatives in marginalized communities, by putting a fee on the billboards in Toronto. Kothari has lately focused his abundant organizing skills on an urgent environmental emergency: soil extinction.

Kothari is currently putting together a series of projects that will raise awareness for the cause. First up will be several songs – including one written and helmed by Canadian hit-making songwriter/producer WondaGurl (Mariah Carey, Jay-Z, Drake, Ye) – to be released internationally.  According to the United Nations, more than one-third of the world’s top layer of earth is endangered, Kothari explains. “To call soil ‘soil,’ it has to have 3 percent organic content, otherwise you’re growing your food in sand,” he says. “If you remove organic content from soil, it becomes dead. Forty percent of climate change could be mitigated it we have healthy soil.”

The seeds for the project were planted six years ago, when Kothari was working as a manager for the soca star Machel Montano. After what seemed like 40 years of constant touring and recording, Montano was trying to slow down his pace. Kothari turned to yoga and meditation as essential elements of the effort, and introduced Montano to the teachings of Jagadish “Jaggi” Vasudev, aka Sadhguru, the Indian yoga guru and proponent of spirituality. Yogic practices and daily meditation gave Montano the relief he so desperately desired.

After meeting Sadhguru personally, Kothari (and Montano) became devotees. Kothari then launched the Conscious Music Circle (CMC): an effort to give those tools of “inner technology” to the arts community, offering them online, in private settings, and also at Sadhguru’s ashrams in India (where 6,000 people live) and in Tennessee. Collaterally, members of the Circle became enthusiastic proponents of the guru’s main cause, the prevention of soil degradation. On the phone from Los Angeles, where he was working with WondaGurl to record the first of three proposed tracks to shed light on their efforts. It’s March 22, the day after Sadhguru set off on a 100-day motorcycle excursion from the U.K. to India, to raise soil extinction awareness.

The track, as yet unnamed, will feature Dhee (an Sri Lankan-Australian songstress whose current hit, “Enjoy Enjaami,” has 405 million views on YouTube), which will ensure international attention. It was written in Malibu, where 25 members of the CMC (artists, producers, songwriters) gathered and listened to Sadhguru as he spoke to them about the soil issue. Afterwards, Kothari claims, “for five days, in three studios, morning to night,” they worked on it. Dhee’s contribution will have an Indian flavour, but other elements will include Afrobeat and Reggaeton artists to add to the inclusive appeal. At press time the final lineup was still being finalized, but they plan to release the track when Sadhguru is “around half-way, day 50-ish,” of his journey. “We’re not putting out a song that’s, ‘Save soil! Save soil!’ it’s a contemporary song that you’ll hear played on the radio,” Kothari says, “that touches on these themes but doesn’t specifically name them.”

That song will be followed by two more, a reggae track and another, written by WondaGurl, that Kothari describes as “Beatles-ish.”

And while all this is going on, Kothari is still deeply involved in this year’s upcoming Manifesto Festival, which he says, “is all about empowering young people through arts and culture in physical and digital spaces,” and its year-long side projects, the Discovery series and FSTVL SZN. The former is an incubation program supporting new young talent, while the vowel-free latter is, “for behind-the-scenes actors – everything from production to graphic design to fashion.” Both programs “graduate” at the festival, scheduled for Aug. 12, 2022.

The ultimate purpose for releasing the soil extinction track isn’t to raise money, but to raise awareness, says Kothari. “Ultimately, I see the role of the artist as being storytellers,” he says. “How do we get these artists to tell these stories that are most pressing? How do we get them involved in advocacy? To me, music is about celebration, but also about moving people towards higher consciousness.

“Sadhguru says it best: ‘I’m not interested in seven billion dollars; I’m interested in seven billion people.’”

When she released her single “Straight Shooter” in 2018, then 15-year-old Jody Upshaw was amazed by the way the song took off. Already a confident singer and performer, Upshaw, who was still in high school in Halifax, suddenly found more people taking notice of her music. Among other accolades, the catchy pop tune, produced by rapper Classified, was nominated for R&B/Soul Recording of the Year at the 2019 East Coast Music Awards, along with recognition from the African Nova Scotian Music Association. As the song’s success opened doors, Upshaw moved through them, thrilled and grateful for each new opportunity, and more convinced than ever about building a career in music.

Still, she was as bowled over as anyone when, in January 2022, four years after its release, she heard her song on the hit television show Euphoria. “I was in total shock,” she laughs, remembering waking from a nap to find her phone blowing up, as friends and music community heard the song in the popular HBO series’ second season. Also featured in the episode was music by Dartmouth rapper Thrillah. Upshaw, now 18 – who’s both a fan of the show and its star, Zendaya – admits that she’s still processing the placement. “It’s just crazy. I already feel so blessed to have been able to do a song with Classified… let alone something with Zendaya!”

“I was in total shock… It’s just crazy”

Though she’d known that having the song in the show was a possibility, Upshaw had figured her chances were slim. Some months earlier, she’d been in touch with Melissa McMaster of UnitedMasters, who also manages artists like Quake Matthews and Kayo. “She’s always been really supportive, and has always showed me love, and given me great advice,” says Upshaw. McMaster told her that UnitedMasters was doing synch for the show and that she thought “Straight Shooter” would be a good fit. While she and Classified agreed that McMaster could put the song forward for consideration, Upshaw says that it felt like a longshot. “I thought that there was no way that this was going to happen to me,” she says. “But of course, you can try!”

Upshaw, who grew up singing and performing, began writing her first songs at age 11. Thanks in part to her father Marvin, a former rap artist who performed as KL, she was exposed to lots of musicians, and set her sights on a life in music at a young age. “I was really lucky,” she says thinking back. “I feel like I got a super head-start. I got to learn from a lot of great artists, from watching them and their writing and creative processes.”

She met Classifed through her dad, and the two began working together. “Straight Shooter” was a tune that he had in the works, which was tweaked to suit Upshaw. “We changed the lyrics to make it fit me more,” she explains, “and to make it feel like what I was trying to portray.”  Classified has also produced a number of Upshaw’s other songs, including her most recent singles “Guilty One” and “Evil.” The video for “Straight Shooter,” which features Upshaw with some of her pals at that time on the basketball court (she’s also a competitive basketball player) was directed by Classified’s brother, Mike Boyd. “We were hanging out and having fun,” she says, recalling the video shoot. “That’s another thing I love about that song. I genuinely felt exactly how the song sounds. It was fitting for my age and what we were doing at the time, and it’s still a crowd favourite. It’s a fun, great song.”

Just a few years on, Upshaw marvels at how her life has changed. She recently graduated from high school, and plans to attend a post-secondary music program in Nova Scotia this fall to ramp up her grasp of music theory. “My life is so different now from then,” Upshaw says with a laugh. “Back then, I thought I had ridden the wave.” Instead, “Straight Shooter” has opened more doors than she ever could have imagined, including a synch placement in an upcoming American Eagle commercial.

Upshaw’s goal now is to focus her attention exclusively on building her career, from playing more shows and working on her songwriting, to finding more opportunities to collaborate with other artists. “Even though I was always making music and performing, now feels like a really great opportunity to take that next step,” she says. “These days, my mind is fully geared towards music at all times.”