Through his ultra-realistic and deeply touching stories, Matiu has created his own furrow of protest songs, far from grand political theories, and close to what makes the people of his community, Maliotenam, tick.

“I’m interested in the human side of people,” says Matiu. “I observe what goes on around me, and I express my humble point of view as sincerely as I can,” says the 32-year-old Innu artist, who sings in French, English, and in his native tongue, on his debut album Petikat – which means “slowly” in Innu.

Matiu (a.k.a. Matthew Vachon) has a raw and uninhibited writing style that’s disarmingly natural, and shines through in his music as much as it does in an interview. The opening song on Petikat, “Jean-Guy,” attests to his talent as a lyricist, and his ease in conveying his daily life. It’s a nod to a cousin who had to overcome drug problems, and it presents the dilemma that many people face in his community, a reservation of 1,300 people located near Sept-Îles, about 10 hours Northeast of Montréal.

“We have to choose between staying on the reservation, or leaving,” says Matiu. “We’re confined to an area about two square kilometers, we don’t see much… And often, people aren’t even aware of their potential. All they can see is a job as a carpenter, in a mine, or at Wal-Mart. You might find a kid who loves video games, but that’s all it’s ever going to be, a game. No one will ever tell him that he could be the one designing the game!”

In a way, “Jean-Guy” is also a discussion Matiu had with himself. Captivated by music ever since he bought himself a guitar in his early twenties, it took a while for him to believe in his own capability. “I didn’t know where to go, what doors to knock on,” he says. “I was quite disconnected.”

Supported by friends who constantly congratulated him, and spurred him on, the singer-songwriter participated in the second season of the TV show Le Rythme, “a kind of Star Académie for First Nations,” that aired on the APTN channel in 2016. One of the judges of this competition was Steve Jolin, the founder and director of the labels 7ième Ciel and 117 Records. “He really dug what I was doing,” says Matiu. “He didn’t sign me on the spot, but he followed what I was doing.” In the months that followed, the young man proved a standout performer at the Festival international de la chanson de Granby and in the Chansons rassembleuses component of Petite-Vallée. “He saw that I was interested in music,” says Matiu, “and that my interest was genuine, so he signed me to 117 and we got our subsidy… From that moment on, I had no choice but to make an album!”

“I call it bipolar folk.”

After breaking onto the scene with his first, eponymous EP in August 2017, Matiu has now spent the last few months working on Petikat. For this carpenter by trade, and father of a five-year-old daughter, the challenges were plentiful. “My work in life is doing renos with my bag of nails and steel-toed boots,” he says. “Let’s just say I don’t have a habit of opening myself up that much! And there I was, having to write songs, not knowing if they were any good, or even relevant… Plus I didn’t want to offend anyone in my community, and I wanted to avoid making big statements. Sure, there’s a level of protest in my songs, but nothing extreme or nasty.”

Co-produced with Luc Charest – a member of the now-defunct band Kalembourg, whom he met “in another life” (when he worked as a stagehand in Sept-Îles over a decade ago) – Matiu’s debut full-length album is firmly rooted in the North American folk tradition. “I call it bipolar folk,” he says. “I’m very much a guitar-and-voice guy, I was raised with Cat Stevens and Neil Young. But when the time came for me to find my style for this album, I didn’t want to hide my other influences. It goes from ZZ Top on ‘Nuitsheuakan’ to Red Hot Chili Peppers on ‘Far Away.’”

So far, Matiu’s bipolar folk has made an impact on the youth in his village. But his music has yet to make an impact on neighbouring communities, at least not as much as another Maliotenam band – Kashtin – did 30 years ago. “Where I’m from, people who go see a show at the community centre want to dance,” he says. “I rarely see shows with chairs, or other types of events that would fit with my type of music. Ultimately, it’s a bit as if I was offering a new style. People often say that what I do is ‘refreshing.””

Just back from a four-gigs-in-four days “tour,” including an album launch performance during Coup de cœur francophone in Montréal, Matiu remains very realistic about his ambition. “I for real don’t have any expectations,” he says. “And besides, I don’t have a lot of free time to embark on a lengthy tour. What matters the most to me is to stay close to my tribe, and the landscapes that inspire me.”

Not even vicious Maritime storms can dampen Erin Costelo’s spirits these days. Interviewed between East Coast shows, the Halifax-based singer-songwriter/producer explains that “driving over the bridge from PEI, it felt like the van was going to blow off! My glasses flew off my head in the parking lot.

“Not much could happen that could make me [feel] down right now, though. I feel I have the best band in Canada, and I’m so happy playing with them. Everyone has an individual voice and personality, and they’re making sure they serve the songs really well.”

That band features Blue Rodeo drummer Glenn Milchem, bassist Anna Ruddick (Ladies Of The Canyon), guitarist Clive MacNutt (Costelo’s longtime collaborator and life partner), and keyboardist Leigh Fleming-Smith (Matt Mays).

These are also the players featured on Costelo’s new (and fifth) album Sweet Marie, recorded over 10 days in a timber-frame home by the ocean. Its creation is the subject of a documentary filmed by friend/peer Amelia Curran that will air next year.

Initial reviews are enthusiastic, and it was a Top Five add to Americana Radio in the U.S.. “We’ll soon tour there for a month, then Europe next year, but I love playing so much it doesn’t feel like a burden,” she says.

Costelo is rather a late bloomer as a performer. “I didn’t start making my own records until I was 30, and the playing I did was in other people’s bands, as a pianist and background singer,” says Costelo. “I always gravitated to the behind-the-scenes thing, and that’s what I love about producing and writing. With the last record [2016’s award-winning Down Below the Status Quo] and this one, though, I’ve reached a turning point in playing live. I feel really comfortable and happy there now, so you might have to get the hook to get me off the stage!”

Costelo’s skills as a songwriter and producer have long been in evidence, and are vividly showcased on the self-produced Sweet Marie. Describing her compositional process, she explains that “a lot of the writing I’ll do is at the piano. It’ll be harmonically based at first, as I’ll start with chord progressions, and sing melodies over the top of that in an improvisatory way. Lyrics come after, and I’ll edit them for a long time.

“That process has started to shift as I’ve begun co-writing more. I’ll start to think about the lyrics at the beginning, and what that song may sound like, and I’ll write the melodies and harmonic progressions based on the lyrical content. That is different, and challenging.”

On Sweet Marie, Costelo opens herself up lyrically. “As writers we sometimes filter things – ‘I don’t want to be too political,’ or ‘I don’t want to get too personal, as I want people to identify with the broader aspects of the writing.’ Here, I let that go and wrote 100 percent of what I was thinking and feeling. I think when you’re really honest in a record, people identify with it. They find themselves in the songs.

“As writers we sometimes filter things… I let that go and wrote 100 percent of what I was thinking and feeling.”

“I really wanted to be a little more vulnerable vocally here, so it wasn’t just me singing ‘big voice’ through the whole album There are moments of fragility, which I think worked well.”

That “big voice” is nonetheless a powerfully soulful instrument that’s helped her grab attention. Costelo’s eclectic musical style defies easy genre definition, and she says, “I always worry about self-description. As a true Gemini, I’ll get bored with something, then want to try something new.”

On the other side of the console
Costelo’s studio skills are placing her in demand as a producer for other artists. She helmed Kaia Kater’s acclaimed new record Grenades, and an album by Leanne Hoffman coming soon, and would love to see more women tackle production. “Without seeing a lot of female role models, women won’t make that choice, so it’s really important for women to be visible in those roles,” she says.

“I’m not offended if people put me in a genre they really like. Sometimes I get called a jazz artist. I don’t self-identify as that, but I have been influenced by it, so that’s OK. The same with soul. No-one has called me a hip-hop artist, but you never know, with the next album!” she laughs. “The ‘Americana’ umbrella has been great, as the definition of that is the influence of American music, including gospel, soul, folk, country, and jazz. That’s a nice fit.”

Costelo has recently been co-writing with Grammy-winning Gospel/soul artist Mike Farris (a label-mate on noted U.S. imprint Compass Records) and Halifax soul singer Jessie Brown. “The first person I co-wrote with was Stephen Fearing,” she recalls. “Because he’s so experienced, that was a daunting task, but he immediately made me feel comfortable.”

One Fearing co-write, “Titanic,” appears on Down Below, The Status Quo, with three others included on Fearing’s 2012 album Between Hurricanes. Another co-write, “Try Try Again,” is on Blackie and the Rodeo Kings’ album South, a delight for Costelo.

“Any time you‘re acknowledged by someone you consider great is a real thrill. So many things  can get you down in this industry, that there’ll always be something that feels like a little setback. Try to take those moments that feel like wins, hold them very closely, and remember them constantly. Right now the trajectory is up.”

Renée MartelA quick search will reveal that L’arrière-saison is a novel, a red wine, and a colloquialism that refers to new beginnings. For Renée Martel, whose career is 65 years deep, L’arrière-saison marks the end of one thing and the beginning of another.

“It’s a fitting title for the album, as much about my career as my personal life,” says Martel artist.  “One thing ends and another one begins. I feel like I’ve done so much in my 65 years of professional life, but today I feel as if I still have just as much to accomplish yet.”

Didier Barbelivien and Paul Daraîche contributed their talent to this album – one that’s found at a very precise crossroads on Renée Martel’s timeline. She’s got so many more stories to tell, despite everything that’s behind her. There are numerous collaborations, and young Sonia Cordeau even wrote the lyrics of the album’s last song, “Plus jamais mais toujours.” “This album contains some songs that were suggested by my artistic director, Lionel Lavault,” says Martel. “Writers whose work I’ve never sung before, but shoe songs I loved. There are also writers that I love to sing, and always do – like Nelson Minville, my go-to writer.”

All collaborations imply a certain degree of adjustment since, obviously, it’s hard to sing something that doesn’t feel authentic. “Martine Pratte wrote a song for me that was outside of my comfort zone [‘Où le vent soufflera’].

Nelson Minville: Martel’s Muse, in Writing
Nelson Minville writes in bespoke fashion for everyone he writes for. “Sometimes it’s just luck, and knowing the person,” he says, explaining that he often feels completely invested in the universe of the person for whom he’s writing. “When I’m writing for someone, I write for that person and never for myself. It’s not like I write a song and then pitch it around. I Google Renée Martel frequently,” he says, laughing. “She does a lot of interviews, whether it’s in Le Devoir or 7 Jours [a highbrow daily newspaper, and a gossip weekly, respectively, in Québec]. She has quite a pool of beautiful and not so beautiful stories to tell. I tap into everything I think she won’t mind singing about.” An honest and intimate relationship has developed between the two artists and Minville might write eight songs that don’t cut it before finally writing the one Martel will pick. “I once referred to the song ‘Liverpool’ [a song Renée Martel sang in 1967] in a song I wrote recently. She told me that was a song she didn’t want to be reminded of, that she didn’t want to go there.” On her album titled La fille de son père [Daddy’s Daughter, 2014], Minville wrote the title song, and that’s what cemented his relationship with the singer. “It’s the best I’ve done,” he says. “The title came to me in a flash as I was gardening. The song just wrote itself after that.”

It’s something no one would expect me to sing, but I did it anyway, because it felt like a challenge I had to face. That’s the glory of what I do; taking what I’m offered, and making it mine. You can’t make just anybody say whatever you want to!”

Launched on Nov. 2, 2018, this album is something of an assessment, a moment that encompasses everything, a reminiscence, and a commemoration. “I feel this album aptly summarizes my whole life, and they’re all songs I could not have sung 25 years ago,” says Martel. “You can hear what I’ve been through.” During the development process, she listened to countless melodies, and read just as many lyrics. She wanted to make sure that every collaborator would come up with the right words at the right moment. “When I sing, I don’t want people to go, ‘Ah, she’s singing such-and-such writer,’” says Martel. “I want them to feel that I’m the one telling them something. I’m the one saying those things.”

Picking songs written by others is never a straight and smooth road. Mistakes are sometimes made. “There’s an album, Réflexions [1974], that I recorded way too early in my life. It was a marvellous album, but I sang about Marcel Lefebvre heartbreak,” she says, laughing. “He was going through a rough breakup. I sang lyrics that I’d never experienced. In hindsight, today, I would grab that opportunity to sing about my heartbreaks!” she says, amused.

During the last SOCAN Awards Gala in Montréal, Martel received the Lifetime Achievement Award which was presented by her daughter Laurence. “It was such a moving moment,” says Martel, visibly moved. “I was never nominated for the Female Singer of the Year award at ADISQ and I never complained about it; I didn’t get that Félix award, but I got so much more over the years. I take this homage from SOCAN as one of those recognitions that make you feel good, and confirms a lot of things.”

Next March, Martel will undertake a tour that will offer a historical tale of a show, where she’s the only hero. “It’s me, from beginning to end,” she says. “From my teens to this day, everything that left a mark,” says the Grand Dame of Country.

“So much,” Renée says when asked what she has left to accomplish. “I’m so not done yet. I have so many projects. I never really sang in English Canada, and I know I’m popular in Calgary; Renée MartelI once hosted a show for Radio-Canada there, and it was madness. French Canada knows me well already, and I’d like to tap that over there.”

Renée Martel has more than 70 years of life experience that colour her music, and she believes it’s incredibly enriching. “I’ve come a long way,” she says. “That’s something one can say at my age. After all, I’ve been through in life, I hope to keep speaking to people. I was their daughter, their girlfriend, their daughter-in-law. Some even wanted me to be their wife. Now I’m their granny, and it’s just right.”