Both natural-born French-speakers, Matt Lang and Laurie LeBlanc are eying country music’s Klondike with recent albums performed in Shania Twain’s language, as part of a charm offensive targeting the rest of Canada (ROC) and the world beyond.

Though they may hold varying views on topics such as music and love, these two SOCAN members are driven by similar forces and, more importantly, by similar goals. Matt Lang, originally from Québec, isn’t a stranger to performing in English: his earlier, self-titled EP did quite well on Apple Music’s national top country playlist.

Francophone Acadian Laurie LeBlanc, for his part, is trying to break out in a second language for the first time, following the release of the single “The Bigger The Better,” a song written by Irish singer-songwriter Don Mescall, whom he befriended at a dance and country music conference he attended in France. As if all roads led to the English language. As if, for LeBlanc, it had been in the cards all along.

“I’m originally from Cap-Pelé,” says LeBlanc, “and my family moved to Bouctouche when I was 10 years old. People really love their country music out here! When I was a kid, my parents and grandparents were listening to songs by Charley Pride, Kenny Rogers, and other singers of their generation. Personally, I was influenced by 1990s singers instead. That’s when Alan Jackson, and then Zac Brown, and all the rest, started out. So, listening to English songs is what got me started.”

Matt Lang – or Mathieu Langevin, to those who went to school with him in Maniwaki – also grew up listening to music from South of the border. His thing is New Country, Music City’s current sound. Still, when he hit Nashville in 2018, the big guy from Vallée-de-la-Gatineau, in the Outaouais region of Western Québec, didn’t speak a word of English.

“It wasn’t easy at first,” he recalls. “I wasn’t good at speaking English, I mean, really not good. I had some basic knowledge due to the fact that, after all, I was raised near an Indian reservation and had chums who spoke English. I don’t know, maybe I was shy… But I had to learn to speak English after I moved to Nashville. Obviously, I still have an accent. But I know it doesn’t really show when I’m singing. It took a lot of work – in fact, I had three coaches for voice, and one for pronunciation. It didn’t happen overnight!”

Another version of yourself

Laurie LeBlanc

Laurie LeBlanc

Before recording songs for When It’s Right It’s Right, Laurie LeBlanc was known for “Moi itou Mojito,” and a handful of deliciously dry, humorous songs. The English lyrics that the New Brunswick artist chooses to sing today, however, are more serious. His lyrics are momentous, composed, and even romantic. On “Another Night Like This, he begs his new girlfriend to see him again after their first date. On “The Bigger The Better,” the character he’s impersonating has just been through a breakup, and is drowning his sorrows in a bar. Nobody knew he was capable of such drama.

“Without claiming that Don Mescall’s lyrics are darker,” says LeBlanc, “he writes about stuff that’s less festive than mine, and I love the result… Honestly, I must also say that this first English-language album blends together plenty of country pop, and maybe country-rock, influences. My producer Jason Barry and I discussed that… Maybe I’m also searching for my English voice. In French, I’ve had my own sound for the last couple of albums.”

A comparatively modest artist, Laurie LeBlanc still is a dreamer, proving that a man can be ambitious without being pretentious. The first song on his album plainly describes the opportunities the musician is hoping to seize.

Just like his Maritime colleague does, Matt Lang lays his cards on the table from the initial bars of “More,” the first song on his new album. Bent on success, he’s determined to the point of breaking down doors. “I’m saying this quite humbly,” he explains. “I’m not one to pat myself on the back in real life, but I honestly think I have lots of drive. I seem to be unable to stay home doing nothing. I don’t just wait for the phone to ring. I create my own opportunities, but while respecting other people. I’m a team player. Always have been.”

Remembering where you come from

Matt Lang

Matt Lang

The fact that Laurie LeBlanc and Matt Lang dare to acknowledge the pull of the rest of Canada, doesn’t mean that they’re denying their true nature. Authenticity is a country music staple, and these two artists aren’t denying it. Far from it. LeBlanc’s arrangements for “Belle of the Ball” and “All In” echo the fast violin work and emblematic reels for which Acadian music is known.

Lang, on the other hand, alludes to the geographic isolation of the land of his birth in “Getcha” (an auto mechanic’s fantasy along an isolated road) and “Better When I Drink.” Instead of being presented as a nice place to live, the city becomes a symbol for special occasions and boozy parties. This duality between city and country spaces is an ongoing concern in LeBlanc’s career and writing.

“In Quebec, all TV networks are concentrated in Montréal,” says Lang. “When you’re coming from far away, let’s say from Gaspésie or Abitibi, whatever, it’s as if your dream was, like, pretty unreachable.  When you’re coming from a remote area, you feel unable to get to [where you want to be]. I, for one, have always wanted to prove that wrong!”

Laurie LeBlanc, too, is hoping to make it beyond the limited territory to which he has so far restricted himself. Already very popular with Francophone Canadians, he realizes that he’ll have to climb the ladder all over again as he moves westward. He won the Male Country Artist of the Year at the Josie Music Awards last year, which helps. There is no point denying that the buzz is there, but the Canadian-American league isn’t an easy on to break into, partly because it’s a far more crowded field.

“I must admit that the English-language market is humongous!” says LeBlanc. “When I listen to the radio, there are artists there that I don’t even know who are releasing stuff, and it’s great production. In the Maritimes, our fans love and support us. We’re delighted, and we feel lucky. Let’s say that, back home, opportunities come to us more quickly… On radio, I’ll now be competing with Brett Kissel and all the rest, with major labels. We’ll have to see how it goes, but we’re happy with the product…

“I wasn’t raised on five course meals,” as one of his lyrics points out, but the self-produced musician already enjoys the support of top U.S. country artists. Blake Shelton writer Dallas Davidson, Don Shlitz, and Mike Reid (these last two, Grammy Award winners) are adding their names to his list of prestigious collaborators. And Matt Lang, too, is being backed by many big names, including Tebey and Danick Dupelle, who sense his star potential.

As if, in the end, the future of Canadian country music were destined to have a slight French accent.

Madeline Merlo has been a country music star in Canada for several years, with a well-received album, hit singles, a CCMA Rising Star Award, and tours with Willie Nelson and Keith Urban under her belt. Earlier this spring, Merlo, now living in Nashville, seemed set for major U.S. stardom as well. In April, her winning appearance on the reality-TV contest show Songland — where emerging songwriters pitch tracks to big-time artists and producers – led to country stars Lady Antebellum having a hit with Merlo’s song “Champagne Night.” But then COVID-19 shut down any chance of touring.

It’s been a rollercoaster ride for Merlo, but she remains sanguine. “The things I love about performing – connecting with audiences, hanging out with my band, meeting people — aren’t there. But I feel blessed that I can still write songs and do co-writes through Zoom,” she says. “And there’s been a lot of attention on me since Songland, which has allowed me to get in the room with people I’ve wanted to write with for a long time.”

Merlo grew up in Maple Ridge, B.C., in a music-loving family—her dad was a funk musician, her mom liked country, her older sister listened to pop. She loved to sing and knew she wanted to write songs, but decided to focus on country music for two reasons. The first was when her mom took her to see Shania Twain, and she realized that a female artist could be powerful and in charge. And the second was because of the lyrics.

“I loved words, I loved poetry, and I really loved that the lyrics and storytelling are so important in country,” says Merlo. “In pop it’s all about the beat, the production, whereas in country it’s about the story you’re trying to tell. A common move in pop is to sing the first verse again in the second verse, and people don’t even notice. You’d never get away with that in a country song. The publisher would say, ‘Hey, you’ve got to write a second verse.’”

“It’s allowed me to get in the room with people I’ve wanted to write with for a long time”

Watching the Songland episode, it’s fascinating to see Merlo’s song, originally called “I’ll Drink to That,” take on, then lose, a reggae rhythm, and go through multiple changes as it morphs into “Champagne Night.” “It’s very Lady A,” she says. “They really crushed the production, and it feels like it was tailor-made for them – which it kinda was.”

Even though Merlo raves about the Songland experience, it must have been difficult to hand her song over to the band and producer Shane McAnally, and let it happen.

Songland: A different kind of TV music competition
Merlo thinks Songland is a valuable way to bring the craft of songwriting into the spotlight. “Songwriters work behind the scenes,” she says. “People talk about their favourite song in the world, but they have no idea who wrote it, they don’t think about that. This show can do great things for songwriters. There would be no music and no radio without writers helping artists tell their stories, and it was cool to be a part of it.”

“Yeah, it was nerve-wracking,” she admits with a laugh. “They called me one night and said, ‘Congratulations, your flight is tomorrow at 6:00 a.m.’ And I was suddenly there in front of all these people. But I was aware that when I pitched it to Lady Antebellum it was no longer my song, it was theirs, and they would do whatever they could to make it a Lady Antebellum song. I knew a lot of changes would be made – but what you don’t see in the episode is that we sat in the studio for eight hours and re-wrote that song together. And Shane was incredible. So I feel very connected to the new song as well.

“Also, I don’t think I would have pitched a song that was really personal to me, like ‘War Paint’ [which references a friend’s mental illness]. That’s one piece of advice I’d give to someone going on the show.”

It’s disappointing that Merlo can’t get her band together and go on the road right now, but she’ll keep writing and recording – in April she released three new songs, “If You Never Broke My Heart,” “It Didn’t” and “Kiss Kiss” – and she may drop an album next Spring.

“I feel like I’m going into writing sessions better prepared, because I’ve had more time to work on ideas,” she says. “Also, the internet is a beautiful thing, and I’ll promote my songs as much as I can from my living room. And I’m just writing every day, because that’s what I can do right now.”


Music brings us together; it helps us heal in these trying times. Artists, and their songs, fill a void when we’re surrounded by emptiness and uncertainty. Aaron Allen, from London, Ontario, is one of many musicians answering the public’s call for new music during the pandemic. Stuck at home, with the family tattoo business – The Taste of Ink (see sidebar) – closed, he’s enjoying time with his wife and two children, and writing away the days.

“I’ve never been busier,” says Allen, who recently landed two Country Music Association of Ontario (CMAO) nominations for both Male Artist and Rising Star of the Year.  “At the beginning, it was hard,” he adds. “Us writers don’t love to do the Skype thing, but now it’s like being in the same room, and I’m firing on all cylinders, all day, every day, doing lots of co-writes for myself and for other artists.”

Allen released Highway Mile on April 3, a six-song EP co-produced with CMAO Producer of the Year Jeff Dalziel. There was a bit of trepidation about putting out new music in the middle of COVID-19, but he figured it was worth the risk.

“I would probably be in jail if I didn’t have songwriting”

The Taste of Ink: Tattoo Artist on the Side

Allen and his wife opened a hair salon and tattoo shop about a decade ago. Realizing tattooing pays more, they morphed the store into The Taste of Ink. Allen says it’s a career where you constantly learn and grow. The songwriter sports many of his own permanent markings of the trade. Asked what they mean, he laughs. “When the shop first opened our apprentices needed someone to work on, so I volunteered… I would not be this covered if I didn’t get them for free!” There are times when Allen’s two vocations intertwine: people come into the shop, share a story, and it works its way into one of his songs. One of the standout tracks on the new EP is “Good Tattoo,” an ode to his wife and their everlasting love: “Our love is like a good tattoo/ It might fade a little along the way, but trust me babe, it’s here to stay.”

“At this time people need music more than ever,” he says. The strategy worked: online plays of the new record have already eclipsed two million streams, and continue to climb. The song connecting most with people, and the one recently released to radio, is “Can We Go Back.” Recorded just two weeks before the pandemic hit, it’s a love song to his wife and a nostalgic nod about returning to a simpler time, when they were young and carefree. Allen sings: “I wonder if that tree’s still there/ The one we carved our initials in/ Back when we were kids/ It didn’t really matter where we were at / As long as you were shotgun, holding my hand.”

As if the new EP was not enough, in May, Allen added a publishing deal with Arts & Crafts Music to his resume. He’s excited about expanding his repertoire, exploring more synchs, writing in other genres, and expanding from the sometimes-formulaic structure and rigidity of writing the Nashville way. “In synch you can break some rules, and say some things you normally can’t say in country music,” he says. “I just love songwriting… it’s nice to try something different and learn something new.”

Growing up in London, Allen started penning songs to express his feelings. It quickly became his lifeline. When he was 13, his mother got ill; it hit Allen hard. “She had terminal cancer for many years and I didn’t take it well,” he recalls. “I was really angry. I did not like school. I had this guitar and I locked myself in my room, just shut the world out writing songs.”

Twenty-five years on, Allen still spends endless hours locked away, alone in his home studio, writing away the days. “It’s a part of me,” says. “It saved my life when I was a kid and it’s therapeutic; I would probably be in jail if I didn’t have songwriting.”