Meeting Charlie Kunce-Belhadj and Emma Cochrane, one immediately notices the nascent passion and youthful ardour that fuel their desire to kock on every door – and break it down, if necessary. Their musical project, Mayfly, grew slowly over time, and is rooted in a friendship that allows them to become the best possible version of themselves.

Mayfly“We met in the Creative Art program at Champlain College in Sherbrooke, and we both already knew that we wanted to pursue our passion for music, no matter what,” says Kunce-Belhadj. Their motivation was completely free of doubt. Their HIDEAWAY Vol. 1 EP, which was released in January of 2023, is the first half of a two-tiered whole, and the first step toward their shared dream.

Rarely sitting at the same table to create, the duo generally proceed with Kunce-Belhadj’s music and Cochrane’s lyrics – although sometimes the former will create a fully formed song based on three chords proposed by the latter, and vice-versa for the lyrics. “We know each other so well that we can write about the other’s wounds without asking questions,” Cochrane confides. “We’ve been together 24/7 since we were 19 years old.”

At that age, the two young women chose to live in the city to make things happen. “For us, it was Montréal or nothing,” says Cochrane. “We knew that was where we’d be able to learn by doing.” And rather than pursuing musical studies, or some similar form of training, they chose to go all-in with networking. “We didn’t know anyone, but we knew that contacts are at the very heart of this trade,” Cochrane explains. “So, we’d put everything we did online. We are fully self-taught, from marketing, to aesthetics, to building our social networks. That’s what allowed us to meet people.”

Artistically, the modus operandi has always been carte blanche, and an irrepressible desire to forge ahead. “When we moved to Montréal, we spent our entire savings on buying equipment, and building a studio in our apartment,” says Kunce-Belhadj. “Our good friend Jules [Bonneville-Coulombe] was a trigger. We did our first shows with him, as well as a few performances in cafés to build our confidence.” Then came Les Francouvertes in 2021, which paved the way for things to come; even though Mayfly didn’t move on in the contest itself, that’s where their record label discovered them. Duprince Records has been grooming the duo for almost two years. “The things that have happened to us since have been exponential,” adds Kunce-Belhadj.

Mayfly, Ma Peau Brûle

Click on the image to play the Mayfly song “Ma Peau Brûle.”

Although the songs they presented during Francouvertes had to be in French, they undoubtedly feel more comfortable singing in English because it “allows us to go further.” “We weren’t at all confident in our Franco catalogue when we got to the Francouvertes,” says Kunce-Belhadj. “We feel like we’re playing a character when we write in French.” “French is our native language,” says Cochrane. “It’s going to be obvious on volume two of HIDEAWAY. A sentence in French is always more personal, and that can be intimidating. We can be more open in English.”

Alongside Adrian Villagomez, they developed their visuals and music videos that are true to themselves. “We admired him, so we used the 2020 method and DM’d him,” the women say with a giggle. They’re satisfied with everything that’s come out of that collaboration, which allowed them to create a visual universe true to what they had imagined. “Our music is our bubble, it’s a safe space. We want our album to come across as a statement, a dark but danceable moment, that’s both wistful and hypnotic,” says Kunce-Belhadj. “It’s a bit like the album as a whole [volumes one and two] was an avowal: you have emotions to live through, and it’s OK to feel them.”

Kunce-Belhadj admits that Mayfly’s music was “embryonic and unclear” when they enlisted for Francouvertes. “During the pandemic we found the intention of our project,” she says. “We wanted to make sure our label felt they made a good choice when they picked us. We worked really hard to fine-tune our sound.”

Mayfly, Black Water

Click on the image to play the video for Mayfly’s “Black Water.”

They found that finesse at Homy Studio. “We needed backup and better material,” says Kunce-Belhadj. “We knew Hologramme. We told them, ‘Here’s our project and its essence.’ We spent two months in the studio with them, and everything we’d done up to that point was the same but sounded better. Analog sounds, layers, textures… Everything was prettier. Working on a project with six heads instead of two was a challenge, but the result is exactly what we wanted.”

Whereas Volume 1 was an introduction, Volume 2 will be the “A-ha!” moment when the emotions and desires have been recognized, and everything left to be expressed will be said out loud. “Volume 2 will be the cherry on top,” Kunce-Belhadj. “It has a bit of everything: big Franco pop, American rap. We express our feelings, ranging from hate, to joy, to fatigue. 2023 is the year of letting go.”

Wondering how to transition from a basement-studio songwriter/producer to a world-class musician, who works with the likes of The Weeknd and Noah Cyrus? “When I find out, I’ll let you know,” responds Mike Sonier, half-jokingly.

While not a household name, the Cornwall, Ontario-born, L.A.-based producer has spent the last five years making inroads into the pop music community, and has something to show for it: co-writes and production credits with Maggie Rogers (“Love You For A Long Time”), Julia Michaels (“Priest”), and his biggest hit yet, Noah Cyrus’s “July” – which, both as a solo song, and in a version that features Leon Bridges, has accumulated more than 1 billion streams.

Mike Sonier, Noah Cyrus, "July"

Click on the image to play the video for Noah Cyrus’s “July”

“Yeah, it’s pretty crazy,” he says, over the phone from L.A.  “As a fan of music –  somebody who’s been chasing this dream since I was 17 years old – to have a song that’s touched a lot of people is the greatest honour.  Just yesterday, I saw a video on Instagram, where someone tagged me, that was about ‘July.’ People have told me that they’ve written essays about it to get into university. That’s better than any reward.”

Signed to Jenna Andrews’ TwentySeven Music Publishing / Sony Music Publishing, Sonier might attribute his success to timing and luck, but the truth is closer to his ability to hustle, and “reaching out to the guys who’ve made it” – promoting his availability to assist with whatever they need in terms of studio expertise, musicianship, and grunt work.

“I’d end up in a lot of situations,” he says. “I met Alessia Cara on her first writing sessions, where she wrote ‘Here,’ as I did the engineering and the demoing.  Over time, as I worked for different producers, I had a big bag of tricks that was useful.” He rented a room at Toronto’s Dreamhouse Studios, and  also worked separately  with Stephen “Koz” Kozmeniuk as an assistant on Dua Lipa’s debut record during that same time period.

Later, after being frustrated by a project he’d just finished producing, Sonier aired his frustrations on Twitter saying  he wanted to work on “higher quality” projects.  Also on Twitter at the time: Martin “Doc” McKinney, co-writer and producer of Esthero, and an early writing/producing collaborator with The Weeknd.  He was looking for someone to help him out. “A contact at Dreamhouse was kind enough to make an introduction,” says Sonnier. “I interviewed with Doc and started the next day.”

One of the first projects he worked on with Doc was the Black Panther movie soundtrack main title song, “Pray For Me,” featuring The Weeknd and Kendrick Lamar. Eventually, he signed a production deal with McKinney to find and develop artists, and also landed the Michaels, Rogers, and Cyrus tracks.  Sonier signed his publishing deal with Andrews after the end of his production deal with McKinney, then moved his young family to L.A. “It just felt like the right thing to do, considering the amount of work that’s available here,” he says.

“If I’m not in the room, I’m not really getting the cut”

“In my world, if I’m not in the room, I’m not really getting the cut,” he says. “With how I work, we’re in the room writing the song, getting the vibe, and doing the production as we go. When you look at the multitude of artists that come out here from all over the world – and you’re signed to a major publisher – that’s the caveat where you have access, and you get to write with multitude of different people.”

When he writes, Sonier says he’s looking for something particular. “I really try and find where I can bring my perspective to a situation,” he says. “Sometimes, when writing a song, I may be just focused on the lyrics and strumming acoustic guitar. Or sometimes, I may be really trying to tap into the music side of things, where maybe the artist is off in their own world with the lyrics, and I’m trying to create an interesting music palette that might be unique for them.   I’m always trying to find a way to put a unique emotion into something that resonates.”

Produced by Sonier, and co-written with Noah Cyrus, Peter Harding, and Jenna Andrews, “July” was the result of a songwriting camp. “‘July,’ and a lot of songs like that, start with a conversation when everyone gets into a room,” he explains. “Everybody gets to know each other, and everybody’s going to be at a different emotional life-point. People start to communicate, and become a little more open, and share stories. I shared something that was going on in my life, and I had a very simple chord progression, strumming along.

Sonier Kenekts at SOCAN Sync Song Camp
In July of 2022, Sonier participated in the very first SOCAN Kenekt Sync Song Camp in L.A., organized to create songs to pitch to music supervisors for screen productions. He says, “You get placed with a group of people –  maybe other producers, a writer, and an artist – and the goal is  to write and produce a piece of music with a time restraint. It’s a really fun project, a cool challenge, and a cool way to sharpen your sword – and get out of your comfort zone. I thought it went really well.”

“Just putting your heart on your sleeve, and just standing in your shit, for lack of a better word, allows you to pull out that story, that human experience that we all relate to.  With ‘July,’ it was the first day of a songwriting camp, and what you hear is very much the result of that day.”

In late 2022, Sonier collaborated with Ruth B. on a song she wrote for the movie Maybe I Do, called “Always You.” “It was a time-crunch situation,” he says. “Ruth and the director, Michael Jacobs, called me to have a chat about producing the song. In addition to my role as a producer, I also orchestrated and played piano on the piece. We actually recorded two versions.”

Looking to the future, Sonier is setting up his own creative company, Somebody Call Everybody Inc. “My goal is to use my platform, as it grows, to  advocate for creatives, and songwriters, and producers, and artists, and people that often don’t have a voice,” he explains. “One of our goals is to take part in the ongoing shifts in the culture of our industry, where we actively address the issues affecting creatives through action.”

Whatever happens as he moves forward, Mike Sonier continues to carve out an impressive niche for himself.

In late 2022, Canada’s Queen of R&B Jully Black released her first album in 13 years, Three Rocks and a Slingshot; dance-pop artist Shawn Desman released his first solo single in about a decade,  “Maniac”; and R&B singer Glenn Lewis expects to release several singles this year, and an album by the end of it.

Somewhere along the line, as the clocked ticked and days turned, since releasing their debut albums  — Black’s This Is Me in 2005; Desman’s self-titled album in 2002; and Lewis’ World Outside My Window the same year — these rising stars became seasoned veterans, with all the respect, esteem, and influence that come with it.

Last summer, Drake was one of those people acknowledging their contributions, inviting all three to perform on his first-of-its-kind “All Canadian North Stars” OVO Fest show to celebrate and thank the hip-hop and R&B acts who “paved the way for all of us,” as the global superstar wrote on his Instagram.

It was good to see these Canadian legends getting flowers from one of the biggest artists in the world. But as Drake, The Weeknd, Alessia Cara, Jessie Reyez, and others took over the charts in the past decade, Black, Lewis, and Desman have been busy with other creative endeavours – and sometimes simply handling responsibilities that come with getting older.

Jully Black, Half Empty, Video

Click on the image to play the video of Jully Black’s “Half Empty”

“There was no, ‘I stopped [releasing music] because of this,’” says Black. “Yeah, my mom was sick, I was taking care of her, but that’s not the reason why. You have to live a life to tell a story and, for me, it’s really about the path of least resistance.

“I have a friend that went back for her Masters [degree] and decided to have a career change, and no one’s saying, ‘Why are you doing something else?’” she says. “It seems that everyday people, not in the music business, are allowed to change directions or change careers; it’s not ‘You’ve taken a break’ or ‘You’re making a comeback.’

“We’re these anomalies, or these mutants, with this talent, that the business expects to continue to pump out music like we’re machines. If I don’t feel like singing for the rest of my life, that’s my business.”

Of course, Black has been constantly singing; she just hadn’t pumped out music, as she says, though she’s been performing live onstage. She also starred in a major theatre production, Caroline, or Change; frequently hosts events and award shows; and runs a highly successful motivational 100 Strong and Sexy wellness program, and The Power of Step classes.

Making an album in her forties, the topics and tones she chose to write about showcased the strong, decisive woman we’ve witnessed in recent years, from the conviction in the lyrics to “Half Empty,” to the resilience of “No Relation,” and the I-can-take-it “Mi No Fraid.” The album title itself refers to David vs Goliath: fighting giants.

“There’s way more confidence in being able to speak to the subject matter without any shame or embarrassment – especially for myself being in this business since I was 14 years old,” says Black. “Some of the topics were really grown when I wasn’t grown yet. So now to speak about love loss, or being in love, or having sex, or whatever, I can talk about it, and be, like, ‘Yeah, I’m grown up, so it’s no big deal.’”

Glenn Lewis put out his last solo release in 2013, but in 2017 he collaborated with DJ Jazzy Jeff on his annual PLAYlist project, singing on the album Chasing Goosebumps, uniquely created in a week with three dozen contributors. In early 2022, his longtime friend and A&R executive, Kardinal Offishall, signed him to Universal Music Canada. He’ll release several singles this year, with an album expected by the Fall of 2023.

“This time around, I’m very selective in terms of the content” – Shawn Desman

Lewis says he’s never stopped writing songs, and even records them and puts them away. “Sometimes things will pick up, if I I’m concentrating on working on a project, like I am now,” he says. “But, mostly, in the past several years, I’ve just been doing the family thing.

“My only real outlet musically would be if there’s other artists that I admire, and I like their songwriting, or I like their songs, I’ll keep my chops up by singing along, or just trying to get a feel for how people conceptualize, and how they communicate through song now.  I was trying to stay up to speed on that.”

For his new project, Kardi – who recently accepted a global A&R role at Def Jam – has taken the position of consultant for Lewis. Now in his late forties, Lewis says his perspective on many usual subjects has matured.

“I’m still wanting to speak about things that we might think about, but don’t always come up in conversation – whether it’s things that are happening in the world and how they make us feel, and, in particular, romantic situations,” says Lewis.

“I might not say all of it in one song, but my experiences have brought me to the understanding that a lot of love has to do with how I love, even how I love myself – the kinds of things that you look out for, and begin to understand, with regards to the give-and-take of relationships, and the delicate balance of what that dynamic can be.”

Shawn Desman, who’s signed a new publishing deal with CSS Rights Management, and new record deal with Wax Records, admits that in 2015, after he parted ways with a record label, “I kind of hated the music business, if I’m being completely honest. And on top of it, my wife became really sick, and I had to step away and just be a committed father and husband.” He was still running the annual nationwide dance competition Move – now in its 15th year – but he hadn’t released new music since his 2013 album, Alive.

“Then, just before the pandemic, my best friend [singer and professional songwriter in Nashville] Tebey calls me, and he’s, like, ‘Hey, I have this idea about doing the project, me and you, and we called it RadioClub. We’re gonna write, produce the music. We’re not necessarily gonna be the voices on the music, we’ll get features, and we’re just gonna put it out,’” says Desman.

Shawn Desman, Maniac, Video

Click on the image to play the video of Shawn Desman’s “Maniac”

“Now, looking back, I know exactly what Tebey was doing. He was just trying to get the bug of music back in my life, ‘cause he knew that there was this huge void. I wasn’t happy. There was just something missing. So the first thing we do is this house/dance remix of ‘Never Gonna Give You Up’ by Rick Astley, independently. We’re sitting on 25 million streams [of the song] right now.”

Desman says it did re-ignite his love of music. That, coupled with Drake telling him at the North Stars show that he needs to make music again, brought Desman back. He’s in the studio almost every day, and has a few new songs on the go, including one called “1985,” which he calls a “feel-good, nostalgic-type record.” He’s been working a lot with Wax owner Jamie Appleby, artist Alyssa Reid, and songwriter/producer Ryan Stewart.

“This time around, I’m very selective in terms of the content, because I do want it to resonate with where I am in my life, and not feel forced,” says Desman. “Let’s not try and be cool just for the sake of being cool. I’m not that 20-to-25-year-old guy, hanging out with the boys in the club. That’s just not my life right now. I’m seriously adulting. I got three kids at home.

“Anytime I get into a [writing] session with people, I’m, like, ‘Guys, I’m not talking about X, Y, Z,’ but then on the same coin, I think the reason why people continue to love Shawn Desman music is because it makes them feel a certain way. It makes them feel good. It’s happy. It’s positive. So I’m trying to stay more there, but what would I say in 2022, ‘23?

“I just want to make sure it resonates with me, and also with my audience – because my audience is not 15-year-olds. Although it’s funny, because I have a son who just started high school, and I was asking if his friends have heard my new song. What do they think? And he’s, like, ‘Dad, they actually love your new song.’  It’s really cool to see my kids finally being the age where they can see, and kind of realize, ‘Oh, my dad was – and maybe still is – a pretty big deal.’”