Sometimes a single song will lead to a whole new album. Such was the case for Michel Rivard with “Roi de rien” (“King of Nothing”), whose words and music aligned themselves so easily in the songwriter’s mind that he could clearly see there was far more to come, a daunting prospect for an artist who was feeling somewhat spent after completing his second season as in-house songwriting teacher for the popular Star Académie reality show, writing songs for the Filles de Caleb folk opera and making a comeback as a stage actor.

“I felt over-stretched,” Rivard explained. “After that mad rush, I was hoping things would slow down awhile. But no, the song “Roi de rien” came to me all in one piece, very much inspired by my daily walks in my new neighbourhood of Plateau Mont-Royal, which I love for its cozy lanes and beautiful trees. This new tune was telling me, ‘I’m the opening song of a new series!’ This all had something to do with my moving back into the city and my desire to reconnect with the Montrealer in me.” For the next two years, Rivard was busy writing, composing and planning intimate concerts in small venues to test his new material. As the lyrics of his song “Et on avance” say, “Tomorrow never is what we thought it would be.”

This applies to the title song of Rivard’s new album, Roi de rien, for if Rivard were king, he would be the king of the intimate, of life’s little things and of acute observations that make one smile. “Styromousse,” a song about a man who leaves a city the same way he would break up with a woman, is a case in point. Rivard agrees that, in real life, he is not the King of Nothing his album is portraying. “You’re right,” he says, “I’m not referring to myself specifically in that song, but using the first person inclusively. I’ve always been fascinated by the infinitely small, by the minutiae of interpersonal relationships. When I came up with the expression ‘king of nothing,” I had no idea of what the rest of the song was going to be about. But, for me, these words expressed the comforting thought of having no responsibilities, of placing oneself above no-one and of not feeling the crushing weight of power. That was reassuring. The connecting dots of the song are that one can feel happy about a radio that’s gone dead and enjoy the silence, and that looking at the rain through your kitchen window can help you see the reality of your life. It’s far from being depressing.”

Wherever he is, Michel Rivard is busy writing music at some level, whether he is walking his dog with his recorder or repeatedly sending himself text message reminders of the words and phrases that go through his mind as he goes about his daily activities. Born in the 1950s, Rivard writes songs the way a novelist creates stories, but without giving way to soul-searching, and always remaining aware of the fine line that exists between private information and public knowledge – even in art.

“Yes, my repertoire includes a few songs that are definitely about me, such as “Toujours pour elles,” which deals with my love for my daughters, but I would be unable to write a song containing painful admissions about myself. It’s not my bag. What I like to do is create small pieces of fiction rather than documentaries. Plus, the moment you start looking for rhymes, you change parts of the puzzle and move even further away from real-life situations.” Rivard keeps writing his way into those magic moments where phrases scribbled in a notebook naturally fall into the lyrics of a new song, when words and music coalesce and an alternate entity suddenly appears. “Yes, you can use tips – writing is a craft – but it is also true that part of the process cannot be explained. And nobody can teach you that.”

The idea for the setup of the upcoming recording of Roi de rien came to Rivard as he was performing a country music version of his song “Maudit Bonheur” (Damned Happiness”) with the Mountain Daisies. “For the recording of L’Open Country de Mountain Daisies,” the artist recalls, we all performed live in the Piccolo Studios as if we were onstage. I wanted to reproduce this experience.” To obtain the particular sound he was after, Rivard hired producer Éric Goulet and spent ten days in the studio with his Flybin Band cohorts (Rick Haworth, Mario Légaré, Sylvain Clavette), recording all 15 songs programmed songs. “We often laid down two full tracks in a single day,” Michel Rivard boasts about the recording of his 13th album, a collection of hopeful and insightful songs by a creative giant whose unshakeable artistic integrity remains a shining beacon of our musical landscape.


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The day “Rick ‘n’ roll” gave way to rock ‘n’ roll will go down in history as another notch in the belt of independent Canadian songwriters.

After torturing its future listeners – maybe “torturing” is too strong a word, so let’s go with “teasing” – with seven days of 24-hours-a-day airings of British singer Rick Astley’s 1987 pop smash “Never Gonna Give You Up” ad nauseum, new Toronto radio station Indie88 finally whelped itself into existence with Arcade Fire’s “Ready To Start” on July 31.

With its noon launch on the 88.1 FM radio dial, Indie88 marked a new chapter for Canadian independent tunesmiths, a touch of fresh air in this less-than-a-penny-rate-per-spin era of emerging new media platforms.

“Our condition of licence is at 40 percent Canadian content, of which 60 percent must be emerging artists,” explains Indie88 program director Adam Thompson, who cites Hannah Georgas, Dan Mangan and Toronto band Pup as early station listener favourites.

“So there’s unlimited potential. We don’t put conditions on what we play or what we don’t play. It’s basically, do the work, play the shows, cut through and you have a home here.”

Since Canadian songwriters have been earning an average of roughly $1.35 per play on the station (as of the August 2013 SOCAN distribution) , it serves as a reminder that in an age where innovative, digitally-driven technological models are being ushered in with uncertain compensation models for music creators, the performance royalties generated by radio airplay still stand as a significant, reliable source of income.

And while most self-contained recording artists would give anything for mainstream radio airplay, the reality is that there are at least a few radio champions of independent music in Canada.

“You can kind of ballpark it, but sometimes there’s a huge spike because some radio station spun the hell out of it.” — Royal Wood

Domestically, for songs ranging from one minute to seven, Canadian indie songwriters  can rely on: campus and community stations (a SOCAN survey rate of $4.60 per spin, but only reflecting the survey period, which can last from three to 14 days annually, depending on the license fee of the station); commercial radio formats (the BDS or Broadcast Data Systems-monitored rate of $1.35 per spin); and CBC Radio 2, which has a reach of 2.1 million listeners and pays an average $27.50 per airing. These rates were calculated for SOCAN’s August 2013 distribution, and change slightly with each quarterly distribution.

Songwriters receive SOCAN performance royalty cheques four times a year, and the income generated for Canadian indie musicians is often  significant, but can vary widely in size.

“I’ve never counted performance income as income I can rely on, because you never have any way of truly knowing what it’s going to be,” says JUNO-nominated, Toronto-based singer and songwriter Royal Wood from a tour stop in Switzerland.

Wood, whose music is played regularly on CBC Radio 2, and campus and community stations, cites the ebb and flow of career activity as a reality affecting royalty generation, which ebbs and flows in turn.

“You can kind of ballpark it,” he says, “but sometimes there’s a huge spike because some radio station spun the hell out of it, and somebody used your song again in multiple countries. So there’s always that question of ‘What if?’ I don’t always pay my mortgage as much with my SOCAN royalty income; I put that back into my career.”

Of course, in a group situation with more than one songwriter, the royalties have to be split between the co-writing band members, notes ex-Two Hours Traffic singer-songwriter Liam Corcoran.

“It’s substantial at times, but I certainly wouldn’t be able to make a living off of what we’re getting,” says Corcoran, who started the ECMA Award-winning Charlottetown, P.E.I. power-pop quartet a dozen years ago before their split in October 2013.


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Darkness and light are key sonic, lyrical and visual components of Basia Bulat’s new album, Tall Tall Shadow. There’s the striking black-and-white imagery of the CD cover, the imaginatively contrasting musical shadings, and the soul-searching lyrics reflecting on recent loss.

The result is a compelling third full-length album from the Toronto-based singer-songwriter, one being warmly embraced right out of the starting gate by both her loyal – and growing – international fan base and the critics. At press time, noted British newspaper The Independent had just named “Tall Tall Shadow” one of their Three Songs of the Week. “I’m there with Bruce Springsteen and Leonard Cohen songs,” says Bulat. “I could do a lot worse!”

Tall Tall Shadow showcases Bulat’s transition from folk music to a more textured and contemporary sound. “I have changed, my life has changed, so I think it’s a natural progression in terms of the sounds and the production,” she says. “This record is less directly rooted in roots music. I still feel like I’m coming from that tradition, but it is definitely pushing that boundary.”

Assisting this evolution were her co-producers, Grammy Award-winning engineer Mark Lawson (The Suburbs, Colin Stetson) and Arcade Fire’s Tim Kingsbury. “I think the focus between the three of us was, ‘What is the best way to tell the story in this song?’” Bulat explains. “We tried many different ways of arranging different songs. Sometimes that was with a full band, or sometimes just one instrument and the vocal.”

The songs on the album range from the full-blooded feel of the title track and “Never Let Me Go” to the sparse setting of “It Can’t Be You” (vocals and charango only) and “Paris or Amsterdam” (voice and keyboards only).

“I wanted to see what happened if I started writing from a really uncensored or direct place.”

Bulat’s songwriting also took a different turn this time. “I had a whole bunch of songs written, but I scrapped them after many changes in my life,” she says. “I was going through a period of loss, and they were just not feeling right to me. I just wanted something very intuitive. I wanted to see what happened if I started writing from a really uncensored or direct place.”

Via an early deal with famed U.K. label Rough Trade, Bulat quickly gained a European following, while a Polaris Prize shortlist nod (for 2007’s Oh, My Darling) and JUNO Award nomination (for 2010’s Heart of My Own) helped spread the word domestically.

Bulat is proud of her Polish heritage (she chose the Polish Combatants Association Hall in Toronto as the venue for a three-night stand in October), and she cites performances in that country as a career highlight. “That is awesome,” she says. “So much fun! They’re so patient there with my terrible Polish. I have been slowly trying to work on an album in Polish, too.”

Her love of music, and talent for it, has deep family roots. “My mom played classical music and taught classical piano and guitar,” she says. “My grandmother always sang Polish carols and songs, and she and my great uncle had perfect harmony when they sang together.”

Basia’s brother, Bobby Bulat, is a skilled drummer who has long been part of her band, while her mother was always supportive of their passion for music. “My mother always got it,” she says. “She was the one figuring out how to get tickets to punk rock shows for Bobby!”

Bulat began playing piano at three, and honed her vocal and musical talents at school. “I sang in the school choir and was in youth orchestra and youth band,” she recalls. Later studies in English literature and writing at the University of Western Ontario in London also had an impact.

And her skill as a multi-instrumentalist is now put to good use. At her recent Toronto concerts, Bulat played piano, keyboards, autoharp and dulcimer, as well as guitar. She jokingly told the audience, “I used to be a real folkie, then I got all these guitar pedals I don’t know how to use.”

FYI
Publisher:
Secret City Publishing/Ptak Music
Discography: Basia Bulat (EP, 2005), Oh, My Darling (2007), Heart of My Own (2010), Tall Tall Shadow (2013)
SOCAN Member since 2008
Visit www.basiabulat.com


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