After leaving his stamp on more than 325 songs in the 50 years of his career so far – including four SOCAN Classics – Michel Robidoux was finally persuaded by Pierre Lapointe, two years ago, to revisit and record eight of his immortal songs, two new ones, and one that his mother wrote when he was three, “Petit Ange Blond.”

In the end, those 12 songs, produced by Lapointe’s invaluable collaborator, Philippe Brault, remind us all the extent to which Robidoux is a genius of melodies, composition and arrangements.

“I’m really enjoying this because I’m finally hearing those songs as I had imagined them when I wrote them,” says Robidoux. “Of course, arrangers will do what they please, and appropriate your songs once you let them go. I played Jean-Pierre [Ferland] Pierre Flynn’s superb version of ‘Le Petit Roi’ as well as the two stripped-down versions of ‘Le Chat du café des artistes’ [written by Lapointe and Ariane Moffat], and he said: good job, Robidoux!”

The Robidoux premier album also features Alex Nevsky, Bïa, Daniel Bélanger, Marie-Noëlle Claveau and Catherine Major, who all contribute to re-visiting Robidoux’s musical legacy and extensive track record: La Boîte à Clémence, L’Osstidcho, the Charlebois-Forestier classic where “Lindbergh” came from, Jean-Pierre Ferland’s classic Jaune, Leonard Cohen’s I’m Your Man, Renée Claude (“Ce soir je fais l’amour avec toi,” which is magnificently reprised by Major), the cult children’s TV show Passe-Partout (175 episodes co-written with Pierre F. Brault), and even a collaboration on Pierre Lapointe’s Punkt! (2013), not to mention his bass-plying duties in the country band Les ours.

And since Ferland was mentioned earlier, we had to talk about Jaune a bit, since two songs came from that album. Robidoux was part of the in-studio creative process until producer André Perry fired him and instead hired two Americans, Buddy Fasano (who came up with the piano intro for “Petit Roi”) and Art Phillips.

Once Jaune was released, Ferland hooked up with Robidoux and his touring musicians, who were part of the Bulldozer show at the Wilfrid-Pelletier hall (Guy Latraverse, the show’s producer, had authorized the onstage presence of a huge yellow bulldozer).

But no matter the nature of the adventure, Robidoux always was the figurative designated driver, the most sober one, in charge of keeping the brood under control in the studio or onstage. But once the job was done: party!

“Look at the Lindbergh album cover,” says Robidoux. “Next to my name, they wrote ‘Musical Connector.’ I was the link between all those out-there musicians, and I was in charge of making sure they’d get to the studio on time, and ready to play. We recorded part of it at the [now-defunct] Stereo Sound on Côte-des-Neiges [in Montréal] and the rest at André Perry’s studio. In 1967, Robert and I hung out at the Esquire Show Bar, which was the spot to hear American soul musicians. You can hear it on the album, especially the organ groove on ‘Engagement.’

“But by 1969, I was exhausted from being ‘Tout écartillé’ [the title of one of the songs which freely translates to “discombobulated”] in Paris with Robert. The big show at the Olympia, non-stop partying, I had to take a break, it was getting too heavy for me. That’s when I told Jean-Pierre I was available.”

Leonard Cohen is another one of Robidoux’s ex-bosses. Cohen had heard some of his work in 1988 and immediately hired him on for his I’m Your Man album, and Robidoux ended up as the album’s artistic and musical director, arranger and keyboardist.

“When the time came to record his vocal tracks, he was surprised that I was still there, while all the other musicians had left,” says Robidoux. “He said I was the first musician interested in sticking around for the vocal takes. He cut me three cheques for the three songs I co-wrote (two ended up on the album, ‘I’m Your Man’ and ‘Everybody Knows.’ And one of the three cheques bounced,” he says with a guffaw. “Cohen had access to an unlimited budget from Columbia (CBS Records) and he’d just gotten a Crystal Globe Award. But he still cut me a bounced cheque!” Turned out it had something to do with an overzealous bank teller. That infuriated Cohen and he immediately compensated Robidoux for his trouble.

Following an open-heart surgery and quadruple bypass, Robidoux now thinks of his health, first: “I smoked for 59 years. We weren’t exactly choir boys, back then. We basically abused every substance. But I’m an old Micmac, I’m tough…”

But why release an album now? “I chose to be a session musician and a composer,” he says. “But now is the time, man!” Robidoux plays on eight of the album’s 12 songs. “What am I proudest of? My Felix trophy for best arranger on the Passe-Partout Christmas album (Le Noël de Cannelle et Pruneau) ,because that award was voted by my peers. Let’s not forget François Dompierre was also in the running! That’s no small feat.”

Not bad for a musician who can’t read or write music. Does it make you want to record another album? “You bet!”

“When I was younger, I constantly questioned my style; nowadays, I’ve understood that it’s when I don’t overthink it that I’m truly myself…” Leif Vollebekk is lucky: he only needed three albums to arrive at this fundamental revelation. Not that his previous albums were banal, for from it: Inland and North Americana, two ambient folk gems, earned him rave reviews here and in Europe, where he was when we reached him for this interview. Following a gig in Paris, he had just arrived in Brighton for more concerts, part of a tour alongside American singer-songwriter Gregory Alan Isakov—“an amazing guy in the vein of Leonard Cohen”, says Vollebekk. Based on the reactions to Twin Solitude, his latest album released at the end of February, Vollebekk could easily headline his own tour, to which he says, “could be, but I like the idea of reaching an audience that’s not mine, plus being an opening act is a humbling experience.”

“The first take is always the best, because when I do a second one, it’s like I become the spectator of my own song.”

With his calm and delicate spoken voice, Vollebekk’s singing voice – often compared to that of Jeff Buckley – is surprisingly intense, with an elegant tremolo. His voice is agile and spontaneous, and its beauty is enhanced by a rough touch that he doesn’t try to polish off. “To me, the first take is always the best, because when I do a second one, it’s like I become the spectator of my own song,” says Vollebekk. “As a matter of fact, I end up kinda listening to my memory of that first take in my head. That’s when I start over-analyzing the song, and thinking about how to improve this part or that part of it: there was a nice crescendo here or a nice decrescendo there… Then you start copying yourself, and the original imperfect beauty of it fades away.”

Clearly, Vollebekk likes spontaneity. Indeed, the vast majority of Twin Solitude was recorded live with the whole band – and yes, indeed, almost entirely in one take. “I showed the chords to my musicians and we dove in,” he says. “Except for the strings, which were overdubbed – as well as “Vancouver Town” and “Elegy,” the sound of which I wasn’t satisfied with, and re-recorded in one quick session – I’ve always kept the free spirit of the first version.”

Vollebekk also uses this highly instinctive approach for his lyrics, which are much more impressionist than narrative. “The great Russian film director Andreï Tarkovsky once said something that made a big impression on me: my movies will never be symbolic, but always metaphoric,” says Vollebekk. “OK, I know it sounds pedantic to quote Tarkovsky, but it’s a way to express the fact that I want to create images and feelings, not messages. Words can have many meanings, and I don’t want to set their meaning.”

Although Vollebekk’s songs often seem to be floating in ether – and indeed, one of his songs is titled “Into the Ether” – they’re also often anchored in a specific territory: Telluride, Big Sky Country, Michigan, Vancouver… all places that can easily be located on the map of the mythical North Americana. “I don’t know where that’s from,” he says. “There were a lot on the first album and I tried to avoid that on the second, but it just came back on its own! It’s strange in a way, because I prefer songs about fleeting moments, yet moments that I can re-live every time I sing about them.”

Multiple meanings and evanescent sentiments are all well and good, but what about the album’s title, which – coming from a young man who sings in English, is from Montréal, but was raised in Ottawa by an Anglophone father and a Francophone mother – inevitably reminds us of the “two solitudes”? “I actually hadn’t thought about it at first, even though it’s part of who I am,” says Vollebekk. “In the rest of Canada, I feel really Francophone, and the reverse is also true. I’m very comfortable with my double identity.”

But no matter on what side of the linguistic fence he finds himself, Vollebekk has less chance of ending up alone.

Urvah Khan wants to build an army. The singer-songwriter from Toronto calls her blend of rock, rap and world rhythms “scrap,” and the Pakistani-Canadian has plans to spread her music and message of independence to “brown girls all over the world who want to get involved in rock music.”

Born in Karachi, Pakistan, raised in Dubai, UAE, and having immigrated to Canada with her parents at age 12, Khan, now 31, recently returned to her birthplace for what local press called the first shows by a female Pakistani punk artist. (She assembled a band of local musicians via Facebook video, looking for “like-minded rock ‘n’ roll warriors,” who she has since dubbed The Scrap Army.) With her bleached-blonde mohawk, tattoos, and piercings, she caused quite a scene before even setting foot on stage.

“I was riding in a rickshaw and got stuck in traffic” she recalls. “When I stuck my head out to see what was happening it turned out everyone was stopped to take photos of me. After my show, I couldn’t get backstage for all the people wanting selfies.”

It’s not just her wild looks that command attention, it’s her whole personality. Khan is decidedly high-energy. She speaks quickly, and with the confidence of someone who is their own manager, agent, and publicist. In 2010, she convinced guitarist/producer Ruben Huizenga (Glueleg, Edwin, David Usher), who she met at a gig, to help her transition from rap to rock.

“I had been writing rap lyrics, but was still experimenting with my sound,” she says. “I met Ruben and said, ‘I want to make a rock song.’ He was, like, ‘Hey, you can’t just make a rock song. You have to study rock, and understand what it’s about.’

“I thought, ‘I’ve never heard of a Pakistani woman making rock music.’ And I really want to be that woman.”

“I invited him to one of my shows,” she continues. “He was impressed with my onstage energy, and gave me an opportunity to write a rock song with him. But the first song we made was super Western. I found it hard to relate to it. At that point, we decided to use rock music as a base, but incorporate more world instruments. A form of rock music that would appeal to other South East Asian kids.”

Khan’s first recording, 2011’s Universal Rhythm Venture EP, showed a young artist boasting, “I am me, I’ll always be!” while still experimenting to find a sound of her own. By the time of her first full-length, 2013’s cheekily titled The Wrath of Urvah Khan, she’d taken Huizenga’s advice and had become a student… of Black Sabbath. In between her original rap-rock, punk, South Asian bhangra, and calypso songs of empowerment and independence, the album features a cover of the metal band’s “N.I.B.”

“When I heard Black Sabbath, I was so impressed,” she says. “Tony Iommi’s riffs, Ozzy’s singing – one in a million, right? In my heritage, we have a lot of Bollywood songs, Indian music. And I find Black Sabbath has a cinematic feel. They totally won me over. I thought, ‘I’ve never heard of a Pakistani woman making rock music.’ And I really want to be that woman. I don’t want to be the second of anything. I want to be the first of something.”

We ask if by “second of anything,” she’s talking about M.I.A. Comparisons to the British-Tamil superstar are somewhat easy to make, even if that’s more the fault of limited exposure and references for South East Asian women in Western music than any true similarities between them.

“When I started rapping and doing live performances, working with electronic producers, right off the bat I was getting comparisons to M.I.A.,” she admits. “Don’t get me wrong. She’s a total inspiration. But I didn’t want to be the next M.I.A… I wanted to make something original, something that represented my journey.”


And thus began the full-throttle drive to create a Scrap Army. Inspired by her gigs in Pakistan, Khan has just started writing the follow-up to 2015’s Rock Khan Roll, this next one an EP aimed squarely at her new-found Pakistani audience, with material in both English and Urdu. She continues to partner with Huizenga as a co-writer and producer (he also plays guitar in her live band) but Khan has also been working with renowned Pakistani composer/songwriter Sohail Rama, who now lives in Mississauga, ON. When complete, she’ll take it back to Pakistan, where she wants not only more gigs for herself, but to create a live music series that encourages female-fronted punk and rock acts.

“There are no female punks there,” she explains. “The freedom that allows me to rock that look, boldly, when I travel there, was given to me by Canada. So I want to take everything Canada offers me and create a platform for more women who come from where I come from. It feels good to have big dreams. And to chase them like a mad woman.”