On the short list of universal truths, it seems fair to say that all music is medicine – something to uplift sagging spirits, a true balm for the soul during troubled times. And the world has seen some pretty troubled times of late. So it comes as no surprise to find that, since the start of the global COVID-19 pandemic, more songwriters are choosing to create music designed for healing.

While any music can offer positive benefits to its listeners, these creators are intentionally incorporating traditional healing techniques in their songwriting, with the goal to provide health and wellness – to themselves as well as others.

Desirée Dawson is a singer-songwriter from Vancouver who won the CBC Searchlight contest in 2018. Dawson’s powerful, moving video for her song “Meet You at The Light” won the Music Video of the Year Award at the 2022 edition of the South by Southwest (SXSW) Music Conference and Festival. She also received a 2022 JUNO nomination for Adult Contemporary Album of the Year for her most recent release, also called Meet You at the Light. She’s a yoga teacher as well, who first witnessed the transformative power of music in her classes.

“Before I was performing onstage, I started singing in my yoga classes,” she says. “At the very end of class, I would share one song. Honestly, I was getting a response from people, like, ‘What did you just do? What was that wizardry?’ Having an intentional space, where people were allowed to be vulnerable and allow the music to wash over them, I think it made me realize this is a really powerful thing.”

Lia Liza is an R&B singer, songwriter, and model born in Vancouver and now working in Los Angeles, who admits her goal is no less than raising the frequency of the world through her music. She first felt the connection between music and healing as a child in church, and now uses various meditative practices, including gong baths, in performance – with the intention to bring others to a state of high vibration that will lift them up.

“A gong bath is the type of meditation where you bathe in the healing vibrations of sound,” she explains. “I was able to do a gong bath meditation to start off my friend David Sebastian’s album release party. And just the response that I got from people there, how they were able to relax, and really get present, and be in a state of awareness, and focus on his album after… it really set the tone. And I love to see that blend.”

Music and Mental Health

As a kind of corollary to the idea of music as medicine, many SOCAN members are moving toward an acknowledgment of mental health issues as a first step toward wellness. For one example, Serena Ryder’s JUNO Award-winning album The Art of Falling Apart, was inspired by her own keynote address dealing with the subject. For another, young singer-songwriter Charlie Houston recently released Bad Posture, the title of which refers to the way the artist’s posture shifts whenever she’s sad, nervous, or anxious. She says, “Mental illness these days is more commonplace. Every young adult right now is struggling with something.” That said, music as a healing medicine is more crucial than ever.

In July of 2020, in the wake of the first pandemic restrictions and the reaction to George Floyd’s murder, Liza held a “Rhythm & Rise” event in Vancouver for herself and others to “come together as a community to love and support one another” – including breath work with Andrew Ao, and mindful conversation with Dora Kamau. Donations went to Hogans Alley, G.L.I.T.S Inc., and the Vancouver Black Therapy & Advocacy Fund, and contributors included Lululemon, Harlow Skin Co., and Woash Wellness.

Some may equate sound healing with New Age music, a mostly instrumental style of soundscapes first popularized in the 1970s. But one major difference with these artists is that they’re composing popular music with lyrics – where the words, vocal incantations, instrumentation, and intentions all combine to produce a new version of music medicine.

“New Age really was just a word to describe the discovery of global cultures by White European settlers,” says Alysha Brilla, whose global folk fusion music has been nominated for several JUNO Awards. “I think we’re coming to a place where we can appreciate that all of these global medicinal traditions aren’t really new, and are very rooted in scientific healing. And I think the more that the West embraces sound as a legitimate healing modality, the closer we’ll be to being able to help where we are in society – which needs a lot of bridging, I think.”

Each of these songwriters has been working with sound healing techniques for much, if not all, of their careers. But all acknowledge that the pandemic brought a greater interest in health and wellness, which inspired a more direct approach to writing songs that might help.

Brilla’s 2022 album Circle was a direct result of the pandemic, and wanting to create music to uplift. It includes the track “Hold the Hope,” which invites listeners to lean on her when they’re feeling low.

“Once COVID hit is when I started working on this album,” says Brilla. “And I noticed that all of my musical peers, all of my family, all of my friends, everyone, was especially needing to talk more about mental health, and how to care for ourselves. That’s how this album came to be.”

At the same time, these are artists are committed to ensuring their own mental health doesn’t take a backseat either. Prioritizing self-care in a business that can grind you down isn’t always easy. On a recent tour with Serena Ryder, Dawson found herself losing her voice, and her bandmates convinced her to cancel a gig for the longer-term good.

“We’re in an industry where we’re told to run ourselves dry, and to just go, and go, until we literally collapse,” she says. “I feel very grateful because so many people that I surround myself with are, like, ‘Hey, let’s do this differently, so that our music is also a reflection of how we’re living.’”

Brilla, who was signed to a major label deal with Lava/Atlantic in her teens, admits that being an independent artist now allows her to make decisions that benefit her own health, and stay in line with the message in her music.

“I’ve always known it’s more rewarding to be able to build community and focus on the real, altruistic, medicinal power of music,” she says. “I don’t think I was born into this world to make millions of dollars. I think I was born into this world to help share the healing power of music.”

SOCAN member Lisa LeBlanc has always had a knack for transforming a negative into a positive. So it’s no wonder that, in the context of pandemic adversity, her album Chiac Disco was born — a real ray of musical sunshine that allowed her to walk away with the Album of the Year—Pop Félix Award at the Premier Gala de l’ADISQ held on Nov. 2, 2022 at MTELUS. It’s a fun, collaborative album — and Lisa’s first co-writing experience — that resonated with her audience, and even landed her on the short list for the Polaris Music Prize. We had a chat with her backstage at the Premier Gala de l’ADISQ.

Lisa Leblanc Video thumbnail

Click on the image to play the interview with Lisa Leblanc

His alias is Anatole, but you can now call him by his actual name, Alexandre Martel. On his third, eponymous project, the Québec City singer-songwriter unmasks himself, and is re-born.

AnatoleAfter producing some of Québec’s most impactful albums of the past four years – for Hubert Lenoir, Lou-Adriane Cassidy and Thierry Larose, to name just a few –  Martel questioned his own career as an artist, at least as he envisioned it early on.

“Collaborating with them and producing their albums confronted me with different visions of what a song is. Each of these encounters had an influence on me,” he says. “Being in orbit of their success [of some of these artists], working for them in a supporting role, made me realize that the spotlight wasn’t important to me as I thought. I found myself fulfilled by my role as a producer and a creator. I no longer felt the urge to write that I had at 20.”

Anatole had to pick up songwriting again – a bit out of obligation – as part of Boutique Pantoum, a series of video recordings organized last year by Le Pantoum, a music creation complex in Québec City. “Initially, I just wanted to re-visit my old stuff, but it didn’t fit with the concept of the video,” he says. “So I wrote songs especially for that project, after four years of not writing music at all.”

Gradually, his Anatole alter ego, known for his cold electro-pop sounds and theatrical stage show, grew less and less appealing, at least in his original iteration. “After the Testament tour (his second album, released in 2018), we were just fed up with what we were doing,” Martel admits, talking about the very nature of the project, which he created with several friends – including co-producer and arranger Simon Paradis.

“Our first goal was to challenge the expectations that people normally have when they go to a rock concert,” he says. “Except that by constantly doing that, we just created a new set of expectations. We created something like an endless bidding war. I felt like putting a stop to all that. I wanted to do a 180 and explore another avenue.”

That’s how the character of Anatole got a fresh start. He’s less flamboyant and more down-to-earth than he used to be. “I wanted to make the curtain between the character and myself less opaque,” says  Martel. “I wanted to make the boundary between the two as thin as possible. That’s when I had the idea to use more vocals and harmonies. It was my way of bringing humanity back to the centre of it all. I wanted to go beyond the artificial aspect of the music [I used to make].”

The fact that the songs have no titles, and are simply numbered, is in line with the essence of this concept album. “I figured that since I’m much less in ‘representation’ mode [through my character], the songs should follow suit,” says Martel. “That’s how we ended up numbering the songs [in the order in which they were created].”

The nine songs on this third album, aptly titled Alexandre Martel, are much more geared towards folk, rock, and jazzy ‘70s pop. The complicity between Anatole and his faithful collaborators (notably multi-instrumentalist Jean-Étienne Collin-Marcoux, Antoine Bourque and the aforementioned Lou-Adriane Cassidy) is highlighted not only in the vocal harmonies, but also in the very essence of the compositions.

“It’s the most collaborative album I’ve ever made,” he says. “Back in the day, Simon [Paradis] and I would create detailed demos of all the arrangements, and then we’d record them with the band. This time around, I would come to them with more schematic tunes. I had a pre-meditated direction, say, I wanted something centred around acoustic guitar with vocals and less synths, and the arrangement would happen in the studio. Sometimes, four or five of us would sit to find a guitar line that was a single bar long. It’s sometimes hard to tell who’s doing what.”

This new approach is also aligned with the album’s lyrics. The writing on Alexandre Martel evokes this idea of new beginnings, re-birth, and breaking cycles. “The lyrics truly amplify the emotions that the music paints,” says Martel. “I went for more personal lyrics that were aligned with my intention of doing a [more organic] human-centred album. I wanted a finished product whose music and lyrics were coherent. The stuff I used to do was colder and distant. This time around, I’m trying to sing [my songs] with an emotion that’s closer to authenticity.”

In this regard, the most recent album by Montréal folk group Bolduc Tout Croche, released in early 2022, was particularly inspiring for Anatole. “The song ‘D’où c’que j’viens’ really moved me,” he says. “The lyrics are simple and say a lot. There is a day-to-day tragedy in there, a way of finding beauty and grandeur in everyday tedium. My song ‘Toune 9’ is an homage [to Bolduc Tout Croche],” he says, referencing a sometimes autobiographical song where he expresses his attachment to the Limoilou neighbourhood of Québec City.

In this spirit of revival, Anatole touches on a more political or, at least, a slightly more “protest song” tip on the very catchy “Toune 2.” “It’s a bit of a criticism of what I call Instagram thinking and sharing meaningless slogans,” he says, referring to trendy concepts and words that people and companies use to give themselves good conscience online. “A lot of people use that to validate their non-involvement by building this fake militancy aura for themselves. My tune says to go beyond the surface, beyond the frame.”

On his new album, by going beyond his own persona, Anatole can claim to have led by example.