It’s not unheard of for some Canadian artists to achieve far greater success in a single country abroad than they do at home. Historical examples include Saga in Germany and the Tea Party in Australia, and you can now add Neon Dreams in South Africa to that list.

The Halifax-based alt-pop duo (vocalist/guitarist Frank Kadillac and drummer Adrian Morris) has certainly fared well at home since forming in 2015. Neon Dreams won a 2020 JUNO Award for Breakthrough Group of the Year, scored a Gold single with 2016’s “Marching Bands,” a collaboration with Kardinal Offishall, and have earned tens of millions of cumulative streams for their material.

Over the past year, however, South Africa has emerged as a happy new home for Neon Dreams, bringing them a first Platinum single, for “Life Without Fantasies.” First appearing on the 2019 album Sweet Dreams Till Sunbeams, that song had minimal impact in Canada, but later caught on big-time in South Africa, grabbing Neon Dreams’ attention.

From his current base in Capetown, Frank Kadillac relates the unconventional song trajectory. “Adrian watches where we get played, and he says, “We’ve got a spike in South Africa with ‘Life Without Fantasies.’ It kept going up their charts, and I grabbed my ukulele to do a new version to say thanks to fans there. That’s my favourite song, and I was so grateful for their support. That video went viral there, as it turns out ukulele music is big in South Africa!”

The South African opportunity offered Neon Dreams a lifeline during a dark time, and they seized it eagerly. “In the middle of the pandemic, we were only just hanging onto being artists,” says Kadillac. “This was a glimmer of hope. Fans there said, ‘You don’t know how your music makes us feel and helps us here. You have to come here and experience it.’” Neon Dreams riskily booked a 16-date tour there in May of 2021, and all the shows sold out, and proceeded without a hitch. An 11-date return visit begins April 20, 2022, followed by Canadian dates.

“Fans there would tell us they need music like ours to get them through the day” – Frank Kadillac of Neon Dreams

The level of fan enthusiasm on that first tour deeply affected Kadillac. “The environment in South Africa is different than North America,” he says. “It’s still a Third World country, and fans there would tell us they need music like ours to get them through the day.”

Kadillac has remained in Capetown, writing songs, recording, and making videos. One new track recorded there, “Little Dance,” has just been released internationally, and is quickly gaining momentum.

The singer now injects a positive and uplifting message and tone into his music. “I want it to be a bottle of sunshine you can drink from,” he says, while acknowledging his own soul-searching. “After ‘Marching Bands’ did so well in Canada, I got distracted by the success. I went down the wrong path with the wrong people and it hurt my spirit. I found my spirit again in 2018, and now I want to help people find their true selves.”

Participation in a 2018 SOCAN Kenekt songwriting camp in Nicaragua boosted Kadillac’s personal and creative growth.  At Kenekt, Kadillac co-wrote the Ria Mae single “Hold Me” with Mae, Lowell, and John Nathaniel. The experience also inspired him to write the 2018 Neon Dreams single “Guilty.”

“It really helped me gain confidence, and to trust my gut as a songwriter,” he recalls. “This was also the start of my healing phase. At that camp, a session for meditation and yoga every morning was a huge benefit.”

Neon Dreams’ success has been achieved in DIY fashion. The group releases its records on its own imprint, Dreaming Out Loud Records, which has a distribution deal with Warner Music Canada.

“Our team all grew up together and is like family,” says Kadillac. “Our manager, Matthew Sampson, is a former band member. I think a lot of our success comes from our love for each other. We understand what we all want and have shared goals.”

Thus OwlsErika and Simon Angell refuse to fall into the trap of music that becomes a habit, a routine, or a repetition. Their duo project Thus Owls has found a way to re-invent itself, album after album, for nearly 15 years. Their double-album Who Would Hold You If The Sky Betrayed Us?, released on March 4, 2022, explores even further the unbeaten path where they’ll most likely never set foot again.

This fifth project is fraught with so many elements, launched with the deep ardour of true artists, that it’ll always be a little idealistic to pretend that they can ever play the same songs in their original form. “We love that space where compositions and improvisation meet. And what we love even more is blurring the line between the two,” says Erika. Simon adds, “For our first album in 2009, when we still had our Swedish band, that was our vibe. Full circle.”

Founded in Stockholm, Thus Owls have been based in Montréal for many, many years, now. And yet, the pandemic has sown seeds of doubt that can be heard in Erika’s lyrics throughout the album. “My words are my own, they’re my diary,” she confesses. “I write for months on end, then look at what I wrote. I like improvising melodies in that second phase.

“For the new album, I wanted to find out how I felt about uprooting myself. Being disconnected from my family, my home, and even more so because of the pandemic – it changed me. Not all humans have to speak a language that’s not their mother tongue, day after day. I wanted to know who the uprooted me is, and that’s what I sing about here.”

If you don’t hear much of the Thus Owls sound in Québec, it’s not necessarily because it’s the Swedish sound, but rather because they embrace a broader musical ideology that shapes musicians there. “It’s free jazz,” Erika suggests initially. Says Simon, “To be more precise, a lot of different styles will incorporate some sort of jazz improvisation over there, whether it’s pop, rock, contemporary.” Erika adds,  “All of my friends I went to school with 20 years ago now approach music with a greater fluidity in mixing genres. We have an urge, and you can hear it, to avoid pigeonholing anything. Music doesn’t need to have a name.”

While their whole creative process seems to have been born in the heart of a fanfare in a sold-out stadium, the last two years have instead brought the Angells back to a dense and multi-faceted expression of their music, standing in front of almost nothing.

“When you play for a large crowd, it brings out the fun, it opens the door to possibilities and, yes, that’s how we like to think of our music,” Erika elaborates. Simon says, “What’s really interesting about our new album, however, is that even though we’ve managed to invite friends to play with us [including the three saxophonists Claire Devlin (tenor), Adam Kinner (tenor) and Jason Sharp (bass sax)], the album is built so that we can always invite someone else to the stage on the road. It’s the very essence of this project: freedom.”

When they’re in the studio, it’s very common that the first take is the one, and they “definitively never do more than two or three.” “A song’s energy is like a flame,” Erika surmises. “After three takes, the fire is gone. So, when we’re in the studio, we all play together in the same room, except for me; I’m in the vocal booth. We light up together, and we record as best as we can exactly how we would play onstage.”

When the pandemic struck, Thus Owls were finalizing the music for the movie Woman In Car. Their song “Lovers Are Falling” is nominated at the Canadian Screen Awards in the Best Original Song category. This type of project takes the couple out of its usual workflow. “You need to conceive music differently,” confides Simon. “The accent isn’t on the music. You need to reel it in.” Erika adds, “When I compose, I see colours in my mind. In the case of film music, the colour palette is already there, you just need to draw the contours.”

Thus, in spite of the heavy sounds and complex, multi-layered arrangements, Thus Owls travel lightly: a simple starting point that gets painted with all the possibilities found along the way. “We decide to listen to ourselves,” says Erika adamantly. “We bow to the unpredictable.”

On Encre rose, his ninth album, Corneille sincerely lays bare his lucid vision of the world, and gives life to a dream he’s been cherishing for a long time: paying homage to early-‘80s soul and R&B.

Corneille“I’ve always wanted to do an album that was painted with that colour palette,” says the singer, a fan of Stevie Wonder, Hall & Oates, Prince, Luther Vandross, Shalamar, and so many more artists who left their mark on that era.

And in this case, “always” means for at least the past 15 years. Fifteen years during which the singer-songwriter kept his desire buried deep inside himself.

Yet two songs on his previous album (“Manque de sommeil” and “Le bonheur”) hinted at this musical direction, with rhythmic guitars, funky basslines, and an almighty groove. Corneille was finally letting go.

“The issue, as far as I’m concerned, is that it [the late ’70s and early ’80s] was a period where soul and R&B were all about love songs, and it’s not in my DNA as a writer to go towards that theme,” he says. “I didn’t want to be limited,” he adds, as an explanation for the time it took to come out with this project. “It’s the music I listen to in my car, the music I’m a fan of, so I was very conscious of the amount of work it was going to require. I was a bit shy and reserved, because I’m so intimately bonded to that music.”

To achieve this coupling of the music he loves with his songwriting DNA, Corneille opened himself up to the world, and everything that’s upended our daily lives and societies since he released Parce qu’on aime in 2019. “I found inspiration in the emotionally-charged news about this unprecedented time, when the West has never been so fragile,” he says, referring in particular to the pandemic, and the global geopolitical balance which, in recent months, has gone from unstable to completely chaotic. “I wanted to make sure this would be genuinely introspective.”

Corneille’s intent with this new offering is for it to be like an outstretched hand, an invitation to re-build bridges. As the title indicates, the lyrics are a reflection of the images of love, passion, and tenderness, and of the colour pink (“rose” in French). “We need to hear that kind of message, because while we lived through a pandemic and a political crisis, there was another crisis: the one of words,” he says. “We were swimming in vitriol and inflammatory discourse, and I myself let myself be caught in the taking-sides trap. The more I got caught in that mindset, the less I could recognize myself,” he confesses. “For a long time, I comforted myself by thinking it was easy to have a dialogue with me… Until the pandemic happened, until [the death of] George Floyd happened, until the #MeToo movement happened… I realized that I was just like everyone else, and I could be quick to pass judgment. The more I gave in to these natural human impulses, the worse I got. I asked myself what layer I felt like adding. Should I add a layer of anger? Do we feel like exploring new avenues? I had only one priority when I wrote those words: opening a dialogue. And the only way to do that is through benevolence.”

The path to this reflection was facilitated by the singer’s wife, Sofia de Medeiros. The actress, model, and Portuguese-Québécois lyricist, to whom he’s been married for 16 years – wrote or co-wrote the lyrics to all 10 of the songs on the album. “Each one of these songs is an extension of a conversation I had with Sofia,” says Corneille. “To be honest, the main thing I learned is that we would benefit from managing our societies the same way we manage our couples relationships,” he says.

I had only one priority when I wrote those words: opening a dialogue”

“The worst thing that can happen to a couple is not being on the same wavelength,” he continues. “It’s OK to disagree, but the goal is to not go to bed angry. You share responsibilities and interests. And a harmonious couple is one that understands its common interests. These last few years have made us understand that everything that’s happening in China, Africa, and now in Ukraine, is of concern to us, too. The notion of inter-dependency is applicable now more than ever, which is where seeking our common interests kicks in. And that’s why it’s important to build something together. This lesson from married life can be applied to every aspect of everyday life. It’s a huge challenge, but it’s commensurate with the need.”

If his marriage is the foundation of the reflections that populate his new songs, his children are largely responsible for the clearly optimistic tone. “That’s the great novelty in my optimism!” he says, in a kind of self-congratulation. “As a father of two, I’m more anchored in real life. My first albums were created in a kind of utopia, but nowadays, I have to include reality in what I do. Besides, I find hope more powerful when it relates to something real.”

And hope does shine brightly on many of his new songs, especially on the scorching “Pause, Nouveau monde” and “Nouveau pouvoir.” Yet, it’s on other, less immediately attention-grabbing songs, that hope takes on a deeper meaning. A nod to Muhammad Ali’s one-time boxing technique, which consisted of voluntarily staying on the ropes in order to let the opponent tire himself out by dishing out the blows, “Rope-a-Dope” symbolizes “a different approach to life,” which relies on resistance rather than constant and necessarily exhausting attack.

*“People didn’t get what Ali was doing at first, but then it dawned on us that he was waging a psychological war on his opponent by exhausting him physically,” says Corneille. “Then, at the very end, he dealt a blow that ended the fight. It’s a beautiful metaphor for life: sometimes we feel like we have to retaliate to every single blow life throws at us. Except sometimes it’s better to avoid those blows, and save our best for the right moment. The whole idea is to save one’s precious time.”

“Saving one’s precious time” is also the message that carries “Petit pas,” a song Sofia and Corneille have dedicated directly to their eldest son, now 12 years old. “It came from something Sofia and I realized: nothing ever moves fast enough for him,” says Corneille. “He wants to get there before he gets there! And as we tried to show him that not everything had to go so fast, we realized that we were also teaching ourselves a lesson.

“As adults, we’re all caught up in this fast-paced culture, both in the professional realm, and in the more intimate realms of our lives. But the absurdity of it all is that we’re racing against people who aren’t even going in the same direction as us. The result is that a lot of people get to their destination, but feel just as empty as when they started. They ran during all that time, but they’re not even happy to have made it to the finish line,” he says. “In a 100-metre dash, there’s only one destination: the finish line. It makes sense to be competitive in that context. But that’s sport. Life is not a competitive sport.”

Corneille knows what he’s talking about when he says that. He learned it in the wake of his meteoric rise to fame with his first two albums. “That was in 2005 and 2006, when I was at the peak of my career,” he says. “I was playing sold-out arenas in Europe like the Zénith, series of concerts at the Olympia… And at the end of each show, I felt empty. I’d then go to my five-star hotel room and think I wasn’t getting anywhere, spiritually, no better than when I was in my flat in Longueuil before it all took off.

“I’ve put so much effort in for my career, sacrificed so much thinking everything would be fine once I made it. Except nothing was fine, and I got more problems instead! Managing success is not easy. No one teaches you how to manage that,” he confides. “The thing is, it’s a lesson that’s very hard to convey, much like ‘money can’t buy happiness’. So yeah, I do understand what motivates everyone to run like they do.”

He understands, but has chosen to slow down; baby steps. This is the new Corneille, one who now understands the power of scaling back.