“Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.” – Jean-Baptiste Alphonse Karr (Les Guêpes, 1849)

This above oft-quoted epigram from the 19th Century French critic and novelist is usually translated as “the more things change, the more they stay the same.” The phrase refers to how a large-scale change may appear monumental on the surface, but on closer inspection, the fundamentals remain.

Catching up with Dennis Ellsworth to chat about Things Change (his fifth solo album), we find the 41-year-old in the midst of a domestic existence. Ellsworth has just returned from Home Depot, where he was picking out kitchen cabinets and paint samples. Karr’s well-worn phrase sums up the songwriter’s current state; it’s also an apropos tagline to describe his new record.

Ellsworth quit drinking more than a year ago; he and his wife bought a house near where he grew up in the suburb of Stratford, PEI (on the other side of the Hillsboro River from Charlottetown); and he’s set to become a first-time father. Upon an initial spin, Things Change sounds like a departure for the songwriter. Gone is the alt-country sound that’s served as his wheelhouse. Replacing the roots vibe is a radio-friendly wall of sound, with a sprinkle of pop. Listen deeper, and you’ll still hear the poetic lyrics, and Ellsworth’s ability to make a song speak to us all – confirming Karr’s words. The building blocks of this songwriter’s art remain the same.

“I didn’t want to commit to the same old routine that everyone says you have to do.”

Pursuing Publishing PlacementsImagine turning on the TV and hearing your song played while watching a well-loved Canadian CBC drama. That’s one of the feathers Dennis Ellsworth can now add to his songwriting cap. His song “Hazy Sunshine,” from the 2013 record of the same name, appeared on Heartland last season.

Vince Degiorgio, President and founder of Chapter Two Productions (which includes Cymba Publishing) first met Ellsworth at a song camp a few years ago. Immediately, he was struck by the artist’s abilities, and a year later signed him to a publishing deal.

Another recent publishing credit is a song in the Canadian rom-com The New Romantic, which made its world premiere this past March at SXSW. “Vince sent me a message asking if I had any songs that sounded like ‘Skinny Love’ by Bon Iver,” says Ellsworth. “I said, ‘I don’t,’ but I’d just written a song that was close enough, so I sent him a demo. Vince called back immediately and asked, ‘How soon can you get in the studio?’”

Ellsworth cut the song, sent it to Degiorgio, who forwarded the track to Instinct Entertainment — the Toronto-based music supervision and licensing company representing The New Romantic. Then the publisher went to Japan for more than a month, so the songwriter didn’t hear anything. “I figured they weren’t interested,” says Ellsworth. “Then, one day after Vince got home, Instinct got in touch with him and said the song was going to be in the movie!”

“It’s not so much that I took my songwriting in a new direction, it’s more like I went back in time to an ‘old direction,’” says Ellsworth explains. “I’m a child of the late 1970s. When I first started collecting records, what I chose to listen to was late-‘80s and early-‘90s stuff. The early ‘90s were marked by alternative music that featured heavy guitars, and that music inspired me a lot in my formative years.

“When I started writing songs for this record, and I got a feel for where I was going, I intentionally listened to artists like Matthew Sweet, The Lemonheads, and The Jesus & Mary Chain,” he continues. “I used their music as my inspiration.”

Once the song bones took shape, it was “the icing on the cake” to hire fellow East Coaster Joel Plaskett to produce the record. The pair convened at the JUNO Award-winner’s New Scotland Yard studio in Dartmouth, NS. “With Thrush Hermit, he lived in that alternative rock and Sub Pop [Records] world back in the ‘90s,” says Ellsworth.

Adding to the throwback vibe, Plaskett recruited The Super Friendz’ rhythm section (Dave Marsh and Charles Austin) to join them in the studio. “Recording this made us all feel like we were in our 20s again,” says Ellsworth. “As I get older, nostalgia plays a bigger role in my life. I’ve chosen music as the way that I write and express myself. Six months on, I feel Things Change is the best record I’ve ever made.”

While not a concept album, several of the songs on the record (“Absent Mind,” “Caught in the Waves,” and “From the Bottom”) describe Ellsworth’s feelings of career ennui, and the personal transformation he experienced in the last 365 days – especially his decision to put the plug in the jug.

“I wasn’t an abusive drinker,” he admits. “I was a constant social drinker. I didn’t want to quit because I like the taste of beer, scotch, and red wine, but I realized I needed to pull myself together a bit more, on a personal level, to strengthen my chances of survival. The benefits far outweigh the losses.”

Two decades into his artistic career, Ellsworth’s music keeps getting stronger. With this maturity, he’s also re-prioritizing where best to invest his energy. That means more time in the studio, recording demos, writing and co-writing songs every week, and less time away from home in the grind of touring. Signing a publishing deal three years ago with Cymba Music Publishing (see sidebar) was the main driver for this switch.

“I’m less of a performer and more of a songwriter, anyway,” Ellsworth concludes. “I just changed the parameters and structure of what I believed in. I didn’t want to commit to the same old routine that everyone says you have to do. I still want to make music, write songs, and make records, but if I can switch my focus to songwriting more than performing, that’s a transition I want to make.”

 


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On Working Class Woman, Montréal producer Marie Davidson lets us peek into her diary, while forging on with her bold musical quest, at the musical crossroads of electro, industrial, ambient, Italian disco, and techno.

“So Right,” the album’s first single, released in August, was clearly misleading, with its dance-pop leanings. Written for Bullshit Threshold – an interdisciplinary show she presented in Montréal in 2016 and Barcelona in 2017 – the song allowed the composer to step out of her comfort zone. “I’d never done something so approachable,” says the artist, who many know as one-half of the duo Essaie pas. “Initially, that song was part of the show, as a commentary on club culture and our era. Taken out of context, it was indeed too pop for me. I questioned myself a lot, but I decided to keep it, in the end. The label really liked it.”

With a strong undercurrent of reflections on “nightlife and show business,” her conceptual show became the foundation for the album, itself fed by the artist’s experiences during her latest tour in support of her Adieux au dancefloor record. “I ended up with 14 tracks, but in my eyes there wasn’t an album in there,” says Davidson. “I ended up filtering the songs to keep only the best ones, and built a pacing from them. The key was their order, the narrative. I came up with a story.”

That’s how Working Class Woman became an open book about the thoughts and angst of a singer-songwriter who’s trying to stay focused and keep her hopes up, despite an intense and exhausting workload. “We’re worlds away from the vague, dream-like songs on my previous albums,” says Davidson. “This one is an egotistical album and quite intimate.”

The opener, “Your Biggest Fan,” offers cynical testimony to the pointless encounters and meaningless conversations she encounters every night on tour. Later, in “The Psychologist,” Davidson paints a scathing portrait of the psychotherapy she began several months ago. She gets even more introspective on album closer “La chambre intérieure,” which the artist considers her most personal work to date. “I was at my dad’s in the countryside when I wrote that,” she says. “I was going through a difficult time, with many changes in my life. I was sitting on the edge of a car, near a fence, and I was thinking of my life, of what love is to me,” she recalls, still somewhat in the throes of melancholy. “I didn’t find concrete answers, but I did understand that to love, one needs courage.”

Artists from the world of electronic music are rarely so careful with lyrics. In its glowing review of her third album, Pitchfork claimed Marie Davidson for the “poetronica” movement. It’s a term coined in 2011 by The Guardian to describe We’re New Here, a re-mix album of songs the late, great urban poet Gil Scott-Heron, produced by Jamie XX. But to Davidson, the dichotomy between intimate lyrics and club-ready music has been self-evident from the start. “It really is a natural fusion, and the words often come before the music,” she says. “When I’m on tour, I’m constantly jotting down things on my phone: short sentences, jokes, ideas… They become the source of inspiration for my songs.”

Davidson was notably inspired by the city of Berlin, where she lived from October of 2016 to December of 2017. The German capital’s thriving electronic scene can be clearly felt and heard on her fourth album. “It really is like a clubber’s Disneyland over there,” she says. “If you want to, you can party non-stop from Thursday to Monday without once going to bed. The first time I went there, in 2012, I partied really hard, but that stage of my life is behind me now. I don’t party, now, I throw the party. I’m 31, and I just can’t anymore. Even on an intellectual level, it doesn’t appeal to me as much as it once did. I meditate and do sports, instead, and I’m interested in psychology. It’s a big change in my life.”

In other words, Working Class Woman is a watershed moment in her career and in her life. Davidson is proud of her artistic evolution so far, and will soon begin a European tour that will take her, among other places, to Poland, the U.K., and the Netherlands.

A sure sign of her popularity on the other side of the Atlantic, we won’t see her perform in Québec before February of 2019. But truthfully, she still has limited appeal at home, despite winning the Electronic Music Award at the 2017 SOCAN Awards Gala. Far from being up in arms about it, she nonetheless wonders how that is.

“If I relied solely on Québec to earn a living, I’d still be eating Kraft Dinner!” she says, with a tinge of bitterness. “I have a lot of respect for Montréal’s underground scene. It’s where I’m from, and there are a lot of inspiring and talented bands. But beyond that, it’s like a desert. There’s no place for the type of electronic music we make. Well, there is Mutek, but that happens once a year! I’ve applied eight times for a grant from the Conseil des arts et lettres du Québec (CALQ) and I was turned down every time. I still have hope things will change, but until then, I carry on. I’m lucky enough to earn a living with my music, and that’s all that matters.”


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At 20, Soran knows exactly what he wants. Released last month by Audiogram, his first eponymous EP showcases the talent of a multi-instrumentalist in full control of his art.

SoranLocated at the confluence of dance music, reggae, funk, and soul, Soran is reminiscent of Jason Mraz or Michael Jackson as much as it is of Justin Timberlake or The Weeknd. Instinctively, one surmises that its creator must be a young music lover who grew up with pop right from the crib, and who’s probably an avid consumer of anything on the radio. But it’s not the case: Soran Dussaigne doesn’t listen to music, at all… except his own.

Seeing how this scribe is perplexed by such an affirmation, he clarifies. “To be clear, I stopped listening to music when I started making my own,” says Soran. “I just don’t feel like it, nor do I feel like forcing myself to. Obviously, there are exceptions, like when I’m in a car, or at a party with friends. I guess sometimes, the music I hear indirectly like that can influence my songs. But on the plus side, I’m inspired by my memory of that song, which yields a much more original and stimulating creation.”

His musical upbringing also bears a lot of influence on his current style. A fan of The Police as a child, the Longueuil-based artist, with Japanese and French roots, benefited from a family environment that fostered creativity and learning. “There were instruments all over the house,” says Soran. “My brother and father didn’t really play with me, so I had to develop that passion through my own will. I first fell in love with drums at around four years old, and to this day, it’s my favourite instrument. Rhythm is the foundation of any song, it’s the groove.”

Curious by nature, the young auto-didact taught himself the guitar in his teens, captivated by the live performances of soul artists, like Allen Stone, that he found on YouTube. Realizing he could also sing, he introduced his first songs on his Facebook profile and rapidly raked in hundreds of views. “The reaction was incredible,” he says. “Only my closest friends said it was crap!” he says, smirking.

The Turning Point

Not one to be easily discouraged, Soran tried his hand at busking in Montréal’s metro (subway) stations. For a year, he honed his ability to attract the attention of the people walking by him. “It was, to me, the best possible rehearsal,” he says. “After a couple of hours, I was able to hit notes I never thought I could hit. It was rough on my voice, but that’s how I discovered that’s what I wanted to do. It also taught me to be more humble, because most people didn’t give a damn about me. I wanted people to stop and pay attention.”

That’s exactly what happened when, in 2015, a staffer from La Voix [the Québec franchise of The Voice televised singing competition] walked by Soran in the metro and convinced him to sign up for the next season of the popular TVA network talent show. He was just 16 when he showed up for the audition.

“Honestly, I had zero confidence,” says Soran. “I saw the people sitting next to me, one who said she’d toured the world with AC/DC, and another who said she had a dozen years of experience on Broadway… I was really stressed out,” remembers the young man, who forged ahead and managed to make all four judges spin their seast around, thanks to his stunning rendition of  The Eagles’ “Hotel California.” “In the end, I realized that, contrary to other versions of La Voix abroad, the coaches here weren’t looking for the most powerful voice, but for different voices,” he says. “I remember telling Ariane Moffatt that I felt bad for being so off-key during my audition. She immediately told me that it didn’t matter, because they were looking for something unique.”

Despite elimination in the quarter-finals, Soran’s experience on La Voix was memorable. What came out of it was basically his optimal plan. “Before I even entered the contest, my goal was to lose it and sign with Audiogram… And, lo and behold, the day after I was eliminated, Audiogram gave me a call,” says the young artist, who’d been coached by Matt Holubowski, also an alumnus of the show, who’s also signed to the famous Montréal record label. “What mattered the most to me was artistic freedom, and I knew the label’s excellent reputation for that. In the end, we waited until I turned 18, about six months, before making my signature official.”

And ever since, Soran has worked twice as hard. Over the past two years, he started actively playing drums again, and learned to play bass and piano, on top of honing his production, arranging, and mixing skills with the recording software Logic. In other words, this Jack of all Trades was constantly in pro-active mode, writing and recording the vast majority of his EP in the basement of his family home in Greenfield Park. “I like being able to record whenever I want to, without having to wait for anyone,” says Soran. “I’ll sometimes wake up at three in the morning and create an entire new song that’s done by noon. My mom’s patience is quite remarkable. She never complains, not even when I play drums in the middle of the night.”

The Creative Impulse

But as autonomous as he might be, the singer-songwriter still needed some help along the way. Known for his work on albums by Coco Méliès, Rednext Level, and the aforementioned Holubowski, Montréal-based producer Connor Seidel helped him finalize the EP at Studio Tempo. “There were songs where I had reached a dead end,” says Soran. “I immediately thought of Connor, because I really liked what he did for Matt. Our fusion was perfect, right from the get-go. We re-recorded the drums and voice tracks, but without changing the very intimate and spontaneous nature of my initial recordings. I really felt at home.”

This pared-down, instinctive approach also applies to the lyrics. Written impulsively, Soran’s songs are like emotional bombs. One thinks of “Emma,” which he wrote in a single evening after his ex-girlfriend asked him to write her a love song; or “Not In Love W Me,” which was crerated after a girl told him she “wasn’t in love with people, but with moments.”

“After she said that to me, I wrote, like, 10 songs about her in a week,” he admits. “Actually, if you listen carefully to the lyrics of all those songs, it’s mostly about me being in love with someone who doesn’t love me back… Or, rather, who thinks he’s not being loved back. That’s pretty much what goes on in my mind the second I’m with someone. I get negative ideas real fast, and afterward, I take comfort in the good things. The same happened with my EP: I was convinced it wouldn’t sell, that it would suck, and in the end I’m happy, because all kinds of unexpected stuff is happening to me.”

Among those recent “surprises” are the 120,000 views that the video for “Emma” racked up in a little less than a month; his nomination as “New Artist of the Week” on Apple Music; and his more than 2 million streams on the major platforms. “Honestly, I don’t understand,” says Soran. “It’s so much more than I could have imagined. It’s going well on the streaming side of things all over the world, but I want more. I want to see these people in person, and play more gigs outside of Canada.”

Throughout this hubbub of excitement and good news, even his old buddies from high school have conceded victory. “A couple of weeks ago, I got a few congratulations messages, notably one from the dude who was the most critical and mean about my music back then,” he says. “I was surprised that he thought my EP was good, and he apologized by saying that he should’ve been more supportive.”

Apparently, Soran did quite well without him.


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