Le long chemin, singer-songwriter Nicola Ciccone’s 12th album, was an accident. Literally. In the winter of 2018, Ciccone was driving along on a road in Sutton, Québec, when an unforgiving patch of black ice made him lose control of his vehicle, and Bang! Six months of recovery after whiplash and a concussion.

Nicolas CicconeSo, what was he to do? Write songs, obviously. “It helped me heal and reveal myself,” says Ciccone. “No matter what, music has always been there to save my life. Six months of physio, chiro, and osteo sessions. I couldn’t sleep at night because I was in so much pain. I thought I was going to write a super-dark album during my convalescence, but paradoxically, all the songs came out sunny and positive. Writing songs isn’t always straightforward; a lot of it is subconscious, abstract, and emotion-based. I didn’t write a song called, ‘I’m recovering from my accident.’

“Inspiration doesn’t write songs, it only starts them being written. That’s why I consider myself a song builder. Even if I’m sitting in front of a blank page, I work hard! Take the title song, “Le long chemin”; I worked on that one for a whole month.”

After listening to the 11 new songs selected from the roughly two dozen he wrote (among which “Elle,” “Pleure,” “Love Is Like a Loaded Gun,” and “Superman est une femme” stand out), plus the reprise of “Oh, toi mon père” (which originally came out on his 2016 album Esprit Libre), the assessment comes naturally.

“I’m a humanist, I make music for human beings,” he says. “The first song I wrote was to woo a girl. I’m lucky to have a mostly female audience. Men are welcome, too! You might think it’s funny, but I get a lot of messages from guys telling me some of my songs move them and give them courage. It’s nice to read.”

This album is an unpretentious one that flows effortlessly, and makes you want to listen to it on “repeat.” He doesn’t re-invent the wheel, but his mix of intimate songs makes for an interesting cocktail – one that doesn’t end up drowned in over-production. The songs are showcased exactly as they should be.

“I like when things are simple,” says Ciccone. “When I went into the studio, I told my musicians that I didn’t want any loops or sequences, just real instruments. The guys freaked out [laughter]. All that was missing is the key ingredient: emotion. I’m Italian, so I like vocal flourishes, crescendos. However, I don’t have the same vocal personality when I sing in Italian, as opposed to English. It’s quite peculiar.”

Ciccone’s career has been flying high since 1999. Songs such as “Ciao Bella,” “Chanson pour Marie” and “L’opéra du mendicant” are all crowd favourites during his live shows. Another example is “J’t’aime tout court,” a single from his third album of the same name, which was certified platinum, with more than 100,000 copies sold. It was crowned Popular Song of the Year at the 2004 ADISQ gala, and went on, in 2006, to receive the ADISQ Reconnaissance Award for having spent more than 100 weeks(!) at the top of the sales chart. His song “Tu m’aimes quand même” was honoured by SOCAN in 2011 for being one of the 10 most popular songs that year.

“I never received a songwriting subsidy from SOCAN,” says Ciccone. “Maybe I should ask them! [laughter]. Of course, I’m just kidding. I read Paroles & Musique when I started out in 1999; I wanted to learn the ropes, know more about publishing, co-writes, I was trying to network, to get into showbiz. But I had songs such as “L’opéra du mendicant” or “Le menteur,” that aren’t as accessible, and very idealistic. I wanted to be in showbiz, but not by any means, or at any cost. Twenty-two years later, I can say I work this trade without compromise. No doubt that my pig-headedness served me well back then.”

What’s his take on the current state of the music industry, in Québec and elsewhere? Is he optimistic? “There are no miracle solutions,” he says. “Music still has the same value, it’s just as precious in the hearts of artists and their audiences. But when you’re a songwriter with an Italian name, you have to work a little harder. That’s why, in Québec, everyone is an emerging artist. Seriously! Especially songwriters. Nowadays, whenever you release a new song, it’s almost like you’re launching a new artist.”


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Growing up, Hannah Georgas took piano and singing lessons. Her parents were happy to support her hobbies, but when they turned into a career path she wanted to follow, they “strongly advised that I didn’t pursue music.”

Clearly, Georgas went ahead and became a musician anyway – a successful, multi-JUNO Award-nominated one at that – but for years, her main source of encouragement came from listening to other female artists. “I realized that, subconsciously, those artists all had an influence on why I’m doing what I’m doing,” she says, looking back at the wealth of women in music that she experienced at a young age. “It gave me courage to follow my craft.”

Imprints, her latest EP, released on International Women’s Day, is Georgas’ way of paying respect to those female artists who helped get her to where she is now. The four-song release, her first since her 2016 album For Evelyn, takes on a range of eras and genres: The Cranberries, Eurythmics, Janet Jackson, and Tegan and Sara. The disparate collection is unified by Georgas’ own lush, downtempo signature sound, as she taps into the emotional core of each song and interprets them in gorgeously intimate ways that show that show her familiarity with, and admiration for, these artists and songs.

In a digital landscape that’s over-saturated with covers nowadays – just plug the name of any artist and/or song into YouTube’s search engine and you’ll find endless results – Georgas wanted to make her intentions with Imprints clear. “If I’m going to do a cover, I want to do a cover that means a lot to me,” she explains. “Not something that’s just going to get attention.” The ones she selected, as Georgas notes, represent distinct parts of her past. “I flash back to certain times in my life when I listen to each of those artists,” she says.

For instance, Janet Jackson’s “That’s the Way Love Goes” conjures up memories of elementary school for Georgas. She still remembers catching the pop star’s late-‘90s Velvet Rope Tour at Canada’s Wonderland – it was her second concert ever. It’s a vivid recollection for Georgas, who can still remember being mightily impressed by the “sensory overload” of Jackson’s theatrics.

The Cranberries marked high school for Georgas, a time when hidden “bonus” tracks were still a delightful surprise at the end of an album; practically an impossibility now on streaming services. Georgas discovered “No Need to Argue” at the end of the 1994 Cranberries album of the same name, and was “blown away by the fact that it’s just her voice, and just an organ supporting her, and her lyrics are so simple, but so heart-wrenching.”

It was when she was at University that Tegan and Sara’s 2007 album The Con entered Georgas’ life. Introduced to her by an “obsessed” friend, the album became the soundtrack of their drives to school. Georgas says the song “Back in Your Head” reminds her of being out West, where she was away from home and standing at a crossroads between completing a psychology degree and still wanting to make music. It was an overwhelming time, but one in which this album proved to be grounding for her.

Finally, Eurythmics, while an act from the ‘80s, brings Georgas to a more recent time, also in a car, when she hit the road with her guitarist. “Love is a Stranger” was on repeat during this specific trip, and it was a re-discovery of sorts when it dawned on her: “What the hell, this song is so awesome.

“With all the songs, I feel like they were re-invigorated for me, somehow, by covering them,” she says, reflecting on the EP shortly after its release. “As I dug deeper, I realized the importance of these four, plus many other female artists. They were big triggers and were big pushes for me.” (Other artists that made Georgas’ long list of potential covers were Tina Turner, Emmylou Harris, Fiona Apple, and Lauryn Hill.)

A Comment from the Covered
While Georgas hasn’t heard any feedback from most of the artists she covered on Imprints, she did receive a plug from Tegan and Sara in January 2019, when they posted about her Cranberries cover. “Such a gorgeous @thecranberries cover from @hannahgeorgas and @ilovelucius!” they wrote on their social media platforms. “Can’t wait to hear your version of Back in your Head with @theweatherstation when your EP comes out March 8!” “They were super sweet about it,” says Georgas, confirming that the Canadian sister duo has heard her cover of their 2007 single. In fact, Georgas even met up with Tegan Quin in Los Angeles while she was down there recording these covers. “I didn’t tell her, at the time, that I was doing them!” she says, laughing at her covert efforts. Georgas seems content with that one co-sign but she’s not afraid to be ambitious: “I haven’t heard from Janet Jackson. I’m waiting for that.”

While Imprints represents the music that Georgas personally connected with over the years, she didn’t want this to be a solo project. The idea, which she first pitched to Lucius drummer Dan Molad while she was in Los Angeles recording her upcoming new album, was to make this a collaborative effort. In the end, she enlisted Lucius, Montaigne, Emily King, and The Weather Station’s Tamara Lindeman to help bring it to fruition.

These collaborators, in some ways, provide the most important part of Georgas’ project: a thread that ties her thesis of influential women together. “I thought, why don’t I get all these female artists who I now work with and love, and have come across my path, and pay respect to those people,” she says. “So I wanted to do a bit of the past and present, like my path from the start to now. That’s why I reached out to a bunch of my friends, and they were all on-board.”

Looking ahead, Georgas is putting the final touches on her upcoming album, which she hopes to release later this year. While details are still scarce, she did reveal last year that she worked with the National’s Aaron Dessner and producer Jon Low at Dessner’s Hudson, New York, studio, in addition to work done in Los Angeles.

“I can’t even begin to tell you how excited I am about this new music and new chapter,” she wrote on Facebook. If her next album serves as a snapshot of who she is now, then Imprints is a vital look into the journey that led her to this point — an integral blueprint of her musical DNA.

 


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For many Canadian producers, being able to say that you’ve contributed production on a certified platinum album by one of hip-hop and pop music’s biggest stars is a dream that often remains just that – a dream. But for producer, DJ, and Bimbo Radio creator Blank, that unlikely fantasy became a reality.

“My management, NWYE [Not What You Expected], had put together a listening session in NYC and asked if I’d be interested in going to play my beats. I said yes, and I took the money that I had in my account out so that I could go,” explains Blank from her Toronto home. “I had some idea of who was going to be at the listening session, but I was still going in blind. When we got to the session, I played a few records for the room [and] people were going crazy. I think I only got through five beats that night, ‘cause they kept asking me to re-play them. It was from that night that my music went on to reach Nicki Minaj. The funny thing is, I made that beat back in 2016 and I e-mailed it to Tanisha [Blank’s manager, and founder of NWYE], labeling it for ‘Nicki Minaj’ in the subject line.”

Blank’s production is behind not one, but two tracks on Minaj’s 2018 album Queen, “COCO Chanel” (featuring Foxy Brown) and “Inspirations Outro.” Recalling the night that she discovered that her beats had indeed made the mega-star’s album remains as surreal and thrilling as the day it happened.

“I didn’t let myself get excited at first, because anything could happen,” she says. “I was scrolling down my timeline on Instagram and I passed by this Nicki Minaj post. It was a video of a speaker, so I un-muted it and boop! There it was.  My record, with the caption ‘Testing new speakers.’ Two days later, the album was out. It was official.”

Born to Barbadian parents, Blank grew up listening to everything and everyone, and it was this widespread access to diverse genres and voices from all over the world that helped nurture her love of music, as well as a fascination with every element that goes into the making of it. But it’s a Dr. Dre album that marks one of her most defining moments as a budding young artist.

NWYE Song Camp, YOGI, Blank, Tanisha, Seth Dyer, Archer, Tony T

At the NWYE Song Camp. Left to right: YOGI, Blank, Tanisha, Seth Dyer, Archer, Tony T.

“I always paid close attention to the music when listening to a song,” she says. “It was Dr. Dre’s 2001 album, I was 12 years old, and I found myself wondering what the person who made the music behind the rapper was called. Someone told me they were called DJs, so, I said, ‘I want to be a DJ.’”

Later, she realized that it was a producer crafting the beats and rhythms behind the artists, which ignited her passion. In Grade 10, a friend gifted her Fruity Loops software, and she started to mess around with it.  Always deeply creative, she found that it felt natural, but an actual career in production wasn’t yet the goal. “I wasn’t thinking about making it a ‘career,’” says Blank. “I was just doing it ‘cause I enjoyed it.”

In 2008, she graduated from the Remix Project, a Toronto-based non-profit organization that provides under-served youth with creative tools and industry knowledge. For the next few years she collaborated with local and international songwriters and artists, taking her experimental and adventurous affinity for baile funk, hip-hop, reggae, dancehall, and Afro beats into new realms. Her work garnered respect and attention, and in addition to Minaj’s Queen, her production has appeared on major records like Raekwon’s “Wall to Wall” featuring French Montana and Busta Rhymes.

World music is Blank’s sound palette, and she’s one of the producers helping to take it from its once niche space in Western music to mainstream popularity. And while some may say that the proliferation of world beats in everything from Drake and the Weeknd’s music to Hollywood films like Black Panther is just a trend, Blank disagrees, citing the web as a space where sounds once categorized as “exotic” or “foreign” are getting the recognition they deserve.

Tanisha on her NWYE Song Camp

  • “NWYE 2019 Sound Camp was inspired by wanting to zone in, create and collaborate. I had applied to writing camps all over the world and not made it in, so my team and I made our own.”
  • “The best part of the 2019 Sound Camp was getting to connect and collaborate in the studio with some of the world’s top discovered and undiscovered songwriters and producers! That was special to me because, everything is online in today’s world, but there’s nothing like vibing and creating in real time with other creatives. We made 28 new records that weekend!”
  • “I hope NWYE and the NWYE Sound Camp provide change and education. We want Canadian creatives to know that making a living in the music business is attainable. The Sound camps encourage strong creative relationships, as well as the importance of cultivating business relationships, to bridge the gap between artists, writers, producers, and labels. We aim to be the change we want to see by creating the spaces we want to create in.”

“The internet shrinks the world,” she says. “It’s easier for people to discover different artists and genres from different places. It’s as easy as discovering one song you like, and just diving into a hole of discovery in that suggestions list on the side bar.”

Wanting to give world beats a new, modern platform, Blank created Bimbo Radio in 2017. Bimbo isn’t the first word you’d think Blank would use to name one of her major projects, but she ran with it due to its visual appeal: “It looks cool when it’s written,” she says. For Blank, Bimbo is a space to freely showcase genres such as reggae, dancehall, soca, and Afrobeat, to name just a few. And from the start, it’s resonated with an international audience.

“It started with a single mix, ‘Episode 1’ [that] I uploaded on SoundCloud, and then started to advertise on IG,” says Blank. “I was contacted by people in Brazil who really loved it [and] it started to gain a lot of traction there, and it spread like wildfire.”

For Bimbo’s listeners it’s the rabbit hole of eclectic sounds for which they’ve been waiting. “My hope is that Bimbo becomes a force in the cultivation of various world music genres, making it easier for people to access the music,” she says.

Helping her take her music and her medium to the world is singer-songwriter and founder of NWYE, and its offshoot NWYE Sound Camp, Tanisha Clarke. It’s that friendship and respect for each other that took Blank’s beats to Minaj’s Queen, and the relationship is one for which Blank is deeply grateful.

“NWYE is important to me,” she says. “It’s a label that’s owned and operated by a woman of colour, who’s taken another woman of colour – a producer – to platinum status. It’s a statement to other women of colour coming up that, yes! It can be done.”


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