How do you know when your childhood is over? Is it when you start to sing like an adult? Is it when you start to bite into life with a grown-up outlook and vocabulary? Maybe we should ask Nicolas Gémus, who, standing on his 22 years of existence, plays music as if he’s already had a few lifetimes of experience. He’s in his prime, but he cultivates that prime like a flower – one that’s already very tall.

“I was 15 when I wrote the first song on the album,” says Gémus about Hiboux, his debut LP, released in June by La Tribu. “Then, in 2016, while I was at the École de la chanson (in Granby, Québec), I found my writing style.” Only when it became necessary to sort through all that, and cherry-pick the best drafts, did he enlist the help of producer Stéphane Rancourt.

For awhile already, he’s moved on, in thought and songwriting, from the buoyancy of youth. That casual carelessness has slowly drifted toward a much more demanding awareness of reality. “At the Petite-Vallée Camp en chanson, I wrote “Girouette,” a rather lighthearted song, but I felt this huge emotional charge,” he remembers. “I went through pretty rough times in my personal life. That made me want to be truly authentic in what I offer. Going to the logical conclusion of a song allowed me to make sense of my life and start anew.”

École nationale de la chanson’s Mario Chénard and Frédéric Baron helped Nicolas hone is writing skills. “Mario explained that I should write choruses that evolve, in the sense that they’re the same, except for a few words that are different [each time]. That led to me writing ‘Bunker de tes bras [which won the Chanson coup de cœur SOCAN Award at the 2017 Granby Festival],” Gémus explains. “The school really focused on helping us find our artistic personas.”

A guiding principle, a direction, continuity; those are important concerns for a songwriter, but, as Gémus says, “I was lucky. Tire le coyote and Jonathan Harnois happened to become my mentors.”

Tire le coyote was the guest of honour at the tail end of his year at l’École de la chanson, and Gémus got to perform for him. “We talked about my song ‘Derrière le bruit.’ When I released ‘Bunker de tes bras,’ he introduced me to [record label] La Tribu. He then offered to become my writing coach,” says the young man.

Jonathan Harnois is a novelist, first, but he’s also worked with the singer-songwriter Dumas, among others. Harnois also got involved with Gémus to “unblock” certain lyrics that were problematic. “I was lucky to have access to this creative bubble,” says Gémus. “Benoit [Tire le coyote] is very constructive without being stern, while Jonathan has a sensibility that’s very complementary to mine.”

Gémus is banking on his authenticity to attract the attention of the public, in a market that he believes is over-saturated. “I need to project something that is true to who I am,” he says. “I am the album. I gave it all I had.”

Even though the Iles-de-la-Madeleine native is only in his early twenties, he wanted to avoid being a victim, artistically speaking, of his own immaturity. “People say I tackle themes that are atypical for someone my age,” he says, laughing.

And he did indeed do everything he could to leave behind the juvenile nature of his early drafts, and gravitate towards more universal themes. “It took me a while before I got to the point where it wasn’t just about writing songs, but also finding out what I wanted to say,” says Gémus. “Then my songs became meaningful.”

What Critics Are Saying
“The quality heard throughout the 10 songs on Hiboux point to the fact that Gémus will likely be in our musical landscape for a long time.” – ICI Musique
* “A surprisingly cohesive whole, with roots in the melodic folk of the ’70s, and often tinged with an orchestral colour… enriched by an introspective poetry that’s naturally elegant, and incredibly refined.” – La Voix de l’Est

Since then, his songs became more like impulses. “A song will happen spontaneously through a chorus or a verse, and then I’ll take a step back and find that song’s heart and soul,” he says. “And then begins the tortuous process of finishing that song,” he adds, giggling. “‘L’amour et la peur’ came out in three hours; but most of the time, I need three hours to write a single sentence.”

However, he does like being surprised by whatever comes to emerge when he’s resting. “It’s a bit early for me to know what I’d like to become, but I’m a fan of 70s folk music,” says Gémus. “I also like razor-sharp guitar playing, and lyrics like those of Daniel Bélanger and Richard Desjardins. Now that my album is out, things are quiet for me. I’ll play as an opener and tour a bit, but I’m in post-storm mode.”

Thoroughness and integrity are the foundations of a long career, according to the singer-songwriter, and he believes a lifelong career “is something that’s still possible,” he says. “Each album will be its own challenge. People tell me that the second one is the hardest, but I believe that as far as imposing some level of difficulty on myself, I’ve already done the best I can,” says the self-professed perfectionist.

When Quote the Raven’s Jordan Coaker and Kirsten Rodden-Clarke met singing in an amateur choir in 2011, in their hometown of Conception Bay South, Newfoundland, they had no idea that it would chart a path for their musical careers.  Paired together to sing a duet, Coaker and Rodden-Clarke, who were the group’s youngest members, quickly found easy harmonies. “People said our voices blended well together,” recalls Rodden-Clarke.

Soon after, she began joining Coaker when he performed his own songs in downtown St. John’s, and later introduced him to the American folk duo The Civil Wars. The pair, who are musical rather than romantic partners, quickly bonded over the band’s singing style. “That was the be-all-and-end-all,” laughs Coaker.

In the years since, Coaker and Rodden-Clarke have taken a “path of least resistance” approach to making music. “Things have, hilariously, fallen in our lap over the last eight years,” says Coaker, pointing to everything, from serendipitous meetings to lucky breaks, that have given the pair a leg up.

“Things have, hilariously, fallen in our lap over the last eight years.” – Jordan Coaker of Quote the Raven

Quote the Raven’s 2016 debut EP, Misty Mountains, not only earned MusicNL nominations in both the Rising Star and Folk/Roots Recording of the Year categories, it also enabled the pair to connect with producer Chris Kirby – who then produced their first full-length album, 2018’s Golden Hour. It was that connection that secured their place at a songwriting camp, where the duo worked with everyone from Charlie A’Court and Keith Mullins to Gabrielle Papillon and Ian Janes.

“Every song we wrote that weekend, and whatever group we were in, there was magic in the air,” says Coaker. “We wrote 14 songs in four days.”

Coaker and Rodden-Clarke have also found a songwriting rhythm of their own. Coaker, who’s been singing since he was 17, tends to take the lead on melody, with Rodden-Clarke earning the title of “The Editor,” for the role she plays in refining and paring down his songs. “I’ll have, like, 10,000 verses written, and then she’ll come in and change a couple of things – and it works!” says Coaker.

Rodden-Clarke, who began singing at 16 after her piano teacher suggested it, then easily finds harmonies to blend with Coaker’s voice. “It’s natural for me,” she explains. “We know when we have a song that works for us.”

At the same time, both Coaker and Rodden-Clarke – who describe their sound as “pop/Americana” – admit that they sometimes feel like musical outsiders in their home province, where a demand for traditional music still dominates. “It can be hard to introduce new sounds or genres,” says Coaker, stressing that he doesn’t mean to sound negative. “There are only a few places [in St. John’s] where we feel we can go and have a good crowd.”

By contrast, the pair loves being on the road, especially when it affords them the time to make stops in smaller places. They’re particularly fond of Newfoundland’s West coast, where they always make a point of stopping on their way to catch the ferry to the mainland. “We’ve found there are nooks and crannies where people really appreciate us coming out,” says Coaker, who adds that they have no plans to leave the province they call home. “It has boosted our morale over the years.”

Quote the Raven (the band’s name is a nod to Edgar Allen Poe’s famous poem) has also delighted in watching their online audience grow in recent years, especially after two songs were added to the Folk and Friends playlist on Spotify. As of June 2019, their single “Laser Beam” had already been streamed more than 195,000 times. “It’s been crazy,” Coaker laughs, “because we came at it with no expectations. The power of the internet blew us away.”

But both Coaker and Rodden-Clarke, now working on their next album, emphasize that they’re not letting the attention go to their heads. Instead, they say they’re grateful for every opportunity they get to share their music – both in Newfoundland, and beyond.

“For now, we’re going to keep following this path, and keep doing things as they come,” says Rodden-Clarke. “But I can’t see why we wouldn’t still be doing this in 10 years. As long as people genuinely love what we are doing, that makes us love it even more.”

Reeny Smith says the song that she’s most proud of writing is “Dream,” a gorgeous piano ballad she released in 2014 that encourages listeners to “dream big, don’t dream small.” “It’s the song I use to motivate myself every day,” the Nova Scotia native admits all these years later. It also is, in some ways, a song that has helped her get over the obstacle of feeling like she wasn’t a strong enough songwriter.

In Smith’s online biography, there’s a quote of hers that says, “Songwriting was never something I thought I was good at.” For a while, the R&B artist only saw herself as a singer. “The biggest hurdle I had to overcome was my own insecurities and expectations,” she explains, looking back on that mindset now. But validation came when she saw that her music – especially an early cut like “Dream” – not only served as an inspiration to herself, but also to others. “I became more confident in my writing after seeing how my music helped people.”

In fact, her songwriting helped land her a deal with CYMBA Music Publishing. Award recognition also helps, and in recent years, Smith has picked up quite a few trophies, from the 2018 African Nova Scotian Music Award for Artist of the Year to being crowned The Coast’s “Best of Halifax” Best R&B Gold winner last year. This year, she also earned two East Coast Music Award nominations. All of that attention stems from the release of her 2018 debut full-length, WWIII: Strength Courage Love, a collection of soulful tunes that incorporate Gospel and dance elements, and gracefully explore the highs and lows of love.

It’s clear that Atlantic Canada is enamoured with Smith, and that feeling is mutual. “I’ve never felt pressure to move,” Smith reveals, acknowledging that Canada’s major music scenes are more concentrated in cities like Toronto or Montréal, but displaying no urge to pack up and leave her home. “I love where I live, and I love that I can be an example to show some of the talent that we have here on the East Coast.”