Producer, songwriter, and performer Nonso Amadi found himself in Jamaica a few years ago, following a newly minted record deal with Universal Music Canada. While there, he connected with Donisha Prendergast, one of Bob Marley’s granddaughters, to discuss music and life while filming at the historic Tuff Gong Studios and around the island. The Nigerian-born, Canadian-based artist was in the midst of a two-year music hiatus, and he had no idea where to take his debut album.

“We had an honest conversation. I told her exactly where I was at,” says Amadi, who admits that at the time all he had written were love songs, a theme he wanted to expand from, and move beyond. “She told me about Bob Marley, his own reasons for making music. How he was trying to stand up and represent the people, the Rastafarians who were living in Trenchtown. He was trying to revolutionize those people’s lives. Trying to help them have a voice against the oppression they were experiencing at the time, and that’s why he woke up every morning. And it got me thinking about how there are other things you can talk about that will resonate with people, and help them through very hard times. That’s the power of music.”

And the power of his music. With more than 100 million cumulative streams across all platforms, and a songwriting and video collaboration with Majid Jordan in his credits, Amadi is a constantly evolving lyricist, able to fuse afrobeat, hip-hop, and R&B in his storytelling songs. His gently lilting opening performance of “Foreigner” at the 2022 SOCAN Awards was a highlight of the evening.

Amadi grew up on hip-hop: Young Money, 50 Cent, and others. But it was Nigerian singer-songwriter Wizkid’s album Superstar that gave the aspiring artist an entry point into another artist’s journey. It was a process he found inspiring, because it sidestepped the typical aspirational themes around money, power, and the good life that often dominate the genre.

“He [told] us exactly where he was in his life,” says Amadi. “The things he’d been through, and who he hoped to be one day, which was a superstar. And we’re all seeing that happening now. There’s an opening for music that’s more vulnerable, more ‘take your time and listen to each word,’ and it’s something I really want to delve into.”

Amadi started off as a producer, playing around with music software to try and re-imagine his favourite songs at the time. “I was trying to create that fresh vibe that got the young people, really, really hyped,” he says. Freestyling with friends over self-made beats, the teens soon realized that they were onto something good.  “We started to try and figure out how to record these songs, and eventually it became an actual thing,” says Amadi. “Then we wanted [vocals] on it. ‘Who’s going to sing the chorus? Oh, Nonso, how about you give it a try?’ he recalls, followed by a bashful chuckle. “I ended up singing. I just fell into it, but I really did have the love and the passion for it from an early stage.”

Though music runs deeply in the Amadi family, Nonso is its only professional musician. It wasn’t an easy passion to follow when he was coming from a family and culture built around academia and stable career success.

“When I first started music, I was really unsure about what I was meant to do”

“It wasn’t met with a lot of excitement when I said I was going to do music full-time, Amadi admits. “I’d just graduated from McMaster [University] with a Master’s degree in Engineering Design, and the song that launched my career – ‘Tonight’ – had taken off. My parents were hearing my music on the radio in Nigeria, and my sisters were seeing me on TV. They didn’t quite understand it because they sent me to school in Canada, and I was meant to be studying. I was, like, ‘OK, I think it’ll be good to go back home and do a show, and I can really see where this music thing takes me.’ They were so upset, and that was a long, long conversation that we had, for years to come, until they eventually saw that I was fine with this.”

The working title for his debut album, coming in 2023, is When it Blooms. Amadi calls the project “vulnerable and heavy,” but happily shares that there are some afrobeat tracks that will get listeners up on their feet. His favourites include the opening song, “Here For It” (“It’s the vulnerable stage,” he says) and the final song, “Thankful,” which chronicles his growth from a budding producer and freestyling teen to a young man bringing his well-earned sound to the people.

“It comes from my story as a creator, as a Nigerian,” says Amadi. “When I first started music, I was really unsure about what I was meant to do. Insecurities and doubts – as a person, and also as an artist – fed into my relationships. [I was] not trusting people to jump on songs with me, or even how I would navigate my music career.

“I liken that to a seed that’s in the ground, and it has to kind of break and go through this germination process. But where I am right now, is that I’ve accepted myself as a creative person who’s learning, and my relationships with everyone are in a much better place.

“There’s a voice note [in ‘Thankful’] from my mom, and she’s saying, ‘Wow, look at how far you’ve come.’ She shares little memories from the past and how the flower has really bloomed.”

The result is the most collaborative project he’s ever allowed. It’s both freeing and terrifying at times, and Amadi is learning to stay grounded, as he reaches higher and digs deeper.

“I song-write 95 percent of my music,” he says. “For many, many years, I would mix my songs, master it myself, and put it out. It was really stressful, but that was the only way I knew how to properly and comfortably make music. I had my own groove and [way that] I made music.

“But over the pandemic, it really slowed things down for everyone, so I got into rooms with people like Majid Jordan, who are on the project. I figured out, ‘Oh wow, I had a nice conversation with this person about what I’m trying to do with this song, or this project, and it actually just makes it way easier. Because now they’re actually doing it how I imagined they would do it, or they’re doing something new to me, but it still works.’ These are things that I’m still learning, but at this point the project consists of 13 collaborators, which is a huge thing for me.”

Asked how he hopes to reach the listener through his first LP, Amadi says that he simply wants to start a conversation from artist and listener, and back again. “I want them to feel, like, ‘Wow! I didn’t know that happened to you, but that also happened to me,’” he says.

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.

Initially launched to respond to the pandemic, First Up with RBCxMusic has strived to help emerging musical artists with funding, marketing, and educational programs ever since. Back in the Spring of 2020, the fund started by helping more than 100 artists with $1,000 each, towards creating performances to be streamed on the RBCxMusic Instagram channel. Each week, a new slate of artists could be seen and heard, Thursday through Sunday evenings, throughout that first summer of COVID.

Shannon Cole, RBC’s Vice President of Brand Marketing, explains why the program was originally created, as a virtual performance series to support emerging Canadian recording artists. “[When the] industry came to a complete standstill, the other trend that we were seeing was that musicians, by and large, have secondary [employment] in service, or restaurant, or retail [businesses], so they were also decimated in their supplemental income,” she says. “Our funding was spent in a typical summer on music and festivals. We were able to re-direct some of that money… to support artists that had suffered a huge loss of income due to the pandemic.”

First Up: The Current Cohort

Ari Hicks – Toronto
Bebe Buckskin – Calgary
Cec Lopez – Winnipeg
DESIIRE – Toronto
Jennie Harluk – Calgary
Jhyve – Toronto
Kennen – Newmarket, ON
Kin Crew – Halifax
KROY – Montréal
Logan Richard – Charlottetown
Ludic – Surrey, BC
MICO – Toronto
Olivier Faubert – Montréal
Pisceze – Toronto
Shantaia – Warman, SK
Stun – Winnipeg
T-Rhyme – Saskatoon
Vox Rea – Vancouver
Zenesoul – Brampton, ON

Since then, First Up with RBCxMusic has evolved dramatically. In 2021, it supported 27 new artists, along with nine from the first group, again helping with enhanced live performances (where government guidelines allowed), mentorship, media & promotional support, and networking opportunities.

With live performances now back on the table, First Up with RBCxMusic shifted gears. “We’re all kinds of delighted to welcome the return of live music,” says Cole, “so a lot of what we’re able to do now is provide performance opportunities, live and in the flesh, for some of our roster of First Up artists.”

Cole calls the 2022 version the most comprehensive version of the program to date. “We were excited to provide elevated performance opportunities through our partnership with Live Nation Canada and regional partners,” she says. Working with them, the 19 members of the current cohort have had opportunities to appear at sponsored events across the country, including, RBC Bluesfest in Ottawa, the Cavendish Beach Music Festival in the Maritimes, the RBC Canadian Open, and the Toronto International Film Festival.

This year’s cohort also had the opportunity to participate in an Artist Summit, hosted by the Canadian non-profit Conscious Economics. Attendees were invited to in-person seminars about networking, finances, development, and learning. “These are very, very dedicated to their craft and their industry,” says Cole. Another new partner in the program has helped to curate the artists that participate. Recognizing that bankers aren’t necessarily music experts, First Up RBCxMusic invited AWAL, an alternative to the traditional record label, to help with the selection process.

Cole also describes diversity and inclusivity as imperatives. “RBCxMusic really believes that a career in music should be accessible to every artist who’s talented, passionate, and driven. That’s really our guiding principle,” she says.

She explains that measuring the success of the program is complicated. “An artist’s trajectory is so subjective and unique that we don’t necessarily look at specific metrics to track an individual artist’s success,” she says. “But, from a macro level, we put a ton of value on the feedback that we receive from our partners, and from the artists. We’ve had overwhelmingly positive feedback to date. I think even you and I chatting today puts some value and recognition on the program from the industry, and from leaders like SOCAN. I think that’s the validation that we need and desire at this point, to know that we’re on the right track and that we need to keep going.”

The artist feedback is indeed positive. “The RBCxMusic program has provided me with the tools to scale my career both here in Canada, and also on a global level – something very important for me as a Queer, first-generation-immigrant musician,” says DESIIRE, one of the program’s beneficiaries. “The team at RBCxMusic has provided me with the platform to have my music and story shared to a whole new audience.”

Cole is optimistic for the future of the First Up with RBCxMusic. “Our goal is to build on the momentum,” she says. “It’s been a phenomenal year for live music. I think we’re going to see that continue. I’d love to broaden the opportunities with our First Up featured artists, and that can be in a number of different ways. Whether it’s live performances, or even just P.R. or media opportunities for these artists. Just getting their names, faces, music out there to the world.

“Something I find terribly rewarding, that we’ve heard from the feedback, is that networking and mentorship with industry leaders is something with which we can help,” says Cole. “That’s the connective opportunity in which we have a role to play, and something that I’d like to see continue. Just more of what we’re doing, and more impact.”

First Up with RBCxMusic looks forward to sharing more about how artists can apply in 2023. Follow @RBCxMusic on Instagram for updates on applications opening. When they’re open, they’ll be available here.