Take a close listen to songs like “Fever” and “Crumbling Down” on Nuela Charles’ latest album, and you can be forgiven for thinking she’s singing about an ex.

“You broke me down, just to watch me fall / The hands that held me now tear me apart,” she sings on “Crumbling Down,” one of seven songs that appear on The Grand Hustle, which came out in November of 2016.

Actually, Charles is singing about her frustration with the music industry.

“It’s all about the ups and downs I’ve experienced as an independent artist,” she says from her Edmonton home, “but I wanted to express that in a way everyone can relate to. I call it a comeback story; there’s the rise and the fall of the heroine, and then she wins in the end. I imagined what that would look like if we wrote songs around it.

“My whole life has been spent working on my music and getting it out there,” she says. “That was my entire focus, so my question was, how do I take that and present it in a way that listeners can understand it?”

By cleverly making analogies to relationships that went South, it turns out. And delivering the songs in a voice that inspired one CBC journalist to call her “the future Queen of Canadian soul.” Among her many achievements, Charles received the inaugural $8,000 Edmonton Music Prize for the city’s best album in 2013; earned a spot as a Top 12 finalist in The Peak Performance Project in Alberta; had her songs picked up by CBC Radio 2, played in regular rotation on L.A.’s tastemaker radio station KCRW, and placed in various TV shows on VH1, The Family Channel, W Network, CityTV, MTV and Showtime.

She isn’t a soul shouter or growler by any means. Rather, she possesses the vocal swagger of an Amy Winehouse, and sings with the same kind of conviction.

“For me, it all starts with a great song and the ability to deliver that story in a unique way. I try to do that, and it’s been working, I guess,” she says modestly. “I feel that if you have a great song and you can’t convey that when you sing it, it’ll fall flat. It’s not about who can sing it better, technically. For me, it’s, ‘Do you believe the person singing it?’

“Take the song ‘I Will Always Love You.’ When Whitney Houston sang it, I believed her. She served that song; she took someone else’s [Dolly Parton’s] song and delivered. That’s what I try to do every day.”

Charles, who co-wrote all the songs on The Grand Hustle, said she learned about “serving the song” – and fell in love with the process of collaborating with other writers – at song camps she’s attended over the last few years. Those included the 2016 Breakout West SOCAN Song House, and others organized by Songwriters Association of Canada (S.A.C.) and Alberta Music.

“I tend to write the first verse, chorus and bridge, and I’ll have no idea what the second verse is.”

“It was about writing the best song we could, and whose voice best suited the song,” she says. “The biggest lesson I learned is to not be afraid of trying things you might not do as an artist. I can’t go in thinking I’m going to write for me. It’s about where that song could live, whether it’s with another artist, or on a TV show. You can’t limit yourself. You have to be open to the experience, as well as to people’s suggestions – because if you don’t, the session gets awkward.”

Charles actually prefers to write with someone else.

“I tend to write the first verse, chorus and bridge, and I’ll have no idea what the second verse is. And then I’ll leave the song and never return to it,” she laughs. “When you’re co-writing, you can bounce ideas off someone, and that helps you to rein in the story and make it cohesive. It’s just a lot more fun than sitting at home and writing.”

Charles described the process of writing for The Grand Hustle as “super easy. My producer and I went to Toronto for two weeks and had different writers come in,” she says. “I had a story that I wanted to tell, so I talked to them beforehand about what I wanted to explore, and told them to feel free to come with something, or not to come with anything.”

For the entire  album, the A&R was facilitated by Cymba Music’s Libby Elming and Vincent Degiorgio, and The Grand Hustle features co-writes with eight-time JUNO Award Nominee Lisa DalBello, Jasmine Denham (“Together We Are One”), Dahmnait Doyle, and Cymba’s Aileen de la Cruz. The Grand Hustle was co-written and produced in its entirety by Cymba’s Ari Rhodes.

Having her producer “create the music” at the same time as she’s writing with someone “really helps with the flow of the song, and where we take it lyrically,” Charles explains. “Sometimes we start writing on an acoustic guitar, or on the piano. ‘Fever,’ for example, came together on the last day. My producer started fooling around with a beat on the computer, the repetition inspired images of running, and I wrote the lyrics to the song.”

If one thing becomes evident in a conversation with Charles, it’s that she’s holds songs in high esteem. So much so that she can’t really work to a formula for a hit song. “That’s not for me,” she says. “I’d love a number one song, don’t get me wrong; but it’ll have to be on my terms.”

Les Deuxluxes are known for their unabashed sound, with influences deeply rooted in the era when Sun Studios was a music Mecca, and aesthetics largely indebted to the New York Dolls and early Rod Stewart, while still admiring a few of their contemporaries, especially King Gizzard.

“We really dig the universe they put out there,” says guitarist and singer Anna-Frances Meyer. “They’re the kind of band who’ll release five albums in a year and do stuff that’s simply unthinkable in the current [music-industry] model. You get the feeling you’re tapping right into their brains when you listen to their stuff.”

Les Deuxluxes exist in stark contrast to the current musical landscape – thankfully.

We join them while the pair – Meyer and Étienne Barry, a couple both onstage and at home – is holed up deep in the Québec countryside, with shoddy cellular reception at best. They’re there to work on songs that will likely comprise the sequel to last September’s Springtime Devil: “Let’s just say people might get a little surprise sooner than they think,” says Meyer matter-of-factly.

Les Deuxluxes

Still image from the video for “My Babe & Me.” (Photo: Ariel Poupart)

So what place do their aesthetics occupy in their creative process? “I think it’s somewhat independent of our music,” Meyers says. “That aesthetic has a life of its own. Take the video for “My Babe & Me: we wanted an all-white video with a motorbike. And that song fit perfectly with the concept… We just want to create our own galaxy. We are inspired by artists that go above and beyond. And then there’s all the artists from the ’60s and ’70s who had such flair and showmanship.”

For Étienne Barry, this adds tremendously to their presentation. “Kiss are quite impressive,” he says. “And their performance lives up to their visuals. The music has to be in synch.” In an ideal world, with an ideal budget, the duo could fall from the sky on a motorbike, “and pyrotechnics like those of AC/DC would be sick… Fireworks are always cool in concert.”

Mainstream audiences were introduced to them during Infoman’s year-end review, for which they were asked to create the musical theme. (Aaired on Québec’s SRC Télé, think of Infoman as Québec’s version of The Rick Mercer Show.) “It went super well,” says Barry. “Daniel Beaumont [Infoman’s lyricist for the last few editions] wrote the lyrics. A lot of stuff from the first draft made it to the final version. The music followed almost without having to think about it.”

The show’s producer, Richard Gohier, agrees: “I’d heard them on the radio during the Plus on est de fous, plus on lit [a literary show on SRC Première] show as well as on Belle et Bum [a music variety show on Télé Québec], on TV, and I really liked their energy. Generally speaking, we try to have a youthful tone, not too establishment, not too conventional, and quite contemporary. Plus, they have a very distinctive look. When we met them, we were awestruck, host Jean-René Dufort and myself, because they’re super-followers of the news and they were totally on top of things when we talked with them. In the end, what they proposed to us was exactly what we were looking for.”

As for the fallout from a prime-time TV appearance on New Year’s Eve,  Meyer says, “We can’t deny a lot of people saw us and it’s changed things a bit, but nothing too intense. But we can’t deny Québec is a little tougher. We’ve never had any problems singing in English, we tour a lot and play pretty much anywhere. And we do consider ourselves Québécois artists. Getting stuck on language is shallow, to say the least. It just happens to be in English. We’re lucky to be able to do it and we feel like we belong here, we know everyone on the scene. Canailles, Québec Redneck Bluegrass Project, Ariane Moffatt… I just did a few shows with Safia Nolin! There’s room for everyone and that’s the wonderful thing about Québec, we’re all there to help each other out.”

Obviously, one question begs to be asked: how is it to work as a couple? Says Barry: “Is it more challenging? Not necessarily. The biggest challenge is setting time aside for it. I mean, like, ‘Fuck doing the dishes, let’s make rock ‘n’ roll!’” Meyer adds: “But this symbiosis is also a blessing. It brings a lot to us as a couple. I feel very lucky to be able to make it work so well.”

Here’s to their continued success, for our own pleasure!

The exhibit Rock ‘n’ Roll Icons – Photographs by Patrick Harbron is currently on view at Albany Institute of History and Art, through February 12, 2017. The images, both performance and portrait, are of mainstream rock ‘n’ roll artists captured on film by the longtime music-industry photographer between 1976 to1992, and in 2001. The Guardian newspaper in the U.K. published a portfolio of images from the exhibit on November 16, 2016. Here, we similarly present a selection of his photos of Canadian rock ‘n’ roll icons , with his stories about working with each of them.

Leonard Cohen

Leonard Cohen
Photographed on the I’m Your Man tour, at Toronto’s Massey Hall, on Nov. 9, 1988
The first time I met Leonard Cohen was the summer of 1973. I was writing a cover story about Cohen and his new play, Sisters of Mercy, for Beetle Magazine. Based on his words and music, it opened at the George Bernard Shaw Theatre in Niagara-on-The-Lake. We spent the afternoon chatting about his music and fame, performing and what it meant to be successful. I wasn’t a photographer then. It would be 15 years before I saw him again when I photographed his concert at Massey Hall. A lot of time had passed and I hadn’t followed his career closely but seeing him again, engaging his audience, was a pleasure. When I interviewed him in 1973 he said he didn’t want to do many concerts, but as the years went on he came to embrace performing more, building a new and larger audience. His concerts went from something sporadic to treasured events.

kd lang

kd lang
Photographed at Harbron Studio, in Toronto, in February 1987
One of my favorite sessions was with kd lang. The entire day prior to the shoot was chaos, missed connections and bad weather. I was stuck in a cab on my way to the Newark airport in the middle of a nasty winter storm. I made it just in time to watch the airline attendant close the gate and my flight to Buffalo. I was to meet kd and my staff in Toronto for a mid-afternoon shoot, but it didn’t look like I was going to make it. After disembarking in Buffalo, I booked the last rental car and fish-tailed out of the airport to the QEW and home. I arrived in the early evening and the snow had stopped. I went to the empty studio to drop my stuff and headed downstairs to the Montreal Bistro. Sitting at the bar was kd and my studio crew. The following shoot was one of the best sessions I’ve ever had. kd was full of energy and fun as we developed ideas and shot one set-up after another, until two in the morning. Everybody was so focused and driven. It couldn’t have been planned to go as well as it did. There were so many images to edit, it was hard to make final selections for the Canadian Musician cover story. The image here illustrates her interpretation of my request to impersonate a musical note.


Photographed on the “Drive ‘Til You Die” tour (supporting the Farewell to Kings album), at Maple Leaf Gardens in Toronto, on Dec. 29, 1977
Rush, one of Canada’s biggest rock exports, might have never made it without the help of Donna Halper at Cleveland’s WMMS. When she added the band’s single “Working Man” to the playlist it met with a huge response and opened doors that never closed.

In the summer of 1977 I wrote and photographed an article, for the Globe and Mail reviewing Farewell to Kings. At the time I was conflicted about whether to continue as a writer or become a photographer; when the Globe ran the piece with a huge photo, the decision was made. Toronto is our mutual hometown, and I met Rush after they recorded their first album. When I began as a young photographer they were one of the first bands I worked with. When I took this photograph, the band was enjoying their place as headliners in large venues, where they’ve remained. Since their recording debut in 1974 Rush has released more than 30 albums, 10 compilations and numerous DVDs.

In February 1997 the three group members were appointed as officers of the Order of Canada, and the band was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2013.

Buce Cockburn

Bruce Cockburn
Photographed at the Canadian Musician office, in Toronto, in 1987
As a Torontonian and a longtime Bruce Cockburn fan, I always feel nostalgia about winter in my hometown when I see the cover of his second album, High Winds White Sky, and hear its “Happy Good Morning Blues.” The record was released in 1971, the year I started in the music business. I think of how important a sense of place is to a musician, and to those who appreciate them. It reminds us of where we come from and who we are. It’s not hard to understand why Bruce has been such a mainstay of Canadian music since the late ‘60s. The portrait here is from a session in 1987. I wanted to illustrate Bruce in a straightforward manner. I chose to photograph him without a guitar:  just the man, in a serious but open portrait. I photographed Bruce several times during the ‘80s, including the shoot for his second concert album, Bruce Cockburn Live, from 1990.

Joni Mitchell

Joni Mitchell
Photographed during the “Conspiracy of Hope” Amnesty International Concert Tour, at the Giants Stadium show, in Rutherford, New Jersey, on June 15, 1986
Joni Mitchell’s history with large rock concerts are recalled as less than auspicious. She dealt with an unruly crowd at the Isle of Wight festival, missed Woodstock altogether to be available for the Dick Cavett Show, and performed a tense set during the “Conspiracy of Hope” Amnesty International Concert tour stop at Giants Stadium. This was the last time I photographed her and this selection is my favourite. There’s no other performer and songwriter with such a remarkable voice, wistful, insightful lyrics and unique use of polyphonic chords. Equally comfortable with folk and jazz, Joni created a most original collection of songs. My first opportunity to photograph her was in 1983, during the Wild Things Run Fast tour, and then at the Amnesty concert, where she made an unscheduled appearance before headliners U2 and The Police. This photograph of Joni reminds me of her early roots; she seems transcendent.

Kim Mitchell, Pye Dubois

Kim Mitchell and Pye Dubois of Max Webster
Photographed on Grandview Avenue in Toronto, in March 1978
This is one of my early assignments, for Roxy – a short-lived Toronto publication, and one of the first magazines I worked with in the late ‘70s. Among the artists I photographed for them were The Tubes, Peter Frampton, Bob Marley, Garland Jefferies and, in this shoot, the guy from Max Webster with his lyricist, Pye Dubois. Max was a full-on rock ‘n’ roll band with a satirical, even cynical point of view. Their album Mutiny Up My Sleeve was released in April 1978. There’s usually some give-and-take between a behind-the-scenes co-writer and a performing partner in the spotlight. With this in mind, I set out to illustrate their relationship while showing their evident bond. With tongue in cheek, we dragged the couch to the street, our de facto studio. The playfulness in the photo became a trademark for my portraiture. I shot everyone in the band but keyboard player Terry Watkinson, who was away that day. When it was time to go, the van pulled up, Kim took the wheel, posed for another shot in his mirrored shades, and drove the band to that night’s gig.

Rock 'n' Roll Icons