Paul JacobsDiscovered as a member of the popular Montréal-based garage punk band Pottery, singer-songwriter-musician Paul Jacobs is having fun playing live in a band, now that the worst part of the pandemic seems to be behind us.

“And since I’m working with the Bonsound label [and it’s Blow the Fuse sub-label], I have an opportunity to discover Québec on tour. I just came back from wonderful L’Isle-aux-Coudres, a small island located near Baie-Saint-Paul. and its small cabaret La Fascine! La Fascine, yeah! Pretty cool – they’ve built a kind of barn where they organize shows, and they lent us these small cottages… We were looking for a place to go swimming, but the St. Lawrence River isn’t a good place for that.”

At press time, Jacobs is embarking on a tour of the American midwest, where there’s an interest for his kind of rock songs. “These days, I’m spending all my time on my solo project,” songwriting, and getting on the road again.  Since the Summer 2020 release of his debut album Welcome to Bobby’s Motel by the Pottery band, Jacobs has enriched his own already ample repertoire with an excellent 2021 full-length album (Pink Dogs on the Green Grass), and his most recent 185 on the Corner EP, which adopts the psychedelic and groovy side of rock. “At the time I was writing these songs, I was discovering Arthur Russell’s music, with his blend of folk music and electronic sounds, and I was influenced by that. And there was also Neil Young, whose songs I’ve listened to all my life.”

These five new songs, written following the previous album’s work sessions, were even more influenced by the pandemic atmosphere, “which explains the different vibe,” says Jacobs. “I’m always trying new things – if you listen to my previous albums, you’ll see that they’re all fairly different from one another.”

What makes his approach different is that it’s independent. Originally from Ontario, Jacobs is a one-man orchestra who writes by himself and plays all of the instruments, records, and produces without outside help. “I was touring extensively across Canada, and every time we stopped in Montréal, the shows were cooler and cooler,” he says. “You know, the new-city-and-good-feelings type of thing. I was able to do one-man shows, and people were dancing and having a good time. So I thought I might as well try to live there.”

A visual artist in his own right, he even designs his own album covers, which are remarkably dynamic and colourful, “just to illustrate the musical atmosphere properly. Well, I’m not fond of commenting on my illustrations, but the dominant colour chosen [blue, on his recent EP] seems colder, as if I were more vulnerable and expressing my emotions more fully. It was like I was showing another side of my personality.

“I use the colour green a lot because it’s my favourite colour,” Jacobs adds, explaining why that colour, symbolizing hope, is frequently used on the covers of his four previous albums. “Visual illustrations are a complement to the music, which is my priority. But with painting, as well as with music, it’s pretty much the same thing: you start from scratch, and as you go along with your creation, a thing begins to exist, and then you get the same feeling of satisfaction you experience when you end up with something. Designing the cover, performing, drumming, playing guitars, and putting it all together is a thrill.

“I usually grab my acoustic guitar when I’m writing, but my drum kit is always nearby, so I’ll often sit down and record a groove on which I can build up a new song. However, there’s always a piano in the studio, and sometimes I’ll sit at it and write a groove” that will become the basis for a new song. That said, there’s also a piano in the studio, and sometimes I’ll sit at it. I get inspiration from all sorts of sources. “Christopher Robbins,” for instance, a song from the [Pink Dogs on the Green Grass] album, was started while I was playing the bongos, and I thought, yes, I should record this and try to add a bass line, that would be cool!

“I sometimes have a song topic in mind, but I often just sing anything, sounds, just to see what’s coming out of my mouth, without thinking too much. I don’t know, but sometimes it’s weird with tunes… I sometimes feel that writing a song is an out-of-body experience, as if the songs already existed, and I was only discovering now that they were there all along. And when I get that feeling, that’s when I know that I’m doing a good job in a very organic sort of way.”

Halfway through our conversation, Emmanuel Jal says, “Sorry, I didn’t mean to go so deep.”

He’s been passionately talking about the power of positive thinking, transcending bitterness, and the importance of imagining a better future. But when you consider the source, an apology isn’t necessary.

When he was seven years old, Jal and hundreds of other children fled to Ethiopia to escape the Second Sudanese Civil War. They were recruited by the Sudan People’s Liberation Army, trained to use AK-47 machine guns, and forced to fight the Sudanese government in a war they didn’t understand.

Amnesty International says that during that war, which raged for 22 years, “all parties to the conflict perpetrated serious international human rights violations, including targeted killing of civilians, the recruitment and use of children, acts of sexual violence, and destruction of property.”

After spending three years fighting and witnessing unspeakable horrors, Jal escaped with a few hundred other kids. Their journey to freedom took about three months, and many died along the way. Jal ended up in a small town in South Sudan where a British aid worker, Emma McCune, took a liking to him. She smuggled him into Kenya on an aid flight and paid for his education.

While in Kenya, Jal heard Puff Daddy’s tribute to Jesus, “Best Friend.” It changed his life. “Music was a place where I could become a child again,” he says. “It was like I’d found heaven.” Since then, the self-described “accidental musician” has been trying to provide a piece of heaven to anyone who needs it, through his mix of hip-hop and various African sounds on his six albums.

As a musician and an activist for peace,  Jal has helped both himself and the world. His live appearances have included Live 8, Nelson Mandela’s 90th Birthday Concert, and the One Concert for his Holiness The Dalai Lama. Jal has addressed the United Nations, and the U.S. Congress, and has collaborated and performed alongside artists such as Lauryn Hill, Peter Gabriel, Nelly Furtado, Ed Sheeran, Nile Rodgers, and Alicia Keys. In 2008, a full-length documentary on his life, Warchild, won 12 film festival awards worldwide. In the same year, his autobiography, also called Warchild, was published by Little Brown. For his outstanding commitment to peace building, Jal has been awarded the Vaclav Havel International Prize for Creative Dissent 2018, and the Desmond Tutu Reconciliation Award 2017, among several other such honours.

He says his latest LP, Shangah, is more celebratory than his past work. “I just want to dance, I love to dance!” he says. “I believe certain kinds of traumas can get out of your body through dancing. You breathe differently after, you process things differently.”

Jal doesn’t just dance up a storm in his videos. Like his Afrobeat contemporaries, his films burst with gorgeous fashions and colours. The video for “Hey Mama,” shot in his home country and in Kenya, is no exception. “I just want to push the young designers and dancers and musicians in Africa,” he says, adding that “I was surprised to discover that people in Asian countries are watching my videos.”

“Hey Mama” features the lines, “South Sudan is my mother, tribalism has no place, languages don’t discriminate, we are all equal, no war, love is our cure.”

“Was it painful returning to South Sudan to shoot the video?,” we ask. “It’s sad to see 98 percent of the people scrambling to live,” says Jal. “Half the population are refugees! I really hope the peace talks produce some tangible results.”

Offstage, Jal heads his own charity, Gua Africa, which focuses on education and supporting families affected by conflicts in East Africa. He’s also worked with organizations like Amnesty International to help prevent the recruitment of child soldiers.

Several times during our chat, Jal emphasizes that we have the power to create the future we want by imagining it. “I’m creating the life I want by drawing wisdom and motivation from my past,” he says. “I’ve shut down many horrible things, like being tempted to eat a comrade when were in the bush and starving, or drinking my own urine, because I’ve healed.

“But sometimes when I look at my life, I ask, ‘Why am I here?’ It feels like a dream.”

Xela Edna and Eius Echo have known each other for a very long time. Partners in crime since childhood – they were on the same speed skating team – they lost sight of each other, then found each other again to pool their energy. But this time in a creative way, rather than a sporting way. Musically, they combine their talents to create atmospheres that push us to dance, and get rid of anything that prevents us from feeling pure and simple well-being.

Xela Edna, Eius Echo

Photo: Maryse Boyce/Francouvertes

“High-level sport is addictive,” says Eius Echo, adamant that musical performance has most certainly taken the place of sports performance in their lives. “We needed to go as far from sports as we could,” says Xela Edna. “Instead of going around in circles doing something physical and automatic, we found ourselves in musical performance.” His stage partner agrees: “We clearly took a lot of characteristics from sports and applied them to music: perseverance, giving it everything you’ve got…”

Recognizing each other as creative people by nature, they saw in music a practical path to convey both political and philosophical ideas. “We needed to find a different way of coping with life,” says Edna. “Sports and music are two highly therapeutic ways of getting rid of negativity.”

Before collaborating with Echo, Edna wrote in English. He delved into languid hip-hop that flirted with R&B and soul. “Our process has evolved,” continues Echo. “But it’s always been that I create a beat, she writes based on it, and then we record it. Nowadays, it’s more complex and there are more layers. She often brings complete song demos to the table.” They both enjoy being involved in each other’s creative process. “I’ll be on my own writing in a poetic frame of mind, and Eius Echo gives me beats, or themes. Increasingly, we create demos on our own, and then we work on them together.”

It’s the fusion of their talents that led Edna to sing in French. “Eius pushed me in that direction,” she remembers. “But I couldn’t find my own sound and I didn’t like how my voice sounded in French. In the end, we tried something that closer to French spoken word over electronic beats, and ended up with what we’re doing now.”

From the very inception of their musical union, they’ve sought to give their audience a unique stage experience. “It was always our goal,” Echo insists. “It’s ambient and laid-back, and aggressive at the same time. We had all kinds of beats and wanted to tell a story, to have a storyline. When we started, we knew what we wanted to achieve, but we didn’t know how, and didn’t have the means to do it. We pooled our ideas through studies and experience.” Writing in French has allowed Edna to get closer to her truth, and Echo’s learned all the techniques that now allow them to produce their unique sound.

“Just by sitting next to him, I ended up understanding how it all works,” Edna continues. “I installed that software on my computer and learned by watching. I’ve always composed by singing and playing the piano. It’s more inspiring and original to start with melodies that way.” Although she’s tried working with other producers, it was alongside Echo that she understood that the passion that drives him is a catalyst for her own talent.

The result can clearly be seen when they’re onstage: what we witness is a multi-faceted performance with meticulous attention to detail. “We want to make a physical demonstration, to feel alive,” says Edna. “There’s nothing more insignificant nowadays than releasing a song on Internet,” Echo adds. “The experience needs to be bigger than that.”

Following three EPs, the duo is now working on their first full-length album, slated for 2023. “We’re seeking eccentricity,” says Edna. “It’s our source of inspiration. Even if we’re doing experimental electronic music, we find inspiration in the work of Klô Pelgag, Hubert Lenoir, and all those artists who know how to do unique things without limitations.”