Philippe Brach never worries about running out of ideas, or how to bring them to fruition; no, his problem is gathering them into something cohesive. And then, along comes Le Silence des troupeaux, a short, dense third album inspired by his travels, Facebook’s Thumbs Up, Nelson Riddle’s arrangements for Nat King Cole, Bill Withers’ fluid folk-funk, and the sound of an autoharp drunk-purchased on eBay. And lo and behold, it’s somehow a cohesive whole.

Philippe Brach“I work in a very chaotic way,” says Brach a few days after the extraordinary launch of his third album. Coming from a guy who thought it would be a good idea to record an 8 bit / videogame / chiptune version of his second album Portraits de famine called Bienvenue à enfant-ville, that confession will surprise no one.

“I don’t have a working method,” he continues. “Sometimes the words come first, other times it’s the music. Sometimes both simultaneously. Sometimes I sing the melody and then re-play it on the guitar. Or I envision a piano, and sit down to hammer out a few chords until something comes out of it.”

“Sometimes I’ll buy an instrument I know I absolutely can’t play and see where that takes me,” he says. His latest toy? An autoharp. “No one knows how to play that damn thing,” he says. Coming home from a bar one night, he saw a video of somebody playing the instrument, often associated with the ’60s folk revival, and back in favour with the recent neo-folk revival. Basia Bulat, for one, knows how to play it, and quite beautifully. Click; he bid on one. A classic case of “drunk eBayin’,” he readily admits. One can hear it at the tail end of the song “Tu voulais des enfants” (“You Wanted Children”).

“I love trying out new stuff,” says Brach, “even though we’re constantly trying to write the same song, as Stéphane Lafleur would say. It’s still nice to feel like you’re not trying to write the same song over and over.” Therein lies the intrinsic high quality of this third album: one recognizes Brach’s stamp, his nerve, his folk roots, but the music takes unexpected twists and turns in terms of structure, and ornate orchestration. Brach treated himself to a personal trip: over the course of 10 songs that barely surpass the 30-minute mark, Le Silence des troupeaux comes across as a concept album, albeit one with a vague thread. A concept album without a concept. And that was his intent.

“It feels like a concept album because it has a beginning and an end and certain instrumental passages, but to me, it’s a record that is as disparate as all the other ones,” says the singer-songwriter. “I do admit that the songs are slightly more related to each other than on my two previous albums. If there’s a general concept behind it, it’s openness, to others, and to other ideas. Besides, I don’t like having to hand out guides to understand my albums. Sure, it’s fun to be guided in a given direction, understanding where it comes from, because the songs do carry a message, and it’s fun to know what the creator was thinking. But I still like to leave things a little vague, out of focus, so that the listener can understand what they want.”

A good example of this, which warrants closer inspection, is the song “La Guerre (expliquée aux adultes)” (“War (Explained to Adults)”), which is surely the most astonishing song on the album. A few bangs of a drum to give the cadence, and Brach – who solemnly sings a melody straight out of another era – invites a children’s choir to sing about war. Except for the children’s voices and the drum beats, one hears not a single instrument… until the song’s last 30, highly cinematic, seconds – in which the sound effects of bombs falling and exploding, and an orchestra, come in.

“When I wrote ‘La Guerre,’ sung by children, it was my way of representing our implication in the era of social media,” says Brach. That makes everything clear. “Often,” he continues, “we ‘share’, we write a status [on Facebook], and we think, ‘Yes! I’ve done a good deed, I’ve done my part, I’ve done something.’ Sure, you’re being true to your values, but [commenting on social networks] is not a goal in itself. One must act in real life. That’s what the lyrics are about – it’s the most cliché text in the world, very much an example of magical thinking, ‘Quand l’amour aura le monde’ and all will be well… We all know that. Who gives a fuck? It’s all fine and dandy to say it, but if we don’t do anything about it, well, the kids, at the end of the song, are marching right into a minefield. That’s the message, you see, but I didn’t feel like spelling it out in black on white. I wanted it to be a little vague.”

The album title, however (Le Silence des troupeaux translates as The Silence of the Flocks) is much more explicit about the musician’s intentions. Far from wanting to be moralizing, Brach insists that he’s not placing himself above everyone else by critiquing our degree of social involvement in this era of Likes and Re-Tweets. “There’s a lot of critiques on there, but also a lot of realizations about myself,” he says. “I often react emotionally and that places me in situations… well… like everyone else. I say stuff without thinking about it too much. More often than not, I don’t look around me and I don’t ask myself why I don’t understand this or that…”

Philippe BrachElsewhere on the album, it’s a trip to Pakistan – “Because a friend of mine who’s a journalist was there and I didn’t feel like going to a tourist-y place” – that inspired a song bearing the country’s name as a title, “but that doesn’t talk about Pakistan in the least.” On “Rebound,” one hears the intimacy of experience resonating in the lyrics: “Non j’vas attendre que tu te tannes/Que ton confort se fane/Que tu trouves mieux pour nous deux/De se laisser un peu.” (“I’ll wait till you get bored/till your confort dissipates/till you find something better for us/till we separate a little.”).

On “Tu voulais des enfants” that Brach indulged his dream of playing piano à la Nat King Cole. “There’s two types of arrangements in life, to me,” he says. “Those that wrap around the song, and those that are an integral part of it – the kind of arrangements that, if you remove them from the song, it’s missing something. We tried to navigate between those two poles on the album,” he says, with the help of his arranger and friend Gabriel Desjardins, a.k.a. La Controverse. “I’m a huge Nat King Cole fan. It’s pure Cole to have two verses followed by an instrumental one. Initially, I wanted a really fucking long instrumental intro like Nat King Cole did. That didn’t fly!”

The other reference is even more obvious. On “Mes Mains blanches,” (“My White Hands”) Philippe Brach borrows legendary soul singer Bill Withers’ melody from “Grandma’s Hands,” and gives it a whole new meaning based on the lyrics – the album’s strongest piece of writing. “I’m also a big fan of Bill!” says Brach. “To be honest, I promised myself I’d never do a cover of one of his songs, I respect him too much. But after I played that song like 150,000 times, I started to do one. The lyrics came out in four minutes. I owned it.

“It’s funny,” says Brach, “each song comes to me in a different moment. Sometimes key moments, sometimes trashy moments… The songs come way before the meaning I want to impart to the album. Then, I try to make sense of what my subconscious is trying to tell me through these songs. Understanding the general meaning of an album comes afterwards, once I have all the songs in front of me. That’s when I get their individual meaning, and I finally understand why I did what I did in this or that spot. The meaning manifests itself.”

Sub-Publishers: BMG Rights Management Canada, Universal Music Publishing Canada

The story of the first Canadian rapper signed to an American record deal tells you more than just the history of hip-hop in this country, it tells you about this country itself.

Michie Mee was born in Saint Andrew Parish, Jamaica, in the 1970s, moved to Canada with her family at age six, and spent her early teens living in Toronto’s Jane and Finch neighbourhood and visiting her aunt in the Bronx. Her uniquely Canadian life experiences, attitude (and accent) – as well as world-class battle rap skills – captured the attention of early hip-hop heavyweights like KRS-One, who called her “Canada’s greatest, musically inclined intellectual representative for the rap industry on a whole, a major breakthrough for female MCs everywhere.”

The country caught on in 1991 with her debut album Jamaican Funk – Canadian Style, (First Priority/Atlantic) which produced a hit single of the same name and earned a JUNO nomination for Best Rap Recording. Today, while Caribbean-flavoured Canadian rap (e.g., Drake’s “One Dance”) dominates globally, the self-described “Jamaican taking charge” retains the title of First Lady of Canadian Hip-Hop, and continues to work as a rapper, songwriter and actor. Mee recently released “Thank You,” the first single from a new album coming in 2018. She spoke to SOCAN from her home in Toronto.

You had a few singles out but this was your debut full-length. Where did the idea for “Jamaican Funk” come from?
The idea was an album where one side would be reggae and one side was going to be hip-hop. But how do you do reggae in a Canadian style, since I was a Canadian artist? I met King of Chill of Alliance, a producer for MC Lyte, who was also on First Priority, and he had this song idea for “Jamaican Funk” – based on the [1980] record “Funking for Jamaica” by Tom Browne, which referred to Jamaica, Queens, New York. Our version came from the idea that I’m a Jamaican-Canadian girl. And “Jamaican Funk – Canadian Style” became the classic.

There’s also dancehall on there, along with the reggae and hip-hop. Why did you want to mix up genres?
I just liked music. I’m surprised I’m not a rock guitarist, actually, because I loved that too. I was the one always pushing hip-hop down at Caribana! It was natural for me, an honest representation of my culture.

How outside the box was it at that time to rap with Jamaican patois for an American label?
Back then, hip-hop had an accent – an American accent. Also at that time, Jamaicans in the media were being portrayed as violent, so it definitely wasn’t considered “safe” music for a label. And it was so early, for hip-hop. So here we were – my accent, plus a genre just being built. The good thing is there were no rules for us. And me being Canadian, and being a confident Jamaican, there was no fear in me that I couldn’t be an international artist. I wasn’t the first Jamaican rapper. The influence was there with people like Kool Herc. But what made me different was my Canadian perspective.

How did battle rapping influence your early songwriting style?
It made me competitive. “I’m the best, I’m not leaving,” wrestling attitude. Being dramatic. And funny. When you’re a woman you can use that as an asset. Because some of the battle raps were so personal, so catty, when it came time to do songwriting, there was a lot of second-guessing. Also, being young, and not knowing how things worked. I wasn’t even sure I was supposed to be in that studio with all those men. But here you are coming up with ideas. And if you don’t think they’re good enough, then you go home and write more.

Looking back, what’s your strongest memory of that song?
Performing on [local Toronto TV dance show] Electric Circus. I had just come back from Jamaica, and shopping in New York, and we came back to Canada and there was this brand new dance show and here we were. You’re telling all your friends, “come down to MuchMusic.” And everybody wanted to do that. We all met in the parking lot. And King Lou [from Dream Warriors] was there as the hype man. I’m still happy now just thinking about it.

Loud makes no bones about his ambition and totally owns his thirst for grandeur on Une année record (A Record Year), his first solo album – produced by his Loudlongtime partners in crime, Ajust and Ruffsound. Armed with a variety of tones and flows that he uses with uncanny versatility, the rapper – who made a name for himself in Loud Lary Ajust – rhymes about his accomplishments, hopes and angst. A few weeks before his first foray into France – where his album will be released by a Universal subsidiary – the 29-year-old Montréaler re-visits the writing process for his 10 new songs.

“So Far So Good”
“We wanted to start with a bit of a shocker, a warning that sets the tone for things to come. There are a lot of melodic songs on the album, but I thought it was important to open with something a little rougher and more self-assured, so that right from the get-go, it’s clear we aren’t messing around. The tone is commanding, it’s straight to the point. Personal considerations begone.”

“Nouveaux riches” (“Newly Rich”)
“Here, we go in a completely different direction, with something a lot catchier. That song is the symbolic sequel to “56K [the standout track on his New Phone EP], because the writing is very similar. The point, here, is to take advantage of the slow beat in the background to drop ‘quotables’: nicely crafted sentences that stick in your mind, and that you can easily quote. Through it all, there are touches of humour, which I consider quite tricky to pull off. I don’t really like joke rap, so I had to be careful to avoid falling into a character. I had to find my balance.”

“Il était moins une” (“In the Nick of Time”)
“That’s me looking back at my teens and appraising my musical journey. The challenge was to write a very long verse that started with my youthful ambitions and ended with a consecration of sorts. The conclusion is a little more abstract, but in a nutshell, it means we worked hard and managed, barely, to sneak our way to success. The words ‘il était moins une’ [‘in the nick of time’] mean that it might not have worked out… It was obvious to me that I needed to tell that story over a classic rap beat at 90 beats per minute, not over a trap or R&B beat. I can imagine Nas or Prodigy rapping over this.”

“It’s a song about patience that is very much who I am; I’m not a hurried person. When I first heard the album after the mixing and mastering, this is the one that stood out for me. It’s based on a very classic songwriting principle that amalgamates the form and the content. The cheesiest example I can think of would be a singer that says ‘My heart stops’ just as the music stops. I didn’t even notice it at first, but my flow was quite dense during the verses, and the sentence ‘These things take time’ slowed down my cadence and allowed me to let go of my angst. That format allowed me to gather a bunch of disparate ideas, and to put out there that even though we sometimes lose our focus in our fucked-up lives, we need to let time do its thing.”

“Devenir immortel (et puis mourir)” (“Becoming Immortal (and Dying)”)
“The inspiration for this is Jean-Luc Godard’s movie Breathless, written by François Truffaut. I went to see that movie at Théâtre Outremont a couple of months ago, and one of the lines shook me, which I immediately jotted down in my phone: ‘Devenir immortel, et puis, mourir… ’ I was with Will [who directs his videos], and the first thing we talked about when we walked out of the theatre was Loudthat line. It asserted itself as the song title before I even wrote a single line. It’s a somewhat pretentious way to express the fact that I’d like to give everything I have and leave an impression behind with my work. Ultimately, I believe this desire for immortality motivates all creative types, but rap allows one to express it more honestly than other musical genres.”

“Toutes les femmes savent danser” (“All Women Know How to Dance”)
“That’s my very first radio-formatted pop song. All I’m missing to make the 3:20 mark is the bridge and a third verse. [Laughs] Seriously, though, I’m a fan of pop music, most notably Taylor Swift, whom I consider an influence. Several of her songs on 1989, like ‘Blank Space’ or ‘Wildest Dreams,’ are pop masterpieces, in my opinion. We asked for the help of guitarist Pierre-Luc Rioux, who’s worked with David Guetta, to co-write the song. He came up with several loops that Ruffsound and Ajust arranged. As for me, the title came first, once again. The basic idea is to say that no one is irreplaceable, and that even though it peters out with one person, or you get excited with a love that’s going nowhere, it’s all good, there will be others. I’m not putting down women by saying they’re all the same; I’m saying that a relationship is not an end in itself.”

“SWG” (featuring Lary Kidd)

“This one’s a reflection on what men are willing to do to impress or conquer women. They’re observations that avoid being moralistic. I didn’t show Lary what I’d written because I wanted him to do his thing, no censorship. All I told him was the song’s title, ‘Sleeping With Girls,’ and he went in a completely different direction. Not long ago, he would’ve been much more vulgar, but in this case, he decided to come at it from a social angle.”

“Hell, What a View”
“It all starts from the chorus, which had been bouncing around in my mind for a long time: ‘Cancelle tous mes rendez-vous/ J’prends plus d’entrevue, vous parlerez entre vous/I finally found a place where I see none of you / And I’ve been thinkin’ to myself… Hell, what a view’ (the first two lines: ‘Cancel all my appointments / I’m not doing any more interviews, talk amongst yourselves’) From that point on, all the verses justify this desire for exile, and bolster my need to say ‘fuck all y’all.’ The creative principle is the same as on ‘Nouveaux riches,’ because slow beats are conducive to impactful lines. It’s the type of song that takes me a long time to write.”

“On My Life” (featuring Lary Kidd and 20some)
“I’ve been wanting to collaborate with 20some, one of Québec’s most meticulous rappers, for a long time. He is super-precise and efficient, but somewhat underestimated compared to the other guys in Dead Obies. I gave him carte blanche and, in the end, he recorded a two-minute verse! I really wanted him to do something like that, a bit like Rick Ross’s very long verse at the end of Kanye West’s ‘Devil in a New Dress.’ It’s a classic brag-rap song that doesn’t have a specific subject. That kind of freedom allows everyone to say whatever they feel like.”

“Une année record” (“A Record Year”)
“That one’s an old NeoMaestro song, to which we added live arrangements of guitar, saxophone, piano… Because it’s the album’s last song, I used it to wrap things up and re-visit all of the album’s themes. The result is a soul number like I like ‘em, like some Jay-Z classics on The Blueprint or The Black Album.”

Une année record is out now in stores and on most streaming platforms.