As another decade in music comes to an end, entertainment headlines are filled with winner stats – Drake’s the most-streamed artist on Spotify, while other famed Canadian pop stars like The Weeknd and Shawn Mendes also find themselves on top, with mammoth, endlessly stream-able, and promoted, pop albums.

But what about the artists making Indigenous, global, or other music outside of the mainstream? Those whose diverse sounds don’t capture streaming algorithms as easily as pop music’s powerful machines do. As National Canadian outlets play less and less of their music, and spaces such as MTV IGGY (shuttered mid-way through the decade) disappear, an undeniable calibre of artist, who perform in genres too diverse to categorize, are trying to navigate the new spaces of music in hopes of finding wider audiences. Here’s a cross-section of four.

Celeigh Cardinal

For singer and radio host Celeigh Cardinal, the struggles that come with making non-pop/mainstream music have never been a surprise. “I never thought I would be a Lady Gaga type. I just never created that kind of music, so I didn’t have the expectation that I would be on commercial radio,” says Cardinal, whose sound ranges through soul, blues, and folk genres. “Most of my success is with Indigenous, community, and college radio stations. I think as an independent artist, having realistic expectations is a must.”

A self-proclaimed singing “diva” since the age of four, who’s performed music for 20 years, it was in 2011 when Cardinal released her first, self-titled EP, recorded in her partner’s kitchen. The release allowed her to tour, promote, and sell her music. Since, she’s released 2017’s Everything and Nothing at All, and 2019’s Stories from a Downtown Apartment.

Besides realistic expectations, Cardinal’s key to independent artistry is adaptability. “I’ve learned from my years playing bars to folk clubs [and] reading rooms, [to] constantly adapt to the crowd in front of me.” She’s taken those skills and transferred them to how she markets her music.  It means knowing that a YouTube-er listening to her may utilize platforms in a very different way than one discovering her on Spotify. It’s also meant not assuming everyone consumes or finds her music online. Cardinal creates monthly newsletters for those who aren’t on social media at all. It’s been key in building a fanbase.

“It means extra work for me,” she says. “But it means that I’m actually really plugged in with the people listening to my music.”

_______________

Kiran Ahluwalia

Though music platforms are everywhere – promising unlimited access to listeners around the world – reaching audiences can still be a major challenge, explains Kiran Ahluwalia, especially since some outlets have notably narrowed their music focus.

“CBC radio has pretty much stopped playing any music that isn’t in English or French,” says Ahluwalia. “They used to have dedicated shows playing world music, and used to record live concerts.  This [was] a great way for non-mainstream musicians to reach a national audience, but now it no longer exists.” And while CBC has diffused world beats into speciality channels, she says it’s only served to further niche sounds that are already struggling for wider attention.  “They don’t have the same kind of national reach as radio itself,” she adds.

It’s particularly challenging for artists like Ahluwalia, whose music, such as 2018’s 7 Billion, resists easy genre labels. “Journalists and fans don’t know what to make of it until they actually listen to it,” she says.  “And that’s the catch – sometimes they don’t listen to it until you call it something.  I don’t do traditional Indian music, but I don’t do club/dance Indian music either, such as Bollywood.  I write original songs in Hindustani and Punjabi, but I can’t call it singer-songwriter because I [have] an extended band – electric guitar, drums, tabla, bass ,and organ.  I describe my music as modern Indian song, influenced by West African desert blues and jazz.  But for most people that doesn’t generate an aural image.

“If someone says they do rock, or folk, or R&B, you get an idea of a sound.  But since I’ve created a hybrid genre – taking my Indian roots and blending them with Western and global sounds, there’s no neat category.  This makes it harder to sell, which brings about more challenges in marketing the music.” Though touring is where she makes the most income, community radio, a space not beholden to easy labels, remains a saving grace for Ahluwalia’s work.  “I’m a big fan of community radio. It is definitely an important factor in getting my music out [there],” she says.

_______________

Digawolf

If not for Indigenous and community radio, many may not have discovered the deep, moving blues of Yellowknife’s Digawolf. Digawolf himself calls community radio essential for many Canadian musicians.

Releasing music since 2003’s solo project, Father, and currently touring his latest release, Yellowstone, Digawolf sound has been compared to those of Leonard Cohen and Tom Waits. He believes artists today must become business-savvy in order to make, and make a living from, their music. Particularly remotely located artists, who face extra hurdles – like weaker internet connections, less access to festivals, and expensive flights when travelling to shows.

“I think it’s really important as a musician [and] artist to diversify your income,” says Digawolf, explaining that touring and streaming are equally important. “To make it as a full-time artist [and] musician, no matter where you live, you have to understand where your money is. Finding those royalties, and making sure every song is properly registered, so you’re able to make a living.”

Singing in Tlicho and English, when asked if he was ever tempted to switch to a more mainstream sound, it’s a simple no. “I just write music,” says Digawolf. “If I like it, I like it. And that’s what I put out.”

_______________

EMDE

When it comes to mixing up one’s musical style for the ever-coveted mainstream attention, it’s also a flat “no” for Mali-born, Montréal-based Mamoutou Dembélé, better known as EMDE (pronounced “EM-day”). “I compose [the] music that I play. I would not change it to fit in any mold or standards,” he says.

Playing music since he was a child, and professionally performing from the age of 13, in 2013 the singer-songwriter and multi-instrumentalist released EMDE Djeliya, and then its 2017 follow-up, Dasio. Now working on his third release, EMDE says finding a musical home in Canada has been an admitted challenge, particularly for global beats.

“Performing and touring is how I sustain my career,” he says. “There are just a few radio stations that are playing world, African music. If you don’t get played, it becomes harder.”

Despite the challenges EMDE is finding success. In 2019, he became the winner of Montreal’s Festival International Nuits d’Afrique’s People’s Choice and The Syli d’Or prize. It’s bolstered his resolve. Today, he’s taking the steps to get his music onto streaming platforms, and searching for a label. He believes patience and perseverance are the tools that will help his music find a broader home. “[It] takes a major investment,” he says. “[And] that will come in time.”



Laurence-Anne’s debut album Première apparition will turn one year old on Feb. 8, 2020. Mysteries, ferns and tyrannosauruses punctuated her album release party, while a very different setting served as a backdrop for the singer-songwriter’s multi-genre gems when she played her last gig of 2019 at Montréal’s Katacombes. From a tropical jungle to the night of the living dead, she’s cultivating a garden pf which we were all dreaming.

 Laurence-Anne“It’s like a coded message,” she says. “It’s based on daily events, but everything is described with images and metaphors. I might be the only one who gets its, in the end, but it’s still a universe into which anyone can dive.” The songs settle inside her when she herself settles down for a moment, and when her band plays them, beautiful accidents occur. “I like to leave things as raw as possible to give space for sparks to fly,” she explains.

Listening to her album is as calming as a stroll through a forest, yet her stage show is nothing like a yoga class. “The songs take on a new life onstage,” says the artist who, during her December concert, emerged from a chrysalis after being liberated by a giant, scissor-wielding crustacean. “It’s more ethereal on the album. The rock side comes out onstage. There’s more noise. I think we embody it more when we’re on stage.”

From one gig to the next, Laurence-Anne’s band lets itself be carried away by the costumes and themes. And the setting is largely botanical, it remains dependent on the spontaneous impulses of the musicians. “The songs are full of imagery, and that’s why I find it interesting to bring up visual elements to keep that imagery ever-present,” says the singer. That can mean dressing up as a sports team, or a zombie lifeguard, or something inspired by vegetation.

“We’re all hyper-creative and we each have our own colour,” according to Laurence-Anne.  “I give them [the band] a lot of freedom. I’m not the type of musician who’ll give you specific directions. The people who work with me inspire me.” One would indeed be hard-pressed to try and box in musicians with such flamboyant inspirations. Naomie De Lorimier, who sings and plays synths, is also known for her solo project N Nao. David Marchand (a.k.a. zouz), on bass and guitar, among other instruments, is everything but a newcomer. Laurent St-Pierre’s drums and Ariel Comptois’ sax are constantly renewing themselves, and Étienne Côté’s percussion unravels before our very eyes like a surprise menu: we never know quite how it’s done, but it’s always delicious.

Laurence-Anne cultivates a sound that’s more firmly rooted each day, and her second album is already sprouting. “We’re going to give ourselves more time to work on it over several studio sessions this spring,” she says. “We still record live, all of us together, in order to preserve the organic dimension of it.” After greenery, Laurence-Anne will eventually tell us about storms and outer space. “I’d like to try new instruments that are seldom heard in Québec pop music,” she says, tempted, among others, to use ondes Martenot, an instrument resembling the theremin.

For Laurence-Anne, songs can originate from everywhere and nowhere. “‘C’est un virus’ is my song that’s the most different from all the others on Première apparition,” she says. “I wrote that song differently from the others. I used an old Yamaha keyboard with pre-set beats, the kind you often get as a kid. I plugged it in my effects pedals and I selected the bolero beat. I used my reverb pedal, and that’s where it started! It was the first time I composed without a guitar. I had no idea where I was going with it. I didn’t think much of it, but in the end, after jamming on it for a while, it turned into something.” A framework is nothing but a constraint, and the same goes when defining her style, which borrows left and right without ever staying long enough in one spot to be defined by it.

So what’s the recipe for a good song, according to Laurence-Anne Ricardo? “You need to choose the right beat setting, it’s like the oven temperature,” she says. “Between 1 and 100. The melody is really important. You have to nail it, otherwise your recipe is a disaster,” she jokes. “And you can’t forget about textures. It’s 2020, everything has been done, musically. It’s the only way to re-invent oneself.”



It’s not every day that you get shouted out to 22 million followers on Céline Dion’s Facebook page, but that’s exactly what happened to longtime professional songwriter Liz Rodrigues.

“So wonderful to meet up with the very talented Liz Rodrigues at my show last Saturday. She co-wrote ‘Courage’, ‘Flying on My Own’ and several others for me. Thank you, Liz. – Céline xx…,” read the May 27 post accompanying a photo of the two of them.

Rodrigues has six songs, co-written with various collaborators, on Dion’s new album, Courage —  the aforementioned two, plus “Say Yes,” “Nobody’s Watching,” “How Did you Get Here,” and “The Chase.” She landed her first Dion placement, “There Comes A Time,” in 2008, on My Love: The Essential Collection, and has met the Canadian superstar several times “very briefly” at her shows,  but hasn’t yet had the courage, if you will, to have a full conversation.

Referencing their Las Vegas meeting shortly before Dion ended her 16-year residency at Caesar’s Palace, Rodrigues – a self-described “obsessed fan” since 1990’s Unison, Dion’s ninth career album, and first sung in English – says, “I promised myself I wouldn’t fall apart. I had all these things to say, and as soon as she said ‘hello’ and she took my hand, and said some beautiful things to me, I was just like [talks gibberish]. I don’t even know what I said. I was kind of speechless,” she laughs.

As a kid, the Toronto-born top-liner tried to hit “every single note” of Dion’s. Her earliest experiences singing live were in the Portuguese community, mainly covering Dion’s songs. She was similarly inspired by the “very emotional, big vocal” style of Portuguese fado singer Amália Rodrigues, and performed her songs too.  “I’ve always been really drawn to, and want to write like, that,” Rodrigues says.

But just two years after placing “There Comes A Time” with Dion, Rodrigues scored three hip-hop songs on Eminem’s 2010,  Grammy-winning, No. 1 Billboard album, Recovery — “Won’t Back Down,” “25 To Life,” and “Almost Famous,” contributing vocals to the latter two. All were co-written with fellow Canadians Erik Alcock and Chin Injeti, and L.A.’s DJ Khalil, with all of whom she had a band, The New Royales.

“You can write really heartfelt emotional tunes for someone like Céline, and the way she interprets them is incredible.”

While she half- jokes that she’s always up for writing a Dion ballad, she says it isn’t any more difficult or different a process to write for Eminem. “It’s really not,” says Rodrigues, who draws more on emotion for ballad-writing, and on story-based narratives for hip-hop. “I think we’re all more than one kind of person, one style of person,” she says. “We all have different experiences at different times of our lives.”

This approach and versatility has enabled the Universal Music Publishing Group signee to co-write songs for everyone from P!nk to Pitbull, and many more for Eminem over the past decade – most recently, her Alcock-Injeti-Khalil collaboration “Castle,” which she also sang on, for the rapper’s 2017 album Revival.

But songs for Dion are most often flowing through her creative bloodstream. That first one, her big break, “There Comes A Time,” came when she was pursuing her own career as an artist. Canadian icon Dan Hill introduced her to Swedish songwriter Jörgen Elofsson (Westlife, Britney Spears), who already had a co-write on Il Divo and Dion’s “I Believe in You.” Hill himself had co-written and co-produced 1996’s “Seduces Me” on her 32 million-selling album, Falling Into You.

“Even though I was searching for who I was as an artist at the time, I always loved to write,” says Rodrigues. “I’d been out to Stockholm a few times, and when we knew Céline was looking for songs, we were writing for her. You can write really heartfelt emotional tunes for someone like Céline, and the way she interprets them is incredible. That’s why she’s able to reach people the way that she does.”

Anyone familiar with Dion and the extraordinary loss she went through in 2016 – with her manager husband René Angélil, and brother Daniel passing away, only days apart – can hear how the lyrics in several of the six songs Rodrigues co-wrote could apply so personally to the singer.

“Courage” – which Rodrigues co-wrote with another Canadian, Stephan Moccio, and Alcock – begins with these words:

I would be lying if I said “I’m fine” / I think of you at least a hundred times / ‘Cause in the echo of my voice I hear your words / Just like you’re there/ I still come home from a long day /So much to talk about, so much to say / I love to think that we’re still making plans / In conversations that’ll never end/ Courage, don’t you dare fail me now / I need you to keep away the doubts / I’m staring in the face of something new

“We wrote that 100 percent with Céline in mind,” says Rodrigues. “We sat in Stephan’s piano room with the lights dimmed, and really tried to give her something that she would want to say and connect to. It was a mission to dig really deep. We talked a lot about what somebody would need to hear to empower them.”

The same goes, she says, for “Flying On My Own” (a co-write with Elofsson and Anton “Hybrid” Mårtensson) and “Say Yes” (written with Elofsson years ago), two songs about being okay,  single, and bravely getting back out there, the latter about wanting to experience love again but pushing it away. Similarly, “The Chase,” co-written with Torontonians Craig McConnell and Jessica Mitchell, is about letting your guard down.

“It’s really hard to see things from their perspective,” Rodrigues admits. “You can make assumptions, but then relate them to either other stories you know of, or things in your past, or things that you’re going through. Again, it was one of those really relatable concepts.”

“Nobody’s Watching,” on the other hand, another collab with Elofsson, is just an empowering slow groove that could’ve landed on an album by Camila Cabello. “That one was, for me too, left field,” she says.  “I had no idea that that song would have been chosen. We were surprised. I’m glad that she got to have some fun with a song.”

Recently, Dion was in Toronto for the first of two shows at Scotiabank Arena. Rodrigues got a chance to hear “Courage” performed live in her hometown and meet Dion — again.

“I did see her for a quick meet-and-greet backstage, right before the show,” says Rodrigues. “We exchanged a quick thank you and hug. I didn’t fall apart this time. She was as graceful as ever.”