STOP THE PRESSES! Mere hours after this feature story was uploaded on April 30, we learned that JP Saxe and Julia Michaels had just released a new video of “If The World Was Ending” to support Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières in its global response to COVID-19. It features Alessia Cara, H.E.R., Keith Urban, Kesha, Niall Horan, Sam Smith, Anthony Ramos, FINNEAS, and more.

Toronto’s JP Saxe and now-girlfriend Julia Michaels co-wrote “If the World Was Ending” on July 20, 2019, the day they met. During the global COVID-19 pandemic, the duet takes on new meaning.

The 2019 music video – which has now been viewed more than 74 million times on YouTube – begins with, “We interrupt your programming. This is a national emergency.” The pair just released a new live video of the song on April 15, 2020, filmed at Michaels’ home, where they are self-isolating together.

“It was one of the more magical experiences of my life,” Saxe says of writing the hit single with multi-platinum recording artist and top-liner Michaels (Keith Urban, Justin Bieber, Gwen Stefani), who got in touch with the L.A.-based Saxe after hearing his song “25 in Barcelona.”

“It was two weeks after the earthquake in Los Angeles,” he says. “We were both talking about where we were, what we were doing, what we were thinking, and the conversation just flowed naturally into the song. We wrote it in about two hours, and then recorded and cut all the piano and vocals that day.”

Saxe, who went down to Los Angeles for the first time in 2013, estimates he’s written “probably thousands” of songs to get him to this point, the February 2020 release of his six-song debut EP, Hold It Together, on Arista. “I maintain that the only way to write good songs is to write a lot of bad ones,” he says of the oft-repeated cliché.

“I only started feeling like my songs were more my own when they felt the way I talked to my friends”

Writing on the piano when he’s at home, and guitar when he’s travelling, Saxe uses the Day One journaling app to get his thoughts down for lyrics. “It’s connected to my phone and my laptop, and then once every year or two the app will send me a printed book of the journal with photos, all documented, and where I was in the world when I wrote it. It’s really cool,” he says.

All of the songs on Hold It Together were co-written by Saxe: the lead single “Sad Corny Fuck,” “3 Minutes,” and “Explain You” with his creative partner Ryan Marrone; “25 in Barcelona” with Marrone and Khris Riddick-Tynes; “Hold It Together” with Benjamin Rice; and the aforementioned “If The World Was Ending” with Michaels.

He also co-wrote the “healthy-relationship” duet “Golf On TV” with SOCAN member Lennon Stella – alongside two other collaborators, Ruslan Odnoralov, and multiple-hit co-writer and SOCAN member Simon Wilcox – and released a video for it at the start of April.

Saxe’s songs are distinctly “him.” He can take complicated emotional situations, good or bad, and instead of square-pegging them into simpler but unoriginal lines, he keeps them as-is.

One such example is “25 in Barcelona” – the song that prompted Michaels to message him – written in March, 2018, when his friends Matthew Takes (the director) and Marrone took him to  Spain post break-up, as it reads at the start of the video,  “in an effort to not be fucking miserable on his birthday.”

What’s unique about the lyric is that it tells his own story, no one else’s, even if some people might have come close to experiencing something similar.

He sings: “I thought you woulda called yesterday  / I said I didn’t want you to, but I still thought you would/ I don’t know what I expected you to say / But I turned 25 and had in my mind you’d be part of that in some way  / I’m half way round the world with all these people / Happy in a foreign language where they don’t know a thing about you / I’m half way round the world in Barcelona / Trying not to think you’d love this / This wasn’t supposed to be about you

“I only started feeling like my songs were more my own, and something I wanted to share, when they felt the way I talked to my friends, a partner, or whoever,” says Saxe. “I really wanted the voice I had in my songs, and the voice I have day-to-day, to not be dissimilar.”

He says he first felt that with the first two songs he ever released,  2017’s “Changed” and 2018’s “The Few Things” – written around the same time – as “the voice I want to have in my songs because it just feels like me. I don’t want songs to feel like songs. I want them to feel like somebody just telling you something about themselves.

“I really love songs when it just feels like the part of a conversation that you remember the next day, that moment where you’re talking to a friend and, maybe it’s an hour into a deep conversation, but you say something and you’re like, ‘Damn, that’s kinda it, huh? That’s what we’re talking about.’ It’s a conversation I’m having with myself and an instrument.”

Saxe’s tour plans are on hold for now. Since the coronavirus pandemic, besides the at-her-home video with Michaels,  he’s done a Spanglish version of “If The World Was Ending” with Venezuela’s Evaluna Montaner, along with a split-screen video shot from their respective countires. “The plan is to put out an album this year, but everything feels a little precarious right now,” he says. “My plan at the moment is to quarantine myself and be alone with my thoughts and with the people I love.”


“Golf on TV”: Saxe on Stella, working together

“We’re fans because of each other’s music. We’d been talking about writing for awhile and we also ended up doing this tour together in Europe. We [all four writers] got in the studio a couple of weeks before the tour.

“We’re both cognitive about how we’re very in love with our people, recognizing that it feels more and more rare these days that you find one person who you love, especially young people exploring different versions of what it means to have an intimate relationship. To each their own, I’m all for it, if it works, it works.  But in the session, [it was] something along the lines of that, but in slightly more articulate, concise way.

“I said, ‘I get that some people like that, but some people watch golf on TV, and I don’t “get” that either.’ We all thought that was funny. Then decided we would write a song about monogamy, using ‘Golf on TV’ as the title.”

Jason SharpIn this time of crisis, all conversations seemingly begin and end with Covid-19 as the topic, and our conversation with Montréal-based saxophonist and composer Jason Sharp was no exception. “All my shows have been cancelled until October, and I would normally have been in the studio to record my third album,” he explains. “The best I can do, under these circumstances, is to take a step back and think about my work to improve my technique, while I wait to get back to work.”

Ironically, it’s an epidemic of respiratory disease that has put a halt to the activity of this musician whose breath is at the very centre of his art. Obviously, there’s noting surprising about the fact that a saxophonist would be interested in respiration, but Sharp has developed a practice that transcends the traditional use of wind instruments. On his 2016 debut album, A Boat Upon Its Blood, Sharp used an ingenious electro-acoustic system that transformed his breath and cardiac pulses into the basic sonic material, thus turning his whole body into an unpredictable metronome. With the help of a few collaborators, including violinist Jesse Zubot and guitarist Joe Grass, he created an incredibly rich sonic universe. At once radically experimental and profoundly evocative, he propels his saxophone into uncharted territory by tapping into his varied experiences in jazz improv, musique actuelle, and film scoring.

Two years later, on Stand Above the Streams, he dove deeper in his adventure alongside Adam Basanta, an audio installation specialist, and the pair developed more sonic textures related to the human body. “What I like in this approach is that the tempos and dynamics vary constantly,” says Sharp. “It totally orients the composition process, because if I want to do something with a rapid tempo, I have to play something that requires a certain physical effort, whereas if I want to create a meditative atmosphere, I have to relax my body. During rehearsals, my heart rate is generally around 110 bpm, but when I go on stage, it climbs up to 145 bpm even before I play a single note. Each interpretation is necessarily different, and that keeps things interesting for me.”

Born in Edmonton, Sharp has lived in Vancouver, Toronto, New York, and Amsterdam, but it’s in Montréal that he found the perfect breeding ground for his eclectic  music. Besides operating Nada Yoga, a studio where he and his wife teach sound-based meditation, he surfs from project to project with obvious delight.

“What’s really amazing about the music scene in Montréal is that I can play with giants of musique actuelle like Jean Derome or Lori Freedman, while also collaborating with rock artists like Joe Grass, Plants and Animals or Elisapie,” says Sharp. “I even played on Leonard Cohen’s last album, imagine that! People are very open-minded about differences, and mixing genres and personalities is greatly encouraged.”

That open-mindedness – which he believes is unique to the cultural environment in Montréal – lead Sharp to create film music. After working with film experimentalist Daïchi Saïto, he’s just finished scoring the feature film The Decline, directed by Pascal Demers for Netflix. This first foray into the realm of commercial films was a surprise for him.

“I’ll admit that I was a bit skeptical when they contacted me, especially since the director had never seen me play,” says Sharp. “But he did his homework nonetheless, he knew my work, and he wanted the bass saxophone to be the crux of the sonic aesthetic of the movie. It opened me up to a completely different way of working, and I believe my experience with experimental music prepared me well for screen composing. And, since we were talking about a pandemic, I think it’s a funny coincidence that I ended up working on a film about survivalists and the end of the world!”


Catapulted into streaming platforms on Feb. 28, 2020, the Blue album was scheduled to be performed on tour starting at the beginning of April. Instead, Rosie Valland is self-isolating at home, planting a garden.

Rosie Valland“The shows and the promotion stopped overnight,” she says. “It was really intense, and then my work schedule became completely empty… I never thought I’d be cleaning my yard and sowing seeds right now.”

The telltale small gusts of wind that can be heard on her cellphone indicate that she’s somewhere out in the open. All interviews, of course, are conducted remotely in the time of pandemic. Valland takes the call from her plot of land in Rigaud, Québec, not far from La Blouse and the Québec-Ontario border. It’s a 50-minute drive from Montréal’s Cabaret Lion d’Or, the Francouvertes venue where she was discovered five years ago.

That many years have passed since the release of Partir avant, her second album, and best-known so far. That collection of songs, released on the Duprince label, introduced her to the general public, the industry, and most certainly to the press. “When I listen to Partir avant again,” she says, “I feel no regrets, but I feel much empathy towards the person who did that. Those were early songs, something rough, sketchy, and I don’t sense that I’d found myself yet.”

Without actually disowning « Olympe » and that album’s other songs, the singer-songwriter reckons that Blue was where her career actually began. She says she also took part in production then. This time around, she’s sharing this side of the work with Jesse Mac Cormack, her partner since the early days. It was really a 50-50 team.

“Although Blue’s life may be cut short by the pandemic, the album brought me a lot,” says Valland. “Before getting into it, I knew nothing about computer programs, and any of that. I allowed myself so much time to do it that I was able to learn how to record myself. I was already making a living from my music, but I now have more strings in my quiver. I feel that I’ll be able to grow old in that environment, because I’ll be able to do much more than my own individual projects in my own name.”

These days, actually, the new Rigaud resident is working under contract for the Télé-Québec platform La Fabrique culturelle. She’s been writing original music for every episode of Proxémie, a podcast exclusively featuring female artists, that’s being hosted by the actress Sophie Cadieux. The constraints of commissioned music are allowing her to explore brand new territory that stands far away from the pages of her diary.

“You create a mood,” she explains, “and, at the same time, it’s not permitted to dominate anything else. It’s a top-notch team, so I’m really happy to be doing this, particularly right now. I’m grateful to have this… It’s instrumental music, I’d never done that, and I’m finding my own way around as well.”

A second chance to make a first impression

Enhanced arrangements, crisp melodies, a less sad and whiskey-stained voice… The improvement was so great that Valland could almost have started singing under a new name. With Blue, the former Montréaler is sporting a new sound and entering another cycle.

“Automatically, it was folkier than before, because I was composing with what was around in my one-bedroom apartment, which was not much,” she says. “The songs may be somewhat richer because I can start with a beat, or a synth idea, instead of always from a guitar.”

Clearly inspired by 1990s pop rock (“it’s most like me”), the one-woman-band admits having indulged in a tribute to Smashing Pumpkins on “Chaos,” and in a few nods to the Céline Dion of the D’eux album.

“I’m so fond of her voices, the reverbs, the way she sings,” says Valland. “I have to laugh when my aunts and uncles write to me online and tell me that they ‘can’t make out what I’m saying.’ I feel like telling them, ‘Listen to a Céline song, and tell me if you can understand anything!’ You can’t hear a thing, and she doesn’t articulate either, there’s really something left out. Personally, I never understood the lyrics, and I don’t want to know. I only thought that it sounded like me, and the way I see my own voice. Like an instrument.”