There’s a line in Toronto punk band PUP’s single “Free At Last” that goes “Just ’cause you’re sad again, it doesn’t make you special.”

This one line puts a whole generation on blast. It’s a self-eviscerating take on millennial snowflakes and all their concerns, whether they be mental health, the environment, the rise of fascism, the lack of meaningful work, the machinations of the one percent, or a whole host of other entirely justifiable reasons for being sad.

Thing is, in PUP’s case it’s kind of a lie. PUP – Stefan Babcock (vocals, lead guitar), Nestor Chumak (bass, backing vocals), Zachary Mykula (drums, backing vocals), and Steven Sladkowski (guitar, backing vocals) – are special. And it’s specifically because their intensely personal songs so perfectly capture the turbulence that comes with stumbling through the world each day.

It’s working for them. Formed in Toronto five years ago, PUP quickly became favourites of the punk scene with their first two albums, winning accolades everywhere from the New York Times to Pitchfork, NPR to Rolling Stone. Their last album, The Dream Is Over, not only debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard Heatseekers chart, but also catapulted them into international waters, selling out shows worldwide throughout 2016. They also won the $10,000 SOCAN Songwriting Prize in 2017, for their song “DVP.”

Their new third album, Morbid Stuff, continues in their sad and special vein: it’s  11 songs of deeply-mined observation on anxiety and despair. In particular, it’s a window into songwriter Babcock’s soul, exploring his bouts with depression, his heartbreaks and existential angsts, and the difficult journey of trying to find one’s place in the world. It also flips the script for PUP. The band’s last album The Dream Is Over was built around a physical health crisis of Babcock’s that could have forced him to quit singing and cause the end of the band. The inward-looking catastrophizing on Morbid Stuff, though intensely about the self, feels paradoxically more universal. Anyone who feels things too deeply can see themselves reflected in these songs.

Babcock can certainly be accused of feeling the world too deeply.

“I have absolutely noticed that about myself,” Babcock says, accompanied by Mykula at a west-end Toronto café, to talk about songwriting with us. “My mom pointed it out. She said, ‘The world is always ending for you,’ and holy shit, is that true. Because even when something is going good, I tend to create problems in my own brain. Which can be really hard for my bandmates and my girlfriend.”

All this morbid stuff Babcock thinks about is, however, good for making songs. Babcock’s pointed lyrical style is ripe with slogans perfect to be carved into desktops, or Sharpied onto handmade T-shirts. The single “Kids,” for example, is a nihilistic love song with the tear-it-down line “I don’t care about nothing!” “Scorpion Hill,” a tale of dark thoughts and life spiralling out of control, features the slogan-worthy “If the world is gonna burn / Everyone should get a turn to light it up.” The metalcore-adjacent “Full Blown Meltdown” sums things up with “I’m still a loser and always will be/ So why change now?”

Don Valley Days

PUP won the 2017 SOCAN Songwriting Prize for their song “DVP.” The song, from the band’s second album The Dream Is Over, recounts a troubled drunk-driving episode down the Don Valley Parkway, the vital expressway that runs down the middle of Toronto. PUP’s Stefan Babcock reflected on the Don Valley.

On the song’s subject matter
“It’s not a grandmother-appropriate song, that’s what my parents said. They wouldn’t send that song to my grandma.”

On rafting down the Don Valley Creek with his sister in his youth and falling in the water
“We both had full body rashes after that. Of course, you’re going to get pinkeye from being in that water. I have a lot of fond and not-so-fond memories of Don Valley.”

On winning $10,000 for the SOCAN Songwriting Prize
“We’re very surprised and honoured that a song that dumb won… we’re very grateful for that.”

Listening to “Full Blown Meltdown,” inarguably the heaviest, most frantic song on Morbid Stuff, shows that however hard Babcock may be for his bandmates, they understand how to package his thoughts around bristling, appropriate sounds. The song sounds like a breakdown.

“This song is just rage,” says Mykula. “In that song the lyrics are really aggressive and snarky, and that was injected into the music.”

It helps that Babcock’s lyrics come from an honest place.

“They’re very much based in real life, and from personal experiences,” says Babcock. “It’s not about the similes, or the metaphors, or whatever. It’s just about saying what I want to say as directly as possible.”

Distilling this soul mining down to its essence is far from an effortless process. It requires extensive self-editing.

“This stuff certainly doesn’t just fall out of me,” he says. “The lyrics usually start off as gibberish, but I know what I’m trying to say. I do melodies first and I know what the theme of the song should be, but I don’t know what to say yet. I’m really not articulate. So for the first couple months of playing the songs, the melodies will be exactly what they end up being. But the words won’t be there, and I’ll be thinking in my brain, ‘How am I gonna say this thing that want to say, and not make it gibberish?’ And I definitely work way harder on the lyrics than anything else, because writing melodies comes naturally to me, but writing lyrics doesn’t.”

Getting to this place isn’t easy. During the writing process Babcock frequently checks out from the urban world to commune with nature. This comes with risk (see sidebar). It’s why any nature references in PUP songs are more rough waters and groddy reservoirs than gorgeous sunrises.

“I’ve almost died in nature many times,” says Babcock, who can tell a mean yarn about the time he and his sister were trapped in a snowed-out valley in Cape Horn, Chile, with no food. “I’m very into survival skills, survivalist culture, and when I say camping, I don’t mean car camping. I’m, like, in the middle of the Northwest Territories with nobody around.

“There’s a lot of pristine beauty, but more so we’ve found ourselves in complete disaster situations, where we felt like we might not get out of it.”

Cheating death? Isolated adventures? The deep exploration of self? These things may involve sadness, but they sure sound like living, and that is special.

“Speaking French is a choice we make on a daily basis,” says Mario Lepage, a.k.a. Ponteix, a Franco-Saskatchewan person who chose music as the vehicle for his minority status. Bastion, his first full-length album, was written in his small town of St. Denis, a Francophone community in a sea of prairie, where speaking one’s language is a decision that’s renewed daily.

Ponteix, Mario LepageTo talk music with Lepage, we have to talk about the Francophone minority outside Québec. “For a lot of people, living in the language of their choice is a given, but for us it’s an issue,” he says. “You can catch English like you catch a cold, if you’re not careful,” he says laughing. My grand-dad would say ‘Aaaah, the Anglos!’‘

Speaking French was a struggle for Lepage and his family, which is why the subject is still so important for him, to this day. “When my dad went to school, he’d be bullied because he spoke French,” he says. “A lot of people of his generation chose to not speak French because of that.”

He promised himself that he’d write Bastion at home, where his roots naturally took him toward those musical themes central to his culture. “The more I wrote, the more I realized I had a deep relation to the place,” says Lepage. “My native village in the Great Plains really connected me to my heritage, the source of my Francophonie.”

Ponteix songs are part and parcel of the landscape that gave birth to them. “I had more and more songs that spoke about my relation with that place, so I figured it all had to go that way,” he says. “Wide-open spaces, endless skies, I felt my music was suited to travel in those wide-open spaces. Looking at all that, at the horizon, I got the feeling my music was like a screenshot of it.”

Linguistic duality is at the heart of Ponteix’s lyrics, exploring the numerous dilemmas attached to the local culture. “In ‘Alamo,’ I also talk about mental health,” he says. “It’s a double-entendre: the effect of that voice inside your head that won’t shut up also represents the pervasiveness of English. In my reality, it’s unavoidable,” says the artist.

Inevitably, family ends up at the heart of the portrait painted by Lepage. “I found old cassettes at my grandmother Irene’s,” he says. “She would record all kinds of random stuff when we were kids. At the beginning of my album, you can hear my cousin Ginette reciting a poem about 40 years ago. And at the end, that’s me at three years old, talking with my granny. She tells me that we’re going to learn a song together, and that she’s going to teach me good manners.”

It’s not happenstance that Ponteix isn’t a Montréal-based artist from Saskatchewan. For Lepage, there are just some things that mustn’t be transplanted. “There’s something truly special, culturally, at home,” he says. “No matter where I am, home will always be there.” The internet allows him to be a part of what’s going on without having to move. “We’re taking back control of our career, now,” he says. “Not everything is necessarily in the hands of a record label, and there’s a lot that can be done remotely.”

A movement of young artists, growing in numbers, is tearing down geographic and linguistic barriers – one by one. “There were a bunch of us who really enjoyed playing music in French,” Lepage explains. “We’re all friends, and we encourage one another. We had the chance of having great models who had to struggle before us: Folle-Avoine, Hart-Rouge, Anique Granger… They had to fight even harder than we do.

“It’s easy to forget that we’re Francophone. In my band, there’s this one guy who has Franco roots, but his parents struggled so much because of French that they simply decided to not transmit that part of their culture. Bastion is the source of my Francophonie. The song ‘Prud’homme,’ from the album, is my community choir singing in the church where my ancestors attended. That says it all.”

Whenever he feels limited, Lepage sees it as a challenge. That’s why he built his album on his own, with the help of only a few collaborators, notably Fred Levac, who co-produced, while always remaining firmly in charge. “I’m the son of a farmer,” says Lepage. “My father was just like that. He didn’t have the best equipment, and used ingenuity to make things work.”

The album, released in March, will travel about in various guises over the coming months, before both Franco and Anglo crowds. “Music does not need a language,” Lepage concludes.

Growing up, Hannah Georgas took piano and singing lessons. Her parents were happy to support her hobbies, but when they turned into a career path she wanted to follow, they “strongly advised that I didn’t pursue music.”

Clearly, Georgas went ahead and became a musician anyway – a successful, multi-JUNO Award-nominated one at that – but for years, her main source of encouragement came from listening to other female artists. “I realized that, subconsciously, those artists all had an influence on why I’m doing what I’m doing,” she says, looking back at the wealth of women in music that she experienced at a young age. “It gave me courage to follow my craft.”

Imprints, her latest EP, released on International Women’s Day, is Georgas’ way of paying respect to those female artists who helped get her to where she is now. The four-song release, her first since her 2016 album For Evelyn, takes on a range of eras and genres: The Cranberries, Eurythmics, Janet Jackson, and Tegan and Sara. The disparate collection is unified by Georgas’ own lush, downtempo signature sound, as she taps into the emotional core of each song and interprets them in gorgeously intimate ways that show that show her familiarity with, and admiration for, these artists and songs.

In a digital landscape that’s over-saturated with covers nowadays – just plug the name of any artist and/or song into YouTube’s search engine and you’ll find endless results – Georgas wanted to make her intentions with Imprints clear. “If I’m going to do a cover, I want to do a cover that means a lot to me,” she explains. “Not something that’s just going to get attention.” The ones she selected, as Georgas notes, represent distinct parts of her past. “I flash back to certain times in my life when I listen to each of those artists,” she says.

For instance, Janet Jackson’s “That’s the Way Love Goes” conjures up memories of elementary school for Georgas. She still remembers catching the pop star’s late-‘90s Velvet Rope Tour at Canada’s Wonderland – it was her second concert ever. It’s a vivid recollection for Georgas, who can still remember being mightily impressed by the “sensory overload” of Jackson’s theatrics.

The Cranberries marked high school for Georgas, a time when hidden “bonus” tracks were still a delightful surprise at the end of an album; practically an impossibility now on streaming services. Georgas discovered “No Need to Argue” at the end of the 1994 Cranberries album of the same name, and was “blown away by the fact that it’s just her voice, and just an organ supporting her, and her lyrics are so simple, but so heart-wrenching.”

It was when she was at University that Tegan and Sara’s 2007 album The Con entered Georgas’ life. Introduced to her by an “obsessed” friend, the album became the soundtrack of their drives to school. Georgas says the song “Back in Your Head” reminds her of being out West, where she was away from home and standing at a crossroads between completing a psychology degree and still wanting to make music. It was an overwhelming time, but one in which this album proved to be grounding for her.

Finally, Eurythmics, while an act from the ‘80s, brings Georgas to a more recent time, also in a car, when she hit the road with her guitarist. “Love is a Stranger” was on repeat during this specific trip, and it was a re-discovery of sorts when it dawned on her: “What the hell, this song is so awesome.

“With all the songs, I feel like they were re-invigorated for me, somehow, by covering them,” she says, reflecting on the EP shortly after its release. “As I dug deeper, I realized the importance of these four, plus many other female artists. They were big triggers and were big pushes for me.” (Other artists that made Georgas’ long list of potential covers were Tina Turner, Emmylou Harris, Fiona Apple, and Lauryn Hill.)

A Comment from the Covered
While Georgas hasn’t heard any feedback from most of the artists she covered on Imprints, she did receive a plug from Tegan and Sara in January 2019, when they posted about her Cranberries cover. “Such a gorgeous @thecranberries cover from @hannahgeorgas and @ilovelucius!” they wrote on their social media platforms. “Can’t wait to hear your version of Back in your Head with @theweatherstation when your EP comes out March 8!” “They were super sweet about it,” says Georgas, confirming that the Canadian sister duo has heard her cover of their 2007 single. In fact, Georgas even met up with Tegan Quin in Los Angeles while she was down there recording these covers. “I didn’t tell her, at the time, that I was doing them!” she says, laughing at her covert efforts. Georgas seems content with that one co-sign but she’s not afraid to be ambitious: “I haven’t heard from Janet Jackson. I’m waiting for that.”

While Imprints represents the music that Georgas personally connected with over the years, she didn’t want this to be a solo project. The idea, which she first pitched to Lucius drummer Dan Molad while she was in Los Angeles recording her upcoming new album, was to make this a collaborative effort. In the end, she enlisted Lucius, Montaigne, Emily King, and The Weather Station’s Tamara Lindeman to help bring it to fruition.

These collaborators, in some ways, provide the most important part of Georgas’ project: a thread that ties her thesis of influential women together. “I thought, why don’t I get all these female artists who I now work with and love, and have come across my path, and pay respect to those people,” she says. “So I wanted to do a bit of the past and present, like my path from the start to now. That’s why I reached out to a bunch of my friends, and they were all on-board.”

Looking ahead, Georgas is putting the final touches on her upcoming album, which she hopes to release later this year. While details are still scarce, she did reveal last year that she worked with the National’s Aaron Dessner and producer Jon Low at Dessner’s Hudson, New York, studio, in addition to work done in Los Angeles.

“I can’t even begin to tell you how excited I am about this new music and new chapter,” she wrote on Facebook. If her next album serves as a snapshot of who she is now, then Imprints is a vital look into the journey that led her to this point — an integral blueprint of her musical DNA.