Many artists deal with mental health issues in their daily lives. But not that many discuss their issues openly and directly in their work, which is one of the reasons why Rae Spoon’s latest album, Mental Health, is so powerful.

Mental Health is the Victoria-based, gender non-binary singer-songwriter’s 10th album, and it frankly discusses their struggles with the lingering effects of childhood trauma, the siren call of suicide, and the inability to sleep, or pay for crucial medications. And yet despite some heart-wrenching lyrics, Spoon’s sweet melodies and lilting voice counterbalance the darkness with poppy optimism.

Perhaps that’s because Spoon finds relief in creativity, and in social connection. “Living with complicated issues is a lifelong process, and surviving another day can be a big victory for people with mental illness and other challenges,” they explain. “There have been a lot of losses in my communities – folks who didn’t make it through. In the last few years it’s felt very close to me. But I like how if you tell a story, you hear a lot of stories back. And I’m hoping if I start a discussion about it, other people will also have discussions, ‘cause it’s really important.”

“For me, songs are a way to leave space for other people in the conversation.”

Spoon’s sound has shifted over the years, from folk-country to electronic pop. That’s partly reflective of where they’ve been living. “I grew up in Alberta, so country was all around, but I wasn’t into it,” they say. “But I moved to Vancouver and heard the Be Good Tanyas, and started to wonder what parts of my background I could explore and be part of as a trans gender person. And then I moved to Germany and Montréal, and I met people who played computers like instruments, which was new to me. I was excited about an environment where teenagers were more likely to learn to DJ and make electronic music than play electric guitar.

“But I’ve always liked a traditional song. I like using everything. I have folk elements, and I enjoy bringing them together with rock and electronics.”

On Mental Health, Spoon enlisted The Pack A.D.’s drummer Maya Miller and singer-guitarist Becky Black to pump up the rock. The collaboration came about after they played B.C.’s Artswells Festival with Carole Pope. “We learned three or four of each other’s songs and played together,” they say. “That was fun, and it informed my thinking about this record. It felt very creative to work with them. If I write a vocal riff and a singer changes it, or if a guitar player adds to something in the studio, that’s great for me.”

One song, “Blaring,” was written and sung with Northcote, a.k.a. Matthew Goud. “He sang at one of my shows and I really liked the vibe. The song just came out, long before I wrote the others,” says Spoon. “We used a line I’ve wanted to use for years: ‘I will love you until I don’t.’ It always came off as harsh, but adding ‘…or I still do’ changed that. We both worked on it, and I realized it fit the context of Mental Health.”

Spoon also writes books, and was the subject of a 2014 National Film Board documentary called My Prairie Home that discussed their painful past. But though their story is difficult to share, Spoon feels less exposed and vulnerable when there’s music involved.

“People are very hesitant to talk about themselves – we talk about issues in general,” Spoon says. “For me, songs are a way to leave space for other people in the conversation, so although I feel vulnerable, there’s something cool about having the music there. Writing personal stories in a book would be more difficult. One thing I like about songs is that you can get up and play them for anybody, and people have their own experience. You don’t need to be specific for listeners to connect with it.”

Meet the lyricist’s new best friend: LyricMerch.

Established in late 2017 as a subsidiary of LyricFind, the Toronto-based global leader in online lyric licensing, LyricMerch offers a solution when someone’s looking for the right words to express themselves on a T-shirt, tote bag, coffee mug, or some other, more unique product.

LyricMerch, Drake, Mug

A sample mug, with lyrics by Drake.

“We’re opening up a new market here,” says Darryl Ballantyne, co-founder and CEO, touting the fact that both companies have agreements with more than 4,000 music publishers to reproduce lyrics from their respective catalogues, cumulatively totalling more than 1 million songs.

In an era where music publishing income is shrinking due to the continued prevalence of streaming services that have decimated physical and digital music sales, it’s a welcome opportunity for music publishers and songwriters to land some potentially lucrative compensation.

For example, the sale of a single $30 T-shirt with a lyrical snippet from a particular song can land a music publisher royalty of $4 to $5, with the songwriter’s share amounting to 50%, depending on the terms of their publishing agreement.

The secret to the success of LyricMerch is the growth and cost-effectiveness of on-demand printing. “We had the idea in the past, but that’s what changed everything,” Ballantyne explains, noting that the idea was revisited when chief revenue officer Will Mills came on-board with LyricFind three years ago.

“With a traditional merchandise license, it would be the publisher licensing the manufacturer to create 10,000, or 50,000, or 100,000 units of the same product,” says Ballantyne. “They’d have one or two designs that would be approved by the publisher,  get a lump sum payment, and that was that – they could then produce ‘X’ numbers of product.

“It opened up an opportunity to have – instead of 10,000 on one design – one each of 10,000 different designs.” –  Darryl Ballantyne of LyricMerch

“There wasn’t a way we would add value into that process.  It already worked fine. The publishers were happy to license it themselves, and when you look at a scale of a couple of songs, you don’t need a large-scale rights management solution, or the accounting systems to be the same, so it worked very well.”

Ballantyne says on-demand printing gave clients more options. “As on-demand printing became a viable option, the combination of that, our lyric database, and licensing management system opened up an opportunity to have – instead of 10,000 on one design – one each of 10,000 different designs.

“That’s where the breadth of licensing, and the license management platform, and on-demand printing really created a benefit. It really opened up an opportunity for us to help generate and capture that revenue for songwriters.”

Although LyricMerch is basically handling only North America so far, until it establishes itself in Europe and Australia in 2020, Ballantyne says the sky’s the limit in terms of a global market value for LyricMerch. “We’re still in the early stages of this, and we’ve got a long way to go for it to really be generating as much revenue for songwriters as  we would like,” he says, estimating the market to have “an eight- or nine-figure“ sales potential.

The only drawback – if you perceive it as one – is that LyricMerch doesn’t include images of the stars who’ve made the song famous. “Generally, we don’t have the name and likeness rights, or the rights to use the artist name,” says Ballantyne. “We stick to the lyrics, the song name, and the songwriter’s name and we basically keep the design generic.”

Best sellers include the Drake mega-hit “God’s Plan,” and lyrics by The Beatles and The Rolling Stones.

Ballantyne says you can even get lyrics printed on your shower curtain. “It’s fun, entertaining, and ensures that everyone who loves singing in the shower gets the lyrics right,” he laughs.

Lu Kala knew she was going to be a singer. She never deviated from her dream. But not everyone had faith in Lu’s vision. “No one believed me when I said, ‘I’m a singer, this is what I’m going to do!’” Lu tells us. “I just remember being young, like, singing and annoying every single person near me,” she says with a laugh, “And just believing in this dream that was bigger than myself.”

It’s this persistent confidence in herself that led Lu to self-release her first single as a solo pop artist, the anthemic “DCMO (Don’t Count Me Out).” The track – apropos, as it traces the feelings of being overlooked – begins with a sparse rhythmic base before soaring into a catchy chorus. She wasn’t expecting much, other than the personal satisfaction that comes with creating music. But then the song popped the hell off.

So far, the track, released last year, has almost half a million streams on Spotify, with the French version at almost 40,000 streams. “I never expected it to go so far,” says Lu. “Not that I didn’t have any confidence in it – I believed in the song – but I didn’t know if people would actually listen to it.”

Lu has almost 40,000 followers on Instagram. She’s flown to L.A. and New York, writing with prominent producers and songwriters, hoping to shape her career the way she’d always envisioned it after this enormous propulsion. She also just released the video for “DCMO.” She’s continuing to build a steady following, again, off the strength of one song. A not unheard-of feat (hello, “Old Town Road”) but the high quality of a track – which is true of  “DCMO” – can propel an artist much further than its status as a trendy hit. “As much as I talked about ‘this is what I’m going to do’ and ‘this is what is going to happen,’ to see it happening in front of your eyes is something very different,” says Lu.

Before the release of “DCMO,” Lu had already garnered early praise for her performances. Reviewing her performance at the Manifesto Festival in Toronto, NOW Magazine wrote that Lu “stole the show with her powerhouse voice and stage presence that seems ready for international success.” The Congo-born Ajax resident has been chipping away at her goal of pop success for awhile now, despite the seeming curveball appearance of her immediate, single-song success. She’s been professionally working in the industry as a songwriter since 2013, working with the likes of DVSN, and Academy Award winner Jennifer Hudson on her JHUD album in 2014. She knows her way around crafting a pop song for others (lovingly calling herself Dr. Lu), helping to coax the most out of the performers with whom she’s writing. But writing for herself, promoting herself as this formidable artist, too, is a whole other task.

Lu Kala is a compelling artist, not simply because of her enormous skill as a singer, but because her dedication to honesty in her work complements her performance. As a singer, her vocals are interesting, both jagged and lofty. She’s so perfectly studied pop music that her delivery is just as impeccable as pop stars who’ve been at it for years. But her songwriting, the material she’s bringing us in these verses, is so authentically Lu, you pay closer attention to the message she’s delivering.

“I’m actually living my dream.”

“I remember when we were writing ‘DCMO,’ I [closed] my eyes, singing ‘I know I’m a big girl/ you are afraid to claim me,” and I remember opening my eyes feeling embarrassed a bit,” she says. “I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, I can’t believe I said that in front of someone!’ But at the same time, there was this feeling of relief that felt good. It was almost me realizing that I felt that about those situations.” From that moment on, Lu says she made a promise to herself to put forth honest music; to have a body of work representative of her innermost thoughts and feelings.

We come back to the point of confidence. Lu’s belief in herself feels like a form of survival. Her belief, as with that of many others who don’t fit a specific mold in pop music (hello, Lizzo), is the singular truth that the only person you can trust is yourself. It begins and ends with Lu, first and foremost. “I’ve always had to be confident growing up and being this plus-size girl,” she says. “Automatically, I think that was something I needed to have when I was really young. I knew I had to believe in myself more than others would. [That] I’d have to turn down the naysayers.”

With this much impact on her one song so far, it’ll be thrilling to see where she’ll go when she releases her as titled first EP in 2020. (Same Para) “I’m actually living my dream and making money off of my dream,” she says, “And that’s really cool.”