Ralph Murphy has been writing songs, as he likes to describe it, “since God wore short pants.” And he’s had a lot of success over the decades.

The iconic, Nashville-based SOCAN member, a 2012 Canadian Country Music Hall of Fame inductee, penned the No. 2 Jeannie C. Riley hit “Good Enough to Be Your Wife” in 1971; co-wrote (with Bobby Wood) the 1978 Crystal Gayle chart-topper “Half the Way”; co-wrote (with Bobby Wood again) the 1980 Ronnie Milsap No. 1 hit “He Got You”; and most recently enjoyed a No. 2 U.K. hit via Sir Cliff Richard, with the Paul Brady collaboration “21st Century Christmas” in 2006.

He’s also had his tunes covered by Randy Travis, the late Don Williams, Ray Price, Shania Twain, Kathy Mattea, Little Texas and – on the other side of the Atlantic – Brotherhood of Man and Vanity Fare.

So you could say that the 73-year-old Murphy knows a thing or two about songwriting – and in a career that’s lasted more than a half-century, he admits it boils down to this: the more things change, the more they stay the same.

Ralph Murphy’s five biggest tips for hit songwriters

  • You will always write the second verse first.
  • Get over it.
  • If you don’t have a personality, rent one, because personality goes a long way.
  • No unexplained details. No speed bumps. No three-syllable words in a two-syllable spot.

Use the pronoun “you” within 30 seconds for your next No. 1.

“The only things that change are vocabulary and technology,” says Murphy, whose book Murphy’s Laws of Songwriting: How to Write a Hit Song has been endorsed by some of the art form’s most celebrated tunesmiths. “Structure remains the same. The new Taylor Swift song [“Look What You Made Me Do”] is exactly perfect fourth form – it changes rhyme scheme in the pre-chorus and uses the pronoun ‘you.’  The bridge – or what I call ‘the two-minute wall’ –  is right on the money.”

Murphy – whose Picalic Group of Companies joint music publishing venture with Roger Cook also scored a No. 1 with Crystal Gayle’s version of another Bobby Wood co-write, “Talking in Your Sleep” – hosted a SOCAN House Song Camp at this year’s BreakOut West conference and festival in Edmonton last week.

SOCAN picked more than a dozen songwriters to attend this interactive workshop. Murphy had a game plan in motion: “I look at all the No. 1 records from last year, and the way that they’re structured,” he says. “I then listen to all the participants’ songs, make them re-write them that day and play them first thing in the morning. And then I give them an assignment based on structure and a title – all the same title.”

Murphy will be listening to a dozen or more songs with the exact same titles, to discover just how closely his students follow his instruction. “Every single one will be different, which is fascinating,” says Murphy.

Murphy, who was born in Saffron Walden, England, before he emigrated to Canada at the age of six, was 16 years old and living in Wallaceburg, ON, when he got “floored” by The Beatles, just like everyone else. Only he decided to move where the action was when he hit 19 in 1965

“The only things that change are vocabulary and technology. Structure remains the same.”

“I got a one-way ticket on a boat going to Liverpool,” he recalls. “It was The Kinks who wandered into a club where Jack Klaysen and I were playing. After the show, they said, ‘You guys are really good – what are you doing in Liverpool?’ And I said, ‘That’s where it is – that’s where all the shit is happening over here.’ And they said, ‘No – they come here and sign us and we go to London, where all the studios, and managers, and producers, and record companies are.’ I said, ‘Well, we’re screwed – we’re almost broke.’”

The Kinks’ roadies offered the duo a spot in their van, which was traveling to London the next day at the ungodly hour of 5 a.m. “Jack and I took the offer,” says Murphy, “and three months later we had a record deal with Tony Hatch producing. He taught me so much about songwriting.”

The duo signed with Pye Records, with Murphy landing a Mills Music publishing deal. They were known as the Guardsmen, and later the Slade Brothers, and opened for U.K. tours by The Byrds, The Walker Brothers, The Hollies and Wayne Fontana & The Mindbenders.

In 1969 Murphy moved to New York and ended up producing April Wine’s 1972 classic album On Record – featuring their first two national hits, “You Could’ve Been a Lady” and “Bad Side of the Moon.” He also produced the follow-up, Electric Jewels, and later did the same for Canadian acts Mashmakhan, Shooter, and Brutus, among others.

Then Nashville unexpectedly beckoned. “I accidentally had a country hit – I was drawing on my Wallaceburg roots – and I had a huge No. 2 hit with Jeannie C. Riley called ‘Good Enough to Be Your Wife,’” Murphy recalls. “I won an ASCAP Award for it in 1972, and flew down to Nashville because I had never been. I fell in love with the town. I was just having children and the kids were getting mugged in the playground. Everyone and everything said, ‘Go to Nashville.’”

Upon landing, Murphy discovered a universal truth about songwriting. “The structures that I’d been taught in England, that worked in pop and rock ‘n’ roll, also worked in country,” he says. Murphy identifies seven of them in Murphy’s Laws and says that only three forms are used effectively. He also knows whether a song has the potential to be a hit in the first 60 seconds of hearing it. He says the only aspect of songwriting that his hit formula doesn’t pertain to is electronic dance music, because it’s “generally 120-130 beats per minute, and is made for people who are dancing.”

Murphy says the best time to write is in the morning, when ideas are fresh. “Late at night, when alcohol is added to the equation, and drugs, and whatever, you lose your focus. It becomes more personal,” he says.

“Impersonal music is what I write, because it can be taken anywhere by anyone. They’re anthems. Every day I want to write the ultimate song – one that will invite people, that will include people, that will make them feel loved and make them want to sing it.”


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Let’s be honest: no one can expect a musician to be in tip-top shape on the day after their record launch. But when we speak to Éliane Préfontaine, one-third of Montréal electro-pop outfit Paupière, alongside Julia Daigle and Pierre-Luc Bégin, she sounds ready as can be – to joyfully embark on a day of promotion for their album À jamais privé de réponses (Forever Deprived of Answers), a first album that deserves to be celebrated.

“We’re always ready to party, but we’re a little wiser than before,” she readily admits. “We learned the hard way, during our first tour of France, that it’s rarely a good idea to party non-stop when you have to play every night. The day we arrived to play at the TransMusicales de Rennes, in Brittany, we were supposed to meet the people from our record label for the first time and let’s just say the combination of booze and jetlag didn’t yield optimal results. The evening ended in a memorable fight.”

Luckily for the band, the people at Entreprise, one of the most interesting French labels at the moment, didn’t turn their backs, and handed them the keys to Europe – where their heavily ‘80s-tinged electro-pop has found very receptive audiences. The Parisian label, whose roster also includes the likes of Moodoïd, Grand Blanc, Fishbach and Bagarre, shares an artistic direction very similar to that of their Montréal label, Lisbon Lux. “It’s amazing to be so well supported by people who believe in us, especially since we certainly didn’t expect to actually have a career as a band when we started,” says Préfontaine.

Their first album marks a clear evolution since the release of their first EP, Jeunes Instants (Youthful Moments), and they take their personal vision of slightly retro electro-pop to new heights. Totally unabashed, their music draws as much from the British synth-pop as it does from French “variété,” and they touch upon these genres without irony. “We try to avoid pigeonholing our musical style,” says Préfontaine, “but from the moment one of our songs was put in heavy rotation on Énergie – “Rex,” which was also a finalist at the Prix de la chanson SOCAN – we immediately started accepting that what we do is pop music. We’re still an underground band, and some of our songs have dark and minimalist lyrics, but we all want to create memorable hooks.”

When she talks about Paupière’s music, Préfontaine often cites other art forms, comparing their first album to a feature film, and contrasting individual songs with novels, each with their hero. The visual arts world, from which she comes, is also part of the equation, as is the world of theatre. “We mainly create on computers, and not during jam sessions, as a rock band would, so our challenge was transposing our songs to the stage in a compelling way,” she explains. “We increasingly devote more attention to our stage presence: we work with a stage director, and strive to breathe life to each of our songs in a way that draws the audience into our universe.”

And the universe into which Paupière invites us is a nocturnal, neon-lit one, where senses are king, and one listens with their eyes and sees with their ears. “Through my eyelids (“eyelid” is the English word for “paupière,”) I perceive the universe differently,” is a lyric from the first song, “D’une autre manière.” But has the band really changed the way it perceives the world and music? “Maybe to a certain extent, yes; let’s say we’ve gained some maturity,” agrees Préfontaine. “We’ve lived our ‘Youthful Moments’ on our first EP, and we feel we took things a little further on the album, but we’re humble enough to say that we remain ‘Forever Deprived of Answers.’”


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At this point in his life, Pierre Kwenders has spent as much time in Kinshasa, Congo, where he was born, than in his adopted home city, Montréal. “It’s difficult to detach myself from the city that saw me grow up, and even more difficult to ignore the fact that it’s the city that made me the man that I am,” muses the musician. As a matter of fact, he promises – in large part through his second album, MAKANDA at the End of Space, the Beginning of Time, launched earlier this month – that he’s never far from either Kinshasa or Montréal. “I pay tribute to the former and actively participate in the culture of the latter,” says Kwenders.

Four languages and multiple musical styles converge in the music of Pierre Kwenders, née José Louis Modabi’saka. No recipe, no ingredient list and no mould. He’s a noble representative of music that can’t be pigeonholed, and carries one very broad message: “love, sharing and happiness,” he says. “Because one needs to be able to love in order to share, and in sharing there is happiness. That happiness is what gets us through life.”

MAKANDA was produced in Seattle alongside Tendai Maraire, one half of hip-hop duo Shabazz Palaces. For Kwenders, therein lies the project’s distinctive character: the producer allowed him to further embrace his disregard for convention. “He’s the genius behind the project’s music,” says Kwenders. “While in the studio, we all wanted this album to be better than our expectations. The various musical layers are a way to travel to different worlds while orbiting a single sun.”

Those travels can be heard in the multi-layered music, where different styles exist in a symbiotic and harmonious way. Even those who were introduced to Kwenders as a member of the hip-hop community will be compelled by his work in what he calls “moderate hip-hop.” “As far as I’m concerned, I do pseudo-rap on songs like ‘Rendezvous’ and ‘Woods of Solitude.’”

As far as the electro rhythms are concerned, they’re reminiscent of the Moonshine experiment, a Montréal club night co-created by Kwenders that occurs on the first Saturday after a full moon. “Moonshine’s identity is very much based on fraternity, community, perseverance and sharing happiness,” he says. “That’s what I’m trying to convey with MAKANDA.”

Although the artist is at war with categories, and abhors the “world music” moniker, people still try to pigeonhole him. To him, what makes music special is that it serves the same purpose in all cultures: it comforts. “It’s with us through joy and pain,” he says. “The context may vary when one looks more closely to the geography, or ethno-musicology, but what it makes us feel remains the same in any context. I think all barriers fall, naturally, once we understand that.”

MAKANDA is what allows Kwenders to say more about it. As a matter of fact, he’s now all-in with his passion for music, having ditched his parallel career as an accountant. Through its rhythms, languages and themes, MAKANDA obviously talks about the Congo, but also about identity. And although Québec is increasingly confronted with questions about immigration, and the arrival of new cultures, Kwenders believes that music will always be the most personal expression of self. “Some will say fear of foreigners is a human trait, but I prefer to believe in the saying that goes ‘Alone we run faster, but together we travel further.’ Let’s come together and make Québec a nation proud of its diversity, rather than the opposite.”

MAKANDA, it would seem, has liberated the human being behind the artist. Kwenders has given us an album voluntarily void of musical categories, and whose complexity belies the simple message of sharing the joy. “I feel like a young boy or girl who reaches adulthood, leaves the family home and decides to tackle life head-first,” says Kwenders. “I think MAKANDA means I’m ready.”


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