The news hit us like a bomb. On May 24, 2016, we learned that Gord Downie, lead singer and lyricist for the Tragically Hip, had incurable brain cancer. When he passed away on October 17, 2017 at the age of 53, a nation came together to mourn our loss. Enough tears fell to create a sixth Great Lake, immense and deep.

The impact of the Tragically Hip’s music on Canadians is also, like that Great Lake of Tears, immense and deep: Nine No. 1 albums, seven No. 1 singles, 13 Top 10 singles and 16 JUNO Awards. The CBC broadcast of the band’s final hometown Kingston concert on their Man Machine Poem tour, on August 20, 2016, what many felt certain to be their farewell tour, was viewed by more than 11 million Canadians – about one-third of the population.

On that night, I was among the capacity crowd at the Legendary Horseshoe Tavern in Toronto, watching the swan song concert on the bar’s TV screens. After the band played their last note and the members took their bows, Gord Downie remained alone on stage, saying goodbye. A few feet to my right there was a woman with her hands to her mouth, her eyes brimming. She was not alone. All across the country, we were all floating in that Great Lake of Tears.

The Tragically Hip, with Downie as their poet, wrote songs that tapped into the soul of a nation. How? By following the old adage: write what you know, write who you are. By doing that, many of the Hip’s songs achieved cultural iconic status in Canada; the campfire song seal of approval. “Bobcaygeon,” “Wheat Kings,” “38 Years Old,” “At the Hundredth Meridian,” “Ahead by a Century,” “Fifty-Mission Cap,” “New Orleans is Sinking,” to name a few.

The best songwriting connects us to something. It lets us know we’re not alone in experiencing life’s ups and downs. The music of Gord Downie and the Hip connects us to ourselves, not only as human beings, but also more specifically to ourselves as Canadians. While eschewing easy jingoism or flag-draped nationalism, they told stories about us and the places we live – joyous and painful, epic and esoteric, mountainous-magnificent and small-town weird.

Though Downie’s lyrics were often oblique and cryptic, there’s something to be said about the places he took us. We’re locked in the trunk of a car. We’re plunging over the falls in a barrel. We’re in a club watching a stripper collapse in a coughing fit. We’re privy to a confession from the survivor of a nautical disaster. Tragically Hip songs introduce us to some fascinating and extraordinary viewpoints.

Downie’s lyrics often plumbed certain kinds of experiences – visceral and furtive – and re-cast them with poetic aplomb. Spitting from a bridge just to see how far down it really is (“Cordelia”) or the “dangerous tug” we feel when looking over the edge from on high (“Gift Shop”). But they could also be shrewdly poignant (“Well, she was nineteen seventy / Burning like a cigarette long season”). And consider one of the band’s most beloved songs, “Ahead by a Century,” where Downie’s lyrics play with time and tense in an almost cubist way; past, present and future overlapping like images emerging through thin veils of wax paper.

Poetry is a way of seeing. It’s clear from his writing, and even from the way he spoke, that Downie saw the world through a poet’s eyes. (In addition to penning literate song lyrics, Downie was, of course, a published poet – having released a best-selling collection of verse, Coke Machine Glow, in 2001).

He said in a 2012 appearance on CBC’s Q, “I’m interested in how the words make me feel, and trying to capture them in a certain way, and not screw with them too much; not let my intellect diminish the creative power.” So even if his lyrics could be enigmatic, there was a feeling that came through. The language, the imagery – whatever it means – speaks to us.

“Music brings people together. So my function in anything I do is to help bring people closer in.”– Gord Downie, to The Winnipeg Free Press, May 31, 2016

In the final year of his life, when he knew his time in this world was coming to a close, Gord Downie chose to keep making music. It’s the kind of music projects he chose that speaks to the measure of the man.

When the sun rose on the day after that final Hip concert in Kingston, he began working on Secret Path, a project that encompassed an album, a graphic novel (with Jeff Lemire) and a film, all about the true story of a 12-year old Ojibwe boy named Chanie Wenjack, who died of exposure while trying to walk back to his home after fleeing his mistreatment at a residential school in northern Ontario in 1966. Downie created music that told a story of the pain our Indigenous brothers and sisters suffered in the residential school system; the work, the music, in the service of reconciliation.

His final project, completed before his passing and released posthumously this past October, was a solo album called Introduce Yerself, a collection of songs, each addressing a specific person that has meant something to him. Here was Downie once again honouring the connections and the love in his life.

“Music is…a popular rallying point – at its central core, it’s a way for people to get in touch with the best parts of themselves and to voice the love in their hearts.” – Gord Downie, to Bullfrog Power

At its best, this is what music does – it connects, re-calibrates and reconciles. It moves us – quite literally. It shifts us from one place, one thought, one feeling, one perspective – to another. It moves us closer to our better selves, towards our most human and feeling selves, even if just for the duration of the song. The work then becomes ours, to take in that feeling and hold it, to carry it forward. It’s another kind of reconciliation: to reconcile our everyday selves with that better self we find in song and art – to cultivate the best parts of ourselves and incorporate them more and more into our daily living.

Gord, your music is part of us. You are part of us. Your songs help us celebrate our best times and face our hardest paths. We will continue to sing your words and dance that crazy dance with you, through the mysteries of what we mean to each other – and we’ll do it together, because your music brings us closer in, helping us to reconcile who we want to be and who we are.

In the heart of an intense North American tour, DJ and producer Frédérik Durand (a.k.a. Snails) is making waves internationally thanks to “vomitstep,” a musical anti-genre he developed after trying to reproduce the metallic sounds of his biggest influence, Skrillex.

SnailsWhen we reach him on the phone in Albuquerque, the Montréaler (by way of Sainte-Émélie-de-l’Énergie, a small town 90 minutes north of the metropolis) is about to embark on a stretch of 20 gigs in 21 nights, and he’s especially enthusiastic. Who wouldn’t be? Ever since the release of his debut album The Shell, last October, the musician – who’s used to playing festivals and opening shows – is now headlining a tour with a budget of almost a million dollars.

“The challenge was to convince people who came to see me over the last three years to come see a real Snails show,” he says. “So far, it’s been way beyond my wildest expectations: 6,500 people in Seattle, 3,000 in L.A., 2,300 in Vegas… Seeing that many people, night after night, is energizing. That’s where I get a boost from when I’m feeling tired.”

But beyond their very presence, it’s the kindness and loyalty of his fans that motivates the man born Frédérik Durand. He’s received an impressive amount of “kandys” – hand-crafted bracelets and pendants that are an emblem of the rave culture and its “PLUR” (peace, love, unity, respect) leitmotif. “[Being offered those] truly is a huge display of respect,” says Snails. “It’s not very common in Montréal, but in the States, it’s a real craze. I’d brought a small jewelry case to store them, but it’s almost full and we’re not even halfway through the tour! It goes to show how passionate my audience is.”

Far from taking that audience for granted, the 29-year-old musician and graphic designer went all-out for this tour, developing a unique stage concept around his alter ego, Slugz. The hero of a planet inhabited by snails, under threat by a regiment of frogs that have acquired the salt spear, a special weapon that could wipe them out, Slugz embarks on a cosmic journey to reach planet Sluggtopia, where there’s an armour (“The Shell”) that will protect his people.

“The show is divided into six chapters, and I’ve created the visuals and sound collages that flesh out the story,” says Snails. “It starts with war sounds, a light show, a spaceship lights up,” explains the man who worked with two Montréal companies, Solotech and 4U2C, for this production. “I absolutely wanted to take my concept as far as I could, to give the audience all I could give. It’s partly in reaction to a lot of EDM shows I’ve seen over the last few years. More often than not, their stage show is nothing but smoke and a few visuals. I sometimes wonder if I’m too weird, or if it’s them who are too laid-back.”

The Skrillex Influence

One thing’s for sure, Snails shares neither their approach nor musical background. As a teen, he started out as a guitarist who was crazy about Led Zeppelin and The Doors, before moving on to “heavier and more intense bands” like Metallica and Slayer. Towards the end of his teens, he had an epiphany when he discovered the bold electro sounds of Boys Noize, The Bloody Beetroots, Justice and MSTRKRFT, to name but a few, as well Skrillex’s dubstep a few years later.

“When I saw his Scary Monsters and Nice Sprites project entering the Billboard 200, it really piqued my interest,” says Snails. “He burst onto the underground scene intent on smashing and revolutionizing everything. The sound he had was unheard of, and it obsessed me… so much so that I tried to reproduce his sounds! I never managed to pull it off [laughs], but it was a blessing in disguise, because that’s how I developed my own sound.”

Such was, after many trials and errors, the genesis of “vomitstep” – a musical anti-genre that he created for himself in order to stand out among other electronic genres he finds too restrictive. Using his “throat” synthesizer, this genre is akin to dubstep, yet different, with its even more guttural basslines, the influence of trap, and less metallic sounds. “There’s something more organic and grainy in vomitstep,” he says. “You can hear the substance, as if you were in someone’s throat. It’s kinda hard to explain,” the artist admits, laughing.

Increasingly recognized as its own, this musical signature made its way to Skrillex’s ear a few years ago. Having been invited to collaborate with his idol when he was in Los Angeles, Snails still remembers the stress he felt when they first met. The result was the song “Holla Out,” which was featured on the first and only Jack Ü album, the collaborative project between Skrillex and Diplo.

“I stood by the door for, like, 30 minutes after saying ‘Hi,” says Snails. “I was speechless. The man who changed electronic music was right there, in front of me. After awhile, Diplo and him played a few demos on which we could work and, unsurprisingly, I chose the weirdest. I sat on the couch and, totally by mistake, I created a sound that ended up becoming the main sound of the song. I wrote that in, like, 20 minutes, but for the next three hours, I was too scared to play it for them. Skrillex made me feel at ease, and we ended up jamming until 10:30 the next morning.”

Emboldened by the experience – which earned him thanks from both artists during their acceptance speeches for two Grammy awards last year – Frédérik Durand feels privileged to have had the opportunity to make a name for himself on the international electro circuit. Still, he admits being slightly disappointed by the lack of media attention in Québec. “No man is a prophet in his own land, but I was expecting that, because I think my music has a more Anglophone audience,” says the artist, whose tour will enter its home stretch on December 28 at Montréal’s MTELUS. “I’d obviously like to have more exposure in Montréal, have people here recognize the value of my work, but I’m not gonna let that get me down. It just motivates me to work harder.”

Nicole Lizée

Photo: Steve Raegele

Although we live in neighbouring boroughs in Montréal, it’s on the phone that I speak with composer Nicole Lizée. But instead of creating distance, the object we’re using to communicate becomes a subject of conversation: has she ever considered composing a piece for telephones? She has, after all, made music using vintage video games, toys, novelty instruments like the stylophone, and a plethora of strange objects throughout the years. “No, but that’s a good idea, I’ll add it to my list of projects,” she says with a laugh. Maybe she’s joking, but it would come as no surprise to anyone if she actually did it at some point.

And don’t go thinking it’s just a gimmick; these elements, usually foreign to serious or concert music, are part and parcel of the composer’s creative approach. “The objects I use all have a sentimental value,” she says. “At a very young age, I started keeping a list of dream objects that I wanted to integrate in my work, stuff I grew up with, like the E.T. game, an absolutely unplayable videogame for the Atari 2600 considered the biggest flop ever in the history of videogames. Or the Omnichord, a bizarre instrument that I purchased as an adult, but that fascinated me ever since I heard it in the Eurythmics song “Love is a Stranger.” They’re imperfect objects, and therein lies their beauty, to me.”

Lizée is fascinated by obsolete technologies and their sometimes haphazard operation. Raised in a small Saskatchewan village, she grew up in a treasure trove that her father filled with all kinds of electronic devices he repaired and collected. Her unusual musical path took her from Chopin to heavy metal, movie soundtracks to ‘80s pop. She took this baggage with her in the McGill University classrooms where her eclectic approach wasn’t always unanimously approved. “When I presented Nicole Lizée my Master’s project, a concerto for turntables, certain members of the faculty applauded my originality, and others told me that it wasn’t a real instrument and that it couldn’t be included on sheet music.” Says Lizée. “Which is ludicrous, because, as a matter of fact, I had created a notation system specific to that instrument!”

Since graduating, her bold creative approach has been validated on many occasions: commissions came from all over the place – the Metropolitan Orchestra and Kronos Quartet, among others – and she’s received several prestigious awards. The latest of which is the Jan V. Matejcek Award for new classical music, which she received during SOCAN’s 2017 Awards Gala in Montréal, after a unanimous decision by the jury.

“I was touched, because what means the most to me is the recognition of my peers and of the industry,” says Lizée. “The kind of music I do has nearly zero chances of ending up on the radio, so awards like these are helpful in promoting my work. I’ve immediately noticed increased attention to my work after I won the Jules Léger Award from the Canada Council for the Arts in 2013.”

Since 2012, her projects have grown exponentially, including several works inspired by the films of Alfred Hitchcock, Stanley Kubrick, David Lynch and Quentin Tarantino, where she manipulates and re-mixes them in a dialogue with solo musicians or orchestras. When she’s not composing for herself or creating her own images, Lizée’s is a highly prized and sought-after musical collaborator.

“I’m so thrilled to see people coming to me, because they recognize and appreciate the specificity of my work,” she says. “I recently received a request from Pat Steward, who was Bryan Adams’ drummer for a long time. He saw one of my concerts in Vancouver and really liked it. After contacting me, he commissioned a piece and simply said, ‘Do your thing.’ That’s the kind of collaboration I find exciting.”

Among the numerous projects that will keep her busy in the coming months, there’s the recording of Death to Kosmische, the piece commissioned by the famous Kronos Quartet, which catapulted her to success on the international scene. She’s also working on a collaboration with the band Collectif9. During Printemps Nordique, in April, she’ll present – alongside Innu rapper Samian – a work for the Montréal Symphony Orchestra inspired by Native legends.

“I don’t care about the genre, as long as it’s a bold and creative project,” says Lizée. “If I’m allowed to maintain my vision, and everybody works from the heart and with integrity, I’m happy.”