When Rose Cousins was a university student in Halifax, she used to sneak down to the cafeteria in her residence and play the piano – but only when nobody else was around. “I wouldn’t play it in front of other people,” she recalls. Though she was then learning to play guitar, and had started to enjoy performing informally for small audiences, the time she spent at the piano was for nobody but herself.

Indeed, it wasn’t until her second record, 2009’s The Send Off (produced by Luke Doucet, now of Whitehorse) that Cousins – known for her soulful voice and her dark, emotionally-charged lyrics – dared to let the piano back in, on a few mournful tracks.

And so it’s fitting, somehow, that with her latest album, Natural Conclusion, her fourth full-length album, and one she’s calling “the most honest and vulnerable thing” she’s ever produced, Cousins is at the piano more than ever.  “I’m excited,” she admits. “Piano was my first instrument, so I feel like I’m coming full circle.”

But it’s not just the piano playing that has her feeling exposed. With this album, Cousins, who was born and raised in Prince Edward Island, pushes herself into all kinds of new territory, including her approach to writing and producing her music.

“I was terrified of co-writing, but I wanted to brave it.”

It has been, in many ways, a change borne of necessity. After the release of her JUNO-winning and Polaris Music Prize-longlisted album, 2012’s We Have Made a Spark, Cousins, who also won a 2012 Canadian Folk Music Award for Contemporary Singer of the Year, was exhausted and in need of a break.

“I was trying to pay attention to the physical manifestations of working too hard and performing too much,” she says, thinking back. “I had worked steadily all the way through 2013, and had done a ton of touring. And it wasn’t really till I got back from a big Australian tour in early 2014 that I was, like, ‘I am a piece of garbage.’”

And so, for the first time in her musical career, Cousins cancelled some tour dates, before promptly slipping on some black ice, breaking her arm and forcing a rest. “It takes eight weeks to heal a broken limb,” she explains. “And exactly eight weeks after I broke it I had my first [scheduled] gig.”

But rather than launching another exhausting schedule of touring and recording, Cousins took a step back and made some space, using her time to dabble in the studio, and to travel to Boston, where she has many musical connections. After releasing an EP in September of 2014, Cousins says she knew she was ready to take the leap into her next challenge: co-writing.

“I was terrified of co-writing, but I wanted to brave it,” she says, explaining that she was drawn to the idea of writing songs that others could perform, as well as writing music for film and television. “I want to be able to supplement my income creating music that can be working in the world, while I’m also working in the world doing other things.”

For Cousins, it was also an opportunity to embrace a change of pace, swapping a relentless touring schedule for the opportunity to spend some time working with people for more prolonged times, in various cities. In the fall of 2014, she landed in Nashville, and then moved on to writing stints in Los Angeles, Toronto, Ireland and Boston over the course of the next year, building relationships and experimenting with new approaches to songwriting along the way.

“It was fun to step outside of whatever my genre is, and to write really poppy stuff or swampy stuff, or dance stuff,” she laughs. “Who even cares? It was so fun to spread my wings and just not worry about whether Rose Cousins has to sing it onstage.”

While Cousins describes herself as an introvert, and admits that she hates small talk, she says she enjoyed the intense personal conversations that would develop with people she’d only just met, as they got down to work. “My greatest fear was that I would lose the way I write by myself,” she says, “but now I know that’s not true.”

A couple of co-written songs from this period appear on Natural Conclusions, which was created with Grammy Award-winning producer Joe Henry.  The album also features a slew of supporting artists, including pianist Aaron Davis and guitarist Gord Tough from Toronto, Haligonian Asa Brosius on pedal/lap steel, bassist Zachariah Hickman from Boston and Hey Rosetta!’s Kinley Dowling on strings, with backing vocals by friends Jill Barber, Caroline Brooks (of The Good Lovelies) and Miranda Mullholland (of Great Lake Swimmers). Both The Guardian and CBC Music have cited the album as one to look forward to in 2017.

Rose CousinsCousins, who has typically performed on her own, is also thrilled that she’ll be sharing the stage with a band for the first time when she hits the road to tour her new album. She’ll play 2017 dates in the U.S. and Canada from mid-February through mid-April, concluding with a hometown show at Charlottetown’s Confederation Centre.

“I’m looking forward to playing with them and experiencing the music with a band, something I haven’t given myself the privilege of for the majority of my career,” she says warmly. “It’s next-level for me, just like the writing and the recording of this record has been an evolution for me.”

As she looks ahead to what she’s learned and what she hopes to do next, Cousins, also a photographer, is clear that making time for her own creativity – rather than stealing moments for it between gigs – will be critical. “I feel better as a person when I can create things more often,” she says simply. Ultimately, however, she’s focused on continuing to broaden her own horizons, both in music and beyond, as well as finding more ways to support other artists.

“I’m looking for a way to make a difference in the world,” Cousins says. “And though I know that music does that, and brings things to people, and makes a difference, I do wonder where else I could make an impact.”

In the meantime, look for her at the piano.

It’s Valentine’s Day, awakening the eternal lover inside every one of us. ’Tis the occasion to tell your husband, wife, partner or lover that you love them now and forever.

Red roses, gourmet chocolate, candle-lit dinner and a lovers’ getaway are the go-to gifts to mark Cupid’s Big Day. But what about music? Love has been by far the most universal song topic, regardless of language, since the beginning of time.

And there are plenty of love songs that are totally outside the scope of this February holiday. Timeless songs that talk about love on a daily basis, the ups and downs, its long-lasting effects. In short, songs like Francine Raymond’s “Vivre avec celui qu’on aime” (“Living With The One You Love”).

First released on the singer-songwriter’s debut solo album three decades ago, in 1987, “Vivre avec celui qu’on aime” (lyrics by Luc Plamondon, music by Francine Raymond and Christian Péloquin, published by Plamondon Publishing, Les Éditions Dernière Minute and Éditorial Avenue) became a SOCAN Classic 10 years later.  Valentine’s Day offers a great occasion to talk with the person who sang it, about how it was written, 20 years after it became a classic, and 30 years after its release.

Francophone Artist, Anglophone Song

Francine Raymond

Photo: Laurence Labat

“I already had the music, which I produced in close collaboration with Christian Péloquin, my go-to musician,” recalls Francine Raymond. “He wrote about three quarters of the song’s music. Christian always carried a big bag of loose cassettes. He would pull one out and say: ‘Listen to this.’ Without his bag of cassettes, nothing would’ve happened, and we wouldn’t be having this discussion today,” says Raymond, who lately devotes much of her attention to photography.

Raymond made her first steps on Québec stage in the early ‘70s, mostly alongside Péloquin and Hollywood and Wine, up until the mid-’80s. She spent years on Québec’s roadhouse circuit.

“I’d just stopped touring that scene six nights a week, back then,” says Raymond. “His music and my inspiration yielded a first draft. For me, melody always dictates what’s gonna come next. Because I had a lot of experience with Anglophone sounds that are easy to articulate, I’d written that first draft in English, and a complete demo.”

For Nicole

“It was the first song on that album that we completed,” Raymond continues. “In fact, it found its final form a good two years before the album came out. I’d even submitted my English demo to Nicole Martin. She said, ‘Darling, that’s a huge hit. I want it.’ But at the time, I was in France for engagements I had with Johnny Hallyday and Michel Berger. That’s when I ran into Luc Plamondon. At some point, we were at his place, and I played him the demo. Then, he tells me he wants to write a set of French lyrics for that music. I figured I needed to tell Nicole about this. She graciously gave the song back to me and said, ‘Go for it.’ She knew that song was going to be a huge hit. The rest, as they say…”

New Theme

Francine Raymond

Photo: Monic Richard

In the end, the lyrics Plamondon gave to Raymond had nothing to do – nothing at all – with her own first draft.

“It wasn’t at all an adaptation of my English lyrics, the likes of which were so common in the ’60s in Québec,” she says. “Luc drew inspiration from a secret love affair that had just ended between two of his friends. In English, the song was about something totally different. It was a song about changing the world… I think I’ll change the world todayTell me how I can work it out. Something to that effect.

“Having Luc’s name on one of your songs opens a lot of doors. Back then, I’d been living in Paris for months when it happened. I was in a ‘Paris-zone.’ I jumped from one square to the next. I had absolutely no trouble switching from an Anglo scene [where she sang covers] to an entirely Francophone environment, because I’m very adaptable.”

In the bottomless pit of love songs, there’s a plethora that are filled to the brim with “I love you”s and “I want you”s. And their opposites, of course, breakup songs that mean the same thing, in the end, but where the notion of departure is crucial. “Vivre avec celui qu’on aime” is both.

Passages such as “Vivre avec celui qu’on aime/balayer tout derrière soi/pour ouvrir tout grand les bras” (“Living with the one you love / Leaving everything behind / To throw your arms wide open”), or “À chaque amour/la vie recommence/À chaque amour/une autre existence” (“With each love / Life begins anew / With each love / A new existence”), or yet again “Vivre avec celui qu’on aime/quand on s’y attendait plus/À cœur perdu de trouver/le goût de vivre” (“Living with the one you love/When you didn’t think it would ever happen/With a heart for finding/The will to live”) are prime examples of this. Although it’s undeniably a breakup song, “Vivre avec celui qu’on aime” also looks beyond the horizon of heartbreak.

“We did indeed stand on both sides of the fence,” says Raymond. “We wanted to establish a theme and fully understand that emotion. I had to lean into it. If a role is not a good match for you, you can’t play that role. The comments of the audience showed us the many ways they made that song their own. People used it at weddings. Others used it to move forward after a breakup. Remember, this was in the ’80s, when people started talking a lot about re-constructed families. Luc understood that.

Video from Yesteryear

“The video for the song was filmed when Musique Plus [the Québec equivalent of Much Music] was still in its infancy, and played on the notion of departure/new beginnings because of the boats in the port where we filmed it. We filmed it in the port of Sorel with a few connecting images shot at [the] La Ronde [amusement park] in Montréal. It was October, and it was freezing. Christian’s hands were literally frozen by the end of the day.”

In that video, Raymond sports blonde locks that are reminiscent of Stevie Nicks, but she holds her guitar like Chrissie Hynde of The Pretenders would, while wearing a beret and matching jacket that wouldn’t look out of place on Rod Stewart.

“Rod Stewart, yeah, there’s some of that in there,” she says. “The look was totally intentional on my part. I figured if I didn’t look like a ditz, people would listen to the music more closely.”

And listen to the her songs we did: “Vivre avec celui qu’on aime,” “Souvenirs retrouvés,” “Y’a les mots,” to name but a few. Irresistible pop songs. While we’re on the topic, what is Raymond’s definition of a good song?

“It’s an observation of the mind,” she says. “It’s contemplation with one’s ears. It involves your heart, your soul, and all the right places… We are the channellers of an essence. In reception mode.”

Alejandra Ribera“I want my music to defy trends and be timeless.” Such is the commendable mission upon which singer-songwriter Alejandra Ribera embarked when she began writing songs for her third album. This Island is a great inward journey that the Toronto-born, Montréal-based artist – her mother was Argentinian, her father Scottish – gifted to herself.

“I love to explore the recesses of the human heart to harvest an optimistic poetry,” says Ribera. “I was moved by a speech Tilda Swinton gave on the topic and by a study about the movement; there is infinite potential that exists between suspension and liberation.”

If it all seems quite abstract, to Ribera it’s as clear as a mountain stream. Her 10 new songs are a befitting collection in the wake of La boca, produced in 2014 by Jean Massicotte (Jean Leloup, Arthur H), which contained her SOCAN Songwriting Prize-winning song “I Want,” which she wrote. Her first EP, Navigator, Navigather, launched in 2011, had already announced her humanist groove, which revealed the tightly-knit links of her fertile imagination.

“I spent three weeks in Paris, in January 2015, to get back in touch with myself,” says Ribera. “I lived in the onzième arrondissement. I couldn’t understand what the people around me were saying and I quickly became homesick,” she confides, in her very acceptable French. “I felt stranded on an island, hence the album title. To comfort myself, I started writing [lyrics] by imagining parallel universes where people came to me to talk. Then the Charlie Hebdo attack happened: for three days straight, all I could hear were the deafening shrieks of the sirens driving by my window.”

Inspired by the Virginia Woolf novel of the same name, she titled the last song on the album “Orlando.” On that song, Ribera reaches for her upper vocal range to capture our souls and puncture our skin.

“The first time I sang it for my musicians was during a soundcheck, while we were touring Canada with Ron Sexsmith,” she says. “We came up with it in about 45 minutes and played it for the audience that same night. Ironically, we were doing the final mix for that song when the Orlando massacre happened. It’s mysterious and bizarre!”

And as with many an imaginary island, This Island has buried treasure – and it’s a fabulous bundle of musical loot. The singer’s tone of voice on “Undeclared War” sounds just like Beth Orton, wrapped in the same softness and sensuality. “Led Me to You” is a little gem of Americana that would surely cause said Sexsmith to rejoice. “Will Not Drown” is peppered with trumpets, Spanish lyrics and handclaps. It’s ingenious and resourceful: folk songs, languid ballads, luminous melodies; everything falls into place to form a unique and singular, brilliantly produced universe. It’s one of those albums you listen to in a single sitting – after which you clearly feel that, as the artist intended, This Island is indeed timeless.

“I wanted to stay away from the current recording methods,” says Ribera. “I quickly realized that playing the previous album’s songs in a more intimate environment, night after night, brought it the missing link: the osmosis between the musicians, playing live. It was immediately clear in my mind that the next record would be recorded live in the studio.”

So seven musicians gathered in a rural Ontario home for the recording session. “We went straight to the point,” she says. “I wanted us to have a lot of space. We spent a few weeks in that house, creating the demos for those songs, with a skeleton crew. Then, we sent this raw material to [producer] Bryden Baird (Feist), who added sonic colours and a few other instruments sprinkled here and there, like the trumpet and percussion.”

Ribera’s trusted road companions, Jean-Sébastien Williams and Cédric Dind-Lavoie, then worked on the arrangements, and Trina Shoemaker (Sheryl Crow), was tasked with the final mix.

The “making of” video for This Island can be viewed below, and on the homepage of her website, alejandraribera.com. From the opening, the stage is set, in the rural environment, the house; you wish you were there. What a way to set the table for such a feast.