On her third album, Poupée russe (Russian Martryosha dolls), Sarahmée follows through on her ideas with lyrics that carry a “more lucid” message.

Over the course of 13 songs, the Québec-based rapper draws a very rich picture of what makes her heart, but also her mind and her gut, tick. Her writing is straightforward and direct, and she bites into her words with just the right amount of aggression, sensitivity, and arrogance commanded by each song.

Her lively, heartfelt delivery is a reflection of the singer-songwriter’s highly organic creative process. “I let go of my phone and went back to the good old pen and paper,” she says proudly. “It’d been a while since I last went back to my good ol’ habits. Writing, I mean actually writing and crossing stuff out, allowed me to take a step back from my lyrics. It allowed me to visualize the music, to be more structured and to express my ideas more clearly. I’m so ADD when I’m on my phone, but when I’m sitting down with a piece of paper, my ideas germinate longer.”

Active of Québec’s rap scene for over a decade now, Sarahmée slams her fist on the table with her third offering. “I’ve had to grow a little harder over time,” she raps on “Quand la route est longue,” clearly signalling that she no longer has any time to waste, career-wise as well as life-wise. “I figured if I don’t take the place I deserve with this album, no one else is going to give it to me. I’m the conductor of my own train,” she says.

And that “place” designates the status she rightly deserves on Québec’s male-dominated rap scene. On “Elle est partie,” a song denouncing the many layers of sexism that surround us, she throws a few punches at local rap figures who have “too much ego to say that a woman is their colleague.”

That type of line is a perfect reflection of the aplomb that permeates Poupée russe. “It’s time to shoot what I have to say now that I have people’s attention,” Sarahmée says adamantly. “No one was expecting Irréversible [her second album released in 2019], whereas now, I could tell there was an audience ready to listen.”

Using her microphone as a megaphone, the rapper dives into hot topics such as systemic racism and police brutality. “As a young woman who’s also black, I’m afraid of the police,”, she raps on the title song before defiantly adding “you’re either an ally or you’re their accomplice,”, a clear call to join the Black Lives Matter movement.

“I’m aware that not everyone is comfortable taking a stance,” she nuances. “I’m not afraid of speaking out, and I’m constantly thinking about all that, but that doesn’t mean I’m not careful about what I do say. I don’t want to be a spokesperson for all social groups. I’m only Sarahmée, and no one elected me to speak on their behalf. In other words, time has also taught me to shut up.”

Hence her decision to express her political views in her music rather than the media, as she did last year. “At some point, I said to myself, ‘I’m not a commentator [who is only invited to comment] on racism!’ I was starting to feel like I didn’t really have any business there.” So, instead of accepting all the invitations that were extended to her, Sarahmée decided to take time for herself. That perspective allowed her to write such brilliant songs, some of which are particularly intimate.

One such example is “Partir plus tôt,” a song that tackles her addiction problem head-on. “It’s an autobiographical song about what happened to me after Irréversible. It was a beautiful year, but also an incredibly difficult year. It was pretty bad towards the end,” she confides. “I had to make a decision: regaining control over my own life. I went into rehab and put in the work that saved me. And that taught me a lot of things. Simple things, such as the fact that you don’t absolutely have to get completely wasted when you go to a party. I’m thankful I made that decision, because my addiction was starting to impact a lot of other stuff, especially my music, my work ethic, my team… It had to stop.”

With its vibrant and dramatic strings, “Partir plus tôt” is in stark contrast with the rest of the album’s musical direction. Alongside her loyal allies Tom Lapointe and Diego Montenero, the two producers at the core of her team, Sarahmée put together an album with a fiery trap and Afropop vibe, while in a creative retreat in a cabin in November of  2020.

“This time around, I didn’t feel like writing 50,000 songs to select just a dozen. I hate that!” she says, referring to the heavier process that drove Irréversible. “The guys put a ton of energy in the productions, so I had a big challenge in front of me. My lyrics had to live up to that!”

She clearly nailed that mission thanks, to clearer-than-ever ideas, and a freer-than-ever mind.

 



When we think of music we often focus solely on the artists, but a significant part of sound creation involves an extensive team, most notably producers and songwriters. But unlike the pattern in many industries currently growing in diversity, equity, and inclusion, female-identifying music producers have been nearly absent in Canada. Music Publishers Canada (MPC) recognized this, and set out to help change it.

Margaret McGuffin

Margaret McGuffin

“There is such a low incidence of producers who are women, gender-fluid, non-binary, or gender non-conforming, that have an opportunity to produce,” explains Margaret McGuffin, CEO of Music Publishers Canada. “[An ongoing] USC Annenberg Inclusion Initiative study revealed only 2.5 percent of albums [in the U.S.] were being produced by women. And between 12 to 15 percent, depending on the year, had songwriters who were women. That number says it all. We believe that those numbers are even lower in Canada, which is quite shocking, given how women are doing in other fields.”

McGuffin believes that the absence of female-identifying producers reflects a great number of missed opportunities for talented creators, and the industry itself. “[Many] women don’t understand that there are opportunities in these fields, as they enter into their careers or their post secondary education,” she says. “And even once they’re in those careers, if they don’t see women in those roles, they don’t understand the opportunities that exist there. Or they may not feel comfortable in reaching out and trying to be part of [it].

“Songwriting, publishing, [and] composing are the best kept secrets in the industry. People know about the artist, label, even the manager, [but] they don’t understand that we have so many successful songwriters, composers, and producers worldwide. We’re trying to educate [people] about this segment of the music industry.”

Sarah MacDougall

Sarah MacDougall

Formed in 2019, the Women in the Studio National Accelerator program is a series of curated workshops that cover everything from technical training, to branding, to financial literacy, to creative and networking experiences. The program is led by leading Canadian music publishers  Vivian Barclay (Warner Chappell Music), Cheryl Link (peermusic Canada), and Mishelle Pack (Sony Music Canada).  At press time for this article, SOCAN’s A&R team was setting up a series of virtual song camps for all of the participants.

The program finds participants joining for a variety of reasons. “Some are coming with quite extensive technical training and are looking to master new skills,” says McGuffin. “A lot want to meet a community and network. While [for] others, its more about the music they’re wanting to produce – nobody in the studio understood the sound they had in their head.”

That holds true for singer-songwriter Sarah MacDougall, who’s been producing since she acquired her first four-track tape machine when she was 13 years old. While collaborating on her music has helped her grow as an artist, her passion for production also drives her.

“I studied production and composition in university, and at the Banff Centre, and also worked as an intern and assistant engineer in some commercial studios,” says MacDougall. “I produced and engineered my first record. I worked at a studio that had an SSL 4000G board and a great live room, and I recorded myself in the control room, and the band in the other room. But since then, I’ve been collaborating and co-producing. I learned so much from it over the years.

“At the same time, I always had a dream to have my own studio. In the last few years, I’ve been able to convert the first floor of my house into a studio, and I’ve really dived into production and engineering again. I really like to create a song from start to finish, and collaborate with other songwriters in that way, as well as get my ideas out quickly. I see production as another tool in my songwriting toolbox.”

Elisa Pangsaeng

Elisa Pangsaeng

Like MacDougall, fellow 2021 alumnus Elisa Pangsaeng feels producing is a passion. “When you’re producing– especially when you’re producing and engineering – not only do you get to tell a story, you get to imagine all the ways it could be told. You get to bring it to life with all the colors of all the instruments, orchestration, players, personalities, environments, microphones, processing. There’s sheer artistry in production, but it’s also math, science, technology, it’s psychology. Production is everything a creative mind could ever want.”

And she hopes that the Women in the Studio program continues to shed a bright light on neglected creators. “I’d like to see the narrative surrounding statistics in our industry change,” she says. “I’d like people to stop asking, ‘Where are all the ‘X’ producers?’ We’re right here, we’re everywhere. If you’re in the industry and you ‘don’t know any women producers,’ you’re not giving someone the credit or title they deserve. I’d love to see those in a position to do so ask themselves why they don’t work with more women, or non-binary people, or people of colour, because there’s certainly no excuse not to. I believe programs like this have the potential to highlight that fact.”

For McGuffin, the series isn’t just a program, but a community. “You can never leave,” she says. “We’re in our third year. This is about building a community. Connecting to the elders. We regularly pull in past participants to meet the new ones. We keep in touch with them. Let’s build something that lasts well beyond the program.”

Top Ten: The 2021 Program Participants

  • Ava Kay
  • DJ Killa-Jewel (aka Julie Fainer)
  • Elisa Pangsaeng
  • Lana Winterhalt
  • Mour (aka Cassandra Zingone)
  • OBUXUM (aka Muxubo Mohamed)
  • Sadé Awele (aka Folasade Akinbami)
  • Sarah MacDougall
  • Sierra Noble
  • Steph Copeland


Almost a half-century separates them, age-wise, but on record, they both sound ageless. In one corner, the legendary Édith Butler, in the other, rising star Lisa LeBlanc. The girl from Paquetville and the girl from Rosaireville take us on Le Tour du grand bois, in a much more rock-oriented context than what we’re used to from Butler. Yet, “those are sounds I know; that’s what I listened to when I was younger,” says Butler, adamantly. “Big guitars like Johnny Cash – that’s not new to me, but maybe it is for the younger generation who aren’t aware of that style? Whatever the case may be, it’s totally my style!”

Edith Butler

Photo: Tony V. Hausser

“It’s been a long time that I’ve been hearing Édith playing with my band, in my mind,” says Lisa LeBlanc about this project, the first she’s taken on as a producer. “I’ve always thought that an album where we re-visit her songs, but with her singing, would be really fun. Édith has written so many good tunes, and I wanted to hear them in that setting,.” And so LeBlanc did, alongside her partners in crime – Maxime Gosselin on drums, Mico Roy on guitars, and her boyfriend Benoît Morier on bass, and various other guitars.

The duo had met in a studio before, when they recorded the McGarrigle sisters’ “Complainte pour Sainte-Catherine” for Butler’s 2013 album Le Retour. But the true spark for this project came while filming the TV show Les Échangistes (hosted by Pénélope McQuade) about three or four years ago. The pair sang one of Butler’s songs, “Ti-Gars,” featured on this project in a pedal-to-the-metal version. “Édith was playing a washboard and she so totally outshone me, it was insane!,” LeBlanc remembers about their appearance on Radio-Canada. “We played the song only once, on that show, but the phone started ringing off the hook,” Butler adds. “Everybody was asking about the album, but there was no album! That’s when we started seriously thinking about it…”

LeBlanc had already planned a sabbatical even before the pandemic hit; this time would be devoted to planning her next album, and exploring another side of her trade: producing. “That’s when I mustered the courage to go to her with that proposition,” says Blanc, who spent a week in Québec’s Eastern Townships where the iconic Acadian Butler now lives. “There’s no denying that Édith is super important for us Acadians,” she adds. “She was one of the first to step out of Acadie playing Acadian music and singing in the Acadian vernacular. She put us on the map, as did Antonine Maillet and Angèle Arsenault. They’re true pioneers, the first to have success in France and Québec. She’s accomplished a lot for us, she paved the way.”

“Lisa came to visit and we spent two weeks together, chatting, eating and taking walks in the woods,” Butler remembers. They also listened to a lot of music. LeBlanc notably played Butler Van Lear Rose, the Jack White-produced 2004 album by the grand dame of country music, Loretta Lynn – which had a major influence on Lisa’s approach for this project: embedding the voice of the great Acadian in a rough-edged jewel box made of folk- and country-tinged rock.

“We poured our hearts, souls, and guts into the album,” says Butler. “The music came naturally; we wanted an album that would ring true. Throughout the recording, Lisa would say to me, ‘I want to bring out the real chick from Paquetville!’ She directed me. I may have a beautiful voice, but if no one gives me directions, that’s all I have: a beautiful voice. Lisa was able to bring out a grain of voice I didn’t know I had in me.”

Together, the two musicians listed the songs that would be featured on this album – original songs as well as adaptations of traditional airs by Butler (“Vishten Avina Vi,” “Le Tour du grand bois,” and “La complainte de Marie Madeleine,” her renowned Marie Caissie adaptation), and a few songs by some of her friends, such as “Ti-Gars” and “Jerrycan” (by Anique Granger).

To top it all off, they also included two covers from the Acadian repertoire. The first one, “Marie Mouri,” is a song penned by David Greely, that Linda Ronstadt also recorded. “Originally, it’s a text that was found on a slave,” says Butler who, very few people know, holds a master’s degree in Ethnography from Université Laval. “I was deeply touched when I heard that story. It’s a beautiful story told from the perspective of a father saying to his young son, ‘You don’t know, you sing and dance, but Marie is dead, and you don’t realize it…’”

The other cover is “Tit Galop pour Mamou,” by Dewey Balfa, a founding member of Frères Balfa, one of the most famous Cajun music groups in Louisiana in the 1960s and ’70s. “I’ve met the Balfa brothers!” says a thrilled Butler. “I participated in this NFB film called Les Acadiens de la dispersion [by Léonard Forest, 1968]. “We went down to Louisiana to meet people, including the Balfa brothers, and we played music together. It’s during the time I spent with them that I heard ‘Tit Galop’ for the first time. That song, to me, is the story of when I met the Balfas.”

For her first stint as a producer, LeBlanc had carte blanche for the album’s musical direction. “What I wanted above all was for Édith to be happy,” she says. “This album is an homage, it’s not my album. It’s also a collaboration, but what mattered the most was to bring out Édith’s voice and personality. That’s the beauty of being a producer: staying in the shadows, not taking up too much space, while still carrying a clear vision for the project.”