Stirring singer-songwriter Royal Wood’s latest album, The Waiting, is his pop record, something he felt he could tour behind. The release before that, The Lost and Found EP, was, he says, just a stop-gap to follow his second full-length, 2007’s A Good Enough Day. “I made that EP an art-boutique piece where I wrote songs I knew would not be immediately catchy but were purely lyric-driven,” Wood says. “I saved my pop writing for The Waiting.”

The Peterborough, Ont. native, now living in Toronto, is very particular about the songs he releases. He started playing piano at age four and soon picked up guitar, bass, drums, clarinet and trumpet, but never put anything out commercially until 2002’s The Milkweed EP. “I struggled with having an original voice, which is why I didn’t release anything until I was 23, 24,” he says. “I could play at a young age. I wrote like crazy and I played in lots of bands and tried lots of genres, but I always felt like I was wearing someone else’s hat. Nothing ever felt true.

But then something clicked. Since The Milkweed EP, of which he’s still proud, Wood lets a song write itself, coming out “the way it’s supposed to land,” as he puts it. “The majority of my writing is cathartic, but once you hear the melody and the emotional core, you can tell the direction.

In the case of The Waiting, producer Pierre Marchand (Sarah McLachlan) helped shape the sound by recording the first three songs: “You Can’t Go Back,” “Do You Recall” and “The Island.” The lyrical catharsis was the self-described “me-centric” Wood turning 30 and shifting his priorities. “There’s an antithesis to everything that we go through,” he says. “I had friends who were having their first kids and I lost friends to illness and we buried my grandmother and others got married for the first time [including him]. And you see there really is that mirrored experience for everything. Nothing is ever permanent and what you really should be doing is existing in the now. If you exist in the now, you understand what is valuable and what is important and what is meaningful.

“There was some huge philosophical wrestling that I went with,” he says. “It wasn’t just that I wanted to write songs and be a professional musician. It was some deep search for meaning and, even more so, what I wanted my art to say. I wanted there to be something to be reflected on when you hear it.”

Contrary to the singular name, Winnipeg’s Ash Koley is actually a collaborative relationship between two people: Ashley Koley (vocals) and Phil Deschambault (guitar, keyboard). The duo formed in 2004, drawn together by their mutual love of songwriting, art, quirky pop and Peter Gabriel. Through 2009 and early 2010 the band released four EPs. Nettwerk signed them up last year, and their debut album, Inventions, was released to critical acclaim in October. Produced by Deschambault and mixed by Grammy Award-winner Tom Lord-Alge (Avril Lavigne, Blink 182, Sarah McLachlan), eight tracks were selected out of scores of songs Koley and Deschambault had crafted over the past five years. Ash Koley hit the road this past summer for the first time ever, thrown into the deep end as an opening act for heavyweights like Erykah Badu, McLachlan and Sheryl Crow on the Lilith Festival’s Canadian dates. They’ll be taking on their first North American tour in the not-too-distant future.


The first thing you see when you visit composer John Beckwith’s home is his bicycle, standing in the hallway. At 83, he’s an avid cyclist, and can be often seen on the streets of Toronto. He lives in the Annex, a neighbourhood of fine old houses, about a 10-minute pedal from the University of Toronto, where he taught for almost four decades. Fittingly, it was at the U of T’s Walter Hall that a full program of his music was presented by Toronto’s New Music Concerts in September.

As a composition teacher, he gave instruction to over 100 students, up to his retirement in 1990. It’s an impressive list, containing some of the country’s leading figures in new music: Robert Aitken, Bruce Mather, Henry Kucharzyk, Peter Hatch, Kristi Allik, Alice Ping-Yee Ho, John Burge, Omar Daniel, Clark Ross and James Rolfe, among others.

He’s also maintained a parallel career as a writer, penning reviews and essays on a variety of musical subjects as well as a series of books. In Search of Alberto Guerrero (about his piano teacher) appeared in 2006, and a new book about composer John Weinzweig (co-edited by Beckwith and composer Brian Cherney and published by Wilfred Laurier University Press) will be launched this month, funded in part by the SOCAN Foundation.

But most of all, Beckwith is a composer, with a substantial number of works in his catalogue. “The number is probably close to 150 nowadays,” he says. “And some of them are fairly big pieces. My opera Taptoo! takes two and a half hours.”

Some of his pieces have received numerous performances — and he has mixed feelings about a few. “My most performed pieces, Five Lyrics of the Tang Dynasty (1947), are very slight. But they were published and they’ve been done over and over. Since then, I’ve written songs that are much more substantial.” On the other hand, he quite likes his String Quartet (1977), and is happy to see that his Sharon Fragments (1966) have found a place in the choral repertoire. “They’ve been done a great deal,” he says, “which surprises me, because they’re rather difficult.”

And he admits to a few personal favourites in his catalogue. “I’m very pleased with the flute concerto I did for Bob Aitken. He’s played it with two different orchestras, but it’s never been played in Toronto, even though it was commissioned by the Toronto Arts Council.”

Of course, when Beckwith was born, in Victoria, B.C., in 1927, there was virtually no such thing as an arts council or a commission for a composer. Throughout his career, he’s seen the gradual professionalization of composition in Canada. Indeed, he’s been actively involved in many of the institutions that have aided composers: the CBC, the Canadian League of Composers and the Canadian Music Centre.

“Today there are about 700 associate composers of the Canadian Music Centre,” he says with a pride that’s tempered by a concern that this number might be too high. “How many of them are really serious composers, writing pieces of serious length and serious demand?” he asks. “To become an associate of the CMC you don’t have to do much. It sounds snobbish and elitist to say it, but you can’t get into the College of Surgeons and Physicians without proving you know what you’re doing.”