After four rigorous years on the road that included a broken heart, singer-songwriter and pop star Serena Ryder was burnt out, physically and mentally. So in 2014, she moved to Los Angeles, with no plans other than to take a break from music. The then-31-year-old, who has openly and publically battled depression before, checked out for a while – taking time to rest, rejuvenate, and just hang out at the beach.

“I was going through a break-up and winter was coming,” says Ryder. “I just wanted to feel warmth and sunshine on my face, and in my heart.”

The ocean had always called her name, so L.A. was the perfect place for Ryder to seek refuge. It took almost a year just to “get my shit together,” she says. Only after Ryder started feeling like she was back to her old self did the desire to write return. As she combined the inspiration of living on the West Coast with a host of new co-writers, it wasn’t long before song sketches started to fill in the blank canvas for the follow-up to the JUNO Award-winning Harmony (2012). Utopia is set for release in November 2016, and while its final track list isn’t yet set at press time, Ryder has recorded more than 50 songs.

Sir Thomas More coined the word “Utopia” for his 1516 book of the same name; it describes a fictional island society in the Atlantic Ocean, and has come to mean an imagined place or state of things in which everything is perfect. For Ryder, Utopia means something different. “The title came from the First Nations story of The Two Wolves,” she says. “It’s an old parable of the battle that’s going on inside every human. Two wolves, a dark wolf and a light wolf, represent this battle. An elder tells this story to their grand-daughter, who asks: ‘If there’s a battle going on between the dark and the light wolf, which wolf wins?’ The elder replies: ‘The one you feed.’

“For this record, I decided it’s important to feed both your wolves. If you feed both your wolves, then, in essence you will acquire utopia… that’s the dream. Everyone wants balance. For me, utopia means balance.”

“Songwriting is so ethereal to me. I write on real intuition and feeling.”

Serena Ryder

Ryder credits her long-time management, Pandyamonium, and her record company, Universal, for allowing the six-time JUNO Award winner and two-time SOCAN Award honouree to achieve this balance; neither of them pressured the musician to deliver a new batch of songs within a set period of time. Not having a schedule worked to her artistic advantage; it allowed the songs on Utopia to come together organically, in their own time.

“I was blessed to have that,” she says, “because a lot of artists finish one record and they feel this pressure to put out another one right away. It’s like you have a baby, and it’s two years old, and you’re told, ‘Now go have another baby!’ I’ve been lucky I’ve been able to do some living in between. There’s definitely more of a variety, storyline, breadth and depth of emotion in the songs because I had that time.”

Did Ryder’s break-up play a role in this new batch of songs?

“Everything I experience in my life plays into my music,” she says. “I didn’t consciously write about my break-up. I was writing about my relationship with myself… That’s the one that ends up affecting all the other relationships you have.”

“Got Your Number,” the first single from Utopia, is an infectious, upbeat song that originated during one of those L.A. afternoons. Ryder was just chilling, hanging at her place with a couple of friends. She set up a drum kit in the living room and started to groove. “I always strive to write a song that makes people want to move and feel the beat,” she says. “I was playing on the drum kit, looking for the right vibe. I had this New Orleans scene in my head of people street dancing, and playing drums and horns, and I just started rapping.”

While Ryder usually starts writing songs with a melody in mind, on this occasion it was the drumbeat that fuelled her muse. “I just started spewing out lyrics,” she says. “It all happened organically. My two friends, [songwriters] Derek [Furnham] and Todd [Clark] were there, just writing stuff down as I said it. I like being the monkey in the middle: throwing the lyrics and the melody out for them to record. It was a really inspiring writing session; I believe that energy transferred onto the song.”

Utopia was also about finding new songwriting partners, including fellow SOCAN member and multiple award-winning professional songwriter Simon Wilcox, who’s become one of Ryder’s “best friends on the entire planet.” The pair, first introduced by Ryder’s keyboard player Hill Kourkoutis, write a lot together, but mostly they just hang out and do yoga. More than half the songs on the new disc are co-writes with Wilcox and another highly celebrated pro songwriter and SOCAN member, Tawgs Salter.

“I love that other people mirror stuff back at you,” says Ryder. “People end up working better when they work together. That’s just my experience. Some people work really well alone. Maybe my next record I’ll write by myself. I have no idea why, but for this record, community was really important.

“I like working with people who are opposites of me,” she says. “Tawgs knows music theory and how to use a computer and track songs, so that’s what happened on this record. I wrote most of the lyrics and the melodies and then I had a producer or writer do the tracking and add in the musical theory.”

While 50 per cent of the songs on Utopia were written during Ryder’s sojourn in L.A., the rest of them were written in various locales around the globe, including Nashville; London, England; Australia; and Toronto. One new songwriting partner Ryder discovered in the U.K. was John Grant. “I wrote ‘Killing Time’ with him,” she says. “I fell in love with working with John, and I flew him to Toronto a couple of weeks later and we wrote another song called ‘Back to Me.’” Another was Colin MacDonald of The Trews, who ended up becoming her fiancé.

No matter where she writes, one wonders if Ryder follows a set songwriting formula. We ask whether, like recent U.S. Songwriting Hall of Fame inductee Chip Taylor, she gets chills when she knows a song is a keeper.

“It all depends,” she says. “Songwriting is so ethereal to me. I write on real intuition and feeling. When Chip talks about those chills, sometimes that happens to me… sometimes I get melodies in my head, and sometimes someone will say something that sparks a whole other idea.”

Ryder compares that moment before an idea arrives to an artist staring at a blank canvas. “When you have a blank canvas, you have an open invitation to take a color you like and put it on there,” she says. “For me, I play around with melody like it’s one of my favourite colors… I think about how this note tastes on my tongue, what word makes that sound happen and then I’ll write down that word and ask what it means to me… In that moment I’m just like a pre-school kid sitting and playing with their favourite colours.”

AliochaHe popped onto the scene, last fall, with his first EP: an engaging calling card, but one that could have used a few finishing touches. I got the same impression when I saw Aliocha onstage during M for Montréal last November. He was a mix of likeable ingenuousness and genuine enjoyment, yet the project still felt a little wet behind the ears.

Now, Aliocha is on the verge of releasing his first full-length album; in a very short time, his music has matured, his ideas have gelled, and his songs now seem sewn with a common thread. It’s a real pleasure to listen, again and again, to the heavily Dylan-influenced folk offerings – especially “Flash in the Pan” – on Eleven Songs.

Aliocha has just returned from Europe, where he was warmly welcomed. On top of his recording contract with Audiogram, the young Montréal-based, France-born songwriter has also signed with the PIAS label in France, and is still buzzing from his performance at The Great Escape, in Brighton, U.K.

“We’ve come a long way in the past year, I’ve gained a lot of experience since my first show in March of 2016,” says Aliocha. “Right from the get-go, I opened 15 shows for Charlotte Cardin. At first, I acted very mysterious, but now my approach is simpler and more natural, my songs have evolved from one concert to the next.”

But to really move people, Aliocha – whose acting career involves feature roles in movies such as Le Journal d’Aurélie Laflamme 1 and 2, Bon Cop, Bad Cop, Ville-Marie, and, on TV, in Feux and Les jeunes loups – had to shed his acting reflexes. “At first, I was trying to deliver a performance, I was too in control,” he says. “I learned to let go and make room for the music, and the unforeseen. I unveiled myself to the audience, but also to myself, because I had no idea how I’d react.”

“I was approached, and offers were made to me, by a lot of people. Everybody seemed to know which way to go better than I did.”

Music was part of Aliocha’s life very early on. He remembers family road trips with Cat Stevens and Neil Young as the soundtrack. Around the age of 10, he signed up for singing lessons, wanting to follow in the footsteps of his big brother. A few years later, he picked up the guitar. “I would play by myself, in my room, and for a few friends,” he says. Until one day when he met Jean Leloup in a café. Leloup took Aliocha under his wing, and invited him to jam with The Last Assassins. “One thing Jean taught me is the importance of having musicians so that your project can come to fruition,” says Aliocha. Their jam session turned into a recording session for eight demos, that allowed him to sign a record label contract. That’s one generous Leloup!

Another crucial encounter was the one with producer Samy Osta (La Femme, Feu ! Chatterton), with whom Aliocha shares many musical references: The Band, Beck, John Lennon. “I was approached, and offers were made to me, by a lot of people,” says Aliocha. “Everybody seemed to know which way to go better than I did. Then Samy came into my life, took some time to visit in Montréal to get to know me. We talked for a long time before deciding to go ahead. We didn’t know exactly where we wanted to go at first, but we quickly discovered we shared a love of the same flagship albums. Then we worked as a two-person team in studios in Paris and Gothenburg, Sweden.”

They recorded on tape, with vintage guitars, to achieve the modern yet old-time sound that, at its best, yields little gems like “Sarah.”

Aliocha’s third lucky star is the brightest and the one to whom the album is dedicated: Vadim, his big brother, who passed away tragically in a car accident. “He’s the one that introduced me to music,” says Aliocha. “I lost my brother Vadim in 2003, when I was 10, and that’s what drove me to sing. My first songs – “Milky Way,” “As Good As You” – are disguised as love songs, but in truth, they’re for him.

I just can’t believe that you care for me
You know I want to be moved
By the music that has moved you
Talking about your sunny soul,
You know I’ll never be
As good as you…
Everyone, look at the sun

– “As Good As You”

Nowadays, the musical adventure is being written before our eyes, alongside his other brother Volodia, who drums in his band, and younger brother Vassili, a budding photographer – all three of whom share the same characteristic curly blonde locks.

Eleven Songs is released June 2, 2017.  Aliocha will perform at the 2017 Montréal International Jazz Fest on June 29 and 30 at Metropolis’ Savoy Room.

Shawn JobimBorn in Saint-Raymond, Québec (a small town about an hour West of Québec City), where he did his entire primary education in English, Shawn Jobin moved to Sasktatoon in his mid-teens and finished his high school education… in French! “I’m always swimming upstream,” he says proudly.

And rather than letting it drag him down, the young man capitalized on his cultural singularity. After releasing his Tu m’auras pas EP, which addressed his province’s language issues, he won several awards during the Vue sur la relève festival in 2014 and, the next year, was named Best New Artist from Western Canada at the Gala des Prix Trille Or.

The Saskatoon native has covered a lot of ground since then. Far from trying to disown his 2013 production, the young rapper nonetheless wanted to formally distance himself during the creation of Éléphant. “I didn’t want to make a militant, moralistic rap album,” says Jobin. “I’ve been fighting for my rights as a Francophone, and to make a place for myself, every day for the last 10 years. I simply got to a point where I wanted my music to be about something else.”

That, however, was no small feat. With the help of his buddy Mario Lepage, of Saskatchewan indie-rock outfit Ponteix, Jobin explored countless sonic avenues during a period of about two years. “The process was long because we were learning as we went along,” he explains. “We’re good friends, and I think it had an impact on our creativity, because we like to constantly challenge ourselves. But above all, we wanted to allow ourselves to do whatever we pleased – since we’re just starting, and people don’t have any expectations.”

Tinged with jazz, soul, electronic and experimental music, Éléphant is surprising, for the laid-back and eclectic way in which it combines mysterious atmospheres and stunning beats, sometimes to the point of de-construction… even chaos.

At the centre of the album sits a pop-house exploration,  “Danse ta vie,” the most convincing example of the duo’s signature open-mindedness. “It started out as a more brutish Beastie Boys-type number, but once we got to the studio, Sonny Black made us realize we could take it somewhere else,” says Jobin about the man who recorded, mixed and mastered the album. “We decided to stop that session and immediately went back to pre-production. That’s when we found the main melody.”

“I wanted to avoid preaching to people, instead staying in the realm of images and feelings.”

Quite the opposite of that song, an unsettling darkness emanates from the album’s first single, “Fou,” which is exacerbated by the rapper’s disillusioned flow and lyrics. Diagnosed with an anxiety disorder a few years ago, Jobin talks in the song about his anxiety. “It’s a song that may come across as a bit heavy on the surface, but once you consider it as part of a whole, you realize it’s about more than that,” he says. “As a matter of fact, the album exposes anxiety as a daily thing: some days, everything is trash, others everything is fine.”

There are some luminous moments throughout. If he points a finger at his mental illness issues by talking about “the elephant in the room,” Jobin also tries to tame it. “I felt it was my responsibility to deliver a message of hope along with my story in order to avoid coming across as ‘woe is me,’” he says. “I also wanted to avoid preaching to people, instead staying in the realm of images and feelings.”

Feeling like a huge weight has been lifted from his shoulders since the album release, Jobin still doubts and questions the way his work will be perceived. “I wonder if people will get it, or if they’ll think I’m using my issues to sound interesting,” he says. “One thing is clear to me, however: now I talk about it, but after that, I’m moving on. That’s the approach I hope to take throughout my career.”