For Serena Ryder, the title of her new album, Harmony, has real resonance.

“I think my purpose as a singer and musician is to bring all my elements into harmony,” she says. “That’s what this record is totally about. My entire life I have always been all over the map, style- and vocal-wise. People go ‘Pick a style, Serena. You’re going to confuse everybody.’ But to me, it’s like different languages. Pick a language for the world? No. I came to terms with that on this record. If I could only do one thing it might be easier to focus, but I don’t think my purpose in life is to focus.”

“I think my purpose as a singer and musician is to bring all my elements into harmony.” – Serena Ryder

With this record, the multiple facets of Ryder’s personality and eclectic musical influences have coalesced into one compelling whole, and Harmony is being hailed as her breakthrough album. Considering it’s her seventh full-length outing, and that she’s toured internationally for well over a decade, you could term her rather a late bloomer. Her prodigious talent as a singer whose voice routinely induces goosebumps has never been questioned, and her songwriting skills have increased exponentially over the last half-dozen years.

Relaxing over a drink in a favourite west Toronto neighbourhood haunt, Ryder admits agonizing at length over the kind of album she should make. Her early work fell into the folk/roots camp, and she became a folk festival favourite, both here and in Australia. 2006’s If Your Memory Serves You Well brought her a wider audience (its success helped win her a 2008 Best New Artist Juno) via sparkling interpretations of diverse material from The Great Canadian Songbook. 2008’s Is It O.K. leaned towards adult contemporary.

To follow up Is It O.K., Ryder wrote an estimated 65 songs, many with Toronto peers, but on the advice of her manager, Sandy Pandya, she chose another path. “Sandy said that she felt in her gut that I wasn’t ready to make this record and should go a little further,” says Ryder. “When I trust her, everything works out.”

A trip to Los Angeles to scout out collaborators led her to co-producers and co-writers Jon Levine and Jerrod Bettis. Ryder had enjoyed working with Levine (Philosopher Kings, Nelly Furtado) five years previously, but American Bettis was a blind date.

“I met him in Hollywood and that was the beginning of the record,” recalls Ryder. “I had no idea who he was or what he’d done. I came in with my acoustic guitar and a riff, and that’s how we wrote ‘Stompa.’ At his computer Jerrod wrote these crazy drumbeats and we got the track in two hours. I felt the spark, the energy, and the sounds inspired me to write the words. It was instant musical chemistry.”

Harmony’s lead single, the irresistible “Stompa” quickly became a cross-format hit, and at press time had spent seven weeks straight at the Top of the CBC Radio 2 Top 20. The good vibes behind its creation continued when Bettis and Levine oversaw sessions at Ryder’s home studio, The Cottage (originally a two-car garage).

“I’ve wanted my own studio my entire life, where I could create my own music whenever I wanted to,” she explains. “It was the perfect place for me to actually listen to how I was feeling, with no pressure. I am shit under pressure. I start counting on my brain instead of my instincts and emotions. My emotion is where my wisdom is.”

“It feels like I’ve opened the door to a new chapter of my life, and that’s inspiring.”- Serena Ryder

Ryder trusted those instincts, and she couldn’t be happier with the results. “It feels like I’ve opened the door to a new chapter of my life, and that’s inspiring,” she says. “Before, it felt like I had everything mapped out, what my songs would sound like, who I was going to work with. This new map breaks down a lot of genre barriers and walls and allows me to go off and do different things in different styles and with different people.”

She also changed her approach to singing on Harmony. “I got to realize my body knows how to sing differently when I put down my guitar,” she says. “By doing that, I felt I owned my voice more. It belonged more to my vocal than guitar influences.”

There’s a vigorous and vital feel to Harmony, but it hasn’t always been a serene ride for the singer. Ryder has discussed her ongoing struggle with clinical depression with typical candour and honesty, and that openness remains rare for those working in the arts.

“I do think it’s important to talk about it, but also to talk about the good in who you are and that is in your life,” she says. “Depression can grow into this gigantic monster that has a really big voice and is louder than you. Just because you can’t hear your own voice doesn’t mean you’re not there.”

Can songwriting help? “With really severe clinical depression, [even] getting out of bed and saying ‘hello’ is hard to do,” she says. “If you can write a song, you are probably not clinically depressed. You can’t force yourself to do anything when you’re in that situation, but I do think hearing and listening to music can really pull you through certain things.”

As well as pursuing her own career, Ryder loves singing with others. “I’ve always wanted to be like Emmylou Harris, singing on so many people’s records,” she says. Her credits include albums by Blackie and the Rodeo Kings, Tim Chiasson, The Beauties [with whom she recorded a joint vinyl album in 2011], Great Lake Swimmers, Johnny Reid, Jimmy Rankin, and Jerry Leger (on “All Over Again,” a tune the pair recently co-wrote). A 2011 collaboration with fellow vocal powerhouse Melissa Etheridge, “Broken Heart Sun” (a song Ryder co-wrote), was a radio hit, and a joint Canadian tour led to the pair becoming close friends.

As a songwriter, Ryder has been writing extensively with such Toronto peers as Derek Downham (The Beauties), Todor Kobakov, Lindy Vopnfjord and Hill Kourkoutis – now a member of Ryder’s touring band – as well as Montrealer Maia Davies (of Ladies of the Canyon).

Ryder acknowledges that intensive American touring to promote Is It OK took its toll. “It can be totally soul-destroying,” she says, “singing the same songs over again that don’t mean anything to you anymore. I definitely stepped outside myself a little too long when I was on the road. You start to feel there is nobody home inside you, it turns into cobwebs and mould. Luckily I got back inside myself in time, with some internal reno-ing the last couple of years.”

There were high points, though. “I got to tour with David Gray and Ray Lamontagne, and I’m a huge fan of both,” she says. “Getting to play Lilith Fair was a dream come true, from listening to the Lilith compilations at 14. I won a competition to join Lilith Fair when I was 16, but that following year they cancelled the tour!”

Ryder is grateful for the ongoing support of her Canadian audience. “Canada will always be my home,” she says. “I feel so blessed to be from here and have the fans I do here because I feel Canadians aren’t easily impressed. It’s not about the bells and whistles and the hype and who famous likes your music. Canadians have been very loyal. Even though I’ve come out with a totally different-sounding record, I feel like the people who have been with me in the last 10 years are still with me.”

David Giguère started writing his first song sketches at around 13 and he produced an obscure rap album with the help of his drama teacher. Increasingly passionate about acting, he enrolled in a theater diploma at Collège Lionel-Groulx and, in 2008, had a life-changing encounter with a piano. “That was quite an epiphany! The theater classes we quite intense. Just as I was being told what to do and how as an actor, I discovered that magnificent instrument and immediately felt like I needed to write songs devoid of any real structure. I created the rules as I went. I was craving freedom,” remembers the 24 year-old man.

As David was finishing his acting diploma in 2010, his desire to get on stage and play his compositions was becoming increasingly pressing. Accompanied by a few of his musician friends, he made a mark for himself in small venues all over Montréal thanks to his exceptional stage presence. What the budding artist is mainly looking for, once the industry-types start paying attention to him, is attentive ears. While attending Olivier Choinière’s Chante avec moi concert, he met Philippe Brault (Pierre Lapointe). “He told me the best manager in the business was Stéphanie Moffatt. I met with her in a café and we immediately clicked. After that, I kept on working on my album. Then we looked at the various options we could consider. Many labels expressed their interest, but Audiogram had this family vibe that I didn’t feel anywhere else. They granted artists an incredible amount of freedom, and that meant a lot to me. They had ideas and everything I needed to take my project even further and help me reach the goals I set for myself,” explains the young music lover who cites Serge Gainsbourg, Gilbert Bécaud and Jimmy Hunt as some of his favourites.

With the help of Pierre-Philippe Côté (aka Pilou) on production duty, one can say that Giguère was in good company. He rapidly recruited a prestigious ally in Ariane Moffatt, Stéphanie’s sister and a well-established artist in her own right, who came on board as artistic director. “What I love the most about being a musician is all the people I get to meet, and Ariane taught me so much. She was incredibly generous and present at every step of the project, every single day during a month. She came on board when a sizable portion of the preproduction was already complete. What she contributed to my project was an incredible amount of experience. I had questions and concerns and she answered every single one of them. It was great to have an independent opinion that came from the pop realm. There were three of us making decisions throughout the whole process,” he explains.

The results was Hisser haut, his first album launched in January 2012. Halfway between pop and electro, the album seduced the audience with its strong melodies and surprisingly mature lyrics. Entirely composed and written by Giguère, Hisser haut was no walk in the park for him. “I was involved in all the aspects of this project. Whether it’s the album cover – for which I went to a cabin with a graphic designer for a whole week –, the mastering, or the arrangements (with Pilou). It was an incredible amount of work, but it was crucial to me that all of it was as representative as possible of who I am. You know, the themes on Hisser haut are ones that have been with me for quite a while; childhood, naiveté, meeting your soulmate. There were many themes I wanted to address. To tell the truth, this album I my life up to when I was 22,” confides the young man.

After building a small home studio for himself, Giguère will be quite busy in the coming months. He will spend 10 days in Brazil in March where he’ll perform a guitar and electro sounds concert accompanied by his backing vocalist, followed by a few days back at home working on his compositions. Then, in April, he will head out to Korea where he will participate on the song Caligula (remix) by Marc Beaupré. Then it’s on to Vietnam and Laos. “Those travels will no doubt give me material for my next album. Even though right now I don’t have any finished songs, I’d love to record it this summer and release it as soon as possible. I’ve gained a good understanding of how the music biz works in the past year, and I’ve definitely learned from my mistakes. Now, I want things to go my way. I’m in a constant quest for honesty. I don’t want to pretend I’m having fun. I want to really have fun.

One can safely say that creation comes easy to Zachary Richard. To wit, the fact that, in October 2011, the singer-songwriter launched Le fou, his 20th album, a fact that leaves him completely unfazed. “Ten, thirty or twenty thousand records, it doesn’t matter to me. What matters are the emotions they carry.” The man is clearly still very inspired, always on the lookout for words and sounds. As a matter of fact, when we interviewed him, Zachary Richard confessed he was gripped with a writing frenzy at the time. “I wrote to songs in two days. I wake up at night to write the melodies I hear in my dreams. Luckily for me, I’m disciplined enough to wake up and write them down when that happens.”

“I wrote to songs in two days. I wake up at night to write the melodies I hear in my dreams.

Yet, at the heart of this candid confession lies the very core of the creative process of this Louisianian, a process that is comprised of inspiration and hard work. He is diametrically opposed to the cliché of the artist hunched over his writing desk just as anybody with an office job would. He works by letting inspiration come as much from within as from what surrounds us. “The image I like to use to describe the way I work  is that of a seal hunter who waits, harpoon in hand, near a breathing hole. But you have to get on the ice for that. It’s one thing to be on the lookout, but you also need to be in the right place. One of the ways you do this, as an artist, is to have your antennas out, to observe and to feel.”

The first demos for Le fou were recorded in Montreal in the small studio located a few floors down from the condo he shares with the love of his life, Claude Thomas. Zachary Richard has worked this way ever since Cap enragé. It all starts with his guitar and a bit of rhythmic information imparted, preferably, by a human and not a machine. There is a simple reason for this preference. The artist relies on spontaneity to explores a song’s shape. To do this, he relies on his precious creative partner, Nick Petrovski. From there, musicians from Québec and Louisiana are added to the project, old friends who Zachary Richard remains loyal to, as if they allowed the Acadian and American artist to feel anchored despite always being split between Québec and Louisiana. Among the members of this inner circle are drummer Justin Allard, bassist Sylvain Quesnel, guitarists Éric Sauviat and Nicolas Fiszman, as well as pianist David Torkanowsky. Yet, the moment Zachary Richard feels his recording session is slipping back into a comfort zone, he stops everything and hits the road. You see, even though he loves people, the man is a lone wolf who prefers communicating through his music.

Le fou sees the man getting back to his Louisianian roots, which is felt as much in the lyrics as in the melodies. Zachary Richard believes in commitment whether in life or in music. Born in the U.S., he decided to embrace his roots and the diversity if his identity after discovering the melodeon, or diatonic button accordion, in the 70s. Since then, his love of everything Cajun and French, the language of grand-parents, has never stopped growing. He acquired a place in Montreal in 1998 and started using French only in his personal log. To him, the stake is unmistakable: managing to preserve the exotic aspect of Louisianian speak while using a near-perfect yet regionalist French that remains as universally understandable as possible. “Speaking French in North America is defiant, hard-headed. Sometimes, I wonder what I’m doing, because I could have had a very successful career in English… But to me, French is a treasure trove. I take comfort in the fact of going against the grain and resisting the forces of assimilation to preserve the world’s diversity.”

Despite this bias, to Richard commitment does not mean protesting or propagandizing. He prefers the roads of the heart, going back to the simple things that make one want to write a song in the first place. The song entitled “Le fou” is the perfect example of this. “I never put a song to the service of a cause. Les fous de Bassan is obviously a pro-green song that I’m proud to sing, but the inspiration is not to write a song to save the Earth. I was simply moved to tears to see a magnificent bird sullied in the most ignominious way, no longer able to fly because its wings were covered in oil. That’s the emotion at the root of the song, not the cause, which is something that is intellectual. It’s the heart that matters the most to me.”