It’s not too often that Canadian music and the American political world intersect, but when they do the Canadians are certainly beneficiaries. In the olden days (the ‘60s/’70s), caustic commentary was the form it usually took. Gordon Lightfoot’s “Black Day in July,” Neil Young’s “Southern Man” and “Ohio” (with Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young), even The Guess Who’s “American Woman” were all hits – especially if you count Lightfoot’s song being banned in 30 states as a badge of honour. For the Trump Administration, the enduring popularity of the Obamas’ annual Spotify playlists have been a thorn in its side, a playful reminder of the previous president’s popularity and strong connection to younger demographics. Several Canadian artists have found themselves among Barack and Michelle’s favourites over the last five years.

Both Joni Mitchell (“Help Me”) and Leonard Cohen (“Suzanne”) appeared on Barack’s very first playlists (the Summer 2015 Night list) but more contemporary artists have been on his and his wife’s lists in recent years. Drake, of course, has made several appearances, but some lesser-known lights have made the grade as well. This year both Barack and Michelle chose Canadian artists who – including Drake, Shay Lia, Liza (with Carnyval), and Andy Shauf – were both surprised and thrilled to find themselves among the chosen.

The news almost killed Liza. Driving with some friends for a weekend getaway, the singer received a text sharing the scoop. “I was worried about crashing the car because I almost had a panic attack. I’ve loved Michelle Obama since I was about 12,” she says. Her song, “Consistency” with Carnyval, made it onto the former first lady’s Summer 2020 list, as did Shay Lia’s “Good Together.” Andy Shauf’s “Neon Skyline” made it onto Barack’s Summer 2020 list, and previous lists had several written or co-written by SOCAN members, including Drake, Daniel Caesar, Partynextdoor, and T-Minus.

The how and why of being chosen for the lists can only be answered by the Obamas themselves, but Shay Lia thinks the synergy between two popular podcasters helped her make the grade. “It was a combination of many factors,” she theorizes. “My music has been supported many times by The Joe Budden Podcast since last year, and Ms. Obama also happens to have a Spotify podcast, so there was an alignment there. I also think that ‘Good Together’ speaks to some of the values she’s trying to convey in her show – like in the conversation she had with Conan O’Brian, about marriage.”

Through a representative, Andy Shauf shared that he had no idea how President Obama came across his song, but being on the list “Is one of the coolest things to ever happen to me.” While Shauf’s publicist says there was no appreciable bump in sales, both Lia and Liza have noted an uptick, at least in streaming.

As Liza says, “With streaming, there’s always a monetary increase. It’s directly related, so there was that, of course, but it [the honour of being selected] was less about my career and more about myself. Being recognized by someone I looked up to so greatly was very validating.”

“Being recognized by someone I looked up to so greatly was very validating” – Liza

Shay Lia feels much the same way. “As a new artist and as an independent artist,” she says, “I’m totally aware of how hard it is to get attention in the music industry! Having such an incredible opportunity is making me proud. I feel like I’m doing something right, and that I’m going in the right direction… It’s even more flattering when it’s coming from Ms. Obama.  I love her, her values and what she represents as a Black woman of excellence!  I feel incredibly honoured and thankful!”

Lia also points out that a major collateral benefit of being on the playlist is that the increase in publicity, and the resultant higher profile has a significant impact. “I think it helped strengthen my position as an International act,” she says. “The media response has been amazing. It really helped us prepare the roll out for my new EP, Solaris.” Liza concurs: “There was a lot of people covering the actual Michelle Obama playlist, so I got mentioned in a lot of publications I look up to as well. So that was really cool.”

In the end, all politics and international borders aside, being selected by the Obamas is a win-win situation for all involved. As Liza enthuses, “It was definitely the highlight of this year – and potentially, my life!”

“It felt like I was in a bicycle race, leading the pack, and all of sudden I got a stick in my spokes. Clak! I pedalled hard for nothing,” an unfiltered (and still bitter) says Adamo.

AdamoKnown for his modesty and straight talk, two qualities that helped him win the 2017 edition of Occupation Double (OD), this Longueuil, Québec, rapper released his first solo album, Préliminaires SVP, on May 1, 2020 – smack dab in the middle of this endless pandemic’s first wave. The summer lull helped him perform two drive-in concerts, but the man born Adamo Marinacci soon felt his interest in the project was “rather waning,” he says. “I got discouraged because I lost all the cash I had invested. Normally, performing shows would have helped me reimburse all that, but hey… Things could be worse, I could be closing a restaurant right now.”

On May 1 of this year, however, the release of the Préliminaires SVP album was a kind of liberation for this songwriter, who’s been a fixture of the Québec hip-hop scene for the past 15 years. “At that time, I knew I had to release it,” says Adamo. “I’ve always known that I was bound to release a first album somewhere along the line. I didn’t feel pressured, but deep down, I was aware of it. Ditto for my OD victory. In fact, I’ve always been like that, no matter the situation – confident without being cocky. I just know it’s only a matter of time, and that things will eventually materialize.”

The 32-year-old artist was simply waiting, “to have all the tools I needed to make a proper album,” he says. “At the time, I wouldn’t have been ready to release anything serious. I was more interested in hanging out in bars.”

That period coincides with the time he was going by the name of DisaronnO, in reference to an almond liqueur from Italy, his father’s country of origin. His colourful (and highly intoxicated) performances around rap battle leagues, like Word UP! Battles or Emcee Clash, brought him some notoriety on that scene. “That’s where the image of a drunk-ass party animal, who can still perform, came from,” he says, referring to the excellent shows for which he was known, in spite of frequent alcohol-related blackouts. “It feels like I wasn’t serious enough to take that seriously. I couldn’t see what involving myself more deeply could bring me in the long run,” says Adamo.

Previously, DisaronnO had made his mark on Hiphopfranco.com020m smack uin  by accumulating victories in the rap-battle audio of that popular forum. Later on, he felt the need to tackle deeper themes, more or less at the same time as he starting feeling like he ought to do what it takes to fulfill his ambitions. The young rapper then turned to former classmate Dostie, who invited him to his Exceler studio in Longueuil. A collective with the same name was created a few years later, and Adamo eventually made friends with J7, with whom he formed the Gros Big duo. “He and I stood out because of our somewhat crazy punch lines, and our eccentric personalities,” he says. “We were kind of clashing with the other members of the collective, who were more technical and less melodic.”

Then came the somewhat absurd idea of publicizing the duo by having Adamo take part in what was then Québec’s most popular reality show. “J7 registered me,” Adamo recalls. “At first, I was furious! I didn’t want to make an ass of myself in front of the whole province for the sake of our duo! However, when they phoned me to tell me that I’d been selected, I gave it a chance, planning all along to say ‘GROS BIG’ as often as I possibly could in front of the camera for the next two or three weeks. By the way, I almost quit the show before the end.”

The rest is history: the rap community rallied, and Adamo won the final. As anticipated, Gros Big got an impressive boost out of it all. “I’d never thought it could be that big,” says Adamo. “We embarked on a mad tour with a dumb CD! We’d recorded it super-quickly at Dostie’s, and it exploded.”

Then, following a second province-wide tour, both partners felt the need to recover their identities. “Let’s be honest, Gros Big still was a huge folly,” says Adamo. “It was fun, but I needed something more serious. I needed to find my balance.”

Supported by such recognized Quebec producers as Farfadet, Doug St-Louis, and LeMind, who built a pop, trap and R&B-coloured framework, Adamo created the Préliminaires SVP album without asking himself too many questions. “I see this as a kind of training, where I touch on lots of styles. This first album contained my ‘preliminaries’ before officially revving the engine for the second one,” he says.

While admitting to a few commercial trade-offs on that album, “so that it could play on radio and reach the public at large,” Adamo explains that he’s especially comfortable on more percussive tracks such as “Lonely” and “Laisse-les parler,” an introduction that dots the i’s in the wake of his OD participation. “People only see talent when it hits them in the face,” says Adamo. “Personally, I was lucky to have OD, a show that helped many people notice my talent. On the other hand, I’m sure there are some who are jealous, and even bitter, because I’m successful [on account of that]. But it doesn’t really matter to me at this point.”

While waiting for cultural life to resume, Adamo is planning the content and direction of his next album. The songwriting sessions he held at his cottage. with friends like Benny Adam, Rymz, and Mad Rolla (a young pop singer he took under his wing) this past September cheered him right up. “I had to clear my brain,” he says. “I had stopped writing, moving around, or doing anything! At one point, I even wondered if I might not be going through a depression. I still don’t know what’s going to happen with what we’ve been creating over there, but it certainly felt good.”

As usual, Adamo is giving it time.

Rome wasn’t built in a day, and neither was Comment Debord. Founded in 2016, the band took its own sweet time. The time they needed to choose the right notes and lyrics that represented them; the time they needed to learn to appreciate and choose one another. The seven band members have now integrated the Audiogram team as well, and – following the learning experience of the 2018 Les Francouvertes competition – chosen the Fall of 2020 for the release of their first, self-titled, album. All seven of them tackling the same project at the same time.

Comment DebordListening to this album over and over in transit, or quietly at home, one immediately gets the feeling of having been invited to their party. Rémi Gauvin, the band’s frontman and main songwriter, shares moments of life with us while playing his favourite instrument: the metaphor. Simple or layered, his allegories are both poetic and humorous, without ever being disrespectful. He allows us to enter a familiar and welcoming universe, where everything we’re being told is phrased in such a way that it seems we’re hearing it for the first time.

“I’m not afraid to be colourful,” says Gauvin, “but ours isn’t a comedy band. I enjoy being engaged by what I hear, so I do my best to engage other people, too. That’s the main thing, actually. And the range of means you can use to engage people is pretty wide. Laughter is one of them.”

Electric guitar player Karolane Carbonneau (also a member of NOBRO) is part of the grooving base that the band members are developing together. “Rémi brings in the basic compositions,” says Carbonneau. “Sometimes we break into smaller units, but the drummer and bass player [Olivier Cousineau and Étienne Dextraze-Monast] always help us come up with an overall groove.” “Those two are very fastidious,”  Gauvin laughs. “We never quite understand what they’re talking about, we often feel they’re splitting hairs, but we never doubt that they’re giving110 percent.” The other band members are Willis Pride (keyboards), Alex Guimond (voice), and Lisandre Bourdages (percussion).

While other musicians might shiver at the prospect of keeping the peace in a seven-member band, this bunch has never even come close to a disagreement. “It comes from the fact that we weren’t friends to start with,” says Gauvin. “We all are somewhat different despite, being Montréalers, aged between 25 and 32, and living between Pie-IX Boulevard and Saint-Laurent! We picked up people here and there. The affinities came later. In rehearsal, some of us trade love stories, and others share stories about rock climbing.”

“I’m tired of hearing about climbing,” Carbonneau interjects. “I can’t climb because I have eczema, and with a guitar, that’s a no-no,” she laughs. “But, more seriously, all of the songwriting comes from Rémi, and, later on, we give the same importance to all band members, as well as equal opportunities to shine in each song. It’s totally egalitarian.”

Often described as a new-wave Beau Dommage, Comment Debord is deeply rooted in an old-school ‘70s vibe, and loves to construct stories that Québecers can identify with. “Our songs can resonate with 20-year-olds and old Parti Québécois members,” Gauvin laughs. “This is the only band I belong to that my aunt likes,” says Carbonneau.

The album was produced by Warren Spicer (Plants and Animals) – “our eighth member,” she says. He is the musical artist who mixed “Je me trouve laide,” which came out on their 2018 EP, and, this time the band was keen on using his “magical indie touch” again. “He likes organic wine too, so we all loved him right away,” Gauvin jokes. “We really wanted to feel the band spirit, even on the recording. We wanted people to feel that they’re with us in the room when they are listening to it,” says Carbonneau.

“Chasseurs de tournades” (“Storm Chasers”) has been her favorite song ever, since she heard it played for the first time at Le Divan Orange. “I had started swirling to create ‘tournades’ in the concert hall, and started a movement,” she laughs.

“It isn’t as if that song had brought us any luck in competitions,” Gauvin argues. “People didn’t necessarily understand that the mis-spelling of the word ‘tornadoes’ into ‘tournadoes’ had been voluntary, and was meant to reflect the fact that this was how we pronounced that word when we were kids. My former roommate is studying for a doctorate degree in meteorology. He’s not chasing storms, but he’s still chasing weather phenomena. That’s how I got the idea, and I wanted to treat myself and write my favorite kind of song: a ballad. It says that it’s OK to have an argument in a relationship, and that there are ups and downs, but that you have to try harder. Sometimes you’re the worst, and step into a ‘tournado’ with both feet. Chasing storms in Arkansas is exciting, but it’s also not the brightest idea!”

After evolving over time, as musicians and human beings, the band felt ready to sing with a single voice. Their first album is like a mild late summer breeze on a September golden sunset. And how would they want this gift to be enjoyed? “In a car during a long road trip, or wasted on legal weed,” they say.

Either way, but not at the same time.