Stephen “Koz” Kozmeniuk has made some of the biggest pop hits of the last decade, particularly via his extensive work with Dermot Kennedy and Dua Lipa – his work with the latter was nominated for three Grammy Awards in 2021. He also worked on Kendrick Lamar’s “The Blacker the Berry,” from the landmark 2016 album To Pimp a Butterfly. He’s worked extensively with star producer Boi-1da. His credits include songs recorded and released by Nicki Minaj (“Up in Flames”) and The Game, featuring Kanye West and Common (“Jesus Piece”). In 2022, he earned the SOCAN Award for Songwriter of the Year – Producer.

Koz has seen the inside of the star-maker machine. And he wants out.

“I feel like an outsider in the pop-industrial complex, this machine that is so screwed up,” says the Whitehorse-born producer, in his Toronto home. “I watch it wrap its tentacles around people, and the way they think they have to work. It’s so fundamentally wrong to me.”

He’s talking about the demands placed on artists, songwriters, and producers in the age of streaming metrics and social media, about the compulsion to endlessly produce “content” for a system that’s increasingly becoming pay-to-play: boosted posts, streaming bots, etc. That’s before we even start talking about the potential effects of artificial intelligence (AI) on the music industry.

It all, he says, “contributes to why people don’t care about music now. It’s clear to me that people listening don’t care, and the people making it don’t care,” says the 41-year-old musician. “I don’t know if people at labels even like music. Of course there are people who love music and are doing great stuff, but as a system, it’s made people almost hate music.”

Koz’s latest project is with The Flints, identical twin brothers from Manchester, a Phoenix-esque pop act. “[They] have it all: amazing singers, virtuoso musicians, cool as f—,” he says. “They’re amazing live. They work harder than anybody. It felt so good. I was, like, how does nobody see this?” The Flints have released a series of singles and EPs, and aren’t signed to a label. Koz doesn’t see why they should bother. “It can help you,” he says, “but I’ve also seen it completely tangle you up – more often than not. Then you can’t even release music.”

Kozmeniuk’s career began with a band called Boy, who were signed to Maple Music in 2004 and placed on all the right bills: opening for Broken Social Scene, The Dears, and other era-defining acts. After watching Arcade Fire’s Win Butler perform in Japan, Kozmeniuk realized that he wasn’t cut out for that role. “That messed up my brain,” he laughs. “[He] had confidence, and I didn’t. If you don’t ooze that stuff, don’t do it. It was a good lesson.” He started writing ad jingles, and then bought a ticket to Sweden to start working in that country’s competitive music industry.

The Flints, Different Drum, Koz, Stephen Kozmeniuk

Click on the image to play The Flints video “Different Drum”

It was there that he realized he had an edge up on other writers, producers and engineers: Koz could actually play instruments. “A lot of producers don’t play,” he says. “They can program beats, which is fine – it is what it is. But it was crazy to go into a studio with people who are at the top of their game, and they literally couldn’t play a note. That should be a bare minimum before going into the studio.” Of course, some legendary producers are known just for their ear. “Oh, 100 percent,” he says. “Look at guys like Clive Davis. I don’t even know if Jimmy Iovine plays. Rick Rubin just chills: breezes in and peaces out. I was in the studio with him once; he showed up briefly, wrote a couple of things down and left. Whereas for me, making music is the only fun part of this job.”

Koz moved back to Toronto in 2010, in part for love, but also because his Swedish work visa had run out. New York or L.A. was not an option for a guy raised in a northern town of 20,000 people – even though his first big break was working on a Madonna track for her MDNA album where he got a co-writing credit. “My first 10, 15 trips to L.A. were the darkest times I’d ever had,” he says.

Toronto wasn’t a retreat, though. Far from it. In 2012 he had his first radio hit, with Tyler Shaw’s “Kiss Goodnight.” More importantly, this was the dawn of the Drake/Weeknd era, and the city was becoming a global pop hotbed of songwriters and music producers. That’s how Dua Lipa ended up in Toronto, where she was introduced to Koz, and they clicked immediately. The first song they did together, “Last Dance,” became the template for her career.

“Her voice is so distinct,” he says. “When you hear it, you know it’s her. That’s half the battle: same with Drake and The Weeknd, you know it’s them right away. A sonic fingerprint. On [Dua Lipa’s 2020 single] ‘Levitating,’ that’s her demo vocals. We re-cut the vocals several times, but they were never better than the original raw demo. And the tracks are mostly played [as opposed to programmed]. We didn’t iron out the fun.”

For a guy who’s worked with one of the biggest radio stars of the last decade, he has trouble tuning in. “Everything is way too shiny right now,” says Koz. “It’s so rounded, so perfect, tuned to oblivion. It feels like razor blades, like a robot, no personality. The thing is, a lot of those people can sing, so why are we tuning this?”

He’s looking forward to pushback against tech. “AI will take a huge chunk out of the business, so instead of trying to compete with that, just go human! Why can’t it be raw?” he asks. “It’s okay for it to be messy. I think people are looking for more, and the business doesn’t really understand that. Like Dermot Kennedy. His shows are insane: 20,000, 40,000; he just played Red Rocks. Yet, he doesn’t have any radio songs. That, to me, is exciting. That’s how you do it. The idea of superstardom might not happen like it used to. It’ll be niches, and I’m cool with that.”

To recognize Black History Month in 2023, SOCAN asked several of our Black members to write a piece about whatever they choose. Here’s what R&B/hip-hop singer-songwriter TOBi has to say.

“Black history, Black future.”

When I first said these words last year, I said them in a freestyle, and it signaled a paradigm shift in how I’d like to start thinking about Black History Month. Re-imagining old paradigms in a new context is a part of the job. An interesting part about being a Black artist is that your skin colour is an ongoing conversation in relation to your art. You can choose to engage with it or not, but it will show up. People will challenge your style of music, your accent, your tone, your hair, your look, the validity of your perspective on a certain topic, or your lack of perspective. Being too Black, or not Black enough. These questions/criticisms will likely land your way and you should stand unshaken, because you are a valid expression of who you want to be, as you are.

The conversation about race will either cause discomfort, heal our wounds, or fly over the heads of those who don’t care to see its value. We see all these possibilities play out on a daily basis via in-person and online conversations. Some people opine that we collectively move on as a society and live in a “post-racial” world, yet are often quiet when asked to describe what this world would look like.

Does it look like rebuilding the prosperous Black neighbourhood Greenwood in Tulsa, Oklahoma, which was burned down in 1921 by a violent white mob? Would making amends look like providing the residents’ descendants with the equivalent in resources and infrastructure, adjusted for in today’s dollars?

In Canada, what about the descendants of the residents of Africville? It was a predominantly Black village that was neglected, disrespected and ultimately destroyed by the city of Halifax. Does it look like a settlement for its residents’ descendants, adjusted for inflation? It’s a story that I wish more Canadians were familiar with, as we often forget the incidents that took place in our own backyard. Would including these historical facts in our children’s history books be welcomed, or incite rage and dissidence?

Most folks reason that a “post-racial” world means letting bygones be bygones. If the present is an overall accumulation of actions of the past, how do we posit a better future without intentional and actionable solutions?

As a Black musician, I often think about the body I represent in a post-colonial landscape. With a Yoruba name and identity, I represent a tribe that has representation in almost every corner of the globe, either via the slave trade, or more recently, through migration. After visiting Cuba a couple of years ago, I was awestruck to see the Yoruba spiritual system and deities (Orishas) that have been discarded in my home country of Nigeria, actually celebrated with respect and reverence. A remnant of colonialism, which may not matter to  more than 99% of the world, but it does to me. And that’s why art matters, for every child, or inner child, that has felt under-represented during their lives. Our existence is resistance. I will double down and assert that my name TOBi, means “Great” in the Yoruba language and is not a shorthand for Tobias, nor is it in any way associated with the Toby name forced unto the character Kunta Kinte in the movie Roots.

Being a Black musician means having an awareness of how your art has an impact on your  audience, your sense of self, and your community. It means some youth will look at you as a role model for the mere fact of visible representation. It means standing firm in your skin, because Blackness is not a monolith, and the experiences are as vast and boundless as the universe itself. Even within the individual there are multitudes. Being a Black musician means carrying on the legacy of Black music in your art. Because music has always been a space to express culture, and identity, it’s almost impossible for a Black artist to not engage with the socio-political aspects of it. Whether consciously or unconsciously. Whether it’s in a space such as hip-hop, R&B, or reggae, that traditionally offers more Black representation, or in the pop world, that historically doesn’t. It’s easier for a Black artist to blend in a genre that historically has artists that look like them, so as to not feel like an outlier, but with that comes forging a distinct lane so as to not be confused with others, to a mainstream audience. Conversely, to be a Black artist in a genre like pop, folk, or country, may elicit feelings of imposter syndrome, or conversations of tokenism, which I’ve heard from my peers.

Where do we go in the Black futures timeline? It’s scary to think we live in an age where the most fringe theories can find a welcome home in the darkest corners of the internet. Where there’s an increase in Holocaust deniers and a rise in anti-semitism. In an age where critical race theory is being challenged in school curricula as being untrue, I think it’s more important now than ever for our society to come together in dialogue. To reduce the fragmentation of thought and engage with Black artists from cultures of which we may have a limited understanding. The present wouldn’t be as beautiful were it not for the contributions of Black artists, and the future is dependent on the support for these artists in the present moment. A future that we want for our children is one that we all have an active hand in shaping together, in the present.

Exactly six years after La grande nuit vidéo, Philippe B is releasing Nouvelle administration, an album on which he’s recognizable in every story and melody –  or just about. The singer-songwriter is back with everything people always loved about him: a malleable, fictionalized “self,” in which one ends up seeing one’s true self, at some level.

Philippe B, Charlotte Rainville“I love the irony of a restauant that changes owners, and you can read the large sign that says Under New Ownership, but the soup continues to be made by the same dude,” says Philippe B, explaining the title of his second album. The restaurant’s menu hasn’t changed through his entire life; what’s changed is life itself. Becoming a father a year before the start of the pandemic, Mr. B wrote all of the words and music of Nouvelle administration inside a new family dynamic, one that modified the album’s main theme.

“This album is about Philippe B writing in the style of Philippe B during the pandemic,’ he says. “I wasn’t trying to re-invent myself, but instead [I was] in the process of checking whether I still existed.” The similarities between the new and the old pieces were reassuring in the context of isolation. “The fact that my character, i.e. myself, had changed after becoming a dad was renewal enough for me,” says B. “Those are songs that say something more, and I managed to control my normalcy.”

As the boss of the new administration, B built everything himself. Guido del Fabro (violins), Émilie Laforest (voice), José Major (drums) and, in this case, Philippe Brault (bass) join the singer-songwriter, who takes care of the arrangements, mixing, and production. “It was the first time I was also looking after the mixing,”he says. “Guido was my second ear for everything. He came along rather late in the process, but I gave him that responsibility. He can adjust the frequecencies, and the arrangements, and the words, all at once. Above all, he knows me inside-out.”

Becoming a parent can change a life, and that change can be felt throughout the album. “For a long time, we were stuck in a place where I meant me, and you meant my girlfriend, or some other character,” says B. “But since my daughter was born, we is a threesome, and you is a duo.” That’s the case with ‘Les filles,’ a song depicting the whole range of anguishing thoughts, large and small, that can haunt a vulnerable man, who realizes the possible pain that he might inflict on the very people he’s trying to protect.

Philippe B. Marianne S'ennuie

Click on the image to play the Philippe B video “Marianne s’ennuie”

Outside of his personal life story, two stories took shape in spite of the fact that they’re not being “played” by his character: “Marianne s’ennuie” and “Souterrain.” In the first one, B chooses to tackle the idea of polyamorous love, and all the possibilities that lie behind the “love” concept.

“The chosen name is Marianne, Leonard Cohen’s girlfriend,” says B, adding that he didn’t want to shape this story too clearly, either. “I wonder how Marianne would have faced that sort of aggressiveness today,” he says. “She was Cohen’s muse, and their long-distance love had several peculiarities, although in the end the pretty things that one heard in the songs all came from him. I acted as if, for once, one were passing the mic to her.”

The story of “Souterrain” was written in the peculiar ambience of Sophie Dupuis’ 2020 film. “To keep my brain active during the pandemic, my record company offered me, and some others, a project that represented a false order, as if we had to write a song that would be the film’s credit,” says B.

Nouvelle administration took its time coming out, and many other songs of the album took life multiple times. “I would write them, and allow enough time for me to forget about them,” says B, “before coming back to them, re-discovering them, and making sure I still liked them.” He adds that he’d adopted a creative process that made him feel “more lonely than ever before.”

At the end of the album, “L’ère du verseau” brings a conclusion to the 10 stories – unrelated ones, in spite of the songwriter’s intention of wanting to stick to his main theme of fatherhood. “Talking about your new family is a nice thing, but turning it into songs sounds a bit cheesy,” says B with a laugh. “I also wanted to make sure that a guy who has zero children could come up with his own interpretation. I wanted to go back to Philippe the chameleon, who can be just about anybody. I think, or least I hope, it worked.”