Montréal band Suuns’ fourth album represents a turning point in the band’s approach of writing and recording an album, and assembling its sonic elements, which were created in a “closed committee,” without the help of a producer. It was also developed with a much greater level of spontaneity. The result is a vivid and lively album “not unlike a mixtape,” says drummer Liam O’Neil, speaking with us about about bells, team spirit, and the late Jaki Liebezeit, before embarking on the European leg of the band’s tour.

SuunsFelt doesn’t open with a bang, but rather, with a ding-dong. A concert of church bells, as it were, introduces the highly visceral “Look No Further.” One could hardly get any more “Montréal” than that. Yet those bells were recorded in Graz, Austria. “The funny thing is, I’m the one who recorded those with my iPhone,” says O’Neil. “We’d just finished our sound-check, and when we stepped out of the venue, all those bells were ringing, as if giving a concert. It lasted for almost an hour.”

This reference to the “city of a hundred steeples”, a moniker some attribute to Mark Twain during a visit to Montréal in 1888, is totally fortuitous, the drummer assures us. “But I’m glad you made the connection,” he says. “This album was made in the spirit of sound collages, by splicing together various recorded tracks and studio experiments, as well as stuff found on YouTube, and other miscellaneous stuff we had on our phones. If you listen carefully, there’s a whole lot of those, all over the record.”

Therein lies Felt’s “mixtape” spirit, according to O’Neil. “Well, not a mixtape as known in the hip-hop world,” he says. “I don’t think anyone who listens to Felt feels like they’re listening to an actual mixtape. It’s more like an experimental rock record. What I associate with a mixtape, in this case, is the somewhat incongruous nature of the hand-made collage of found material. That said, we do listen to a lot of rap, even the biggest current hits. What I’ve noticed is that they go through a wide array of emotions, sounds and grooves.” Not unlike the colourful Felt, which seems to represent a turning point for this band, one that’s often deemed austere and cold, hence the “goth” label some have given it.

For the recording process of the first three albums, the quartet rehearsed the songs in the studio until they were exactly as the band wanted them, before committing them to tape, “which usually took about five or six days,” says O’Neil. “This time around, we recorded over five or six sessions that each lasted several days, in what I call our ‘home studio’, Breakglass Studio.” Singer and guitarist Ben Shemie is the main songwriter, inasmuch as he’s the one who sows the seeds of a song in his bandmates’ minds. “A theme, a melody,” says O’Neil. “We build upon that, we expand the scope of that idea. The lyrics generally come after the music is complete.”

Without any specific game plan to start with, the four musicians let themselves be guided by the moment, “to record demos for the next album and see where that would take us,” says O’Neil. “We intended to hire a producer to guide us, but everything was flowing so smoothly that by the third or fourth session, the album just materialized. That was it. It fit with our notion, with the ethos, of a mixtape that reveals itself; just the four of us in the studio working with whatever we have.” The previous album’s producer, John Congleton – who’s worked with such luminaries as Angel Olsen, St. Vincent, Erykah Badu, and The War on Drugs, among many more – was tapped at the tail end of the sessions, not as a producer, but as a mixing engineer. ‘He came to Montréal and wrapped everything in four days,” says O’Neil.

Felt gives off a certain nervous energy, thanks to its eclectic sound collages, abrupt rhythmic changes, and very tense main thread, alternating between calm, minimalist grooves and rhythmic explosions. “We spent a large part of our career being perceived as a ‘serious’ band,” says O’Neil. “Yet seeing us live is a very entertaining experience, and in some ways, this album is closer to what we give people in concert: it’s more varied and fun.”

As a matter of fact, Suuns has set a rule for itself that the band tries to respect on each album: don’t overload the composition, and ensure each track, each detail, will be playable by the four musicians on stage. “That’s what attracted me when I started working with this band [around 2009],” says O’Neil. “This feeling I’d be able to explore different musical avenues, to experiment. Our musical range is extremely wide.”

This is very much in line with one of the band’s heroes and influences, the late, great drummer Jaki Liebezeit, a founding member of German combo Can, who passed away last year. “I discovered his work at a time where being in a rock group was starting to sound corny and uncool,” says O’Neil. “The John Bonham [Led Zeppelin] style of drumming just wasn’t me… I discovered Jaki at the same time as I did Mick Fleetwood who, in my opinion, has a similar sound. There’s something haunting about the way they play. And thanks to Jaki, all of a sudden I understood that it’s possible to mix rock drumming and electronic sounds. I could now imagine playing with a rock group without it sounding like ‘big rock,’ by playing in a modern way.”

Elijah Will still remembers the first time he wrote a song. His mom provided him with “one of those bendable mics from the dollar store,” he says, and he teamed up with his best friend and younger brother to form a hip-hop group called The Triple Threat. In that song, “Living in the Maritimes,” he gives a shout-out to fellow Nova Scotian artist Classified. Little did he know, then, that the rapper would later become an instrumental player in his rise to fame.

In 2014, a songwriting session at The Gordie Sampson Songcamp resulted in a co-write for Will that was sent to Classified, who quickly responded by inviting Will to join him in the studio to record vocals on his self-titled album. “We’ve been working together ever since, and I’m grateful every day for it,” says Will. He’s now become the first artist signed to Classified’s newly re-launched record label, Halflife Records. Earlier this year, Will released his debut EP 3am, a collection of R&B-infused pop songs that show off his penchant for penning infectious hooks, like those in the moody title track, or the upbeat funk of “Like a Fool.”

And that’s only the beginning. Will is currently working on more new music, and says he’s planning a big tour in the fall of 2018. Most importantly, he hopes to continue learning from Classified, from whom he’s already taken some valuable lessons. “He taught me to be hungry for it,” Will explains, citing Classified’s work ethic. “He’s always been there to motivate me and show me where I need to be, if I was ever to fall off. Working on this EP, and being around him, has really inspired me to be better.”

His name is Prince. He is not funky.

Far from it. The somber singer-songwriter William Prince leads listeners into his quiet, quotidian reflections and character portraits with his beckoning baritone. Un-funkiness aside, he was recently featured alongside R&B star SZA in a recent Mastercard ad campaign, a spot that ran during the 2018 Grammy broadcast and the Super Bowl. It was a huge profile boost for the Winnipeg artist, who was already pleased with a glowing endorsement from Bruce Cockburn, after Prince performed the legend’s “Stolen Land” at the Canadian Songwriters Hall of Fame gala at Massey Hall last September. (Former fellow Winnipegger Neil Young also had some kind words.)

Hanging out with SZA and Bruce Cockburn might seem odd on the surface. But Prince now keeps company with similarly strange bedfellows on his brand new record label, Glassnote Records, which is also home to Mumford and Sons, Childish Gambino, and Phoenix. There, William Prince is just another square peg on a roster full of them – including Canadians Half Moon Run, The Strumbellas, and Justin Nozuka.

How did the humble, 32-year-old country singer, who took 10 years to make his debut album, end up here?

William Prince was born in Selkirk, Manitoba, and, as a boy, moved with his family two hours north to Peguis First Nation. There, he watched his father preach and sing in the local church; Prince soon joined him on electric guitar. Rock and grunge bands with high school buddies came and went, before Prince was drawn to the simplicity and mobility of the acoustic guitar.

“I tried to sing,” admits the baritone. “I felt pressure to sing in higher registers, and I was just terrible. I went through a screamo phase; I wasn’t cool enough to pull it off. But it was fun, just figuring out everything you love about music – learning Metallica chops and then applying that to acoustic guitar. My guitar was my life for a couple of years; I was a better musician at 17 than I am now.”

Early attempts at recording a debut album fizzled for a variety of reasons. In hindsight, Prince is just fine with that. “I’m not just stumbling upon my first good songs,” he says, now that his 2015 debut Earthly Days is being readied for a re-issue on a much grander scale than its modest beginnings. “Who cares what 20-year-old me had to say? I didn’t want to have to go through three or four albums before getting to the place where I show people my best. You only get one chance to make a first impression.”

That it does. Earthly Days is a stark, sparse record, rich in narrative detail. The focus is primarily on Prince’s narratives, which include character portraits like “The Carny,” “Bodyguard & the Beer Girl,” and a song written about his father, “Eddy Boy.” It’s a confident, self-assured recording. Prince credits producer Scott Nolan for enabling the songwriter to keep tempos slow and the voice low.

“I’ve worked so hard to just be a songwriter. If I were to come out of the gate swinging those issues hard, that might trap me in a zone that’s hard to get out of.”

“We’re creating a feeling, capturing a mood,” says Prince. “He gave me the confidence to use my voice to fill the bottom end when I don’t have a bass player and kick drum. To let my words draw people in and keep them there. I had all these things I didn’t see, because I was trying to fit in with everyone else – who doesn’t want to fit in, when you’re insecure? So we did these songs the way I felt most comfortable, and the way Scott encouraged, and it worked.”

Surely now that he’ll have to continue promoting what is currently a three-year-old album –  with a re-recording of the song “Breathless,” cut in Nashville with Dave Cobb – he must be sick of these songs by now? “No, that was the intention: to write songs I won’t get sick of,” he counters. “I want to be in my Leonard Cohen years and still be playing stuff from that record. And now people know those songs, they recognize the opening chords and start cheering – that’s the kind of thing songwriters dream of.”

Meanwhile, writing is a constant activity for Prince; he feels more than prepared to start making his second record, which he’s doing in April of 2018.  He’s also allowing for some last-minute future classics: after all, “The Carny” and “Earthly Days” came to him just before entering the studio in 2015. And because his Glassnote deal includes publishing, he’s itching to place his songs with other singers.

“There were a lot of years there where all I was doing was writing country songs and hoping to get them to somebody,” says the former morning host on a Winnipeg country station. “I don’t mind writing about beautiful skies, and how much you love somebody. There’s no condemning those things in the bro-country world. Some of it isn’t for me, but every so often I hear a song I can get on board with.”

In September 2017, Prince and Inuk singer Elisapie Isaac performed Bruce Cockburn’s “Stolen Land” in front of the man himself at the Canadian Songwriters Hall of Fame presentation at Massey Hall. It’s not a song that fits in with Prince’s oeuvre: there’s nary a political sentiment to be heard on Earthly Days. That might change, says the descendant of Ojibwe WWII hero Tommy Prince, but not anytime soon – despite the fact he says he is as shaken as everyone else by recent verdicts in the Colten Boushie and Tina Fontaine cases.

“There are people looking to me, saying, ‘You should write a song about residential schools,’ or, ‘You should write a song about injustice, because you’re one of us,’” says Prince,  whose album lost the 2017 Juno for Indigenous Album of the Year, but won the in the Contemporary Roots category. “I understand that. Those people are going through a real loss right now. But it’s not the time for me to do that. That’s a song I’ll write 10 years from now, when we need help remembering. Right now, it’s every pulse and every ache for some people.

“I’ve been trying to get to a point where people just listen to me,” says Prince. “When I formulate that audience, then I can say, ‘Look guys, there are also these other things we need to talk about.’ That will be the point to bring it to them, in a place that will do a lot of good because it will come from a place of love, not of scorning or anger or disappointment – even though there are days when I feel that. There’s no elephant in the room I’m avoiding. I’m just waiting.  I’ve worked so hard to just be a songwriter. If I were to come out of the gate swinging those issues hard, that might trap me in a zone that’s hard to get out of.”

Similarly, Cockburn is someone who grew into his political role before spending the rest of his career writing lyrics that oscillated between being broad and being very specific. “Oh, for sure, and I love that about him,” says Prince. “I think about how many albums he’s done – which is what, 27 or something? Here we are talking about me: ‘Oh, this is your second album? How cute.’ I’m hoping I have a 20-album catalogue by the time I start slowing down.”