Sylvain Cossette isn’t about to take a break just because he’s sold more than a million albums. “I see each new achievement as one more ‘step’ on my professional ladder,” says the guitarist and singer-songwriter as he looks back on a 25-year career bookended by the creation of the Anglophone band Paradox in the late 1980s and the release, in October 2014, of Accords, an album of original Francophone compositions.

Over time, this pure, self-taught artist added strings to his guitar and matured into a seasoned songwriter. “Comme l’océan, my 1994 album, marked the beginning of my solo adventure,” the musician recalls. “It was a turning point. I had started writing and composing more or less by accident, and my onstage introduction of “Tu reviendras” (“You’ll Be Back”), my very first self-penned song, was so tentative that the audience might have thought I was ashamed of it. Yet it went on to be included in the ADISQ Awards’ list of the 10 most popular songs of 1994, and won a SOCAN Award the following year. That encouraged me to write more songs.”

“I felt the need to perform more intimate, acoustic shows in the smaller venues I visited many years ago.”

Later on, Blanc (1996), a collection of original songs, remained on the Top 50 album chart for 50 weeks. “It was a revelation to me,” admits Cossette, who went on to consolidate his reputation as a songwriter and virtuoso singer with his stirring performance of “Que je t’aime” (“How I Love You”) on the self-produced and self-arranged Humain album, as well as with his role in 250 performances of the Notre-Dame-de-Paris rock opera, the Rendez-vous album, the Dracula musical, the writing of the Les 7 musical tale, his work on Andrée Watters’ albums and, more recently, the phenomenal success of his “Best of the ‘70s” series, with three CD releases and promotional tours.

Now the time has come for a simpler, more introspective career phase for the immensely popular artist: “After spending 12 years on the road with a 53-foot truck, and performing in Québec’s most prestigious venues with state-of-the-art equipment, I felt the need to perform more intimate, acoustic shows in the smaller venues I visited many years ago, like Québec’s Petit Champlain or Montreal’s Gesù Theatre. My Rétrospective piano-and-voice album, which I released last year, helped me make the transition between the ‘mad supershows’ of many years and what’s shaping up. My audiences often told me they wanted to her me perform my own songs again, and I heard them.”

Songwriting comes easily to Cossette, who explains that “it’s as if I have songs in my mind that are begging to come out. Channels seem to open up, and music and lyrics often align themselves in a couple of hours. I’m 51,” the road-weary performer adds, “and as I get older, I feel the need to simplify instead of accumulating. I’ve discovered the Pareto principle, the 80-20 rule. And I asked myself if I was willing to spend 80% of my time with the 20 people out of 100 who are my true friends. Now I avoid situations that lead nowhere, and I spend more time with the people who really matter – my children, my girlfriend, those who are close to me. This is more or less the theme of Accords. At 18, you’re running all the time. Then, you slow down, you can see better, you have a need to be at peace with yourself, with nature and with the world. You stop punishing yourself for past mistakes. You’re in a better place. There’s a feeling of serenity about this. Today, I make harmonious choices. In ‘Qu’adviendra-t-il de nous?’ [‘What Will Become of Us?’], I express my desire to go forward, to bite into life in spite of the fact that, one day, ‘everything will be gone.’ In ‘Notre monde’ (‘Our World’), I talk about a desire to use country roads instead of the highway the better to enjoy the company of your travelling companion.”

True to his musical roots, Cossette, on his brand new album, mostly uses guitars (of which he has acquired an impressive collection over the years) to express his moods using various folk, rock or ballad-like sounds. Locked away in his studio, he did almost everything himself – from instrumental tracks to voice, harmonies, arrangements and production – before handing the result to his guitarist and colleague Matt Laurent before the final mix. The recording was produced by S7, Cossette’s own production company.

Following an Accords fall promotional tour, the Cossette clan was planning a January 2015 series of small-scale, intimate shows featuring Matt Laurent and Martin Héon on guitars, Sébastien Langlois on drums and piano, Andrée Watters, and Cossette’s daughters Élisabeth, 23, on voice and bass and Judith, 24, who’ll be handling still and video cameras as part of a book she’s writing on her father’s career. The family that plays together, stays together.

It was a hit for both shock-rocker Alice Cooper and folksinger Judy Collins, charting in the U.S., the U.K., across Europe and in Australia in the ‘60s and ‘70s. And it was written by Canadian guitarist Rolf Kempf, who continues to record and perform in and around Vancouver. Alice first heard “Hello, Hurray” through his producer, Bob Ezrin, who met Kempf at a Toronto party. With Cooper’s version of the song appearing prominently this past summer in the latest X-Men blockbuster and the documentary Super Duper Alice Cooper, Kempf reflects on how “Hello Hooray” came to be.

How did you get from playing Hamilton coffee houses to writing songs in Los Angeles in the ‘60s?
I was at McMaster University studying English, hanging around with these guys, Dave Morrow and Renny Heard. We played Lovin’ Spoonful and Byrds and a bit of Beatles. And we recruited Dennis Murphy, who later made his name as a producer. We were called Colonel Popcorn’s Butter Band, and we got as far as playing Yorkville in Toronto for about a week. Syd Kessler, who became a big jingles guy, became our manager. He had a contact in Los Angeles – a producer of bubblegum – and much as we bridled at the thought, Syd was very persuasive, and bought a car, and we headed for the border. At our first meeting with the producer in L.A. Dennis got into a fistfight on the guy’s desk. It did not end well.

Is it true you wrote “Hello Hooray” on a borrowed guitar sitting by a pool in Laurel Canyon?
Yes. A girl I had been staying with was really into Eastern mysticism, which was very much in the air at the time. And do you know that second Doors album? Strange Days? The one with the circus people on the cover? That’s kind of the vibe that was floating in my head, a kind of carnival atmosphere. I went down to the pool one day with a joint and a guitar and that’s what came out.

And this is the house where you played it for Judy Collins?
She came to the house, yes. At that time, Judy Collins wanted to go more rock, so when I played her all my songs she was very polite and listened but then asked me, “What else you got?” So I said, “I just wrote this thing” and she liked it right away. But she didn’t really “get” it. She thought “second son” was about the birth of a child but I was writing about the rebirth of man. But who am I to complain? It was a hit and got a publishing deal with Elektra from it.

What about Alice Cooper’s interpretation? Because like Judy he also changed lyrics. But his is a rather theatrical version, which sounds like it was closer to your original intent.
Alice really got it. He made the song better and stronger, more bombastic.  His outro, “I feel so strong,” I think is perfect for the tune. He also made it shorter. Mine was over five minutes long and Alice made it just over three, which was an important factor in having a radio hit, even in the ‘70s. The thing is, “Hello Hooray” was never meant to be a hit. I wrote it when I didn’t really know how to write songs. I just put different segments together and they fit.

Is having one song that is so well known than anything else you’ve done more of a blessing or a curse?
It’s more of a curse. Alice Cooper’s version was so popular at a time when I was still an acoustic guitar player playing acoustic venues, and they hated Alice Cooper. I couldn’t even do the tune at my own gigs!

Alice continues to perform the song live. What about you?
Recently I have performed it at the Paralympic Games in Vancouver and the B.C. Disability Games. It’s a great song for athletic events,actually. I’m 67 now and I’m technically retired, but I don’t even want to [be]. I feel like I’m better now than I’ve ever been.

“I try not to think,” xSDTRK says of songwriting.  But the Montreal songwriter-producer-artist, whose credits include Jennifer Lopez, Jessie J, Karl Wolf, Ricky J and Jessie Labelle, puts a lot of thought into making progress.

“A few years ago, I stopped producing to song-write, to understand the concept of the song and really sit in the songwriter’s chair,” he says, “and then I slowly found myself [going] into producing again.”

“If I sit down to do something that doesn’t push forward then I may as well not do it.”

His production and writing credits continue to grow – including recent tracks for Jennifer Lopez – but he’s also just dropped his own EP, Canvas. He sings on a few of the songs. One cut, “PowDer,” a sultry atmospheric track featuring Thes on vocals, came out last June.

xSDTRK – whose given name is Yonatan Ayal – is not expecting radio play or an Anglophone Song of the Year Award like the one he received at the Francophone edition of the 2011 SOCAN Awards for Ricky J’s “Whatta Night.”

“It’s not so song-based. It’s more production-heavy,” he says of his own material. “It’s kind of free-form. It comes back to the same thing of not thinking about it too much. Me locked in my basement, just trying to create a linear immersive experience.  Some people will define it as trippy; I think it’s just audio cinema.”

Ayal’s parents gave him until he was 25 to make a go of a music career. He made it. He’s 25.  He had studied piano with the Royal Conservatory since the age of three, and could get around playing most instruments. Then in his teens he started making beats “by necessity,” for some high school friends who were rapping.

“I picked up the DAW [digital audio workstation] and just started going at it,” he says. “It slowly evolved into what it is today.” Using Abelton and ProTools, Ayal focuses on making quirky beats that push boundaries, “because if I sit down to do something that doesn’t push forward then I may as well not do it,” he says.

His work on Karl Wolf’s “Yala Habibi” was the song that opened doors.  “That really introduced me to the Canadian industry and then I moved on to the United States a few years later,” he says. A major leg up was an invitation from Leon “Roccstar” Youngblood to participate in his songwriting camp for JLo, which yielded “Acting Like That” (feat. Iggy Azalea) and “So Good,” on her recent A.K.A. album.

“I don’t believe in luck,” Ayal says. “I just calculate what it takes to get to a certain point. The only thing I can control is my education and making sure that I keep getting better.”

Track Record

  • Earned 2011 JUNO Award  nomination for R&B/Soul Recording of the Year, for his co-write with Karl Wolf, “Nightlife”
  • xSDTRK co-writes,  Karl Wolf’s “Yalla Habibi” and Ricky J’s “Whatta Night,”  were both certified gold
  • xSDTRK’s website says he has “dreams of creating a symphony of noise that evokes influences such as Björk and dizzying tribal 808s.”

BMG Rights Management Canada, Primary Wave
Selected Discography: “Boss Bitch,” Yung Berg (2009); “Numb,” Karl Wolf (2010); “Illusions,” Millimillz feat. Avery Storm (2012); “Le Poise,” Luu Breeze (2013)
SOCAN member since 2010