Whenever Toronto-born, Edmonton-raised R&B chanteuse Tanika Charles writes and records a new song, she goes to her surefire sounding board: her Dad Lennard.

“My Dad’s the best,” says Charles, whose 2019 sophomore album The Gumption created a lot of momentum for the now Toronto-based singer-songwriter. “He’s just taught me so much. And, you know, I’ll never forget when I first started singing, he said, ‘I only ask you to do one thing: enunciate… make sure people can hear what you’re saying, and make sure your story is true and pure.’ That’s how I’ve been rolling ever since.”

Lennard came in extremely handy when it came to feedback for some of the mixes of Charles’ new album, Papillon de Nuit: The Night Butterfly.

“There’s a song on the album called ‘Frustrated,’ and the title is so fitting, because I think it had maybe four or five different mixes,” Charles explains. “I sent each mix to my dad, and he’s, like, ‘Nope, that’s not it. Nope. That’s not it. Sorry, Tanika. No. no.’ And finally, I just decided, ‘Okay, this is what we’re going to do: We’re gonna put the bass up here, and I’m going to do this and I’m going to do that. So, we mixed it, sent it to my dad, and he’s, like, ‘That’s it!’  It wasn’t until the fifth one that we got his approval – and I literally made those changes with tears coming out of my eyes, because it wasn’t hitting the way that I wanted it to.”

Charles acknowledges that she’s her own toughest critic – and that, combined with pandemic woes and depression, led to making what she calls “the most difficult album to create.”

“Not only was it done remotely, but there was no inspiration, no motivation,” she admits. “It was just a dark time. After not performing, or singing, or doing anything except eating,  having to come up with this album was incredibly difficult. I struggled with my voice. I didn’t feel confident. I thought, ‘This is not how I wanna sound.’ Because, during the lockdown, I’d been listening to Yebba, who’s my absolute favourite artist, of course, Moses Sumney, just these incredibly powerful singers. I just felt inadequate. So, I struggled with this album.

 “There was no inspiration, no motivation”

“I wanted my third one to be passionate and honest, and I just couldn’t find myself.  Finally, when this album was done, I’d come out of the darkness and I felt stronger and brighter and, and vibrant – but only because I completed something in such a difficult time. I’m continually working on being and doing better vocally, and internally, spiritually.  I know that we, as artists, need to recognize that we put in a lot of work and we need to be proud of the milestones that we’ve accomplished.”

Charles should be proud of Papillon de Nuit: The Night Butterfly: 11 slices of soulful, classic, and contemporary R&B stylings, including the groovin’ “Different Morning,” featuring fast-rising rapper DijahSB; a funky duet with soul/Gospel singer Khari McClelland; and a coterie of producers and writing partners that include Scott McCannell, Ben MacDonald, and Chino de Villa on the production side, and Robert Bolton and Tafari Anthony on the writing side.

Swimming in Synchs

Tanika Charles – who might be remembered by TV audiences for her recurring role on Global’s Bomb Girls – has placed a lot of her music in other small-screen shows:  HBO’s Less Than Kind, ABC’s Rookie Blue, The CW’s Seed, CTV’s Saving Hope, and the CBC sit-coms Kim’s Convenience and Workin’ Moms, plus a nationally broadcast KFC commercial.  How does she do it? She credits her Milan-based label and music publisher Record Kicks. “I’ve been able to tour because they’ve released my music across Europe, and put my music in touch with stations, TV shows, and places I would never have access to as a Canadian artist,” says Charles. She also gives props to the late music supervisor Dave Hayman for placements: “Dave had been an integral part of my career, and supported me from Day One. Dave connected me with all of these show opportunities.”

“I prefer to collab with others,” says Charles. “When it comes to songwriting, there are people that are just way more prolific than I am. That’s what they do. I have to really experience everything to write a song effectively. And when I’m writing with other people – with Robert Bolton and Tafari Anthony – they would understand where I’m coming from. We’d receive music and I would express what this song in particular  makes me feel. I’d write a few words here and there, and then we’d elaborate on that.”

One particular standout: “Paintbrush and A Palette,” a funky, ‘70s- flavoured number with a lighthearted lyric. “That was actually the very first song I wrote for this album,” says Charles. “I love it because It’s bright and fun, and has something unique in its structure. I usually want to write sad songs about failed relationships, and this one gave us an opportunity to do something fun. And this song I wrote with Robert Bolton and Todd ‘HiFiLo’ Pentney. We were aiming for a D’Angelo-esque kind of vibe.”

While the jury is still out on how Papillon De Nuit: The Night Butterfly will perform in the public eye and ear, Charles has enjoyed a good run with her first two Polaris Music Prize long-listed albums Soul Run and The Gumption, and says she’s overcoming her shyness regarding self-promotion.

“I’m learning now to be okay with saying, ‘Hey, this is, this is my song,’ or ‘You can hear this song here,’ or ‘Take a listen to this album.’ I can honestly say that I’m quite proud of this one.”

In February of 2022, Adria Kain released When Flowers Bloom. Fans had been eagerly awaiting the Toronto-based artist’s debut LP since the 2015 release of her song “Ocean.” Inspired by artists such as D’Angelo, Maxwell, Frank Ocean, André 3000, and Brandy – and crafting her own glitchy blend of R&B, jazz, and soul – Kain followed up “Ocean” with a string of equally compelling songs, including “Reverse Psychology” (2016),  “DE{com}pressed” (2017), and singles “Alone In Kenzo,” “Classic” (featuring Leila Dey), and “Ocean (Reprise).”

She’s been praised by The Fader, Complex, HYPEBAE, and more; opened for the likes of Miguel and Questlove; and sung on projects including PARTYNEXTDOOR’s second album and Allan Rayman’s ROADHOUSE 01 album.

Contemplating her music, Kain explains that challenging herself and her artistry is at the core of her approach and unique sound. “I’m learning how to play guitar,” she says. “It’s been a long, inconsistent journey, but a journey nonetheless. Even if I find the chords or melodies don’t make sense, I find myself coming up with interesting ideas that I’m excited to [explore] more.” This desire to learn and grow also extends beyond music, into content creation. “It [production, visuals, and photography] is something I’ve always been passionate about, but never fully allowed myself to dive into, full force, so [my aim is] to make that more of a focus.”

Kain allowed her debut album to unfurl naturally over six years, allowing the right songs to find their way together. “Originally, when I conceptualized this album and began working on it, I had an entirely different expectation in mind of how it was going to turn out, or what the story was going to be,” she says. “It was simply supposed to be about experiences in love.

“Writing songs is kind of like a daydream, a dream that I’m awake for”

“But I think where my life was at, it naturally became a story of accountability, and facing things in relationships that I wasn’t prepared to acknowledge, especially not out loud. It almost forced me into this space, because it was needed in order for me to tap into a certain level of emotion to create each song. Songs like ‘Only With Time,’ ‘To the Ones I’ve Loved Before,’ and ‘Lost One’ are perfect examples.”

Aa a solo singer-songwriter, Kain describes the process as “kind of like a daydream, a dream that I’m awake for… I have random moments sometimes where I’m walking somewhere and a melody or lyric idea comes to life based off of something I see or hear in real time. My songwriting process is never the same. It always depends on my emotional state, or where I am in life, and how it inspires me creatively. I could be in a moment with someone, whether it be an artist, or a partner, and an idea can spark in an instant, and I’ll have the urge to write it down to record a voice note.

“Sometimes I’m just in my own sessions, or sessions with other artists and producers, and ideas come from things I hear through production or direct instrumentation. I’ve had songs that have come to life in minutes, and songs that I’ve started and didn’t finish until months or years later. My song ‘Only With Time,’ I began writing in 2017. ‘Alone in Kenzo’ was literally a guitar loop, and I visualized that entire song about a year before I even began writing or recording it, and then it took another full year to finish the song entirely.”

This trust in her own creative timeline has resulted in an album Kain is incredibly proud and pleased to share with audiences. “After the release of my album, I realized all of the songs were sitting exactly where they needed to be sonically,” she says. “It’s such a fulfilling feeling to know you created that from your mind and soul.”

“I came up pop, but I’m not blowing bubbles” —  Lights (from the song “Jaws”)

One could spend quite a lot of time trying to define what exactly pop music is in the year 2022. Vancouver singer-songwriter Lights would know more than most. Her last two albums, 2014’s Little Machines and 2017’s Skin & Earth, both won JUNO Awards for Pop Album of the Year. She prefers the term “alt.pop” to describe her left-of-centre musical style. But on her new record, PEP, Lights makes it clear that she has no interest in staying in any one lane.

PEP began pre-pandemic, when Lights was writing “just for the fun of it.” At about 24 demos, she shot the new music off to her label, Fueled by Ramen. (Lights signed to the American imprint best known for alternative acts like Fall Out Boy and Twenty One Pilots back in 2019.) Their response encouraged her to think outside the pop (or alt.pop) box.

“They were like, ‘You don’t have to make a pop record. You can make whatever record you want. Why don’t you make a rock record?’” recalls the singer. “All I need is my label to tell me I don’t have to make hits. When you’re not trying to write something for pop radio you get something really authentic and cool, and still with pop sensibilities. That’s kind of what this record is. Like Lights choruses, but with a different kind of energy.”

This isn’t to suggest that Lights is a rock act now. The sticky choruses, bright synths, and – dare it be said — peppy attitude that have defined Lights’ music are still prominently displayed. The 13 songs on PEP are fast-paced, and clock in at under 45 minutes total. But on tracks like “Prodigal Daughter” and “Jaws,” she also lets loose a kind of roar that shows off her heavy rock influences. Let’s not forget that Lights’ 2008 debut EP was released by Canadian punk label Underground Operations, and that she’s collaborated with metalcore heavyweights Bring Me the Horizon.

“I grew up listening to metalcore, and screamo, and emo, and post-hardcore,” she explains. “And what I took from that was the emotional sensibilities. There’s a lot of vulnerability in those lyrics; like, extreme vulnerabilities. Like, I’m gonna let my emotions hang out on my sleeve and be really poetic about it, then I’m gonna let ‘er rip in this part. Yet it’s all very melodic. I think that is probably the genre that inspired my music the most, even though sonically, it doesn’t seem that way.”

Behind the scenes, PEP boasts an impressive list of female creators and crew. Lights handled much of the album’s production on her own, but committed to finding and enlisting female talent, such as engineer Elisa Pangsaeng; mastering engineer Emily Lazar; co-writers Michelle Buzz (Katy Perry, Bebe Rexha) and Jenna Andrews (BTS, BANKS, BROODS); and drummer Jess Bowen (The Summer Set, HAIM).

“I had a goal going in to work with 50 percent women,” says Lights. “And I achieved that goal. It’s challenging when the talent pool is 97 percent male. But the more people see it, the more we’ll have it.”

As with her last album Skin & Bones, PEP is accompanied by a comic series, conceived and drawn by Lights, called The Clinic. The storyline and colour palettes are all tied into PEP’s artwork and videos, and are as much part of the album as the songs themselves.

“Music is the heart of it, but there’s so much more,” says Lights. “I think that’s why people have stuck with me for this long. There’s gonna be a whole world around it.”

Publishing: Sony set up success

When asked about her longtime music publisher, Sony Music Publishing, the first thing Lights says is “they’re like family.” The songwriter’s relationship with Sony goes back to her teenage years, when she co-wrote the song “Perfect” with Luke McMaster (of McMaster & James) for the Canadian music-themed TV series Instant Star, and has remained solid throughout her 17-year-career. In those early days, Lights says mentorship from Sony’s David Quilico and Gary Furniss truly helped set her up for success. “They taught me so much about music,” she recalls. “I was 18. I’d just moved to Toronto and didn’t know anyone, really, except my manager at the time. And they would sit me down, play me songs that stood the test of time, and show me why. They put me in all kinds of [song] camps, where I learned how to exercise my ability to create with another person in the room. They were more than just a publisher, and I was very grateful for having them when I was young and getting started.”