Call it a case of no musical holds Barred. As is readily apparent on their new, third album, Queens of The Breakers, there’s no readily identifiable signature to the sound of Montréal-based trio The Barr Brothers. It’s a freewheeling, eclectic amalgam of many different styles, from rock to folk, blues to world music.

To singer-songwriter and guitarist Brad Barr, principal architect of their sound, “these elements are all getting filtered through my kaleidoscopic lens, and that ties them together. That’s a more abstract thread or centre point than what The Ramones were working with, for example.

“When I was developing as a musician,” says Barr, “I really opened myself up to everything, from straight-ahead bebop, to Hindustani classical music, to punk rock.

“For me, there’s a thread through most of it that many people would call the blues,” he continues. “I rarely use that word, as it implies an African/American South style. For me, it’s a cross-cultural feeling that exists in so many kinds of music, from Japanese to Malian to Moroccan. It’s that pentatonic trance/droning thing, and I feel that’s where my musical heart lives.”

“Everybody needs some kind of centre. I’ve never been a fan of really progressive or complicated music. It has always come back to something reduced, which allows either the improviser or songwriter to expand upon it in the moment.”

Joining Brad in the band are his brother Andrew (on drums) and Sarah Page (on harp), and the group’s music is published by Secret City Publishing. Their 2011 self-titled debut and 2014’s Secret Operator both earned international critical acclaim, with the latter becoming a genuine breakthrough record, notching more than 60 million combined streams.

“You keep singing it in the hope that a lyric arrives and points the way for a song.” – Brad Barr of The Barr Brothers

Brad explains that, going into Queens of the Breakers, “our only real aesthetic target was to make something a little more buoyant than the last two records, something that didn’t feel as weighted down, or over-contemplative.”

A different approach to the songwriting was taken too. “With the earlier records I always came to the band with the songs more or less finished,” says Barr. “Then it was a matter of everyone applying their impulses to those songs.

“Here, we really went at it as a group, just improvising for a month,” he continues. “We found a little studio in a remote Québec cabin and we’d do week-long stretches, improvising around the clock. A lot of the basic sounds and the songs’ DNA came from that, which I then took and tried to shape into songs.

“It was rather the inverse of the other records, in that sense. It proved to be difficult for me, as I was used to starting a song on my own, in a private space. This time it was, ‘Now we have this riff or vibe, and I need to figure out what this is, and how to sing on it.’ It could be a melody that spins as you’re walking around doing your daily things. You keep singing it in the hope that a lyric arrives and points the way for a song.”

As on the earlier albums, the group invited other players and harmony singers to flesh out the sound, but Barr stresses that a lot of the work was done in the group’s studio as a trio.

“We wanted to check what that music sounds like,” he says. “It was also important for Sarah to redefine her space. Since the last record, she had made a huge leap on the harp sonically, mostly based on some technical discoveries on how to amplify the sound. She was interested in seeing what that was capable of within a trio context.”

It’s been 12 years since Brad and Andrew Barr re-located to Montréal from the U.S. Raised in Rhode Island, they were based in Boston with their previous band, The Slip. They’ve since become popular members of the city’s musical community, and have planted strong personal roots.

“I now feel legitimized in saying I’m from Montréal,” says Barr. “I took it one step further by buying a house with my brother here. We both have children with Canadian wives, so it doesn’t look like I’ll be heading home anytime soon!”

He does admit to increased reflection upon his troubled homeland these days. “That feeling has started to take hold,” he says. “It didn’t for a while, as I was just happily swept up in the love I had for Montréal, and the community I was becoming a part of, and the freedom of this city.”

Analyzing the impact of Montréal upon his music, Brad explains, “it comes down to the people we’ve met and the musicians we’ve played with. People like the Patrick Watson and Plants and Animals guys. There are good allies here, people who encourage you, and things that keep you going, and working, and motivated, and feeling good, and that allows you to blossom as an artist.

“The vocabulary and works of Leonard Cohen likely wouldn’t have become such an influence on me if I hadn’t moved to Montréal. That one majesty alone has inspired me a lot.”

Barr also cites his late friend Lhasa de Sela as another inspiration. “When I was writing the second track on the new record, ‘Look Before It Changes,’ it was so clear to me that that was her effect on me.”

At this point in his life, Pierre Kwenders has spent as much time in Kinshasa, Congo, where he was born, than in his adopted home city, Montréal. “It’s difficult to detach myself from the city that saw me grow up, and even more difficult to ignore the fact that it’s the city that made me the man that I am,” muses the musician. As a matter of fact, he promises – in large part through his second album, MAKANDA at the End of Space, the Beginning of Time, launched earlier this month – that he’s never far from either Kinshasa or Montréal. “I pay tribute to the former and actively participate in the culture of the latter,” says Kwenders.

Four languages and multiple musical styles converge in the music of Pierre Kwenders, née José Louis Modabi’saka. No recipe, no ingredient list and no mould. He’s a noble representative of music that can’t be pigeonholed, and carries one very broad message: “love, sharing and happiness,” he says. “Because one needs to be able to love in order to share, and in sharing there is happiness. That happiness is what gets us through life.”

MAKANDA was produced in Seattle alongside Tendai Maraire, one half of hip-hop duo Shabazz Palaces. For Kwenders, therein lies the project’s distinctive character: the producer allowed him to further embrace his disregard for convention. “He’s the genius behind the project’s music,” says Kwenders. “While in the studio, we all wanted this album to be better than our expectations. The various musical layers are a way to travel to different worlds while orbiting a single sun.”

Those travels can be heard in the multi-layered music, where different styles exist in a symbiotic and harmonious way. Even those who were introduced to Kwenders as a member of the hip-hop community will be compelled by his work in what he calls “moderate hip-hop.” “As far as I’m concerned, I do pseudo-rap on songs like ‘Rendezvous’ and ‘Woods of Solitude.’”

As far as the electro rhythms are concerned, they’re reminiscent of the Moonshine experiment, a Montréal club night co-created by Kwenders that occurs on the first Saturday after a full moon. “Moonshine’s identity is very much based on fraternity, community, perseverance and sharing happiness,” he says. “That’s what I’m trying to convey with MAKANDA.”

Although the artist is at war with categories, and abhors the “world music” moniker, people still try to pigeonhole him. To him, what makes music special is that it serves the same purpose in all cultures: it comforts. “It’s with us through joy and pain,” he says. “The context may vary when one looks more closely to the geography, or ethno-musicology, but what it makes us feel remains the same in any context. I think all barriers fall, naturally, once we understand that.”

MAKANDA is what allows Kwenders to say more about it. As a matter of fact, he’s now all-in with his passion for music, having ditched his parallel career as an accountant. Through its rhythms, languages and themes, MAKANDA obviously talks about the Congo, but also about identity. And although Québec is increasingly confronted with questions about immigration, and the arrival of new cultures, Kwenders believes that music will always be the most personal expression of self. “Some will say fear of foreigners is a human trait, but I prefer to believe in the saying that goes ‘Alone we run faster, but together we travel further.’ Let’s come together and make Québec a nation proud of its diversity, rather than the opposite.”

MAKANDA, it would seem, has liberated the human being behind the artist. Kwenders has given us an album voluntarily void of musical categories, and whose complexity belies the simple message of sharing the joy. “I feel like a young boy or girl who reaches adulthood, leaves the family home and decides to tackle life head-first,” says Kwenders. “I think MAKANDA means I’m ready.”

Pierre Lapointe“Early on in my career, I wrote what I called ‘ethereal poetry,’” Pierre Lapointe explains during our lengthy discussion, one of the first he’s had while making the promotional rounds for his album, La science du coeur. “I was yearning to understand how to write without succumbing to the dictatorship of ideas. That yielded lyrics that had their qualities… and their faults. Therefore, I believed that when I fully understood the art of touching people, while also confident that they’d understand what I’m actually talking about, I’d add, tongue in cheek: ‘Fasten your seatbelts, because you’re in for quite a ride!’”

And that is indeed the first thing that strikes the listener on La science du coeur, his fifth original studio album (not counting his 2014 covers album, Paris Tristesse): lyrically, he goes straight for the jugular. Message received, loud and clear. One recognizes the distance travelled since the rhymes on his first (eponymous, 2004) album and the exceptionally ambitious and fantasy-driven La Forêt des mal-aimés (2006). Lapointe;ls lyrics are now crystal clear – vulnerable, even – on this album, born out of a “professional love at first sight” with French composer and arranger David François Moreau.

Renowned for his movie and stage play scores, as well as for his collaborations with such songsmiths as Cali and Patrick Bruel (who also happens to be his half-brother), Moreau had written a long letter to Lapointe after attending one of his concerts.

“It was almost a love letter – I was a little uncomfortable, to tell the truth,” Lapointe confesses. “Michel, my manager, then met with him. ‘He’s quite cool, quite serious,’ Michel told me. He doesn’t come across as crazy… I then called my friend Albin de la Simone who told me that David is actually one of his good friends, and that his brother is actually a well-known jazz drummer, with whom he’d played before, etc. Albin told me, ‘I’ll organize a dinner next time you’re in Paris, so you and he can meet.’”

Following a convincing first encounter, Lapointe took a few weeks off in Japan, a stay that inspired the lyrics to “Naoshima.” He then listened to every bit of work Moreau had done, finally realizing that he might just have found the perfect partner to finish this new album, a record which was fully realized in the mind of the singer-songwriter. “I told him, ‘I want to bridge the gap between the classical French songbook – which is to say, play with the work of such monumental artists such as Ferré, Barbara, Brel, et al. – and contemporary music, mainly Philip Glass and the minimalists, as well as orchestral music. Are you up for it?’”

“The writing is extremely contemporary: writing like that 40 years ago would’ve been unthinkable, and even I could not have written like this as little as 10 years ago.”

And up for it he was. The pair first tested the concept over a period of two weeks in Paris (with Lapointe taking advantage of the SOCAN House there) by working on three of the album’s more robust songs: “Alphabet “ (“Everyone kept saying it didn’t belong on the album, but I insisted”), “Qu’il est honteux d’être humain,” and the title track (and first single), which is also the opening song. “We tried to do a mash-up of those ideas as we worked on what I was calling ‘my intellectual album,’ by lifting sounds from the pop world as well as from modern music from the ’50s and up,” says Lapointe. “I only had one condition: no synths. Nothing but acoustic, orchestral instruments.”

And it works. The music is rich, the lyrics raw, but the singer – who’s the backbone of the whole experience – grounds the emotions when the orchestration and structure aim for the stratosphere. “We succeeded, I think, in making an album that makes no concessions, yet still seems unified,” says Lapointe. “It’s the result of a highly intellectual approach that manages to still be approachable. The songs sound like classics that have always been around, but they’re totally new. The writing is extremely contemporary: writing like that 40 years ago would’ve been unthinkable, and even I could not have written like this as little as 10 years ago.”

La science du coeur is the sum of 15 years in the business expressing himself, the result of the experience acquired by an artist who describes himself as a craftsperson who fine-tunes his art “and who works, in the studio, onstage, on visuals and graphic design, with collaborators who teach me a lot.” People who spur him on to explore, widen his horizons and create relentlessly. Indeed, this album, which has been mixed, mastered and ready to release since last March and “is already integrated in my life,” already feels almost old for Lapointe, who confesses to already having three other albums recorded! “I don’t know when or how they’ll come out, but they exist.”

Moreau produced the album and penned the arrangements, played by an orchestra conducted by Simon Leclerc, Lapointe’s ever-present partner in crime, with Philippe Brault credited as artistic co-director. Other collaborators include singer-songwriters Félix Dyotte on “Zopiclone,” and Daniel Bélanger on the touching and sumptuous ballad “Une Lettre,” the album closer.

“Daniel Bélanger and I have been friends, and have tried to write music together for a long time,” says Lapointe. “We’d written one piece of music once, which never came out, and I don’t even know where it is now. But you see, Daniel has a way of writing songs that’s completely different from mine. I find myself with a friend, Philippe B or Philippe Brault, Dyotte, whoever, and then we just go: play me a chord, I’ll find a word, and then we just bounce things off each other until we end up with something.

“When I tried that with Daniel, he froze. I could tell it wasn’t going to work, and I told him I’d send him a lyric so that he can work on it on his own. Daniel told me, laughing: ‘It’s like you just whipped out your cock and started masturbating in front of me – I can’t, I’m too shy!’ I thought it was very funny, because I could tell that my way of working would make him very self-conscious. So we wrote a couple of songs where I would send him my lyrics. I call Daniel my ‘elder’, him and Jean Leloup. “Les Insomniaques s’amusent” and “L’Amour est sans pitié” are two records that I absolutely learned by heart.”

In the early stages of his career, the excitement of other people’s attention to his work, and himself, was very present. “Now, I see myself more as a craftsman,” says Lapointe. “Writing songs has become more natural, which doesn’t mean it’s easier. It simply means I can now rely on more knowledge and more experience. Plus, playing live has become less an event and more something I enjoy, most notably the part where I can cherry-pick the musicians I want to play with, based on the admiration I have for their work, and the ease with which we connect on a human level.

“The same goes for the album,” Lapointe continues. “But you see, the album has become a way to understand myself. There has always been something quasi-therapeutic, something that compels me to introspection, to try to become a better human being. It sounds self-absorbed when you hear those words, but I did always use the arts as a way to reconcile myself with what humans can be. As I grow older, my musical projects tend to reach for something universal, at least my definition of what’s universal. Then, if people are moved, good, I’ll be the happiest man on earth. But my prime interest [with each new album] is to position it in relation to where I came from, and where I want to go. When a project is done, what I’m interested in is: did I attain that goal? With La science du coeur, I think I did.”

La science du cœur will be released Oct. 6, 2017.