Donovan Woods is very aware that he currently enjoys the best of both worlds. The highly respected, country-folk singer-songwriter has a successful solo career as a recording artist, one about to be boosted by the late-February 2016 release of his fourth album, Hard Settle, Ain’t Troubled.

He’s also an increasingly in-demand songsmith, whose compositions have been covered by high-profile U.S. country stars and many Canadian country acts.

“I feel lucky that I can always be working,” Woods says of his double life. “If you’re just an artist, then between album cycles you feel really lost. Once the tour and promo cycle for this new record is over, I’ll go back to Nashville for a couple of weeks of co-writing, and that’s just really fun.”

He explains that another advantage to his parallel careers is that “I can take a song I’ve written that I love and go play it on the road. If Nashville songwriters have written a song they love and no-one cuts it, then it maybe never gets heard.”

“I think it’s good to have a perspective on Nashville by not being mired in it.”

Right now, Woods is playing his tunes on the road via an extensive, cross-country tour of soft-seat theatres (e.g., Toronto’s Massey Hall, Winnipeg’s Burton Cummings Theatre) opening for Matt Andersen. Sarnia-raised and Toronto-based, Woods paid his proverbial dues earlier, via two independent, under-the-radar albums, prior to breaking through with 2013’s Don’t Get Too Grand.

It earned high-rotation CBC Radio 2 airplay and a 2014 JUNO nomination (Roots & Traditional Album – Solo), and he’s grateful for that exposure. “The JUNO nomination was an utter surprise and a real joy,” says Woods. “I may have been cynical or snobby earlier about airplay, but I didn’t know what I was talking about. What better medium is there than radio? I was so excited to experience what that was like, and now I know I can go to any town in Canada and have some people come [out to see me].”

Woods’ Nashville success as a songwriter began to snowball at around the same time. His first big break came when country superstar Tim McGraw cut Woods’ song “Portland, Maine,” while Lady Antebellum singer Charles Kelley just recently put “Leaving Nashville” – a tune co-written by Woods and Abe Stoklasa – on his debut solo album. The powerful portrait of a struggling Music City songwriter has quickly earned shout-outs in Billboard, Rolling Stone, American Songwriter, and more. Woods currently has other songs on hold in Music City.

“Leaving Nashville” also appears on Hard Settle, Ain’t Troubled, alongside a co-write with legendary American songwriter Tom Douglas, and other tunes co-written by Woods and fellow Canadians Carleton Stone, Andrew Austin, Gordie Sampson, Dylan Guthro and Breagh McKinnon. A joint composition with Austin and Stone, “On the Nights You Stay Home” recently topped the CBC Radio 2 Top 20 chart.

“When I started co-writing,” says Woods, “I never thought I’d record a co-written song for my own record. But as you get better at it, and write with people you like, you eventually start to get songs from those sessions where you think, ‘I could do that one.’”

Woods first started going on writing trips to Nashville in 2012, and is close to finalizing a new publishing deal there. “I have a place there, but I choose to stay in Toronto,” he explains.

“I think it’s good to have a perspective on Nashville by not being mired in it,” says Woods. “I think I’ll always treat it as a place I go to work, but can always leave. It’s a real grind to be a staff writer there, and I think I’d hate songwriting in about six months if that’s all I was doing.”

“Les Bombes”
Written by Michel Pagliaro and Jimmy James
Published by Earth Born Music inc.

Every career has its ups and downs, key creative periods and songs that stand apart. Michel Pagliaro has recorded more hit songs – whether in French or English – than most artists of his generation. “Les Bombes” came out in 1987 and is among his career-defining songs.

This heavy hitter marked Pagliaro’s return to recording after a six-year hiatus, and it became the calling card for the following year’s release of the album Sous peine d’amour. “Les Bombes” was Pag’s sparkling return to form.

It’s a glacial February morning in a Montréal café; Michel Pagliaro is going back in time to discuss the writing of his hit song, which actually occurred in two countries. It all started in France, where he lived for five years.

“I created that song in Paris. I’d say sometime in 1984 or 1985. At least the first draft of it,” says Pagliaro, whose gaze is as piercing as ever… when, rarely, he takes off his ever-present shades.

“As weird as it can seem, even though the song is almost 30 years old, it’s basically the same people in the same broth. Nothing’s really changed. It’s the same old stuff.”

“Writing is a big word in this case,” he continues. “I wrote all of it in one night. I had many, many verses. Unbelievably many… a whole cassette tape full! I still have it. I keep all my ‘sketches.’ There’s no shortage of things to say about such a topic. Even today, you could keep on writing on this topic and there would always be more to write about.”

Some songs don’t age well. Sometimes it’s the lyrics that become outdated. Sometimes it’s the production style. But not only did the lyrics of “Les Bombes” – sadly – remain relevant, but they barely need touch-ups to actually be squarely about current events.

“Once I had the lyrics, I started making demos. I had pieced together a small recording machine to make demos, I lacked certain cords, using alligator clips, for some reason. The apartment I was staying in had been… (laughs) ‘ransacked’ by a kid who played harmonica for (Jacques) Higelin. He’d punched a hole in the wall using a hammer. It was weird… I didn’t finish the song there.”

“Les Bombes” would see the light of day in Québec after Pag’s return home. Guitarist Jimmy James was among the musicians who participated in the recording sessions.

“I’d worked with Michel before his European hiatus,” James remembers. “When he came back he was looking for collaborators, and we got back in touch. Mike’s always spur of the moment. Sometimes he’ll come up with a riff and say: ‘What can we do with this?’ That’s how it happened.”

So the musicians worked from the original demo for the verses, but it was a completely different ballgame when came time to ork on the chorus and bridge.

“I felt we needed to take it somewhere else,” says James. “My contribution was mainly in the bridge and solo. We decided to move away from the basic riff, because otherwise the song would remain on the same tempo through and through. After that we re-worked the lyrics.”

“The lyrics on the final demo are not exactly the ones that I wrote in France,” continues Pagliaro. “There were some touch-ups. There were verses with country names like Madagascar, Haiti, Vietnam, the whole nine yards…”

One would be forgiven for thinking the song was about the Iran-Contra scandal of the mid 80s, but such is not the case, it seems.

“There have to be motivations, sometimes, how should I put it, let’s call them ‘cerebral motivations’ to do something,” Pagliaro explains. “Except in my case, it’s purely organic, from the gut. What I mean by that is that there is a will to create, to develop an idea that’s in your mind for a beat or something.

“Then you come up with a sentence that gives you an idea. It’s music, you know, not just thoughts. It has to become physical. Concrete. You have to play that music. You can’t just think about it. Or rather, you can think about it, but at some point, you’ll need to hear it.”

Pagliario’s reputation as a studio perfectionist precedes him. When the 7-inch single for “Les Bombes”/”Dangereux” came out, he wasn’t entirely satisfied with it.

“I did not like that record. I did not like how it sounded,” says Pag, serious as can be. “Except it had to come out at some point.”

“Les Bombes” did not remain exclusively a 7-inch for very long. Both songs – “Les Bombes” and ”Dangereux” – quickly found themselves on a compilation titled Pag Avant. And although they weren’t included on the first pressing of Sous peine d’amour, they were on its second pressing.

“We took two English songs out [“It’s Love” and “Rock Somebody”] to make room for ‘Les Bombes’ and ‘Dangereux.’ But those are record executives’ decisions,” Pag adds with a smirk.

Thus, “Les Bombes” had three distinct releases (7-inch, compilation, and original album) and fueled Pagliaro’s grand return with Sous peine d’amour. And since? Basically not much, as far as original material is concerned. Only “Tonnes de flashes,” included on the similarly titled box set, released in 2011.

Anything new on the radar, then? Everyone know it’s useless to ask Pag that question, but let’s just note that this interview was conducted in a café located beneath a recording studio where he went back to work as soon as we were done. It seems there might be hope. But it’s a ‘time race’…

Welcome to the latest in our series of stories on the creative meetings of songwriting duos. Paroles & Musique met with Gabriel Louis Bernard Malenfant and Jacques Alphonse Doucet – better known as the voices of Radio Radio – to discuss the state of exile required to create their special brand of debonair, tongue-in-cheek rap.

Radio RadioEven though it’s a cloudy Tuesday afternoon in a Mile End café in Montréal, the guys are dressed to the nines, as always. “For Jacques, it comes naturally, he dresses like that every day,” whispers Gabriel Malenfant in my ear while we wait to order, staring his bearded acolyte (who’s wearing a navy pinstripe suit with a butter-coloured shirt and tie). We didn’t ask if they dress that way on days when they isolate themselves from the outside world to work on new tracks.

Whatever the case may be, Light the Sky is the latest result of such sessions. It’s the duo’s fifth album, but their first without the help of the longtime sidekick, DJ Alexandre, who left to pursue a solo career as Arthur Comeau after tinkering with other pseudonyms, notably “Nom de plume.”

But let’s get back to our coffee, and the event that prompted this meeting: the release of this new album of party anthems, their in English only. And even though that means no more of their amazing linguistic acrobatics – where French, English and the regional Acadian dialect of Chiac was as typical as poutine râpée – the core of their appeal remains: electro-pop party anthems. For this album, they tapped the production talent of Shash’U, J.u.D. and Alex McMahon as well as Champion for the song “‘Cause I’m a Hoe.”

“As on the previous albums, there is that unpretentious, fun first degree,” says Jacques Doucet. “But there are also deeper themes. That’s kind of the idea behind the title, Light the Sky, which symbolizes that the conversation we want to have can go very far.” One needs to scratch the surface very little in order to find some songs whose themes are deeper than leisure and dancefloors. “We also want to write songs that touch on subjects people don’t expect us to touch,” says Malenfant.

“We are so good at feel-good stuff – that ‘Acadianness’ of which we’re emblematic – but you need to go beyond the hooky choruses to find our depth.”—Gabriel Malenfant of Radio Radio

The least we can say is that they have a rather unusual workflow, for rappers. Despite being wordsmiths, they’re not the type to carry a notepad and pencil in the breast pockets of their stylish blazers. For them, writing is neither something spontaneous, nor a daily routine. All their albums followed the same work plan: “We extricate ourselves from our friends, families, lives, and we furiously work on writing and recording the album,” says Malenfant.

But despite that, some ideas are born on the road during tours. “We jam on ideas, hooks, we laugh at our stories, we are constantly arguing about everything, says Malenfant. “We record everything in our phones; we’re perpetually researching song concepts. But once the album project is on track, we go for a solid recording session, preferably outside of Montréal.”

Work on Light the Sky started almost a year ago during one of those work sessions in Cuba. Ah, the life of the rich and famous! “We had just launched the previous album, but we immediately went to Cuba to ‘re-focus’ and start thinking about our next album,” says Doucet. “A little time at the beach, then back to our rooms to write, or make beats, for an hour or two.”

The idea of making an English-only album had been in the air for a while. Which explains a change in the work venue: Brooklyn, last September. Says Malenfant: “We wanted to be part of the local culture, of this Mecca of rap. Turns out we were surrounded by French people and Québecois,” he laughs. Shash’U’s and Alex McMahon’s productions were pretty far along, so all that was left to do was to write the lyrics and record the vocal demos.

The guys each write their own lyrics, but each heeds the other’s comments. “We have our themes, we brainstorm, and within a week, we have a general idea of the album’s direction,” says Malenfant. Everything comes together in the studio. “We do it all at the same time; I can’t write without the music,” continues Malenfant. “Once we have a good hook, everything else comes naturally: the theme, the verses, the chorus. When we went to Brooklyn, we only had Shash’U’s instrumentals; everything else was done in Montréal.”

For Radio Radio, an album is a snapshot in time, an initially spontaneous thing that’s then elaborated on and polished to perfection. “The music that inspires us has to be dynamic, bouncy, happy,” says Malenfant. “And then we simply elaborate on them.”

The party-anthem side of Radio Radio’s music stems from their work method, but doesn’t entirely summarize its spirit, the rappers warn. Let’s go back to the meaning of the title Light the Sky. One can approach star-gazing in one of two ways: “You can look at the sky and take in the moment, be grateful for what we’re getting out of it,” says Malenfant. “Or we can study the stars, observe them intently, look for answers.” That’s what Doucet calls the astrophysical aspect of Radio Radio’s songs.

As Malenfant concludes, “We are so good at feel-good stuff – that ‘Acadianness’ of which we’re emblematic – but you need to go beyond the hooky choruses to find our depth. Our choruses are often light-hearted, but the verses veer off in a completely different direction. Like on “‘Cause I’m a Hoe,” we talk about the issue of prostitution in our society. People don’t expect us to be talking about stuff like that. Party tunes are all well and good, and we like them. But look a little bit further and you’ll see there is a subtext.”