Long before the pandemic, indie-folk duo the Fortunate Ones – led by musical and romantic couple Andrew James O’Brien and Catherine Allan – encountered isolation and uncertainty.

After achieving success with their 2015 debut album The Bliss, released on Rose Cousins’ Old Farm Pony Records, this hard-working pair experienced burnout. Two songs from their 2015 album, title track “The Bliss” and “Lay Me Down,” reached No. 1 on the then CBC Radio 2 Top 20. They won the Canadian Folk Music Award for Vocal Group of the Year in 2015, and were nominated for a JUNO Award for Contemporary Roots Album of the Year in 2016. In 2018 they released Hold Fast, after which they toured extensively, and saw their song “Northern Star” reach No. 4 on the CBC Top 20. They were exhausted, but appreciative.

In 2019, their lives changed suddenly, when an injury revealed a tumour in O’Brien’s hand. Surgery, and the subsequent slow recovery, left him unable to play guitar – forcing the duo from St. John’s, NL, to slow down even more. When O’Brien started working at the Inn by Mallard Cottage, he enjoyed the distraction of changing beds and booking reservations. “I was just working on the reception desk, and I honestly was relieved and happy to be doing anything other than music at that point,” he says.

Allan, worried for O’Brien, and their lives on and off the road, took some time to reflect. She wrote “Clarity” as a means of figuring out what to do. “I started writing that song out of desperation, just seeking something but not knowing what it was,” she says. What the couple was seeking, and finally found, was acceptance of their place in the world.

Their surroundings helped. They spent a pandemic summer residing in a beautiful saltbox house by the sea in the community of English Harbour. Allen describes the isolation as “purposeful” rather than “just being marooned by yourself,” while O’Brien found the experience humbling, and a good reminder that “we are not the be-all and end-all of everything.”

This deep introspection led to the songs on their new album, That Was You and Me, that express love and loss, and lyrics that are rich with metaphors inspired by the natural beauty of Newfoundland. For instance, in “Anchor,” love is compared to an ever-changing river, and time to an endless sea. The song also conveys the uncertainty of relationships and the importance of supporting one another, hence one lover is the anchor to the other’s line. Another standout, “Heavy Heart,” confesses to fear that the heaviness your partner is feeling might pull them away from you. As is evident everywhere on the album, love, trust, and letting go are the only ways through the inevitable hard times.

The pandemic complicated their recording timeline with Toronto-based producer Joshua Van Tassel (Amelia Curran, Sarah Slean), who devised a backup plan to produce the album with the Fortunate Ones recording – not just demos, but actual finished songs – from their home in the Maritimes. Luckily, they were able to record the album in person, making for some magical moments. Their single-take recording of “It’s Worth It (For Leo)” brought tears to Van Tassel’s eyes, since he’s currently a father of young children. And it’s no wonder why: O’Brien wrote the song to let his own ailing dad know he did a good job raising him.

That Was You and Me is stacked with deeply personal yet universal songs about family, love, and finding one’s place. Their harmonies warmly wrap around each other in a way usually achieved only by siblings, or by those with an undeniable connection (like Gillian Welch and David Rawlings). Paradoxically, the bittersweet lyrics both pierce and soothe, forcing the listener to feel their feelings, yet letting them know everything’s going to be okay. The result is music that’s both grounding and uplifting.

Nowhere is this more evident than in the chorus of “Day to Day”:

I’m learning to find my way
Own the mistakes I’ve made
Hoping to finally say
I’ve found some meaning in the day to day

The Fortunate Ones faced isolation and uncertainty by connecting to themselves, to each other, and to their love for music. As a result, That Was You and Me is a balm for anyone navigating difficulty – which is all of us, especially in this (post-)pandemic world.

American Idol second runner-up Leah Marlene is in the passenger seat talking with us on the phone, as her dad, Honeymoon Suite guitarist Derry Grehan, takes his turn behind the wheel, bound for Los Angeles. The Toronto-born, U.S.-based singer-songwriter is moving to Hollywood, after the public fell in love with her voice and infectious personality each week on season 20 of the national TV talent search.

“I sure am. Yeppers. We’re about to go into Colorado in the next hour or so. We’re getting there,” says the bubbly 20-year-old, who joined SOCAN as a young girl when her dad registered her song “Someday” with his band’s performing rights organization of choice, even though she lived in Normal, Illinois, from age three to high school.

Registering with SOCAN
“My first song I released when I was, like, in eighth grade, and I didn’t know what I was doing at that point. So my dad just got me signed up to SOCAN… I could go with ASCAP and BMI, but SOCAN is really great, because there’s a little bit more attention to detail…  Ever since I put myself out there to them, they’ve been really supportive of me… They’re really trying to do whatever they possibly can to help me out.”

“I still have deep roots in Ontario, but didn’t live there for much of my life,” says Marlene. “Obviously, my dad plays shows all the time, so we’d come to see his shows and visit family.”

She attended Nashville’s Belmont University for two years, but dropped out in 2021 and moved home. In September of that year, the SOCAN Foundation recognized her talent – before she was chosen for Idol – as one of five recipients of its Young Canadian Songwriters Awards. Marlene already knew she was auditioning for American Idol producers when she won the $5,000 cash prize for her song “Spacesuit.” “That’s one of those songs that was so instrumental in my journey as a producer, and a writer, and an artist,” she says. “I’m really proud of what that was at the time.”

Marlene has written other songs since, including “Flowers,” the track she penned right after Idol’s “Hollywood Week” round in December of 2021, when she found out she would be in the program’s Top 24. “I wrote it from a place of ‘I can’t even believe that this is happening,’ and then that song kept applying to my journey,” she says. “Every step of the way, it just got more and more real.”

When she performed it on the Idol finale, she struggled to hold back tears, overwhelmed by “everything,” she says, not just the lyrics:

Where there’s a way out
There’s another way in…
The new life is growing in the layers you shed
Even the pavement gives way to the flowers

“That was a really hard night, because you’re going full speed for weeks and weeks and weeks, hustling so hard, and you’re just exhausted, but it’s the best experience of your life,” says Marlene. “And then all of a sudden, you’re about to get onstage, and I’m, like, ‘Oh crap, this is it. It’s all over after this episode.’ I didn’t care at all where I placed. And so it all hit me right before the episode started.

“It was already really emotional, and the entire time when I was onstage I was trying to hold it together. But on the side, I was sobbing the entire episode. I’m not even a crier, but I just could not pull myself together… It was just crazy to be where I was in that moment, and singing that song to so many people, whereas a year ago I would’ve never dreamed in a million years that I’d be on that stage. It was just the epitome of what that song was about: that moment on Idol.”

When she was done, Idol judge Lionel Richie said, “Props to your songwriter side, that was a great song.” His fellow judge Luke Bryan said, ‘The song is just tremendous.” And their colleague judge, Katy Perry, was moved to tears, and gave her Marlene of the best compliments that could be paid to a songwriter: “You are a brilliant messenger.”

“All I want to do,” says Marlene, “is make something that means something in this world, and to people. I don’t want to create recycled sounds, and the recycled words, that you’ve already heard a million times before. I want to create something new, and meaningful, and important. That’s a really deep drive.”

She brings up a comment made by one of her favourite artists, Madison Cunningham, who apparently said she didn’t want to write something somebody wouldn’t want to get tattooed on their body. “That is it right there. I don’t want to write something unless it’s worthy of getting tattooed. I don’t achieve that all the time, but that’s what I’m always constantly striving for.”

Father Knows Best: It starts with a song
“It’s a huge advantage growing up with somebody that’s done the whole career in the industry already, and knows the do’s and don’ts. A huge advantage I had from that was knowing that the songs are the most important thing. If you can sing, it’s great; if you can play, great; but the songs are the longevity in anybody’s career. Even financially, you can still get royalty cheques 40 years after you released the song. So the fact that I had that knowledge earlier on, to start writing and really putting focus into my writing, was amazing.”

As she looks to the future, Marlene says that when Idol ended in late May of 2022, “you’re kind of falling off the edge of the earth, and you’re trying to figure it out as you go.”  Still, she’s taken some major steps in just two months.

“The first week after Idol, I was, like, ‘Oh my God, what the hell do I do right now?’” she says. “I was ready to work my ass off like nobody’s business. Never had so much fire… But there’s so many directions you can go in; I needed to get together a game plan. So, I just called every single person I knew in the industry and got advice, and feedback, and connected.”

She decided to spend June of 2022 in Nashville, writing songs and taking meetings, and now has a booking agent and attorney on her team (though no manager or music publisher yet).  By the time the interview concludes, she’s one state closer to her new home, in middle of Kansas.

“I’m moving out to L.A. to write my ass off,” she says. “Just write, write, write, write, write. I want to put out a project that really is everything I could have ever dreamed a project to be. So that starts with a song. That’s really what I’m focusing on.”

TronelAfter a decade spent as a member of the satirical rap outfit Les Anticipateurs, Tronel has dropped a rather stunning debut album.

The album might have well been titled Tronel’s Angels or Troneldorado, but in the end, it’s TronelDiablo that came out on top after an inspired brainstorm. “Some people wanted to crucify and burn Les Anticipateurs at the stake. That’s what the title references, but also the fact that it’s a relatively dark album,” says the Montréal-based rapper, now also co-founder of the Ultra Nova Club label. “It just felt appropriate for this transition.”

The transition in question is the one he embarked on two years ago when the Anticipateurs project was kiboshed after a final split with Monak, the other main rapper in the group – which had risen to iconic fame for its effective, vulgar pastiche of American gangsta rap.

“I started working on tracks and I figured Monak would hop on them,” says Tronel. “And we’d also talked about going solo with our respective characters, but he was less and less involved. So, at a certain point, after working on tracks on my own, I realized I needed to take my art further – and that meant I could drop the character. Let’s be honest: that character was pretty burdensome. It was getting quite boring. I’d milked that joke for all it had.”

The Anticipateurs “joke” began in the early 2010s with a mixtape titled Deep dans l’game. It was the following year, thanks to their coked-up anthem “SAPOUD,” that the band from St-Joseph-de-Sorel (according to its own foundational story, at least) took off on the Québec rap scene – which, at the time, was experiencing a renaissance. Over the next decade, Anticipateurs dropped a dozen musical projects, flush with tracks that were essentially all about sex, drugs, or hockey – and often all three at once.

As the group evolved, it did become slightly more serious, but the basic intention always was a playful one. Tronel and Monak’s larger-than-life characters, whose lyrics mixed humor, Québec cultural references, and gratuitous profanity, became the group’s creative engines.

“There’s no doubt that [shocking people] draws attention, but I wouldn’t say that our success was entirely based on just that. We always came out with slick products and huge productions,” says Tronel, referring notably to the band’s collaborations with brand-name American producers such as Loud Lord, Lex Luger, and Scott Storch, the latter being responsible for such rap megahits as “Still D.R.E.” and “Let Me Blow Ya Mind.”

And let’s give credit where credit is due: the musical and sonic powerhouse of the Anticipateurs’ albums were largely the brainchild of Tronel, aka Nicolas Ranchoux, the man with French (from France) roots hidden behind his glasses, and bandana. With a Bachelor’s degree in Audio Arts and Engineering from the SAE Institute in Paris, the 1986-born rapper worked as a resident engineer in a renowned French studio (One Two Pass It), and as a sound engineer for international mega-tours, before returning to his hometown of Montréal for good.

“I spent 10 years in Paris and I would come back here for tours,” says Tronel. I reached a point where I could earn a living with the Anticipateurs alone, so I left my sound-guy career by the wayside. But I quickly realized that meant working twice as hard making rap, if I wanted to earn a decent living. Except I didn’t have enough work on my plate with Anticipateurs alone. There was something more powerful, creatively, inside of me that needed to come out. It feels good, honestly, and I believe the music is better than ever.”

Tronel can now count on Danny Ill, a talented Montréal producer who’s worked with Mike Shabb and Kgoon, among others. “We worked together on Dieux du Québec [the last Anticipateurs album, released in 2020] and we really developed a great relationship,” says Tronel. “I created about 100 songs and together we made one cut for the album.”

The final result is a selection of mainly trap songs, that still boasts diverse influences, such as baile funk (“Fais PT”), synth-pop (“Magnifique”), and reggaeton (“Chérie chérie”). “I think I’ve accomplished the right balance between what people loved [about Les Anticipateurs] and what they hated,” says Tronel. “Our die-hard fans will want to puke when they hear ‘Chérie chérie,’ but there’s also tracks that are as hard as ever [just for them].”

Aware of the large number of “unacceptable sentences” on the album, the rapper says he wanted to keep a balance between the old and the new Tronel. On “Haut d’gamme,” for example, we’re right in the middle of Anticipateurs territory. “J’suis pas un player, j’suis un pimp, j’ai trop d’femmes / Si t’es un hater, big t’as sniffé trop d’grammes,” (“I’m not a player, I’m a pimp, I got too many women/If you wanna hate on me, big, you’ve sniffed too many grams”), he says, as the opening salvo of this impressively trivial song.

“I just came out of a band that said the craziest shit,” he says. “It’s just a nod to that… some make real rap, I make surreal rap. There’s a second level to it, but I can’t help it if people don’t get it. I’m aware that artists have a certain degree of responsibility, but it also depends on who they’re pushing their music to. I’ve been making music for more than 18 years, and I’ve always promoted it as such.”

To be honest, the new, glasses-less Tronel reveals himself gradually, more towards the end of the album, and more specifically on “Spectaculaire,” an epic song where the rapper expresses his love for Prince, and “Mon Dieu,” where he sets the stage for “phase two” of his solo endeavour. “J’ai parié tous mes jetons sur mon ego comme un con / J’ai l’impression que j’pourrais exploser de rage sans faire un son / Certains pensent que j’ai un don, mais dans ma tête, ça tourne en rond,” (“I bet everything on my ego, like an idiot / I feel like I could explode and not even make a sound / Some think I have a gift, but my mind is just running in circles”), he confides, in a rare introspective mood. “I’ve lived, and I have tales to tell,” he says. “I’ve created songs that said stupid stuff for so long that it’s become super-easy for me to makes songs that don’t say stupid stuff. I have nothing but good stuff to say.

“Rest assured, I won’t stop making funnier songs,” says Tronel, as if he needs to reassure us. “I want to make lover-boy songs as much as I want to make bangers, and more personal things. It does feel good, though, to be able to be sincere about what you say.”