For Adam Messinger and Nasri Atweh, success has come from having the right songs at the right time.

Within a month of relocating to Los Angeles from Toronto in 2007, the songwriting-producing duo known as The Messengers had met singer-actor Donnie Wahlberg, then searching for songs for a New Kids on the Block record. Atweh, who once performed as a solo artist, wound up co-writing four songs while he and Messinger co-wrote another. It proved to be the group’s comeback album.
A few months later, Atweh and Messinger provided songs for a Michael Bolton album. The Canadians’ contributions were praised for adding a seductive, calm air to what critics called Bolton’s most confident release in years.

Their success is also about being in the right place at the right time – like when Atweh bumped into R&B star Chris Brown at a Los Angeles gym. Recalls Atweh: “After playing basketball, I told him ‘I’m a songwriter and I think I could kill it for you.’ He gave me an e-mail address and I sent him a song we’d done. He goes ‘I want this.’ That really got the ball rolling for us.”

“After playing basketball, I told Chris Brown, ‘I’m a songwriter and I think I could kill it for you.’” – Nasri Atweh

Good fortune next struck when Atweh spotted Justin Bieber and his manager Scooter Braun in a hotel lobby. “Nasri just went for it and introduced himself,” recalls Messinger. “They were open to hearing material and not long after, Scooter got back to us saying that our compositions were Justin’s favorites.” Those songs, including “Pray,” appeared on Bieber’s My Worlds Acoustic. The Messengers also contributed to other Bieber recordings, which earned them a SOCAN No. 1 Song Award for his holiday hit “Mistletoe.”

Little did they know, but Atweh and Messinger’s next project also wound up featuring Bieber, and became their biggest success: “Next to You,” a duet between Bieber and Brown. Featured on Brown’s F.A.M.E. album, it won them their first Grammy Award.

The Messengers are now one of pop’s hottest properties. Admits Atweh, “Our track record, in such a short time, has been insane.” Messinger, a graduate of York University’s jazz program, thinks their partnership has just the right balance: “I’m the guy who knows harmony and arrangements, but Nasri’s more the free spirit who pulls ideas and inspiration out of the sky.”

Saying this second Gros Mené album was hotly anticipated is probably this year’s best and biggest euphemism. Thirteen years after the quasi-mythical Tue ce drum, Pierre Bouchard, the troupe launched Agnus Dei last fall. Still firmly anchored in the stoner rock realm, the new Gros Mené is replete with rock that is all at once heavy, dirty, disjointed and groovy with thick psychedelic and blues fumes all around it. It’s still aurally corrosive, no doubt, but considerably less brutal than the previous album. Let’s attribute this to a certain refinement that comes with age. But even though the beast has quieted down, it might just as well have never re-emerged from its hiding.

“It was honestly not planned that I would ever do another Gros Mené album, says the mastermind of the project, Fred Fortin. It’s a complete accident, literally. It wasn’t important for me, but at some point I was gripped with a pressing urge to do something different from what I usually do, so I jumped head-first into this project, without overthinking it, and I just did it. I all happened very rapidly. After 13 years, we’ve all evolved considerably; the acquired experience, the wealth of influences all played in. We obviously wanted to do anything but Tue ce drum, Pierre Bouchard all over again. I gathered songs and started recording them with various people, assembling trios according to the needs of each song. Gros Mené requires different parameters and different ways of composing. Its completely different from my solo albums and that’s a lot of fun!”

Among old friends

Fred Fortin, who’s launched three solo albums since the turn of the century, has once again recruited the best. Originals from the early days of Gros Mené, Olivier Langevin and the infamous Pierre Bouchard are back on board. “We’re old friends. Music is what brings us all together. When you have friends that are this good, you make sure you keep them,” says Fortin. Desirous to increase his firepower, Fortin also recruited Pierre Fortin (Galaxie) and Robbie Kuster (Patrick Watson) on drums. Among the other collaborators on Agnus Dei are Jocelyn Tellier and Noël Fortin (Fred’s dad).

Creatively, Fortin is in charge of the skeleton for each track while the guest musicians are there create the flesh around that skeleton. “Let’s not forget Gros Mené is my project. It’s nothing but Fred Fortin in disguise. The others guys contribute with their personality in the way they play, the arrangements and their solos. Bear in mind, however, that the textures in a Gros Mené song happen on the fly. Nothing is planned ahead. We deal with a lot of unexpectedness, and a lot of spilled glasses of wine!” laughs Fortin.

Fast and Efficient

Despite his solo projects, his collaboration in Galaxie, his contracts as a producer and his countless other collaborations, Fortin thinks it’s not that hard to accomplish all of that without losing his mind. His secret? Doing things well and, most of all, fast. “You do your best with family and all the other stuff. I don’t write year-round; I need to hole up and isolate myself from the world. When I lock myself up in my cabin to work, I need to negotiate it with my wife and kids first! It is a very condensed part of my life. It all happens very fast. I don’t need to tinker on a song for very long, contrary to a lot of artists I know. When I tour with Galaxie, I also take some time to write songs and prepare my next project. Same foes for Olivier. We spur each other on to work and the rest just happens when it does. When people offer us to work on a project that fits in our schedule, we just say yes,” he says matter-of-factly.

The Ups and Downs of the Trade

The songwriter is quick to react when asked what advice he would give to a young artist wishing to make it as a musician. “That’s easy: don’t do any of the things I did since I started! But seriously, you need to be relentless, pigheaded and strong-willed to persevere and never lose sight of your goal. Nowadays, recording is a lot easier and you can promote yourself using Facebook, but planning a tour is harder for someone who’s starting out; there’s so many albums coming out. Setting yourself apart from the mass becomes a herculean task,” says the artist who was born in Verdun but is a Jeannois at heart. (NdT: “Jeannois” is the demonym of people from the Lac-St-Jean region of Québec)

And even though the Gros Mené band of brothers will tour the garage, scratch that, their cabin rock all over the province in the next few months, our favourite slacker is content with enjoying the small blessings of his chosen trade. “I don’t have anything spectacular lined up right now. I still love going off-road on weekends, playing in festivals, recording tracks at my cabin. I’ve never high big expectations from being a musician. I’ve had my ups and my downs. Then one day, you wake up as a thirtysomething and realize music is all you’ve ever accomplished with your life. You no longer feel like going back to school […] or to work a 9 to 5 job. I’m 41 and I’m not thinking about retiring yet. There are too many beautiful things to experience in this trade to stop now.”

Following two pop-rock albums launched by Warner – Flou in 1998 and an eponymous album in 2001 – Catherine Durand found herself on her own, without a contract or a manager.

“The packaging was too slick on those albums, she says right away. I recorded in big studios with huge budgets, but I did not feel comfortable about it. I asked myself what I really wanted to do. I took things into my own hands, gathered money, built a team and self-produced the album I really wanted to make. I didn’t really care about being radio friendly. It was no longer a priority for me. All I cared about was making songs that thrill me.”

The result was an album titled Diaporama (2005), a luxurious and ethereal affair with folk and country overtones that was applauded by the critic and the audience alike. She followed that up with Cœurs migratoires, three years later. Then, last fall, Catherine launched Les murs blancs du Nord, the result of a trip to Iceland.

Clearly the heir of its two predecessors, that record adds a slightly more refined, mildly psychedelic and soaring atmosphere to Catherine’s songs, thanks in part to Jocelyn Tellier (co-producer) and the many keyboards of Karkwa’s François Lafontaine.

“I found myself in Reykjavik on January 1st, 2010. There was no one. Not a single tourist, no trees. Barely any light. I was alone in this immensity, feeling minuscule compared to the nature surrounding me. It was quite a peculiar sensation. The light was dusk-like throughout the day. That brings about a state of complete contemplative abandon, of silent solitude. That’s exactly what I needed, too. That trip did me a lot of good and I managed to totally relax. Yet, it also put me in a very strange mood. When I came back home, I started working on new songs and everything flowed naturally. Now, in hindsight, I realize how much that trip influenced the overall atmosphere of the album. Mind’s eye images of Iceland are all over the place on that album,” she reminisces.

The privilege of being an artist

Even though Catherine grew up with the music of Harmonium, Beau Dommage and The Police – she’s a “huge fan” –, it is artists like Tracy Chapman, Suzanne Vega, Edie Brickell and Sheryl Crow that had a deep impact and inspired her to start writing songs.

Now that she has grown into one of our more accomplished songwriters, the 41 year-old artist forges on and is still trying to find her way in the jungle of Québec’s music scene.

“Despite it all, I could never imagine doing something else than creating music. I love it so much. Picking up my guitar, coming up with a melody and a beautiful sentence: to this day, it still fills me with joy. Writing a new song and the satisfaction of being proud of it is priceless to me. Nothing compares to that. Besides, there are such wonderful moments one can experience thanks to a career in the arts, I could never give that up. Obviously, there are doldrums to contend with, but I fully aware of how luck I am to still be around as an artist. Getting fan mail telling you how deeply you’ve touched people is quite a privilege,” she confides.

With the turmoil the industry has been going through over the past few years, Catherine firmly believes that only passion and nothing else now determines how long an artist will last in the business.

“Nowadays, making music has to be a deep uncontrollable urge you have, otherwise you’ll disappear from the scene as fast as you broke onto it. I’ve seen so many artists make it on the scene, be successful and then disappear. You need to be hands on and know all the aspects of the trade because, whether we like it or not, we are increasingly on our own as artists. You need to be attuned to your environment, explore the milieu. Mostly, you need to think in terms of concerts rather than records, now. I make a decent living because I self-publish my songs. As soon as I started in this business, I knew what I had to do. The beginning of your career is crucial, because everything that’ll follow will depend on it,” she says passionately.

Happily inspired

While concerts will remain a major part of her agenda, she has already started working on new songs. And even though she doesn’t know yet when the next album will come out, she promises the wait won’t be as long – 4 years – as the previous one.

What about France?

“Ever since I started, I’ve concentrated my efforts on Québec, but I would really love a deal with a label in France or Belgium. I’ve played in France a few times. It’s a huge market and it requires that you be there, with a big team and corresponding budgets. Many artists have tried, few have succeeded. I’m crossing my fingers that it will happen one day, but I’m happy where I am. That’s all that matters to me.”