Songwriting collaborations come in many different shapes and sizes. Methods range from Nashville country songwriters arranging a co-writing ‘date” in a Music row office to contemporary pop, dance, R&B and hip-hop artists who may credit seven or eight writers, producers and beat-makers on just one track. Hit songs in all these genres are, increasingly, created through collaboration.

Artists in other genres have also adopted the collaborative approach. Here, we’ll explore two recent, highly acclaimed Canadian album projects, Namedropper by roots songstress Oh Susannah, and Just Passing Through: The Breithaupt Brothers Songbook, the brainchild of the songwriting team of brothers Don and Jeff Breithaupt.

“Everyone in the community loves Suzie [Oh Susanna], so it was all, “Yes, I’ll write you a song.’” – Ron Sexsmith

As the title jokingly suggests, Namedropper features contributions from an A-list of Canadian singer-songwriters, all friends with Oh Susannah (Suzie Ungerleider). The concept behind Namedropper was suggested by her producer, Jim Byson (himself a well-respected songsmith). “Suzie initially pitched me on the idea of producing a covers record,” Bryson recalls. “Off the top of my head, I said ‘That seems to [have been] done a lot by Canadian female artists. Why don’t you have people write songs for you?’ It just seemed a fresher idea.”

The pair approached Ungerleider’s talented songwriting pals, who responded immediately and positively. The reaction confirmed both the peer respect Oh Susanna enjoys as an artist and the genuine affection she personally attracts. As Ron Sexsmith notes, “Everyone in the community loves Suzie, so it was all, “Yes, I’ll write you a song.’ It’s a cool concept and it came together in an inspired way.”

The impressive list of artists delivering one new song apiece: Joel Plaskett, Royal Wood, Keri Latimer (Nathan), Jim Bryson, Melissa McClelland (Whitehorse), Old Man Luedecke, Luke Doucet (Whitehorse), Amelia Curran, The Good Lovelies, Jim Cuddy (Blue Rodeo), Jay Harris, and Rueben deGroot. Ron Sexsmith contributed two, “Wait Until the Sun Comes Up” and “I Love the Way She Dresses,” a co-write with Angaleena Presley.

The accomplished result is the most stylistically eclectic of Oh Susanna’s six albums to date. “That is exactly what I wanted,” says Ungerleider. “We specifically asked the writers not to all send slow, waltzy tunes [her forte]. Some writers approached it more as if they were writing a song they’d do. That was fine, too. The whole idea was to stretch what I’m doing and that is exactly what we got with these songs. I feel lucky.”

Jim Cuddy, a longtime friend, fan and duet partner of Oh Susanna, contributes the moving ballad “Dying Light,” based on their mutual love of soul music. “I once heard Suzie sing ‘The Dark End of the Street’ at a Gram Parsons tribute,” he recalls. “I thought ‘My God, you have this powerful soul voice that isn’t exhibited in your own material.’ I knew she’d have the vocal dexterity for my song.”

Ron Sexsmith wrote “Wait Until The Sun Comes Up” with typical creative ingenuity. “Suzie e-mailed me, and I thought ‘“Oh Susanna,” that’s a Stephen Foster song.’ I have a Foster songbook and a song there, ‘Nellie Bly,’ reminded me of ‘Wait Until the Sun Shines.’ That gave me the title, and I wrote the thing in 30 minutes, with a Buddy Holly pop feel.”

Bryson’s song “Oregon” leads off Namedropper. “That was a song I’d already written, but Suzie kept going back to it,” he says. “I pleaded, ‘Don’t put it at the front of the record, I’ll look like a jerk,’ but she liked where it fit.’

With many songs submitted in raw form, Bryson worked with Ungerleider on the instrumentation and arrangements. “You get to try different things, bouncing ideas back and forth,” says Bryson. “Suzie is very clear with her thoughts and opinions. To me, overseeing this record was pure joy.” The core band on Namedropper included multi-instrumentalist Bryson and drummer Cam Giroux, Oh Susanna’s husband.

As has been well publicized, the album’s scheduled Fall 2013 release was delayed a full year after Ungerleider was diagnosed with, and treated for, breast cancer. Now healthy, she and Bryson recently played Canadian dates and headed to the U.K. in early 2015.

For her third album, Geneviève Toupin decided to use the Willows moniker. It’s a stage name, but a project name as well. The word refers to the tree, obviously, but also, and mainly, a town in California and a ghost town on the Western Canadian plains. “I really enjoyed the parallel between those two locales that are part of the album’s lyrics,” says the svelte brunette with the piercing blue eyes. “And I liked the word, quite simply. It allowed me to address my Anglo and Métis roots, but also my Franco-Manitoban roots. There’s something very visually evocative in that word. Plus, I loved the idea of putting forth a musical and visual identity.”

The Long and Winding Road

This folk gem was produced by Émilie Proulx, Toupin’s “musical soul mate,” who has also accompanied her onstage since 2009. It is an intensely personal and luminous album, with delicate arrangements, that was initially planned for release last year, backed by a totally different team. “I’ve travelled far and wide. This album came via a long and winding road. I left my record label in 2013 and tried working with a few producers, but I just wasn’t ready. I had written about 30 songs, but they all ended up in the trash. When I realized Émilie was a perfect fit, I knew she’d be the ideal producer, too. From that point on, everything went super fast,” explains Toupin, who set up camp in Montréal in 2003.

And it turns out that places have had a big impact on the artist, a fact that’s obvious to even a casual listener of the album’s 11 tracks. She explains: “While I was in the creation process for this album, I realized how much landscapes, plains, wide open spaces and open skies inhabit me. I started writing in California and finished in Montréal. Also, having grown up in a small village in the Southern Manitoba countryside definitely had an impact, too. This bond with wide open spaces and nature has inhabited me since I was a child. To this day, it’s still something that has a deep impact on me and my writing. It’s deeply rooted.”

Cultural Legacy

Even though Toupin grew up in a French-speaking family, once she reached her teens, she devoured Anglo music and struggled to make a place for herself in a vastly Anglo environment. For this new project, she fully embraced this cultural duality. “When I started the creation of this album, I’d just finished another entirely English one (The Ocean Pictures Project) and I’d become unable to write in French. To resolve this situation, I had to embrace that duality and to allow myself to write like I speak, by mixing both languages. The first songs I wrote were ‘Valley of Fire,’ ‘Bill Murray’ and ‘Stardust Motel.’  Those three songs are the ones with the most English in them. I gave myself permission to write exactly as I hear it in my head.”

But despite her Métis roots and the ever-present duality, Geneviève doesn’t feel like she’s on her own. She considers herself as a full-fledged member of a new community of young songwriters and musicians. As she says: “I mean the Montréal community, but also the whole of the Canadian francophonie. I feel privileged to be a part of those scenes and to be surrounded by so many artists that inspire me every day. That’s truly priceless.”

Believing in magic

Following her very positive experience in the web series La Tournée des cafés (nominated at the ADISQ Awards in 2012), Toupin developed a taste for collaboration. As a result, almost a dozen musicians and composers collaborated on the Willows project, including André Papanicolaou (Monsieur Mono) and Marianne Houle (Monogrenade). Yet, one question begs to be answered: how does one choose who to collaborate with when one’s musical universe is so intimate, soft and delicate? “I always pick collaborators whose sensitivity is very close to mine,” says Toupin. “That’s the case of Sébastien Lacombe’s universe, which completely aligns with mine. I want to surround myself with people who instinctively understand that type of writing. You need to go with the flow. But I also noticed that a certain chemistry can happen between artists and that I also need to trust that.”

Following a three-week stay in France and the 2014 Coup de cœur francophone tour, Toupin now wishes to take her show back on the road in Québec and the rest of Canada – Vancouver, Ontario and Saskatchewan are already on the schedule for 2015 – and she’ll also collaborate with Chloé Lacasse on her musical project. In other words, there isn’t much downtime. “You know, I’m very fortunate for all the travelling I do,” she says. “Just that, to me, is tremendous. I wouldn’t trade places with anyone!”

Turning the page
“When I was 19, I travelled to France. I was studying science and was considering going into medicine, but I decided to take a year off. I had top grades, but I missed music, so I left to go work in Paris. When I got back to Manitoba, I decided that I was going to do everything I possibly could to earn a living from my music. I abandoned all my other projects. And that’s what I did.”

Musically speaking, duo Alfa Rococo has constantly evolved, ever since their first steps as a band in 2004. Following a very promising debut album (Lever l’ancre, 2007) that was chock-full of high energy electro-pop ditties formatted for FM radio, David Bussières and Justine Laberge followed up with Chasser le malheur in 2010, a sophomore effort that was undoubtedly more sophisticated, but also much darker. Then, in 2014, the chic tandem dropped Nos cœurs ensemble, a much more organic-sounding album that’s informed as much by ‘80s new wave as by Passion Pit’s sunny pop, the result being a very accomplished work filled with 11 potential hits that are as engaging as they are danceable.

As far as Bussières is concerned, a great pop tune must first and foremost have a killer melodic hook, but it also requires lyrics the listener can easily remember: “Simplicity is key. It’s the same as a great guitar riff: it needs to be short and punchy, so its etched in your mind. A great pop song is the perfect balance between the music and lyrics, they must be in sync and express the same energy. Everything needs to flow and groove while remaining accessible.”

“Talking about love in a sincere way is quite a challenge.”

Songs of Love

The dark melodies and torn-apart, inward-looking lyrics of Chasser le malheur are far behind. On their new album, the Laberge/Bussières team adopted a much more positive outlook, not unlike the rainbow that follows a storm. “When you think about it, almost 98% of love songs are about breakups,” says Bussières. “We were in a very positive state of mind during the creation of this album, we wanted to express the power of love. We have been together as a couple for 15 years, and that’s what we’ve experienced. Yet talking about love in a sincere way is quite a challenge. It’s not that easy to find the right angle, the right tone, and to not sound cheesy. Looking back at this album, I think we can safely say we’ve succeeded.”

Recently married, David and Justine set out to celebrate love with Nos cœurs ensemble (literally, “our hearts together”), and understandably so. For Bussières, who sings and plays guitar, being a couple in a creative environment not only advances but greatly simplifies sharing ideas. “The more we work together, the more this is becoming one of our greatest strengths. We are each other’s first audience, Justine is my second pair of ears. Your best friend might not always tell you the truth, but when you’re a couple, it’s much easier to be truthful. We’re constantly sharing ideas and working on songs. It truly is a full-time job. I can understand that for some people, it can become alienating to work with your life partner, but not for us.”

New Beginnings

Now signed to Coyote Records, Alfa Rococo is writing a new chapter of their career, a necessary move for the artists. Says Bussières: “It was a positive move, it brought a breath of fresh air to our project. It was beneficial, and boosted our motivation immensely. We talk to people at our label very often and keep in touch with what’s happening, we have a very proactive relationship with our label. It’s also a challenge for us since we need to deliver, and that makes us want to work even harder.”

Since November 2013, the couple also runs their own home studio, an invaluable investment that facilitates their creative process. “It’s a small lab that helps us avoid making mistakes between the moment where we come up with an idea and the moment where we actually record the song,” says Bussières. “Let’s just say it saves a lot in travel time. We often have most of our ideas in the morning, so the studio is right there, a few steps away, allowing us to work anytime we feel like it. The downside is we don’t see people much when we’re in the creative process, and we even become slightly misanthropic after awhile.”

Justine gave birth to their first child in January 2015, but Alfa Rococo will already be back onstage in April. For the musicians, taking a whole year off was simply out of the question; they love being on stage too much for that. “It’s important for us to keep going, to move forward,” says Bussières. “The birth of our first child was a wonderful moment and we want to take it all in, but we need to play! Our stage show is a work-in-progress, we’re constantly improving on it. To us, playing live is like our recess after work. It’s what we love the most, and being away from the stage for too long would literally drive us mad!”

Turning the page
“I played on Dobacaracol’s 2004 album, Soley, and it was fun, but I felt I needed a project of my own, I needed something more. Next, I worked for Cirque du Soleil and thought: we’re going to go on tour, play at night and we’ll compose during the day. We started Alfa Rococo around that time and we started saving up to produce our first album. In early 2005, we went on a European tour for a year. We composed most of the first album’s songs in hotel rooms.” – David Bussières