The first time The Tom Fun Orchestra performed for an audience, more than a few of the musicians in the band were playing songs they’d barely heard once, if at all. It was 2005 and the East Coast Music Awards were being held in Sydney, Nova Scotia. Though he’d only been writing and performing his own music for a few months while travelling in Scotland, singer-songwriter Ian MacDougall decided he was ready to perform for his hometown, and figured the musical event was as good an opportunity as any for a show. Two days after his return to Cape Breton, MacDougall was onstage with nine friends, performing his songs for a crowd.

“We’re a bunch of friends doing something absolutely ridiculous, and who now get to travel to weird places together.” – Ian MacDougall

“I imagine it was terrible,” laughs MacDougall in his characteristically self-deprecating style. “I think that’s why I wanted to have such a big band. I figured if there were enough of us, we couldn’t be that bad!” But early audiences responded well to the band’s eclectic energy, comparing them to everything from Broken Social Scene to the Pogues. “We were fueled by the feedback,” MacDougall recalls. “We realized we enjoyed it and wanted to take it more seriously.”

Two full-length albums and a handful of awards later, The Tom Fun Orchestra is still going strong. While the band currently tours with seven people (ranging in age from 24 to 42), more than 30 have been included on the roster over the years. “It’s nice because there is such an abundance of talent around here,” says MacDougall, who sings, plays guitar, and writes the songs. Though he didn’t grow up playing music, MacDougall, who has a “fondness for words in a big way”, was first drawn to songwriting because of the space it allowed him to play with language.

“I figured if there were enough of us, we couldn’t be that bad!” – Ian MacDougall

With a new album in the works, the band’s sound continues to evolve (recent incarnations have made room for more guitars and fewer fiddles). MacDougall says he’s constantly amazed and thankful that their music has taken them as far as it has – including on tours through Australia and the U.K. “I think what’s really special about this whole thing,” says MacDougall, “is that it’s a bunch of friends doing something absolutely ridiculous, and who now get to travel to weird places together.”

Track Record
• Tom Fun is a nickname that MacDougall says he “got stuck with a long time ago”. The band’s early incarnations were all variations on the theme, but they settled on The Tom Fun Orchestra when it came time to record their first album.
• While he says it is never intentional, MacDougall admits that Cape Breton often creeps in as a theme in his writing. “It’s where we grew up and where we have spent most of our lives – and somehow it always burns its way into the songs.”
• The Tom Fun Orchestra won the Galaxy Rising Star Award at the 2009 EMCAs, followed by an award for Video of the Year in 2010. They also won Music Nova Scotia Awards in 2008 for Entertainer of the Year and Galaxy Rising Star.

When asked how she started playing the blues, King City, Ont.-born singer-songwriter Amanda Zelina (alias The Coppertone) is quick to answer. “It wasn’t a choice,” she says. “As soon as my young ears heard John Lee Hooker’s ‘Boom Boom,’ I was hooked.”

A fresh face in the world of modern blues artists, The Coppertone draws inspiration from the classic sounds of down- south American blues, but with her own honest take on it. Her latest album, Hymns for the Hollow, came out in May of 2013. Now based in L.A., she’s currently running an Indiegogo campaign to help fund her next album.

For the members of Hôtel Morphée, patience always was a virtue. Ever since their very beginning in 2008, the Outaouais-born band chose to evolve at its own pace, choosing to start by releasing a slew of EP to satisfy their core audience first and foremost. Now Montréal-based, the band is composed of Laurence Nerbonne (vocals, guitars, violin), Blaise Borboën-Léonard (violin, keyboards), André Pelletier (guitars, vocals) and Stéphane Lemieux (drums). Lemieux couldn’t be happier that the band took so many years to learn and experiment. “Five years might sound like a long time, but bear in mind that we didn’t know each other. Hôtel Morphée really is a meeting of musicians. No more, no less. Laurence was looking for a project to embark upon, we met, and other people tagged along. Some have left, other remain. We had to get to know each other, to play and create together, to find affinities and a sound of our own. These things take time. Elaborating a bona fide serious artistic approach does not happen overnight. The album is the accomplishment of this,” explains the musician.

Launched with much fanfare by Audiogram, the album landed in record store bins last February. Produced by Philippe Brault (Pierre Lapointe),  Des histoires de fantômes is a window on an impressively assured, inspired and adventurous band: solid rock structures with electro tinges, soaring atmospheres, delicate arrangements, and highly emotional yet sibylline lyrics. In other words, it is quite obviously the work of a band that has acquired a glowing maturity and cohesiveness. Laurence remembers the quartet’s roots: “When we first met, we didn’t even know the inner workings of a music band. We mostly wanted to play live and try all kinds of stiff. We lacked direction. We recorded songs for our friends who were following us, but we needed to be more rigorous. Working on an album, however, was quite different. For the first time, we really concentrated on the lyrics and the music.”

Brothers and Sisters
If Hôtel Morphée are adamant about one thing, it’s the fact that being finalists at the 2010 edition of the Festival international de la chanson de Granby was a great learning experience. It is through their participation that they truly learned what being a band really is. Stéphane explains: “It was the first time we left Montréal to get set up in a rented house. That’s where we truly realized that we did get along artistically and personally. A band is more than just a rehearsal space. It’s also the meals, the bedrooms, the beer. Granby was a test for us. After that, we knew we could operate as a band.”

Laurence adds: “A band is like a marriage. It’s fragile. When you start playing, you need to make sure you get along with each individual. It’s a fallacy to think you can play with just anyone. After a few years, it becomes les a family, a unit. The boys have become brothers to me. It is rare that this cohesiveness is perfect and lasting. Whether we like it or not, it’s hard to always work with the same people.”

Doing Things Differently
Laurence is the main writer in the band, having penned 10 out of the album’s 11 songs. She confides being particularly moved by the work of Thom Yorke (Radiohead). While she admires many Québec writers, she believes the province needs a creative renewal. “People who take risks are exciting and I get the impression we have become a little too tame lately in Québec; we’ve had much more rebellious and exciting periods in our music. We need to start doing things differently. We do have an incredibly rich legacy from people like Robert Charlebois and Jean-Pierre Ferland who did things their way. It’s because of rebels like them if our music scene is what it is today. We can write eloquently in French. Jean Leloup did it with a magnificent touch of craziness and incredible poetry. We need to go back to our roots,” says the young woman.

After receiving rave reviews from the influential French magazine Les Inrockuptibles and a performance at last year’s FrancoFolies, Hôtel Morphée wants to keep the momentum going. The band members have paid their dues, and the stage is where they wish to be as one with the public. With shows booked solid for months to come, Laurence reiterates how crucial each of the musicians is. “The work we do in Hôtel Morphée is like clockwork and each of us is essential. Our music is dense because we create it with many, many layers. It’s a collective effort, which is not always easy to accomplish since we all have different energies. Therein lies the challenge when we need to be in unison. I think it’s a challenge for any band. But you know what? I’ve wanted to be in a band my whole life. When the creative muses possess us, whether it’s on stage or in rehearsal, and that we are all on the same wavelength, that’s when being in a band becomes magical, it’s what I thrive on and it’s why I’m still doing music.”