When it comes to songwriter reality, truth is better than fiction.

At least, that’s how it’s worked for Virginia To Vegas principal Derik Baker, who’s scored more than 260 million streams (and three SOCAN Awards) since he began the project back in 2014.

“I think every good song comes from a true story – or at least a little bit of it,” says former tour guide Baker, a few weeks after releasing his second EP of 2020, don’t wake me, I’m dreaming, and his latest single “Palm Springs (the way you made me feel),” following the earlier A Constant State of Improvement. “Where I really started to connect with people that were fans of my music was when I started to tell stories that were more authentic to myself. So, it’s an anomaly – the more specific you are to past experience, the more it touches people.”

Ergo, the backstory to “Betterman,” a milkshake-smooth pop ditty that’s earned Baker 10 million streams thus far. “‘Betterman’ is the true story of me driving home from Los Angeles with my tail between my legs, after a bad breakup and at a low point in my life,”  Baker recalls of 2019’s re-location to Toronto. “I had my dog in the passenger seat, and my car filled with furniture and pictures, realizing that I was going to move back into a bachelor apartment and start my life over.”

Baker says the melancholic nature of the experience offered a particular challenge in terms of appealing the song to a pop audience. “How do you tell it in a poetic way, that’s catchy, and for people sing along to?”

And then there’s his biggest hit, the 50-million-streams-and-counting “Just Friends.” “That song is a story about summer infatuation in Toronto,” the Virginia-born Baker explains. “The song idea is that I was living in L.A., but writing a song about Toronto while I was in Toronto, [about] missing Toronto.

“How do you tell it in a poetic way, that’s catchy, for people sing along to?”

“There’s a line in the song that says, ‘So why don’t we go out and get a drink in the west end,’ and the initial version was, ‘Why don’t go get a room at the Westin,’ as I was talking about the Westin Harbour Castle hotel on Queen’s Quay. The song’s about how you’re having an awesome summer day, being on a boat on the lake, you know, that feeling when you’re in Toronto, feeling a little day-drunk, and having a really great time with someone that you’re infatuated with.  So, it was trying to capture that emotion.”

The Wax Records artist, responsible for such Canadian Top 10 hits  as “We Are Stars (featuring Alyssa Reid),” “Selfish,” and “Lights Out,” says he prefers to write with a team.  He’s established a coterie of collaborators that includes professional songwriters Mike Wise, Justin Alexis, David Charles Fischer, Geoff Warburton, and Nathan Ferraro.

“Everybody brings something different to the table, whether that’s melodic output; or having access to cool vocabulary; or being able to check the math on something; or structure the overall arc of the story,” says Baker, who’s formed a partnership with Republic Records for this new EP. “Everybody has different strengths and weaknesses. I find that with my  group of friends, what we do together complements each other, and makes my best music, in my opinion.”

And what does Baker consider his own greatest strength? “I really like context, and story, and thinking of colour – like, let’s paint the picture of this specific situation,” he replies. “My friend Geoff is really good at articulating on how to say things that make the most sense, while my buddy DCF – if we can’t get that one perfect rhyme, he’s like a workhorse, he never gives up. So it’s kind of neat.”

“Does this make me a Grammy-nominated producer???” Toronto producer FrancisGotHeat tweeted on the day the 2021 Grammy nominations were announced. Of course, the 24-year old was being coy – he actually was part of the nomination for a Best Reggae Album Grammy, for his work on Skip Marley’s song, “Higher Place.”

Racquel Villagante, FrancisGotHeat, Camille Mathews, SOCAN

Racquel Villagante, FrancisGotHeat, Camille Mathews

Known primarily for his hip-hop productions over the past few years, the producer admitted he was surprised by the nomination being in a reggae category. But he welcomed the “pretty crazy”  creative process around the song, which he attributes to his connection with Malay, a Los Angeles-based producer who’s worked with Frank Ocean, John Legend, and Alicia Keys, among many others.

“ [Malay] likes to involve me in a lot of the projects he’s working on,” says FrancisGotHeat. “I had sent him the beat earlier. And then he took one element from the beat I sent him, and he built his own melodies around that… Then he sent me that back, I put on some drums, and some 808s, and some bass. And that’s all the record really needed. I sent it back to Malay, who’s in the studio with Skip during all of this. He heard it and jumped on the beat, and then he FaceTimed me right away, he had to tell me, like, ‘Yo, man, this is so fire,’  and all that. It was pretty much organic, even though we weren’t in the same room.”

FrancisGotHeat’s working relationship, being signed with Malay, means he also has production credits for pop artists like Zayn and Lykke Li, and he says the experience has helped broaden his creativity. “What I love about working with him is, he’s never doing hip-hop or R&B, like I usually am,” says Francis. “So he’s always pushing my boundaries, trying to force me to have a bigger sound than I have already. It always drives me to try something different, that I would never normally try.”

FrancisGotHeat first came to prominence as a hip-hop producer, with his self-described “ambient and eerie” sound, notching credits for local artists like Tre Mission and Roy Woods – before his major breakthrough scoring the Sampha-featuring  “4422” from Drake’s More Life project. This success came after logging time and making crucial connections at The Remix Project.

“On a lot of my streams, I probably spend more time talking to the audience than making the beat”

It was at that renowned creative hub that he was able to fine-tune his love for hip-hop with his background as a multi-instrumentalist, and strengthen his working relationship with Wondagurl –  who he met in their teenage years, at Toronto’s Battle of the Beatmakers, where they engaged in an extended face-off battle. Francis attributes that night as the moment Toronto’s music scene was put on notice about the then-15-year-old’s potential.

Since then, FrancisGotHeat and Wondagurl have gone on to work together on tracks such as Big Sean and Eminem’s “No Favors,” Bryson Tiller’s “Blowing Smoke” and Lil Uzi Vert’s “Feelings Mutual. ”She’ll just, like, ask me for a particular vibe, or I’ll start playing something,” says FracisGotHeat. “And then she’ll just say, ‘Oh, that’s dope,’ and I’ll just keep building off it. When I feel like it’s ready, I’ll send it to her again, she’ll do her thing.  Working with Wondagurl is one of the easiest things ever.”

Like everyone else, FrancisGotHeat found that the ease of his creative process was impacted by COVID-19. In the early days of  the North American lockdown, like many producers and DJs, he made his presence known on Instagram.  But then, feeling restricted by the one-hour window time-slots, he made the switch to Twitch, after seeing what producer Kenny Beats was doing on the platform.

“I decided to try it out, because he was the only other producer on there, really,” says Francis. “And then the audio is way better on Twitch, and they can actually see my whole screen. And I can actually talk to people properly on there. I’m very shy to begin with, so for me to even try to do it was really, really weird at first. But the first stream, I had very low expectations, and then 30 people pulled up. I’m, like, ‘Wow, okay, you know what, I’m just gonna keep this going.’”

Over the past few months, FrancisGotHeat’s online confidence has grown in step with his audience, which regularly numbers in the thousands, as he’s let viewers in on his process of creating beats, and hosted songwriting sessions with Jessie Reyez, and his frequent collaborator Anders, among others.

Yet for FrancisGotHeat, the streams also provide him with an opportunity to give back. He recently held Heat Check, a songwriting contest that doled out music-production software to the top three entrants, and he’s also raised money for charities. Days after the Grammy nomination, he hosted a prize-pack remix contest, playing an impressive mountain of remixes, submitted by emerging producers, of a song by Los Angeles vocalist NEVRMIND.

Throughout the event, Francis remained humble and readily accessible to the audience, and the producers chiming in on the chat. While he’s providing opportunities for up-and-coming beatmakers, it’s evident that FrancisGotHeat gets as much out of the process as he puts in. “On a lot of my streams, I probably spend more time talking to the audience,  answering questions and bantering with them, than making the beat,” says Francis.  “One thing they’ve told me is, a lot of producers don’t talk to them on their stream. I find that weird, because the main reason I’m on here is to talk to you guys, answer your questions, and whatnot.”  (He was similarly open about his production techniques at a SOCAN “Cooking Beats” session at Canadian Music Week in 2018.)

Now, in the pandemic era, FrancisGotHeat considers his streaming sessions an inherent part of his workflow, despite his initial reluctance  “They [Twitch] were really on me about it,” he says. “Like, ‘Yo, you can’t just do it one time, you got to keep it consistent. Because you’re not gonna see results in a week, it’s gonna take time’… And then, after the first month or two, I got really comfortable with it. Now it’s like second nature to me.”

This fall, British Columbia-founded, Toronto-based duo Once A Tree –  Jayli Wolf and Hayden Wolf – released their new EP Fool’s Paradise, the follow-up to their 2018 Indigenous Music Award-winning album, Phoenix. On the new release, they explore loss, trust, and love that heals, and frees. For the couple, and creative partners, these themes — once resigned to love songs on the radio — became reality when they met.

Raised in B.C., each grew up in the Doomsday religion — an apocalyptic belief system that proselytizes disasters that will destroy Earth and humankind. Both young, aspiring, multi-disciplinary creatives — Jayli is an actress, Hayden a photographer —were forbidden from pursuing their artistic dreams. But a virtual chance meeting changed everything.

“We started communicating long-distance, through social media,” explains Jayli. “We were both doubting the doctrine of our community.”

After bonding online, Hayden decided it was time to do so in real life, jumping on a Greyhound bus for a 13-hour ride to Jayli’s hometown. The pair spent their first night together writing music, and the next month making art. All of the art-making eventually led to love. Realizing that they had something special, they wasted little time.  Excommunicated from their community by family and friends, they took off to Toronto with just their suitcases and guitars.

“I won a songwriting contest through APTN,” says Jayli. “They were going to just fly me out to Toronto to shoot a music video.  I asked them if instead of getting me a return flight, they could get us two one-way tickets. We had no money, we didn’t really know anyone here at first, and we were on-and-off homeless. But then Hayden was accepted into a non-profit arts program called The Remix Project. That’s when he started to really focus on his beat-making, and experimenting with different production styles.”

Hayden grew up with a camera in hand. Once in Toronto, he used every opportunity to forge new connections, doing gigs whenever the opportunity arrived. Then an angel, and Canadian music icon, by the name of Gord Downie, popped up.

“I was offered a gig doing BTS [behind the scenes] photos for a short film,” says Hayden. “When I got to set, I realized that the lead actor was the Gord Downie. During a break for lunch I thought to myself, ‘Man this is your chance to share your music with someone big in the industry.’ I got the courage to go ask if I could show him some of my stuff. Gord was one of the most down-to-earth, gentle souls. He sat with me and listened, while giving me some great advice. That’s when the writer of the short film overheard the music and approached us. His name was Gavin Sheppard. He told me how he helped start a program called The Remix Project, and that I should apply.”

“We had no money, we didn’t really know anyone, we were on-and-off homeless” – Jayli Wolf of Once A Tree

Hayden was accepted into the program, opening doors that may never have happened otherwise, including their first indie record deal, music management, and a job working for Drake’s OVO brand. Working with the OVO team gave him a rare, much-sought-after education in making art.

“I [became] Senior Photographer at OVO for over four years.” says Hayden, “getting to produce and direct visual content for the brand. It taught me an extreme work ethic. The whole team around Drake are dedicated visionaries, and it was an incredible experience to work alongside them.”

Today, the pair are taking their vision further. Once A Tree – described by Hayden as the circle of life, “knowing that energy doesn’t die, it transforms” — fuses organic folk instruments with electronic beats, to tell stories of resilience and loyalty against all odds. Their song “Born for This” was selected for a 2018 Nissan KICKS national TV ad campaign. The stunning pair also create all the visual content around their work ,and they’re each working on solo projects – Jayli on a debut solo album (which promises to be raw and personal), and Hayden producing cover art and music for various Toronto up-and-comers (including Jayli).

Looking back, they both marvel at their fortuitous connection. Hayden says it’s allowed them to access lives they may not have had, if not for each other: “I think these themes [love, sacrifice, and healing], we never fully experienced before we met each other and started a new life together. We now experience unconditional love from the people in our lives. We’ve made friends that love us for who we are, not just the God we pray to. We feel like underdogs in a lot of ways, but we’ve never given up on ourselves or our dreams. We keep aiming to bring more love into our everyday lives, more joy, more freedom.”

Songwriting: Sharing the Dream

  • “Make sure to listen to the world around you. You never know what line someone will say that could inspire a song. Or what sound could ignite ideas for production on a song.”
  • “Write with other songwriters [as the duo did at the 2018 SOCAN Kenekt Songwriting camp]. We just started collaborating more, and bringing in new energy to our writing spaces. It’s good to riff off of others.”
  • “Always write with your voice recorder on. You never know what little melody will come out in the most perfect way.”
  • “I think for us, writing about personal experiences, or things with which we have a deep connection, allows us to create intimate and more vulnerable lyrics.”