“I try not to think,” xSDTRK says of songwriting.  But the Montreal songwriter-producer-artist, whose credits include Jennifer Lopez, Jessie J, Karl Wolf, Ricky J and Jessie Labelle, puts a lot of thought into making progress.

“A few years ago, I stopped producing to song-write, to understand the concept of the song and really sit in the songwriter’s chair,” he says, “and then I slowly found myself [going] into producing again.”

“If I sit down to do something that doesn’t push forward then I may as well not do it.”

His production and writing credits continue to grow – including recent tracks for Jennifer Lopez – but he’s also just dropped his own EP, Canvas. He sings on a few of the songs. One cut, “PowDer,” a sultry atmospheric track featuring Thes on vocals, came out last June.

xSDTRK – whose given name is Yonatan Ayal – is not expecting radio play or an Anglophone Song of the Year Award like the one he received at the Francophone edition of the 2011 SOCAN Awards for Ricky J’s “Whatta Night.”

“It’s not so song-based. It’s more production-heavy,” he says of his own material. “It’s kind of free-form. It comes back to the same thing of not thinking about it too much. Me locked in my basement, just trying to create a linear immersive experience.  Some people will define it as trippy; I think it’s just audio cinema.”

Ayal’s parents gave him until he was 25 to make a go of a music career. He made it. He’s 25.  He had studied piano with the Royal Conservatory since the age of three, and could get around playing most instruments. Then in his teens he started making beats “by necessity,” for some high school friends who were rapping.

“I picked up the DAW [digital audio workstation] and just started going at it,” he says. “It slowly evolved into what it is today.” Using Abelton and ProTools, Ayal focuses on making quirky beats that push boundaries, “because if I sit down to do something that doesn’t push forward then I may as well not do it,” he says.

His work on Karl Wolf’s “Yala Habibi” was the song that opened doors.  “That really introduced me to the Canadian industry and then I moved on to the United States a few years later,” he says. A major leg up was an invitation from Leon “Roccstar” Youngblood to participate in his songwriting camp for JLo, which yielded “Acting Like That” (feat. Iggy Azalea) and “So Good,” on her recent A.K.A. album.

“I don’t believe in luck,” Ayal says. “I just calculate what it takes to get to a certain point. The only thing I can control is my education and making sure that I keep getting better.”

Track Record

  • Earned 2011 JUNO Award  nomination for R&B/Soul Recording of the Year, for his co-write with Karl Wolf, “Nightlife”
  • xSDTRK co-writes,  Karl Wolf’s “Yalla Habibi” and Ricky J’s “Whatta Night,”  were both certified gold
  • xSDTRK’s website says he has “dreams of creating a symphony of noise that evokes influences such as Björk and dizzying tribal 808s.”

BMG Rights Management Canada, Primary Wave
Selected Discography: “Boss Bitch,” Yung Berg (2009); “Numb,” Karl Wolf (2010); “Illusions,” Millimillz feat. Avery Storm (2012); “Le Poise,” Luu Breeze (2013)
Visit http://xsdtrk.com/
SOCAN member since 2010

Sylvain Cossette isn’t about to take a break just because he’s sold more than a million albums. “I see each new achievement as one more ‘step’ on my professional ladder,” says the guitarist and singer-songwriter as he looks back on a 25-year career bookended by the creation of the Anglophone band Paradox in the late 1980s and the release, in October 2014, of Accords, an album of original Francophone compositions.

Over time, this pure, self-taught artist added strings to his guitar and matured into a seasoned songwriter. “Comme l’océan, my 1994 album, marked the beginning of my solo adventure,” the musician recalls. “It was a turning point. I had started writing and composing more or less by accident, and my onstage introduction of “Tu reviendras” (“You’ll Be Back”), my very first self-penned song, was so tentative that the audience might have thought I was ashamed of it. Yet it went on to be included in the ADISQ Awards’ list of the 10 most popular songs of 1994, and won a SOCAN Award the following year. That encouraged me to write more songs.”

“I felt the need to perform more intimate, acoustic shows in the smaller venues I visited many years ago.”

Later on, Blanc (1996), a collection of original songs, remained on the Top 50 album chart for 50 weeks. “It was a revelation to me,” admits Cossette, who went on to consolidate his reputation as a songwriter and virtuoso singer with his stirring performance of “Que je t’aime” (“How I Love You”) on the self-produced and self-arranged Humain album, as well as with his role in 250 performances of the Notre-Dame-de-Paris rock opera, the Rendez-vous album, the Dracula musical, the writing of the Les 7 musical tale, his work on Andrée Watters’ albums and, more recently, the phenomenal success of his “Best of the ‘70s” series, with three CD releases and promotional tours.

Now the time has come for a simpler, more introspective career phase for the immensely popular artist: “After spending 12 years on the road with a 53-foot truck, and performing in Québec’s most prestigious venues with state-of-the-art equipment, I felt the need to perform more intimate, acoustic shows in the smaller venues I visited many years ago, like Québec’s Petit Champlain or Montreal’s Gesù Theatre. My Rétrospective piano-and-voice album, which I released last year, helped me make the transition between the ‘mad supershows’ of many years and what’s shaping up. My audiences often told me they wanted to her me perform my own songs again, and I heard them.”

Songwriting comes easily to Cossette, who explains that “it’s as if I have songs in my mind that are begging to come out. Channels seem to open up, and music and lyrics often align themselves in a couple of hours. I’m 51,” the road-weary performer adds, “and as I get older, I feel the need to simplify instead of accumulating. I’ve discovered the Pareto principle, the 80-20 rule. And I asked myself if I was willing to spend 80% of my time with the 20 people out of 100 who are my true friends. Now I avoid situations that lead nowhere, and I spend more time with the people who really matter – my children, my girlfriend, those who are close to me. This is more or less the theme of Accords. At 18, you’re running all the time. Then, you slow down, you can see better, you have a need to be at peace with yourself, with nature and with the world. You stop punishing yourself for past mistakes. You’re in a better place. There’s a feeling of serenity about this. Today, I make harmonious choices. In ‘Qu’adviendra-t-il de nous?’ [‘What Will Become of Us?’], I express my desire to go forward, to bite into life in spite of the fact that, one day, ‘everything will be gone.’ In ‘Notre monde’ (‘Our World’), I talk about a desire to use country roads instead of the highway the better to enjoy the company of your travelling companion.”

True to his musical roots, Cossette, on his brand new album, mostly uses guitars (of which he has acquired an impressive collection over the years) to express his moods using various folk, rock or ballad-like sounds. Locked away in his studio, he did almost everything himself – from instrumental tracks to voice, harmonies, arrangements and production – before handing the result to his guitarist and colleague Matt Laurent before the final mix. The recording was produced by S7, Cossette’s own production company.

Following an Accords fall promotional tour, the Cossette clan was planning a January 2015 series of small-scale, intimate shows featuring Matt Laurent and Martin Héon on guitars, Sébastien Langlois on drums and piano, Andrée Watters, and Cossette’s daughters Élisabeth, 23, on voice and bass and Judith, 24, who’ll be handling still and video cameras as part of a book she’s writing on her father’s career. The family that plays together, stays together.

Fontarabie (not to be confused with the Spanish commune of Fontarrabie, spelled with two r’s in French) is the name of an ambitious music project undertaken by Malajube leader Julien Mineau between two album releases by his highly popular band. Part film soundtrack and part classical or pops orchestra music, Fontarabie’s recently released first self named album stemmed from Mineau’s desire to take a break from Malajube’s brazenly diverse music style and try something different in the privacy of his own Ste-Ursule, Québec, home.

“I’ve changed since I started out. I wrote Trompe-l’œil when I was 22. Now I’m 33, and a completely different person. There’s very little left over from that earlier period.”

“I’d been working on personal projects and learning new techniques alone in my house for quite some time,” Mineau explains, “but I always lost interest before I could complete anything. It was either too complicated, or I was too busy playing with Malajube. Solo projects always ended up being dropped. This last project required a certain level of creative maturity, and I also wanted to be relaxed and without any stress. I wanted to create something meaningful that didn’t feel like work. I turned my house into a training lab. I bought mics, set up a small studio and leaned a few trades, such as those of arranger, mixer and sound technician. I quite enjoy doing stuff on my own without having to wait for a grant.”

Spread over a two-year period (2012-14), the creation of Fontarabie progressed slowly in an appropriately serene environment. “It’s been an extended studio session,” says Mineau. “I hardly went out to take in live music. I isolated to some extent, but I was comfortable at home with my girlfriend and my dogs. I’m a bit of a hermit anyway, more of a homebody.”

The 14 pieces on the album are only a fraction of the material Mineau accumulated for his impressive solo project. In making his final selection from some 50 songs, his chief consideration was the unity of the finished product. “I didn’t want to spread myself too thin,” he says. “I wanted something coherent with meaning and an overall thrust. Initially, it was all over the place, but I sorted things out, and that was quite a long process. I went about building the album instinctively, but I re-did some pieces dozens of times before I could finally say I was pleased with the result. That’s always been my attitude with music – I do it for myself first and foremost. I have to admit that I ended up putting pressure on myself toward the end, though. I fine-tuned many of the songs. I’d call myself a perfectionist, but not a maniac – that would be too dangerous,” he deadpans.

Sometimes reminiscent of Danny Elfman’s film compositions, Fontarabie’s music (performed by six musicians including Timber Timbre’s Simon Trottier) can also be likened to Hammer Productions or David Lynch film soundtracks. “I’m not a great listener to film music,” Mineau admits,“but that was certainly in my subconscious. I wanted to create evocations of early motion pictures, kitschy stuff, Columbo, violin glissandos. It was an exercise, really. Plus, I don’t like blending the colour of my voice into the music I make. I often think that this could alter the mood by providing too much information. That’s why half of the album pieces are instrumental.”

Even for film-like or mysterious instrumental selections such as “Morula” or “Cosmogonie,” Mineau invariably turned to the piano to compose his pieces (although he plays some ten instruments on the album). The writing of the lyrics, however, was his greatest creative challenge. “Had I decided to go without voices altogether, the album would have been able to come out last year,” he says. “All the music was ready. I must say, writing lyrics is not my idea of fun. It’s time-consuming, and much less instinctive. And more painful, too. I can come up with the music for three songs in a single day, but when it comes to lyrics, I’m always a bit stuck. I refuse to write meaningless sentences or bad puns. I’ve changed since I started out. I wrote Trompe-l’œil when I was 22. Now I’m 33, a completely different person. There’s very little left over from that earlier period,” he stresses.

After performing a memorable show last summer at the Montreal FrancoFolies festival (with 17 musicians onstage), spending some time in the New Brunswick countryside and taking part in the Festival de musique émergente en Abitibi-Témiscamingue (FMEAT), Mineau’s future plans are simple: “Writing and performing music on a daily basis, that’s what I want to do right now. Also, we never know where Malajube is going to go next, but I already have one or two Fontarabie albums in the bank. I’m on a roll in the studio, and I’d rather play stand-alone shows that go on tour at this stage in my life. Plus,” Mineau prudently adds, “I’ve made a copy of my hard drive. So, if my house burns down, I won’t lose all that work.” And neither will we.