Sometimes the video store in Marieville, Québec (about 40 minutes east of Montréal), would receive compact discs, those precious pieces of plastic that once had the power to reveal an entire universe to someone, and occasionally even open the doors to their future. “The video store in Marieville survived more than a majority of others. I vividly remember its checkered flooring. I remember the employees were eccentrics,” says Thierry Larose, paying tribute to these oases of culture that were, before the advent of streaming platforms, these places inevitably impregnated with the smell of fluorescent yellow popcorn.

Thierry LaroseBut why are we talking about the video store in Marieville, a quaint little town in the outskirts of Montréal? Because that’s where Larose grew up. And because his first album, Cantalou, opens with a song, “Club vidéo,” which is to this record what “La Monogamie” was to Trompe-l’œil by Malajube: a thirsty, tragic, and intoxicating fresco, tortuous yet celebratory, balancing murmurs with roaring guitars, in which the singer announces – with a remarkable sense of unforgettable method – that he’s not the kind of person who’ll tolerate banality.

As he sings, Étions-nous faits pour ce que la vraie vie nous propose/ Que faire de notre penchant pour le grandiose/ Quand tout autour nous rappelle à l’ordre et à l’habitude? / Viens on va se mettre un film” (Were we made for what real life has in store for us / What about our penchant for the grandiose / When everything around us begs for order and habit? / Come, let’s put a movie on).

“When the video store received batches of CDs, they sometimes came from Dare to Care/Grosse Boîte,” says the 23-year-old artist, referring to Malajube’s record label, which was also home to the artists La Patère rose and Avec pas d’casque. Today, it has been re-christened Bravo musique after Béatrice Martin bought it, and Cantalou  is the first official release of the new label. At the same time, the pre-teen Larose was a devout listener of the Radio-Canada’s Bande à part sessions, and the show Mange ta ville, hosted by Catherine Pogonat, which allowed him to explore the teeming local Montréal scene by proxy. “I dreamt about it all!” he says.

“The minute I saw the Dare to Care/Grosse Boîte logo on a CD at the video store, I knew I’d most likely like it. I bought Trois chaudières de sang [Avec pas d’casque’s first album] and I remember thinking it was so raw that it was unbelievable someone had released that on CD, and that I could do that too. It’s incredible that it made it to Marieville among all the Michel Louvain and Patrick Norman.”

After a two-year stint at the University of Sherbrooke in English studies, Larose took the opportunity presented by an internship in Montréal to seriously tackle songwriting. He participated in the 2019 Francouvertes with little stage experience, but an undeniable instinct for choruses that settled permanently in the minds of those who heard him – a rare quality that was noticed by Alexandre Martel. The latter musician, who has manned the console for Hubert Lenoir and Alex Burger, has now co-produced Cantalou.

“I asked Martel if we could go big and use all the good songs on side A and the rest later on,” says Larose, admitting that he applied the same approach as Malajube’s Trompe-l’oeil, which began with a bang before settling down halfway through, and ending on fireworks (“Rachel” and “Les éléphants” being Cantalou’s “Étienne d’août” and “St-Fortunat”).

Although the B-side of Cantalou – the most 2006-sounding record of 2021 – also contains its moments of grace, it had indeed been a long time since the first few tracks of an album had been as exhilarating as its 1- 2- 3-4 punch: “Club vidéo,” followed by the gumball grunge of the title track, then the heady “Les amants de Pompéi,” and “Chanson pour Bérénice Einberg” – this last a kind of “Ducharmian” fan fiction piece dedicated to the glory of the main character of L’avalée des avalés (translated twice as both The Swallower Swallowed and Swallowed). “It’s a 100 percent sincere love letter to someone who doesn’t actually exist,” giggles Larose, a savvy lyricist who knows how to evoke a lot while saying little.

Ben non, moi non plus j’pleure jamais voyons donc” (“Of course I never cry”), he sings on Cantalou, with something in his voice hinting at the fact that the truth lies elsewhere, a trick he borrowed from Leonard Cohen. “The first time I heard such a thing was in ‘Chelsea Hotel #2,’ when he says, ‘That’s all, I don’t think of you that often,’ and you totally get that it’s so not true. I love it,” says Larose

So, what are we to do with our penchant for the grandiose when everything calls us back to order and habit at the moment? “Watch movies,” says the man who claims to have been influenced by filmmaker Richard Linklater – specifically, the bittersweet notes of his Before trilogy. “The next best thing when you don’t have access to the grandiose is fiction. That’s what I always fall back on. Writing temporarily fills that void for me, and when something grandiose happens for real, I feel like it was worth the wait.”

Emma BekoHip-hop flows right next to blood cells in Emma Beko’s veins. The young singer-songwriter, who we discovered as one half of Heartstreets, released her first solo album, Blue, in January 2021. The songs are captivating, full of dark, vivid, haunting emotions, and take us to the deep-rooted heart of a hybrid sound where hip-hop, R&B, and pop come together.

“Yes, music comes from very deep inside me. I fell in love with hip-hop beats when I was six years old,” says Beko. “My half-brothers watched Musique Plus in the late ’90s and early 2000s, when rap was huge.” Born in Budapest, Beko grew up with her mom, a ballerina, in Montréal and then New York City. “It wasn’t long before I wanted to dance, too,” she says. “I joined a hip-hop dance troupe when I was 11 and later, I got into graffiti. I surrounded myself with everything hip-hop-related, and I embraced all of its codes – except rapping, which intimidated me.”

Even though she was utterly impressed by rap battles, and wrote a lot, nothing pointed to the fact that she’d one day participate in such a way. “When I moved to New York City at 15, I decided to re-invent myself,” she recalls. “I started hanging out with people who listened to a lot of hip-hop and I decided to trust myself.” Her insecurity gave way to a desire to show people that there are other voices. “I can’t sing like the girls in TLC, but I’ve got my own thing going, a more raspy voice. You don’t need a pretty voice to rap,” she giggles.

Beko was back in Montréal two years later, and music was already at the centre of her life. As the years went by, she allowed herself to feel and express emotions that were hers alone. “My solo project had been brewing in my mind and in my heart for a few years; I wanted to find out who I am when I’m on my own,” she says. It was during one of SOCAN’s Kenekt Québec song camps, to which Heartstreets had been invited, that the stars aligned, and her desire to follow their trail became a reality. “I so wish I could go back to a song camp as a solo artist,” she says. “That’s where I met Rymz [featured on one of songs]. My life was never the same after that song camp. As soon as I got back from there, I called J.-P. Beau Geste, my producer, and we started making tracks two days later.”

Asked about the origin of her musical vibe, Erykah Badu is the first name that pops up. “Just like her, people often wonder if I’m rapping or not because there’s a melody beyond the beat,” Beko explains.

Only when she’s completely alone does Beko dare to put everything she is on paper, so her ideal writing context is an empty room, at night, with a cold beer. “It comes more naturally at night, for me,” she says. “‘MHS’ came out in an hour just, because I had the right set-up. I often write very corny or weird stuff, but when I’m on my own, I don’t feel like I have to judge myself, and that allows me to go to the logical conclusion of those ideas. Some gems end up coming out of that process. I need to write bad stuff in order to write good stuff.”

And if, these days, a little drink helps her get into a state that’s conducive to elicit the memories she wants to set to music, it’s because excess is no longer part of her life. “I like having a drink when I write music,” says Beko. “I used to consume quite a bit, but nowadays, I’ve quit smoking, I don’t do drugs, and I barely drink. I just need a couple of beers in my studio to feel O.K. re-visiting painful parts of my life, but softly — it allows me to write the nicest things.”

Quills, Rymz, and Karelle Tremblay join Beko’s solo project, which she’s eager to present in a more direct way. In mid-March of 2021, she presented a virtual live show with an impressive stage direction that offered a taste she’ll not soon forget. “I was afraid my expectations might be too high because I’ve waited for so long, but it was the biggest high I’ve had in a long time, and I would do it again every day,” she admits.

With an independent project that requires an inordinate investment of time and energy, the singer-songwriter sets the bar very high: “I want to live comfortably from my music,” says Beko. “I want my style of music to gain international recognition, and I want to deeply love all the songs I offer to my audience. I’m demanding, I know!” she says, laughing.

I watch and wait patiently for my clock to flip the next hour before I call Meg Remy, the artist who performs and records under the name U.S. Girls. I already know what she’d think of me if I phoned any later than our appointed time. “Misogynists are often late,” she writes in her first book, Begin By Telling. “They make you wait so that your confidence and certainty evaporate.”

Remy exudes confidence in everything she’s done: back when U.S. Girls was a lo-fi solo project, through the many videos she’s directed, through to the nine-piece band she’s led in recent years (it swelled to 17 while recording 2020’s Heavy Light, recorded live at Montreal’s Hotel 2 Tango). Now she’s releasing her first book, which is a big deal for the woman who admits to a “reading addiction.” She was offered a deal from Book*hug Press in June 2019, and had figured she’d write most of it while on tour in early 2020. That tour didn’t happen, obviously. Bad for the band; good for the book. “There’s no way I would have been able to accomplish this on tour,” she says. “It took so much out of me emotionally.”

Begin By Telling, Meg Remy, book, cover Begin By Telling is physically slight: at 96 pages, it has the length and layout of a poetry book. It’s not a memoir per se, nor is it a series of essays or poems. Rather, it’s a journey into the life experiences that have shaped Remy’s work. Some of them are about intensely personal trauma: abuse, rape, distress. Some are about being a child of the ’90s, how the fall of the Berlin Wall, Desert Storm, the Oklahoma bombing, the Clinton sex scandal, and 9/11 resonated in her own life. Sometimes she connects seemingly incongruous dots between racecar driving, colonialism, and objectification. Sometimes she’s shutting down doorstop evangelists by telling them, “I’ve been to hell and I’m not afraid to die.” The book is meant to be digestible, and, like her songs, lead the audience to larger questions and connections.

“My intention was: How much can I fit in as economically as possible, without also ranting?” she says. “I wanted to leave a trail of breadcrumbs that created a larger picture that was my life. I have a hard time focusing on one area of anything. I find that in my reading habits: I’ll be reading poetry, a play, a philosophy book, a novel, all at once. When you get down to it, everything is all connected, and one leads to the other.

“A lot of the book process was about purging,” she continues. “I wrote a lot, but it’s more about the things I chose to leave out. I needed to do it in a way that was safe for me”–given some of the subject matter–“and not a waste of time for anyone who was going to read it. I hear from friends that they wish they had more time to read, but they don’t, and I thought about that a lot during the process: What is important to tell? The music side of things, for me, is always less-is-more, even around performance. I’d rather leave people wanting more than have them wishing I’d get off stage. Same with albums: I love a good 10- to 12-song record.”

Her lyrics are also remarkable for conveying maximum message in minimal time. Remy is easily one of the best lyricists working in pop music today: her songs are often self-contained narratives rich with allegory. “Pearly Gates,” from 2018’s In a Poem Unlimited, portrays St. Peter demanding sexual favours before entry into heaven. “The Quiver to the Bomb,” from Heavy Light, imagines Mother Nature kicking humans off her land after technology has ravaged it. The pieces in Begin By Telling are no different.

Before she wrote songs, Remy was an avid journal-keeper as a teen, while making and exchanging fanzines by mail in the days before message boards. Her music career began its ascent after moving from her home in Chicago to Toronto in 2010, to be with now-husband Max “Slim Twig” Turnbull. Because of her natural storytelling abilities and approach to political thought, she soon started getting offers to write op-eds for various websites.

No matter the medium, she likes to write long and then edit. Rarely are any of her lyrics a first draft. “Writing a song or a longer text is like when you’re writing a letter to someone when you’re angry or hurt: You’re supposed to write it, put it away, look at it again, and then make changes. You need the initial vomit, and then you refine and refine.

“I find when I have an open creative problem, that hasn’t been closed yet in my brain, I’m processing it all the time: after I wake up, or while cooking, or walking. My favourite part of the process is making something. My least favourite part is when it’s done. That’s why I don’t leave much space between projects.”

There will be new U.S. Girls music in early 2022, but before that, she’s expecting twins next month. Pregnancy and childbirth is, of course, an inevitable whirlwind of the personal and political. No shortage of material for her next book… which she’s already started.

Michael Barclay is the author of 2018 national bestseller The Never-Ending Present: The Story of Gord Downie and the Tragically Hip. (ECW Press)