Thus OwlsErika and Simon Angell refuse to fall into the trap of music that becomes a habit, a routine, or a repetition. Their duo project Thus Owls has found a way to re-invent itself, album after album, for nearly 15 years. Their double-album Who Would Hold You If The Sky Betrayed Us?, released on March 4, 2022, explores even further the unbeaten path where they’ll most likely never set foot again.

This fifth project is fraught with so many elements, launched with the deep ardour of true artists, that it’ll always be a little idealistic to pretend that they can ever play the same songs in their original form. “We love that space where compositions and improvisation meet. And what we love even more is blurring the line between the two,” says Erika. Simon adds, “For our first album in 2009, when we still had our Swedish band, that was our vibe. Full circle.”

Founded in Stockholm, Thus Owls have been based in Montréal for many, many years, now. And yet, the pandemic has sown seeds of doubt that can be heard in Erika’s lyrics throughout the album. “My words are my own, they’re my diary,” she confesses. “I write for months on end, then look at what I wrote. I like improvising melodies in that second phase.

“For the new album, I wanted to find out how I felt about uprooting myself. Being disconnected from my family, my home, and even more so because of the pandemic – it changed me. Not all humans have to speak a language that’s not their mother tongue, day after day. I wanted to know who the uprooted me is, and that’s what I sing about here.”

If you don’t hear much of the Thus Owls sound in Québec, it’s not necessarily because it’s the Swedish sound, but rather because they embrace a broader musical ideology that shapes musicians there. “It’s free jazz,” Erika suggests initially. Says Simon, “To be more precise, a lot of different styles will incorporate some sort of jazz improvisation over there, whether it’s pop, rock, contemporary.” Erika adds,  “All of my friends I went to school with 20 years ago now approach music with a greater fluidity in mixing genres. We have an urge, and you can hear it, to avoid pigeonholing anything. Music doesn’t need to have a name.”

While their whole creative process seems to have been born in the heart of a fanfare in a sold-out stadium, the last two years have instead brought the Angells back to a dense and multi-faceted expression of their music, standing in front of almost nothing.

“When you play for a large crowd, it brings out the fun, it opens the door to possibilities and, yes, that’s how we like to think of our music,” Erika elaborates. Simon says, “What’s really interesting about our new album, however, is that even though we’ve managed to invite friends to play with us [including the three saxophonists Claire Devlin (tenor), Adam Kinner (tenor) and Jason Sharp (bass sax)], the album is built so that we can always invite someone else to the stage on the road. It’s the very essence of this project: freedom.”

When they’re in the studio, it’s very common that the first take is the one, and they “definitively never do more than two or three.” “A song’s energy is like a flame,” Erika surmises. “After three takes, the fire is gone. So, when we’re in the studio, we all play together in the same room, except for me; I’m in the vocal booth. We light up together, and we record as best as we can exactly how we would play onstage.”

When the pandemic struck, Thus Owls were finalizing the music for the movie Woman In Car. Their song “Lovers Are Falling” is nominated at the Canadian Screen Awards in the Best Original Song category. This type of project takes the couple out of its usual workflow. “You need to conceive music differently,” confides Simon. “The accent isn’t on the music. You need to reel it in.” Erika adds, “When I compose, I see colours in my mind. In the case of film music, the colour palette is already there, you just need to draw the contours.”

Thus, in spite of the heavy sounds and complex, multi-layered arrangements, Thus Owls travel lightly: a simple starting point that gets painted with all the possibilities found along the way. “We decide to listen to ourselves,” says Erika adamantly. “We bow to the unpredictable.”

Everyone remembers their first real kiss. Not everyone writes a song about the experience.

Emily Reid did. Grade 7 was the year. “Permanent Smile” is the song that came from that short-lived, pre-teen love. Singing the song into her PC computer microphone led to endless ribbing from her two older brothers. “It’s a wonder I pursued music at all,” she laughs. “They were so relentless!”

It’s doubtful her siblings are laughing now. In 2014, Reid released her first EP, Drifter, which eventually secured a publishing deal with BMG Nashville. One of the early songs she wrote as a published writer, “If I Wanted Wine,” caught the ear of Shannon McNevan, Senior Director of A&R – Country for Universal Music Group Canada (who’s worked with James Barker Band, The Reklaws, Jade and Eagleson) – ultimately leading to a major label deal with Universal.

Then, in April of 2021, Reid landed her first No.1 Billboard single as part of the writing team (along with Matt McVaney and Travis Wood) for “Boys” —a song Dean Brody recorded with Mickey Guyton, and took to the top spot on the Canadian country charts as well. The song addresses the different ways men (versus boys) handle relationships.

“It was crazy,” explains Reid. “I had a session with Matt and Travis, and we were actually writing songs for my next record. We were struggling, and they both turned to me and said, ‘Emily, what would you write about?’ And I replied, ‘Boys, obviously!’

“It was a big swing of a song,” she continues. “After we finished writing and recording it, I thought it would be better sung by a guy. I told my manager, and he asked if it would be OK if he pitched it to Dean Brody. The song went to radio, then to No.1. Then, they got Mickey Guyton to feature on it. Watching her career rise, and just to be a tiny part of that, was super-cool. I was also the only female writer on that [Dean Brody] album, and that made me extra-proud.”

Long before this big hit happened, and after that first kiss occurred, Reid, 27, started writing poems on scraps of construction paper during her formative years growing up in Victoria, B.C. She hid these folded-up creative outbursts in her bookcase for safekeeping, away from the prying and taunting eyes of her brothers. Her dad found them, though, and encouraged her to keep writing. Piano lessons followed. Reid never loved this formal training; she preferred to play her own chords and sing her own songs.

On signing with a music publisher
At 23, Reid signed a contract with BMG Nashville and was writing five or six days a week there. “The best part about it is that somebody is paying you to write songs,” she says. “You don’t need to work a bar job just to make ends meet. That is a crazy gift. I got lost a bit at first, as I was young and impressionable, and seeking approval. But it was an amazing six years of my life.”

“It’s been the one thing in my life I always knew I loved,” Reid says about writing songs. “It always felt like a gift; in a family of non- musical people, that is how I felt and expressed my feelings.”

From B.C. to Nashville, with a pit stop in Toronto, Reid eventually settled back West in L.A., where she now lives with her husband. The millennial songwriter has travelled thousands of miles – literally and musically – in her relatively short career as a professional musician. Reid, who describes her music as “bold, energetic, and indie-fun-cool,” has learned something from every city where she’s planted roots and eventually found a tribe of collaborators.

“The one big lesson I’ve learned is that you just have to be you, and figure out what makes you special – instead of trying to emulate what makes someone else special, or trying to conform to what you think people want you to be,” she says. “Also, accept your weaknesses. That’s the beauty of  co-writing: Your weakness may be their strength. You’re not supposed to be good at all of it; that’s what makes the process so beautiful. Find your truth. and bring that every day.”

“Sometimes I just pinch myself when I’m in a room with my friends, and we’re writing a song that potentially could make us some money,” she says. “I think, ‘This is the coolest job anyone could have.’”

It’s not unheard of for some Canadian artists to achieve far greater success in a single country abroad than they do at home. Historical examples include Saga in Germany and the Tea Party in Australia, and you can now add Neon Dreams in South Africa to that list.

The Halifax-based alt-pop duo (vocalist/guitarist Frank Kadillac and drummer Adrian Morris) has certainly fared well at home since forming in 2015. Neon Dreams won a 2020 JUNO Award for Breakthrough Group of the Year, scored a Gold single with 2016’s “Marching Bands,” a collaboration with Kardinal Offishall, and have earned tens of millions of cumulative streams for their material.

Over the past year, however, South Africa has emerged as a happy new home for Neon Dreams, bringing them a first Platinum single, for “Life Without Fantasies.” First appearing on the 2019 album Sweet Dreams Till Sunbeams, that song had minimal impact in Canada, but later caught on big-time in South Africa, grabbing Neon Dreams’ attention.

From his current base in Capetown, Frank Kadillac relates the unconventional song trajectory. “Adrian watches where we get played, and he says, “We’ve got a spike in South Africa with ‘Life Without Fantasies.’ It kept going up their charts, and I grabbed my ukulele to do a new version to say thanks to fans there. That’s my favourite song, and I was so grateful for their support. That video went viral there, as it turns out ukulele music is big in South Africa!”

The South African opportunity offered Neon Dreams a lifeline during a dark time, and they seized it eagerly. “In the middle of the pandemic, we were only just hanging onto being artists,” says Kadillac. “This was a glimmer of hope. Fans there said, ‘You don’t know how your music makes us feel and helps us here. You have to come here and experience it.’” Neon Dreams riskily booked a 16-date tour there in May of 2021, and all the shows sold out, and proceeded without a hitch. An 11-date return visit begins April 20, 2022, followed by Canadian dates.

“Fans there would tell us they need music like ours to get them through the day” – Frank Kadillac of Neon Dreams

The level of fan enthusiasm on that first tour deeply affected Kadillac. “The environment in South Africa is different than North America,” he says. “It’s still a Third World country, and fans there would tell us they need music like ours to get them through the day.”

Kadillac has remained in Capetown, writing songs, recording, and making videos. One new track recorded there, “Little Dance,” has just been released internationally, and is quickly gaining momentum.

The singer now injects a positive and uplifting message and tone into his music. “I want it to be a bottle of sunshine you can drink from,” he says, while acknowledging his own soul-searching. “After ‘Marching Bands’ did so well in Canada, I got distracted by the success. I went down the wrong path with the wrong people and it hurt my spirit. I found my spirit again in 2018, and now I want to help people find their true selves.”

Participation in a 2018 SOCAN Kenekt songwriting camp in Nicaragua boosted Kadillac’s personal and creative growth.  At Kenekt, Kadillac co-wrote the Ria Mae single “Hold Me” with Mae, Lowell, and John Nathaniel. The experience also inspired him to write the 2018 Neon Dreams single “Guilty.”

“It really helped me gain confidence, and to trust my gut as a songwriter,” he recalls. “This was also the start of my healing phase. At that camp, a session for meditation and yoga every morning was a huge benefit.”

Neon Dreams’ success has been achieved in DIY fashion. The group releases its records on its own imprint, Dreaming Out Loud Records, which has a distribution deal with Warner Music Canada.

“Our team all grew up together and is like family,” says Kadillac. “Our manager, Matthew Sampson, is a former band member. I think a lot of our success comes from our love for each other. We understand what we all want and have shared goals.”