Remote self-isolation gives rise to out-of-the-ordinary initiatives. Montréal-based quartet TOPS was recently invited to record a performance for the CBC – on Zoom, not live, and remotely. Three of the four band members were in Montréal, while drummer Riley Fleck, the only American member, was three hours apart – having sought refuge in California during the sanitary crisis. “We each recorded our track separately, and everything was put together afterward,” says Jane Penny, the main singer-songwriter of the dream-pop outfit, which recently released I Feel Alive, its fourth album.

TOPS, Penny Jane, Shelby Fenlon Remote self-isolation, without being able to play before an audience, also makes musicians restless. I Feel Alive might still be hot off the presses, but TOPS has nonetheless forged ahead and released a brand new two-song recording, both of them not on the album: “Anything,” and the gorgeous and languid “Hollow Sounds Of The Morning Chimes,” two that feel like they were inspired by Québec’s first heatwave of the season, which came unusually early last May. “Under the circumstances, making music has become a refuge for us,” she says.

The apparent looseness of those new songs contrasts with the polished aesthetics of I Feel Alive, a record whose every minute detail – a word sung at just the right time, or a heavily researched synth sound – was finely crafted. I Feel Alive is a vibrant, lively offering where the quartet continues its mission to re-invent the pop sounds of 35 years ago.

“When we started in the early 2010s, a lot of people of that generation were skeptical of our sound,” says Penny. Such is the lot of “comebacks”: those who were there – and repulsed – the first time around, in this case, by ‘80s soft-rock, are weary of it. Yet to the new generation, it’s just another musical territory worth exploring.

“I believe we’re part of this first wave of musicians who recycle musical styles that have been ‘commercialized,’ and irked people back in their day,” says Jane laughing. “I think the internet is at the root of this movement, because it gave us access to these musical styles out of their original context. The timeliness of a sound or a musical style suddenly doesn’t matter anymore. It’s the fusion of ‘80s chart-toppers and today’s alt-pop. I find it interesting to recycle the aesthetics of music from another era, and apply them to contemporary creations.”

What makes I Feel Alive – and the rest of TOPS’s intelligently seductive output – so alluring is the fact that it’s entirely devoid of irony in its intent. There’s nothing more here than sincere songs with bubbly choruses, imbued with a little melancholy, and wrapped in old-fashioned guitar and keyboard orchestrations. “I find melancholy to be a more constructive emotion than sadness, because it implies a dose of introspection,” says Penny.

Although she’s is considered the creative force behind TOPS songs, Penny would rather be considered part of a “songwriting duo” alongside her colleague, multi-instrumentalist David Carrière. “David will sometimes write lyrics, but generally, he’ll come up with a hook or a chord progression and we’ll compose around that,” she says. “I have a hard time defining our respective roles and their boundaries when it comes to our work as composers.”

“Consider “Take Down,” for example, a ballad where Jane’s soft vocal timbre oscillates between two sets of textures, which gives the impression she’s having a conversation with herself. “On that one, we all built this groove that inspired me melodies I would hum<” she says. “That was my starting point to write the song itself, the lyrics and melodies I recorded. We’re a band, and sometimes the basic idea, the groove, the atmosphere, will be a collective effort, and that’s what gives me a direction towards a finished song. Other times, David will have a finished song that we then fine-tune together, while other times we write it just him and I. There are no rules: some songs we’ll work on for a year, and others are done in 30 minutes.”

No rules, except one: once a song is finished, it’s submitted to an in-depth analysis. “The goal of that is to make sure that we don’t become complacent and fall into the trap of songs that are nothing but a page out of a diary,” Jane insists. “We want to write songs that have many layers, songs you can listen to over and over again and find new meanings. I think those are the songs that withstand the test of time the best.”

 



Einstein may have correctly posited that information “is not knowledge,” but the lack of it is a non-starter. David Farrell has been providing vital information to the broad spectrum of the Canadian music industry for almost four decades. With his current publication, FYI Music News, he provides, free and digitally, a digest of pertinent news and events for music industry professionals, government agencies, associations, musicians, and fans, directly to their device of choice.

While there was a brief hiccup at the beginning of the pandemic, Farrell regularly downloads around 300 e-mails per day, from which he cherry-picks the most urgent, interesting, thought-provoking, and simply helpful items, turning them into features, interviews, reviews, and bullet-form précis for his three-times-weekly releases (Monday, Wednesday, and Friday). Choosing which items make the cut isn’t difficult.

An Accomplished Editor

Back in the ‘70s Farrell held, among other titles, that of Canadian Editor for Billboard. In the ‘80s, he (and his then-wife Patricia Dunn) founded the weekly Canadian music industry bible, The Record, and ran that for some 20 years, during which he also helped found Canadian Music Week, the annual national convention for the music biz. FYI was launched, with the support of The Slaight Foundation, CIMA, and Music Canada, in 2000. The depth of Farrell’s understanding of, and experiences within, Canadian music is unfathomable – hence his induction into the Canadian Music & Broadcast Industry Hall of Fame in 2018.

“News is news,” Farrell audibly shrugs, over the phone from his Toronto headquarters, and it flows unrelentingly, plagues or not. Items are selected “on the weight of the story itself,” says Farrell. “How it affects people, the substance of the story. Money is always an interest and, in my particular case, it’s a wide gamut in the fact that I’m not only just dealing with the publishing industry, but the live industry, the recording industry, the artists’ side of the business. It’s a big lens.”

Each edition includes up to 50 or so items. Farrell likens laying out FYI to assembling “a jigsaw puzzle, because we publish three times a week, and each one will include at least 10 new items (but on Wednesday we have 14). Of that 10, we’ll have a Track of the Day, we have music digests (and you can put 20 to 30 items in that) – headlines that catch a lot of interest in Canada and abroad that appear in mainstream press, from Rolling Stone to The Globe and Mail.

“Even though we have a limited editorial team, we cover a pretty wide gamut. Of the stories themselves, it’s evident when they come in what their priority status will be. It’s rarely a publication day that I don’t have at least one story that stands out and says: This is the lead story.” Farrell has a small team of writers, primarily Kerry Doole (a regular contributor to Words & Music), Bill King, and Jason Schneider, along with other freelancers.

“Day to day, it’s Kerry and I,” says Farrell. “One of the astonishing aspects that we scratch our heads over is: There are two metrics we can use to judge a story’s acceptance [by readers]. One is the number of views, and the other is the number of shares that it gets.” Some stories, “just seem to have a life of their own, and that’s always surprising.”

As an example, he cites an announcement from Heritage Canada that was in FYI on a Friday, and by the following week had 4,500 shares on Facebook. A piece by [Blackie & The Rodeo Kings’] Tom Wilson about living in isolation had about 2,000 shares. “But there are other stories that we bust our ass on,” he says,  “and [they] might get 11 shares. You try to gauge that as the audience interest. I’m not writing for clickbait, but it’s always surprising what works and what doesn’t.”

Coverage during COVID

“In as far as how the pandemic [has] affected the flow of news,” Farrell says, “I’ve used it to personalize [FYI] a lot more, to reach out as a news reporter and ask people to express how it’s affecting them. From a financial point of view, but also, what I’ve come to accept, how mental health has become a big issue… A large number of [our readers] are used to working in groups, and so isolation can be very debilitating for artists. I think they require, to a large degree, an audience to respond to their work. Being cut off from that can be very unnerving.  Two months in, we’ve seen a certain amount of agility amongst [artists] to transfer their creations from first person in person, to online. It’s early days. In a matter of weeks, we’ve seen people being able to marshal different platforms and equipment and put on increasingly more sophisticated performances… Companies led by a lot of Canadians have shown a lot of initiative, they’ve shown a lot of ingenuity, a lot of calm, a lot of leadership and it looks like even though their business has cratered they’re finding ways to put on shows.”



In 2011, Brett Emmons was in Halifax, trying to make it on his own as a musician, when his older brother Jay suggested he head home to Kingston, Ontario, to join his new band. When he did, Emmons was impressed by what he heard. “They’d only been jamming for a year,” he recalls with a laugh, “and there was room for improvement, but I knew they had a certain thing.”

In the years since, The Glorious Sons have seen their songs top the rock charts in both Canada and the United States. They’ve amassed an ardent fan base, and have played massive shows, including opening for The Rolling Stones and Twenty-One Pilots as part of a U.S. tour with The Struts. Their second studio album, Young Beauties and Fools, won the JUNO for Rock Album of the Year in 2018, and their third, 2019’s A War On Everything, was named one of Classic Rock UK’s Albums of the Year. The band celebrated the release of that album with a two-and-a-half-hour-long stadium show for a hometown crowd of 14,000 fans.

For many, it’s Brett Emmons’s raw, heartfelt lyrics that really resonate. “I try not to write about anything that I don’t know,” he explains. “We’re all connected as human beings, and whether you’re living in a mansion on a hill, or in a neighbourhood that might not be as safe and happy – it all ripples out. I don’t think anyone is safe from the things I [write] about – things like drug addiction, anxiety, depression, or money problems.”

Though he was drawn to songwriting at a young age, Emmons says it was artists like Jackson Browne, Bruce Springsteen, and The Killers, among others, who showed him the power of telling stories with song. “I was about 15 or 16 years old,” he says, “and my whole world got blown open to what rock ‘n’ roll could actually be. I realized it didn’t have to be Led Zeppelin or AC/DC. It wasn’t all power chords or aggressive songs. It could also be emotive stories with an acoustic guitar.”

“We have five writers in our band” – Brett Emmons of Glorious Sons

He then began experimenting with writing his own melodies, inverting the chords he learned from his guitar teacher and turning them into original songs. “It was a gigantic cerebral phase in my life that I think… basically hasn’t stopped.”

As the band’s dynamic and performative frontman, Emmons handles the bulk of the initial songwriting by coming up with lyrics, chords, or verses, and then takes that material back to his bandmates, Chris Koster, Adam Paquette, Chris Huot and his brother Jay, for their feedback.

Sons’ Singles: No. 1s and 2s at Canadian Rock Radio

  • “Kingdom in my Heart”
  • “Panic Attack”
  • “S.O.S. (Sawed Off Shotgun)”
  • “Josie”
  • “Everything Is Alright”

“Because we have five writers in our band,” Emmons adds, without hesitating. “A lot of the time I might come up with the theme and the melody, but one little tweak [from someone else] blows it wide open.” He stresses that nobody is limited to writing parts for their own instruments. “The people in the band are much more than the instruments they play,” he says. “For our band, it’s a very important factor when it comes to songwriting.”

When the band’s 80-day North American tour was cancelled due to COVID-19, Emmons saw an opportunity to take a break and focus on rest and writing. “I love to sit in one place and play guitar, drink beer, drink coffee, and write songs,” he laughs.

Emmons feels confident that he already has an album’s worth of material written, and anticipates that he may well have more by the time The Glorious Sons are allowed to fill stadiums again. For now, he’s grateful to get to make music for a living, and for the chances it provides for him to connect with people.

“Looking out and seeing the whole crowd singing your song,” he says, “that’ll make the hair stand up on your arms, for sure.”