In the four years since Ása Berezny (vocalist/guitarist/primary songwriter), and drummer Sam Heggum-Truscott began playing together, Kingdom of Birds have released an EP and three full-length albums. They’re currently working on their next recording, scheduled for release later in 2019. “Our self-titled EP was released in 2017, and I’d say that was our first professional recording,” says Berezny. “The first two albums were early, kind of demo-y stuff.”

When you hear that old music industry saw, “You have your whole life to write your first record, and six months to write your second,” you might assume “your whole life” means somewhere between 18 and 25 years. Kingdom of Birds didn’t take nearly that long to sort out what they wanted to say musically, how to say it, and ultimately, how to put it out there. Both the EP and Kingdom of Birds’ third full record, Pretty, came out in 2017, which is a significant amount of work and output for any band. But, given that Ása and Sam are 16 and 11 years old, respectively, it’s pretty remarkable.

Granted, Heggum-Truscott, Berezny, and 16-year-old bassist Ewan Fotheringham (who joined the band in February of 2018) have had ample support for their musical endeavours. They all have supportive families, who encouraged them to take up music early on, and Sam and Ása studied at Toronto’s Red House Music Academy. “We both took lessons, and Ása and I were in a band together there,” says Sam. “Then we just took it out of school and started doing our own thing.”

Onstage and on record, that’s something they do with a degree of self-possession that belies their age. “A lot of that came from going to Red House,” says Berezny. “My teacher was tough… but he made me a more confident musician.” That confidence is evident in their compact, no-nonsense arrangements and tight performances. So much so that people are often surprised at their age. “There’s a little bit of that,” Ewan admits. “Yeah,” Sam adds, “but we’re getting older.”

Over time the band has evolved substantially, experimenting with a more heavily layered sound on one record, and adding Moscow Apartment‘s Brighid Fry on keyboards and violin for a time, before settling on their current lineup. Original bassist Zeul Mordasiewicz, Ása explains, also left to focus on a songwriting project of his own. “But he helped us get Ewan to replace him, so it wasn’t that hard. And Ewan’s a fast learner – he had two weeks in the band, I think, before playing our first show. So this, in my opinion, is the best-fitting lineup we’ve had. I think it takes awhile to find people you really work well with.

Ása’s tips for beginners 

  • “Stick with it until you get to a point where you can play a song and it sounds like a song. That’s when it really gets satisfying.”
  • “Remember that you don’t have to be amazing at your instrument to be able to make good music.”
  • “You have to be really motivated, especially when you start out. You can’t wait around for someone to give you a show. You have to actively seek them.”

“We also take more time now to discuss how songs should develop,” she continues. “Before we’d say, ‘These are the chords’ to Ewan, then Sam would start playing along, and that would be the end of the discussion. Now we start like that, then talk about everything we liked and didn’t like; to make it better and make it flow properly.”

As a songwriter, Ása cites Radiohead and Nick Cave as two of her primary influences. “I saw a documentary about Nick Cave, One More Time with Feeling, where he talks about never wanting to throw away any lines, so I’m taking a lot more time with songwriting now. I try to get to a point where I’m happy with all of the stuff lyrically. When I started, my songs were very simple. I’d sit down and write one in half an hour, just like verse-chorus-verse-chorus. Now I experiment more with dissonant sounds, and making up chord shapes. So it’s grown a lot.”

Each member is equally dedicated to honing their chops and progressing as a unit, and can’t foresee a time when they’d leave music behind. Sam, however, does offer one caveat: “I’d never give up on music, but I started playing baseball and drums pretty young, so I’m really into baseball, too.” He has major-league aspirations when it comes to the sport, but right now there’s room for the two pursuits. And his dual focus allows him to develop qualities that foster excellence in both: “Being focused and being dedicated,” he says.

 


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Growing up hearing your grandfather croon classic country while working on the family farm, it’s no surprise when your life journey eventually brings you to Nashville. And, you’d surely find a home in this town – where many of those hit songs were born.

That’s the case for singer-songwriter Mackenzie Porter. The 28-year-old was raised on a cattle ranch in rural Alberta, near Medicine Hat. The sounds of Nashville spilling from the radio were a daily part of her childhood education. Her family were all musicians. At four, she began studying classical piano, violin and voice, and performed regularly with her siblings and cousins in the family’s band – which included brother Kalan, a past Canadian Idol winner.

For the past four years, Porter has called Nashville home. She’s also hung her hat for months at a time, out of every year, in Vancouver – filming the TV series Travelers, in which she acts a principal role (see sidebar). When we chat, Porter’s the process of completing her new EP, tentatively set for release March 22, 2019, on indie label Big Loud Records. The collection of six songs is Porter’s first batch of new music since 2015, when her self-titled debut won a JUNO Award for Country Album of the Year. Porter released the upcoming EP’s first two singles (“About You” and “Drive Thru”) in November of 2018. Fellow Canadian, and SOCAN Member, Joey Moi (Florida Georgia Line, Dallas Smith, Jake Owen) produced the release.

“It is a cool, pop-country blend,” says Porter. “I like to think of it as ‘country Sheryl Crow.’ I wrote half of the songs, and three are outside songs the label found. I’m of the mindset that I want to write all my songs, but if an amazing song comes in, the best song wins in the end… that’s how you get your name out there. To sing another person’s song, I need to connect with it and it needs to connect with me. It has to feel like a situation you’d been in, and words you’d say.”

Porter was set to participate in a CCMA/SOCAN songwriting camp recently, but had to cancel at the last minute; a promo video for a special Fall 2019 tour with a couple of other country stars (to be announced shortly) trumped this commitment. “I was so bummed I couldn’t go,” she says.

“If me-as-an-artist doesn’t work out, I’ll be a songwriter because I love it so much.”


Does the songwriter recall the first piece of music she created? “I can’t remember for sure, but it was some horrible thing I did in my bedroom by myself,” she laughs. “I hope nobody finds my old MacBook!”

Today, Porter still writes alone in her bedroom, but co-writing is her preferred method of penning a song. Most weekdays, you’ll find her teaming up with other songwriters, somewhere around town, for a writing session. She loves bouncing ideas off of other artists. By working with co-writers, she says, each one brings their experiences to the session, which can change the whole direction of a song.

A Traveler between music and acting
Porter started acting in high school. For a while, landing roles was her main focus. She booked her first lead on a TV series when she was 16. It wasn’t until a dry spell, when she couldn’t land a part, that she enrolled in music recording school and fell in love with the art of songwriting. “I needed another creative outlet,” she says. More recently, the songwriter starred, along with Eric McCormack, in the hit TV series Travelers — a show about time-travelling created by Brad Wright, and shot in Vancouver, which aired for three seasons. The series is set in a future where technology has developed a means of sending people back to the 21st Century to help save humanity. Porter starred as Traveler 3569, the team medic, who assumes the life of an intellectually disabled woman named Marcy Warton. “Eric is one of nicest people I’ve met,” Porter says. “He’s so positive and encouraging. He really believed in our show and all of the young actors on it. Now that the show is over, I’m definitely focusing more on my music.”

“The first part of every co-write, I always get really nervous,” she explains. “I’m scared to come in with an idea other people may or may not feel is cool. Tyler [Hubbard] from Florida Georgia Line recently took a bunch of writers out on their bus with them. I’ll never forget what he told me, ‘Nothing is cool until you make it cool.’”

Songs for Porter usually start with a hook, or a title. “That’s the Nashville way to do it – 99 per cent of the time people here do it that way,” she says. “You hear a title, and you may not think it’s cool right away, but words are a puzzle, and suddenly you wrap it up in a different way, and you’ve got something.”

Porter’s advice to other aspiring songwriters is perseverance: you need to put in the hours. “Write, write, write, and write,” she says. “No matter how good you are, you need to get all the shitty songs out of the way before you can get to the really good ones. I was writing 150 songs per year for three years before I started picking songs for this new EP. It can be discouraging, but it’s worth it. My advice: write hundreds of songs and finish them, even if they’re crappy. It’s like a muscle. You need to work it out.”

Whether her acting or music career ever become too challenging to sustain, one thing is certain in Porter’s mind: she’ll never stop writing songs.

“I’m a songwriter at heart,” she concludes. “I hope it never happens, but if me-as-an-artist doesn’t work out, I’ll be a songwriter because I love it so much. Sometimes I think I’m running out of ideas. That happens when you’re writing five times a week. You start to think, ‘What else can I write about?’ But the songs always come. Different co-writers inspire you. And, there are always different ways to say the same story.”


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It’s said that a sophomore album is harder to create than a debut, according to singer-songwriter Émilie Kahn. “People put a lot of pressure on us to create an album that’s better than the first,” she says. “That might be difficult to manage, but personally, I wasn’t saying to myself: ‘This album has to be better.’ My problem was that I had a ton of ideas for this record. I struggled from the get-go, because I was trying to force my songs to go in all kinds of directions, musically.”

Let’s jump to the punch right now: Outro is a better album than the previous one, 10,000, released in 2015. And it’s true as much on the writing side as on the production side. “I find that too,” says Kahn. That said, here’s the real urgent question: Why release this album under your real name, Émilie Kahn, rather than under the moniker Émilie & Ogden? She knew that question would come.

“I did that for several reasons,” says Kahn. “Initially, I had a band name because I didn’t like that idea of attaching who I am as an artist to my name. It was a way of acknowledging that in this business, one needs to know how to market oneself. I liked the idea of separating the person from the artist, but… I don’t know, I guess I’ve realized it’s impossible to do that. There’s no separation between myself as a person and as an artist. Also, to be honest, after three years, there were still some fans who had no clue what Ogden was, exactly…”

To those in the know, Ogden is her fetish instrument. It’s the name of a range of instruments created by Chicago-based harp builders Lyon & Healy, privileged by folk and pop musicians because of their light weight and versatility. Ogden has become Émilie’s signature, thanks to the instrument’s silky harmonies that imbue her indie pop songs with an ethereal yet tense aura. It’s a feeling of being suspended between two states of consciousness, halfway between ethereal pop and an indie-rock aesthetic, darkened by drums and guitars.

“People get the impression the harp is a difficult instrument, but it’s very close to the piano,” says the artist, who was at first a player of the recorder, an instrument that allowed her to enroll in a classical music Bachelor’s program. “It was in Cégep that I fell in love with the harp; I found a teacher on internet and took private lessons,” she says.

Because she’s older now and knows herself better, Kahn admits that this album, released under her real name, will sound more personal and sincere. “Yet, the evolution from Émilie & Ogden to Émilie Kahn is natural,” she says. Which is not to say that evolution was an easy one, and she recalls having recorded a pile of demos in preparation for this second album. But she ended up trashing all of them.

“I went through a crisis,” she explains. “I knew from the beginning that I wanted to work on this album with Warren [C. Spicer, Plants & Animals’ singer/guitarist]. I called him and admitted I had no idea what I was doing… He said, ‘We’ll sit down together, will calm down, we’ll just play music. We’ll take a look at the songs you have, and see where it goes.’”

After that crisis, she got back to work: a full week of writing until the wee hours. “It’s funny, because I got that question a lot when the first album came out,” she says. “‘How do you write your songs?’ I never knew what to answer, because it’s a very intuitive process for me. I never knew where a song came from. But this year, I wrote much more with other musicians, and had writing sessions. That’s when I realized that there are many different ways to write a song.

“I get the impression that a lot of musicians tend to start with the music – they find chords, rhythms, then the melody, and find words to fit in. I’ve always given a lot more importance to lyrics. I like my voice to stand out in the mix of my songs, so that the lyrics are clearly heard.

“I’ve always loved writing, from my childhood on,” says Kahn. “Writing down my feelings is the easiest way for me to get them out. That’s why I start with words over a melody. A single sentence can be the basis of a song. But this year, I forced myself to write differently, in a much more pop way. I have a friend who’s a producer, he composes beats on his computer, and I write lyrics on top of them. This album made me realize I want to move towards pop a lot more,” says the musician, who loves it when songs seem to write themselves.

“My favourite songs are the ones I write in 10 minutes, in one sitting,” she says. “Generally speaking, most of the songs that ended up on this new album were created that way. It starts with a sentence that pops into my mind, and the rest just falls into place… It’s a difficult thing to describe.”


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