The cover art for Vanille’s album Soleil ’96 looks more like it came out in 1968. Admittedly, the young Rachel Leblanc, the person behind Vanille, can boast being born in the mid-90s – but she totally owns the “old soul” label because of her passion for the stylistic richness of the past. Come along for some time travel aboard the ‘96 machine.

Vanille, Rachel Leblanc “I’ve always thought I wasn’t born at the right time,” says Leblanc, with sunshine in her voice. “On the other hand, romanticizing the past is really fun, and it’s even better because I can go digging into so many different eras. Everything we’re acquired throughout the history of music, I hold in my handbag.”

Launched in January, Soleil ’96 is her first Francophone LP, following the release of an Anglophone EP three years ago: My Grandfather Thinks I’m Going to Hell. Since then, Leblanc has clearly avoided hell, and instead, the summer sun appears on the cover of her album. But the LP evokes more seasons than one. Each left its mark,” Leblanc says. “We mostly talk about the time we need to get over something,” she says. “The song ‘Les jours manqués,’ that closes the album, reminds us that love may be defeated, but we move on. There’s progess, just as there is with the weather, and the seasons going by.”

Emmanuel Ethier (Pierre Lapointe, Corridor, Peter Peter, Chocolat) saw Leblanc live at Brasserie Beaubien in 2019, and wrote to her the next day to let her know he could help her fine-tune her material. “That album is a great lesson in perseverance,” he laughs, recalling how he had to juggle several of his own projects to work on Vanille as well. “She could’ve given up, or asked another producer. It took a long time.” Yet, the producer also perceived in the project a desire not to move things forward on a whim.

The impostor syndrome is felt on both sides. While Leblanc is aware that she’s still young, and has a lot to learn, Ethier – who has accomplished so much – doesn’t feel that he’s done something special. “I never make music for myself when I work for an artist on their project,” he says. “My job as a producer was to think like Rachel. If I end up imposing something, I think it creates an ethical problem.”

Although Leblanc was petrified by Ethier’s presence at her Brasserie Beaubien show, she jumped at the opportunity he extended. “He allowed me to kick my own butt,” she says. “I figured that if I deserved such an opportunity, I had a duty to seize it.”

It helped that most of the songs were already written, almost fully formed, pretty much in a single session. “I always write alone in my room with my guitar and spend a few hours telling myself that it’s not good, and finally, after a bit of work, I like it,” she says with a giggle. “I just let the song be. It preserves a de-constructed aspect that is a good representation of who I am.”

The influence of the sixties can be felt throughout the album. Even before hearing a single note, the cover art takes us back. Rachel’s influences stem from that era, but also from the heart of the ’90s, with a hint of garage rock, on top of which sits her melancholy – yet not quite sad — voice. “I often cite Karo as an influence, and it’s true. And Stereolab, too. British music from 30 years ago speaks to me,” Leblanc. “We spent a lot of time talking about and listening to her influences,” Ethier remembers. “I wanted to capture that ‘yé-yé’ side, and her desire to anchor herself in the newer British psychedelic movement at the same time.”

There’s a running gag in Rachel’s entourage that she only listens to albums released in 1968. “I know, it’s super-specific,” jokes Ethier. But what if that bygone era still has things to teach us? Maybe everything does deserve a second life, in which case, Vanille fits the bill.

“My second album is going to be totally immersed in the hippie/Mother Nature philosophy,” says Leblanc. “The pandemic had a negative effect on my morale, and I want to express all the many ways I managed to escape, thanks to the forest.”

At least they didn’t have to jump through hoops to get on the show.

Thanks to the involvement of Wracket Music Supervision Inc.’s Everton “Big Easy” Lewis Jr., a several young, promising Canadian rappers have landed their joints on Anyone’s Game, a 30-minute, six-episode CBC high-school basketball docu-series following one of the NBA’s most promising talent pipelines, The Athlete Institute.

Everton Lewis Jr.

Everton Lewis Jr. (Photo: Will Selviz)

Based in Orangeville, Ontario, the institute builds its Orangeville Prep team as the players pursue the NCAA Division 1 scholarship, and hopefully an eventual shot at a pro contract; the accompanying doc showcases the talents of such up-and-coming rappers as Toronto-raised, Montréal-born Patrik, Ghanaian-Canadian Friyie (pronounced FREE-yay), and GTA MC collective Lunch Room Poetz.

Lewis Jr., who served as music supervisor for Vice Canada for three years, said he was mandated by the CBC to feature Canadian music, though he shied away from established talent in favour of rookies. Some of the placements were artists that Lewis Jr. had previously been aware of, or whose music he had included in Vice documentaries.

“These guys – especially Patrik – have been building a buzz,” he says. “I stage-managed him years ago at Canadian Music Week; he was really hustling, working, and coming up from the bottom. And his song ‘High End’ was selected for TikTok Canada’s music campaign, which is one of the same songs that’s licensed in the show. I felt it was appropriate to include him and his sound and provide him with additional exposure, while simultaneously riding his coattails.”


Patrik (Photo: Laizlo)

Lewis Jr. says he worked with Friyie for the 6ix Rising: Toronto’s Rap Ascendance doc – Friyie’s “Money Team” served as pro boxer Floyd Mayweather’s theme music when he confronted Conor McGregor at a press conference – and found the Lunch Room Poetz collective through a lifelong association with the quintet’s Phil “Philly Regs” Rego.

“They’re more of the underground and the raw, true art form of hip-hop,“ Lewis Jr. explains. “I always felt that was really important, because a lot of what basketball was framed around, it didn’t start with this newer age kind of music – it started with the KRS-Ones back in the day, and  the Nas influences, things like that. The Lunch Room Poetz are five battle MCs, and they’re  vicious! I thought that original Toronto-New York City gritty kind of sound needed to punch through on Anyone’s Game.”

The  artists involved are grateful for the opportunity.

“It means a lot to be a part of  the basketball culture in Canada,” says Patrik. “As someone who took basketball growing up, and had aspirations playing in a league, playing in university, it’s nice to be in that atmosphere… The involvement of my music makes me feel like I’m an extension of the story of what’s happening in Orangeville.”

Lunch Room Poetz

Lunch Room Poetz (Photo: Kenzo Ferrari)

When creating flows like “High End,” Patrik says the rhythm is the initial grabber. “I always go for the beat first,” he explains. “I’m not a producer or a beat-maker, so usually I work with multiple producers and beat-makers, to find a vibe, or the mood I’m in. In terms of writing [lyrics]… I start off by just praying and asking for understanding and wisdom, or the right wording to express what I’m going through.”

In the case of Lunch Room Poetz – Young Stich, B1 The Architect, Lotus James, KP, and Philly Regs – their previously released song “The Grind” just happened to align with an Anyone’s Game episode also called “The Grind.” “It’s perfect, man,” says B1 The Architect. “It talks about the struggle, the grind ,and the hustling, and it’s something very akin to [our experience] in our group. It’s not easy being an independent label and trying to launch your own product, just as it’s not easy to be  an independent basketball player trying to get recognition and actually making it to the NBA or NCAA.”

Lunch Room Poetz’ key to creativity is to enter the studio with a batch of beats. “Someone will kick it off with a verse, and then everyone will write together and try to stick to a concept,” says B1 The Architect. Philly Regs and B1 both says that the group’s appearance on Anyone’s Game only heightens their credibility. “It gives our group a bit more notoriety within the rap community, because proving that you can do this is big,” says Philly Regs.


Friyie (Photo: Ennrick Thevadasa)

Friyie is still enjoying his relationship with Mayweather, whom he calls “a mentor” and “a big brother.” He says the placement of his song “Pushin’” “is a great opportunity for my music to be featured on its own, because as an artist you’re trying to get as much placement as possible. I played basketball myself in high school, and I’m a real big fan, so… it feels like an accomplishment.”

Friyie – who worked with rapper Tory Lanez and Roddy Ricch on his debut album ANF (Ain’t Nothing Free) – says he starts off his creations by freestyling. “I tell an engineer to just record me in the booth,” he says. “I’ll go in there with a blank slate because I don’t like to over-think songs… I’ll listen to the beat for a couple of seconds, and when I start to freestyle, I’ll record the whole song twice, or three times, just spitting out whatever comes into my head. Then I’ll listen back to it and pick out the parts that will make the core foundation of the record, then just build onto that.”

Anyone’s Game will no doubt help Friyie, Lunch Room Poetz, and Patrik in the long run, and might even make them future contenders.

Todor Kobakov doesn’t think of himself as a jack of all musical trades, but the range of his work suggests otherwise. The multi-talented composer, musician, and producer has scored films and TV shows of many different genres; released Pop Music, a solo album of devastatingly beautiful piano melodies; created gorgeous string arrangements for the Stars’ Set Yourself on Fire; enjoyed a pop radio hit with Major Maker; and produced Odario’s recent hip-hop EP Good Morning Hunter, to name a few highlights. Even during the pandemic, Kobakov has been busy writing scores, including for the comedy Faith Heist – on which he’s collaborating with emerging composers TiKa Simone and Iva Delić – the “indie/artsy” Peppergrass, and a documentary on artificial intelligence (AI).

Kobakov’s upbringing in a musical family in Bulgaria, his studies in classical piano at U of T, his early jobs working on music for commercials, and his friendships across Toronto’s music scene have all contributed to his skills in using sound to enhance visuals.

“It’s not a talent, it’s a lot of hard work,” he says. “I’ve been working on music for a long time. I think my classical training has given me good discipline. In my solo work I’m more into electronics, which helps with film production, and being in the music industry helped me produce other artists. It’s nice to jump from project to project. It doesn’t matter what genre it is; I’m just trying to bring out the best in an artist and help with their vision.”

Helping realize a director’s vision can be complicated, of course. “It’s always different,” he says. “I try to extract the most important part of the story early on, and enhance it. I’m trying to help navigate the flow, and there’s a lot of repair work if the flow lacks energy, or a scene is not romantic enough, or too romantic.”

The Chet Baker biopic Born to be Blue (starring Ethan Hawke) was a unique challenge for Kobakov and collaborators Steve London and David Braid: creating a score about a jazz trumpeter without using jazz trumpet. “Figuring out what my lead instrument would be took a long time,” Kobakov recalls. “It ended up being a Rhodes piano going through a pedal that makes it sound like a broken record. That added a nostalgia element. And everything was very slow and dreamy, because he was always high. At the same time, the director didn’t want it to be too dark, so that was an interesting balance to achieve.”

“Once we popped the bizarre electronics score on it, people got it”

Kobakov often works under the radar to subtly transmit atmosphere and mood. “I don’t want the score to jump out at you, I just want to support the story,” he says. For the TV series Cardinal, he wove the sounds of the northern landscape into the score. “I’m always trying to find elements to subconsciously enhance the story,” he explains. “It was filmed in North Bay, and I went out and banged on some trees to get sounds for the score’s percussion elements. I’m trying to get into the fabric of the story as much as possible sonically, so the work reflects the surroundings.”

And for Faith Heist, Kobakov created percussion sounds with fellow composer TiKa Simone’s voice. “Instead of a shaker and tambourines, we used the human voice, which adds a whole other dimension,” he says. “It’s tangible, you can relate to it.”

Sometimes he works against preconceptions – in the score for the CBC-TV Indigenous comedy/drama Trickster, for instance, which leaned on electronics. “We wanted to blend the worlds,” he says. “We wanted it to feel like things are normal, but something is not quite right. The score helped, especially in the first episode, when nobody was sure what the show was about. Once we popped the bizarre electronics score on it, people got it.”

Kobakov enjoys the challenge of finding a balance between the instruments, the background sounds, the visuals, and the expectations of the listeners. “Film is an interesting thing,” he says. “It’s like a band where everybody’s got their part and if everything works you have a great piece of art, but if the drummer is soloing all the time, it’s distracting. The risks I’ll take or the experiments I do might be a little different, but I tell clients I’m not changing the rules, just the sounds. That seems to be working for me.”