Between October 2019 and December 2020, singer-songwriter and guitarist Vincent Vallières co-produced his eighth album with his good friend, guitarist André Papanicolaou.

Vincent Vallières“At this time last year,” he says, “we were pretty far along in the process we had planned out, several songs were quite arranged, others were even mixed and finalized,” says Vallières. “The step back made me doubt. During the first two or three weeks, I asked myself if that’s what I really wanted to do, what I really wanted to say, so we started all over again. We put aside what we’d done to build something else next to it, with other materials.”

And nothing affecting him was left out: “The people I meet, my friends, my neighbours, my human interactions,” he says. “This kind of fear and this loneliness, which increased ten-fold. And we’re just realizing all of its perverse effects. It’s one of my best albums, because of this global reflection of who I am.”

Toute beauté n’est pas perdue (All Beauty Is Not Lost) offers a solidly-delivered brand of folk-rock, powered by regal guitar riffs, which serve as the backdrop for intelligent lyrics.

And speaking of guitars, all the famous brands are mentioned in the booklet: Gretsch, Rickenbacker, Danelectro, Gibson, Fender Precision… “The Rickenbacker has quite a strong personality,” the guitarist confides. “When I play ‘Homme de rien’ through my small Fender Champ amp, I discover a tone that was there all along during this project.”

Then along came Michel-Olivier Gasse, a loyal musical partner, Marc-André Larocque on drums, and Amélie Mandeville, who sang on Vallières’ previous record and tour. And also, Ingrid St-Pierre, who sings on “On dansera sous la pluie.” “I wrote that for my youngest daughter Marie, it’s a very intimate song,” says Vallières. “Her singing lifts the song up. There’s a certain innocence that comes out, like a ray of sunshine.”

As the last piece of the puzzle, Vallières and Papanicolaou tapped Martin Léon to be the project’s artistic director. “I wanted to open a dialogue with him so he could challenge my ideas,” says Vallières. “I believe Martin is one of Québec’s best songwriters. We worked in a very intimate context. He’d read a text and ask me what I meant to say, to make sure my intentions truly came across.”

And Léon didn’t show up empty-handed. “His role was to make the words as crystal clear as possible,” says Vallières. “He knows how to listen, and he’s poetically demanding – much more impressionistic than I can be. It created some quite pleasant tension!”

For example? ‘Heille Vallières,’ the album’s opening track. “Getting to the version you hear took quite some time, and Léon reminded me of Gérald Godin’s poem T’en souviens-tu Godin ? where the poet talked to himself,” says Vallières. “The goal was to open the album’s dialogue, as well as opening a dialogue with myself. It’s like a wake-up call! Do you still have a sense of wonderment? Are you still able to surprise even yourself?”

If we needed proof that the man has good taste, and knows how to surround himself with able contributors, that’s it. “Being able to put my ego aside to serve my song is going to make it better,” he says. “I don’t think I had that humility when I was 25. I did it before with Eric Goulet, my first mentor, who has a very developed rock and literary sense. I also did it with Philippe B. – they’re both great song-makers.”

On the very 60’s-influenced “Je suis comme toi,” which evokes The Byrds, Vallières reveals one of their studio tricks. “We mixed an acoustic 12-string guitar with the Rickenbacker sound!” Another one of the album’s little pearls is “Le jardin se meurt,” which was also made into a live video that includes a six-minute-long shot that’s part of a short film – both a documentary and a performance film – that will be released at the same time as the album.

“Entre les étoiles et toi” is graced with a beautiful video by Noisy Head Studios: a boy and girl ride in a convertible through space, on a road shaped like a guitar’s fretboard – with a heart as big as a planet, Vallières knows how to create a buzz with his videos.

And then there’s a monumental duet with Marjo, “Tout n’est pas pour toujours,” a true moment of grace. And the album’s only song without guitars, instead it’s a mellotron jewelry-box for Marjo’s voice. Soft and efficient, as only she can be.

“Marjo is mainlined on the heart,” says Vallières. “I sent her the song and she replied the next day, saying it’s a truly beautiful song, and she insists on singing it. The guys and I looked at each other and were amazed that she wanted to sing it. There’s something pure about that woman. The amount of preparation she goes through is nothing short of inspiring. She called me to know. ‘How do I sing this or that passage, what’s the harmony going to sound like?’ She doesn’t want to fool around, she wants to deliver a performance. She wants to have fun, but she’s fully prepared, too.”

Lil Berete is a young veteran. In conversation, a few days before his 20th birthday, the Toronto rapper is discussing the deluxe version of his latest mixtape, Icebreaker 2 (released April 9, 2021). “Y’all can expect some upgraded body work from Lil Berete, for sure,” he says, explaining the difference from the original version of the release, which dropped a couple of months before. “My [original Icebreaker 2] tape was literally me explaining what I went through, what I go through, on a day-to-day type shit. This deluxe is all about vibes. It’s meant for a lot of street people, yeah, but they’re not meant to be street anthems. The songs that’s on the deluxe, I put it on there for the clubs. Every song on the deluxe I want it to be bumped in the club.”

Icebreaker 2 follows a steady stream of single releases that Lil Berete has been releasing over the past year or so, achieving more than 50 million cumulative streams, 20 million-plus on YouTube alone. After a succession of local and international singles with the new generation of U.K. artists (Loski, Nafe Smallz, Headie One, Deno), Lil Berete has really started to cement his status as an internationally known artist.

Icebreaker 2 is a nominal sequel to Icebreaker, his 2018 mixtape, that was released when he was just 17. At that point, the MC, who hails from Toronto’s Regent Park neighbourhood, was signed to U.K.-based label XL Recordings, most widely known for signing and ushering Adele to superstardom. But Icebreaker 2 is an independent project, as his connection with the label has now been severed, prompting a jarring new perspective.

“I learned how to keep my cool,” says Lil Berete. “I learned how to learn how to save money. When I got out the deal, it was a whole different life. Like, I didn’t know the feeling of being in a jail, and not being in a jail right after… I learned how to maintain myself and keep focused. Throughout that shit, I still made music. I learned so much in the industry, like owning your masters. I learned about stuff you don’t even know, but I don’t want to give out free game like that. I just know what I’m doing when it comes to being in the present.”

“My whole neighbourhood thought I was God, but I go through personal and financial shit, too”

That idea of staying in the moment has also translated to Lil Berete’s creative process. “It’s more natural, it’s updated,” he says. “I might write some shit two or three weeks ago. I go on and put the beat on now and it’s, like, I don’t see it the same way anymore… But if I go in the studio today, and talk my shit today, and I notice a couple of months later when I hear the song again, and it’s, like, ‘Oh, this is crazy, I was pissed that day, you know.’ I remember the day I made that song. But when you write the song, and it could be some time afterwards to go in the studio, and it was two, three, four, or five days ago, I’m not gonna feel the same way.”

Consequently, Lil Berete’s writing process has changed, since he’s largely discarded using his phone, or a pen, to write lyrics, and he’s confident that he’s improved as a songwriter as a result. “You know when someone perfects their voice?” he asks rhetorically. “It was like that type of feel. I didn’t know what type of rapper I wanted to be, I didn’t know if I wanted to be a straight rap, straight bars guy, or a guy with a crazy voice. I found what I’m comfortable with, basically.”

On Icebreaker 2, Lil Berete’s often modulated voice weaves melodically through tracks like his recent single “War Ready,” and “Painallgo” – a melodic sense which he says comes naturally to him through his mother, Cheka Katenen Dioubate, a Guinean Djeli singer whose Manding culture encourages the generational inheritance of musicianship. “I don’t worry about melody,” says Lil Berete. “Melody comes naturally to me. My mom was a singer, her tradition was as a griot, so melodies are already there. A lot of people think, this guy has crazy melodies. But they don’t really understand what I’m trying to say. Once you do understand what I’m trying to say, it’s a different feeling.”

In his music, Lil Berete shows fierce pride and loyalty to his friends from the Regent Park neighbourhood, Canada’s oldest social housing area, whose residents have historically been systemically marginalized, and have recently faced the major upheaval of gentrification. Consequently, the young rapper knows that even his past ability to score a record deal in the U.K., and shoot videos in St. Vincent, is tempered with a sobering reality that’s reflected in his music, and drives him to persevere.

“I feel like the guy, I come back with a whole new mentality, I put hope in them and show them that they can do it too,” says Lil Berete, reflecting on the return to his neighbourhood after his travels. “But one thing, though, that when I came back from all of that, my whole neighbourhood thought I was God. But they don’t even know, I go through personal and financial shit, too. They don’t know I go through that shit, too. So, it’s just hard when people think you’re the guy, but you’re not that guy yet.”

In a rare silver lining for the cloud of the COVID-induced lockdown, Jess Moskaluke has found a reason for gratitude. “In some ways I’m thankful for the pandemic, as my new album The Demos might not exist without it,” the Saskatchewan-based country singer-songwriter explains.

“Before this happened, I had thought I’d just go the singles route, writing every few weeks, then releasing the best material as singles. With the way I write, however, that wasn’t the reality anymore, as I couldn’t go to Nashville for writing sessions.”

Moskaluke adapted by returning to her catalogue to find some favourite demos of tracks that hadn’t made it onto a record. Three of these songs now appear on The Demos, in both demo and finished form, alongside her 2019 No. 1 hit “Country Girls,” “Halfway Home” [another hit], and some other previously unreleased material. The hybrid collection debuted in iTunes at No. 1 upon its February release.

Moskaluke has achieved many such Canadian successes, since releasing her first single in 2012. She won the 2017 JUNO Award for Country Album of the Year, for Kiss Me Quiet and, from 2014-16, was a three-time consecutive CCMA Female Artist of the Year Award winner. With her 2014 hit “Cheap Wine and Cigarettes,” she became the first Canadian female country artist since Shania Twain to achieve CRIA Platinum status, and she’s also notched Gold certifications for “Take Me Home” (winner of a 2017 SOCAN Award) and “Kiss Me Quiet.”

The Demos is the first full-length on which Moskaluke has co-written all the material. “I’ve always had the mind-set that the best songs will always win,” she says. “There are stronger outside songwriters than myself, and I’m always honoured to sing their songs when they’re a perfect fit. Still, it’s been a goal in the back of my mind to pen every song on a record.”

The diverse group of co-writers on the recording includes her longtime producer Corey Crowder (Florida Georgia Line), Emily Shackelton, and Liz Rose (Taylor Swift).

“It’s been a goal in the back of my mind to pen every song on a record”

While acknowledging she remains “a singer and performer first, and a songwriter second,” Moskaluke stresses, “that doesn’t mean I don’t enjoy songwriting. I’m so thankful that being a singer led to songwriting. If there’s a song I feel I got just right, I love singing it more than anything else, and that adds to my love of the writing process.”

She’s found that the Nashville-writing-room approach to country composition suits her personality. “I’m not the type to just sit down with a guitar and write that way,” Moskaluke says. “I’m a very collaborative person, and I do best writing with other people, when there’s energy in the room.

“It was only when I signed my first Nashville development deal that they encouraged me to get in a room with writers and learn how to write. I’m so happy they did that. It turned into another part of my job that I adore. Some people say that [co-writing session] format stifles creativity, but that’s how I learned songwriting over the past 12 years. Plus, I work best when I can schedule and set aside time for things.”

Moskaluke has made inroads in the Australian and U.K. markets, but for now is resisting the siren call to attempt to break in the U.S. “That’s a tough conversation,” she says. “I’d like to have a family someday, and I don’t want to be completely absent from them. Chasing the U.S. market is like starting over again. Doing all those radio tours, and [spending] weeks or months away from your family, I don’t know if that’s something I’m overly interested in.”

“Right now we have stuff going on in Canada I’m excited about. I love this country and the industry here. We set our artists up for success, and you really can have a career here. That’s a cool thing.”

Moskaluke emphasizes that she’s an artist who prefers to look forward, not back. “I’m so focused on what’s coming next, and how I can connect better with fans without being able to play shows. My hamster wheel of a brain up there is constantly turning!”

In a rare moment of reflection, she says that, “I just thought music would be a hobby, but it turned into my career. I don’t take for granted how lucky I am that this has become my path in life.”