Screen composing is both a deeply collaborative and solitary practice. Composers who score thrive on this ebb and flow, but when COVID-19 morphed from epidemic to pandemic, daily life and creativity transformed, too.

Lesley Barber

Lesley Barber

“Oddly, I found the forced isolation kind of freeing, as I’m a really social person,” says screen composer Lesley Barber, whose resumé includes movies like Late Night starring Mindy Kaling and Emma Thompson, the Oscar-winning Manchester by the Sea, and You Can Count on Me, with Mark Ruffalo and Laura Linney. “It was great to be able to have this time [to] just focus on my writing and stay in touch with family, friends, and colleagues, from this one location.”

Barber says the pandemic has affected her projects – one is on hiatus, another is moving forward – and changed in-person studio sessions to phone calls and online meetings involving collaborators from different time zones. All these adjustments have made her aware of how the pandemic affects her peers, on various levels. “Everyone has felt the impact of COVID – emotionally as well [as professionally] – and being attuned to where people’s heads are at, and sensitive to their lives, has been on my mind as I work with musicians,” she says.

Sensitivity to oneself and one’s community have also proven important to Amritha Vaz, who’s scored award-winning documentary features like Made In India (PBS), Little Stones, and Music for Mandela, as well as the Disney animated TV show Mira Royal Detective (2020), and apprenticed for five years with Oscar-winning screen composer Mychael Danna. Vaz confides that balancing career and family, “pulled the ground out from under my feet, and I feel like I’ve had to invent a new surface altogether.

Amritha Vaz

Amritha Vaz

“Prior to the pandemic,” she continues, “I was spending 12 to 15 hours a day working to meet timelines. Without that support from [baby]sitters and teachers, it became an intense juggling act. My partner is also a creative, with a nutty work schedule. Right now, it’s important for me to balance delivering the best music I can, in the time I’m given, while being compassionate to myself and my family.”

The world’s social and political unrest, in the wake of the police killings of unarmed African-Americans George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and so many others, was another blow for the L.A.-based composer, reinforcing her need for community – even in a moment of social distancing.

“Initially it felt like a gut punch during an already dark time,” says Vaz. “But a strange thing happened: execs and colleagues started initiating genuine conversations about politics and social change. I started to see acts of solidarity from fellow artists and friends pop up everywhere. It created a sense of connection and belonging that I’ve been missing. It provided me with some hope and inspiration. These are just baby steps towards what will need to be a massive system re-set, but I was glad to see these little shifts.  I’m also leaning more heavily than usual on my composer community for support and camaraderie, especially the Composers Diversity Collective.”

For composing partners Amin Bhatia and Ari Posner – best known for their multiple-award-winning (including SOCAN Awards) work on such globally successful TV series as Flashpoint and X Company – camaraderie comes with the job. The pair recently won a second Canadian Screen Award for Anne with an E, but that momentum has been temporarily undercut by the pandemic.

Amin Bhatia, Ari Posner

Amin Bhatia & Ari Posner

“This would have been a perfect time for our agents to get out there to find us more work,” says Bhatia. “But no crew means no production means no post-production, so it’s going to be awhile. However, animation is alive and well. Ari and I are on schedule to work on the next season of Luna Let’s Go later this year, and we can’t wait.”

Some suggest that royalties from increased pandemic streaming might help offset losses from postponed projects, but Bhatia says perhaps not. “The current business structure of streaming services has been far more damaging to composers and songwriters than anything the pandemic could do,” he says. “Many composers and songwriters have seen a sharp drop in royalties, anywhere from 50% to 90% in the last two years. This is all being re-visited… so we’re hopeful a better situation can be made that will be a win-win-win for creators, distributors, and consumers. And we have a lot of time now for online meetings between SOCAN, The Screen Composers Guild of Canada, and industry partners to iron all this out as we wait for the cameras to start rolling.”

Posner says that while the cameras aren’t rolling, it’s also a good time for creative regeneration. “This is a forced slowdown, not just for the economy, but also for our nervous systems,” he reports. “If not for the concern of having to make a living and keep my family going, my body could get used to this pace. One big upside for me has been more time to sit and simply enjoy playing the piano. This has been really fun and challenging – actually practicing a whole piece of music until it’s under my fingers and I can play it with confidence, from start to finish.”

Jeff Danna

Jeff Danna

Jeff Danna – winner of three Canadian Screen Awards, 12 SOCAN Awards, and with credits ranging from Pixar’s The Good Dinosaur, to Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck, to Terry Gilliam’s The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus – has a California studio that faces a beautiful and bustling street in Old Town, Pasadena. But when the state’s regional lockdowns began, the foot traffic stopped, and once the protests began, stores were boarded up – poignant reminders of dual crises. Danna, however, has kept busy wrapping up projects like Guillermo Del Toro’s DreamWorks Animation series, Trollhunters.  “It was a lot of fun, really cool,” says Danna. “I was glad to have something to work on as things slowed down in our business.”

And now, as deadlines disappear for the moment, like Posner, Danna is embracing deadline-free creativity.

“The arts are a lifelong study,” he says. “I’ve got a Ravel orchestration book, maybe I can really do a deep dive on that and just keep trying to move my sense of craft and aesthetic outward. When you’re on deadline all the time, there’s a certain kind of exploratory creative process that doesn’t necessarily have a lot of room. I’m going to try and take this opportunity to go to those corners of my craft that I don’t usually go to, and see if I can push the boundaries a little bit.”

As per his request, our interview appointment with David Campana takes place in a Saint-Henri neighbourhood dog park in Montréal. While keeping an eye on his dog Ti-Loup – who was excited to be allowed to run around with his pals on a sunny Friday afternoon – the singer/rapper waxed poetic about his adopted neighbourhood, made iconic by Gabrielle Roy’s novel Bonheur d’occasion (The Tin Flute) three-quarters-of-a-Century ago.

David Campana“These red brick houses you see behind [the park] used to belong to French-speaking workers,” says Campana. “Those guys from Westmount hired them because they were looking for the cheapest labour around. For a long time, the French and the English hated each other, but now they’re on speaking terms.”

The controversial bilingual “Bonjour, Hi” greeting, commonly used in the Montréal downtown shopping area, has now spread all the way to the Southwestern corner of the island. So much so that Campana, a 29 year-old Quebecer of French Haitian origin, has adopted it as his favourite expression, and even made it the title of his first solo album.

“I’m a waiter in one of the neighbourhood’s restaurants, and almost every time I greet people that way, I get strange reactions,” he says. “The Francophones call me to account, and the Anglophones do like I do. I like the slightly provocative aspect of that phrase. When I use it as I walk to a table, it shows both my political opinion, and the fact that I’m fluent in both languages. It’s symbolic.”

The “Bonjour, Hi” greeting also refers to the artist’s bilingual musical influences. After spending his childhood listening to Michael Jackson with his mom, and singing in church, Campana cut the cord of his family’s cultural heritage when he joined a film program in Québec City in 2009. “I loved auteur cinema, and its insights on society, which gradually drew me towards French conscious rap,” says Campana. “All of a sudden, I lost interest in American pop music. I was only listening to hardcore rap with a message, like Kery James, IAM, Médine, Soprano…”

A subsequent encounter with rapper Doni Na Ma was a game-changer for the young rapper and videographer. “He showed me that I didn’t have to be political all the time, and that rap could also be melodic. He taught me to build my harmonies before writing my texts. It really helped me find my style,” Campana recalls, naming additional influences such as Kanye West’s 808s and Heartbreak album, Drake’s Take Care album, and The Weeknd’s Trilogy mixtapes.

Along with LTK as producer, Campana took the pseudonym HDC – a contraction of the letters HD (symbolizing his passion for the camera) and DC (his initials). The partnership between the two artists was short-lived, but “Never Satisfyd” laid the foundation of his style in 2015. “I wrote that piece after listening to Loud’s verse on ‘XOXO,’” he says.  “The way he was humming while he was rapping in Frenglish, I realized at the time, was going to be Québec’s future. Yet, even knowing this, it still took me a while to venture into that genre.”

After a hiatus in English on MYNB, a two-volume diary that helped him “work on the musicality” of his flow, the singer-songwriter got back together again with his good friend Shotto Guapo on the trap soul mini-album CE7TE LIFE. “And that was when, after so many deviations, I came to the conclusion that I should perform under my real name,” says Campana. “This makes me laugh today!”

Completed by another Montréal artist, DJ/producer Major, the project did well at the 2019 Francouvertes music competition. “When we climbed onto the stage during the preliminaries, something really weird happened,” says Campana. “I understood that there could be a place in Québec for a project like ours.”

Released on May 1, Bonjour, Hi is a logical follow-up to that duo project, which doesn’t fit into any categories, but instead touches on several genres. “I enjoy the ambiguity of being not quite a singer, and not quite a rapper,” says Campana. “Moving forward, I want to get even more deeply into big rap sounds, and even more deeply into pop stuff. I feel I have a potential, but that I still have more to offer,” he sdays, referring to an album produced by the Franco-Québécois trio Novengitum.

However, is Québec ready for that hybrid genre that’s been a staple of French and American pop for a few years now? “If we embrace hip-hop the way we’re embracing it right now, we also must be open to related genres such as soul and R&B music,” he says. “You can hear a hint of an R&B vibe on [Loud’s radio hit] “Toutes les femmes savent danser,” so the door is open.” Campana believes in the potential success of his own explosive pop song “Rapide et amoureux”: “I can’t see why radio would refuse to play it. The vibe is good, and the topic is universal.”

Reflecting on his marked tendency to declare his love too early in real-life relationships, the lyrics of that song’s seem a fairly frank reflection of Campana’s emotional intensity. “I was never able to write about love before I met my current girlfriend,” he says. “Falling in love for real helped me to come to terms with myself, to understand who I was.”

An intense person in all aspects of his life, Campana is capable of making an honest assessment of his own musical journey. “The first time I heard Kery James, I was moved to tears,” he says. “That was what I wanted to do with my life. Same thing when I got introduced to The Weeknd: this is crazy, this is what I want to do! I’ve always had flashes like these… I’m a very sensitive person.”

Campana’s sensitivity, right now, is being tempered by persistence, ambition, and resilience – his album’s three major themes. “I slowly built up my style by hanging onto the positive sides of all of my experiences,” he says. “My career path is a series of small victories.”

Klô Pelgag’s third album begins at what seemed to her, at the time she created it, to be the end of the road. Saddened by a major loss, and caught up in the whirlwind of a career that had become as demanding as it was successful, the singer-songwriter wrote the Notre-Dame-des-Sept-Douleurs (Our Lady of Seven Sorrows) album to exorcise her demons, and came out much stronger on the other side.

Klo Pelgag “An album captures you the way you are right now, and yet you still want it to be timeless. These two views are hard to reconcile, but I thrive on challenges,” says Klô Pelgag. Notre-Dame-des-Sept-Douleurs, her third album, took shape late last summer, when the artist was coming to the realization that, after L’alchimie des monstres and L’étoile thoracique, she was drawing a blank. She’d given her all, and was left only with a fear of things to come.

“Making an album and embarking on a 300-date tour is bad for your health,” says Pelgag. “Some people picture you travelling on this glamorous bus, where, in actual fact, seven or eight of you squeeze into a rented vehicle with stuff hanging over your heads. It’s exhausting.” Pelgag’s stories and images are realistic, because she takes the time to fully immerse herself in her own reality. “Touring was an endless road, and I was left with no mental space in which to do my own thinking.”

She ended up crashing, and then her creative power came back again in 2019. The year 2020 began with the birth of a little girl for Pelgag and her soulmate Karl Gagnon (aka Violett Pi) in mid-January, but in mid-February, her father passed away from a degenerative disease. Life was a rollercoaster, an then the pandemic set in. “I’d started missing him long before he actually left. He’d already been gone for a long time,” says Pelgag, who portrays that long goodbye in “La fonte,” a song from her new album, accompanied by a simple piano melody: Now, I’m asking you, let me go in the shadow of this body that’s no longer mine.

“It was a necessary song because it came out of the suffering I was carrying with me,” she says, “and it was very hard to accept. It’s the only song on this album that I kept simple. I didn’t want its meaning to be obscured.”

A new village

The album title is the name of a small village, a name that used to frighten Pelgag as a child, but that she learned to see in a brighter light. Like a real village, the artist’s third recording is different from her others. It was built in a familiar landscape, but everything in it is new. Each successive album is a new village that reminds us of a place where we’ve been before.

“I’m glad you see it that way,” Pelgag says, “because that’s exactly what I wanted to convey. When I put out my second album, people could hear traces from my first one, but I allowed my songs to evolve, when I performed them later on tour with my band. By the end of the tour, I already knew that I wanted to leave behind the strings that played a central part in L’étoile thoracique, and move toward something more grounded. I wanted to insert some violence and some fat into my sound. I had never before experienced such a need to express something.”

Sylvain Deschamps, her co-producer since her first album, is still the one who “receives” all her ideas. “Enjoying such significant musical collaborations is precious because, besides wanting to be a good performer, you have to be humble enough to be a conduit for other people’s ideas,” Pelgag explains. “What scares me the most always is the technical side. I can’t write or read music, but I have very sharp ears. Sylvain has greatly helped me feel stronger in everything I still don’t understand.”

Étienne Dupré, François Zaïdan, and Pete Pételle, her closest acolytes, are also seasoned musicians, part of the team that makes it possible for Pelgag to express herself. On the current album, Owen Pallett is credited for the string arrangements for “À l’ombre des cyprès” and “J’aurai les cheveux longs,” and also for the brass arrangements for “Soleil,” while Marianne Houle supervised all the string parts. Pelgag sees this album as an “accumulation,” something that kept growing during the intense period she was experiencing. “I hope that everybody can appreciate the work that went into the sound textures and movements that these people were able to create,” she says.

Sandwiched between to instrumental pieces at the beginning and the end of the album, Notre-Dame-des-Sept-Douleurs requires space and volume to be heard properly. Each listening brings out new gems. “Of course, I’d like people to listen to this album while smoking their pipes in front of a great sunset by the sea, or as they lie in a strawberry field with their mouths all reddened from pigging out, but I think the cool thing is that you can listen to it any way you want, and it still fits,” says Pelgag.

Pelgag’s third album is her most personal yet. After presenting the character Édelweiss in her previous release, she now introduces Rémora and Élise, two fictional characters who speak with as much strength as if they came out of 10-volume epic saga. “All these people are me, but they are not limited to me,” says Pelgag. “I enjoy taking a peek into myself from the outside. It allows me to be everything I want to be, and to say things I would be afraid of saying otherwise.”

The more one listens to the album, the more each story comes to life. Pelgag also has the knack of painting in full colour what has always seemed to be black and white. “Maybe I am pre-disposed [to that],” she laughs. “Writing that kind of songs is a form of letting go. When I’m writing, I know I‘m not going to judge myself, and this often is when an image will come to mind.”

After the fall

Although Notre-Dame-des-Sept-Douleurs came out of a personal setback, Pelgag isn’t about to wave a flag for mental health, believing that in many situations, “silence is best.” “I’m just a songwriter, and music that speaks of distress already plays a social role,” she says. “I’m singing about it, so I don’t have to talk about it too. You can go too far in getting artists to be spokespeople on behalf of this and that cause. Some people spend a lifetime taking post-doctorate studies in the kind of subjects that my songs are talking about. The microphone should be passed to them,” she says.

Admittedly, there are dark zones in Pelgag’s “seven sorrows,” particularly in the song “À l’ombre des cyprès,” where she’s asking to be buried. “Yes, it’s a suicidal song, even if it is a groovy one. But you know, I often talk about death, even if I do it with a smile,” she says. “The childlike illustration and the bright colours of the album cover for L’alchimie des monstres was taking us aboard a ship of contrasts that was asking us to put a name, a face, some sweetness ‘at the very top of the heart’s mast.’ Yes, I often talk about a deep unhappiness, and life always is a bit like that. There are days when you read what’s happening in the world, and you feel sorry for the world, and even pain in your own body. And then you go to the market and eat fresh strawberries, and think life is wonderful after all, it’s so beautiful. Someone stole a geranium pot from my porch last week, but at the same time, he fled carrying flowers, and I hope he will place it in his home and enjoy it,” she says with a mixture of resignation and amusement.

If “Rémora” is representative of Pelgag’s musical abilities at the present time, practically all of the new album’s other songs demonstrate her original craft, and the creative way in which she links together the songs. “I never could have anticipated all the events that drove me to create this album,” she explains in a nutshell.

In the video explaining the genesis of the Notre-Dame-des-Sept-Douleurs album, the village she’s talking about is pictured “before” and “after,” and the earlier state is far more disturbing than the sweet reality that follows. Did she place her album before, or after? “For me, the album is a long bridge between the two. It’s a process album, a rite of passage album,” says Pelgag.. “It’s both dark and transparent, it hurts, but it’s freeing. It helped me get rid of lots of crutches, unease, and anguish.”

Klô Pelgag has always known that her life as an artist wasn’t going to be easy, “but it didn’t turn out to be hard for the reasons they gave me,” she recalls. “For a long time, I needed my self-confidence to be reinforced. But right now, I’m moving in the direction of a kind of self-confidence that comes from within. I’m not about to become too complacent, though, because constant self-doubt has its good sides.”