“I’ve matured a lot during the past two years. You can hear it in my music,” says White-B over the phone.

Without being a 180-degree about-face, his second EP, Double Vision, is indeed more composed and deeper than the rest of his work. “I’d somewhat lost my way,” he admits when the subject of his first EP, Blacklist, comes up. “I was too focused on the vibe and not enough on the lyrics. I decided to go back to the basics.”

Thus, Double Vision is more reminiscent of the raw spirit of Confession risquée, his first mixtape, than the smoother approach of Blacklist, an eclectic project with some pop interludes. Apart from Toxic, “a beat that wouldn’t be out of place in a club and that would please everyone,” this new offering is pure White-B: trap beats, simple lyrics, punchy lines, and a precise, melodious flow, able to modulate its intensity with impressive ease.

Yet, any comparison to the early days of White-B stop there. On this third solo project, the member of the 5sang14 crew displays a more concise, homogeneous, and refined artistic direction, the result of a collaboration with talented producers like BirdzOnTheTrack, Alain, and Ruffsound. This playground was conducive for the rapper to let himself go into more raw emotions than he usually does, and distance himself from hard-hitting street stories. Hence the “maturity” to which he refers.

“The main difference is that I earn a living with my music, now,” he says. “That’s probably why I rap less about the street, or at the very least with a more refined approach. I look at it from a distance because I know it’s impossible for me to go back there.”

White-B confides several times on the mini-album, notably on the engaging opening track, “Traine en bande.” “Mes pensées sont noires/Gothiques” (“My thoughts are dark/Gothic”), he professes, as a sign that the last two years weren’t as rosy as his immense success might lead us to believe. “Some nights I can’t even fall asleep,” says White-B. “There’s a million things going through my mind. My spirit is dark,” he confesses. “What people don’t know is that I’m under probation since 2017. It’s like being in jail, but at home. Because of my special status [as a musician], I’m allowed to go out, but only in the presence of a few select people. All that weighs on me, even though my career is going well.”

At the other end of the EP, “Maman ça ira” also refers to his peculiar situation. “That black cloud hovering over me for the last few years also affects my mom,” he says. “I’ve lost track of the number of court appearances where she was by my side. But the good thing through it all is that she sees all the efforts I’m making. I’m 25, I just bought my first house, and within two years I’m going to buy a duplex where my mom and my brother can live. She sees all that I’m accomplishing, and she knows my past is well behind me. She saw the good and the bad and she’s never told me to give up music. She’s always told me to go for it.”

White-B Like many rappers with a torturous path, it’s ambition that keeps White-B afloat. The constant motivation to excel is at the heart of the EP’s themes, as much through its resilient portraits as its odes to the American dream, and money. “Ambition is what guides me,” he says. “A lot of people have tried to run me down, but instead of complaining about it, I use it as motivation. At this point, no one can stop me.”

The situation is very different from that of a few years ago. While accumulating hundreds of thousands of views on YouTube, the rapper had to live with repeated concert cancellations from skittish promoters, influenced by police warnings. The target audience of the rapper and his cronies was considered unsavoury.

The balance of power changed when White-B and his team began. doing business with serious promoters. In 2018, 5sang14’s sold-out show at Club Soda marked a notable advancement for Montréal’s burgeoning street-rap scene, one whose artists are far from unanimous.

“Even then, the police tried to scare venue’s people… But the demand was so great [that they didn’t succumb to the pressure],” he maintains. “You can’t stop a machine that’s full steam ahead.”

The following year, 5sang14’s performance at the Francos de Montréal in a packed MTelus confirmed the phenomenon. Since then, the squad has signed with one of the biggest hip-hop labels in the province (Joy Ride Records), accumulating millions of views and plays in the process. In the last few weeks, White-B has been awarded two gold singles for his songs “La folle” (with Capitaine Gaza and MB) and “Mauvais garçons” – an honour awarded for the equivalent of 40,000 singles sold (or 6 million streams). “And there’s more coming,” he promises.

The next step will be exporting himself. I want to put the Québec flag on top of the Eiffel Tower, says the Québec rapper on “Traine en bande.”

“The Eiffel Tower is the symbol. I do want to take this to France, but also to Africa. It’s the continent that makes Francophone rap so popular at the moment,” he says. “I want our flag and our local scene to be recognized at the same level as other Francophone rap scenes of the world. We don’t get the credit we deserve, but it’s only a matter of time.”

I watch and wait patiently for my clock to flip the next hour before I call Meg Remy, the artist who performs and records under the name U.S. Girls. I already know what she’d think of me if I phoned any later than our appointed time. “Misogynists are often late,” she writes in her first book, Begin By Telling. “They make you wait so that your confidence and certainty evaporate.”

Remy exudes confidence in everything she’s done: back when U.S. Girls was a lo-fi solo project, through the many videos she’s directed, through to the nine-piece band she’s led in recent years (it swelled to 17 while recording 2020’s Heavy Light, recorded live at Montreal’s Hotel 2 Tango). Now she’s releasing her first book, which is a big deal for the woman who admits to a “reading addiction.” She was offered a deal from Book*hug Press in June 2019, and had figured she’d write most of it while on tour in early 2020. That tour didn’t happen, obviously. Bad for the band; good for the book. “There’s no way I would have been able to accomplish this on tour,” she says. “It took so much out of me emotionally.”

Begin By Telling, Meg Remy, book, cover Begin By Telling is physically slight: at 96 pages, it has the length and layout of a poetry book. It’s not a memoir per se, nor is it a series of essays or poems. Rather, it’s a journey into the life experiences that have shaped Remy’s work. Some of them are about intensely personal trauma: abuse, rape, distress. Some are about being a child of the ’90s, how the fall of the Berlin Wall, Desert Storm, the Oklahoma bombing, the Clinton sex scandal, and 9/11 resonated in her own life. Sometimes she connects seemingly incongruous dots between racecar driving, colonialism, and objectification. Sometimes she’s shutting down doorstop evangelists by telling them, “I’ve been to hell and I’m not afraid to die.” The book is meant to be digestible, and, like her songs, lead the audience to larger questions and connections.

“My intention was: How much can I fit in as economically as possible, without also ranting?” she says. “I wanted to leave a trail of breadcrumbs that created a larger picture that was my life. I have a hard time focusing on one area of anything. I find that in my reading habits: I’ll be reading poetry, a play, a philosophy book, a novel, all at once. When you get down to it, everything is all connected, and one leads to the other.

“A lot of the book process was about purging,” she continues. “I wrote a lot, but it’s more about the things I chose to leave out. I needed to do it in a way that was safe for me”–given some of the subject matter–“and not a waste of time for anyone who was going to read it. I hear from friends that they wish they had more time to read, but they don’t, and I thought about that a lot during the process: What is important to tell? The music side of things, for me, is always less-is-more, even around performance. I’d rather leave people wanting more than have them wishing I’d get off stage. Same with albums: I love a good 10- to 12-song record.”

Her lyrics are also remarkable for conveying maximum message in minimal time. Remy is easily one of the best lyricists working in pop music today: her songs are often self-contained narratives rich with allegory. “Pearly Gates,” from 2018’s In a Poem Unlimited, portrays St. Peter demanding sexual favours before entry into heaven. “The Quiver to the Bomb,” from Heavy Light, imagines Mother Nature kicking humans off her land after technology has ravaged it. The pieces in Begin By Telling are no different.

Before she wrote songs, Remy was an avid journal-keeper as a teen, while making and exchanging fanzines by mail in the days before message boards. Her music career began its ascent after moving from her home in Chicago to Toronto in 2010, to be with now-husband Max “Slim Twig” Turnbull. Because of her natural storytelling abilities and approach to political thought, she soon started getting offers to write op-eds for various websites.

No matter the medium, she likes to write long and then edit. Rarely are any of her lyrics a first draft. “Writing a song or a longer text is like when you’re writing a letter to someone when you’re angry or hurt: You’re supposed to write it, put it away, look at it again, and then make changes. You need the initial vomit, and then you refine and refine.

“I find when I have an open creative problem, that hasn’t been closed yet in my brain, I’m processing it all the time: after I wake up, or while cooking, or walking. My favourite part of the process is making something. My least favourite part is when it’s done. That’s why I don’t leave much space between projects.”

There will be new U.S. Girls music in early 2022, but before that, she’s expecting twins next month. Pregnancy and childbirth is, of course, an inevitable whirlwind of the personal and political. No shortage of material for her next book… which she’s already started.

Michael Barclay is the author of 2018 national bestseller The Never-Ending Present: The Story of Gord Downie and the Tragically Hip. (ECW Press)

Kim Temple

Kim Temple

If you’re writing songs, and getting somewhere with it, at some point you might consider the possibility of signing a deal with a music publisher. So it’s a good idea to understand what a publisher actually does for you.

“It’s important to remember that a publisher can be part of an artist’s team, along with having a manager and a booking agent and a label and a publicist,” says Kim Temple, President of High Priestess Publishing, a Toronto-based independent music publisher that represents Zaki Ibrahim and Witch Prophet, among others.

“The deal is, okay, I have a catalogue of songs that needs some kind of management. I don’t know if I’m collecting all the royalties I should be collecting. I don’t know if I’m registered properly all around the world for my copyrights, and I don’t really pitch for myself. I don’t have the know-how or connections to music supervisors to pitch for synch placements – maybe I need a partner in publishing who can manage that for me.”

That’s the business consideration. Temple says there’s also the creative aspect. “If they’re at a level where they’re ready to start looking for collaborators, and want to do some co-writing, or if they want to pitch their songs to other artists – that’s a good time to bring a publisher in,” she says. “Or maybe they want to do some songwriting development, and travel, and go to song camps.”

For Daniel Lafrance of Éditorial Avenue – winner of the Publisher of the Year SOCAN Award at the 2020 SOCAN Gala in Montréal, and author of the book Après la disruption. Innover en édition musicale – collaborations and co-writes are increasingly important. “It really helps artists to progress rapidly and expand their musical horizons to evolve in new directions,” he told us during a video interview to celebrate his 2020 SOCAN Gala Award. “A publisher’s role when it comes to this specific aspect of artist development is to find people with whom they’ll have a good connection, and usually, that leads to excellent results. I strongly believe in that. Artists are full of talent, but they also have weaknesses for which co-writes can easily make up.”

Prime negotiators

The notion to keep in mind is that publishers, first and foremost, are song exploiters: they strive to get the most monetary mileage out of a song, whether it’s through recording, live performance,  synchronization (or “synchs,” placement in commercials, TV shows, films, videogames, digital platforms, etc.), or through any other medium where music is being used for monetary gain.

David Quilico

David Quilico

The value that’s potentially generated by a song placement can be substantial – and if you’re a writer, being a novice negotiator can bite you in the butt, as Donovan Woods discovered all too well when he initially self-published under his own  Meant Well imprint.

“I was just writing songs on my own and I had very little understanding of anything,” says Woods, who recently signed with Concord Music Nashville, after spending three years at Warner Chappell Nashville. “I remember I licensed something to TSN to be used during the intro of a Grey Cup game for something like $104. I didn’t know what I was doing. I had no idea. I was sort of doing it on my own.”

Music publishers are able to negotiate fair market value for synch placements, and know what license fee a song should command in any given medium based on terms, use, and territory. They have institutional knowledge of synch licensing precedents.

David Quilico, the Vice-President of Creative at Sony Music Publishing Canada – the music publisher home to Pitt Tha Kid, Lights, Elise LeGrow and 49 other Canadians – similarly explains what a publisher does for the songwriter.

“Our songwriters’ come first,” says Quilico. “We’re here to support you [the songwriter] and pride ourselves on creating and bringing opportunities with expertise beyond those that already exist on a global level. There’s not really a hat that we don’t wear on any given day, whether it’s  helping them [the songwriters] align their team members, helping them find a label partner, being an objective sounding board for their songwriting, and songs, creative song pitching, arranging collaborations and next level admin services. It’s big-picture career development and support for our songwriters, all the time.”

Daniel Lafrance

Daniel Lafrance

For his part, Daniel Lafrance believes that even if the younger generation of music creators sometimes tend to believe that they can do without middlemen such as a publisher – because of their perfect mastery of the technological tools and multiple platforms at their disposal – they would still be depriving themselves of important expertise. “I truly believe artists who don’t surround themselves with a team will miss out on a lot of things,:” he says. “Artists can’t become specialists in publishing, social media, marketing, and everything else they need to master. They would lack the necessary insight, and be distracted from their main goal: making music. I think that’s what they need to focus on, while a team of trusted people takes care of the rest.”

 A working partnership

As much as both indie and major publishers are willing to go to the mat for their songwriters, it’s a two-way street: the onus is on the songwriter to do a great deal of the heavy lifting – i.e., writing the right songs – in order for publishers to be able to take them to the next level.

You can’t rest on your laurels in any publishing partnership: you have to be entrepreneurial and a go-getter. “I look for and appreciate extraordinary talent, and who they are as people,” says Quilico of the qualities he expects from his writers. “They show up and they bring their best. We take that to heart and do the same.”

Vince Degiorgio, president of indie publisher CYMBA Music, whose 26-member roster boasts Reeny Smith, Monowhales, and TallTale, says writers also need to be inquisitive when choosing a partner.

Vince Degiorgio

Vince Degiorgio

“You need to ask the right people either the right questions, or the wrong questions, to find out what your fit is,” says Degiorgio. “You need to know if you have the experience to work it. And the other side is, if you’re a songwriter, you have the opportunity to understand what your publisher is really trying to do for you.  Because when you get a publishing deal, that’s when your real work begins. There’s nothing automatic when you have a publisher.”

Degiorgio, a writer himself, says it’s good to identify your needs upfront. “One of the things Dennis Ellsworth, one of our writers, said he wanted in a publisher was someone could help him do the things that he couldn’t do on his own.

“So if your goals are to achieve the key points of major synchronizations, or in the beginning, micro-synchronizations, it’s extremely important to have someone who can assist you, who  has also had the experience of growing in that world. Putting you together with writers that you want to write with. Those are kind of the key reasons, to me, to have a publisher.”