Yao, a Franco-Ontarian artist of Togolese descent, born in the Ivory Coast of Africa, found out he had a creative spirit when he took a special interest in writing and acting as a child. After moving to Ottawa with his family in 1999, he was admitted in the Centre for Artistic Excellence of the De La Salle High School, where he specialized in Theatre and Creative Writing. Encouraged to pursue his musical interests, Yaovi, as he was then known, soon hooked up with FLO, with whom he created the RenESSENCE duet and, in 2006, released the self-produced album 2 faces d’une même âme (2 Sides of One Soul), followed by dozens of live shows.

Hooked, Yao remained torn between his passion for music creation and his search for a more traditional career, ending up neglecting his creative side as he pursued undergraduate studies in Finance and Political Science. Once he had secured a comfortable job in the banking sector, music came calling again in 2009, thanks to a chance meeting with his old friend Lynx, who had his own recording studio and production company by then, and invited Yao to join him. The end result was the 2011 hip-hop album Généris, with lyrics written by Yao and music composed by Lynx.

“Sometimes we’d discuss a theme, like the day I mentioned my problem with insomnia, and Sonny later sent me a piece.”

Yao then decided to take the final jump, joined SOCAN, and started taking his destiny in his own hands. His financial background helped him set up his own company and manage his business but, more importantly for the evolution of his music style, Yao discovered slam and, in 2012, joined SlamOutaouais, a Ligue québécoise de slam (LIQS) member team. Meanwhile, the musician started cooking up his next album and looking for a high-profile collaborator, who turned out to be Sonny Black, the co-writer of numerous K-Maro, Dubmatique, Corneille and Marc Antoine hits.

How did Yao get Sonny’s attention? “I just wrote to him,” he says. “I sent him my Généris album and asked him for a personal review. He went along and, as it turned out, his comments were exactly what I’d expected they would be. That’s where it all began. Sonny accepted to re-work the album with me, and we ended up with the Généris 2.0 promotional version.”

Towards the end of 2012 and beginning of 2013, they worked on the new version, which came out last fall. Then Yao moved to Montreal for two months to build a creative bubble with Sonny that eventually produced Perles et Paraboles (Pearls and Parables), an album that was recorded practically as it was being written. How did it work? “It varied,” Yao explained. “Sometimes we’d discuss a theme, like the day I mentioned my problem with insomnia, and Sonny later sent me a piece that became “Solitude nocturne” after I wrote the lyrics to it. Sometimes it was the other way around.”

Name any gigantic country hit of the last two decades or so and there’s a better-than-average chance that it was generated from Nashville, Tennessee.

Sure, Texas factors into the mix, and maybe there’s a touch of Bakersfield in there, too. But for the most part it’s a 30-block-or-so chunk Southwest of downtown Nashville, nicknamed Music Row, that has served as the country music capital of the world since the 1940s. It houses record companies, music publishers, booking agencies, recording studios, management offices, session musicians, and everything else you’d need to make it as an artist or a songwriter. It’s the country music business Mecca of the modern world.

But over the past handful of years or so, Music City, Tennessee, has grown beyond churning out the latest Taylor Swift or Luke Bryan or Lady Antebellum and expanded its horizons to include multi-million-dollar rock ‘n’ roll success stories like Kings of Leon, The Black Keys, Paramore and a relocated Jack White (and his bands The Raconteurs and Dead Weather); platinum rap artist Young Buck; and teen idol pop group Hot Chelle Rae – genres that are giving the town a more musically cosmopolitan reputation.

“The lines are getting blurred,“ agrees Joey Moi, the Tumbler Ridge, BC, native songwriter /producer best known for co-producing several of Nickelback’s million-selling albums, and co-writing the band’s chart-toppers “Gotta Be Somebody” and “Something in Your Mouth.”

“There are literally thousands of talented people just sitting around chomping at the bit to work on anything.” – Joey Moi

Moi has been living in Nashville for the past two years as a partner in Big Loud Mountain, a management/label/artist development firm that has delivered six No.1 singles in a row for country artists Jake Owen and Florida Georgia Line. That includes FGL’s “Cruise,” a song Moi co-wrote, which recently established itself as the top-selling country digital single of all time at six million copies. For Moi, it’s been an eye-opening experience.

“What I’m discovering is that Nashville is so rich in talent, and not just country,” he says. “When I first came to town, it was so overwhelming to see how many talented people there are in one place. There are literally thousands just sitting around chomping at the bit to work on anything. And the word is just starting to get out.”

It’s up for debate whether or not this change in perception surrounding Nashville is a new phenomenon.

“I would say it’s happening more,” notes Espanola, Ontario’s Terry Sawchuk, a Nashville-based songwriter and producer who topped the charts with Jake Owen’s “Barefoot Blue Jean Night” and has worked with JUNO-award winning jazz singer Matt Dusk on the majority of his albums.

“When I talk to the old-school people – the Roger Cooks [“I’d Like To Teach The World To Sing,” “Long Cool Woman In A Black Dress”] of the world, the guys in their 70s who have been here forever – they say that things have always gone in waves. The L.A. writers would all move here every couple of years because there was more going on here. So there’s always been a history of transient movement, in all styles.

“If you look at most session musicians, songwriters and artists, traditionally, they are not from Nashville. They come here for the great talent pool, steady work, and low cost of living. With them, they bring their diverse influences, which then play a big role in the musical make-up of the community. It’s safe to say now that Nashville is the Silicon Valley of music.”

Sawchuk strengthens the argument that Nashville’s stature as strictly a one-trick country music pony is changing.

“Because there’s an infrastructure, genres that I’ve always written have more acceptance now, more avenues,” he explains. “For instance, the publisher that I’ve hooked up with – Kobalt Music Publishing – is very much an international company, so they’re getting me pop cuts in Germany, Poland and film and TV in Los Angeles.”

Del Barber admits that he used to lie about how he made his living.

“Saying I was a musician always sounded like gloating,” he says simply. But with four albums, a handful of awards and a JUNO nomination under his belt, it’s a title he’s now using a little more comfortably.

But Barber, 30, who grew up just outside of Winnipeg, says he never made a conscious decision to become a musician. “It wasn’t a grandiose dream,” he laughs. “It trickled into a job, and it’s a job I really love. But I see it as a trade and I try to apply myself to it like a trade.”

“My music has the possibility to de-centre people and to make them think about what they believe in.”

While Barber, who comes from a long line of storytellers, cites artists like John Prine, Neil Young and Bruce Springsteen as inspiring his folk and alt-country sounds, he’s just as quick to credit the prairie landscape and the people he spends his days with.

“I’ve always been influenced by people who really make things – people who produce goods, in agriculture and manufacturing,” he explains. “I spend most of my spare time fishing and hunting and helping on farms. So I can’t help but feel that at best, my job is about being a recorder of those types of feelings, and the people I encounter through those activities.”

Though he has done his time in urban centres (including Chicago, where he studied philosophy), Barber says being around the people whose lives he wants to capture in song is key to his creative process.

“I have a hard time understanding people writing in the country music idiom without having lived it,” he says. Not that he’s given to navel-gazing. Barber hates the idea of being perceived as a “middle-class, white, country kid who complains about the world. I think I can say more politically and socially through other people’s stories,” he explains.

At the end of the day, Barber says his goal is to write songs that will appeal to a broad audience, no matter where they live.

“I love songs that are accessible to [people of] every sort of creed and class,” he says. “My music has the possibility to de-centre people and to make them think about what they believe in,” he says. “That’s what stories do.”

Track Record

  • In 2011, Barber won two Western Canadian Music Awards, for Independent Album and Roots Solo Recording of the Year, and was nominated for a JUNO for Roots & Traditional Album of the Year.
  • Seeking an organic sound, Barber’s current album Prairieography was recorded inside a 150-foot tall grain silo.
  • While he plays with a band whenever he can, Barber does most of his touring on his own. “I do a lot of storytelling if I get the right venue,” he says.

True North Records
Discography: Where The City Ends (2009), Love Songs for the Last Twenty (2010), Headwaters (2012), Prairieography (2014)
Visit www.delbarber.com
SOCAN member since 2009