Alejandra Ribera“I want my music to defy trends and be timeless.” Such is the commendable mission upon which singer-songwriter Alejandra Ribera embarked when she began writing songs for her third album. This Island is a great inward journey that the Toronto-born, Montréal-based artist – her mother was Argentinian, her father Scottish – gifted to herself.

“I love to explore the recesses of the human heart to harvest an optimistic poetry,” says Ribera. “I was moved by a speech Tilda Swinton gave on the topic and by a study about the movement; there is infinite potential that exists between suspension and liberation.”

If it all seems quite abstract, to Ribera it’s as clear as a mountain stream. Her 10 new songs are a befitting collection in the wake of La boca, produced in 2014 by Jean Massicotte (Jean Leloup, Arthur H), which contained her SOCAN Songwriting Prize-winning song “I Want,” which she wrote. Her first EP, Navigator, Navigather, launched in 2011, had already announced her humanist groove, which revealed the tightly-knit links of her fertile imagination.

“I spent three weeks in Paris, in January 2015, to get back in touch with myself,” says Ribera. “I lived in the onzième arrondissement. I couldn’t understand what the people around me were saying and I quickly became homesick,” she confides, in her very acceptable French. “I felt stranded on an island, hence the album title. To comfort myself, I started writing [lyrics] by imagining parallel universes where people came to me to talk. Then the Charlie Hebdo attack happened: for three days straight, all I could hear were the deafening shrieks of the sirens driving by my window.”

Inspired by the Virginia Woolf novel of the same name, she titled the last song on the album “Orlando.” On that song, Ribera reaches for her upper vocal range to capture our souls and puncture our skin.

“The first time I sang it for my musicians was during a soundcheck, while we were touring Canada with Ron Sexsmith,” she says. “We came up with it in about 45 minutes and played it for the audience that same night. Ironically, we were doing the final mix for that song when the Orlando massacre happened. It’s mysterious and bizarre!”

And as with many an imaginary island, This Island has buried treasure – and it’s a fabulous bundle of musical loot. The singer’s tone of voice on “Undeclared War” sounds just like Beth Orton, wrapped in the same softness and sensuality. “Led Me to You” is a little gem of Americana that would surely cause said Sexsmith to rejoice. “Will Not Drown” is peppered with trumpets, Spanish lyrics and handclaps. It’s ingenious and resourceful: folk songs, languid ballads, luminous melodies; everything falls into place to form a unique and singular, brilliantly produced universe. It’s one of those albums you listen to in a single sitting – after which you clearly feel that, as the artist intended, This Island is indeed timeless.

“I wanted to stay away from the current recording methods,” says Ribera. “I quickly realized that playing the previous album’s songs in a more intimate environment, night after night, brought it the missing link: the osmosis between the musicians, playing live. It was immediately clear in my mind that the next record would be recorded live in the studio.”

So seven musicians gathered in a rural Ontario home for the recording session. “We went straight to the point,” she says. “I wanted us to have a lot of space. We spent a few weeks in that house, creating the demos for those songs, with a skeleton crew. Then, we sent this raw material to [producer] Bryden Baird (Feist), who added sonic colours and a few other instruments sprinkled here and there, like the trumpet and percussion.”

Ribera’s trusted road companions, Jean-Sébastien Williams and Cédric Dind-Lavoie, then worked on the arrangements, and Trina Shoemaker (Sheryl Crow), was tasked with the final mix.

The “making of” video for This Island can be viewed below, and on the homepage of her website, From the opening, the stage is set, in the rural environment, the house; you wish you were there. What a way to set the table for such a feast.

When Rose Cousins was a university student in Halifax, she used to sneak down to the cafeteria in her residence and play the piano – but only when nobody else was around. “I wouldn’t play it in front of other people,” she recalls. Though she was then learning to play guitar, and had started to enjoy performing informally for small audiences, the time she spent at the piano was for nobody but herself.

Indeed, it wasn’t until her second record, 2009’s The Send Off (produced by Luke Doucet, now of Whitehorse) that Cousins – known for her soulful voice and her dark, emotionally-charged lyrics – dared to let the piano back in, on a few mournful tracks.

And so it’s fitting, somehow, that with her latest album, Natural Conclusion, her fourth full-length album, and one she’s calling “the most honest and vulnerable thing” she’s ever produced, Cousins is at the piano more than ever.  “I’m excited,” she admits. “Piano was my first instrument, so I feel like I’m coming full circle.”

But it’s not just the piano playing that has her feeling exposed. With this album, Cousins, who was born and raised in Prince Edward Island, pushes herself into all kinds of new territory, including her approach to writing and producing her music.

“I was terrified of co-writing, but I wanted to brave it.”

It has been, in many ways, a change borne of necessity. After the release of her JUNO-winning and Polaris Music Prize-longlisted album, 2012’s We Have Made a Spark, Cousins, who also won a 2012 Canadian Folk Music Award for Contemporary Singer of the Year, was exhausted and in need of a break.

“I was trying to pay attention to the physical manifestations of working too hard and performing too much,” she says, thinking back. “I had worked steadily all the way through 2013, and had done a ton of touring. And it wasn’t really till I got back from a big Australian tour in early 2014 that I was, like, ‘I am a piece of garbage.’”

And so, for the first time in her musical career, Cousins cancelled some tour dates, before promptly slipping on some black ice, breaking her arm and forcing a rest. “It takes eight weeks to heal a broken limb,” she explains. “And exactly eight weeks after I broke it I had my first [scheduled] gig.”

But rather than launching another exhausting schedule of touring and recording, Cousins took a step back and made some space, using her time to dabble in the studio, and to travel to Boston, where she has many musical connections. After releasing an EP in September of 2014, Cousins says she knew she was ready to take the leap into her next challenge: co-writing.

“I was terrified of co-writing, but I wanted to brave it,” she says, explaining that she was drawn to the idea of writing songs that others could perform, as well as writing music for film and television. “I want to be able to supplement my income creating music that can be working in the world, while I’m also working in the world doing other things.”

For Cousins, it was also an opportunity to embrace a change of pace, swapping a relentless touring schedule for the opportunity to spend some time working with people for more prolonged times, in various cities. In the fall of 2014, she landed in Nashville, and then moved on to writing stints in Los Angeles, Toronto, Ireland and Boston over the course of the next year, building relationships and experimenting with new approaches to songwriting along the way.

“It was fun to step outside of whatever my genre is, and to write really poppy stuff or swampy stuff, or dance stuff,” she laughs. “Who even cares? It was so fun to spread my wings and just not worry about whether Rose Cousins has to sing it onstage.”

While Cousins describes herself as an introvert, and admits that she hates small talk, she says she enjoyed the intense personal conversations that would develop with people she’d only just met, as they got down to work. “My greatest fear was that I would lose the way I write by myself,” she says, “but now I know that’s not true.”

A couple of co-written songs from this period appear on Natural Conclusions, which was created with Grammy Award-winning producer Joe Henry.  The album also features a slew of supporting artists, including pianist Aaron Davis and guitarist Gord Tough from Toronto, Haligonian Asa Brosius on pedal/lap steel, bassist Zachariah Hickman from Boston and Hey Rosetta!’s Kinley Dowling on strings, with backing vocals by friends Jill Barber, Caroline Brooks (of The Good Lovelies) and Miranda Mullholland (of Great Lake Swimmers). Both The Guardian and CBC Music have cited the album as one to look forward to in 2017.

Rose CousinsCousins, who has typically performed on her own, is also thrilled that she’ll be sharing the stage with a band for the first time when she hits the road to tour her new album. She’ll play 2017 dates in the U.S. and Canada from mid-February through mid-April, concluding with a hometown show at Charlottetown’s Confederation Centre.

“I’m looking forward to playing with them and experiencing the music with a band, something I haven’t given myself the privilege of for the majority of my career,” she says warmly. “It’s next-level for me, just like the writing and the recording of this record has been an evolution for me.”

As she looks ahead to what she’s learned and what she hopes to do next, Cousins, also a photographer, is clear that making time for her own creativity – rather than stealing moments for it between gigs – will be critical. “I feel better as a person when I can create things more often,” she says simply. Ultimately, however, she’s focused on continuing to broaden her own horizons, both in music and beyond, as well as finding more ways to support other artists.

“I’m looking for a way to make a difference in the world,” Cousins says. “And though I know that music does that, and brings things to people, and makes a difference, I do wonder where else I could make an impact.”

In the meantime, look for her at the piano.

Claire Lynch has set her personal and musical compass to the North, and the result is proving beneficial to many SOCAN members.

The acclaimed American bluegrass/roots singer-songwriter has earned a 2017 Grammy Award nomination in the Bluegrass Album of the Year category for her recent (and tenth) album North by South. Lynch was previously nominated for a Grammy in this category in 1996 and 1998, and she’s been named the Best Female Vocalist three times by the International Bluegrass Music Association.

As alluded to in the title, North by South is a collection of her covers of songs by SOCAN member songwriters, and the result is being unanimously well-received – including the new Grammy nomination.

SOCAN members whose work is re-interpreted on North by South include Gordon Lightfoot, David Francey, Ron Sexsmith, Bruce Cockburn, the late Willie P. Bennett, Cris Cuddy, Old Man Luedecke, Lynn Miles, and J.P. Cormier.

Lynch explains that the concept came from a very personal place. “I fell in love with a Canadian man six years ago, and we got married two years ago,” she says. “He’s a huge music fan, and a collector of musical instruments, and he began to open up the world of Canadian music to me. I took particular interest in the songwriting, as I’m a writer myself, and that grew into a sense of ‘Wow, these are such wonderful songs.’ I became aware of how un-aware Americans are of what’s going on up here artistically.

“After being exposed to Canadian music, I realized it was a goldmine, and that it’d be really cool to share that with people in the U.S.”

“After being exposed to the music, I realized it was a goldmine, and that it’d be really cool to share that with people in my bluegrass and Americana musical community in the U.S. That’s why I made North by South.”

Produced by Grammy-winning banjoist and composer Alison Brown, the album features such elite American players as Bela Fleck, Stuart Duncan and Jerry Douglas. Hearing their songs played by such accomplished musicians and sung by a singular voice has certainly pleased the Canadian songwriters who’ve been covered.

“I’ve always said when I grow up I want to be a bluegrass singer, but this is even better!” says Lynn Miles. “I cried when I heard Claire’s version of ‘Black Flowers.’ I just love it. There will be a crowd-sourced video of that song, and I’m very excited to see the outcome of that.”

Ron Sexsmith is similarly happy with the Lynch version of his “Cold Hearted Wind.” “I loved it!” he says. “I was so surprised that she picked that one. It’s a very personal song for me, so I never thought anyone would ever cover it. I was honoured to be included.”

Claire LynchBrad Machry is the Manager of Royalties & Licensing at True North Records, the label and publishing (via Mummy Dust Music) home of Lynn Miles and Old Man Luedecke. He says that “Chris [Old Man] Luedecke was particularly thrilled to have someone he has revered for many years, Bela Fleck, playing banjo on ‘Kingdom Come.’

Upon learning of the project, Machry sensed the potential benefits for his artists. “We’re registered with Canadian Musical Reproduction Rights Agency (CMRRA) and the Harry Fox Agency (HFA) in the U.S. for mechanicals, so it would have been easy to stay arm’s-length. But I got in touch with LeAnn Bennett at Compass Records [Lynch’s label] and we decided to license directly, and work together on pushing for synch [film and television] placements.

“Claire has done us a great service, covering not only our published works by [True North artists] Lynn and Chris, but also our current and former label friends Ron Sexsmith, Gordon Lightfoot, David Francey, and Bruce Cockburn. If the project opens our neighbours’ minds to exploring all that Canada has to offer, we all win. She was able to bring together some of Canada’s best storytellers in such a truly Canadian way; understated and humble, allowing the songwriting to shine through.”

Lynch explains that the positive outcome of her album for Canadian songwriters “was part of my intention. I’m saying to my communities, ‘Look at these artists. I endorse them.’ I’ve gotten texts from friends saying, ‘I’ve just gone to Old Man Luedecke’s site and ordered his album.’”

Lynch is no slouch as a songwriter herself, having had songs covered by such American country stars as Patty Loveless, Kathy Mattea, and The Whites. “I’ve never had a huge hit by any means, but a lot of bluegrass-ers have done my songs too,” she says. “The majority of my catalogue has been covered by me.”

Lynch and her husband currently split their time between residences in Nashville and Toronto, and Lynch is seeking permanent residence status in Canada. She now has a Canadian booking agent, Bob Jensen in P.E.I., and the 200-plus dates she played in 2016 included two Canadian tours. “I have two more planned this year, one out West and then one in Ontario and Québec in November,” she says.

Lynch has been checking out the acoustic music scene in Toronto and Guelph, and participating in jam sessions and song circles. “Everyone here has been very gracious to me and I have forged friendships already,” she says.