Musically speaking, duo Alfa Rococo has constantly evolved, ever since their first steps as a band in 2004. Following a very promising debut album (Lever l’ancre, 2007) that was chock-full of high energy electro-pop ditties formatted for FM radio, David Bussières and Justine Laberge followed up with Chasser le malheur in 2010, a sophomore effort that was undoubtedly more sophisticated, but also much darker. Then, in 2014, the chic tandem dropped Nos cœurs ensemble, a much more organic-sounding album that’s informed as much by ‘80s new wave as by Passion Pit’s sunny pop, the result being a very accomplished work filled with 11 potential hits that are as engaging as they are danceable.

As far as Bussières is concerned, a great pop tune must first and foremost have a killer melodic hook, but it also requires lyrics the listener can easily remember: “Simplicity is key. It’s the same as a great guitar riff: it needs to be short and punchy, so its etched in your mind. A great pop song is the perfect balance between the music and lyrics, they must be in sync and express the same energy. Everything needs to flow and groove while remaining accessible.”

“Talking about love in a sincere way is quite a challenge.”

Songs of Love

The dark melodies and torn-apart, inward-looking lyrics of Chasser le malheur are far behind. On their new album, the Laberge/Bussières team adopted a much more positive outlook, not unlike the rainbow that follows a storm. “When you think about it, almost 98% of love songs are about breakups,” says Bussières. “We were in a very positive state of mind during the creation of this album, we wanted to express the power of love. We have been together as a couple for 15 years, and that’s what we’ve experienced. Yet talking about love in a sincere way is quite a challenge. It’s not that easy to find the right angle, the right tone, and to not sound cheesy. Looking back at this album, I think we can safely say we’ve succeeded.”

Recently married, David and Justine set out to celebrate love with Nos cœurs ensemble (literally, “our hearts together”), and understandably so. For Bussières, who sings and plays guitar, being a couple in a creative environment not only advances but greatly simplifies sharing ideas. “The more we work together, the more this is becoming one of our greatest strengths. We are each other’s first audience, Justine is my second pair of ears. Your best friend might not always tell you the truth, but when you’re a couple, it’s much easier to be truthful. We’re constantly sharing ideas and working on songs. It truly is a full-time job. I can understand that for some people, it can become alienating to work with your life partner, but not for us.”

New Beginnings

Now signed to Coyote Records, Alfa Rococo is writing a new chapter of their career, a necessary move for the artists. Says Bussières: “It was a positive move, it brought a breath of fresh air to our project. It was beneficial, and boosted our motivation immensely. We talk to people at our label very often and keep in touch with what’s happening, we have a very proactive relationship with our label. It’s also a challenge for us since we need to deliver, and that makes us want to work even harder.”

Since November 2013, the couple also runs their own home studio, an invaluable investment that facilitates their creative process. “It’s a small lab that helps us avoid making mistakes between the moment where we come up with an idea and the moment where we actually record the song,” says Bussières. “Let’s just say it saves a lot in travel time. We often have most of our ideas in the morning, so the studio is right there, a few steps away, allowing us to work anytime we feel like it. The downside is we don’t see people much when we’re in the creative process, and we even become slightly misanthropic after awhile.”

Justine gave birth to their first child in January 2015, but Alfa Rococo will already be back onstage in April. For the musicians, taking a whole year off was simply out of the question; they love being on stage too much for that. “It’s important for us to keep going, to move forward,” says Bussières. “The birth of our first child was a wonderful moment and we want to take it all in, but we need to play! Our stage show is a work-in-progress, we’re constantly improving on it. To us, playing live is like our recess after work. It’s what we love the most, and being away from the stage for too long would literally drive us mad!”

Turning the page
“I played on Dobacaracol’s 2004 album, Soley, and it was fun, but I felt I needed a project of my own, I needed something more. Next, I worked for Cirque du Soleil and thought: we’re going to go on tour, play at night and we’ll compose during the day. We started Alfa Rococo around that time and we started saving up to produce our first album. In early 2005, we went on a European tour for a year. We composed most of the first album’s songs in hotel rooms.” – David Bussières

Songwriting collaborations come in many different shapes and sizes. Methods range from Nashville country songwriters arranging a co-writing ‘date” in a Music row office to contemporary pop, dance, R&B and hip-hop artists who may credit seven or eight writers, producers and beat-makers on just one track. Hit songs in all these genres are, increasingly, created through collaboration.

Artists in other genres have also adopted the collaborative approach. Here, we’ll explore two recent, highly acclaimed Canadian album projects, Namedropper by roots songstress Oh Susannah, and Just Passing Through: The Breithaupt Brothers Songbook, the brainchild of the songwriting team of brothers Don and Jeff Breithaupt.

“Everyone in the community loves Suzie [Oh Susanna], so it was all, “Yes, I’ll write you a song.’” – Ron Sexsmith

As the title jokingly suggests, Namedropper features contributions from an A-list of Canadian singer-songwriters, all friends with Oh Susannah (Suzie Ungerleider). The concept behind Namedropper was suggested by her producer, Jim Byson (himself a well-respected songsmith). “Suzie initially pitched me on the idea of producing a covers record,” Bryson recalls. “Off the top of my head, I said ‘That seems to [have been] done a lot by Canadian female artists. Why don’t you have people write songs for you?’ It just seemed a fresher idea.”

The pair approached Ungerleider’s talented songwriting pals, who responded immediately and positively. The reaction confirmed both the peer respect Oh Susanna enjoys as an artist and the genuine affection she personally attracts. As Ron Sexsmith notes, “Everyone in the community loves Suzie, so it was all, “Yes, I’ll write you a song.’ It’s a cool concept and it came together in an inspired way.”

The impressive list of artists delivering one new song apiece: Joel Plaskett, Royal Wood, Keri Latimer (Nathan), Jim Bryson, Melissa McClelland (Whitehorse), Old Man Luedecke, Luke Doucet (Whitehorse), Amelia Curran, The Good Lovelies, Jim Cuddy (Blue Rodeo), Jay Harris, and Rueben deGroot. Ron Sexsmith contributed two, “Wait Until the Sun Comes Up” and “I Love the Way She Dresses,” a co-write with Angaleena Presley.

The accomplished result is the most stylistically eclectic of Oh Susanna’s six albums to date. “That is exactly what I wanted,” says Ungerleider. “We specifically asked the writers not to all send slow, waltzy tunes [her forte]. Some writers approached it more as if they were writing a song they’d do. That was fine, too. The whole idea was to stretch what I’m doing and that is exactly what we got with these songs. I feel lucky.”

Jim Cuddy, a longtime friend, fan and duet partner of Oh Susanna, contributes the moving ballad “Dying Light,” based on their mutual love of soul music. “I once heard Suzie sing ‘The Dark End of the Street’ at a Gram Parsons tribute,” he recalls. “I thought ‘My God, you have this powerful soul voice that isn’t exhibited in your own material.’ I knew she’d have the vocal dexterity for my song.”

Ron Sexsmith wrote “Wait Until The Sun Comes Up” with typical creative ingenuity. “Suzie e-mailed me, and I thought ‘“Oh Susanna,” that’s a Stephen Foster song.’ I have a Foster songbook and a song there, ‘Nellie Bly,’ reminded me of ‘Wait Until the Sun Shines.’ That gave me the title, and I wrote the thing in 30 minutes, with a Buddy Holly pop feel.”

Bryson’s song “Oregon” leads off Namedropper. “That was a song I’d already written, but Suzie kept going back to it,” he says. “I pleaded, ‘Don’t put it at the front of the record, I’ll look like a jerk,’ but she liked where it fit.’

With many songs submitted in raw form, Bryson worked with Ungerleider on the instrumentation and arrangements. “You get to try different things, bouncing ideas back and forth,” says Bryson. “Suzie is very clear with her thoughts and opinions. To me, overseeing this record was pure joy.” The core band on Namedropper included multi-instrumentalist Bryson and drummer Cam Giroux, Oh Susanna’s husband.

As has been well publicized, the album’s scheduled Fall 2013 release was delayed a full year after Ungerleider was diagnosed with, and treated for, breast cancer. Now healthy, she and Bryson recently played Canadian dates and headed to the U.K. in early 2015.

Journey from Kiran Ahluwalia’s debut album Kashish-Attraction through to her latest Sanata: Stillness, and you’ll trace the unique evolution of an award-winning singer-composer who has entranced listeners around the world by crossing musical borders with fearless grace and sure-footed artistry.

Ahluwalia calls Sanata “a fruition of musical ideas I’ve been building up.” Those ideas are rooted in the Indian and Pakistani forms she’s been involved with her whole life – most notably the ancient, love-and-pain, rhyming-couplets-and-refrain form of the ghazal. The songs also reflect a more personal integration of the Saharan desert blues sounds that emerged on her fourth CD Wanderlust (2007). “I fell head-over-heels for this sound,” she recalls. “This electric-guitar-heavy, mellow-yet-groovy African blues resonated with me, and I started exploring it intensely.”  Her fifth album, the JUNO Award-winning Aam Zameem: Common Ground (2011), saw her collaborate with two Saharan Tuareg bands, and the adventure continues.

“I never dreamed I could be a musician full-time.”

“With Sanata: Stillness, I’m creating this hybrid without Tuareg musicians, approaching it from an Indian music standpoint, but contained within my band,” she says. Digging into that canon of Saharan blues and Indian music, Ahluwalia latches onto rhythm before the melody and words progress too far, taking her ideas to acclaimed guitarist-arranger Rez Abbasi for a creative back-and-forth before bringing tabla, keyboards, and jazz elements into the mix.

Sanata: Stillness sees Ahluwalia’s lyric-writing come to the fore. “On my first three CDs, I found exceptional ghazal poets in Toronto, people who were born in Pakistan and whom I would not have met had I not moved here, so I was lucky to have such a treasure chest of lyrics,” she explains. But as her sonic palette has expanded over her most recent three albums, Ahluwalia found herself crafting lyrics more often. “I started writing lyrics to fit the melodies I was creating because there was a need,” she explains.

For Ahluwalia, music has been a serious pursuit since early childhood. Her study of music began in India and continued in Toronto, where she moved with her family at age nine. After graduating university and a brief work stint, she studied music full-time in India for a year.

“Then the bug bit me,” laughs Ahluwalia, now based in New York. For a decade she moved between India, where she would spend several months of intense study, and Canada, where she’d work to save up for her next trip. All the while, she was performing and building her repertoire. “I never dreamed I could be a musician full-time,” she explains. “I wanted to live in Canada, and thought I could never make a living singing in another language.”

Ahluwalia may translate the Urdu lyrics of her songs for the liner notes, but her music conveys meaning with an eloquence that transcends language and goes straight to the heart.

Turning the Page
Commissions from other artists – specifically dancer Jahanara Ahklaq and violinist Parmela Attariwala –marked a crucial turning point for Ahluwalia. “It got me going,” she says. “I was being pushed to do something for myself, but I found it difficult, partly because my training in Indian classical music had been about improv. Then along came these people who had certain criteria, and deadlines, and more faith in me than I had in myself at that time. After that, I loved composing.”