AmylieBed-ridden in a Montréal hospital, Amylie could no longer move. Surrounded by her loved ones, she “didn’t have anything to offer anymore.” Even smiling was impossible. Stricken by Lyme disease, the singer-songwriter just didn’t have the energy. As proudly displayed on the cover of her current album, Les Éclats, her body was nothing but a shipwreck back then.

“I was unable to even utter a full sentence,” she says. “I spent weeks trying to figure out what was happening to me. I was constantly exhausted, I couldn’t keep up with my friends at night. At first, they thought it was cancer, then HIV,” remembers the musician, who needed 18 months to get back on her feet. “Once I got to the hospital, surrounded by the people I love, I understood something. Something clicked in my mind. I always thought that to be loved by the people you feel close to, you need to have something to offer. At that point, I was nothing, but they were still by my side. I realized at that moment what unconditional love means.”

Some people need years of psychotherapy to reach that same conclusion. All Amylie needed was being bit by a tick carrying Lyme disease. That fateful bite occurred during a hike in Bromont, where she was taking a voice training course. That tiny bite kept her out of the scene for months; oh, the irony.

Yet, her story takes on a completely new dimension now that she’s launched Les Éclats, a magnificent and calming third album that’s the direct result of her ordeal. In contrast to the romantic, orchestral atmosphere of her previous offerings, Le Royaume, and Les filles, the new album is a locomotive of song, much more raw and minimalist; the music has space to breathe. The electric guitars of Amylie, Gabriel Gratton and Olivier Langevin – sometimes reinforced with just a tad of barely biting reverb – lull us with grace and subtlety. The sounds and atmospheres are reminiscent of Feist’s The Reminder, a reference Amylie doesn’t deny.

“I started the preproduction of this album alone in the studio,” she says. “I played the guitars, bass, drums and Pro Tools! I wanted to keep things simple and remain true to what I’m able to play and need to say. It gave me a lot of confidence. I embraced that stripped-down approach. I wanted to put the words forward.” Out went the string arrangements and electronic programming that defined Le Royaume. “I wanted an album that would be easy to take to the stage without needing a whole bunch of musicians.”

“The job, shows, records, it’s all cool. But it’s fleeting. What you have, at the end of the day, are your family and close friends.”

Her lyrics reflect this wisdom:

Ne me regardez pas comme ça/ Vous avez tout déjà/ Je suis là/ Mais je ne vous appartiens pas, she sings on “Tout” (Loosely translated: Don’t look at me that way / You already have everything / I’m here / But I don’t belong to you).

Debout sur la branche d’un chêne/ Imposante comme la plaine/ Je me fous d’être à la hauteur, she goes on singing on “La Hauteur.” (Loosely translated: Standing on an oak branch / Imposing as the plains / I couldn’t care less about not living up to it)

She hits the nail on the head once more on “Mille fois”: En chemin rager contre moi-même… / Je devais être folle pour m’éprendre de mes chaines  (Loosely translated: On my way, enraged at myself / I must’ve been crazy to be smitten with my chains).

This desire for freedom, and letting go of other people’s expectations, are everywhere on Les Éclats. Family becomes a haven on “Grand-maman” and “Système solaire.” “Because of my illness, I could no longer keep up with people,” says Amylie. “I could follow my friends on social networks, getting ready to go out while I was already in my pyjamas, exhausted. It was almost like grieving. The general grief of letting go of a constantly connected life. It takes a lot of strength to let that go. Social media feeds us from the outside, by looking at what others are doing. It becomes a type of pressure. Being in the hospital, surrounded by loved ones, made me realize that what’s most important was right there next to me. The job, shows, records, it’s all cool. But it’s fleeting. What you have, at the end of the day, are your family and close friends.”

Some would call that going back to your roots, others a renewed maturity. Let’s just call it life.

We meet with Jonathan Painchaud in early June – three hours before he’s to take the stage during the Francofolies – and just then, he decides to include a few songs from his latest album, La tête haute (Head Held High), his fifth solo album and eighth overall, released on April 15, 2016, after a three-year hiatus. New band, new label, new record, new life; Painchaud serenely shoulders his 41 years.

Jonathan Painchaud

Photo: Julien Grimard

“I took time to fully integrate everything that happened right before, during and after the production of the last album,” he says. “It was a period of many separations, personal and professional. I had to make huge decisions, I needed a break from music, even though I’ve never had anything else to support myself financially. Year in and year out, I was among the Top 10 most played artists on the radio [in Québec]. I’m lucky. A majority of my yearly income comes from my royalties. They’re what allows me to live comfortably.”

But when you have a smash hit like “Pousse Pousse” in your pocket…

“Before that 2007 hit, I wasn’t getting played on the radio anymore,” says Painchaud. “I’d been officially branded a has-been. Radio silence from one day to the next. I wrote that song at the gym, telling myself I would pump iron to forget the irony. I wrote it thinking about the naysayers. There you go! Up yours! You can’t say anything negative about that song, it’s unimpeachable!”

Now, Painchaud has se tup his own production company, and manages his own career: “The backstage politics and logistics require a lot of energy. But the ultimate reward, the cherry on top, is the instant gratification when you play for an audience.”

The hardships of life rarely make for bad songs. “La tête haute is the album where I’m the least tense or holding back,” says Painchaud. “Letting go is pretty much the album’s leitmotif! Yet it’s been one of the hardest to write, because there was constantly something going on in my life: a death, a separation, a conflict. My mind was in such disarray that it was hard to sit down and focus on music. I needed to get my mojo back.”

“Working with Éloi is a double-edged sword… Sometimes we disagree, and you need solid arguments to make him change his mind.”

And who else but his brother Éloi to produce the album? “He was just coming out of a slew of projects,” says Painchaud, “such as La Chasse galerie and La Guerre des tuques 3D [for which Jonathan penned the track “Héros”], so we were both trying to catch our breath before going into the studio. We looked at each other and wondered, where are we going to find the energy?”

In the end, it’s the sound of the title song that became the building block for the rest of the album. “We grafted all the elements that characterize my music around that song,” says Painchaud. “More uptempo, more lively, folk, rock… The result is ten snapshots of my life at different times. Ten sides of who I am.”

And what was the creative process like this time around? “Most of the time, I write the lyrics and the music on my own using my iPad or laptop,” he says. “I make demos and play them for my brother in the studio, so that he can work on the orchestrations. Working with Éloi is a double-edged sword. Sometimes, he’ll pitch in and put an idea forward to serve a song, but sometimes we disagree, and you need solid arguments to make him change his mind,” says the younger brother, laughing. “Seasoned songwriter that he is, he’s able to single out the strengths of my songs, but also their weaknesses. He’s occasionally sent me back to my writing table to re-write a verse or chorus.”

Featured in a close-up on the album’s cover is Painchaud’s dog Peyo, who inspired one of the songs, “Le quadrupède pétomane” (“The Quadruped Fartist”). “It’s a nod to chanson Française, such as Renaud or Brassens, except I sing about my dog’s flatulence! On another of those ten songs, ‘Plus que la vie elle-même’ (‘More Than Life Itself’), there’s this super-intimate moment with my daughter, where I let myself be carried by the wind, and talk candidly about my personal life.” The song “Ma belle infirmière” is the perfect example of that. It’s currently in rotation on the radio.

“I’m more attentive to details in my music now,” confides the artist. “When I started writing songs, we didn’t care too much about smoothing the edges, but it didn’t matter as long as there was a modicum of honesty. But we certainly weren’t perfectionists.”

Meg Warren was 21 and on the cusp of graduating with a degree in classical music in her home province of Newfoundland when she decided to try her hand at songwriting. Initially, the motivation was external: a newspaper in St. John’s was hosting an event called The RPM Challenge, the goal of which was to write and record and album’s worth of songs in a month. Undaunted, Warren signed up.

“I thought ‘this sounds cool’, so I tried it,” she recalls. Though formally trained as an opera singer, Warren, who now fronts the synth-pop rock band Repartee, had little experience composing and had never written her own lyrics, but she was hooked. “And for whatever reason, I looked at it as a possible career right off the bat.”

As Warren, now 28, recounts the story she laughs, mostly at her own naïveté. “Honest to God, if someone said you have to start a band [now], I don’t know if I would,” she confesses. “Because I know how much work it’s taken to get us where we are. It takes forever!”

But it’s clear she doesn’t really mean it. After all, Repartee have come a long way since releasing their first EP in 2010 to a sold-out crowd at The Ship Pub in St. John’s, the city they still call home. The band has shared stages with the likes of Tegan and Sara, LIGHTS, The Arkells and Dragonette. They’ve won five MusicNL (Newfoundland) Awards, and they’ve been nominated for, and performed at, the East Coast Music Awards.  CBC Music has already named their new album, All Lit Up, one of the best of 2016 so far.

“I like creating music for sure, and I adore music and the creative process, but I get a lot of joy out of performing.” – Meg Warren of Repartee

While they’re still proud Newfoundlanders (“100 percent,” says Warren, “We wear that as an absolute badge of honour”), she and drummer Nick Coultas-Clarke recently made the move to Toronto. Guitarist Robbie Brett and keyboardist John Banfield plan to follow in the near future.

Toronto is also home to their label, Sleepless Records, with whom the band signed last year after Warren cold e-mailed them three recent tracks. “It was a shot in the dark,” she says. A couple of months later, however, she was at a show in Toronto and crossed paths with a manager from the label who offered to set up a meeting. “The rest,” she laughs, “is history!”

But it wasn’t entirely smooth sailing. At the time, the band had just recorded a second album’s worth of songs they were feeling excited about finishing when they learned that their work would be scrapped. “That was hard at first,” Warren admits. “They said ‘the songs are strong, but it’s not what we’re looking for, production-wise.’”

Trusting their manager, Alex Bonenfant, the foursome returned to the studio and cut a new album. “I think they wanted to rein in our ‘pop-iness’ a little,” Warren says, admitting that she has appreciated having people with industry experience weighing in on the creative process, after years of figuring it out along the way. “It doesn’t feel like we’re all alone in the world now!”

While Warren and Brett, who first met in music school, have always handled the bulk of the songwriting, the last year has also seen them spending more time writing with other people in a studio setting. “That’s not really how we wrote before,” Warren says. “We would get a jam space the old fashioned way, with a guitar and some chords, and write from there.”

Warren, who jots down song ideas into an app on her phone when they come to her, says she’s particularly drawn to making music that conveys dark themes with a light, danceable sound, referencing Lily Allen as an influence. “She writes about dark, heavy shit over beautiful, bouncy pop music,” she says happily. “I want to do that.”

A natural live performer, Warren confesses that while she’s coming around to working in the studio (“there was awhile when it was just a means to an end”), she still feels most at home onstage. “What I love about performing is connecting with an audience and having that communal experience with a bunch of people,” she says with palpable enthusiasm. “I like creating music for sure, and I adore music and the creative process, but I get a lot of joy out of performing.”

That joy extends to choosing what to wear when she’s onstage: Warren is known for her elaborate costumes, all of which are still sewn by her mother. She describes finding a dress at a vintage clothing store, which her mother then whisked home to Newfoundland, transforming it in time for Repartee’s album release in St. John’s. By the time Warren saw it, she says it had “morphed into a stunning mesh sparkly thing”, then describing her mother as a “sewing ninja.” “I’m so lucky,” she sighs.

Warren is just as grateful for the families of her bandmates, who she describes as “the coolest band parents in the world,” and for Repartee’s fans, particularly those in Newfoundland who make it consistently welcoming to go back.

Even with the ups and downs of being a touring musician in Canada, Warren is clearly thrilled with the path she’s chosen. “It’s a dream,” she says warmly. “My life is a dream.”