Guardian angels sometimes arrive in unusual forms.

For Calgary singer-and-songwriter JJ Shiplett, after 12 years of constant slogging on the club circuit, his cherub arrived unexpectedly in the guise of Johnny Reid, the multi-platinum-selling singer-songwriter who has the ability to pack arenas across Canada.

After hearing Shiplett sing harmony on some Joni Delaurier songs, Reid called him up.

“At first I was taken aback by JJ vocally,” Reid admits.  Within two days, Shiplett was in Nashville and the duo were working on Something to Believe in, the album he’ll release in January 2017. Shortly after recording, Reid invited Shiplett to tour arenas as his opening act; signed him to a management deal with his own Halo Entertainment; negotiated deals with Warner Music Canada and eOne Music Publishing; and secured Paquin Entertainment as his booking agency.

“I do believe that songwriting is supposed to connect people and hit them right in the gut.”

“I’ve still got a long way to go, but I feel like I’m making up some ground now, you know?” says Shiplett from his Calgary abode. “But I don’t think I’d change anything, because that’s what makes you the singer and the songwriter that you are. No regrets, but it’s nice to be moving forward.”

As much as Shiplett initially impressed Reid with his distinctive, raspy tenor, the Calgarian eventually won him over in the songwriting department, with such songs as “Darling, Let’s Go Out Tonight” and “Something to Believe in.”

“I’ve built a career out of songs that are about dedication, devotion, admiration: That’s who I am,” says Reid. “So I heard this song ‘Something to Believe in,’ and I thought, that’s kind of what people need. I was drawn to that song. He did an acoustic version and I could hear where I would go with that song, like with a choir.  The very first song I heard was ‘Darling, Let’s Go Out Tonight.’ And I instantly became a fan. He writes in a style I don’t: very abstract, in comparison to me.”

Career improvement aside, Shiplett’s approach to writing hasn’t changed. “Usually what I’ll do is, I’ll write and get a song to a point,” explains Shiplett, a multi-instrumentalist whose musical pursuits were encouraged by his parents. “I’ll get it to a point where there’s a rough structure and rough arrangement. But I don’t really hold songwriting too sacred. There are a few friends that I’ve been working with for years, and I’ll take it to them and say, ‘Here’s the skeleton, can you help me put some meat on this thing?’

“That works for me, because songwriting can be laborious. I’m not one who’s able to pop out 10 songs in a day. I’ll sing the same two lines over and over again for three months until something else comes to me.”

In terms of his ideal creative location, Shiplett says, “I’m pretty big on my environment. I don’t like to sit when I write, I like to stand. So if I’m at the living room in my house, I close all the blinds, grab my acoustic guitar, and just start singing. I allow my natural instincts, my gut, to lead the way. That’s how I stumble upon something, and I go, ‘Okay, so that’s an idea that I can consider further down the road.’”

Once it’s down on his iPhone or iPad, Shiplett will go through the snippets he’s compiled every six months or so, mixing and matching them if the song warrants it. “I’ll make a judgment call on it then,” he says. “I allow myself enough time to think, okay, that’s something that I want to come back to and work on, or I’m going to let it go.”

Shiplett prefers to write songs like “Something to Believe in,” – which he wrote five or six years ago – and make a connection.

“The most important thing to me is that I do believe that songwriting is supposed to connect people and hit them right in the gut,” he says. “I want to be known as a songwriter who hits people in the gut pretty hard, with honesty and the truth. It’s a big thing for me – I want people to feel it.”

Klô Pelgag

Photo by/par Étienne Dufresne

Singer-songwriter Klô Pelgag has taken a great leap forward with the launch of her second album, L’étoile thoracique, which coincided with a breathtaking concert she gave during the 2016 edition of the Coup de coeur francophone festival. We conducted a feverish interview with the Sainte-Anne-des-Monts-born young musician just a few days before she flew to France for a concert tour.

Pelgag’s voice is frail at the other end of the line as she answers our questions. The flu suddenly hit her immediately after her album release event at Club Soda, while she and her musicians were at the bar next door. “An album launch is a big thing,” she says. “I’ve been waiting for the moment for months, and once that’s done, the pressure falls back down.

“I’d accumulated a lot of stress,” says the bed-ridden musician. “Introducing new songs to people who paid to see you onstage, singing songs they’ve never heard… I wasn’t confident enough in that regard, concerning people’s engagement.” Still, that first concert in her new creative cycle had been sold out for more than two months! “And it sold out in barely two-and-a-half weeks, which is cool,” she says. “I have a lot of respect for my fans.”

Being consecrated Breakout Artist of the Year at both the SOCAN and ADISQ galas in 2014 didn’t stop the world from turning. But almost overnight, Pelgag managed to pique the interest  of the general public, who fell in love with the singular and colourful song-world of the young singer-songwriter. She admits that she stopped wondering if people would understand what she’s trying to express through her songs. “I did wonder if there are enough clues [in her lyrics so that people will understand what they’re about]?,” she says. “There’s nothing vague about what I write, but there are things I leave up in the air, doors opened onto various avenues. What matters to me is that I understand it’s a slice of life, because that why I do what I do, to extract those slices of life and try to better understand them. I hope people can find comfort in my songs. It’s the language of my inner dialogue, but I think it can touch others.”

An ambitious album in shape and substance, L’Étoile thoracique is, hands-down, one the of the best albums to come out in Québec this fall. Pelgag’s lyrics are cryptic most of the time, but the images are striking nonetheless, and stir very real emotions in listeners. “It’s not a sad album, is it?” she asks. “That’s what I thought. I asked myself: What’s the overall feeling? I was too involved to be able to evaluate it. It’s hard to step back enough to look at yourself. I believe the album is full of loving moments, of light moments, of contemplation.”

This new album was again produced by the team behind L’Alchimie des montres (2013), Sylvain Deschamps and her brother Mathieu, and it’s a testament to the incredible evolution of the 26-year-old musician. The lyrics and the melodies are much more rigorous, and Mathieu Pelletier-Gagnon’s strings and brass arrangements – more than 20 musicians were involved in the recording – breathe a tremendous life force into the dense, complex album, one of impressive scope and ambition.

The decision invest in an album of orchestral pop songs was obvious, says Pelgag. “My brother and I were dreaming,” she explains. “Everything starts with a dream, doesn’t it? Even the special concert that I’m preparing,” she adds, referring to a show she’ll present during the Francofolies de Montréal on June 10, 2017, at Théâtre Maisonneuve, with the Orchestre du temple thoracique and 29 other musicians under the direction of Nicolas Ellis. “I never thought I’d tinker with orchestration so early in my career. It happened organically, in the end. The important thing was convincing the people I work with that it was worth it.”

“Writing songs is a strange thing. They all come from a different place, but follow emotional paths that are all over the place.”

Following the Alchimie des monstres tour, “I had an uncontrollable urge to write music,” says Pelgag. “I played the same songs over and over for three years… I had no time left to compose. When I got back to it, it was hard, but imperative at the same time.” These new songs, she explains, are tiny time capsules that were all written during the same period, “mostly in December 2015 and January 2016, which were super-productive. Each song is a landscape, or something like that… They’re quite intense songs!

“I wanted to make an album that you listen to in one go, a complete work, with songs that complement and answer each other,” she continues. There’s “Au bonheur d’Édelweiss” and “Les Mains d’Édelweiss,” which has the same protagonist, but in two different stories. “‘Les Mains’ is about a blind person and how they see and feel the world,” says Pelgag. ‘Au bonheur’ is about lost time, the importance of your family, that spinning wheel. The fact that, despite everything, we recognize ourselves in our parents, even when we try to distance ourselves from them.” Elsewhere, in “Les Animaux” and “Chorégraphie des âmes,” instrumental melodic motifs are repeated integrally, as if “the two songs are talking to each other, winking at each other,” she explains.

The album concludes with “Apparition de la Sainte-Étoile thoracique,” which includes a snippet of a conversation between Pelgag and her grandmother. “I hadn’t planned for my granny to be on the album,” she says. “Actually, I was thinking about her on ‘J’arrive en retard’ – one of the rare songs where I can pinpoint my source of inspiration precisely, that I can put a face on it. It’s her.” And thus, her grandmother invited herself, in a way, onto the end of the album, once all the songs were done. “I interviewed her five years ago,” says Pelgag. “I used her voice on that song, and everything kind of gelled…

“I don’t want to compare myself to super-cool people, but it reminds me of Dali’s creative process,” she says. “He didn’t practise: he had a painting in his mind and could reflect on it for years, and once he felt it was ready, he’d paint it. That’s how I see creating songs. Writing songs is a strange thing. They all come from a different place, but follow emotional paths that are all over the place. I write everything at once, the words and the music. It’s only during the mix-down that I feel the album is complete. When I found the meaning of the last song with my granny, her presence as a coda, I said to myself, ‘Okay, I can let this album go, now, I’m at peace with it.’ I don’t want it to be too perfect, either. It’s the little flaws that make it beautiful.

Watch a 360° performance of Stéphane Venne’s “Le début d’un temps nouveau” by Klô Pelgag, Loud Lary Ajust and Pierre Kwenders  from the 2016 Gala de la SOCAN in Montréal, held Sept. 12, 2016:

Valerie Carpentier lived through the tsunami of La Voix in 2013, after she won the first edition of Québec’s version of the immensely popular TV show The Voice. Her first album came soon after (L’Été des orages, now certified gold), as well as a tour that saw her perform in more than 50 cities across the province. Now, after a well-deserved rest, she’s back with a renewed, warrior-like energy – and a new album Pour Rosie, on which she penned 11 of the 13 songs. We met with the carpe diem-imbued singer-songwriter.

“I’ve always loved writing, ever since I was a child,” she says right from the start. “Writing songs requires a connection with oneself… I let myself live, I loved and lost, and I discovered parts of myself I was unaware of.” Evidently, Carpentier doesn’t shy away from describing her creative process. She goes on: “It’s in the face of adversity that you learn about yourself and grow.” Her genuine quest for authenticity overshadows the often clichéd nature of such statements, and it’s backed by a candour that cuts short any blasé or morose reaction. “I’m an optimist, it’s super important to me!” she says guilelessly.

“I’m so at peace with the music I write that I think I won’t even read the critics.”

Valérie CarpentierCarpentier, who’s in tip-top shape, was inspired by the recent vagaries of a career that hit the ground running, a particularly tempestuous breakup, and her travels. “I’m so at peace with the music I write that I think I won’t even read the critics,” she says. “I used to be very insecure about my femininity, about my music, etc. I feel like I did a lot of things to seek validation from the audience, but I no longer feel that way… This allows me to truly go back to something more real and authentic.”

Her new full-length record has a clear thread, she says: “There’s a concept behind my album. Rosie is someone looking for love in all the wrong places. She a bit like an alter ego, someone extreme and lost at the same time. The further you get into the album, the more it’s me talking. In the end, I’m on my own, which is to say you need to find love within yourself.”

Musically speaking, she delves into silky-smooth arrangements, courtesy of Jean Massicotte (Pierre Lapointe, Lhasa, Patrick Watson): “He’s fabulous!” says Carpentier. “I can sometimes get weird and describe my songs as vignettes, like ‘It’s nice out, but the girl is sad and she’s looking at the boats by the pier,’ or ‘I’m in a train in 1960s France,’ and he totally got where I wanted to go with that.”

Once they both understood her “movies,” the pair struck the right balance about the substance. “I wanted ambiance, lots of textures, cute instruments, and Jean respected my intentions amazingly well,” says Carpentier. “I didn’t want the singing to be buried in the mix, I wanted the music to support and lighten the lyrics. It really is built around the lyrics, they definitely are songs.” Of course, Carpentier’s favourite instrument, her rugged and sensual voice, is once again the star of the show.

Content with such crystal-clear answers, we dare ask if the idea of writing a book might one day be tempting. “I’ll definitely write a book someday, no doubt about it, but I do believe I’m too young at the moment,” she says. “You need to have something to say and the stamina to see it through… I love the French language so much that I’d need to feel like I’m honouring it as best I can.”

She concludes with clarity and confidence: “I don’t think my mission is to make music, I think it’s more important than that.”

Case closed.