Catherine DurandCatherine Durand is an unwavering perfectionist. Ever since she began her career, people have gotten used to the long gaps between her albums. True to her usual pace, four years have gone by since the release of her previous album, Les murs blancs du Nord, and her latest, La pluie entre nous. “It’s a slow gestation,” says Durand. “I don’t write a lot, and I don’t write fast.”

And then, at some point, the artist “owns” her album. “That definitely is a real moment,” she says. “You can write several songs and end up keeping none of them, just as you can write two in an hour that will both end up on the album. You can never know what will make it or not. I’m always on a quest. But all if it happens through a trial-and-error process… Where I want to take things, musically and lyrically. It takes time to figure all that out and make it happen.”

The quest, for this sixth album, was a many-headed beast. After 18 years in this trade, the singer-songwriter naturally feels like it’s time to take stock, and she felt a deep-rooted desire to surprise people, and herself: “This need for change, surprises, meant I had to work with new people, a new producer,” says Durand. “I needed someone like Emmanuel Éthier, whom I already knew. I loved the vibe of Jimmy Hunt’s album Maladie d’amour [which he produced] and I contacted him via Facebook…” Durand didn’t even know if he’d heard her previous work, but it didn’t matter: “In fact, it’s probably better, when you want to start from scratch!”

Durand, with the help of a host of high-calibre collaborators, definitely seems to have found what she was looking for. Partners in crime such as José Major, Joe Grass, Salomé Leclerc and Ariane Moffatt all pitched in, magnifying her songs without saturating them. “My melodic lines are still clearly mine, but there’s something more minimal – and more efficient,” says Durand. “It’s very contemporary. But not overly so. It bugs me when certain sounds are too contemporary… For example, right now, PJ Harvey, and a ton of other artists, throw in a saxophone solo. It feels like everyone’s doing it, so I won’t. I like classic, timeless sounds.”

This is also apparent in the lyrical themes of the new album. “It’s about personal relationships, whether its friendship, love, or family,” says Durand. “The love is there, but getting closer to people who are there is always difficult. Being comfortable together, despite the hurdles, even though it’s not always easy to tread the same path together.”

Self-produced for a few years, now, Durand has decided to launch her own record label. “I love being in control of my business, thinking about it from a business perspective and not always strictly as a creator,” she says. “That spark sometimes doesn’t come easy, but I think it’s a very good thing, in the end. Obviously, I’m very close to my project, it’s my career, my whole life, so I do take things more personally. It’s normal to be more sentimental about what’s happening to you.”

And the burning question on everyone’s lips lately: What about streaming? “At the root of any industry are creators,” says Durand. “Without songs, there would be no record labels, no publishers, no live shows, etc. The root of this whole industry are songwriters and composers. Right now, it seems like the only ones making money with music are the ones distributing it, everyone but the creator. It’s a grave imbalance that needs to be fixed. Cable providers pay money to a fund that re-invests in content creation; why don’t we have something similar for music? I’ve been doing this for 18 years, so I’m much more serene and down to earth. One day, we’ll need actual solutions. I’m very clear about what’s going on and I have faith that things will get better. Problem is, I think it’ll take a long time.”

Meet the Quentin Tarantino of country music – without all the blood, gore and violence, of course.

Dean Brody, the 13-time Canadian Country Music Association Award, four-time SOCAN Award, and two-time JUNO Award winner, name-checks the renegade Pulp Fiction and Hateful Eight Hollywood filmmaker on the title track of his sixth and newest album, Beautiful Freakshow, and marvels at his ability to be a rebel.

“I love Quentin Tarantino movies,” says Brody at the SOCAN Toronto office, on a day where he performed for our staff. “He’s one of the greatest directors of all time. He knows all the rules, but he breaks them, and gets away with things he shouldn’t get away with. I think that’s so cool.”

“I’m very visual, so I think that helps in my songwriting. It’s a totally visual thing to me.”

The same could be said regarding Brody when it comes to rule-breaking in country music – a genre where artistic gambles are rare. Brody has written a number of songs that almost defy categorization, or at least stretch the boundaries of what’s considered “country.”

Witness “Upside Down” and “Bring Down the House,” from Brody’s last album, Gypsy Road: the former includes a whistling, Celtic-flavoured intro, crunchy guitars, and a lyric about “being high”; the latter is a banjo-driven, hard-edged love story about mismatched misfits who shouldn’t work out romantically, but do.

“Bring Down the House” – the song that won Brody 2016 CCMA honours in the Single, Video, Songwriting and Top Selling Single categories – was unorthodox enough that both Brody and his producer Matt Rovey feared showing it to Ron Kitchener, Brody’s manager and the owner of his label, Open Road Records.

“We were shitting our pants a little bit about it, like, ‘How are we going to do this?’” says Brody. “We got all our tunes together, and at the very end we said, ‘Ron, check this one out. We kind of did it for shits and giggles.’ And he loved it, he was all over it. It made us a little nervous; radio’s tough, I think. It didn’t chart as high as my past songs, but it’s definitely the biggest song of my career.”

Beautiful Freakshow continues Brody’s inventive streak: the title song veers from an Ennio Morricone Spaghetti-Western whistle into a bunch of directions, not the least of which is a hip-hop verse by Halifax rapper Shevy Price.

“I was actually listening to some Nicki Minaj at the time, and just the way her delivery is so good,” Brody explains. “It’s almost nasty how she has so much attitude. I thought this song would be really cool if you had this farmer country guy with this girl exhibiting tons of attitude. So right away, I’m thinking Nicki Minaj.

“I contacted a friend of mine, Marc Perry, who knows the East Coast urban music scene. He said, there’s a girl in Halifax, part of the underground scene; her name is Shevy. I showed her the song, and she said, ‘Oh, this is really cool. What kind of dark place did you go to, coming up with this song?’ And I said, ‘To me, it’s happy. I love this song.’ But she really dug it, and we recorded it at her studio. She did her thing and it just came together. When we were building it, we didn’t know what the end product would be. With that song, I would say we don’t even go off the path, we go off a cliff… and see what happens.”

There’s also the roaring-rock country of “Bush Party,” the slap-rhythm shuffle of “Soggy Bottom Summer,” the reggae lilt of “Beautiful Girl,” and what he calls the “almost-too-country” song “Time” that offer another collection of diversified styles from Brody. “I do love exploring the edge,” Brody admits. “Music’s fun, and I like trying different things.”

Here’s where another Tarantino comparison applies: Brody’s songs are cinematic.  He needs to picture it in his mind before committing it to creation. “I need a visual,” he says. “I can’t write a song just based on words or feelings. I have to have a visual, or a metaphor. I think even all my love songs are metaphors. I need imagination… and an instrument.”

So it might not be surprising to learn that Brody has four screenplays on the go, further kindling the pictorial aspect of his music. “I’m very visual, so I think that helps in my songwriting,” he says. “It’s a totally visual thing to me. Like in ‘Blueberry Sky,’ I see it all: the trestle bridge, and the rain, and getting stuck underneath it. Running off the Grandma’s porch with the girl. The Greyhound bus pulling up to the guy who’s working in the shop, grease on his hands. The girl getting off the bus and she needs a ride. There’s no taxi, so he grabs the tow-truck keys, takes her to her Grandma’s house, and they end up spending the summer together. They look like a picture to me: A Forrest Gump/Robert Zemeckis kind of imagery, you know?”

What he doesn’t necessarily need is a songwriting partner, although he’ll occasionally reach out to one if he feels the song needs that push. After writing by committee for an extended time, he’s content now to be a lone wolf.

“I wrote in Nashville for six years, co-writing, and for whatever reason, my ideas aren’t the ones the guys in the room go with,” says Brody. “So I’d end up going home and writing something else. Because when someone triggered my mind to go in one direction, they’d end up going in a different direction. I’m just weird that way; my process is very private. I also feel more like an editor than a songwriter.”

Brody rarely sits down and finishes a song in one session. “I’ll pick up a guitar in the morning and just noodle around,” he says. “If I find one or two lines, I’ll slap it down on my iPhone and then I’ll go do yard work, or something like that. Then I’ll come back at lunch, pick up the ukulele and try the same song again. Maybe I’ll get the start of a chorus, and then I’ll get bored and go do something else. I’ve found that creatively, I do really good with spaces. With just little bits of time. When I force myself to write in three-hour segments, I get burned out.

“And then there’s perspective,” he continues. “I get way too close. I can get it in a good direction, and when I come back, I feel like I can see it with fresh eyes, and chop things off or add something. So perspective is huge for me. But I know writers who can keep that eagle-eye perspective during a three-hour session, whereas I lose it. I have to come back the next day to see what they’re seeing.”

If there’s one type of song Brody doesn’t spend as much time on anymore, it’s the ballad. “They’re my favourite songs to write, but they struggle at radio,” he says. “Even when I look at streaming and downloads and stuff, I wonder if fans appreciate ballads as much as I do. So I think I’ve changed direction a little bit there. I’ll spend a little more time on those fun songs, those happy songs.”

Matt HolubowskiWhen we reach him on the phone, Matt Holubowski is in his favourite place in the world: the tour van. He might not be very far from Montréal (tonight’s concert is in Sorel, about an hour by car northeast of the city), but hitting the road, even for just a few kilometres, makes him feel at ease. He’s always loved to travel and visited several continents – sometimes as a humanitarian volunteer – and is only now starting to realize that his trade as a musician could take him to places he’s never even thought of before. “My God! If you only knew…” he says. “That’s my ultimate dream. For now, I’m focusing on concerts in Québec, so we rarely leave for more than a few days at a time, but I’d love to be on the road for weeks, or even months.”

One can easily imagine that Holubowski’s music could travel around the globe. His ethereal folk rock has often been compared to that of Patrick Watson, and has a universal and timeless quality. It surely can’t hurt that folksingers are quite popular of late, to wit the fact that Bob Dylan recently won the Nobel Prize in Literature. “It’s funny, we were just listening to Dylan’s Desire in the van,” says Holubowski. “I’d be lying if I said he hasn’t been a major influence! To me, he’s right up there on a pedestal, a role model for any aspiring songwriter.”

As a matter of fact, it was by singing a Dylan song that Holubowski most impressed everyone when he was a contestant on La Voix in 2015. Mind you, he didn’t pick an obvious song, such as “Like a Rolling Stone” or “Knocking on Heaven’s Door,” but the lesser-known ballad “Girl from the North Country.” “It’s funny you should mention that,” he says. “Initially, the one I really wanted to sing was “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall,” but it’s a hard song, and it’s almost seven minutes long. That’s when someone suggested “Girl from the North Country,” which is better known because Johnny Cash covered it. They told me it would connect with the audience more.”

Nowadays, this type of issue doesn’t bother Holubowski anymore. When he recorded his album Solitudes, the people at Audiogram gave him carte blanche, never trying to make him more “radio-friendly” or commercially accessible. “I have nothing against light pop music, but to me, a song must have a certain depth,” he says. “You don’t have to be Baudelaire, but you can surely do better than ‘Baby, baby’… It might be Dylan’s influence, since we’re on the topic, but to me, lyrics are vital; that’s always what I notice first in any music.”

If there’s a thread in the songs on Solitudes, it’s the theme of identity. The identity of the artist who questions the concept of notoriety – notably on “L’imposteur,” one of two French songs on the album – and the identity of a young Québécois, whose father was a Polish immigrant and whose mother was a Francophone Québécoise, and who grew up almost exclusively in English in the town of Hudson. The album’s title is a reference to Hugh MacLennan’s novel Two Solitudes, a book that was a mainstay on his nightstand for a long time. Holubowski even evokes a third solitude: his, the solitude of bilingual Québecois who are sitting between two chairs. “It might sound strange, but it was while I was abroad that I started thinking about our identity here,” says Holubowski. “Especially during a trip to Serbia where, let’s be honest, the question of national identity is quite heavier than it is here!”

Yet identity is a fluid concept. Even though he readily admits he didn’t know much about Francophone Québécois music up until very recently, he’s actually catching up in an almost bulimic fashion. “My first contact with music was Eminem, and I do think it has influenced my writing,” says Holubowski. “I think my French isn’t that good, but I’m getting to love that language through the lyrics of artists such as Richard Desjardins, whose writing just blow me away. I also listen to a lot of Martin Léon – that man is a genius at arrangements – and also Safia Nolin, Philippe Brach, Antoine Corriveau…”

Might we expect to hear more French songs on his future albums? Possibly, but for the time being, Matt hopes his songs will travel, no matter in what language he’s singing. And based on the positive reaction to his music, especially in English-speaking Canada, there’s very little chance that he’ll actually be doomed to a life of solitude.