The heady urge to go see what’s out there, further afield: that’s what motivated singer-songwriter Damien Robitaille over the past two or three years, during which he strayed away from the music world to better return to it with Univers parallèles, his fifth album – fourth for the Audiogram label – no less than five years after its predecessor, Omniprésent. Thus, the album, defined by big backing vocals and a disco-funk groove, is permeated by the theme of escape.

Damien Robitaille“Music is curiosity, the joy of discovery,” says Robitaille, reached on the road to Trois-Rivières during the a promotional tour for Univers parallèles. “I don’t like to repeat myself, just as I don’t like listening to the same music over and over again. And when I find something [new], I become obsessed. I recently discovered ABBA – I mean, of course, I knew ABBA, but I started seriously listening to ABBA, you know? Man, their stuff was good! Take ‘Dancing Queen,’ everybody knows that song, but when you listen carefully… My God, it’s good; the arrangements, the recording, everything!”

Maybe that’s what Robitaille needed to get back into the studio: re-kindling his excitement in the presence of music, 15 years after the launch of his first (self-produced, eponymous) album. Although he won’t spell it out: “An urge to go see what’s out there, further afield? Well… It’s more simply, that life kept throwing interesting projects at me, and I took them on.”

And so, recently, we watched him as an explorer of the American Francophonie in Bruno Bouliane’s excellent documentary film Un rêve américain (2013). He also co-hosted, alongside Vincent Gratton, the TV series Ma caravane au Canada, aired on TV5 and UNIS. “I also did TV shows about dogs… A whole bunch of different stuff, you know? I was busy enough that I didn’t feel the need to write as much…

In the end, TV and film are all well and good, but they take one away from music, “even though I did do a solo tour that lasted a year-and-a-half,” Robitaille insists. But after four years devoid of new material, “it was time to get back to it. Ultimately, I just needed to make an effort to find some time for it. It needed a conscious decision to pull the plug and devote an entire year to writing and recording.”

“So I said to myself, no influences. Let everything come out naturally and keep the best of it.”

The result: Univers parallèles, an album with no musical influences, as the artist likes to point out, to mark a clean break with Omniprésent, an album which championed his love of Latin music, “because my wife is Colombian.” This time, “I said to myself: no influences. Let everything come out naturally and keep the best of it.”

There’s less focus on a type or genre of music – which means the sound of the album isn’t country like L’Homme qui me ressemble (2006), nor Latin, as with Omniprésent. Produced by Carl Bastien, Univers parallèles’s golden thread is voices; his own, as well as those of Marie-Christine Despestre and Dawn Cumberbatch.

“When I laid down the demos, I played around and did my own backing vocals,” says Robitaille. “In the end, I felt like keeping my distance from the ‘digital’ sound of the previous album [recorded in a tiny Miami studio]. I wanted a live-in-the-studio album, at least as far as the percussion, drums and backing vocals – all three of us singing together – were concerned… I needed more soul.” Mission accomplished, especially on the closing trilogy of the superbly solemn “Chance en or,” followed by “Oasis” and “Ennemi imaginaire.”

But funky Robitaille is also back on this album, especially on another trio of songs: “Rêve récurrent,” “Sortie de secours” and “S.O.S.”  One thing’s for sure, Robitaille knows how to do groovy R&B and funk in French. Do we hear some ABBA in there? “It’s actually more of a reggae influence,” says Robitaille, citing one of his past obsessions. “Roots, rocksteady, I absorbed all of it.”

Reggae Robitaille? We’d buy a whole album of that! “I think Homme autonome was my reggae album… but with soul arrangements,” he says. “Songs like ‘Plein d’amour’ or ‘Jésus nous a dit’… That one was directly inspired by a Junior Murvin song, you know which one I mean?” And he starts singing the first verse from “Soloman,” a song from the classic Police & Thieves album (from 1977, produced by the legendary Lee “Scratch” Perry): “Solomon was the wisest man / But he didn’t know the secret of a woman…”

In a video captured during the backstage media conference at the 2017 JUNO Awards, Canadian Music Hall of Fame 2017 inductee, live TV broadcast performer, SOCAN member and Canadian music icon Sarah McLachlan briefly discusses her songwriting process.

In March of this year, in an announcement about its gender parity initiatives, Canada’s National Film Board revealed that of the music composers on its funded productions for 2016-2017, only 13 percent were women. The NFB is working to bring that up to 50 per cent by 2020. If emerging women composers in this country are looking for motivation to get scoring, they’ll find inspiration in the career of Lesley Barber.

One of SOCAN’s most successful #ComposersWhoScore, the Toronto-based Barber made waves internationally last year with her music for the Oscar-winning American drama Manchester by the Sea. Her bold compositions of a cappella chorales, quietly disruptive strings and minimalist piano were widely praised. In fact, her score was considered a front-runner for an Oscar itself, before being ruled ineligible on a technicality: Director Kenneth Lonergan chose to also include previously written classical pieces, a no-go for the Best Original Score category. Still, the attention on Manchester shines a deserved light on a Canadian composer who’s been successfully scoring films, both at home and in Hollywood, for more than 20 years.

When we reach her at home, Barber has just finished an all-night writing session for the upcoming horror film Boarding School, by director Boaz Yakin. At the same time, she’s completing music for the romantic comedy Paper Year, the directorial debut for Canadian comedian and New Girl writer Rebecca Addelman. “It’s been interesting working on them simultaneously,” she says. “You have to live in two worlds at the same time.”

Barber has been bridging the divergent from the beginning. A student of classical piano in her youth, she began composing at age 10. While obtaining her Masters in music composition from the University of Toronto, she also studied electro-acoustic music with the late, legendary Canadian electronic composer Gustav Ciamaga, and started to focus on minimalism. Her interest in unconventional film scoring was further piqued during university, after witnessing a live performance by Philip Glass of his innovative score for Koyaanisqatsi.

Barber brought her expertise in both classical and computer music to her first feature film assignment, 1995’s R-rated lesbian drama When Night is Falling, by Canadian director Patricia Rozema.

“I’ve always been interested in hybrid scores, and that opportunity was right in the film,” says Barber. “There were two characters from separate worlds, and they meet and fall in love. Right from the beginning I wanted aggressive, live and programmed percussion, and a really tight quartet – like ‘Eleanor Rigby’ meets The Kronos Quartet – to kind of reflect these two characters’ lives, interacting and crossing paths. It was a really fun film. The process taught me a lot – about the level of detail, the studio process of scoring, producing, and conducting an orchestral score with programming in it.”

Since then, Barber has scored for thrillers, historical dramas, children’s animated movies, documentaries and more, but she’s especially drawn to features by auteur filmmakers, like Rozema, David Bezmozgis (Victoria Day) and Yakin, who she first worked with in 1998 on A Price Above Rubies. “Music is an essential part of their filmmaking,” she says. “They take the time to create a sound approach, and they care very deeply. The music is part of their voice. It’s a really immersive collaboration.”

It was the year 2000 when she made her first film with the American playwright Kenneth Lonergan. The debut feature You Can Count on Me, starring Laura Linney and Mark Ruffalo, was nominated for many awards, including both an Oscar and Golden Globe for original screenplay. For an emotional funeral sequence, Barber scored with a stark children’s choir, the type of atmospheric approach that she would later bring to their next collaboration, Manchester by the Sea.

“I do feel a responsibility to the characters. It’s like a communion, and tapping into their essential story.”

“I think with Kenny and I, when we worked on You Can Count on Me, it was his first film and one of my first,” she says. “Some years have gone by, and I think we’ve both really evolved. I think our voices are bolder. [This time] Kenny also brought me in really early in the process, so I had space to come up with my own ideas – like the a cappella voices. I could just simply get the singers in, and record them, and send [the recordings] in, and then we could talk about what worked and didn’t, and we’d get to music we both agreed on. It’s really exciting to work with a filmmaker like Kenny repeatedly, and get to the point where you can send really intuitive music and he’s open to it.”

One wouldn’t guess from listening to the high quality of the finished work, but Barber had little more than a week for the job. While she says there really is no typical workflow in film scoring – each production’s scheduling is unique – there’s one thing that regularly quickens the pace: A premiere at Sundance, one of the most prestigious film festivals, which just happens to fall right after the Christmas holidays.

Lesley Barber

Photo: Katherine Holland

“We had a multi-phased process,” she recalls. “I read the script and wrote a suite of music and sent it to Kenny. While he was editing I visited the editing room to see how it was working. I had done some improvisations on the piano that were working well, for example. And then, as is quite often with Sundance, you get accepted and your première date is set, while you’re still in the middle of finishing up! And it’s always holiday season. So it’s a real rush to get music ready. There were actually just a few weeks before the première, and I had to get that music delivered. So it was a very busy week. Thankfully, the writing flowed quickly, and I had an amazing team, which helps. Sometimes there’s something great about time pressure.”

A different challenge Barber has encountered is scoring for documentaries. She has worked on several, including Girls on Top (2010), How to Change the World (2015) and last year’s award-winning The Apology, an all-female production about Japanese “comfort women.” Unlike scripted films, where the composer can get work from a script and/or a rough cut, a documentary’s story often emerges in the editing process. Sometimes a direction presents itself in the premise, however. For the upcoming documentary A Better Man, in which co-director Attiya Khan re-visits a boyfriend who had abused her, 20 years later, Barber returned to her tools of synths and electronic programming to complement the chamber strings and dreamy woodwinds.

“Their relationship was in the ‘80s and I wanted to infuse the score with this sense of the past, and somehow create a music that reflected the two worlds of then and now,” she says.

Regardless of genre, or timeframe, or tools, Barber always comes back to the characters, and how she can illuminate their inner lives through music.

“I don’t think about the audience when I’m writing,” she says. “But I want my music to really stand on its own. If I hear it without the film, I want it to have a shape, to be something you want to hear again. I do feel a responsibility to the characters. It’s like a communion, and tapping into their essential story. I’m thinking about what’s at stake, what’s unspoken, what new layer can I bring to the storytelling, where’s the potential vulnerabilities, to help the audience. That’s where my allegiances lie.”