Emma BekoHip-hop flows right next to blood cells in Emma Beko’s veins. The young singer-songwriter, who we discovered as one half of Heartstreets, released her first solo album, Blue, in January 2021. The songs are captivating, full of dark, vivid, haunting emotions, and take us to the deep-rooted heart of a hybrid sound where hip-hop, R&B, and pop come together.

“Yes, music comes from very deep inside me. I fell in love with hip-hop beats when I was six years old,” says Beko. “My half-brothers watched Musique Plus in the late ’90s and early 2000s, when rap was huge.” Born in Budapest, Beko grew up with her mom, a ballerina, in Montréal and then New York City. “It wasn’t long before I wanted to dance, too,” she says. “I joined a hip-hop dance troupe when I was 11 and later, I got into graffiti. I surrounded myself with everything hip-hop-related, and I embraced all of its codes – except rapping, which intimidated me.”

Even though she was utterly impressed by rap battles, and wrote a lot, nothing pointed to the fact that she’d one day participate in such a way. “When I moved to New York City at 15, I decided to re-invent myself,” she recalls. “I started hanging out with people who listened to a lot of hip-hop and I decided to trust myself.” Her insecurity gave way to a desire to show people that there are other voices. “I can’t sing like the girls in TLC, but I’ve got my own thing going, a more raspy voice. You don’t need a pretty voice to rap,” she giggles.

Beko was back in Montréal two years later, and music was already at the centre of her life. As the years went by, she allowed herself to feel and express emotions that were hers alone. “My solo project had been brewing in my mind and in my heart for a few years; I wanted to find out who I am when I’m on my own,” she says. It was during one of SOCAN’s Kenekt Québec song camps, to which Heartstreets had been invited, that the stars aligned, and her desire to follow their trail became a reality. “I so wish I could go back to a song camp as a solo artist,” she says. “That’s where I met Rymz [featured on one of songs]. My life was never the same after that song camp. As soon as I got back from there, I called J.-P. Beau Geste, my producer, and we started making tracks two days later.”

Asked about the origin of her musical vibe, Erykah Badu is the first name that pops up. “Just like her, people often wonder if I’m rapping or not because there’s a melody beyond the beat,” Beko explains.

Only when she’s completely alone does Beko dare to put everything she is on paper, so her ideal writing context is an empty room, at night, with a cold beer. “It comes more naturally at night, for me,” she says. “‘MHS’ came out in an hour just, because I had the right set-up. I often write very corny or weird stuff, but when I’m on my own, I don’t feel like I have to judge myself, and that allows me to go to the logical conclusion of those ideas. Some gems end up coming out of that process. I need to write bad stuff in order to write good stuff.”

And if, these days, a little drink helps her get into a state that’s conducive to elicit the memories she wants to set to music, it’s because excess is no longer part of her life. “I like having a drink when I write music,” says Beko. “I used to consume quite a bit, but nowadays, I’ve quit smoking, I don’t do drugs, and I barely drink. I just need a couple of beers in my studio to feel O.K. re-visiting painful parts of my life, but softly — it allows me to write the nicest things.”

Quills, Rymz, and Karelle Tremblay join Beko’s solo project, which she’s eager to present in a more direct way. In mid-March of 2021, she presented a virtual live show with an impressive stage direction that offered a taste she’ll not soon forget. “I was afraid my expectations might be too high because I’ve waited for so long, but it was the biggest high I’ve had in a long time, and I would do it again every day,” she admits.

With an independent project that requires an inordinate investment of time and energy, the singer-songwriter sets the bar very high: “I want to live comfortably from my music,” says Beko. “I want my style of music to gain international recognition, and I want to deeply love all the songs I offer to my audience. I’m demanding, I know!” she says, laughing.

For most music lovers, she’ll always be J.Kyll, cofounder of Muzion, pioneer of the Québec rap scene and one of the most relevant voices to have emerged from it. In nearly a decade, however, Jenny Salgado has also made a name for herself in the field of screen and stage composing: her musical score for the feature film Scratch (by Sébastien Godron, 2015) earned her a nomination at the Gala du cinéma québécois, and two awards, at the Canadian Screen Awards, and the Chicago International Movies + Music Festival.

Salgado is adamant that the transition from rapper to screen composer was a natural step in the direction that she herself had traced since the foundation of Muzion. “I did all the productions for Muzion,” she reminds us. “I would even say that music came into my life before words and literature; the impetus to rap came as much from the lyrics as it did from beat-making, so maybe some people see songwriting as a second string to my bow [as a rapper], but the truth is, those strings came at the same time on the bow.”

Still, she admits that opportunity makes the thief: “Like many things in my career, it’s like paving stones appear in front of me and all I need to do is step on them,” she says, recalling the phone call from documentary filmmaker Nicole Giguère, who was the first to suggest that she write an original score for her film On me prend pour une Chinoise ! (freely: They think I’m a Chinese woman!) about international adoption.

“What she asked me to do was quite bold: mixing urban music – hip-hop – and Chinese music,” Salgado explains. “She forced me to dive into a completely different universe, and I stepped up to the challenge. It was a turning point, whereas for Scratch, I fell back into my comfort zone and composed from my roots in hip-hop and street music. In that movie, music was central, it was almost a character in and of itself. My music was well-received, and I think that’s when people in the industry realized that something was abuzz about me…”

Anyone who’s met J. Kyll knows she doesn’t mince words. Nowadays, the pioneer throws her entire talent at the service of a film or stage director’s vision. Last fall, Christian Fortin asked the composer for a soundtrack for his production of King Dave, presented at Théâtre Jean Duceppe. This line of work also requires a balancing act on the part of the screen composer: finding a balance between the director’s commission and the composer’s unique voice. Being versatile means adapting to the filmmaker’s vision, while finding a way to add her own signature to the soundtrack.

“There’s a zone in the middle where you need to find your place,” says Salgado. “I guess one of the reasons I get asked to work on projects is my ability to approach a project while making it mine a little: being at the service of a production – a film, a play – that’s not me, that’s not mine, that’s not my word, my purpose, or my vision, being entirely at its service, while finding something personally creative in it, and offering my own editorial line. I’ve managed to achieve that on every project I’ve worked on so far, but it’s a new challenge every time. That’s part of the trip: finding a way to fit in someone else’s vision.”

She then moves onto the difference between composing for films versus composing for the stage: “When you get the footage from a film for which you’re composing, everything has a time-code telling you exactly where the music is supposed to go; a stage play is more fluid, each performance is different. You must be able to create music that’s flexible enough to follow the content. It takes something that’s structured, but still flows with the words, or the bodies in the case of a choreography – I really like to compose music for bodies. It helps my creative process to have performed [with Muzion] and to have planned the flow of a show, with moments designed to make the crowd react in a specific way. I try to transpose that into my work composing for film or stage productions.”

This, in the case of cinema, raises the question of the expectations linked to these first cuts, which often include reference music – works already recorded, often well-known pieces, that are used to indicate the intention or the emotion that the moving images illustrate. “Those infamous temp tracks!” says the composer. “I’ve had some proposed to me even for stage plays… They’re part of the hurdles I have to get over. The danger with that is what used to be called ‘demophobia’: the fact that musicians get used to the sound of the demo version of a song and become dissatisfied with the clean, mixed version.

“It’s a bit the same with temp tracks; they become embedded in the minds of the film crew. Once everyone is used to seeing these images and hearing a given track, what you need to do is compose a new piece that will succeed in de-throning the original. The trick is finding the right emotion in the original composition, what makes it best adapted to the scene, in a way that’s even better than the reference song. It’s always a challenge, but that’s the name of the game!”

Sometimes the video store in Marieville, Québec (about 40 minutes east of Montréal), would receive compact discs, those precious pieces of plastic that once had the power to reveal an entire universe to someone, and occasionally even open the doors to their future. “The video store in Marieville survived more than a majority of others. I vividly remember its checkered flooring. I remember the employees were eccentrics,” says Thierry Larose, paying tribute to these oases of culture that were, before the advent of streaming platforms, these places inevitably impregnated with the smell of fluorescent yellow popcorn.

Thierry LaroseBut why are we talking about the video store in Marieville, a quaint little town in the outskirts of Montréal? Because that’s where Larose grew up. And because his first album, Cantalou, opens with a song, “Club vidéo,” which is to this record what “La Monogamie” was to Trompe-l’œil by Malajube: a thirsty, tragic, and intoxicating fresco, tortuous yet celebratory, balancing murmurs with roaring guitars, in which the singer announces – with a remarkable sense of unforgettable method – that he’s not the kind of person who’ll tolerate banality.

As he sings, Étions-nous faits pour ce que la vraie vie nous propose/ Que faire de notre penchant pour le grandiose/ Quand tout autour nous rappelle à l’ordre et à l’habitude? / Viens on va se mettre un film” (Were we made for what real life has in store for us / What about our penchant for the grandiose / When everything around us begs for order and habit? / Come, let’s put a movie on).

“When the video store received batches of CDs, they sometimes came from Dare to Care/Grosse Boîte,” says the 23-year-old artist, referring to Malajube’s record label, which was also home to the artists La Patère rose and Avec pas d’casque. Today, it has been re-christened Bravo musique after Béatrice Martin bought it, and Cantalou  is the first official release of the new label. At the same time, the pre-teen Larose was a devout listener of the Radio-Canada’s Bande à part sessions, and the show Mange ta ville, hosted by Catherine Pogonat, which allowed him to explore the teeming local Montréal scene by proxy. “I dreamt about it all!” he says.

“The minute I saw the Dare to Care/Grosse Boîte logo on a CD at the video store, I knew I’d most likely like it. I bought Trois chaudières de sang [Avec pas d’casque’s first album] and I remember thinking it was so raw that it was unbelievable someone had released that on CD, and that I could do that too. It’s incredible that it made it to Marieville among all the Michel Louvain and Patrick Norman.”

After a two-year stint at the University of Sherbrooke in English studies, Larose took the opportunity presented by an internship in Montréal to seriously tackle songwriting. He participated in the 2019 Francouvertes with little stage experience, but an undeniable instinct for choruses that settled permanently in the minds of those who heard him – a rare quality that was noticed by Alexandre Martel. The latter musician, who has manned the console for Hubert Lenoir and Alex Burger, has now co-produced Cantalou.

“I asked Martel if we could go big and use all the good songs on side A and the rest later on,” says Larose, admitting that he applied the same approach as Malajube’s Trompe-l’oeil, which began with a bang before settling down halfway through, and ending on fireworks (“Rachel” and “Les éléphants” being Cantalou’s “Étienne d’août” and “St-Fortunat”).

Although the B-side of Cantalou – the most 2006-sounding record of 2021 – also contains its moments of grace, it had indeed been a long time since the first few tracks of an album had been as exhilarating as its 1- 2- 3-4 punch: “Club vidéo,” followed by the gumball grunge of the title track, then the heady “Les amants de Pompéi,” and “Chanson pour Bérénice Einberg” – this last a kind of “Ducharmian” fan fiction piece dedicated to the glory of the main character of L’avalée des avalés (translated twice as both The Swallower Swallowed and Swallowed). “It’s a 100 percent sincere love letter to someone who doesn’t actually exist,” giggles Larose, a savvy lyricist who knows how to evoke a lot while saying little.

Ben non, moi non plus j’pleure jamais voyons donc” (“Of course I never cry”), he sings on Cantalou, with something in his voice hinting at the fact that the truth lies elsewhere, a trick he borrowed from Leonard Cohen. “The first time I heard such a thing was in ‘Chelsea Hotel #2,’ when he says, ‘That’s all, I don’t think of you that often,’ and you totally get that it’s so not true. I love it,” says Larose

So, what are we to do with our penchant for the grandiose when everything calls us back to order and habit at the moment? “Watch movies,” says the man who claims to have been influenced by filmmaker Richard Linklater – specifically, the bittersweet notes of his Before trilogy. “The next best thing when you don’t have access to the grandiose is fiction. That’s what I always fall back on. Writing temporarily fills that void for me, and when something grandiose happens for real, I feel like it was worth the wait.”