Back in May of 2016, First Nations pop/rock band Midnight Shine played two showcase performances at Canadian Music Week (CMW) in Toronto. It’s doubtful that any other CMW act had a more eventful trip to the fest, as vocalist/guitarist Adrian Sutherland explains from his Northern Ontario home in Attawapiskat.

“I come from a very poor family here,” Says Sutherland. “My grandparents lived a very traditional life, and everything on our table was from the land. That’s still alive in the community. I have to go out and kill geese and caribou and moose, still. We have to fill our freezers, and that’s part of life in the far North. The harvest is about family bonding and our culture, too.

“It was very tough for me to cut my hunting short and come all the way out by snow machine, travelling on sea ice to get home, and then to CMW. That’s my commitment to the music. I’m willing to do whatever it takes.”

The other members of Midnight Shine come from different communities in the James Bay region in the far North. Guitarist Zach Tomatuk and bassist Stan Louttit are from Moose Factory First Nation, and drummer George Gillies from Fort Albany First Nation.

Formed five years ago, Midnight Shine’s public debut was opening a Trooper gig. They’ve since released two well-received albums, 2013’s self-titled debut and 2014’s Northern Man.

Their career received a major boost when agent Ralph James of United Talent Agency took the band under his wing. Their CMW appearance also drew major, nationwide media attention, including a sit-down interview with The National, the front page of the Toronto Star, a live performance and interview on CTV’s Canada AM, two Canadian Press stories, a featured video on Daily Vice, and stories in the National Post, Hamilton Spectator, Winnipeg Free Press, Calgary Herald, Halifax Chronicle Herald, and more.

“There are good stories to be told from Attawapiskat. I hope we’re one of them.” – Adrian Sutherland of Midnight Shine

As the group’s primary songwriter, Sutherland has been hard at work creating songs for a third album. “We’re hoping to get back into the studio by early spring, and we’re talking to a few different producers,” he explains.

One new song, “Sister Love,” will come out as a single soon, and is drawing a favourable early response. “It’s based on a poem written by my sister,” says Sutherland. “It’s about the struggles we face every day, and some of the hardships we have to go through in life. It explores the feeling of wanting to go back to a time when things weren’t so hard, being around your family and the kinship that existed back when things were good.”

Look for other upcoming material to tackle First Nations themes more directly. Earlier Midnight Shine songs like “Northern Man” and “James Bay” are definitely rooted in Sutherland’s culture and home region, but he’s now ready to address social and political themes more directly.

“My writing today is a lot different than on the first two albums,” he says. “I don’t want to force myself into any direction, but something that’s been on my mind is the residential schools. My mom was in that system for several years and I’ve seen how that has affected her life. I want to tell her story. Then there is the issue of missing and murdered aboriginal women. I now feel compelled to write about these things.”

Midnight Shine’s sound is poppy and melodic rock, but Sutherland explains he’s now looking to incorporate more First Nations sounds. “I’m looking at other artists in the James Bay area to help bring the music to life,” he says.

“In the past, we haven’t put cultural embellishments into the music, but things are changing. I’m thinking about putting some traditional drumming on the new record, and I’m working on songs written in Cree. That’s a lot harder than writing in English!”

Since Midnight Shine formed, such Canadian Indigenous artists as Tanya Tagaq and A Tribe Called Red have had a huge impact, nationally and beyond. Sutherland acknowledges drawing inspiration from their example, and from Gord Downie’s recent Secret Path project. “Gord is just so courageous and doing phenomenal work now,” he says.

In turn, Midnight Shine’s growing success is proving inspirational to those in Sutherland’s own community of Attawapiskat. That area has been the subject of plenty of negative media attention in recent years, but Sutherland stresses “there are good stories to be told from Attawapiskat. I hope we’re one of them.

“I think we’re inspiring the younger kids. It’s hard for them to grasp that here is a band that lives in the community, they can talk to us. That’s not something they’re used to. As a group, we’ve been very mindful of getting into these communities to play shows. It’s our duty to inspire these young people, and remember our roots.”

Véronique Labbé

Photo by/par Lynn Gosselin

Véronique Labbé was 16 when she started singing country alongside her mom, Lise Roy, in Thetford Mines, Québec. Now 35, she celebrates her 20 years on the music scene with the launch of her fifth album, Mon Noël Country, released a few weeks ago. She’s also nominated no less than seven(!) times at this year’s Gala Country (Québec’s premier country music awards), taking place on Nov. 19, 2016.

“Nowadays, I’m doing more of an American-style country-pop, I’ve become a kind of flavour of the month, but it wasn’t easy; people used to want to hear more traditional songs,” says Labbé, whose tour includes a tribute to Shania Twain.

In other words, Renée Martel isn’t a model for her, no more than Patrick Norman – both demi-gods on the Québec country scene. “There are so many niche markets in country music; Renée Martel and Patrick Norman are more country-folk. I’m more on the pop side,” says Labbé.

Our own country girl tis closer to a Terri Clark, a Travis Tritt, or even a Sheryl Crow, for whom she’s been an opening act. “In my teens, I’d watch CMT (Country Music Television) and I dreamt of a big career like theirs,” she says. “And even though I’m not Anglophone, I managed to share a stage with them.”

So how do you stand out from the rest when you sing country music, in French, in Québec? “Country music is about spilling your guts,” she says bluntly. “The words you sing need to be understood by the listener right away, regardless of their education level. Especially if you’re singing about heartbreak! On my first album, I sang using a normative French, and people didn’t get my country because it was a tad too sophisticated.”

The first award she won was a SOCAN Prize at the St-Tite festival in 2005. “That opened up my eyes on the whole universe of copyright and royalties, and luckily, didn’t change my musical personality,” she says. Labbé has played in St-Tite, Québec’s country Mecca, n less than 19 times. The songwriter was once more saluted by SOCAN during the 2015 Montréal Gala, in the Country Music category, of course.

“When I write a song, it’s the music, first and foremost,” says Labbé. “Melodies come easy to me. It’s the lyrics that demand a lot of work, the thing I find the hardest. So this is what I do: I record my music tracks in the studio; at that point no more than 25% of the lyrics are written. It’s after that, when I listen to the instrumental tracks, that words begin to flow. It’s not necessarily a method I’m fond of, but I have to give myself an ultimatum for words to finally come, so I can finalize the creative process.”

However, the song “Du côté bleu du ciel,” the title track of fourth album, (with lyrics by Nelson Minville, music by Marc Dupré), is an exception – and is nominated as Song of the Year at the Nov. 19 Country Gala. “It was at the very limit of what I do, but I like that type of writing!” says Labbé. “I need to be really moved to accept a song from someone else. That one did me some good, even though it’s a lot more commercial and less country.”

Véronique Labbé is also a TV and radio host for En route vers l’ouest, and she believes SOCAN played an important role in her musical career. “A lot of country artists kick-start their careers with covers to get better sales,” she says. “But to stand out, they need to write their own hits. That’s what my show is there for: getting them known. Without new songs, there’s no evolution. Otherwise we’ll end up singing only hits, just like in a karaoke bar.

“Being a SOCAN member to me is like a protection of me as a creator. They collect and distribute the royalties, but with the kind of music I do, I don’t get as much radio play as other musical styles. It would be nice to have a country music Soundscan.”

Year in, year out, Labbé gets on stage about 50 times. With 2016 drawing to a close, Mon Noël Country caps things off nicely. “The music is country, but with Christmas songs,” she says. “The tough part is knowing where to accentuate. I consciously avoided certain country riffs and punches, so things didn’t get too redundant. Luckily, there are a lot of chord progressions in the Christmas repertoire that totally harmonize with country music.”

The Nov. 19 Gala has been circled on Labbé’s calendar for a long time. And it’s not hard to understand why: her seven nominations at the Gala are for Album, Songwriter, Female Singer, and  Concert of the Year, as well as Radio and TV Show of the Year for En route vers l’ouest, and the SOCAN Song of the Year for “Du côté bleu du ciel.”

“It’s the SOCAN Award that I covet the most!” she says.

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: