The term “lifer” can refer either to a criminal serving lifelong jail time, or a person sticking to one job for their whole career.

The tough task of survival in the Canadian music business may sometimes make it seem like a self-imposed life sentence, but we recently interviewed four Canadian singer-songwriters who are more than content to fulfill the second definition.

Two of these artists, Lee Aaron and Ron Hawkins, have enjoyed periods of genuine commercial success over the course of their long careers, while Kyp Harness and David Leask have worked outside the commercial boundaries, earning a decent living and immense respect from their peers.

All four have worked as recording and performing artists for more than 20 years. We wanted to find out what keeps them creatively energized, productive, and economically viable.

David Leask

David LeaskPrior to emigrating to Canada in the early 1990s, Scottish-born folk singer-songwriter David Leask worked as a financial adviser. “My financial advice should have been ‘don’t go into the music business’,” he says jokingly.

His commitment to songwriting, and love of performing, has sustained him over a recording career now spanning 20 years and five albums, beginning with 100 Camels in 1996. He’s earned a JUNO nomination and taken top honours in multiple international songwriting competitions.

Reflecting on the milestone year, Leask says “I feel comfortable and happy with what I’ve done on all my records, but I’m more of a look-forward guy.”

His well-received new album The Clarke Hall Sessions was recorded live in Port Credit, Ontario, with Justin Abedin and Sean O’Connor. It includes five songs written in Nashville, with three written right in the SOCAN House there. “Working On Faith,” a co-write with Bill DiLuigi, was cut by a young U.S. artist for a top gospel label, while other co-writers included Daryl Burgess, Tim Taylor and Tom Jutz. “It’s been a big thing to have the opportunity to go down there and work with some great writers,” says Leask of his SOCAN House experience.

He’s no stranger to writing trips there, recalling a period when “I was trying to hang my hat on being a writer as my path,” he says. “I never stopped performing live, though. That’s where my bread and butter comes from, so I was still out there playing, singing songs from previous records and testing out new ones.

“That combination of being a writer and performer is important. The energy that comes back from performing confirms this is something worth doing. It’s much tougher if you’re just a writer in your basement, trying to write a hit.”

Leask has also written with the likes of Suzie Vinnick and Jay Semko, and had songs recorded by Vinnick, Alex Runions, Mandy Ringdal, Twin Kennedy and more.

“My commitment to music has never really waned,” he stresses. “It’s a constant road of hills and valleys, but I’ve found enough creative fuel along the way. Things change over time, as you grow and develop as an artist and individual.”

Kyp Harness

Kyp HarnessToronto folk-rocker Kyp Harness has often been described as “a songwriter’s songwriter,” given the peer respect he’s received. Those loudly singing his praises have included Ron Sexsmith (who has covered Harness songs), Daniel Lanois, Bob Wiseman and Mary Margaret O’Hara.

Though never scoring significant commercial success, Harness has remained prolific over a recording career that has just turned 25. “I don’t usually reflect on stuff like that, as I’m just doing it every day,” he says. “But then you realize, ‘Holy shit, I have 13 records out!’”

His body of work was recently augmented by a strong new album, Stoplight Moon. “I do feel that on every one of the records there’s some great stuff,” he says. “I won’t say everything I’ve ever done is gold, but I get a lot of enjoyment out of my music, so I’m proud of it in that sense.”

Commercial imperatives have never fueled Harness’ work. “Artists produce art because that’s what an artist does. You don’t know if it’s just meant to be a fringe thing, but every day you create something as an act of faith. I feel I don’t have a choice other than to create, so let ‘er rip!”

Harness acknowledges that “there have been periods where I went through darkness, doubt and questioning, but I seem to be someone for whom this has always felt like a calling. Ultimately, you’re not doing it for the end result.

“If you’re writing an episode of Who’s the Boss, you’re trying to find a certain slot and the royalties come later. I’m aiming at something higher and different. I’ve been doing it so long now that it doesn’t make sense to do anything other than aim for the best version of what it is I do.”

Harness has also kept his creative fires burning by writing in other forms. He has had his own comic strip, Mortimer The Slug, and critiques of his comedy heroes Charlie Chaplin and Laurel and Hardy were both published by a scholarly imprint.

His first published novel, Wigford Rememberies, recently appeared via Harbour Publishing. “I’ve been writing like that, concurrently with music, all these years” he says, “and this is the first one accepted. Readings in Toronto and Ottawa went over well, and I love not having to carry my guitar around!”

Music remains a key passion, and the collaborative aspect keeps Harness energized. “I love the sense of aliveness and spontaneity that occurs when playing with people,” he says. “Things happen that can’t be predicted. Your fellow musicians breathe life into it, and you want to do it for that experience alone.”

Lee Aaron

Lee AaronKnown primarily as a hard rock singer and songwriter, Lee Aaron has had a career that dates back to the early 1980s. Once dubbed “The Metal Queen,” she scored major commercial success in Canada, Europe and Japan, earning 10 JUNO nominations and going double-platinum for her 1989 album Bodyrock.

Business and financial troubles (including a bankruptcy) later intervened, but Aaron’s stylistic diversions into jazz, blues and alt-rock (the 2preciious project) brought critical credibility. She has returned to her hard rock roots with well-received new album Fire and Gasoline.

“I’m now committed to making music for the right reasons,” says Aaron. “I get to write music simply because it’s enjoyable.”

She does confess to some earlier questioning of her career choice. “It’s a tough business, and you’re going to have some failures along the way if you’re in for the long haul,” she says. “You also put yourself out there to be criticized, misunderstood and/or dismissed by an industry that knows nothing about you personally, so you need to develop a thick skin.”

Aaron is still deeply in love with making music. “The creative process of taking a seedling idea and turning it into a song, with an identity, then taking that into the studio where musicians breathe life into it, is so exciting,” she says. “I view producing as creating a sound painting with layers of color, texture, movement and space, then refining that until it stirs something in your soul.”

The do-it-yourself approach also keeps her energized. “It’s a whole lot more work,” she admits, “but if something gets screwed up, the only person I can get mad at is me. I also don’t ever have to wear red spandex shorts again!”

Aaron tours more selectively these days, explaining that “with a young family, the kind of touring I used to do wouldn’t work. Minimum time away, maximum impact is my approach. It keeps it fresh to play ‘Whatcha do to my Body’ 25 times a year, not 250.”

Contemplating her eventful career, Aaron says, “I’ve made choices that were not monetarily motivated, but were the right choices for me. The big payoff is creating a piece of music that resonates with people.”

Ron Hawkins

Ron Hawkins

Photo: Bob Ciolfi

Toronto indie-rock troubadour Ron Hawkins embraces the term “lifer” with pride. At a recent solo show he said, “I haven’t had a real day job since 1990.” Since then, he’s had a highly productive career, first as chief singer-songwriter in 1990s faves The Lowest of the Low (LOTL); then as leader of The Rusty Nails; and now as the head of a reunited LOTL, plus newer band The Do Good Assassins, and as a solo artist.

“Having three bands on the go keeps me motivated,” Hawkins explains. “My manager suggests I may have a higher profile if I focused a bit more, but for me it’s about keeping yourself interested. I’m certainly living a blessed life, where I can write songs and then go ‘I wonder who those are for.’”

Recently-released solo record Spit Sputter and Sparkle is Hawkins’ 15th album since 1991’s LOTL debut Shakespeare My Butt. He played most of the instruments on the new album and recorded primarily at home, a process he finds liberating.

“I can do this because of technology that wasn’t around 20 years ago,” he says. “In the early days of The Low, I’d write songs sitting on my bed with an acoustic guitar in my one room punk-rock flophouse. Now I have a high level of demo capability, so the excitement is a cycle. Doing it begets doing it more.

“It’s a real treat to spend the time and energy experimenting at home, with no clock, then go into [top studio] Revolution Recording to add drums, horns and strings and have $75k worth of microphones on the drum kit.”

There have been life lessons learned and wisdom gained along Hawkins’ journey. For instance, he won’t repeat the intense touring schedule of LOTL in its heyday. “I can’t ever imagine going back to that,” he says. “Back then, part of the problem, but part of the solution, was that we were drunk and high all the time. You could just lose days. Now I’m painfully aware of time passing.”

Hawkins declares “I’m quite comfortable in the knowledge that my personal audience is about one-tenth as large as The Low’s audience. I realize that happened to all my heroes, like John Lennon and Joe Strummer.”

The personal creative satisfaction of the work keeps him fueled. “First and foremost, you’re entertaining yourself the whole time,” he says. “That makes this easier than most people’s jobs.”

Chloe Charles could have made one of the most spirit-crushing albums in recent years, for which she would be totally forgiven. But she didn’t, and With Blindfolds On is a testament to her irrepressible musical spirit.

In the space of a year, the Toronto- and Berlin-based singer lost several family members, tragedies she touches upon in the song “Through Your Eyes.”

“Through Your Eyes” was written to “work through the strange and confusing feelings of loss, and also for my family,” says Charles. “Each verse is for a specific family member, written from the perspective that when you lose someone, you not only lose them but you lose a piece of yourself, as nobody will ever see you through those same eyes. Every time I sing this song, I’m thinking of my family members. I’m taken back to them, often hear their voice, their laughter. At times it’s very trying, but for the most part, I feel closer to them when I sing it.”

In addition to dealing with those losses, the bi-racial Charles seems to also be dealing with the subtle racism she sometimes finds in the music industry, and marketing types who don’t know what to do with her. These experiences manifest themselves in several of the album’s songs.

“People misjudge me based on the colour of my skin and attempt to box me into [only] jazz, or soul, or R&B, even before ever hearing a note,” she says. “However, I just make music which doesn’t have a race, and shouldn’t. As well, I’ve been urged many times to create music with a different sound, something more cohesive, something more ‘radio,’ something easier to market.”

“I want people to feel more than just entertained after my concert. I want them to remember those feelings and roll through them alongside me.”

Charles shared an excuse she hears often – “Your music is amazing, but we don’t know how to market it” – and calls it ridiculous, “because if you’re good at marketing you should be able to find a creative way to market anything that you deem good.”

Despite these trials, Charles has achieved considerable critical acclaim. She launched the self-produced With Blindfolds On, her sophomore album, with two sold-out shows at hip Toronto club The Burdock in late May of 2016. Publicity for the launch included a national-television performance on one of the last episodes of CTV’s Canada AM, and coverage in NOW magazine. Her critically acclaimed 2013 debut album Break the Balance received major accolades from Billboard magazine, the German edition of Rolling Stone, Mojo, The London Times and Elle magazine. Charles has toured Europe extensively, and has also won a 2014 Sirius/XM Indie Award and Harbourfront Centre’s Soundclash Award.

She feels artists are more stylistically promiscuous than ever before and says “music needs creative people around it who appreciate discovery, experimentation and risk-taking rather than approaching music and artists as a commodity.” She isn’t fazed by narrow-mindedness and lives by her philosophy that music should be “creative, fearless and push boundaries.” So it’s no surprise that With Blindfolds On sees Charles brilliantly straddling pop, folk, electronica, chamber pop and R&B, appealing to those whose tastes don’t fall into one specific music genre.

Her smoky, versatile and powerfully captivating voice and deeply felt, honest songwriting continue to be the stars of her records. Nowhere is this more evident than on the album’s lead track, “Black and White,” which won the 2014 John Lennon Songwriting Contest in the Pop Category. Co-written with her friend and fellow SOCAN member, singer-songwriter Steve Fernandez, “Black and White” was composed a year after her father passed away. Hearing her describe the creative process behind it is heartbreaking.

“I was still struggling with feelings of hurt, anger and abandonment,” says Charles. “We had a deep talk, and I explained the story of my relationship with my father to Steve. I ended up expressing things I hadn’t had the courage to say to my father while he was alive. Steve just began writing down pieces of what I was saying, and from those snippets we developed this song.”

Charles says she tries to write songs that “have some sort of emotional pull on me, that are based on true experience, so that I’m better able to share that sentiment with the audience,” she says. “I want people to feel more than just entertained after my concert. I want them to remember those feelings and roll through them alongside me.”

Ian Kelly is a happy man. In fact, it’s the first thing that comes to mind when listening to his fifth album, Superfolk, which came out last March. Recorded after the birth of his third child, Superfolk is a record filled with hope and light, produced by a man who doesn’t shy away from his joy. Despite his natural inclination for rather depressing lyrics, the Québec singer-songwriter seems to have found peace, and didn’t hesitate to focus his new album on the joys of family life.

“It’s a fact that being happy in love is a relatively new subject for me, but I needed to find a certain counter-weight to my songs about how screwed up the world is!” says Kelly. “Besides, even though things are generally screwed up, there are still many things to celebrate in this world. All I really hope for is that people come out of my concerts with a smile and a light heart…”

Ian KellyThe creator of “Montréal” found his happiness in the hills of the Laurentians – more precisely, in Morin-Heights. Over an hour’s drive North of  the city where he’s spent most of his life, Kelly bought a home for his young family, who were growing weary of the city. “It’s the perfect place for me. I’m just outside the village, but still within reach of high-speed Internet,” he says with a laugh. “I’m not completely cut off from the world, you know. The sidewalk stops just before my house, but I can still walk to the convenience storeif we run out of milk!”

But his house in Morin-Heights has mainly allowed Ian Kelly to achieve his lifelong dream: building a real studio where he could produce his albums, and those of other artists, from beginning to end. A place of inspiration. “With today’s technology, you can record anywhere, but I still wanted to have a room with its own sound, where you can place the mic more than an inch away from the singer’s face,” he says. “And there was also the drive to actually build something with my own hands, according to my standards: I can still see myself shovelling gravel only two years ago, while preparing the foundations. Today, I have a professional studio 30 seconds from my living room, which allows me to stay close to my family when I work.”

Kelly isn’t the first artist to move to this area. Éloi Painchaud and Jorane also have their own studio, a few minutes away from Kelly’s, and this proximity has already led to a beautiful collaboration. When the time came to create the English version of the theme song for the movie La Guerre des Tuques, Éloi immediately thought of his neighbour to translate the song. Ian gladly did so, not knowing that the person who was going to sing it was none other than Céline Dion! “Let’s just say that ‘I wrote for Céline Dion’ kinda looks good in your résumé, but I haven’t seen a royalty cheque yet, so I can’t tell if it was a lucrative job!” giggles the singer. Can he picture himself writing for others on a more regular basis? “It’ll never be my main line of business,” he says. “I do it when I’m asked, like in the case of Térez Montcalm. Oddly, since I’m a self-sufficient songwriter, I never have the impulse to think that others might need songs, let alone my songs!”

“I don’t know if it’s because I’m more demanding of myself when I write in French, but in the end, only one thing matters: it must be a great song.”

Another reason for Kelly’s obvious happiness when Superfolk came out was that the album as we know it almost didn’t exist. Kelly made headlines in the Québec media after announcing that someone had stolen his hard drive ­and the backup copy­ – containing all of the album’s songs – from his car. The story gained traction for a few days, enough so that some believed it was all a hoax to create a buzz around the upcoming album. There really was a theft, and thanks to the culprit’s father, Kelly got his recordings back without too much trouble.

“In the end, that experience turned out to be a positive one,” he says. “I obviously felt really bad for about a day or two, but the reaction that came of that event left me totally flabbergasted. I was nearing the end of my line of credit, and I was a bit stressed out by the idea of starting all over, but I was getting calls from musicians who were offering to play for free so that I could record it again! I got coverage in newspapers here and abroad, I felt a lot of empathy for what I was going through, and it reconciled me with humanity a little.”

And even though the larceny occurred on the streets of Montréal’s Park Extension neighbourhood, the new hillbilly is not one to bad-mouth the city that saw him come of age. On the contrary: “Montréal,” the upbeat single that became the album’s locomotive, is nothing short of a love letter to the metropolis. “I hope people aren’t too fed up with it next year, because I think it would be perfect for Montréal’s 375th anniversary!” he says. Mayor Denis Coderre, take note: this truly is the type of hymn that could rally the island’s entire population! Heavily rotated on the radio, it’s also one of the biggest hits of Kelly’s career, and even though he does sing more in Richler’s tongue than in Tremblay’s, it’s certainly not his first French song.

Ian Kelly“I know that if you want to get airplay in Québec, your chances are better if you sing in French, because when you sing in English, you’re competing with the likes of Coldplay and Rihanna,” he says. “That said, I certainly didn’t write “Montréal” with commercial intentions. Initially, I wanted the album to be half French, half English, but after listening to the whole thing a few times, I felt some of the French songs weren’t as good. I don’t know if it’s because I’m more demanding of myself when I write in French, but in the end, only one thing matters: it must be a great song.” “Montréal” is undoubtedly one of the best songs on Superfolk,  as is “Comme Un Loup” (roughly translated: “Like a Wolf”), which is more about his new life in the countryside than the urban world he left behind.

Kelly is currently touring the province on the tail end of his album’s success, with a solo concert that he describes as returning to his roots. “It’s a tour that allows me to play in smaller, more intimate venues,” he says. “First, because I love being close to the audience, but also because I prefer playing to a packed 200-capacity room rather than a half-full 600-capacity venue!” Kelly also allows audience members to leave the concert with a USB key they can purchase, containing the recording of that night’s concert. It’s a liberty he can afford, now that he’s fully independent. “I love this newfound freedom and I can tell you that decision are much quicker nowadays,” says Kelly. “That said, I certainly have no regrets about my years with a label: without Audiogram, I would probably not be here talking about my music.”

Beside his tour, Kelly has a few projects that will keep him busy for the next year. He’ll spend part of the winter scoring Marc-André Lavoie’s (Bluff, Y’en Aura Pas de Facile, Hot Dog) next movie, after Lavoie directed the video for “Montréal.” Then, next summer, if all goes well, people will flock to Morin-Heights for the first edition of a music festival that he and his friend Éloi Painchaud are putting together, and which will be called… Superfolk! “My head is full of projects, and I’m full of ambitions, but being rich isn’t one of them,” says Kelly. “Every day, I feel privileged to be able to make a living from my music, but all I really want is to be able to do things that I enjoy, and that make people feel good.”