When CTV’s The Launch was preparing for its own launch in 2017, musical director Orin Isaacs gave Hill Kourkoutis a call. He was in search of a keyboard player, but upon learning that she played the guitar, he invited her to be part of the show’s house band. The award-winning, multi-instrumentalist/singer – also known for producing, songwriting, and composing – was the perfect choice. And being on a show dedicated to launching the careers of singers and songwriters was the perfect place for Kourkoutis.

“You’re working with so many incredible people that I feel like I learn something new from everybody, every day,” she says. The show also led to a friendship with “Solider of Love” winner Poesy, and the pair co-writing “Strange Little Girl.”

We intended to write something that was about embracing the fact that we can all be a little strange, we can all be so many things,” says Kourkoutis. “[Its] a wonderful thing to have something that just resonates with so many people, on such a real level.”

Story and collaboration are integral strands in Kourkoutis’s creative DNA. At five, she started writing songs; once her parents realized that she’d never be a dancer, they bought her the guitar she always wanted. She eventually started playing piano, and though later trained in theory and sight-reading, she had a natural ear for instruments, easily teaching herself to play bass and drums. David Bowie, the Go-Go’s (“for their pop sensibilities”), and Jimi Hendrix were early influences, as well as Sheryl Crow, “for the sole fact that she not only wrote her own songs and played all the instruments live, but also produced her own records.” At 12, Kourkoutis started writing for her own all-girl band, which included country artist Meghan Patrick.

The biggest leaps for me began when I started co-writing.
“There’s a lot of people that naturally have an ability to write songs, but in order to write a well-crafted song, there are things that you start to think about more consciously: the construction of melodies, lyrics, and how they interact with the music underneath. I became more conscious of them when I was writing with more established writers. With every writer you learn a new trick.”
Songwriting is a muscle that needs to be exercised.
“At first, it’s difficult to know how to write on demand. When I started, I just wrote when I felt that feeling I needed to express. But when you go into songwriting sessions, you need to be able to quickly harness any emotion at any given time. Come into sessions prepared. Whether it’s a hook, or a lyric, or a chord progression, that always helps get the ball rolling in co-writing sessions.”
You need to give yourself a space.
“I’m a big fan of rituals, setting up a space no matter where I am, so that I’m able to do certain things. A big part of being able to work on the road was having my tools with me – my studio in a backpack. I created a portable studio that I could take with me, whether it was a hotel room or a dressing room.”

“As I started to become more entrenched in songwriting, I got to know a lot of other songwriters that inspired me,” she says. “Lisa Dal Bello was a huge inspiration, and also Simon Wilcox, who I started writing with at a very young age.”

Though Kourkoutis’ first “big moment” as a songwriter came with writing music for Canadian Idol contestants Mookie and the Loyalist (Sony Music), it was a community of independent songwriters that helped her hone those skills.

“I’d been writing with artists in the independent Toronto music scene for years before that,” she says, “and we’d all been helping each other co-write on each other’s projects. So that really is where it started, the collaborative process, in terms of writing.”

Recently, Kourkoutis’ music has moved from the charts to commercials and the screen, including Private EyesThe Adventures of Napkin Man!, and Kim’s Convenience. “There’s been several trajectories that have led to those opportunities,” she says. “I had a few agents that were licensing my material. But a lot of those things also came from personal relationships I’d established with music supervisors.”

Motion pictures and music go hand and hand, for the film-trained songwriter. “I can’t do a film project without thinking of the soundtrack behind it,” says Kourkoutis, “and I can’t write a song without thinking about what the story is. It’s really interesting, you write a song and you don’t necessarily have an idea of where it could end up, and then it ends up in a very specific scene. Just to see how a song can influence that scene, it’s always exciting.”

Her ever-growing success means she’s put some passions on hold, including no longer touring. “That was a pretty big decision for me, because I love it, and I’ve had the honour of playing with such amazing artists over the years [Serena Ryder and The Weeknd, among others]. But I found it really hard to be creative on the road. A big reason why I started doing music in the first place was because of the creativity, because of the songwriting and the craftsmanship that goes behind building a song. Now my M.O. is about focusing, and production and songwriting is where my focus is at.”

Last fall, Ouri shared her blood with us, but not only that. On her new EP, We Share Our Blood, she gives herself to us whole, through her raw, lively R&B rhythms, while her electronic melodies make us dance, footloose and fancy-free.

For that new production, one thing mattered to her more than anything else: transmitting her art from her mind to ours. “I started out sporadically, left and right,” she explains. “I didn’t know I was writing an EP. Sometimes, when you’re composing, everything is fine, but you still feel like everything is off. Happens to me often. But in this case, the direction was clear.” Ouri’s goal was simple: She wanted everything to be more direct.

She has chosen to go it alone in her quest for artistic meaning. She rented microphones, compressors, everything she needed, and dove in head-first. “I needed that,” she says. “I needed to feel I had no obligation to try and please someone. I asked people for their opinion, notably the mix engineer, but otherwise, I truly wanted this project to be nothing but me.”

What had to come out at that point was a vague mix of emotions felt at the end of a long period of waiting and doubting. “I’m super-emotional,” she admits. “My art is totally devoid of any politics. It does have a lot of conscious hope, however, and naiveté, too.”

Born in France, Ouri has adopted Montréal as her home, but sees the city both as a blank canvas and a huge hurdle. “Montréal is a double-edged sword right now,” she says. “There’s a positive discrimination towards my music because of the colour of my skin, yet I regularly hear negative stuff about the work of women in the electro genre,” she says. She does admit that, when she was younger, she thought it was impossible that a woman could do what she does now. “I’ve had two lovers during the seven years I’ve been here,” she adds. “It gave me roots here. Now that I’m single, I have a few projects that keep me going, but nothing that holds me back.”

In all contexts, Ouri wishes to hold her own, and be her own spokesperson. During the Festival de Musique Émergente, in Abitibi-Témiscamingue, where she performed during the Electro Nights, a delegate from France really didn’t like what she was playing, and wanted to talk about it with her on the next day. “The next day, I felt the people around me weren’t willing to tell it like it is,” she says. “My manager wanted to prevent me from talking to him. Everyone thought I was going to take things personally. I told the guy I wasn’t at his service. There’s something for everyone. You’re welcome to look elsewhere. I’m a grown woman.”

She’s still convinced that the support she gets is some kind of facade that legitimizes what she does, even though she’s ready and willing to go to bat herself. “I was mean and I was PMSing, too,” she says laughing.

On her new EP, Ouri sings, after being spurred on by friends to do so. She took Indian singing classes. “I wanted to use my voice, and in classical Indian singing, everyone has their register, their central note,” she explains. “It’s really high-level, but all tones of voice are possible, and each is as valuable as the others. I have to practise to get a result I like, but I’m no opera singer, either.”

Electro music is part of Ouri’s life ,like any other life experience. “I want to re-acquaint myself with the cello, which I used to play a lot,” she says. “I’m not sure how yet. Maybe I’ll release an acoustic project.” She says she got tendonitis from playing her keyboards so much. “The cello is the opposite, I hug it and we vibrate together,” she says. “It’s physical. The experience is completely different. I never know where my hands will feel like going.”

German playwright Bertolt Brecht invented the word verfremdungseffekt to describe the feeling of coming into contact with something strange and unknown. Even though the word wasn’t uttered during our interview with Thus Owls’ Simon Angell, it was obvious that’s what he was trying to convey about the desire he shares with his musician wife Erika to break through the “invisible barrier” between the audience and their band. Brecht called the process“breaking the fourth wall.” This idea – simple, yet difficult to execute – turned out to be the fuse that kick-started the creation of their current, fourth album, The Mountain That We Live Upon.

“We’d been working on this for 18 months,” says Angell, referring to the conceptual concert Thus Owls gave last month at Montréal’s Centre PHI. “It’s kinda weird that we worked on the show before working on the album,” he says, before adding, “one feeds the other, as they say.”

People usually write new songs before recording them, and then taking them to the stage. But here, with no other songs than the ones from their three previous recordings (the last one, Black Matter, came out in late 2015), while thinking about their live show, an album manifested itself.

“Generally, for a concert, the band plays on an elevated stage, with the audience in front of them,” says Angell. “We wanted to break that. We wanted people to come into our world, just as we’re in theirs. A level playing field, if you will.” Centre PHI was the perfect place for that. A lab. The band in the middle of the venue, with the audience all around them. “We couldn’t ask for a better venue,” says Angell. “We were six musicians: the core of the band, Erika, myself and drummer Samuel Joly, plus three additional guitarists dispersed in the audience. In another room was an installation with a typewriter and mic hooked up to delay effects, as well as Karl Lemieux, who was in charge of projections during the show. And a contemporary dancer. It was quite the multi-disciplinary performance!”

It was awesome, says Angell. Even the sound was optimal, despite the technical challenges of having guitarists and their amps in various spots of the venue. “It was the best sound I’ve ever experienced in my career as a musician – it even changed depending on where you stood in the room,” he says. But what would Brecht, a well-known aficionado of tortured indie rock, have thought about it? He probably would’ve said, it’s nice, but what’s the point? Breaking a wall is fine, but what do you have to say?

“Good question,” the musician admits. “It all comes back to the concept of the album, which was mostly developed by Erika, since she’s the lyricist. So, Erika and I are a couple, and we were considering the project of having kids and starting a family. It took us years before deciding we were going for it. That’s the concept of the album. The time it took for us to make that decision. The album’s lyrics talk about our concerns, especially from her perspective, a feminist point of view. How it changes everything in the life of a couple, how it impacts work, creativity. It’s an album about our rapport to the concept of family.”

The doubts that underscored their conversations can clearly be heard on The Mountain That We Live Upon. As is the habit for Thus Owls, greys win over light, and Erika’s voice pierces through foggy guitars and drums. Even the brightest melodic spells are clouded over by Angell’s guitar playing.

“That’s us, basically,” says the musician. “It’s the expression of our personalities, even though we’re not gloomy people. Life isn’t black or white, there are grey moments; we’re all humans in the same way. We’re only trying to express that musically. Sweet and chill moments, with weirder times… That’s life!”

As he explains, even their writing method is strange. Each on their own. They rarely work together on a song. “We’re both quite solitary persons,” he says. They each come up with song ideas, then share them with the other, and a game of creative ping-pong ensues. It’s in the studio, with the full band, that any given idea gets embodied.

“We’re not the type of band who’ll spend a year in the studio to fine-tune the result,” says Angell. “We recorded this album in four days, because we love the live vie of things. All the songs were recorded with three takes or less. We love this… I don’t want to say ‘jazz,’ but we do chase the energy of the moment. I believe this energy vanishes after three takes. If you don’t have it, the energy isn’t there, so we throw everything out and get back to it some other time.” Everything was recorded live at the Hotel2Tango studios; the sound is raw, “the drums ‘bled’ into the piano.”

As for the concert that’s the genesis of this project, Erika and Simon Angell want to perform it again in that multi-disciplinary format. In the meantime, the couple will have a few great opportunities to perform the songs from The Mountain That We Live Upon: on Nov. 30 at Bar Le Ritz PDB where they’ll open for Marissa Nadler (and again on Dec. 1 at Toronto’s Baby G), on Jan. 18, 2019, at Théâtre Outremont, back in Montréal, guesting for CHANCES, and on the 24th at Sala Rossa during the young and new festival Lux Magna, also in Montréal.