“Does this make me a Grammy-nominated producer???” Toronto producer FrancisGotHeat tweeted on the day the 2021 Grammy nominations were announced. Of course, the 24-year old was being coy – he actually was part of the nomination for a Best Reggae Album Grammy, for his work on Skip Marley’s song, “Higher Place.”

Racquel Villagante, FrancisGotHeat, Camille Mathews, SOCAN

Racquel Villagante, FrancisGotHeat, Camille Mathews

Known primarily for his hip-hop productions over the past few years, the producer admitted he was surprised by the nomination being in a reggae category. But he welcomed the “pretty crazy”  creative process around the song, which he attributes to his connection with Malay, a Los Angeles-based producer who’s worked with Frank Ocean, John Legend, and Alicia Keys, among many others.

“ [Malay] likes to involve me in a lot of the projects he’s working on,” says FrancisGotHeat. “I had sent him the beat earlier. And then he took one element from the beat I sent him, and he built his own melodies around that… Then he sent me that back, I put on some drums, and some 808s, and some bass. And that’s all the record really needed. I sent it back to Malay, who’s in the studio with Skip during all of this. He heard it and jumped on the beat, and then he FaceTimed me right away, he had to tell me, like, ‘Yo, man, this is so fire,’  and all that. It was pretty much organic, even though we weren’t in the same room.”

FrancisGotHeat’s working relationship, being signed with Malay, means he also has production credits for pop artists like Zayn and Lykke Li, and he says the experience has helped broaden his creativity. “What I love about working with him is, he’s never doing hip-hop or R&B, like I usually am,” says Francis. “So he’s always pushing my boundaries, trying to force me to have a bigger sound than I have already. It always drives me to try something different, that I would never normally try.”

FrancisGotHeat first came to prominence as a hip-hop producer, with his self-described “ambient and eerie” sound, notching credits for local artists like Tre Mission and Roy Woods – before his major breakthrough scoring the Sampha-featuring  “4422” from Drake’s More Life project. This success came after logging time and making crucial connections at The Remix Project.

“On a lot of my streams, I probably spend more time talking to the audience than making the beat”

It was at that renowned creative hub that he was able to fine-tune his love for hip-hop with his background as a multi-instrumentalist, and strengthen his working relationship with Wondagurl –  who he met in their teenage years, at Toronto’s Battle of the Beatmakers, where they engaged in an extended face-off battle. Francis attributes that night as the moment Toronto’s music scene was put on notice about the then-15-year-old’s potential.

Since then, FrancisGotHeat and Wondagurl have gone on to work together on tracks such as Big Sean and Eminem’s “No Favors,” Bryson Tiller’s “Blowing Smoke” and Lil Uzi Vert’s “Feelings Mutual. ”She’ll just, like, ask me for a particular vibe, or I’ll start playing something,” says FracisGotHeat. “And then she’ll just say, ‘Oh, that’s dope,’ and I’ll just keep building off it. When I feel like it’s ready, I’ll send it to her again, she’ll do her thing.  Working with Wondagurl is one of the easiest things ever.”

Like everyone else, FrancisGotHeat found that the ease of his creative process was impacted by COVID-19. In the early days of  the North American lockdown, like many producers and DJs, he made his presence known on Instagram.  But then, feeling restricted by the one-hour window time-slots, he made the switch to Twitch, after seeing what producer Kenny Beats was doing on the platform.

“I decided to try it out, because he was the only other producer on there, really,” says Francis. “And then the audio is way better on Twitch, and they can actually see my whole screen. And I can actually talk to people properly on there. I’m very shy to begin with, so for me to even try to do it was really, really weird at first. But the first stream, I had very low expectations, and then 30 people pulled up. I’m, like, ‘Wow, okay, you know what, I’m just gonna keep this going.’”

Over the past few months, FrancisGotHeat’s online confidence has grown in step with his audience, which regularly numbers in the thousands, as he’s let viewers in on his process of creating beats, and hosted songwriting sessions with Jessie Reyez, and his frequent collaborator Anders, among others.

Yet for FrancisGotHeat, the streams also provide him with an opportunity to give back. He recently held Heat Check, a songwriting contest that doled out music-production software to the top three entrants, and he’s also raised money for charities. Days after the Grammy nomination, he hosted a prize-pack remix contest, playing an impressive mountain of remixes, submitted by emerging producers, of a song by Los Angeles vocalist NEVRMIND.

Throughout the event, Francis remained humble and readily accessible to the audience, and the producers chiming in on the chat. While he’s providing opportunities for up-and-coming beatmakers, it’s evident that FrancisGotHeat gets as much out of the process as he puts in. “On a lot of my streams, I probably spend more time talking to the audience,  answering questions and bantering with them, than making the beat,” says Francis.  “One thing they’ve told me is, a lot of producers don’t talk to them on their stream. I find that weird, because the main reason I’m on here is to talk to you guys, answer your questions, and whatnot.”  (He was similarly open about his production techniques at a SOCAN “Cooking Beats” session at Canadian Music Week in 2018.)

Now, in the pandemic era, FrancisGotHeat considers his streaming sessions an inherent part of his workflow, despite his initial reluctance  “They [Twitch] were really on me about it,” he says. “Like, ‘Yo, you can’t just do it one time, you got to keep it consistent. Because you’re not gonna see results in a week, it’s gonna take time’… And then, after the first month or two, I got really comfortable with it. Now it’s like second nature to me.”

What if making music was a privilege that had to be exploited? La Fièvre, a duo composed of Ma-Au Leclerc and Zéa Beaulieu-April has accepted that mandate, and turned it into a mantra. These modern witches have embraced post-punk, injecting it with their environmental and feminist concerns, while mastering all that electro has to offer – and taken it all the way to the semi-finals of the Francouvertes last fall. Their first, and self-titled, album, released on Oct. 30, 2020, invites us to realize everything that’s collapsing around us.

La Fièvre“The over-arching idea behind our album is really a feeling that we have to do better,” says Beaulieu-April, the voice of the duo. The ecological crisis, and the hardships that particularly affect women, stand as pillars in their songs – which are not exactly weapons, but rather the means of shouting down, and getting out, everything that’s no longer right.

“We’re trying to re-connect with a sense of community that’s been lost during the pandemic,” continues the songwriter. “LGBTQ people who find their strength together in celebrating Pride, women who stand up against sexual violence, people who campaign for the environment… All those who depend on their clan, and who have something to lose or defend at this time, are hurt by the isolation due to the pandemic.” There’s a call to action in the music of La Fièvre: an invitation to find oneself, and step out of one’s comfort zone as well. “It’s even more noticeable a song like ‘La crise,’ says Beaulieu-April, “because it says that if you want change, you have to touch the others to keep moving forward.”

The message carried by the two women is as true in their music as it is in their musical journey: You’re not going to get rid of us. “You don’t want us, you don’t want to hear our message, but here we are anyways,” says Beaulieu-April. “We have no intention of stepping aside.”

Ma-Au was classically trained on guitar, and Zéa went everywhere with her djembe (and African hand drum). That’s how their paths crossed when they were in Grade 11. “We decided to do a song about accessibility to drinking water for Secondaire en spectacle and what we did back then was far from electro.,” says Beaulieu-April.

Their current style took hold on an EP released in 2017, and from that point on, their project gelled more seriously. By that point, Ma-Au left the guitar behin,d, and started exploring piano and, naturally, synths. “She started creating all of our sounds. That truly is an art form. I started writing lyrics that were in synch with everything we love, namely pretty enraged electro-pop,” she remembers.

As modern witches, they have a connection with tarot, astrology, and the occult. “We’re very inspired by all that, and there’s an undeniable connection with feminism,” says Beaulieu-April. “Claiming we’re witches is claiming our place among women who were excluded because they were at ease with their healing powers and their sexuality. To us, it goes hand-in-hand with our commitment to eco-feminism. It is really close to who we are and what we do.”

Club music and electro aren’t often associated with  political discourse, but the duo insist on reminding us that everything is possible. “We put a lot of effort in researching our sounds. The sounds you hear on the album were all created from scratch by Ma-Au using instruments or programming. They’re sounds created from nothing, and it’s true that to an outsider, it may seem much easier than strumming a guitar. But it’s much, much harder,” says Beaulieu-April.

Everything is malleable in what they do, as Zéa works the themes on one side, and Ma-Au prepares rhythms at home. Then they meet, and the juncture of sounds and words becomes a manifestation of what might exist if we all united. “I know how to program and Ma-Au knows how to write, so there are a lot of opportunities for sharing in our duo,” says Beaulieu-April.

La Fièvre is convinced that having a sense of community has never been more important than it is today, and the fact that music venues have been shut down for several months means messages are no longer circulating. “Initially, we’d planned to launch our album in a swingers’ club last May,” says Beaulieu-April. “We thought it would be cool to meet people we don’t know, to listen to people we never hear about. We spent everything we had, and then some, to bring this album into the world, and then we were faced with an impasse.”

Music that tries to live online has its limitations and, for Beaulieu-April: “It’s artificial, fast, and it feels incomplete So let’s cross our fingers, and reclaim the expression that now stands at the heart of the music industry as a challenge, a threat, or a hope: We have to re-invent ourselves.”

When it comes to songwriter reality, truth is better than fiction.

At least, that’s how it’s worked for Virginia To Vegas principal Derik Baker, who’s scored more than 260 million streams (and three SOCAN Awards) since he began the project back in 2014.

“I think every good song comes from a true story – or at least a little bit of it,” says former tour guide Baker, a few weeks after releasing his second EP of 2020, don’t wake me, I’m dreaming, and his latest single “Palm Springs (the way you made me feel),” following the earlier A Constant State of Improvement. “Where I really started to connect with people that were fans of my music was when I started to tell stories that were more authentic to myself. So, it’s an anomaly – the more specific you are to past experience, the more it touches people.”

Ergo, the backstory to “Betterman,” a milkshake-smooth pop ditty that’s earned Baker 10 million streams thus far. “‘Betterman’ is the true story of me driving home from Los Angeles with my tail between my legs, after a bad breakup and at a low point in my life,”  Baker recalls of 2019’s re-location to Toronto. “I had my dog in the passenger seat, and my car filled with furniture and pictures, realizing that I was going to move back into a bachelor apartment and start my life over.”

Baker says the melancholic nature of the experience offered a particular challenge in terms of appealing the song to a pop audience. “How do you tell it in a poetic way, that’s catchy, and for people sing along to?”

And then there’s his biggest hit, the 50-million-streams-and-counting “Just Friends.” “That song is a story about summer infatuation in Toronto,” the Virginia-born Baker explains. “The song idea is that I was living in L.A., but writing a song about Toronto while I was in Toronto, [about] missing Toronto.

“How do you tell it in a poetic way, that’s catchy, for people sing along to?”

“There’s a line in the song that says, ‘So why don’t we go out and get a drink in the west end,’ and the initial version was, ‘Why don’t go get a room at the Westin,’ as I was talking about the Westin Harbour Castle hotel on Queen’s Quay. The song’s about how you’re having an awesome summer day, being on a boat on the lake, you know, that feeling when you’re in Toronto, feeling a little day-drunk, and having a really great time with someone that you’re infatuated with.  So, it was trying to capture that emotion.”

The Wax Records artist, responsible for such Canadian Top 10 hits  as “We Are Stars (featuring Alyssa Reid),” “Selfish,” and “Lights Out,” says he prefers to write with a team.  He’s established a coterie of collaborators that includes professional songwriters Mike Wise, Justin Alexis, David Charles Fischer, Geoff Warburton, and Nathan Ferraro.

“Everybody brings something different to the table, whether that’s melodic output; or having access to cool vocabulary; or being able to check the math on something; or structure the overall arc of the story,” says Baker, who’s formed a partnership with Republic Records for this new EP. “Everybody has different strengths and weaknesses. I find that with my  group of friends, what we do together complements each other, and makes my best music, in my opinion.”

And what does Baker consider his own greatest strength? “I really like context, and story, and thinking of colour – like, let’s paint the picture of this specific situation,” he replies. “My friend Geoff is really good at articulating on how to say things that make the most sense, while my buddy DCF – if we can’t get that one perfect rhyme, he’s like a workhorse, he never gives up. So it’s kind of neat.”