Montréal-based rapper and singer Hua Li couldn’t have hoped for a better timing: she released her EP Yellow Crane in late November of 2020, a project she intended as “a love letter to Wuhan,” the capital of the province of Hubei, in east-central China. That’s where her roots are, and where her grandmother and part of her mother’s family still live. It’s a city of more than 10 million inhabitants that was, until February 2020, largely unknown by a majority of our planet. It’s a city that, a year later, is in need of a little TLC…

Hua LiYes, that city. The alleged Ground Zero of the COVID-19 pandemic. Not exactly a city’s ideal way of becoming known to the entire world. “It’s quite a coincidence, because I’d decided to write songs about Wuhan before the pandemic,” says the songwriter. “I took that idea with me during my residency at the Banff Centre for the Arts and Creativity last March, almost a year ago. Except by March 2020, everyone had heard about Wuhan…”

Li was in Banff when the first lockdown happened. “Suddenly, all that was going on completely changed the perspective of my project,” she says. “I initially envisioned an EP that would tell the city’s history, with plenty of facts, so that people could learn a few things about the place it has in China – it’s a major city, it’s huge! – despite the fact that no one knows about it. But because of everything that was going on, I decided I would instead write a love letter to the city, almost like a promotional campaign to counter everything bad that was being said about Wuhan in the wake of this virus.”

While Li wrote three of the four gorgeous songs on Yellow Crane, the closing one, “Electronic Girl,” is a cover, originally performed by a virtually-unknown math-rock band called Chinese Football. “I had a vague idea that I wanted to do a cover of a band or artist from Wuhan on this project,” she says, because that city is considered to be the cradle of Chinese punk, the only city in the nation to have such a musical scene.

“I asked members of my family to go out and scout songs for me, but I wasn’t thrilled by their suggestions,” says Li. “I did know that there’s a real indie rock scene in Wuhan – obviously, it’s not a scene that my family follows! I started by exploring shoegaze bands from Bejing – shoegaze is huge there! – and one thing leading to another, I found Chinese Football.”

Hua Li’s electronic neo-R&B/hip-hop groove and Chinese Football’s math-rock may seem like chalk and cheese, and she readily admits not having much interest for that branch of prog-rock. But, she says, “I was really intrigued by this song. I really like indie rock, which is partly where I came from, and it’s one of the reasons why I really felt at home in Montréal” – which is where she wrote and recorded (with the help of producer and multi-instrumentalist Alexander Thibault) the songs on Dynasty, her debut album, released in September 2019 on Next Door Records.

Long story short, her version of “Electronic Girl,” which she sings in Mandarin, is formidable, as are the cool rap track “Water ,” the highly melodic “Four More Days” (a “quarantine love song”), and “Dream Narratives in Modern China.” Yellow Crane is the prefect coda to Dynasty, a record that, thanks to the pandemic, didn’t enjoy the life it deserves on stage.

“I won’t lie, the last year was very hard for me,” says Li. “The majority of my family still lives in Wuhan, so the situation freaked me out a lot more than the people around me here… As to whether what I’ve experienced this past year will be expressed in my new songs, I would say that my opinions and convictions have always been reflected in my work, even if not really explicitly.

“I write things that are always very personal to me, and often about human relationships – not necessarily love, but rather, the role I play in all my relationships with others. And in this respect, I think, everything I’ve been able to experience eventually emerges. Everything that happens around me finds its way into my music, especially since 2020 should have been a busy year of concerts and tours for me. I had to re-invent myself – isn’t that the word of the year! – after being forced to self-isolate, so I wrote a ton of new material. And because there was so much anxiety and uncertainty in the air, it felt good to be able to channel it all into creation.” Hua Li hopes to release a new album in early 2022.

The expression we’ve been using the most over the last year certainly was “OMG.” While becoming an incubator for unborn talents, the pandemic has also spurred existing talents to take things to the next level. That’s certainly true of  Laurence Nerbonne, who’s quietly releasing OMG, a French-language album whose English title proclaims what Laurence Nerbonne, and all Québec women, are or should be.

“The album’s final cut, ‘Queens,’ is an important song for me because it plainly states how all these women can take power, and how there’s nobody around to take it back from them,” says Nerbonne. A member of Hôtel Morphée for nearly 15 years, she embarked on her new mission as soon as she left that band in 2015. By 2016, she’d already grown solo roots with her debut album. “Since then, I allowed my style to change so I could increasingly become who I had always wanted to be,” she says. “It’s taken me all these years to learn, but OMG is the first album I’m able to control all the way to the final product.” Ultimately, everything in it is a reflection of her.

From start to finish in the making of an album, creativity may take a variety of forms and rhythms. In Nerbonne’s experience, inspiration can be something that you build on, or something that just happens.

“Inspiration is often described as a flash of light that happens in the middle of the night and comes out of nowhere, and it’s true,” she says. “However, that kind of inspiration only hits you once in a blue moon. The rest of the time, I keep working on the same piece, the same beat and the same chorus for days on end. I re-write, I start over again, I refine. You can seldom say you’re really done.”

The isolation dictated by the pandemic, and an intimate desire to take creative control, were both factors in the singer-songwriter’s desire to bring her pop music closer to rap’s traditional purview. “Upbeat female rap, sung in French, made by women, is something you never hear, and I don’t understand why,” says Nerbonne. “Recently, a number of industry people have lamented that all you hear on commercial radio are the same artists. Female music rarely exceeds 30 percent of the programming, and when it does, it’s always the same stuff. If male artists can have commercial success with American-style rap, I don’t see why what I’m doing shouldn’t work.”

So far, Nerbonne has been commercially successful, her songs have been played on radio, but she’s now decided to bring a sound that’s more in tune with who she really is. “There are two different types of voices on my album,” she says. “First, there are the voices of the characters I play. I want to be funny, and that shows in my lines. In “Première ministre,“ one can truly see that I’ve created this ambitious woman who can push open any door. Nothing can prevent her from going where she wants, and it may just be that, for once, the scandals surrounding her aren’t going to destroy her. We’re sick of seeing all these male characters who are always successful, and who never have to face the consequences of their actions. I also wanted to leave room for party songs… we need them a lot.”

The second tone of voice we hear on the album is Nerbonne’s own. It’s more forward and more serious. It’s obviously her own voice, the voice of a woman who has a lot to say about the way women in general, and women in music in particular, are being treated. “I wanted people to feel the empowerment, obviously,” she says. “I felt it was important for people to perceive a change. I dare to address topics that only men usually talk about in public.”

The day the stage really opens up to women unconditionally, women’s issues and feminism will be allowed to be addressed in all music genres. Nerbonne will be one of the women who have re-invented themselves at the institutions’ request. In embracing trap, rap, and R&B, in expressing herself openly, she’s nurturing a landscape that we all think should be more diversified. In the end, she’ll have done this for herself, and for a larger goal: representing women’s reality. “If I can be one female voice among all the ones that are being heard, that will be enough for me,” she says. “My goal is not to be the only one.”

The door is open.

Olivia Penalva has watched her latest single, “Love Me,” rack up more than 20 million streams on TikTok, and her pop covers have gone from YouTube to appearing on American Idol and America’s Got Talent, but the Gen Z singer still gets excited by what’s perceived as an older-school achievement.

Olivia Penalva“The biggest thing for me is radio, actually,” she says. “[‘Love Me’] is rising on pop radio, and CHR, which is so crazy. The numbers keep going up the charts. It’s kind of blown my mind.”

The 20-year-old from Vernon, British Colombia, first heard her voice on the radio at age 13, when her whimsical holiday song “Christmas For Two” hit the Top 30. The track was co-written in the fall of 2013 in L.A. with Sony/ATV writer Andrew Allen, who’s also from the Okanagan region of BC, and had scored his own Christmas hit in 2009.

“It was my first trip to L.A. and we didn’t know what we were going to write, but I remember the topic of Christmas came up,” says Penalva. “You know that around Christmas time, not only is radio always looking for more Christmas songs, they’re looking for Canadian artists who have Christmas songs? I remember laughing, thinking, ‘Okay, it’s not even winter, but I’ll get in the spirit’.”

Her openness to other people’s ideas has served her well as she’s paired up with songwriters of various musical backgrounds on a series of one-off singles and EPs. “Love Me” was co-written by Penalva and SOCAN members Emery Taylor (best known for pop and EDM) and Brian Howes (whose many rock credits include smash hits for Daughtry, Puddle of Mudd, and Skillett). Earlier collaborations include “Ferris Wheel” with Brian West (Nelly Furtado, Maroon 5), and “Forgettable” with Josh Cumbee (Madonna, Nick Howard).

“I think I fell in love with co-writing right away”

“I think I fell in love with co-writing right away,” she explains. “Writing by yourself can be kind of intimidating. Being in a room with other writers, talking to them and sharing experiences, but also leaning on each other for ideas, that opened a whole new world for me. It’s always different, and I just have such a good time doing it with other people. It’s such a fun thing.”

Collaborating with writers also helped address a challenge particular to teenage songwriters: how to write deeply about the human condition when you’re just beginning to have your own life experiences? Penalva admits her early songs like “Ferris Wheel” were trying to “work with” her age, but she soon outgrew it.

“I love creating melodies. I also love writing lyrics, but I struggled with knowing what to say for so long because I was so young,” she says. “After a little while I was like, ‘You know, this is fun, but there’s more depth to me.’ The people I was writing with would help me spark those ideas, and through their experiences give me a little guidance. I think that helped me a lot learn about songwriting. And then the last two or three years, getting into adulthood, something opened up in me. I couldn’t stop after that.”

Penalva says that since the start of the pandemic, she’s been writing non-stop, even if trips to L.A. and Nashville have been replaced with Zoom sessions. She’s preparing to release her first full-length album later this year, and has so many tracks to choose from she needs to consult a list of all the songwriters, so as not to leave anyone out.

Some names jump out: Nolan Sipe, whose “Honey, I’m Good” was a Top 10 Billboard hit for Andy Grammar; SOCAN Award winner Daniel Powter (“Bad Day”); Ryan Stewart (Carly Rae Jepsen); Tyler Spry (of One Republic); and Jessica Mitchell, who co-wrote “The Chase” on Celine Dion’s Courage.

As for what it might sound like, the singer doesn’t give much away. “This year, I’ve just kind of embraced everything,” she says. “That’s what so great about pop music nowadays – as long as you’re true to yourself, you can do anything.”