The booklet Ian Janes created to accompany his latest album, Episode 5, isn’t just a nostalgic nod to the times when album cover art and liner notes were essential accessories for the listening experience. It’s also a way to circumvent the pandemic’s impact by engaging isolated and distanced fans more deeply with his music.

The lush 36-page “companion book” contains photos of Janes and the other musicians, lyrics, and insights on the songs’ genesis. “I think it captures something I love about old records, but in a different way,” he says. “Without artwork, chances are it’s a soundtrack to checking Instagram, which doesn’t build connection to the music. People get more deeply involved with songs when they know about how they were made – they get inside them. It’s all about finding ways to do my best in this era of floating attention spans.”

“Genre is the production and the artist, not the song. Great songs are great songs.”

In a way, the idea for including the songs’ back stories in a booklet came from the Nova Scotia singer-songwriter’s experiences working in a Nashville songwriting style. “Eddie Schwartz, the songwriter and SOCAN Nashville rep, told me that everyone in that town does what they call ‘Writing from a title,’ and most of my writing there has been done that way,” says Janes. “You go into a session and everybody‘s got a list of titles, and ways to spin a story around the title. And the beauty of it is that often another person will have a completely different idea that can be inspirational and change everything. That’s happened to me.”

Janes has had notable country music successes, including the co-write “Can’t Remember Never Loving You” being featured in the show Nashville, and another with singer Kylie Frey, “I Do Thing,” topping Texas radio charts. While you couldn’t call Episode 5 country – it’s more like soulful pop-rock – the opening song, “Amnesia,” grew from its title, in true Nashville style.

“I stumbled across that word, and I write groove-based music, so something rhythmic that feels good to sing is what I gravitate to,” he explains. “I realized that ‘Amnesia’ was a great title, and because of those great Nashville writers who got me writing with a title, I started to think about what the song could be.

“The record starts and ends with songs that refer to emotional states as if they’re characters. I’m speaking to amnesia as if it’s an old friend I need to help me forget this heartache. And in the last song, ‘Sleepless,’ [co-writer] Stone Aielli and I speak about someone – me – who’s having trouble sleeping ‘cause he misses home, and he wakes up in a hotel room and says, ‘Hello, 3 a.m., looks like it’s you and me again. Don’t take this personally, but you ain’t who I want to see.’ Being able to talk about the story you’re going to tell has been a welcome asset to my ability to notice those things, and develop them into songs.”

The sounds on Episode 5, which Janes produced at his Dartmouth home, are rich and varied, reflecting his upbringing listening to genre-benders like Ray Charles, Joni Mitchell, and Quincy Jones. Some songs have guitars, keyboards, horns, and background vocals, recorded separately in each musician’s studio; some are sparse; and there are echoes of everyone from Chet Baker to Justin Timberlake.

“Genre is the production and the artist, not the song,” he says. “Great songs are great songs. If you put horns and Hammond organ on them, they’re soul, but if you use fiddle and steel guitar, they’re country. It’s like in the jazz era, when Broadway songs were interpreted by jazz musicians. John Coltrane doing ‘My Favorite Things’ was different from Julie Andrews’ version – and Ariana Grande’s. They all had career songs with it, because it’s a great song.”

Janes is hoping to play his songs live when venues open up, and keep writing for himself, and others. “Sometimes I sing them and sometimes other people do,” he says. “I’ll continue to balance my career as a writer and an artist. It’s one and the same to me.”

Noe TalbotIt was a “cocktail of difficult events” over the past three years that led Noé Talbot to his current album, Remercier les accidents. All the obstacles, from anxiety to the pitfalls of an over-crowded schedule, were layered on top of each other, and then accidents, choices, forced rest, and unexpected new beginnings, gave birth to the post-storm music. Music for which we’re thankful.

“I had never had anxiety in my life, and all of a sudden I couldn’t leave my house for several days, as if I were paralyzed. I had burned the candle at both ends,” says Talbot, now resigned to choosing his battles. “I was working on my teaching degree, I had a girlfriend in France, and lots of musical projects,” he says. “I’ve always been the ‘Where there’s a will there’s a way’ type, but my body just couldn’t keep up.”

With a nodule on one of his vocal cords, teaching by day and singing by night, Talbot realized that choices had to be made. “Between teaching and music, I chose music,” he says. “I healed from that nodule and took time for myself. That made me a lot more human, and sensitive to psychological distress.”

When it was time to record his album, an administrative glitch between his musicians and his label forced him to change his plans. “I was forced to hire session musicians,” he explains. “I used three different producers. I was outside of my comfort zone, and had to pay more attention to myself since I was now the only common thread between all the elements of the project.”

For him, the toughest thing about changes and breaks is accepting them. Hence the album’s title. “I’m thankful for all the bumps in the road,” he now readily admits. “We’re always pushing back against the frantic pace of life, the storm, the tornado, and we end up forgetting to accept it, which is the key. Hitting rock bottom is not that important. As long as you accept that you hit rock bottom,” he adds with a laugh.

Accidents are no strangers to Talbot’s creative process. “I firmly believe in the adage that constraints feed creativity,” he says. “I try to write pretty much every day, and I like to dabble in different styles and genres.” Globally, it’s something the listener notices almost immediately, because all of his songs are extremely different from one another.

“Some artists are more at ease with uniformity. I would feel uncomfortable. I want songs to have a soul,” he says. Hence his insistence on experimenting with various writing styles. Songs will therefore begin as an a capella, on the piano, on the guitar, in the studio, or in the shower, from a fragment of melody, or a sentence he decided to dwell on a little longer. “Creativity is a muscle,” he believes. “I do crossword puzzles, I use various techniques to diversify my vocabulary.”

Beyond that intense effort to never get stuck in an overly-familiar method, there’s pressure. “The best ally of creativity is getting rid of pressure,” Talbot says adamantly. “I’m lucky enough that my projects are successful. Not incredibly so, but I have fans that like everything I do, whether I’m punkier or softer. My next album will be very soft, and I gave myself that freedom – going back to soft things, if that’s what I feel like doing.”

Achieving a goal with a song isn’t magic, but Talbot knows at least part of the recipe: “Creating a hit is 70 percent marketing and 30 percent touching people’s souls at the same time you touch your own. You have to put part of yourself into it,” he says. At that stage of the creative process, the only way to succeed, to him, is to create a lot. If it takes 100 songs to write just one that stands out, then so be it.

Talbot inhabits his own creative process as much as he wishes to understand and de-mystify that of others. That’s the reason why he produced the podcast Main d’oeuvre alongside Philippe Vaillancourt. “With each artist we welcome, we tell each other stories from the studio, we go into detail about the lyrics of the songs, and we understand the authenticity of each person who makes a song,” he says. Talbot hopes to learn and share the experiences of others: “A successful artist is almost always an artist who knows that authenticity led them to their best work.”

Allison Russell has placed her hometown of Montréal at the heart of her first career solo album. The singer-songwriter, now based in suburban Nashville, has overcome her writer’s block to deliver the sublime, often painful, but redemptive Outside Child, in which she reclaims her story of being an abused child who found her “lifeline” in the Québécois metropolis.

Allison Russell“I’m happy to be back in Montréal,” says Allison Russell, born there to Scottish and Grenadian parents. “Today, my adoptive father – who was the source of the abuse I experienced as a child – and my mother have moved to Ontario. My ghosts have left town, so when I go back, it’s with my family, my musician friends, and it’s always nice to go back, really,” says the musician, who insists on conducting this interview in French. “I try to practise as much as possible with my daughter, who loves to speak in a language her father doesn’t understand!”

It’s also a language that she sings in, with the same ease as she answers our questions. On Outside Child, several songs have stanzas, even full verses, in French, as on “The Hunter,” a song recalling her youth in Quebec: The heart of the child is the heart of the universe, golden love / Like many springs, generous, warm / But never innocent / Nor completely painless.

“That’s why the album starts with the song “Montréal,” she says. “This record is really a tribute to my city. Montréal was my mother when my mother couldn’t take it anymore. In a way, the identity and cultural activity of Montréal saved me. The outdoor concerts at the Jazz Festival saved me, as well as my visits to the Museum of Fine Arts,” says the musician, who was fleeing the house to avoid her attacker.

On the powerful “4th Day Prayer,” she sings: I was the Queen of Westmount Park / It was all mine after dark / Old willow tree it was my throne / Till I, till I went home. Russell says that Montréal protected her, “with its coffee houses open all night, I would go there to play chess until the wee hours of the morning. I think back to all those places where I could go, where I also received a form of education, an artistic training, where I met a lot of nice people. I think that in my misfortune, I was really lucky.”

Russell moved to Vancouver when she came of age, where she had her first experiences as a professional musician, co-founding the band Po’Girl. With her daughter’s father, JT Nero, she founded the folk/gospel/Americana duo Birds of Chicago in 2012. At 42, she’s finally releasing her first solo album, after overcoming the writer’s block that emerged after the birth of her daughter.

“For four years, I hardly composed anything,” she says. “I deduced that I wasn’t a singer-songwriter, only a musician. I think it was because of the weight of the responsibility of becoming a mother: what I write, what I sing, I thought that one day my daughter would listen to it and interpret it in her own way.”

It was through another musical adventure that Russell found her voice: her friend Rhiannon Giddens, one of the most brilliant musicians on the folk/Americana scene, recruited her for the Our Native Daughters project. “We had 10 days to write and record an album, which was very intense, and forced me to start writing again. Once the floodgates of inspiration opened, I couldn’t stop. I had a lot of songs that needed to be released,” says Russell, who writes mainly on banjo and guitar.

“I do a lot of running, marathons, stuff like that, it’s therapeutic for me,” she says. “Songs often come to me while I’m running, and then I decide if it’s better suited for the banjo or the guitar. Sometimes it’s the melodies that come to me first, sometimes it’s just a phrase. A fragment of a song, from which you have to look around to find the rest. Sometimes a song idea comes to me just by reading; when a phrase strikes me, I try to figure out why.”

All of the songs on Outside Child were written during the Our Native Daughters tour, beginning in July of 2019. In September of that year, Russell invested her Canada Council grant to book four days in the studio with her Nashville musician friends, who bring these powerful songs to life. “I felt an urgency to write,” she says. “It became important to me to express vocally what I’ve been through, to end the cycles of violence – racism, sexism, sexual violence. It’s also very important to me to write my own story, and be able to tell people that it’s survivable.”