When Callie McCullough was in the first grade, she wrote in her journal, “When I grow up, I will be a singer.” In reality, that passion to pursue music blossomed well before she even knew how to speak or spell. In fact, her mother says she was “born singing” first.

McCullough’s love of music stems from her musical parents, who filled their home with folk, country, rock, and blues albums. But beyond sound-tracking McCullough’s childhood with classic tunes by Gordon Lightfoot and Joni Mitchell, their day-to-day lives, performing onstage and recording in studios, helped shape her world-view: “It was all so normal to me,” she says.

That sense of normalcy led McCullough to pen her first song at 14, and soon after head out on the road to perform as a country duo with her mother. “She really showed me the ropes,” says McCullough. “How to book gigs, how to talk onstage, how to run sound and lights.”

By the time McCullough reached her twenties, though, she felt drawn to Nashville, away from her Ontario roots. On the heels of a tour with her family, she decided to pack up her station wagon and make the permanent move, as many other Canadian country up-and-comers have.

In early 2020, McCullough will release her solo debut six-song EP, After Midnight, which, coincidentally, involves co-writing and production by some fellow Canadian ex-pats in Nashville: Scotty Kipfer, Ryan Sorestad, and Dustin Olyan. Its first single, “Five Dollar Pearls,” is a honeyed ballad that takes its time to languish in its banjo flourishes, but most importantly shine a spotlight on McCullough’s endearing voice.

McCullough admits that she’s still going through “industry ups and downs” as she settles into the fast-paced world down South, but After Midnight was a passion project that kept her motivated. “I’ll do it forever, even if nobody cares,” she says, of making music, especially on her own terms – which may not always veer towards what’s trendy in country music right now. “I made this album to be exactly who I am,” she says. “We’ve unapologetically crossed genres and expectations in pursuit of making good music.

“No one knows what to call it,” she concludes, “and that’s fine with me.”

Solitude may be an art, but sitting day in and day out in a room writing music can become depressing for an artist. Martin Roy suffered from exhaustion as he was completing the soundtrack for the seventh, and final, season of the Québec television series La Promesse in 2012. “I was also experiencing touring fatigue,” says the bass player, who was often seen playing behind the likes of singers Jean Leloup, Ingrid St-Pierre, and Daniel Bélanger, and who’s one of Dumas’ most faithful collaborators. “I needed a change of pace, a renewal.”

Martin Roy, Luc SicardAt about that time, his old guitarist friend Luc Sicard happened to be experiencing the same type of professional and existential angst. After spending more than 20 years in a dark studio writing television, film, and advertising music, he was looking for a way to do things differently.

“What was getting to us were those long hours of working by ourselves, and of having to look after everything. We thought, ‘Why couldn’t we share the load?’” says the veteran composer in his partner’s basement studio, in Montréal’s Rosemont neighborhood. So a partnership that began for personal reasons soon proved to be a boost for the duo’s professional output. “For me, on my own, two series at the same was too much,” says Sicard. “But, together, we can handle three of them all at once.”

Since 2015, the pair has scored the TV programs and series Marche à l’ombre (winner of a 2018 Gémeaux Award), Karl & Max, L’Heure bleue, Le Monstre, La Faille, and Victor Lessard (winner of a Gémeaux Award for Best Original Music for Fiction in September of 2019).

Pretty prolific guys, you say? Well, who were the two tough, hooded stuntmen who appeared fhttps://www.socanmagazine.ca/news/seven-socan-composerswhoscore-win-awards-at-2019-gemeaux/rom nowhere in a back alley to teach a lesson to Jo Barbeau (Antoine Pilon) in Marche à l’ombre? You got it: they were Roy and Sicard! They thought that the (fictional) beating that they were able to give Barbeau on that occasion, at Francis Leclerc’s invitation, was such great fun that they’ve been calling themselves “The Hooded Ones” ever since.

“You can only get a good series if you give free rein to creators.” – Martin Roy

In the studio, the partners allow themselves to be brutally frank with each other. No masks are tolerated. “It’s like in Star Trek, permission to speak freely,” says Roy, while absent-mindedly strumming his splendid Hofner electric bass. “Between the two of us, ego never is a barrier.”

By far the pair’s more talkative half, Sicard gets excited when dsicussing the open dialogue that takes place between the two of them. There’s lots of it because, contrary to other scoring teams, they both work on each and every series or film cue (instead of dividing the scenes between themselves beforehand).

“Martin shares his ideas with me, I share mine with him, and we take it from there,” says Sicard. “We collide with each other, we look at it every which way, and we don’t get hurt. On the contrary, we get stimulated! When you’re 25, and starting in the business, you’re not able to go there, you’re still fragile, but us, we have the advantage of having grown up. If Martin tells me, ‘This is a shitty idea,’ we just trash it, and find other ideas five minutes later! I’m not about to try to convince him that it’s a good idea. We have no time to waste on that kind of stuff! Anyway, we can’t be worrying that we’re going to let a good idea slip through our fingers: ideas are a-dime-a-dozen!”

No resource is more renewable than ideas. But for them to blossom, those who produce them need some wiggle room. This principle is under attack, now that traditional television is losing ground, and that major distributors are yielding to panic.

“A fear syndrome is developing,” Roy was sad to say. “An author can write a super scenario, and it’s going to be completely watered down, because people on high are wondering if ‘the average viewer’ will be able to understand it. Radio-Canada is not calling us directly, but we can sense this fear that starts from the top, and trickles all the way down to us. When you’re writing TV music, you’ve got to like what you’re watching. You’re not showing them a playlist, but investing a piece of yourself, a piece of your heart, a piece of your soul. Broadcasters don’t realize this, but they stifle the product by creating that fear. You can only get a good series if you give free rein to creators.”

Clocking in at a mere two minutes, Toronto R&B singer Liza’s (pronounced LEE-za, a.k.a. Liza Yohannes) latest single “Congratulations” delivers a tautly-woven narrative of being genuinely happy for a past love who’s moved on with his life. With only a sinewy, nostalgia-tinged guitar loop for accompaniment, “Congratulations” deftly showcases Liza’s voice, conveying a genuine air of sincerity and magnanimity, when it could have easily delivered snark.

Liza wrote the song with Jay Century and Michael Bernard Fitzgerald at a 2018 SOCAN Kenekt Songwriting Camp on Pender Island in British Columbia, after stumbling on her ex while randomly scrolling through Instagram.

“I’d completely forgotten about him at that point, I had repressed that thought, I had moved on, really,” says Liza. “And it was like, ‘Oh, he’s here, he has a new girlfriend, and he’s doing this, and this, and this, and congrats.’ That was literally the first word that came into my head, and then this song came out as more of a conversation.”

Much like “You,” a standout song from Liza’s 2017 four-song February 29 EP, “Congratulations” centres around a basketball-playing beau – its photo artwork is a bunch of dead flowers over concrete court markings. It turns out that there’s a connection. “‘Congratulations’ was the last song I wrote about the person I wrote “You” about, so that’s sort of closing the chapter on that person,” says Liza. “I thought that was perfect: end of the decade, end of the year. And sonically, it felt like an end-of-the-year song.”

“Congratulations” is just the fourth track Liza has released since her 2017 EP, following the ethereal cool of singles  “Here to Stay,” “Passes Me,” and “Morning Glory,” but her deliberate approach is intentional. “Honestly, I’m a very big believer in quality over quantity. And I just believe that I don’t want to put out things prematurely,” says Liza. “In terms of my process, I’m a little bit of a perfectionist sometimes, where I’m very critical of my own work, and very critical of everything. Just because I want it to be the best thing I can put out. I want the next song I put out to always be better than the last. I want to always be progressively improving. And I definitely don’t want to oversaturate. I want my songs to live longer.”

“I want the next song I put out to always be better than the last.”

Writing songs alone, or with songwriter Kalvin, and rising producers like Akeel Henry, Liza’s sound not only incorporates the R&B she grew up with, but the music she heard from being raised in a home steeped in Ethiopian culture.

“I used to go every two years and spend a few months at a time in Ethiopia, immersing myself in the culture, the music in the language, in the food, everything,” says Liza. “ So that was me singing along to all these Ethiopian songs from the age of three or four. And because of that, I feel like it definitely influences the way I sing. It’s funny, but I never really considered it until multiple people came up to me and actually told me I reminded them of this Ethiopian singer, or that Ethiopian singer.”  Liza cites Aster Aweke, Mahmoud Ahmed, and Teddy Afro, as well as the Ethiopian jazz of artists like Mulatu Astatke, as primary influences in her musical life. Clearly, the sum of her influences is increasingly garnering more notices and justified attention.

Recently, she snagged a co-writing credit and background vocals on “Complexities,” a track on Daniel Caesar’s sophomore effort CASE STUDY 01, despite the fact she’s yet to meet Caesar. “I didn’t think it was going to be used on the album at all,” says Liza. “As far as I knew, [producer Alex Ernewein and I] were working on an idea for myself, and then I kinda forgot about the idea. And then, yeah, Alex kinda mentioned something about the [Daniel Caesar] album, but it’s something that I didn’t think was going to be on the album, so I was, like, ‘OK, I’ll wait until we see it online.’ But it actually came to fruition. It was a really wonderful experience.” The song is also co-credited to Ethan Ashby, Liam Mitro, and Sean Leon.

With her musical career on the upswing and “Congratulations” drawing a line under a rear-view mirror experience, a new project in early 2020 is next on deck for Liza. Despite already distinguishing herself early in her career, she’s clearly intent on growing as an artist.

“I feel like I’ve grown a lot as a person and as a woman. Just being more independent in various aspects of my life,” says Liza. “ I feel like all those things have really forced me to delve into a deeper space, through writing who I want to be, and who I am, and really understanding myself. I just think that I’ve really begun to understand myself more holistically, and that has come through time. I think my sound is going to be more mature because of that.”