In most music careers, it’s hard to pinpoint one specific event that became a turning point: The one thing that allowed a music creator to find major allies both in the public and the industry. For SOCAN member Cédrik St-Onge, however, it’s easy: the 2016 Festival de Petite-Vallée. St-Onge was one of eight songwriters in the contest portion of that musical event, and he shone brightly onstage during the seaside festival, during an unusually chilly early July that felt more like a brisk day in early May.

He was a revelation, even though this young musician was playing for an audience that wasn’t entirely unfamiliar with his name and face. St-Onge hails from Caplan, another village on the other side of the Gaspésie peninsula. If you know that region, you’re probably thinking, “but that village is three hours by road from Petite-Vallée,” and you’d be correct; nonetheless, the lad was treading familiar ground, and that allowed him to stand out. And to solidify certain relationships, notably with Moran, who, a few weeks later, piloted the artistic direction of St-Onge’s first EP, Les yeux comme deux boussoles, launched in January 2017 on the Ad Litteram imprint.

This first offering is disarmingly simple, and contains enough songs to make anyone a believer. “I’ve always followed my instinct when it comes to music,” says St-Onge. “I don’t know much about the theory of music, so I trust my feelings. Writing a song always begins with a chord progression that I like, then comes the melody, and later, the lyrics. Most of the time, I don’t really know where I’m headed, so a few steps back allow me to better understand the song’s subject, or who I’m writing the song for.”

Rumours are floating around that none other than ex-Karkwa Louis-Jean Cormier has turned down lucrative production gigs to be able to man the decks for St-Onge. “Louis-Jean is someone who is very understanding and he knows what he likes,” says the young songwriter. “I think we share the same vision of music. In the studio, we had no problem at all with our vision of the project. We knew exactly where we wanted to go. I must say, the first Francophone band that attracted my attention was Karkwa, when I was still in daycare. We could say that it means the universe to me that Louis-Jean likes what I do, and wishes to contribute to my project.”

But even before St. Onge had played Petite-Vallée, Guillaume Lombart’s team at Éditions Ad Litteram – which has since morphed into a record label (Mathieu Bérubé, Simon Kingsbury) – had already taken the young artist under their wing. “By having such a team, that’s there to help and cares about the project, I’m able to think bigger and go further. I think it’s the catalyst that made me realize that if there are people who are willing to help, it means I must be on the right track. Because while these guys are a team, they’re also my second family, with whom I can be open and keep close ties,” says the artist, now slowly but surely working on his first full-length album.

Vox Sambou

Photo : Benoit Rousseau, Francofolies 2016

An interview with Vox Sambou isn’t so much be about music but about us, citizens, neighbours, friends. The singer-songwriter – who also runs the Youth Community Centre in Côte-des-Neiges (Montréal’s most ethnically diverse neighbourhood) – was born in Haiti, and is at home everywhere he goes, “as long as there’s someone next to me with whom I can share” the moment. Whether he’s talking about music or society, the artist is always animated by one main sentiment: optimism.

“Travelling is a privilege,” says Robints Paul, aka Vox Sambou, just after returning from New York, where he took part in a showcase organized by the Mundial Montréal festival. “This privilege comes from having the opportunity to meet people from all over the world. We all want the same things: to establish a connection with people and learn about their history. And when you dig even just a little, you realize that there really isn’t that much that’s different between all of us.”

That reminds us of the song “Humano Universal,” from his second album, released in 2013, Dyasporafriken. When he visits Limbé, the village where he was born and where his parents still live, at the northern tip of the country near Cap-Haïtien, he feels at home, at the heart of his story, “the cradle of the revolution. But when I fly back to Montréal, I always think to myself how good it is to be back!”

From Limbé to Montréal by way of Winnipeg and Ottawa, Sambou has followed his passion for music and people, and in doing so has become a key player of Montréal’s music scene. And also in the community life of his neighbourhood, as much in his capacity as a member of the hip-hop/funk/soul/reggae collective Nomadic Massive as with his solo project where, as a matter of fact, he’s not truly alone. His backing band is composed of eight musicians from various backgrounds and origins. His musical style is just as varied, a sonic melting pot of kompa, rap, reggae, funk and “chanson.” They come together on stage with the energy and enthusiasm that have become his trademark.

Sambou will soon take his good vibes to the United States again, having been invited to the illustrious South by Southwest festival, in Austin, Texas. Such a man as he, who seemingly takes roots in any country he visits and knows no boundaries, is quite a symbolic presence in a country led by Donald Trump.

On the morning of our interview, the New York Times publishes a story from Tijuana, in Northwestern Mexico, where Haitian refugees are crammed by the hundreds in the hope of crossing the border. “I understand that with everything that’s going on lately, it’s hard to, but we have to keep hope alive,” says Sambou. “Most of those Haitians came out of Brazil,” the country where he recorded his superb current album, The Brasil Sessions, released last year. “They were promised better living conditions than back home. But that didn’t turn out to be true, so they came to the United States, some of them losing their lives in the process…

“What we’re going through today is important: it’s time to wake up, unite, build bridges, reconnect; it’s the only way we can manage to resist,” says the musician, whose positive approach is unwavering. “That’s why we must not be afraid to speak up and denounce. We can’t just sit back because it’s happening elsewhere, in the United States, a society that’s not ours. Because if you’re honest about it, one person’s decisions can have an impact on each and every one of us. Then, I take a look around me: the huge March of Women (in major cities worldwide), demonstrations, that all makes me optimistic, because it’s proof that people are paying attention, that they are awake.”

For the musician, hope stems from the power and unity of the masses. “We see what governments are doing, what the president of the U.S. is doing, all these actions whose sole aim is to divide… But people are refusing to be divided, black people on one side, white people on the other. All people want is to live in peace. That inspires me, makes me want to write and play music: connecting with as many people as I can.”


One of the catchiest songs on No Culture, the sixth album from Vancouver-based five-piece Mother Mother, is the declarative singalong “Back in School.”

At face value, the pop-rock stomper channels the same schoolyard disobedience of Pink Floyd’s “Another Brick in The Wall Pt. 2” and Alice Cooper’s “School’s Out.” But if you dig a little deeper, there’s some soul searching going on, that’s closer to something like Smashing Pumpkins’ “Bullet with Butterfly Wings” than it is a snide shot at the education system.

Ryan Guldemond, Mother Mother’s vocalist/guitarist – and a founding member, along with his sister Molly Guldemond – says the song was about going to a different kind of school.

“That song is about going about back to the school of self, which is what I was going through when I wrote it,” says Ryan, accompanied by Molly at a West-end Toronto coffee shop, two weeks before No Culture’s Feb. 10, 2017, release. “And this idea of being in the classroom of your own soul, not getting it, not getting the lesson. Looking up at the chalkboard and all the letters are scrambled because your brains don’t work anymore. It takes that confused schoolyard angst and attaches it to an adult identity crisis.”

This self-questioning idea of identity crisis is a central theme that runs throughout No Culture. It’s been three years since Mother Mother released their last album, Very Good Bad Thing, and the time between records was a period of deep reflection for Ryan.

“The album centres around the theme of identity, specifically authenticity versus facade,” says Ryan, “and we use the term ‘culture’ in a pejorative sense – suggesting that it’s an adopted thing that detracts from your true essence. So the description is to strip yourself of your culture, your influences, that have led you astray from who you actually are. That came to me in the grip of an identity crisis of my own.”

You wouldn’t think Mother Mother would be the sort of act to suffer from a crisis of faith. This is, after all, a band that has an armful of JUNO and MuchMusic Video Award nominations, and an impressive mastery of modern rock radio. They’ve hit the Canadian alternative radio charts with more than 12 separate singles, including “The Stand” in 2011 and “Let’s Fall in Love,” which hit No. 3 in 2012. On top of that, the particularly striking band – which also includes keyboardist/vocalist Jasmin Parker, drummer Ali Siadat and bassist Mike Young –  have attracted more than 1.3 million views of their music videos on YouTube.

But not all of the crises Mother Mother faced were so existential. Take No Culture’s first single, “The Drugs.”

“I think it’s pretty straightforward,” says Molly, stepping in to explain the song. “I think it’s about how love of oneself or another human being – that ‘high’ – is way better than any high you get from a vice. Any sort of vice. And it’s more sustainable, more real.

“You might spend a lot of time in your younger years trying to find that exhilarating feeling from other things, other forms of reality. You dabble in whatever. Then you come out the other side realizing that while you felt those things, there’s no foundation, there’s nothing underneath, they’re just hollow moments. And what you really want to look for is this feeling that’s way more full.”

Many of the other songs on No Culture continue in this personal, inward-searching vein. The bounding opener “Free” serves as a mission statement, with its message to let the love go free. The second single, “Love Stuck,” doubles down on that pursuit. Elsewhere, “Baby Boy” and “Mouth of The Devil,” with their allusions to losing oneself in the gutter and slipping into bad habits, respectively, explore the flipside to the feeling of love that Mother Mother are generally chasing here.

“I think every song [on No Culture] expresses this concept in different ways,” says Ryan.

There’s a sonic familiarity to many of No Culture’s songs. While the band’s music rests firmly in the world of present-day alternative radio pop, there are liberal musical splashes that recall the deeper recesses of an ‘80s record collection. “Baby Boy” displays a prog-rock keyboard swirl that could’ve made a Rush album of the era; “Mouth of The Devil” hints of a Chris Isaak guitar line; “Free,” in a way, could share space with Def Leppard’s later-period fist-pumpers; “Love Stuck,” sounds like a descendent of Chumbawamba’s “Tubthumping.”

“We want to provide those two experiences: Something that’s animal and primal, and something that’s heady.” – Ryan Guldemond of Mother Mother

It wasn’t a conscious plan to hide these sonic Easter eggs on the album, though Ryan does admit to pursuing one specific sound. “I do recall wanting to lift the bass sound from LCD Soundsystem’s ‘Someone Great’ for the song ‘Mouth of The Devil,’” he admits. “That was a conscious effort. That staccato synth-bass with three-second decay. I wanted that, so I sought it out.”

The LCD Soundsystem nod makes particular sense, considering Mother Mother’s evolution since the band formed in 2005. The early phases included the Guldemonds and former member Debra-Jean Creelman trading gymnastic vocal sequences and folk-rock-ish harmonies. In a sonic evolutionary arc similar to that of Tegan and Sara, as the band gravitated towards more straightforward pop and rock, so the level of their success has grown. In the process, though, Mother Mother have lost some of their initial vocal “audacity” (Ryan’s word) in favour of more streamlined modern rock.

Mother Mother“We started humbly, with limited instrumentation, and song-focused energy,” he explains. “I think there’s always been a fervent curiosity surrounding how to expand the sound, and how to infiltrate the songs. That equates to more elaborate guitar effects as the years go by, and synthesizers, drum programming and a wider range of tools in the studio. All of which seems to expand as every record happens. This record is the sort of zenith of all this experimentation.”

Part of Mother Mother’s music growth can probably be attributed to Ryan’s growing list of side gigs. In recent years, he’s helped produce music by Hannah Georgas (with whom he earned a SOCAN No. 1 Song Award for co-writing her hit song “Don’t Go”), hip-hop artist Kyprios, siren chanteuse Jocelyn Alice, and Swiss-Canadian singer Rykka. Additionally, he’s found some work in the ultra-competitive world of television advertising jingle-writing, for companies like Kraft, Sunrype and Wireless Wave.

Ryan’s entry into that world was mostly the result of good timing. “Production was my avenue,” he says. “I was working with Hannah [Georgas] on her album This Is Good and her manager, who had a relationship with an ad-man in New York, phoned. He asked, ‘Would you guys halt production and take 12 hours to submit for a back-to-school Walmart jingle?’ So we did, and we got it, and it was really eye-opening. That ad-man from New York and I became good friends. Whenever something would come up for him, he’d call me up and I’d try my hand at it.”

It’s also helped the band develop a sharper focus. “Learning the value of brevity via a jingle is something you can take to a song, and hearken back to bolstering the bright idea without diluting it,” says Ryan.

For all the talk of identity crisis and self-examination that Mother Mother went through in making No Culture, the response they’re hoping to receive from listeners is a simple one.

“It would be nice if they could let the music wash over them, and have a visceral, physical reaction – to dance, to move, to feel something, inexplicably – without feeling the pressure to define it,” says Ryan. “But also having a portal to dissect and in turn flex an intellectual and interpersonal muscle. We want to provide those two experiences: Something that’s animal and primal, and something that’s heady. But that physical response we want to come first. As with any good song, it should get people moving.”