When Kevin Comeau and Cody Bowles first met through a mutual friend around seven years ago, they immediately connected over their love of Rush and prog-rock, Star Wars and Star Trek.

That chemistry is palpable in their musical duo, Crown Lands. Comeau (guitars, bass, keyboards) and Bowles (drums, vocals) feed off each other’s energy and swagger, seamlessly blending classic psych, prog, folk, and blues.

“We wanted that chemistry to come across in our music. There was some magic the first day we met, and it’s still there,” says Comeau.

They perfected their sound over years of relentless touring, playing alongside rock heavyweights like Jack White, Primus, and Rival Sons. When it came time to record their self-titled debut, it was important that the songs had the same energy as their live show. Recording at RCA Studio A in Nashville with six-time Grammy winner Dave Cobb, the album was captured live off the floor, to allow for moments of spontaneity.

On the debut, released in August 2020, the duo tackles heavy topics – including systemic racism in Canada. “The song ‘End of the Road’ is about the missing and murdered Indigenous women, children, and two-spirit people on the Highway of Tears in British Columbia,” says Bowles, whose ancestry is half Mi’kmaw. “The music is very emotive. The guitar [sound] like it’s crying, and the beat underneath is like a relentless trudge.”

The band had planned to spend 2020 playing shows, but of course, that’s on hold. Instead, they’re working on next record in their studio in the woods, located north of their hometown of Oshawa, Ontario. They’re finding ways to weave polyrhythms and weird tunings into their hook-driven rock and roll, and lyrically exploring our current moment.

“We’re writing songs that take into account what’s happening around the world,” says Comeau. “We’re trying to reflect this situation into our music and, hopefully, bring hope to people who are probably going through the most challenging moments of their lives.”

Feeling Good, Working Out
As this story was being edited, Crown Lands got a big career boost from Peleton.  The company’s new TV/digital/online ad campaign for the U.K. and Germany features two new versions of Nina Simone’s classic song “Feeling Good,” one by Crown Lands ,and a hip-hop rendition by L.A. rapper, Duckwrth, plus the original. In a press release, Crown Lands said, “when Peloton asked us to work on an iconic Nina Simone song, we knew we had to honour her and do our spin on it. Nina is such a powerful and incredible woman, and the world needs her message now more than ever.” Alongside the ad, Crown Lands released their cover version in full, and Peloton will integrate it into future classes.

He’s been living in Montréal for more than half of his existence, but it’s still in Kinshasa that his imagination as a writer is rooted. At the frontier between Congolese rhumba and French-filtered house music, the singer-songwriter Pierre Kwenders has become a master at blurring all kinds of boundaries.

PIerre Kwenders

Photo: Diego Urbina

“What I’m proudest of is my history,” he sings on “Ego,” a song he created alongside French beat-maker Clément Bazin, where he straightforwardly admits to being in love with himself, albeit with a healthy dose of humour, and even self-deprecation. He’s part of an elite group of writers who look well beyond heartbreak as a theme. He much favours original, and often surprising, content.

Notwithstanding the apparently unwavering confidence the propels his alter ego, the Congo-born artist began his career relatively late in life. José Louis Modabi (his actual name) was already 16 years old when he took the full measure of his vocation. He’d just moved to Québec at the time.

“I’m from a family of music lovers and ambiance creators, especially on my mother’s side,” says Kwenders. “We love playing guitar, we have a joie de vivre and we like to party. When there’s music and drinks, everyone is happy. It was always part of my life, but it’s only when I came to Canada that I discovered I, too, could make music after I discovered my own voice, thanks to choral singing. That’s when I found the ambition to make a living from it, which I’m doing now.”

He’s still a member of the vocal group that trained him – a Catholic choir whose sound falls somewhere between opera and African gospel – and he hooked up with his colleagues for a recording that should be released in 2021. “I recently sang with them on a song that will be on my next album,” says Kwenders. “It’s a different way of working with one’s voice, but I like challenging myself. I obviously don’t have the voice of a Céline Dion, or a Whitney Houston, but I like having fun with whatever voice I have.”

Congolese Above All

In many ways, Kwenders is a cultural ambassador. He’s gained critical acclaim, and he even managed to get nominated to the Polaris short list in 2018, not to mention the fact that he’s introduced Afrobeat to many households in La Belle Province and the rest of Canada. And that’s on top of his work as a DJ in the Moonshine collective, although that role was put on hold due to the ongoing pandemic.

But his role as a singer hasn’t been affected. His desire to make us move and groove is omnipresent in his music nowadays, especially when he teams up with someone like Clément Bazin. “The music on this EP (Classe Tendresse) is very close to the identity of Pierre Kwenders the DJ,” he says. “I think I’d reached that stage where I needed to unify those two universes, which weren’t that far apart to begin with. I’m trying to solidify the bridge between them.”

Kwenders also plans, in the near future, to develop his presence on the Congolese market. “There was a time when Congo was kind of like the United States of Africa,” he says. “Music is a huge part of the culture there, and there are tons of artists. I’m not saying I can’t find my place there, but it’s not as important as artists who are already there. I tread slowly.”

Forever attached to his country of origin, the co-writer of “Classe Tendresse” even gives a nod to Koffi Olomidé on that tender song. “It’s a song from a wonderful album titled Noblesse oblige that I really recommend to anyone who wants to explore Congolese rhumba,” says Kwenders. “It’s a classic… He and Lokua Kanza are artists that truly inspire me. I hope to make them proud, one way or another.”

Trop à perdre, mais j’suis prêt à tout miser” (“I’ve got too much to lose, but I’m ready to go all-in”) proclaims Imposs at the very beginning of his third album, Élévaziiion (société distincte). Two decades after saying essentially the exact opposite as a member of Muzion (on the track Rien à perdre [nothing to lose]), the Québécois rap pioneer shares his revealing evolution in that single opening sentence.

Imposs “The difference between me then and me now is that I’m a more accomplished and balanced person. I have a family, I make a good living, I’m happy… In short, I have a lot more to lose than back then, but I’m still going all-in,” says the charismatic rapper. “I’m convinced of my potential and, above all, I don’t seek validation or approval from others. I have something to bring to the table.”

Eight years have gone by since this album’s predecessor, Peacetolet, was released to a lukewarm reception. But back then, Québec’s rap scene was barely poking its head out of the water after a dark period without anything remarkable. “Hip-hop was dead,” he says adamantly. “We were transitioning to streaming, and no one knew where that was going. I lacked the motivation [to carry on].”

Imposs decided to head back to New York City to work with his friend and colleague Wyclef Jean. He contributed to advertisements, as a rapper, lyricist and producer. “I was on a roll over there,” says the artist, who collaborated with The Fugees on the song “24 heures à vivre…” “In parallel to that, I had writing and directing contracts in Québec, notably for Vrak [a youth-oriented cable channel] and Ubisoft. For about three or four years, I simply didn’t see time go by. I got sucked into the machine, and I just accepted every contract that came my way. The problem was that I was working for others, not for myself. I was under the radar.”

Then came the birth of his daughter Nayla, which totally upended his career plans. “I had to make a choice,” says Imposs. “I carry on with this insane pace, or I try to be as present as possible for her. I tried juggling both for a while, but it was simply impossible. It was going to make me ill,” he admits.

“I didn’t have a plan to come back to music, but I could feel inspiration coming back to me, slowly. The fact that I had to slow down allowed me to do a little introspection. That’s when I realized that although sometimes you think you’re winning, in fact you’re losing. You’re so engaged in getting more that you lose your energy. Business is good, but you have no time for the people around you. Before she was born, I was fully invested and I lived to work. I didn’t sleep, I had anxiety… From that point on, I chose a more centred and effective path to channel my energy.”

It’s around 2016 that music found its way back to him and his ruminations. Québec’s rap scene was going through a renaissance, becoming more mainstream in the media and the industry. That’s when Imposs realized just how much water had flowed under the bridge since the “dark ages” during the turn of the millenium. “I was so surprised to see so much talent,” he says. “There weren’t just one or two good artists like in 2007, but dozens and dozens.”

But once again, the rapper was faced with a dilemma: “Either I do what everyone else is doing, but better… or I do something no one has done yet,” he says. Considering his rich musical and human baggage, Imposs didn’t have to dig very deep to bring something new to the table. All he had to do was write about his prolific career over the last 25 years, during which he represented and defended the scene he holds so dear. Like a bridge between two eras.

But the project ended up taking four years to come to fruition. “I wrote and recorded more than 100 tracks,” says Imposs. “It became the biggest jigsaw puzzle of my life.”

By his side since 2017, the Joy Ride Records team helped him sort through all these songs, just as they did with many of his longtime friends and peers such as Blaz, Dramatik, and his sister Jenny Salgado. “Everyone had their own opinion. I had to take some and leave some. Then I withdrew and meditated on all of that,” says the rapper. “I chose to get back to my roots and show my evolution, my elevation. There’s a lot of people, where I’m from, who don’t see any possibility for growth, or emancipation. I wanted to show them that it is possible to do it without losing one’s integrity.”

In order to perfectly synchronize form and content, Imposs collaborated with about two dozen talented producers, including Major, Banx & Ranx, Ruffsound, Odious Love, Farfadet, and Alain Legagneur – all of whom built a rich and vibrant backbone, with roots in New York’s boom-bap (“Daisy”) as much as in the most recent iterations of trap (“Gaillance”).

The result is an album that feels like the 40-year-old rapper is taking stock. “I’d say it’s more like a retrospection,” he says, dropping a portmanteau of his own that combines “retrospective” and “introspection.” It’s true that Élévaziiion (société distincte) isn’t simply a résumé of his accomplishments; it’s also bears sincere testimony of his emotion. “I didn’t want this to be only about my ego,” says Imposs. “I wanted to show my vulnerable side. I wanted to admit that I could’ve done better, sometimes. I wanted to admit I was wrong, sometimes.”

And through a few more “protest” tracks such as “Jaco” and “J’ai essayé,”, Imposs expressed his desire to be part of the social dialogue. The “distinct society” in the album title refers as much to Québec as the sole bastion of the Francophonie in North America, as it does to his Montréal neighbourhood of Saint-Michel as the incarnation of the marginalized position of the ghetto.

“I come from a completely distinct environment that people barely know,” he says. “As a marginalized person, it’s my right, even my duty, to speak up. But I do it my way, in a unifying manner. I’m speaking to the whole world, not just to the people of my neighbourhood.”