De la reineThere’s a lot going on in Québec City. With so many SOCAN songwriter, composer and publisher members from the Vieille Capitale making increasingly important places for themselves in the industry, it wouldn’t be an exaggeration to talk about a Québec City music boom.
And out of that boom, many bands stem from a single venue: Le Pantoum. Located on Saint-Vallier Street, this rehearsal space-cum-studio and multi-disciplinary venue is one powerful engine on the emerging music scene of the city. Acting as an off-official showcase venue during Bourse RIDEAU 2017, Pantoum presented its own lineup of concerts where bands such as De la Reine were able to make themselves known on their own terms, for a crowd of already-acquired fans.

Comprised of SOCAN members Jean-Etienne Collin Marcoux (also a member of Beat Sexu, and one of Pantoum’s founding members), Vincent Lamontagne (X-Ray Zebras, Ghostly Kisses) and Odile Marmet-Rochefort (ex-Men I Trust), De la reine broke onto the scene in late 2016 with an alt-R&B and trip-hop-tinged EP that, as most work in the genres, is more comfortable in English than in French. Yet such is the challenge the trio set for itself.

“We’d had the opportunity to work together on side projects before, so with this band project, we wanted to try composing methods with which we weren’t familiar,” says Jean-Etienne about his band, which just celebrated its first year of existence. “All of us had more creative time ahead of us and we wanted to create something that belonged and resembled us more closely,” says singer Odile Marmet-Rochefort. “Not that the other projects didn’t interest us anymore, but we really wanted this one to be truly ours! And to do it in French, too. Because even though French lyrics were harder for me, they were also more important.”

Marmet-Rochefort’s voice rides atop resolutely jazz and R&B sounds, imbued with pop melodies. “It’s the first time I committed to writing,” says Odile, who shares writing duties with Jean-Etienne in De la Reine.
The band will tour throughout the spring alongside their Pantoum buddies Harfang, and want to ramp up their concerts even more (“with a brass section”, if Marmet-Rochefort has her way), hiring more musicians (“we’d love to have Frank Lafontaine on keys!”) and, ultimately, launch a full-length LP within 18 months.

Blues (noun): Melancholic music of black American folk origin, typically in a 12-bar sequence. It developed in the rural southern U.S. toward the end of the 19th Century, finding a wider audience in the 1940s as blacks migrated to the cities. This urban blues gave rise to rhythm & blues and rock ‘n’ roll.

Blues is an omnipresent genre, but it’s rarely in the spotlight. While it’s always acknowledged this “melancholic music” birthed rock ‘n’ roll, modern mainstream rock listeners tend to shun traditional blues. That’s fine with Steve Strongman. As a purveyor and champion of a genre that boasts a legendary line of guitar-slingers – like Robert Johnson, Muddy Waters, and Otis Rush – the blues course through Strongman’s veins and flow from his fingers every time he picks up his Gibson electric guitar. The singer-songwriter believes it’s his role to help keep the genre alive, and to educate the masses of what blues really means in the 21st Century.

“We have to continue to push the parameters of what people think blues means, because everything sounds like the blues,” says Strongman, a 2013 JUNO Award winner in the Blues Recording of the Year category (for A Natural Fact). “Even heavy rock stuff is blues-based.”

Strongman’s earned three Maple Blues Awards, and has toured with the legendary likes of B.B. King, Johnny Winter, and Buddy Guy. While Colin James recently returned to his blues roots (Blue Highways), as did The Rolling Stones (Blue & Lonesome), Strongman has always stayed true to his roots – as with his next (and sixth) album, No Time Like Now, which dropped March 10, 2017. The songwriter spoke with us in January 2017 at the Gibson Guitar Showroom in Toronto’s Liberty Village the day the album’s first single, “No Time Like Now,” was released.

“I was a huge Led Zeppelin fan, like many people my age. Then I realized where they were getting everything.”

All Strongman needed to feed his muse, inspire him, and seize the day, was a sense of urgency. He recorded the 10 songs of No Time Like Now with longtime friend, former bandmate and frequent producer Rob Szabo, mostly at Beulah Sound Studio in Hamilton, where the singer-songwriter hangs his hat these days.

“We wanted it to be a very exciting, guitar-driven record,” he says. “It’s still steeped in the blues – because anything I do is steeped in the blues – but there are a lot of other elements to this record that previously we hadn’t really focused on.”

While James and The Stones each pay homage to the genre’s legends with 100-percent-covers albums, Strongman offers nine original songs steeped in the blues, but that also rock out, and boast layers of soul. The only cover is a swampy take on Bachman-Turner Overdrive’s “You Ain’t Seen Nothing Yet” – an intriguing choice for a blues album.

“Rob and I opened for Randy [Bachman] a long time ago, and later I ended up playing with Randy’s son Tal,” says Strongman. “We’ve always kept in touch. When I was rehearsing with Tal, one time I stayed at Randy’s house in White Rock. He’s always been a huge supporter of my music and often plays me on his CBC Radio show. When Rob and I decided we were going to do a cover on this album, Randy’s songs came to mind. ‘You Ain’t Seen Nothing Yet’ just leapt out at me. We didn’t want to do that cover the way Randy did it because to me it’s a fantastic, massive hit. I tried to put my own spin on it.”

When Strongman sent an MP3 demo of the classic-rock anthem to Bachman, asking for his opinion (and his blessing), the Canadian Music Hall of Famer loved it, and even agreed to lend his guitar work to the finished track.

While musicians like Bachman, James, and The Stones discovered the blues early –  listening to, and learning licks from, the likes of Elmore James, Jimmy Reed, and Howlin’ Wolf guitarist Hubert Sumlin – Strongman’s attraction came via a more circuitous route.

“I arrived at the blues via classic-rock bands, because that was what I was into,” he explains. “I was a huge Led Zeppelin fan, like many people my age. Then I realized where they were getting everything. Growing up around Kitchener-Waterloo, having [blues club] Pop the Gator [that hosted the likes of Bobby “Blue” Bland, Albert Collins and Mel Brown] right there, you also got to see these amazing, world-class blues artists come through town, and that really resonated with me.

“I always think of myself as a guitar player first,” he adds. “Everything I do is steeped in the blues, but centered on guitar playing. I hear blues in everything, even in pop. Blues itself… people have an idea when they say the word. This record is just a continuation of what I’ve been working on.”

When it comes to crafting songs, does Strongman experience chills, like some other writers, when he knows he’s on to something good?

“That’s exactly the way it works,” he says. “I know when I hear something, and get a bit of a chill vibe, that it just feels right. You might spend eight hours one day and not get one word, and then the next day you get up and in 10 minutes you have two verses, and a chorus you love. You always try to strive for that ‘Aha!’ moment, where you say, ‘That’s it!’”

Gear Talk with Strongman

To call singer-songwriter Amelia Curran prolific qualifies as an understatement. Her new album, Watershed, released March 10, 2017, is the eighth full-length release in a recording career that dates back to her 2000 debut album, Barricade.

“I write a lot of songs,” she explains in our interview at the Toronto office of her label, Six Shooter Records. “I had almost 100 songs written since the last album. I picked through them, then ditched all of them. I felt I needed something fresh, so I spent five days at a friend’s house in Nova Scotia last May. I wrote morning, noon and night, and eight of the songs on Watershed came from that. I thought of naming the album Five Days In May, but the title was taken.”

Amelia CurranTo Curran, all those unused songs still had a purpose. “You can practice writing like you do anything else” she says. “The practice is like training for the Olympics, which is those five days.” She acknowledges that “every time I write a song I think it’s going to be a hit, but I’m a folksinger, so I don’t have hits. That’s fine,” she laughs.

She may not rack up commercial hits, but the eloquent songs she writes have earned the St. John’s, NL-based artist serious peer and critical respect. In 2010, Curran won a JUNO Award in the category of Roots and Traditional Album of the Year: Solo for Hunter Hunter. She’s won several East Coast Music Awards, including Songwriter of the Year in 2016, and also won first prize (in the Folk category) of the prestigious 15th Annual USA Songwriting Competition.

Watershed was recorded in Toronto last year, with Chris Stringer (Timber Timbre, The Wooden Sky, Jill Barber) co-producing with Curran. In the past, she’s worked with such noted producers as John Critchley and Michael Phillip Wojewoda, and she explains that she keeps switching to keep it fresh. Curran did bring over the same musicians that played on her last album, 2014’s They Promised You Mercy: guitarist Dean Drouillard, drummer Joshua Van Tassel, and bassist Devon Henderson.

“I’ve never had the same band before, and I can hear the camaraderie there,” she says. “They’ve worked so much with Chris Stringer that when we got together in a room, we knew exactly what we were going to get out of it. We were familiar with each other’s sound and habits – and grumpiness! They’re amazing players and they feel like family… It was definitely a team effort, and I wanted that so badly.”

Curran is looking forward to bringing the band for some of her touring. “They’re a great support system for me, as often I’m on the road by myself, and that can get very difficult,” she says. “What can be very unhealthy living turns into a positive experience.”

“It’s a completely different culture of songwriting in Nashville, writing towards a goal. For me writing has always been so exploratory, so I struggle with that.”

In April, Curran participates in the Writes of Spring Ontario tour, alongside fellow songsmiths Tim Baker (of Hey Rosetta!), Donovan Woods, and Hawksley Workman, and there are many more tour dates (click on “tour”) after that. Stripping down the recorded versions of her new songs is a challenge Curran terms “tricky, but really fun. You come up with completely different vibes of the song. For instance, ‘No More Quiet’ has big ‘70s horns, electric guitar, and Shakura S’Aida wailing at the end, but I’ll make it really soft now.”

Curran is continually challenging herself to extend her range as a songwriter, as shown by recent visits to the SOCAN House in Nashville. “I was there last November, and in the February before that,” she says. “I consider myself to be dipping my toe into that [Nashville] world. It’s a completely different culture of writing there, writing towards a goal. For me writing has always been so exploratory, so I struggle with that.

“The jury is still out on the relationship between me and Nashville, but what a great world it is there. Every other person you see is a songwriter, and that’s a fantastic thing.

To coincide with the release of Watershed, Curran is publishing Relics & Tunes (via Breakwater Books) on March 17th. She explains that “this is a songbook, with all the lyrics and the guitar chords from my five Six Shooter albums. I see it as a humble offering – ‘if you’d like to take these songs and give them further life, here you go.’” The book will also include an original essay by Curran.

Outside her deep commitment to the craft of writing, Curran has, in recent years, devoted plenty of energy to her newer role as an advocate for mental health. She founded the St. John’s-based organization It’s Mental, designed to provide education, service and support for those battling mental illness.

She explains that “our role as an advocacy group is to rally people. We have to say we’re tired of waiting for bureaucracy and legislation. Our role is to try to inspire and empower people, to show we can be there for our communities and to remember that our communities are there for us.”

Curran has been courageously candid about her personal battle with mental illness. “People with whom I have worked directly have always been aware of my own issues,” she says. “I’ve never kept that a secret, but my first and largest surprise was how much it meant to people when I actually said it in a very public platform. I completely underestimated how important that was.

“One of my life’s goals is to see attitudes to mental illness change in my lifetime. I want to move the pendulum as much as I can and help change that system.”