Mallory Johnson has always known what she wanted; it was just a matter of when she would achieve it. When asked if there was a moment where she realized she wanted to become a musician, the Newfoundland native can’t place a pinpoint on her timeline. “I don’t think there was ever a moment where I didn’t know,” she says confidently. “It’s just always been a sure thing.”
Having grown up around a musical family (“it’s hard to find an aunt, uncle, or cousin who doesn’t play an instrument”), Johnson absorbed the music of Dolly Parton and Loretta Lynn in her household. By 11, she’d co-written her first song with her family band, The Cormiers,.
And her resumé only grew from there: she was the youngest person ever to perform the national anthem at Toronto’s Air Canada Centre, she toured around the world with The Cormiers, and was crowned the Canadian Country Music Association (CCMA) Spotlight Performance winner in 2017.
As with many other country artists and songwriters, Johnson knew what her goal was: to move to Nashville and work alongside the genre’s biggest names. After a brief move to Toronto, Johnson relocated to the U.S. “Nashville is a bigger pond,” she says, comparing her new base to her Canadian East Coast home. “The writers are there, the publishing houses are there, the labels are there. It’s not a matter of if the right person hears you, it’s more a matter of when.”
And the opportunities did come. She’s opened shows for Rascal Flatts, Blake Shelton, Carolyn Dawn Johnson. Last year, she released her debut, eponymous EP, which was packed with rollicking guitar solos, heartfelt storytelling, and catchy melodies – all supporting Johnson’s voice, a controlled, fierce, and empathetic instrument at the heart of each track.
With more new music on its way this fall, Johnson has proven that the right people she alluded to have heard her music in Nashville. Now, the rest of the world can, too.
Alex Cuba: Chasing the Sublime
Story by Kerry Doole | Tuesday October 8th, 2019
The songs on Alex Cuba’s new album, the aptly-titled Sublime, were created in both the warmth of Mexico and the chill of northern B.C., where he lives. On a recent promotional trip to Toronto, the JUNO, Latin Grammy, and SOCAN Award-winning singer, songwriter, and multi-instrumentalist explains that “the inspiration for this album began on one of my writing trips down to Mexico.
“I’ve been finding good audiences down there, and I also have a publishing contract with Universal,” says Cuba. “The A&R for Universal Music Publishing Mexico do a great job in putting me with some amazing talent. I started writing songs there, and finding incredible inspiration. A few of the songs from that trip, about 18 months ago, ended up on the album.”
Further writing took place at Cuba’s home in Smithers, B.C. “There, I would go into my garage/studio, until 3:00 a.m., in the cold,” he says. “The studio has a gas furnace, but it’s sometimes too noisy, so I put on a small electric heater. It is still very cold, though!
“I do love that moment of creation, with just myself and the guitar. I was a musician for a long time before I became a singer and songwriter, and Thank God I’m fortunate enough when I write a song to immediately hear the arrangement. Then I go right to the studio and record it. I call that the moment of truth. That is something I pay a lot of attention to, so the music doesn’t come out over-produced or over-arranged.”
The resulting material on Sublime is warm and personal, a mood Cuba was determined to capture. “I knew from early on, when I started to craft my demos, that this album had something different in it. I wanted it to be more intimate, naked, and more vulnerable,” he says.
“I do love that moment of creation, with just myself and the guitar.”
To achieve that, Cuba decided to both self-produce (alongside acclaimed engineer/mixer John “Beetle” Bailey) and play every instrument on the record. “I had the way I wanted it to sound so clear, I felt it would be best this way,” he explains. “You can have amazing musicians, but in communicating what you want, sometimes things get lost. Some instruments I recorded [myself playing] for the first time in my life, like congas, but John made it so comfortable for me.”
The music on Sublime is fully DIY, but the album does have a strong collaborative component. Four of the songs are co-writes, and Cuba recruited some notable Latin artists as guest vocalists on six tracks, including emerging star Silvana Estrada, Pablo Milanés (a founder of the Nueva Trova sound), and Cuban legend Omara Portuondo, of Buena Vista Socal Club fame.
Lessons Learned: Three Songwriting Tips
* “I think it’s important, when you’re writing with other people, to be prepared to see things from their point of view. Be very open to what they have to say, and embrace the vibe of the moment.” * “Don’t be afraid to create something unique with the chord progressions to your songs, because that will make it sound different. I always feel proud if I’ve written a song with cool chord changes happening. A lot of music we hear today has all the same chords. No need for that!” * “I always try to store melodies in my phone. If I get to a songwriting session, and the co-writer and I haven’t come up with anything new in the first half-hour, then I bring them out. Sometimes we find chemistry with another person quicker than others, and doing that sparks the chemistry, so go in armed!”
“I’m so proud to have sung with one of my heroes,” says Cuba of Portuondo. “She’s 89, and almost had more energy than me in the studio!”
Sublime is Cuba’s seventh solo album, and he’s proud of the fact he’s never made the same album twice. Earlier records have drawn upon rock, funk, pop, and Latin styles, making the Cuban-raised, Canadian-based artist impossible to pin down stylistically. “It took a lot of courage to get to this point,” he says of the new release. “I’m coming out with a somewhat quiet and very melodic album. That may not fit this climate of music, but it’s exactly what I wanted to do, and perhaps it is something that sets me apart.
“I want people to feel the honesty in what I do, and to know I do music because I love it, not from any desire to be rich and famous… I’ve never seen myself as an urban Latin music artist. For me, it’s about staying loyal and truthful to who you are.”
He’s pleased, however, to see that sound break big internationally, especially in the wake of the global smash-hit juggernaut of “Despacito.” “I never thought I’d listen to Latin music while having coffee at Tim Hortons in Canada,” Cuba laughs. Then adds, more seriously, “The game has changed, and this is our moment!”
Concert Music Composer Jared Miller
Story by Perry Stern | Friday October 4th, 2019
After a quick perusal of the compositions Jared Miller lists on his website, it wouldn’t be a stretch to presume that “no” might not be a part of his vocabulary.
Jared Miller, left, having fun with the orchestra.
With 43 works listed, starting with solo piano works in 2006, there aren’t many kinds of commissions, long or short, full orchestra or small ensemble, that the 31-year-old (now living New York) hasn’t refused. Fresh off a trip to Spain, where he led the National Youth Orchestra’s performance of his SOCAN Foundation/NYO-commissioned piece, Under Sea, Above Sky, the globe-trotting Miller is on the phone from Nashville. There, two days hence, he’ll witness the U.S. première of Ricochet – Reverb – Repeat with The Nashville Symphony. (That piece was commissioned by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada, for the Victoria Symphony.)
Born in Los Angeles, Miller’s family moved to Burnaby, B.C., when he was one year old. He stayed in the province for the next 20 years, and did his undergraduate work at the University of British Columbia. “Then, much to my surprise and delight,” he recalls, “I got into Julliard for the Master’s program. So, I moved to New York nine years ago to do my master’s there, and I also got into their Doctor of Musical Arts program. I continued there for another five years, and have been freelancing ever since.” From 2014 to 2017, when he earned his doctorate, he was Composer-in-Residence for the Victoria Symphony, commuting back and forth between New York and B.C.
It’s not that Miller’s goal was simply to be productive; the consistent quality of the work puts lie to that notion. In 2012 he won both the ASCAP Morton Gould Award and the Juilliard Orchestra Competition (for 2011/2012), and he has three SOCAN Foundation Awards for Young Composers (2011, 2015, and 2019).
How does he explain his relentless creativity? “It’s part of my personality that I can’t focus on one thing for too long,” says Miller. “As a result, I sort of take on many different projects, sometimes working on some at the same time.” But it’s not just the quantity or quality of Miller’s work that’s most exciting. That element is provided by the eclectic creativity and wit of the composer.
Traffic Jam, his first commissioned work, was for the 2010 Vancouver Winter Olympics. One might think that a newbie composer with his first big paying gig would write something serious, monumental, and somehow heroic in nature for such an epic athletic event. Instead, “I wrote a satirical piece about the traffic and construction problem that Vancouver was having as result of the Games,” says Miller. Since then Traffic Jam has been performed by symphonies all over the world.
In 2017, commissioned by the Toronto Symphony Orchestra (with an assist from the Victoria Symphony), he wrote Buzzer Beater, an aural ode to the Toronto Raptors that has the musicians mimicking the horns and whistles of an intense basketball game.
Also in 2017, Miller was hired by the Detroit Symphony Orchestra to write a piece, which he called Lustre. “[I was] given carte blanche to write whatever I wanted to,” he says. “For that particular piece, I did a bit of research on the rich musical history of Detroit.” Focusing on the precursors of modern EDM, Miller delved into the sounds of the early House and Techno dance music, which were invented in Detroit. “I tried to re-imagine and re-create the different techno sounds you’d hear in the techno track, but in an orchestral context,” he says.
Over the next several months Miller will be making appearances across Canada (Oct. 27 in Hamilton, Dec. 10 in Montréal, Jan. 29 in Winnipeg), and you can be sure he’ll be conjuring up more than one new project while on the road. “If not working on several pieces at a time I’m always thinking about several pieces at a time,” the prolific composer confesses. “I’ve noticed that that’s how I work best.”