Reeny Smith says the song that she’s most proud of writing is “Dream,” a gorgeous piano ballad she released in 2014 that encourages listeners to “dream big, don’t dream small.” “It’s the song I use to motivate myself every day,” the Nova Scotia native admits all these years later. It also is, in some ways, a song that has helped her get over the obstacle of feeling like she wasn’t a strong enough songwriter.
In Smith’s online biography, there’s a quote of hers that says, “Songwriting was never something I thought I was good at.” For a while, the R&B artist only saw herself as a singer. “The biggest hurdle I had to overcome was my own insecurities and expectations,” she explains, looking back on that mindset now. But validation came when she saw that her music – especially an early cut like “Dream” – not only served as an inspiration to herself, but also to others. “I became more confident in my writing after seeing how my music helped people.”
In fact, her songwriting helped land her a deal with CYMBA Music Publishing. Award recognition also helps, and in recent years, Smith has picked up quite a few trophies, from the 2018 African Nova Scotian Music Award for Artist of the Year to being crowned The Coast’s “Best of Halifax” Best R&B Gold winner last year. This year, she also earned two East Coast Music Award nominations. All of that attention stems from the release of her 2018 debut full-length, WWIII: Strength Courage Love, a collection of soulful tunes that incorporate Gospel and dance elements, and gracefully explore the highs and lows of love.
It’s clear that Atlantic Canada is enamoured with Smith, and that feeling is mutual. “I’ve never felt pressure to move,” Smith reveals, acknowledging that Canada’s major music scenes are more concentrated in cities like Toronto or Montréal, but displaying no urge to pack up and leave her home. “I love where I live, and I love that I can be an example to show some of the talent that we have here on the East Coast.”
Photo by Renaud Philippe
Nicolas Gémus: In His Prime
Story by Élise Jetté | July 16, 2019
How do you know when your childhood is over? Is it when you start to sing like an adult? Is it when you start to bite into life with a grown-up outlook and vocabulary? Maybe we should ask Nicolas Gémus, who, standing on his 22 years of existence, plays music as if he’s already had a few lifetimes of experience. He’s in his prime, but he cultivates that prime like a flower – one that’s already very tall.
“I was 15 when I wrote the first song on the album,” says Gémus about Hiboux, his debut LP, released in June by La Tribu. “Then, in 2016, while I was at the École de la chanson (in Granby, Québec), I found my writing style.” Only when it became necessary to sort through all that, and cherry-pick the best drafts, did he enlist the help of producer Stéphane Rancourt.
For awhile already, he’s moved on, in thought and songwriting, from the buoyancy of youth. That casual carelessness has slowly drifted toward a much more demanding awareness of reality. “At the Petite-Vallée Camp en chanson, I wrote “Girouette,” a rather lighthearted song, but I felt this huge emotional charge,” he remembers. “I went through pretty rough times in my personal life. That made me want to be truly authentic in what I offer. Going to the logical conclusion of a song allowed me to make sense of my life and start anew.”
École nationale de la chanson’s Mario Chénard and Frédéric Baron helped Nicolas hone is writing skills. “Mario explained that I should write choruses that evolve, in the sense that they’re the same, except for a few words that are different [each time]. That led to me writing ‘Bunker de tes bras’ [which won the Chanson coup de cœur SOCAN Award at the 2017 Granby Festival],” Gémus explains. “The school really focused on helping us find our artistic personas.”
A guiding principle, a direction, continuity; those are important concerns for a songwriter, but, as Gémus says, “I was lucky. Tire le coyote and Jonathan Harnois happened to become my mentors.”
Tire le coyote was the guest of honour at the tail end of his year at l’École de la chanson, and Gémus got to perform for him. “We talked about my song ‘Derrière le bruit.’ When I released ‘Bunker de tes bras,’ he introduced me to [record label] La Tribu. He then offered to become my writing coach,” says the young man.
Jonathan Harnois is a novelist, first, but he’s also worked with the singer-songwriter Dumas, among others. Harnois also got involved with Gémus to “unblock” certain lyrics that were problematic. “I was lucky to have access to this creative bubble,” says Gémus. “Benoit [Tire le coyote] is very constructive without being stern, while Jonathan has a sensibility that’s very complementary to mine.”
Gémus is banking on his authenticity to attract the attention of the public, in a market that he believes is over-saturated. “I need to project something that is true to who I am,” he says. “I am the album. I gave it all I had.”
Even though the Iles-de-la-Madeleine native is only in his early twenties, he wanted to avoid being a victim, artistically speaking, of his own immaturity. “People say I tackle themes that are atypical for someone my age,” he says, laughing.
And he did indeed do everything he could to leave behind the juvenile nature of his early drafts, and gravitate towards more universal themes. “It took me a while before I got to the point where it wasn’t just about writing songs, but also finding out what I wanted to say,” says Gémus. “Then my songs became meaningful.”
What Critics Are Saying
* “The quality heard throughout the 10 songs on Hiboux point to the fact that Gémus will likely be in our musical landscape for a long time.” – ICI Musique * “A surprisingly cohesive whole, with roots in the melodic folk of the ’70s, and often tinged with an orchestral colour… enriched by an introspective poetry that’s naturally elegant, and incredibly refined.” – La Voix de l’Est
Since then, his songs became more like impulses. “A song will happen spontaneously through a chorus or a verse, and then I’ll take a step back and find that song’s heart and soul,” he says. “And then begins the tortuous process of finishing that song,” he adds, giggling. “‘L’amour et la peur’ came out in three hours; but most of the time, I need three hours to write a single sentence.”
However, he does like being surprised by whatever comes to emerge when he’s resting. “It’s a bit early for me to know what I’d like to become, but I’m a fan of 70s folk music,” says Gémus. “I also like razor-sharp guitar playing, and lyrics like those of Daniel Bélanger and Richard Desjardins. Now that my album is out, things are quiet for me. I’ll play as an opener and tour a bit, but I’m in post-storm mode.”
Thoroughness and integrity are the foundations of a long career, according to the singer-songwriter, and he believes a lifelong career “is something that’s still possible,” he says. “Each album will be its own challenge. People tell me that the second one is the hardest, but I believe that as far as imposing some level of difficulty on myself, I’ve already done the best I can,” says the self-professed perfectionist.
Photo by courtesy/courtoisie. Left to right/De gauche à droite : Rachel Therrien, Alison Au, Ally Fiola, Tara Kannangara.
Young Brassy Jazzers
Story by Nick Krewen | July 11, 2019
They are the wind beneath unfolding Canadian jazz wings: dynamic brass players 40 and under who are extending the legacies of such veterans as Jane Bunnett, Christine and Ingrid Jensen, Guido Basso, and the late Rob McConnell. You can find them coast-to-coast-to-coast: exciting composers and players who are honing their craft and exploring new frontiers while pushing jazz boundaries.
Chilliwack-born Tara Kannangara is a promising trumpeter and singer, carving out her own niche in a geographical corridor of Western Canada that includes Vancouver saxophonist and flautist Ben Henriques; Winnipeg-born, now New Orleans-based trombonist Chris Butcher; and his fellow Heavyweights Brass Band saxophonist, and Winnipegger of origin, Paul Metcalfe. Kannangara’s recent sophomore album It’s Not Mine Anymore exhibits a diverse range of styles that cull inspiration from all worlds.
“I have a lot of influences, and types of music that I love, and thankfully I’ve developed a pretty large palate through all the people I’ve played with, and my mentors,” says Kannangara, who writes primarily on piano. “So, I end up writing a melding of all those genres that sounds pretty multi-dimensional. My only mandate is to write music I’d like to listen to.”
Moving East, Toronto enjoys a vigorous jazz movement. Globe-trotting trumpeter Mike Field, and saxophonists Alison Young and the JUNO Award-winning Allison Au lead a pack that can be found playing jazz at such specialty venues as The Rex Hotel and The Jazz Bistro.
“It’s a very healthy scene,” says Au, originally inspired to learn her instrument by The Simpsons’ Lisa Simpson. “People aren’t making the money the way they are in other fields, but it’s very active, with a lot of talent. It’s relatively easy to get a gig, though often it’s pass-the-hat. Sometimes there’s a guarantee, but you’re probably not walking out with a lot of cash in your pocket.”
Au, whose quartet will be making its Monterey Jazz Festival debut this year, cites the piano as her compositional instrument. “When I get into a groove, it’s usually at the piano, and I’m just noodling around,” says Au, whose latest, Wander Wonder, is her third album as a bandleader. “I’m not the best player, but I did study classical for 12 years as a kid. I noodle around until I find something intriguing, often a vamp. Sometimes, it’s a melodic idea. and I try to figure out harmonically where that may lead. I just follow my ear.”
Once the basic concept is down, Au’s imagination naturally expands the instrumentation. “I do hear my band members playing things – which is a driving force for me, more than the sound of the saxophone,” she says. “I hear the band instrumentation I use – bass, drums and piano – very clearly.”
“Part of the composition is choosing your musicians.” – Rachel Therrien
While jazz is a much-loved idiom that constantly challenges the disciplines of those who play it, its financial sustainability as a sole occupation can be arduous. Many players teach, and they often play in several projects at once, and perform other kinds of music on the side. For example, Montréal trumpeter Rachel Therrien admits that although jazz is her sole focus as a composer, it’s not her exclusive bread-and-butter.
“I have a lot of side-man gigs, which aren’t all in jazz,” says Therrien, who recorded 2016’s Pensamiento in Colombia. “I play a lot of West African music, Cuban music, and Moroccan stuff. But I’ve always wanted to play those cultural styles, because it influences a lot of my writing.”
Part of a community that includes saxophonists Claire Devlin and Marie-Josée Frigon, Therrien says that although her local scene is healthy – Montréal has always been a “jazz city,” and the 40-year-old Montréal International Jazz Festival has only helped that (as have summer jazz fests in most major cities across Canada) – jazz-exclusive venues are still hard to come by. “There are maybe four official clubs, but you can’t rely on them to pay your rent,” she notes.
Therrien, who recently recorded her fifth, an-as-yet-untitled album in Paris, says her compositional technique starts in her mind. “I compose with pen and paper first, and then I start to write harmonies,” she says. “Most of them start on paper as well.”
Where Therrien, a frequent performer in New York and France, differs from many is that she often thinks of specific musicians while she composes. “Jazz is largely improvised music, so the composition is the structure on which you improvise,” she explains. “Part of the composition is choosing your musicians, so that their way of playing suits your taste.”
In Halifax, saxophonist Ally Fiola is a bit of an anomaly: she’s a jazz composer intent on breaking into film scoring, and says one discipline often affects the other. “Whenever I compose on the jazz side of things, I have a bit more personal expression,” says Fiola, who released her debut album Dreaming Away in 2018. “My jazz compositions definitely lean toward more melodic and harmonic ideas. Whereas when I compose for film, it’s to serve the story and the filmmaker’s vision. The cool thing about it is that I get to explore more diversity. I just started film composing about three years ago, and it’s definitely expanded my palate.”
In a city that includes trumpeter Patrick Boyle and saxophonist Kenji Omae, Fiola – who intends to delve into cohesive New Orleans-style jazz “with a modern twist” for her next album – is quite comfortable composing on her principal instrument. “Because I’m a sax player, I tend to find melody first, so often I’ll be doodling on my saxophone and come up with melodies,” she says. “Then I’ll write out a lead sheet with an E-flat, B-flat, C and bass clef, for my five-piece band.
“I also find melodies on the piano because that’s how I primarily compose for film scoring. From there, I’ll figure out a harmonic progression to go with it, which is why I think sometimes my compositions have progressions that are different from standards.”
As with most jazz practitioners, education is paramount to Fiola. She’ll be attending Kingston University in London, England, to pursue a Master’s degree in music for composition in film and television. “I enjoy music so much – and with jazz and film scoring, I hope to sustain myself financially,” says Fiola.
The biggest survival lesson these versatile Canadian jazz ambassadors learn daily is based on the essence of jazz itself: improvise.
Given the limitations of space and resources, it wasn’t possible to mention all of the young, SOCAN-member, brass-based jazz composers working in the field. This is a small sample of them.