There are too few female producers in this industry. Sure, a few names readily come to mind when one thinks of “songwritresses” who took control of their creative projects, such as Emilie-Claire Barlow and her collaborator Steve Webster, who were nominated at the 2016 JUNOS for Record Producers of the Year. Or Grimes, whose Art Angels was one of 2015’s most critically-acclaimed albums.

Enter a newcomer in the select club of female singer-songwriters, beat-makers and producers, but, strangely, she has a man’s name. RYAN Playground, née Genèvieve Ryan-Martel, launched her first EP Elle in February on then Secret Songs imprint, which is run by another Canadian electro beat-maker, Ryan Hemsworth. This first effort highlights Playground’s impressionist writing, which turns on finely crafted rhythms and atmospheres, rather than your typical A-B-A-B-C-A pop song structure.

“I don’t limit myself to any given structure.”

“I don’t limit myself to any given structure,” says the Montréal-based artist. “When I finish one part of a song, I build the next according to how I feel at that moment. I really don’t mind if, in the end, it sounds like several songs rolled into one. Weird structures are inspiring to me, and I hope they’ll inspire those who are seeking something new.”

Even though Elle is largely self-produced and the result of sterling work, Playground did, however, also tap Hemsworth for the production of “Folders,” the first single. It’s a song that has a very special significance for the artist. “Those lyrics mean a lot to me, and I really wanted to work with him, so it was the perfect time to do so,” says Playground. “I’ve always been a fan of Secret Songs, so releasing Elle on that label was the only logical thing to do.”

Judging by her incredibly busy schedule in the coming months, RYAN Playground is about to become a household name in the Canadian electronic music scene. “I’m working on a new project that should come out in late summer, early fall and include many collaborations,” she says. “And people all across the country will be able to catch me live in May!”

When John MacPhee was 10, his older brother taught him to play Nirvana’s 1991 hit “Smells Like Teen Spirit” on the electric guitar. Neither had any idea that more than two decades later, the younger MacPhee would be fronting the pop-rock band Paper Lions, backed by his brother Rob on bass, their childhood neighbour Colin Buchanan on guitar, and high school pal David Cyrus MacDonald on drums.

“We’ve been jamming with the same four guys for quite a long time,” says McPhee, now 33. “We’re really like family – we’ve shared so many experiences, good and bad, together. There’s a foundation there that’s far more unshakable than friendship.”

MacPhee credits that foundation for supporting their evolution since they first began performing together 12 years ago in their native Prince Edward Island, where Paper Lions is still based.

“I feel we’ve upped our game on every level.” – John MacPhee of Paper Lions

That familiarity that has also allowed the band, who have opened for CAKE, Tokyo Police Club and Hollerado, among others, to push their own musical boundaries –  most recently with their third full-length album, Full Colour, which includes the catchy, synth-heavy single “Believer.”

“I feel we’ve upped our game on every level,” says MacPhee of the album, due out this spring. “From the songwriting, lyrics, melody, production… the whole thing. We feel really proud of it.”

To create the album, the band spent hours in a Charlottetown studio that they were able to rent regularly for a few days every week. “So songwriting and recording became more like a nine-to-five for us,” he says. “It was a different process than with past albums, but really rewarding.”

MacPhee says that having regular, uninterrupted time to work together on trying out new sounds, coupled with band member Colin Buchanan’s in-house engineering and production skills, allowed the band more room to experiment. “I think we had 25 demos coming into the recording,” he laughs. “Because of that, the sound and mood is more diverse than on previous records.”

Already boasting a roster of quirky videos, the foursome has since finessed a re-imagined live show, which includes a catwalk and projections to complement the new album’s energy. “It’s so much fun,” says MacPhee. “We’ll look back, both at this record and this new live show, as a turning point in our careers.”

If a recent performance at Toronto’s Mod Club is any indication of things to come, MacPhee is right. He recalls walking out onto the catwalk before a packed house and hearing the audience singing along with him. When he hit a bridge in the song, MacPhee says he took a backseat and let the audience take over. “It was the first time that’s ever happened,” he laughs. “I had no control at that moment. It was a real highlight for me, as a performer and as a songwriter, to see a song being embraced that way.”

But no matter what the future brings, MacPhee says that the band plans to stay rooted in its home province. “It’s just a matter of going for a long drive, which isn’t something we shy away from. And the advantages of being here outweigh the cons,” he says, describing his recent purchase of a 2,600 square foot Gothic Revival Catholic manse for $80,000. “You just can’t do that in the city.”

Ultimately, MacPhee says it’s also about staying close to the friends, fans and family members who keep them going on a daily basis.  “There’s a security that comes with that,” he says. “And it’s probably what has allowed us to do this for so long.”

Track Record

  • Paper Lions’ video for “Travelling” has been viewed 7.65 million times on YouTube.
  • In its earlier incarnation as Chucky Danger, the band won the 2006 East Coast Music Award for Pop Recording of the Year for their EP 6-pack.
  • In late 2015, when they spotted talented 12-year-old busker Braydon Gautreau in their native Charlottetown, they invited him to sing “Travelling” onstage with them at their show that week.

Two Brothers, a Major, and a Minor (2003), 6-pack (EP, 2004), Colour (2006), Chucky Danger (2007), Trophies (2010), At Long Creek (2012), My Friends (2013), Full Colour (2016)

Laurence Nerbonne

Photo: Kelly Jacob

A year ago, Hôtel Morphée – singer Laurence Nerbonne’s band –  announced that they were breaking up. It was a sudden end that nobody saw coming. “I was just as surprised as you were by that announcement,” says Nerbonne. “We made different life and career choices, and our goals were no longer aligned. But no matter what, Hôtel Morphée was the best of schools for me.”

But even though the transition was sudden, it was also smooth. “Everyone has their job in a band,” says Nerbonne. “Now, it feels like there’s no longer any distance between my songs and myself, between the audience and me. It feels even more authentic now. I am what I am, and it’s something I hadn’t had a chance to do before.”

Just as Marie-Ève Roy, Fanny Bloom and even Beyoncé (!) before her, Laurence Nerbonne is taking the solo leap of faith. She launched her first eponymous album on March 18, 2016. On “Montréal XO,” the album’s first single, she joyfully announces her comeback (loosely translated):

Je reviens, je reviens chez moi (I’m back, I’m back home)
Je reviens, cette fois fais-moi entrer (I’m back, this time let me in)
Je reviens, cette fois je vais rester (I’m back, this time I’m stayin’)
I’m back, the energy will flow

It’s a comeback, but it looks more like an arrival, and Nerbonne even calls it a “birth.” “There’s something dizzying about it, but I can also say I’ve never been more ready,” she says. “I totally assume everything.”

Who’s Afraid of Pop Music?

XO is a 10-song album produced in collaboration with Philippe Brault. Both sweet and sour moods are wrapped sonically elaborate music reminiscent of Scandinavian pop. The set of songs is like a breath of fresh, springtime air. A classically-trained violinist, Norbonne says music has moved her deeply since her youngest age. Nowadays, she feels inspired by the current crop of pop producers like Diplo, Skrillex, The Weeknd and Christine & The Queens. She devours Laurence Nerbonneeverything currently popular in that realm. “Lately, I’ve noticed that we’re looking for a lot of things in music, and that it occupies an ever-important place in our lives,” she says. “We all work alone sitting at a computer… It comes naturally that people accompany their daily lives with soundtracks that soothe and move them. People need music.”

Is music so ever-present now because it’s so readily available? In the realm of royalties, not everything is so rosy; there are many irritants for music creators. “I recently talked about it with my friend Stefie (Shock) who knew the Golden Era of record sales,” says Nerbonne. “I’m not really affected by it, since I’m not part of the generation that sold albums… I think we’re going through a transition phase with regards to streaming and the new ways to disseminate music. We can’t just sit back and complain about it. It ‘s become unavoidable.”

Nerbonne is a fan of Lykke Li and Lorde, and harbours an immense respect for the latter’s work. “This woman asserted herself and made a place for herself in the studio,” she says, “turning down arrangements to use hers instead, and she uses her voice a lot, which is something I do, too. When I can choose between a synth or my voice, I often choose to pitch-shift (enhancing the high or low frequencies of) my voice.”

A Free Woman

Laurence’s lyrics are a snapshot of the issues that concern the new generation. “Tinder Love” takes a look at the precipitous love affairs born in cyberspace, and the disillusion that they bring to human relations. Does the “XO” in the album title – typographic metaphors for a kiss and a hug – relate to the way we express love through a screen? “Yes, on the first degree, but it also means ‘totally free human being’ in Web-speak,” says Nerbonne. “It’s not a code known by most, but kids use it to express appreciation beyond sexual preference, gender and nationality. Kids nowadays are much more open and they avoid stereotypes. Maybe it’s because they’re less influenced by the Catholic church? Whatever it is, I find them very inspiring. They’re more accepting and don’t glorify barriers and boundaries.”

There’s definitely something fresh in Nerbonne’s brand of scintillating pop, like a wind of change is sweeping throughout her entire album. “I want to do empowering stuff,” she says. “On Montréal XO, I wanted to re-create that feeling you get when you’re in a club and you hear a song you love and everyone starts dancing and we’re all sharing an experience together.” Laurence wanted that euphoric feeling on all of the album’s songs. And she got it, now that she can do everything she wants uncompromisingly.

“It’s a leap of faith and I’m thrilled about it.”