October 2004. While putting the finishing touches to a collection of poems, Ivan Bielinski (who later became Ivy) discovered an art form that would change the course of his life: poetry slam. First imagined by American poet Marc Kelly Smith 26 years ago, this discipline is, at its very core, an oratory joust where poets go head to head. Firm defenders of freedom of speech, the creators of slam poetry still felt they needed to lay down some basic rules: no accessories or décor, keep the slams short (around three minutes), be a capella, punchy, carefully planned with no room for improvisation.

Thrilled by the electrifying atmosphere of those gatherings, he fully grasped the power of poetry slam. “It was quite a shock; before, I wrote poetry on on hand and folk music on the other. With poetry slam, I realized that it was really just poetry that adjusted itself ever so slightly to allow for a live contact between poets and an audience. And then I heard Grand Corps Malade. It was like poetry and singing converged and I really liked what I heard. The goal of slam was not the same as that of poetry, which is formally more classic. It means you have to move people in a more direct way. It’s the art of placing the audience at the very center of poetry and of its emotions. It really turned me on,” says the artist, visibly emotional about said art form.

All roads lead to slam
After a little known first folk-jazz solo album in 1999, he revived Ivy et Reggie, his folk-trash project in 2002, and soon thereafter decided to change course again. Thus was born Slamérica, a densely packed album, in 2008. The album came with a book. Launched earlier this year, Hors des sentiers battus is another example of how hard-hitting Ivy can be. This latest album was, again, co-produced by Philippe Brault (Random Recipe, Pierre Lapointe) and it is a more rounded out and musically varied effort whose lyrics are at once more personal and more universal. “After the last tour, I had enough material to record a new album, but I did not want to do Slamérica all over again. Being my own worst critic, I decided to let time do its thing. Right from the get go, however, I knew I wanted to involve a string quartet. I was convinced it would be cool! Musically, I wanted to explore a lot more than on Slamérica. Also, in a much more down to earth perspective, I had more financial resources for the creation of Hors des sentiers battus. I had the means to hire real musicians and that, for example, means that there are a lot of songs with live drums, something I could not afford before; everything had to be programmed. As time went by, I felt a need to be better understood, and this album is the result of that desire,” says the voluble poet.


A still-nascent scene
Where a few journalists and a handful of cognoscenti have hopped on the slam wagon lately, this art form still face a major hurdle, especially in Québec: bookings. The founder of Slamontréal and the Ligue québécoise de slam explains why: “There is no network for this type of show yet, so it’s still hard to convince people to get on board, which means we have to do things ourselves. We hang on. We need to find creative ways to convince people to come to our poetry slam events. It’s quite a lot of work, but it’s very rewarding because people are always impressed by the result,” says the man who is a fan of Jacques Brel and Richard Desjardins as much as he is of Corbeau and Walt Whitman.

Yet, despite all the hurdles in its path, slam has also helped open doors for Ivy, notably that of primary and secondary schools. Indeed, Ivy has, for a little while now, been initiating students to the creation of poetry. He strongly believes that slam, as a niche art form, will continue to grow and attract the attention of many a poetry lover. “I’m still hopeful that its market will grow. It’s doing well in France, but it’s hard nonetheless, to earn a living selling albums and books. Thank God for touring! But it’s hard, no doubt. Bookers are speechless. They don’t know what to do with slammers. Nowadays, you need to be labeled and fit in a clearly defined niche. Industry-types still have a hard time understanding exactly who I am and what category I belong to. To this day, slammers are still weirdos,” he says, a little agitated.
Forging links here and abroad
While preparing something big for February – something he’s keeping under tight wrap –, he still tours, whether venues or schools, in Québec and elsewhere. Next stop: Nantes. “Slam is huge there. It’s not perceived as coming from outer space. My latest album was quite successful. Enough that it’s worth going to figure if I can develop my career more over there. I did not want to take Slamérica to France because it was too Québec-centric. I was afraid they wouldn’t get into it because of that. Now, I want to see the people’s reaction. You see, I love to unite poets, forge links, and encourage them to keep going. And to write, of course. Music is my love, but words are my whole life.”

It seems fitting that Matt Mays loves such existentialist road movies as Easy Rider and Vanishing Point. You see, the East Coast rocker has rather lived out his own road movie-like journey of self-discovery in recent years. “I feel like I have lived a thousand lifetimes since I put out [2008 album] Terminal Romance,” he says backstage at a Toronto gig. “I was engaged to an American girl and had a life with her in New York City and San Francisco, and then we broke up. There have been some real great times, some hard times. I’ve seen a lot more places, and I feel like I have much more insight.”

Travel played a crucial role in Mays’ personal and musical explorations. Ports of call included Mexico, California, Hawaii, Costa Rica and Indonesia. In between spells of searching for the perfect wave, this avid surfer took out his ukelele and worked on sketches for the songs appearing on his latest, and fifth, album, Coyote.

Mays views Coyote as “something of a soundtrack for my own travels and experiences. I wanted to share some of the insight I’ve gathered on my way. I really wanted the songs to be me. Travelling to developing countries is eye-opening. I feel it changed how I look at things. I try to capture that in the tunes and soundscapes.”

Coyote certainly does just that. The guitar-heavy, heartland rock ‘n’ roll sound that has earned Mays a large Canadian audience, multiple East Coast Music Awards, and several Juno nominations over the past decade is again in evidence, as in “Take It On Faith” and “Indio.” Elsewhere, Mays decided to mix things up. “I wanted an interesting record, so the songs aren’t all alike. There are minute-long segues and mood pieces in there. I want people to hear it as an album, a whole experience, as opposed to having the two favourite songs in their iPod. I feel in this day and age you should try to spark interest so people want to hear the whole thing.”

A four-year gap between albums tests the loyalty of any artist’s audience, but Mays refused to rush. “Even if it was 10 years, I was going to wait till it was ready. I wasn’t sure what the reception would be, but it feels like I’m just picking up where I left off. I believe they are a tried, tested and true audience. They haven’t gone anywhere yet, so I don’t think they will. The guys and I worked hard, touring a lot for an awful long time. So we locked down that loyalty, that connection with our fan base.”

He’s relishing his return to the road, armed with an arsenal of guitars. Presenting some of the Coyote material live is a challenge, he says. “The album wasn’t about going into the studio and jamming with the band. A few songs were like that, but others were more pieced together, so getting those ready for live is a little trickier.”

Five different studios are credited on Coyote, and Mays says, “I used even more. Whenever the mood struck and wherever I was at the time, I’d do a session or a mix, in little basement studios. On some tracks, I played most of the instruments, except for drums, like ‘Drop The Bombs,’ which is just me and [drummer] Tim Jim Baker. Some tunes were completely overdubbed, while others, like ‘Loveless,’ were live off the floor with the whole band.”

Mays laughingly describes himself as “a studio geek. Tim Jim and I share an awesome little studio. Coyote is a super-geeky record in terms of my being alone in the studio for hours and hours.”
Now pleased to be back in Dartmouth, Mays looks back on his stint in New York City fondly. “You just never knew what you’d overhear or see there,” he says. “Every day was different.”

It may be winter outside but whenever this song is playing, it sure feels like summer. A nostalgic ode to the innocence of pre-teen backyard parties, “Patio Lanterns” rocketed former Max Webster guitarist-turned-solo-artist Kim Mitchell from a staple of rock radio to the top of Top 40, and helped earn a Juno for Album of the Year for his Shakin’ Like a Human Being. Mitchell, now a popular radio host for Toronto’s Q1O7, whose most recent album is 2007’s Ain’t Life Amazing, sheds some light on this Canadian classic.

I’ve heard that you literally pulled over on the side of the road when the idea for this song hit you. True?
I was at our manager’s office and I ran into Pye [Dubois, his songwriting partner]. As we were leaving, we were sitting in my van talking and he takes out this lyric. He says it’s quite a bit different from what we usually do. The word he used is “corny.” But at the same time, he says, there might be something there. So he hands me this piece of paper and off we went, our separate ways. At the stoplight I grabbed it and read, “our house had the biggest patio…” I literally pulled over and grabbed my guitar – I had my guitar in the back because I pretty much lived in that van. I didn’t finish writing the tune but I had a melody right away and heard the chords right away. I sort of roughed it in right there, right around Queen and Sherbourne streets.

You were known then as a real rock ‘n’ roll guitarist. Why did you decide this song needed a different, softer approach?
I always just write to the song. I would never think, “I have to be flashy.” You have to just go with what the song is asking, what it wants to be, and not make it something else.

And in this case, that was sweet.
It was. But it wasn’t the first sweet thing I’d written. I’d done “All We Are” and other ballad-type songs. Truth be told, I’m a rather sensitive guy!

Did you relate to the emotion of Pye’s lyrics?
That’s what grabbed me. All of a sudden I pictured myself in my backyard at my parents’ house growing up. We did have a patio. And I remember having girls over, and the innocent flirting at those parties. Bang – it pulled me right back to that time period.

When did you realize it was hitting a whole lot of other people, too?
I actually asked to have that song taken off the record! It took me three days to sing it, and honestly, I’m still not happy with the vocal on it. I remember saying to the label, because we had too many songs, if you want to take off “Patio Lanterns” that’s O.K. My manager thought the song was great, he said I think it will hit people. So then it started to get action on MuchMusic and on the radio, within a week to two weeks. It was a beautiful spiral of events.

When you look back at your career so far, where do you think “Patio Lanterns” fits in?
It was the odd one, one of my poppiest songs. I find I live more comfortably in the “I am a Wild Party” rock zone. But I never edit myself during the songwriting process. I don’t think anyone should. If you’re a metal guy and you sit down and a country song comes out, just let it happen. Don’t shut it down. It’s a creative moment. You’re alone, nobody is really hearing it at that point, so just have fun with it.