Decades before Jenson Vaughan became known as a hit maker for Madonna, Britney Spears and currently, High Valley, the Dartmouth, NS, native was in the dark about the artistry it took to write a song. So he plucked one out of the air.

“I formed a little a capella group,” says Vaughan, recalling his high-school years. “And because of my jazz background, I knew how to arrange and understand music. Before long, somebody told us that we sounded good, and we should do our own music. None of us knew any songwriters, and it never occurred to us that we could do our own music.

“So I told them I’d write a song for us. I went home that night, sat down and literally from my mind – no instrumentation – I started piecing together a voice and a chorus, lyrics and melody. I didn’t think anything of it. The next day I showed it to them, and they were all shocked. And then I thought, okay, if they can’t do that and I can, then maybe I have some inherent skill.”

Strangely, it still took some years before Vaughan, who co-wrote the Grammy-nominated and JUNO-winning “This is What It Feels Like” by Armin van Buuren and Trevor Guthrie, embraced that skill.  After he graduated from high school, he re-located to Las Vegas for a year and formed a folk-rock band with fellow songwriter Jason David, playing small cafés for a year before setting his sights on Vancouver. “My older brother lived there, and I didn’t want to go back to Nova Scotia,” Vaughan explains. “I wanted to continue my adventures and learn new things.”

“It was a grind and a gradual process, and not settling at a certain level, but just wanting to continue to improve.”

At the age of 26, Vaughan officially became a late-blooming songwriter. He set up a MySpace account and uploaded a few of his songs to see what people thought. Aside from positive feedback, Vaughan received offers from some individuals willing to place songs for him, telling him he could make money. “I was, like, ‘Oh, tell me how that works!’” Vaughan remembers.  “I started building a network of people who taught me the process. As soon as I realized I could turn that skill into the reality of a career, I dropped everything else. It was a 100 percent commitment: it just took me a while to realize that I could do it.”

He spent five years in his Surrey basement, woodshedding his craft, working on numerous projects. “I had some little dance cuts here and there before my success really took off. But at that time, any little taste of success seemed like a monumental achievement to me,” he concedes.  “I had never achieved anything – just teeny little things here and there – maybe a song that came out in Italy, and then I just built it from there.

“The one that really clicked the most was with Steve [Smith] and Anthony [Anderson] of SA Trackworks in Vancouver, a songwriting production team,” says Vaughan. “In 2009, they brought me in to do a song called “Take Your Hands” for a Japanese group called Tohoshinki. We ended up getting the cut, and it sold something like 350,000 copies. To me, that was insane. My first royalty cheque there might have been $8,000 or something like that. When I first got $70, I couldn’t believe it. I thought, if I can make $70, I can make $700, and so forth. It was a grind and a gradual process, and not settling at a certain level, but wanting to continue to improve.”

Although Vaughan was hungry for success, he stayed patient and eventually signed with Patrick Moxey at Ultra Music Publishing. “I think I held off for the right deal,” he says. “It wasn’t long after that I got a track from Benny Benassi and I wrote a tune that ended up getting placed with Madonna. And he introduced me to Armand van Buuren’s team… Those things really enabled me to leverage further, on all fronts.”

For the No. 1 U.S. dance and global hit “Girl Gone Wild,” Benassi, the Italian DJ and record producer, initially sent the track through Moxey to Vaughan. “I added lyrics and melody, sent it back, and they loved it,” Vaughan recalls. “Then two weeks later, I got a message from Patrick saying, ‘M likes the song.’ I was like, what is that? And then I thought, wait a minute… He can’t possibly mean Madonna. That’s how I found out.”

Since then, Vaughan has contributed to songs by DJ Antoine (“Bella Vita,” a Swiss chart-topper); Steve Aoki (“Delirious (Boneless)”); Era Istrefi (“BonBon”); Omi (“Hula Hoop”); Kelly Rowland (“What A Feeling”); Britney Spears (“Til It’s Gone”); and most recently, High Valley’s new “I Be U Be” single, as well as the anticipated comeback single for Taio Cruz, “Signs.” Vaughan claims that his co-writes have accumulated global sales of an estimated 10 million.

As a writer, Vaughan says he often creates on piano. “I write lyrics and melody,” he says. “I also arrange music. I just don’t typically fully produce the songs. But I do often write on piano, and sometimes on guitar. At the beginning I was writing more on guitar, even though I’m not a great guitar player. Sometimes, I’ll just hear some melody or arrangement in my head, and I’ll write that way.”

Vaughan says in a typical situation, he’ll receive instrumentation from a producer, or he’ll start the song himself. “I’ll write the melody or the lyrics to the producer’s submission,” he explains. “Or I’ll essentially get the song written, then send it to different producers, find the production I like the most, and use it to shop around.” As his stature as grown, Vaughan has been able to work directly with the artist, or the artist’s production team, to help develop the arrangement and the recording. “I’m pleasantly surprised with how things are turning out,” he admits.

Constantly on the road, collaborating at song camps around the world, Vaughan says he has no shortage of work. He’s currently writing with Drake producer Boi-1da, and also with Tiesto; plans to write and record a jazz album with Matt Dusk; runs his own JV Records out of Toronto; is working on a joint publishing venture with Patrick Moxey; and has even released his own single, “Gonna Be Yours,” in Spain.

“There’s this constant gnawing at me on the inside, that I need to create,” Vaughan admits. “And it’s not really something I need to go outwardly for: I have no shortage of inspiration from within. If I’m taking too much time away from it, I feel like I’m not living up to my potential when I’m not writing, because I feel it inside. It’s like a painter who constantly has to paint, I guess. I need to write almost every day.”

From standard bearer of the protest folk movement to charting pop-rock singer, Paul Piché is among the Québec music scene’s most legendary icons. To mark his 40th anniversary in music, the La Minerve-born singer-songwriter tells us the stories behind of 10 of his classic songs, alongside his closest collaborators from yesterday and today.

“Heureux d’un printemps” (Paul Piché, Éditions de La Minerve) – from the album À qui appartient l’beau temps ? (1977) – a SOCAN Classic

Paul Piché: “I remember perfectly the moment when I got the inspiration for this song. I was riding my car on Saint-Joseph Boulevard [in Montréal] and, when I turned onto Christophe-Colomb, the first two sentences popped up in my mind. I immediately stopped my old beater to jot them down. I was emblematic of how I felt about spring, back then: an appreciation for that season, mixed with the feeling of missing winter. I think everyone in Québec identifies with that song. It’s like you have to have truly experienced winter to understand the special nature of spring in Québec, and its liberating effect.”

Robert Léger, co-producer of the album: “That’s the song that seduced me when Paul opened for Beau Dommage in Sainte-Thérèse in 1974 or 1975. I knew it would be a hit because it had a huge potential to reach a lot of people on the right as well as on the left.”

Michel Rivard, guest musician on the album: “It’s a very unifying song that stands out among his early compositions. With this song, Paul proved that he was relevant, a talented poet and a good crafter of melodies.”

“Mon Joe” (Traditional, Arrangement by Paul Piché, Pierre Bertrand, Éditions de La Minerve) , from the album À qui appartient l’beau temps ? (1977)

Piché: “This is a Québec folk song that I discovered through a bunch of kids who were living in a commune. Someone in their entourage had just died and they were signing it very slowly and solemnly, almost as a blues song. It was quite an unusual way of doing it, because that song is normally very upbeat.”

Léger: “Paul had the idea to adapt this song and record it solo on guitar, with the help of Pierre Bertrand. Then we helped him give it a more rock feel, which wasn’t that easy, because Paul always had a foot on the brake pedal. He was quite the purist, and was wary of American music and anything commercial. Part of my role, therefore, was to get him to try new stuff. I think we went through eight cases of beer before we managed to convince him we weren’t necessarily going to hinder the workers’ cause by adding some bass to his songs!”

“Y’a pas grand-chose dans l’ciel à soir” (Paul Piché, éditions de La Minerve), from the album À qui appartient l’beau temps ? (1977)

Piché: “That’s my oldest popular song. I got my inspiration from Gérald Godin’s poem that spoke of révolutavernes and molsonnutionnaires. [poetic licence word plays that could roughly be translated as revolutaverns – taverns where the revolution is brewing – and molsolutionaries – as in revolutionaries full of Molson beer]. It reminded me of myself and all those tavern revolutionaries who think they can change the world while having a beer. I told myself that such an auto-critique would give me the licence to critique society. I remember singing that song for the first time in the student café of my Cégep. It was super-well-received from the get-go.”

Koriass, a musical guest on the 40 Printemps show: “I discovered that song when I was a teen, through a cover by the band Kermess. I was a big Québec rock fan, back then, and that song became a staple song that we sang at the Saint-Jean [Baptiste Day celebrations]. It truly is a bona fide classic of the Québec repertoire.”

“L’escalier” [Paul Piché, Éditions de La Minerve], from the album L’escalier [1980]

Piché: “That’s a very important song to me. I actually titled the album L’escalier so that people would pay attention to this song. The inspiration for this one came to me as I was walking down a staircase at the corner of Amherst and René-Lévesque [named Dorchester Street, back then]. I couldn’t quite put my finger on it, but it’s about this empty feeling I had inside from being lonely and having a hard time loving myself. As it evolved, its scope widened and it ended up being a song that basically says we can change the world if we all put our minds to it. It took a long time to get there, though; the writing stretched out over at least a year.”

Léger, co-producer of this album as well: “Paul has always been very meticulous with his songwriting. He sometimes wrote a hundred versions of a single song before he considered it final. Out of the lot, “L’escalier” was the one that gave him the most trouble. He loved a lot of bits from it, but he lost the song’s sense of direction. Then, one night, while having a beer, he said he fixed it. The song would start at the top of the staircase and end at its very bottom.”

Michel Hinton, pianist on the song and the album’s co-producer: “‘L’escalier’ was a true saga. The text was so dense that initially, the song could easily have been 20 minutes long! We didn’t quite know what to do with it in the studio. We operated in a very collegiate way, so we tried everyone’s ideas. We tried adding drums and bass, but it didn’t really work out. Not knowing what else to try, I suggested that Paul record it with only a piano and his voice. And that ended up being the version we kept.”

“Ses yeux” [Paul Piché, Pierre Huet, Michel Hinton, Éditions de La Minerve], from the album Nouvelles d’Europe [1984] – a SOCAN Classic

Paul PichéPiché: ‘This song marks the period where I allowed myself to step out of my folksinger character to explore more modern sounds. A lot of people were upset by that new direction… Even the fact that I cut my beard was almost scandalous!’

Michel Hinton, keyboardist and co-writer on the song: “We were working with sound engineer Paul Northfield, who had brought this incredible synth, and that greatly influenced the sound of this song, and of the whole album.”

Pierre Huet, co-writer of the song: “Before we went to the Morin-Heights studio for a few weeks of writing and recording, I visited Paul in La Minerve [Paul’s hometown, located 180 km northwest of Montréal]. He’d come up with a gorgeous chord progression on the guitar, and we started working with that. Back then, Paul and I were bad boys, hitting all the shadiest bars to drink and cruise the ladies. That’s quite simply where we got our inspiration for this song. It’s the story of our young, single lives.”

“Cochez oui, cochez non”  [Paul Piché, Pierre Huet, Michel Hinton, Éditions de La Minerve], from the album Nouvelles d’Europe [1984]

Rick Haworth, guitarist on the song: “I remember we did this one in Morin-Heights, in Paul Northfield’s small house adjacent to the studio. We spent two or three days there and, at some point, I came up with this small, super-cheesy, tacky guitar riff. To my surprise, though, both Pauls loved it, despite the fact that I felt I was only playing something stupid, as a joke! But when I realized they were dead serious, I was upset, and when we played it onstage and everyone knew that guitar lick in an instant, I understood that it worked, and was quite efficient.”

Piché: “People got the impression this song was about the [Québec independence] referendum, but it wasn’t, really. Pierre and I wanted to shed light on the soullessness of bureaucracy through a social commentary, not a nationalist one. But I’ve always let people read what they want into it. I didn’t argue with them when they talked to me about it.”

Huet, co-writer of the song: “Paul came to visit me when I lived on Casgrain Street. We sat in his car so he could play the demo tape with the bass riff he just recorded. We went around the block a few times and then went up to my place to write the song. It’s one of the last writing memories I have of Paul, because after that we had a little falling out. We rapidly became friends again, but we never worked together again. As I’ve said during an homage to Paul at the Francofolies, it’s a good thing we had that fight, because after Nouvelles d’Europe, he recorded Sur le chemin des incendies, which sold four times more!”

“Car je t’aime” [Paul Piché, Éditions de La Minerve], from the album Sur le chemin des incendies [1988] – a SOCAN Classic

Piché: “This song is about experiencing love, but it’s not about a specific experience of mine. What’s special, though, is that I actually experience exactly what the lyrics talk about shortly afterward. One could say it was a prophetic song.”

Haworth, guitarist on the song: “Glen Robinson was in charge of sound recording for this one. He compressed the guitar and drums to get a very warm, wide sound that I really liked. Listening to the song again recently, I realized it had a lot of elements that are now an integral part of the way I play guitar. I was quite young back then, and Paul afforded me a lot of freedom.”

“J’appelle” [Paul Piché, Robert Léger, Michel Hinton, Éditions de La Minerve, Éditions Mouche à feu], from the album Sur le chemin des incendies [1988] – a SOCAN Classic

Piché: “This one was an introspective observation, where I let the words guide me. At the time, I was hurt inside, almost constantly sad. I went up to my shack in La Minerve to hide. As I looked out, I imagined a wolf, as lonely as I was. And I had the idea of putting myself in his skin. The more I wrote, the more that wolf became a symbol for Nature, and how we spoil it.”

Co-writer Léger: “When Paul came to me, he had about eight lines written down. The wolf was already part of the song, but the challenge was to make him talk, to find out how he feels. For 10 or 12 nights straight, from 9:00 p.m. to 3:00 a.m., we wrote, finely going over each sentence. During an especially productive night, we came up with maybe three good sentences, which was quite satisfying for a songwriter like Paul.”

“Voilà c’que nous voulons” [Paul Piché, Audrey Benoît, Rick Haworth, Éditions de La Minerve, Éditions Nigowarh], from the album L’instant [1993]

Co-writer Rick Haworth: “I came up with a draft version of this song at home, playing banjo, and Paul thought it was really cool. It was a tad too folksy, so we worked on it quite a bit in the studio until we found the right tone. Ultimately, it ended up being one of the most ‘rock’ songs we’ve ever done together.”

Piché: “This was a much purer and raw song. We dropped the synths, the icing, the deep reverb… I wrote the lyrics with my girlfriend at the time, Audrey Benoît [a famous model in the ’80s, as well as a novelist, and creator of Québec’s first crowdfunding platform]. What we wanted to say was that Québec’s desire for sovereignty was not motivated by a desire to isolate ourselves from others, and that there was nothing racist or religion-based in there. On the contrary, we wanted to express that sovereignty was the best way to bring our differences to the international scene and make citizens of the world out of all of us.”

Co-writer Audrey Benoît: “‘Voilà c’que nous voulons’ is a heartfelt cry that speaks the truth, the raw and the essential. My participation in this call out, my deepest conviction, was to confirm the contemporary nature of that question. The fact that ‘no, it’s not just an old dream, it also sowed the seeds.’ ‘It’ was this project for a country, and this ‘project for a country’ didn’t appear out of thin air, and deserved our attention, just as we pay attention to our forefathers, or to Gilles Vigneault. Initially, Paul and I had a few debates about this song, which I felt was a little too simple, or maybe too direct. I was stunned when I saw the people’s reactions during live shows.”

“Ne fais pas ça”  [Paul Piché, Éditions de La Minerve], from the album Le voyage [1999]

Piché: “This song has more or less definable Latino, flamenco and calypso influences. What’s clear, however, is that I was really into Latin rhythms at the time. I wrote the lyrics in a way that came across as a little clumsy, as if I was a Latino man trying to speak French.”

Marc Hervieux, a musical guest on the 40 Printemps show: “‘Ne fais pas ça’ really gets to me in the way it talks about heartbreak, without using the cliché of a person curled up in a ball in a corner, listening to hard, depressing songs. It really speaks to me as a person.”


The 40 Printemps de Paul Piché tour will stop in Montréal on March 17, 2017, at the Bell Centre, with special guests Éric Lapointe, Koriass, Marc Hervieux, 2Frères, Safia Nolin; and at Québec City’s Vidéotron Centre on May 20, 2017, with special guests Safia Nolin and Vincent Vallières.

Photo: Jocelyn Riendeau

Photo: Jocelyn Riendeau

Everything you need to know about Vincent Vallières is contained in one photo inside the booklet for Le temps des vivants, his latest and seventh album. In the picture, he’s at home in his songwriting environment. On his work table are various objects, packets of guitar strings, a dictionary; behind him is a wall of records, a few guitars and a picture of Yvon Deschamps. This is where the first drafts of songs make their way to the second-stage lab.

Following up after such a fruitful, lengthy adventure as the Fabriquer l’aube album is no small feat. “On va s’aimer encore,” remember ?

“I told myself, pause for a moment, and see what the future has in store for you,” says Vallières. “Ever since I started in 1999, it’s the same cycle. I finish an album, tour, and repeat. As the years have gone by, I’ve learned to say no, because I’ve worked really hard throughout my career so that people would say yes to me. We concluded our biggest tour two years ago at the Festival de la Poutine, and when we parted ways, I told the guys, “Don’t wait for me, you’re free. Find work elsewhere, because I don’t know when I’ll get back to work.’”

Michel-Olivier Gasse and his girlfriend launched into the Saratoga adventure, drummer Simon Blouin ended up touring Europe with Véronic Dicaire, and André Papanicolaou produced several albums and is embarking on a tour with Pierre Flynn. These guys were Vallières’ crew on three of his albums, Le repère tranquille (2006), which sold 45,000 copies, Le monde tourne fort (2009), which sold nearly as much, as did Fabriquer l’aube (2013).

During this two-year hiatus, Vallières renewed his love of music, attended tons of concerts, and spent countless hours crate-digging at Montréal’s vinyl paradise, Aux 33 tours.

“The process leading up to my phone call to François Plante [Vallières’s new collaborator] was long, but I never doubted my capacity to write new songs,” he says. “Can I still surprise myself, out-do myself? Which, ultimately, boils down to: Can I be better?” The answer took the guise of the prolific musician and record producer Philippe B. Vallières needed a straightforward opinion.

“I told him, I’ll play my tunes for you and you tell me what you think,’ because I knew he could totally diagnose them,” says Vallières. “Then I hired George Donosso III [guitars, drums, etc.], who works with The Dears, and has very set, clear ideas about the sound of his productions. They’re not necessarily fans of my music, so they don’t see my songs in the same way a fan would. That’s what I wanted from them: to be shaken and de-stabilized. We jammed in our rehearsal space, looking for sounds, adding synth bass, farfisa organ or some vibraphone, stuff I’d never done before, but always with respect for the energy of the demos.

“And after playing different versions of the demos, I ended up re-writing whole verses, and I even slowed some songs’ tempos.” “Pays du nord” is the perfect example of what Vallières means by that. It took several attempts to come to fruition. “In the end, the final sound of that song re-shaped the lyrics,” says Vallières. “The character in the song embarks on a kind of wandering, he moves on and night falls, but I changed the story. In the beginning, there were children…”

Vallières has won several awards, most notably the Prix Félix-Leclerc de la chanson in 2005, the Prix Gilles-Vigneault in 2007, the Song of the Year Félix in 2011 (for “On va s’aimer encore”), as well as many Francophone SOCAN Popular Song awards: “Café Lézard” in 2008, “Entre partout et nulle part” in 2011, “On va s’aimer encore” in 2012, and “Loin” and “L’amour c’est pas pour les peureux” in 2015.

Le temps des vivants is clearly a new direction. It’s obvious right from the album’s first notes. It was a team effort, which also involved a returning Papanicolaou on guitars as well as Amélie Mandeville’s voice. The songs are rejuvenated by bolder sounds. It’s still undeniably Vincent Vallières, but the road travelled is not the same. It’s more modern.

Is he ready to play live? “Not so long ago, the music world was quite different,” says Vallières. “In that way, radio was helpful to me. When you play a festival with 30,000 people in attendance, and it’s no longer just your fans who know more than half of the set list, but pretty much everyone there, and people are flicking their lighters and singing in unison, it’s quite a wonderful thing. People identify with songs, they want to listen to them.”

And buy them, he could well have concluded.