In a rare silver lining for the cloud of the COVID-induced lockdown, Jess Moskaluke has found a reason for gratitude. “In some ways I’m thankful for the pandemic, as my new album The Demos might not exist without it,” the Saskatchewan-based country singer-songwriter explains.

“Before this happened, I had thought I’d just go the singles route, writing every few weeks, then releasing the best material as singles. With the way I write, however, that wasn’t the reality anymore, as I couldn’t go to Nashville for writing sessions.”

Moskaluke adapted by returning to her catalogue to find some favourite demos of tracks that hadn’t made it onto a record. Three of these songs now appear on The Demos, in both demo and finished form, alongside her 2019 No. 1 hit “Country Girls,” “Halfway Home” [another hit], and some other previously unreleased material. The hybrid collection debuted in iTunes at No. 1 upon its February release.

Moskaluke has achieved many such Canadian successes, since releasing her first single in 2012. She won the 2017 JUNO Award for Country Album of the Year, for Kiss Me Quiet and, from 2014-16, was a three-time consecutive CCMA Female Artist of the Year Award winner. With her 2014 hit “Cheap Wine and Cigarettes,” she became the first Canadian female country artist since Shania Twain to achieve CRIA Platinum status, and she’s also notched Gold certifications for “Take Me Home” (winner of a 2017 SOCAN Award) and “Kiss Me Quiet.”

The Demos is the first full-length on which Moskaluke has co-written all the material. “I’ve always had the mind-set that the best songs will always win,” she says. “There are stronger outside songwriters than myself, and I’m always honoured to sing their songs when they’re a perfect fit. Still, it’s been a goal in the back of my mind to pen every song on a record.”

The diverse group of co-writers on the recording includes her longtime producer Corey Crowder (Florida Georgia Line), Emily Shackelton, and Liz Rose (Taylor Swift).

“It’s been a goal in the back of my mind to pen every song on a record”

While acknowledging she remains “a singer and performer first, and a songwriter second,” Moskaluke stresses, “that doesn’t mean I don’t enjoy songwriting. I’m so thankful that being a singer led to songwriting. If there’s a song I feel I got just right, I love singing it more than anything else, and that adds to my love of the writing process.”

She’s found that the Nashville-writing-room approach to country composition suits her personality. “I’m not the type to just sit down with a guitar and write that way,” Moskaluke says. “I’m a very collaborative person, and I do best writing with other people, when there’s energy in the room.

“It was only when I signed my first Nashville development deal that they encouraged me to get in a room with writers and learn how to write. I’m so happy they did that. It turned into another part of my job that I adore. Some people say that [co-writing session] format stifles creativity, but that’s how I learned songwriting over the past 12 years. Plus, I work best when I can schedule and set aside time for things.”

Moskaluke has made inroads in the Australian and U.K. markets, but for now is resisting the siren call to attempt to break in the U.S. “That’s a tough conversation,” she says. “I’d like to have a family someday, and I don’t want to be completely absent from them. Chasing the U.S. market is like starting over again. Doing all those radio tours, and [spending] weeks or months away from your family, I don’t know if that’s something I’m overly interested in.”

“Right now we have stuff going on in Canada I’m excited about. I love this country and the industry here. We set our artists up for success, and you really can have a career here. That’s a cool thing.”

Moskaluke emphasizes that she’s an artist who prefers to look forward, not back. “I’m so focused on what’s coming next, and how I can connect better with fans without being able to play shows. My hamster wheel of a brain up there is constantly turning!”

In a rare moment of reflection, she says that, “I just thought music would be a hobby, but it turned into my career. I don’t take for granted how lucky I am that this has become my path in life.”

Kae Sun has previously sung in pidgin over Afrobeat rhythms, but nowadays, it is the ever-changing world of R&B that occupies his thoughts. In February, the Montréal-based singer-songwriter, born in Accra, Ghana, released the mesmerizing mini-album Midnight and Other Endings, in which he further explores modern R&B, a quest that started on his previous album, Whoever Comes Knocking, released in 2018 on the Moonshine label. “It’s the abstract, impressionistic side of songwriting that I’m interested in, right now,” he explains.

The new cultivators  of R&B provide fertile ground for him, as he follows in the footsteps of Moses Sumney, serpentwithfeet, and to a certain extent, Frank Ocean. As Kae Sun (born Kwaku Darko Mensah Jr.) readily admits, such comparisons have the advantage of delineating his aesthetic choices. “There’s this quality that I find in these artists – especially Frank Ocean – that has to do with the way they write songs,” he says. “I’m interested in that because I studied writing and poetry. They have a singular way of linking words and music, whereas I used to say things more directly, while trying to be lyrical. Lately, I’ve noticed the emergence of a new generation of R&B composers who are interested in poetry in a different way, which I find very interesting.”

Arriving in Canada as a teenage international student, Kae Sun began composing and producing his own music upon graduation, while based in Toronto (his family has since moved from Ghana to the Atlanta area). His previous releases melded soul, folk, pop, reggae, and occasionally, the rhythms of his native country. “I’ve only recently turned to R&B, but I’d say there’s always a little bit of Ghanaian influence in my music,” he says. “And besides, the musical culture is so rich in Ghana that it’s naturally bound to leave its mark on what I do. But those influences are more subtle and direct.”

In this regard, Kae Sun is the product of his sonic environment. As a child, he was influenced as much by the American and British pop that was played on the radio as by the distinctive kind of gospel music heard in Accra. And LAO, inevitably, by highlife – the fusion of jazz and traditional Ghanaian rhythms that emerged in the mid-20th Century, whose influence has extended far beyond the borders of the country. Nigerian Afrobeat, in fact, is largely dependent on the Ghanaian sound. A modern, more pop-reggae-funk version, which emerged among the Ghanaian diaspora in Germany, dubbed “burger-highlife,” plays extensively in Kae Sun’s memories of radio.

The other formative musical ingredient of the musician was passed on to him by his father, a great fan and record collector of soul music. “Stevie [Wonder], Marvin [Gaye], the Ohio Players, all of them were played at home. I have eclectic musical tastes!” says the musician, who makes music in his small home studio, often starting from ideas that come to him while playing guitar, his main instrument.

“The melody always comes first, then it’s on to the lyrics,” Mensah Jr. explains. Even if you have the most beautiful words, they always need good music – I believe the melody is truly what drives the song. Then, sometimes, I’ll hear a beat someone made and I’ll take notes, I’ll try to find melodic ideas that can go with it.”

While he wrote and produced a lot of his first projects, Kae Sun turned to his Montréal-based collaborators, and mainly to beatmaker Yama//Sato, for Midnight and Other Endings. “For this project, I was looking to achieve a slower, more flowing, hazy sound,” he explains. “Yama//Sato creates very atmospheric productions,” which are the perfect backdrop to the artist’s delicate voice and tender songs. “My songs are about desire, the desire for intimacy, of course, but also to have a place to call home, a home port. I’ve moved around a lot in the last few years, so I wanted to express this desire for a place of my own, this desire to love and be loved.”

When he left Toronto a few years ago – a city where the R&B scene seems more valued than in Montréal – “There was a lot of interesting stuff going on, at least from a music-industry perspective,” says Kae Sun. “But I believe that artists, creators, have to be able to extract themselves from the industry. Creatively, I feel more comfortable in Montréal. The cultural scene is so exciting, there are so many good musicians, creators, talent from different backgrounds: designers, visual artists, filmmakers, etc. Yes, Toronto has the wind in its sails right now, but the scene is very cut-throat. I felt that creatively, going back to Montréal was the right move for me.”

For most music lovers, she’ll always be J.Kyll, cofounder of Muzion, pioneer of the Québec rap scene and one of the most relevant voices to have emerged from it. In nearly a decade, however, Jenny Salgado has also made a name for herself in the field of screen and stage composing: her musical score for the feature film Scratch (by Sébastien Godron, 2015) earned her a nomination at the Gala du cinéma québécois, and two awards, at the Canadian Screen Awards, and the Chicago International Movies + Music Festival.

Salgado is adamant that the transition from rapper to screen composer was a natural step in the direction that she herself had traced since the foundation of Muzion. “I did all the productions for Muzion,” she reminds us. “I would even say that music came into my life before words and literature; the impetus to rap came as much from the lyrics as it did from beat-making, so maybe some people see songwriting as a second string to my bow [as a rapper], but the truth is, those strings came at the same time on the bow.”

Still, she admits that opportunity makes the thief: “Like many things in my career, it’s like paving stones appear in front of me and all I need to do is step on them,” she says, recalling the phone call from documentary filmmaker Nicole Giguère, who was the first to suggest that she write an original score for her film On me prend pour une Chinoise ! (freely: They think I’m a Chinese woman!) about international adoption.

“What she asked me to do was quite bold: mixing urban music – hip-hop – and Chinese music,” Salgado explains. “She forced me to dive into a completely different universe, and I stepped up to the challenge. It was a turning point, whereas for Scratch, I fell back into my comfort zone and composed from my roots in hip-hop and street music. In that movie, music was central, it was almost a character in and of itself. My music was well-received, and I think that’s when people in the industry realized that something was abuzz about me…”

Anyone who’s met J. Kyll knows she doesn’t mince words. Nowadays, the pioneer throws her entire talent at the service of a film or stage director’s vision. Last fall, Christian Fortin asked the composer for a soundtrack for his production of King Dave, presented at Théâtre Jean Duceppe. This line of work also requires a balancing act on the part of the screen composer: finding a balance between the director’s commission and the composer’s unique voice. Being versatile means adapting to the filmmaker’s vision, while finding a way to add her own signature to the soundtrack.

“There’s a zone in the middle where you need to find your place,” says Salgado. “I guess one of the reasons I get asked to work on projects is my ability to approach a project while making it mine a little: being at the service of a production – a film, a play – that’s not me, that’s not mine, that’s not my word, my purpose, or my vision, being entirely at its service, while finding something personally creative in it, and offering my own editorial line. I’ve managed to achieve that on every project I’ve worked on so far, but it’s a new challenge every time. That’s part of the trip: finding a way to fit in someone else’s vision.”

She then moves onto the difference between composing for films versus composing for the stage: “When you get the footage from a film for which you’re composing, everything has a time-code telling you exactly where the music is supposed to go; a stage play is more fluid, each performance is different. You must be able to create music that’s flexible enough to follow the content. It takes something that’s structured, but still flows with the words, or the bodies in the case of a choreography – I really like to compose music for bodies. It helps my creative process to have performed [with Muzion] and to have planned the flow of a show, with moments designed to make the crowd react in a specific way. I try to transpose that into my work composing for film or stage productions.”

This, in the case of cinema, raises the question of the expectations linked to these first cuts, which often include reference music – works already recorded, often well-known pieces, that are used to indicate the intention or the emotion that the moving images illustrate. “Those infamous temp tracks!” says the composer. “I’ve had some proposed to me even for stage plays… They’re part of the hurdles I have to get over. The danger with that is what used to be called ‘demophobia’: the fact that musicians get used to the sound of the demo version of a song and become dissatisfied with the clean, mixed version.

“It’s a bit the same with temp tracks; they become embedded in the minds of the film crew. Once everyone is used to seeing these images and hearing a given track, what you need to do is compose a new piece that will succeed in de-throning the original. The trick is finding the right emotion in the original composition, what makes it best adapted to the scene, in a way that’s even better than the reference song. It’s always a challenge, but that’s the name of the game!”