In 2017, Jessica Stuart was several months into teaching film director Daniel Roher how to play the guitar, when her past and present collided.

“We were having some very benign conversation after a guitar session, and I mentioned [being] a kid in Japan, and he was like, ‘Oh, you lived in Japan?’” explains Stuart from her home in Toronto. “He knew I played the koto [a traditional 13-string Japanese instrument] and spoke Japanese, but he thought I was a Japanophile.”

Roher asked if she was still in touch with anyone there? Stuart’s response was brief and weighted. “No,” she recalls responding. “I only had one good friend and we lost touch.”

In 1988, Stuart’s parents were working and living with their two daughters in Saku City, in Nagano Prefecture. Being the only Caucasian family in a town of approximately 6,000, they became stars of sorts, regularly chronicled in the local newspaper, and followed around by a videographer employed by the school. Much of the footage resides on half-a-dozen VH1 cassettes, as well as an educational video: English is Fun: Sing Along with the Stuarts. The songs were written by Stuarts’ ethno-musicologist mother, who also plays the koto and shamisen [a traditional three-string Japanese instrument].

Over the course of a year spent in Japan, Stuart formed a life-changing friendship with Fukue. Both were outsiders – Stuart would later learn that Fukue was impoverished and terribly bullied. Both girls were kind and creative, and they became inseparable. But a year after returning to Canada, Fukue’s letters, that once arrived regularly, stopped.  The unexplained end of the friendship haunted Stuart for 30 years.

Once an adult – now a singer-songwriter/musician in the pop/jazz/experimental realm who fronts her own band, The Jessica Stuart Few – she needed answers. She returned to Japan in search of Fukue, even enlisting the help of powerful local friends in the community where they once lived. But the search was unsuccessful, inspiring the song “Lost Friend,” from her 2016 album, The Passage. Fast-forward 10 years, and Roher insisted on helping re-unite the long-lost friends, assuring Stuart that this time the outcome would be different. “I was like, “’Alright, man,’” says Stuart with a hearty laugh. “You want to take it on, I’ll support you.”

Filmed in the spring of 2018, this past winter the CBC documentary Finding Fukue debuted, taking viewers on a compelling 21-minute journey as Stuart searches for her childhood friend. It’s become a CBC Short Docs hit – viewed more than 2.5 million times on YouTube – creating deep interest in the pair, and Stuart’s music. Its closing track, “Fukue’s Theme Pt. 1,” has become a fan favourite, so much so that Stuart decided to release it on Bandcamp. Interestingly, its creation was as serendipitous as the documentary itself.

Stuart Says: Tips for Songwriters

  • Inspiration. “It’s the most valuable starting point for a song, and the hardest to summon on command.  I keep a notebook, or voice memos app, handy to capture ideas in the moment, stockpile them, and use them when I have the environment to expand them into something complete.”
  • Give Your Song Space. “Songwriting shouldn’t be laborious. When I’m not satisfied with what I’m writing, I play it repeatedly, and if the answers aren’t flowing, I walk away, even briefly.  Leaving space in the process is refreshing, and often the song cycles through my head subconsciously, and shows me where to go on its own!”
  • Change Up Your Methods. “Get inspired! Think outside the box! Use nature, or urban soundscapes, or other ‘non-music’ sounds for creative starting points.”

“We were shooting B-roll in Tokyo, and they wanted to do artistic shots of me playing the koto,” says Stuart. “I didn’t feel like pretending to play, so I wrote [all of the koto parts, song structure, and the framework for the vocal melody]. I almost completely composed the music during that session.”

The unconventional, chorus-free song, which recounts a vivid, recurring dream Fukue shared with Stuart, is an ode to friendship, and an example of Stuart’s belief that songs must move, rather than conform to a prescribed formula.

“I can write conventional music, and I do write conventional music, but I never limit myself to a structure,” she explains. “I’ve never written, ‘I’m missing this, I should fill that blank there.’ It’s more of a progression. Where does the music want to go? I understand that that means its not going to be a single, I get that. But there’s a mood about the song, and I think that was the most important thing, so I just rolled with it.”

Two months into the doc’s debut, Stuart and Fukue are pen pals once again, and also e-mail and facetime friends. Stuart forwards fan art to Fukue, now a visual artist. (The film won’t be broadcast in Japan, a promise Stuart made to the deeply private Fukue.) Stuart’s now returned to writing for other projects, including collaborating with Robyn Dell’Unto. But many are wondering whether there will be more forthcoming music inspired by the heartwarming friendship.

“There probably will be a part two, and maybe three,” says Stuart. “We need to see each other again before I write the next part.”

On his album Parce qu’on aime (Because We Love) the young father sings about the ups and downs of a couple who’ve become parents, as well as those of a planet that seems to have subscribed to hatred.

CorneilleCorneille isn’t a powerful social media presence, but you can still find a few pictures of he and his partner dressed to the nines on one red carpet or another.

Quite the opposite of the daily grind chronicled on Parce qu’on aime, the eternal gentleman’s eighth album. The record features 11 songs, without the typical sort of filters that transform truth into a fairy tale for the sake of the song. To wit, the unequivocal, and unfiltered, title of the second song: “Manque de sommeil” (“Lack of Sleep”).

“When you’re successful, you get the impression you need a formula, but there is none, and that makes us super-insecure,” says the 41-year-old artist, about the doubt he’s long harboured, and finally sheds on this album. “It’s a danger that faces most artists who are very successful right from the start: when you start looking for that formula, you lose your spontaneity, your creativity, and your authenticity. It can quickly become tiresome when, every time you walk onstage or release an album, you’re betting your own life on it – when it could simply be cool, simple, and easy. Being creative requires you to be bold, to get to the bottom of things, and often, getting to the bottom of things simply means fundamentally remembering who we are.”

It turned out to be just as cool, simple, and easy as an SMS he got from his wife, Sofia de Medeiros. “What if we told our story as parents?” wrote his wife, and official lyricist (since 2009’s Sans titre) while he was in the studio. What if they told the story of the storm that’s rocking their days and nights, that fills their hearts with joy, and makes the bags under their eyes heavier every day?

“We were right in the middle of it all, we weren’t getting enough sleep, and it had an impact on our entire lives. We were incredibly irritable,” says Corneille, laughing. The father of a three-year-old daughter and an eight-year-old boy now sings (although they’re her lyrics): “Ne me regarde pas comme ça / Je ne t’aime pas moins / Je nous ai juste perdus de vue / Ça fait des années qu’on ne dort pas / Ce n’est pas que je suis loin / C’est la fatigue qui m’a en garde à vue.” (Don’t look at me like that / I don’t love you any less / I’ve just lost touch with us / We haven’t slept in years / It’s not that I’m far away / Exhaustion has me in its custody).

“We thought it was a good song to write, precisely because it’s not an Instagram theme,” says Corneille. “A song about sleep deprivation is not quite sexy, but we wanted to talk about the transformation of love, from the passion of the beginning to becoming deeper and deeper. We wanted to chronicle the daily lives of two people who chose each other to overcome the inevitable adversities of life. We need to talk about the less spectacular and less idyllic side of love.”

True Soul

Although Corneille’s music is hip to current American R&B and pop sounds, he also adheres to the great tradition of soul – one that embraces life, and avoids music that’s only about bodily impulses. Thus, he’s simultaneously a father and a citizen on Parce qu’on aime, an album where, on the song “Philadelphie,” he salutes Ella Fitzgerald as well as Boys II Men in a homage to the city, a Mecca of unpretentious music.

“Making soul music is an attempt to be true,” says the man who hasn’t been truer since Parce qu’on vient de loin (2002), the album that introduced him to audiences in Québec and in France, but that also revealed his horrible past.

The new impression we get, being re-acquainted with someone with whom we’d lost touch, isn’t just  an impression. Although he was never totally absent, it’s true that for quite awhile he hadn’t inhabited his somgs with as much intensity as he did when he sang about his urgency to live (Parce qu’on vient de loin), the insistence of his inner demons (Seul au monde), or his craziest ambitions (Rêves de star). His previous project, Love & Soul, was, after all, a covers album.

“It takes two to tango,” he says. “My absence was largely my choice. I needed to take a step back and I put my energy elsewhere: into my marriage, my family, my psychological reconstruction. I went to therapy, a thing I hadn’t done at the peak of my success, and that meant less time to promote my albums… Plus, I did offer songs to radio stations, but they didn’t play them. There are cycles that are beyond our capacity to understand [re: audiences, radio], and not over-think. We don’t control anything, and I feel reassured, now, to know that.”

Taking Time to Say Things

CorneilleSo not only does he voice his feeling of powerlessness, when it comes to the world’s many injustices, on a song like “Tout le monde,” Parce qu’on aime’s first single, but Corneille actually tackles current events on “Le chant des cygnes,” a song that was inspired by the SLĀV “scandal.” (The Robert Lepage play about slavery that initially had employed no Black actors, or people of colour, and was cancelled because of it.)

“In the first verse, I sing, ‘Pardonnez-moi mon offense/ Si j’étais toi,/ C’est comme ça que j’aimerais que ça commence’ (‘Excuse my offence / If I were you / That’s how I’d like it to begin’), and that summarizes how I feel about it. When I sing that, I’m putting myself in the place of people who thought it made no sense that a stage play about slavery would not feature a single black actor. It’s an utterly legitimate complaint, although the violence with which some people expressed themselves is very debatable. The only way to defuse the situation is to tell the offended person: ‘I respect your feeling, it is totally valid.

“However, right now,” he continues, “everyone immediately polarized: ‘Freedom of expression! Artistic freedom!’ If you address an issue without first admitting that it’s valid, the person who’s complaining can only escalate. It all lacked a lot of tact, sensitivity, and subtlety. And immediately after, there was a kind of backlash: ‘Are you calling us racists?’ No, all we’re saying is that being Black means having a unique experience of the world, which does not automatically mean white people are the Great Oppressor.”

But why didn’t he express himself publicly about this? Because he’s very conscious of the fact that, in the middle of a crisis, even the most level-headed words run the risk of being distorted, or worse, unheard.

“We’re all under the impression we need to say a maximum of things in a minimum of time, but there are subjects that cannot be debated if you don’t take the time required,” says Corneille. “Cultural appropriation is a much too complex issue to debate with tweets.”


The Wisdom to Love and Listen to Oneself

Parce qu’on aime: the title is both an intimate assessment, and a wish for a humankind that – based on the hate-filled pollution in our online lives – doesn’t seem to have chosen kindness.

“I notice, just like everyone else, the polarization of our online lives and of our collective lives,” says Corneille. “I see the disarray, and the sadness, that comes from this desire to exist in the eyes of others. We all want others to think we’re hot, smart, and gorgeous, which is completely unrealistic.”

Pardon the slightly sappy conclusion, but Corneille maintains that the only important thing is how the people we love see us, as well as making sure the actions we take are, as much as possible, true to the voice inside each of us.

“I came to a point in life where I realized every time I didn’t listen to myself, I failed, and every time I did, things worked out,” he says. “Not necessarily on a commercial level, but every time I listened to my inner voice, I grew as a person.”

Nine years after a party with its fair share of drinking revealed their musical potential, Emma Beko and Gab Godon are about to reap what they’ve sown with the release of Why Make Sense, their first album as Heartstreets.

An instinctual hybrid of R&B, pop, soul, and hip-hop, it’s the result of 18 months of intensive labour. Though the road to the album wasn’t too winding, it was nonetheless dotted with doubt. Along the way, a creative endeavour helped them along the path: SOCAN’s Kenekt Québec Song Camp, which they attended in the Spring of 2018.

It was there that the two friends met several high-calibre producers and musicians, like Realmind, A-Sho, Connor Seidel, L’Isle, and Pilou. While at the camp, they created three songs that ended up on the album: “Good Thing,” “Lost,” and “Piece by Piece.” “Our interactions were so inspiring,” says Beko. “It was the first time that we spent five straight days creating music non-stop. When we walked out of there, we told ourselves, ‘OK, let’s finish this album!’ It motivated us for the final steps.”

“It opened us up to new ways of working,” says her creative partner Godon. “Emma and I have a very organic and spontaneous workflow, but there, we saw other people thinking about the structure and logic of a song before even writing lyrics, or composing a melody. We understood that no matter who you are, the means at your disposal, and the resources required, you must always be at the service of the music.”

In other words, the two 27-year-old musicians are much more open to others on Why Make Sense – and open to themselves while exploring serious topics, like grief, anxiety and depression. A good example of this collaborative method is the album’s opener, “By You,” which came out of a game of “musical ping pong” between longtime songwriter/producer Philippe Brault and electronic music producer Ouri. Born at Kenekt in collaboration with Pilou, “Lost” changed along the way, and benefited from Shash’U’s know-how in the rhythm department. “Our mission is to tie all that together, to hold the  reins, and make sure it’s homogenous,” explains Godon.

Remaining True to Your Essence

That’s why, in spite of its exploratory nature, Why Make Sense remains cohesive. The duo’s simple, no-frills approach – centred around the pure and natural fusion of their voices – translates into an impression of closeness for the listener. “We grew up listening to what was being played at the time,” says Beko. “Pharcyde, Biggie, Big L, AZ, Fugees… It all had an immense impact on our lives, and it gave our music its gritty and raw side.

“It’s not rare, onstage, that we have to tell the sound person to kill the reverb on our voices, because we like them au naturel. Not to say we don’t play around with effects in the studio, but always in moderation.”

This organic signature has been the basis of Heartstreets since its inception. Childhood friends, Beko and Godon developed their artistic bond while filming improved sketches, singing Christina Aguilera songs, and later, taking hip-hop dance classes in their teens. That party we mentioned at the beginning of this story happened in 2010, and sealed their friendship forever. “My dad wasn’t home, so we went over to his place to drink and smoke joints,” Beko remembers nostalgically. “At some point, Gab showed me an Adele song and started singing it in front of me.”

“And then, during the instrumental break, Emma had the balls to start rapping her own lyrics,” adds Godon. “We were both totally mind-blown! It was love at first sight… This is our new activity now!”

The following year, they published their first songs on SoundCloud, and the buzz around them on the local scene grew steadily, as many enjoyed their warm and unusual amalgamation of hip-hop and R&B. Then, in 2016, the critical success of You & I, their first EP, helped them secure several high-profile gigs in Québec, notably at the Osheaga festival, and the Festival d’été de Québec. They also garnered collaborations with renowned Montréal-based producers, like Kaytranada and Ryan Playground.

Being careful not to set their bar too high, the pair now hopes that their debut album will take the place it deserves on the Montréal scene. “We don’t even count the time and effort we devoted to it,” says Godon. “We’re just really proud to introduce it to our fans. And from there, our main goal is for Heartstreets to take off and fly on its own, all over the universe.”