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.”

Between October 2019 and December 2020, singer-songwriter and guitarist Vincent Vallières co-produced his eighth album with his good friend, guitarist André Papanicolaou.

Vincent Vallières“At this time last year,” he says, “we were pretty far along in the process we had planned out, several songs were quite arranged, others were even mixed and finalized,” says Vallières. “The step back made me doubt. During the first two or three weeks, I asked myself if that’s what I really wanted to do, what I really wanted to say, so we started all over again. We put aside what we’d done to build something else next to it, with other materials.”

And nothing affecting him was left out: “The people I meet, my friends, my neighbours, my human interactions,” he says. “This kind of fear and this loneliness, which increased ten-fold. And we’re just realizing all of its perverse effects. It’s one of my best albums, because of this global reflection of who I am.”

Toute beauté n’est pas perdue (All Beauty Is Not Lost) offers a solidly-delivered brand of folk-rock, powered by regal guitar riffs, which serve as the backdrop for intelligent lyrics.

And speaking of guitars, all the famous brands are mentioned in the booklet: Gretsch, Rickenbacker, Danelectro, Gibson, Fender Precision… “The Rickenbacker has quite a strong personality,” the guitarist confides. “When I play ‘Homme de rien’ through my small Fender Champ amp, I discover a tone that was there all along during this project.”

Then along came Michel-Olivier Gasse, a loyal musical partner, Marc-André Larocque on drums, and Amélie Mandeville, who sang on Vallières’ previous record and tour. And also, Ingrid St-Pierre, who sings on “On dansera sous la pluie.” “I wrote that for my youngest daughter Marie, it’s a very intimate song,” says Vallières. “Her singing lifts the song up. There’s a certain innocence that comes out, like a ray of sunshine.”

As the last piece of the puzzle, Vallières and Papanicolaou tapped Martin Léon to be the project’s artistic director. “I wanted to open a dialogue with him so he could challenge my ideas,” says Vallières. “I believe Martin is one of Québec’s best songwriters. We worked in a very intimate context. He’d read a text and ask me what I meant to say, to make sure my intentions truly came across.”

And Léon didn’t show up empty-handed. “His role was to make the words as crystal clear as possible,” says Vallières. “He knows how to listen, and he’s poetically demanding – much more impressionistic than I can be. It created some quite pleasant tension!”

For example? ‘Heille Vallières,’ the album’s opening track. “Getting to the version you hear took quite some time, and Léon reminded me of Gérald Godin’s poem T’en souviens-tu Godin ? where the poet talked to himself,” says Vallières. “The goal was to open the album’s dialogue, as well as opening a dialogue with myself. It’s like a wake-up call! Do you still have a sense of wonderment? Are you still able to surprise even yourself?”

If we needed proof that the man has good taste, and knows how to surround himself with able contributors, that’s it. “Being able to put my ego aside to serve my song is going to make it better,” he says. “I don’t think I had that humility when I was 25. I did it before with Eric Goulet, my first mentor, who has a very developed rock and literary sense. I also did it with Philippe B. – they’re both great song-makers.”

On the very 60’s-influenced “Je suis comme toi,” which evokes The Byrds, Vallières reveals one of their studio tricks. “We mixed an acoustic 12-string guitar with the Rickenbacker sound!” Another one of the album’s little pearls is “Le jardin se meurt,” which was also made into a live video that includes a six-minute-long shot that’s part of a short film – both a documentary and a performance film – that will be released at the same time as the album.

“Entre les étoiles et toi” is graced with a beautiful video by Noisy Head Studios: a boy and girl ride in a convertible through space, on a road shaped like a guitar’s fretboard – with a heart as big as a planet, Vallières knows how to create a buzz with his videos.

And then there’s a monumental duet with Marjo, “Tout n’est pas pour toujours,” a true moment of grace. And the album’s only song without guitars, instead it’s a mellotron jewelry-box for Marjo’s voice. Soft and efficient, as only she can be.

“Marjo is mainlined on the heart,” says Vallières. “I sent her the song and she replied the next day, saying it’s a truly beautiful song, and she insists on singing it. The guys and I looked at each other and were amazed that she wanted to sing it. There’s something pure about that woman. The amount of preparation she goes through is nothing short of inspiring. She called me to know. ‘How do I sing this or that passage, what’s the harmony going to sound like?’ She doesn’t want to fool around, she wants to deliver a performance. She wants to have fun, but she’s fully prepared, too.”

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.”