Kelsi Mayne’s debut album, As I Go, opens with the sound of a needle dropping on a scratchy record and a Gospel intro before the first song, “Woman Waiting.” It’s a nod to the emerging country star’s upbringing in Windsor, Ont., across the bridge from the epicentre of old-school R&B and soul in Detroit – and those soulful roots spread throughout her songs, subtly revealing her love for Aretha Franklin, Stevie Wonder, and Destiny’s Child.

As I Go‘s release date was March 27, in the midst of the COVID-19 maelstrom, but while she’ll have to postpone the launch party, Mayne – an independent artist who’s her own manager, label, and booking agent – is way ahead of the game. She’s been dropping kickass singles over the past year and watching them soar, with Spotify streams in the six figures and 1.5 million views on TikTok in 24 hours. She was a finalist in SiriusXM’s “Top of the Country” contest and a hit with her single “Takin’ U Home” on the Rogers Hometown Hockey Tour. And she sees a silver lining in the album’s timing. “We’ll get twice the publicity, ‘cause we have to announce the cancelling and then announce the new dates,” she says. ‘It’s not the worst thing. I have a nursing background, and I’m just happy everyone’s taking precautions.”

“I have a rule for our pre-show ritual:  shots and squats.”

Mayne has a powerful, beautifully twangy voice, and she’s been wowing people with it since childhood – at school, in Windsor bars, and at festivals like Boots & Hearts. But she didn’t start writing songs until more recently. “When I graduated from university I decided it was a now-or-never time to pursue music,” she explains. “I met with a manager who told me that if I wanted to be an artist I had to learn an instrument and write my own songs. So it wasn’t till I was 21 that I picked up the guitar for the first time. Sometimes I think it would have been better to learn at a younger age, so I could be a stronger player and writer by now. But I don’t think I’d change anything, ‘cause I got to live that life and work in the hospital and have all these experiences, and now I get to write about them. I think my first couple of songs were stronger than they would have been if I ‘d started writing as a child.”

Now Mayne lives in Toronto and travels to Nashville for songwriting sessions; she co-wrote all but one of the songs on As I Go with collaborators including Brett Sheroky, Drew Powell, PJ Ju, and Andrew Peebles. “In Nashville I take all my other hats off and put my writing hat on,” she says. “That’s all I’m thinking about. And when I come back to Canada, that’s when I focus on marketing, and booking, and all the other stuff.

“Nashville is a very nurturing environment for up-and-coming artists. When I first got there, I’d go to a bar, listen to the live music, grab a beer, and start talking to people. That’s how I did a lot of networking, and I met a lot of really great singer-songwriters, because most everyone’s a songwriter there. It’s cool to be able to work with some great hit songwriters. The Canadians all tend to find each other down there, and they helped connect me to a lot of people.”

As a nurse, a singer-songwriter, a track athlete, and an actor, Mayne has a lot of career options. “For everything there’s a time and a place,” she says. “Music is my first priority, and I fit everything else in when I can. I’m not an athlete anymore, but I volunteer as a coach when I have time, and I love doing that.”

And all those skills are complementary, she points out. “I have a pretty energetic live show, and being athletic helps that,” she says. “I have a rule for our pre-show ritual:  shots and squats. We do 10 squats, do a shot and go on stage. I have another rule for when I’m on stage: no high heels, ‘cause I like to jump around and jump off things, and it doesn’t work in heels. But that’s OK: when you’re a country artist, cowboy boots are totally acceptable.”

Zen BambooHow does Simon Larose, Zen Bamboo’s frontman, spend his self-isolation? He plays guitar on his balcony, just as he was doing when we reached him at the end of an afternoon. Or he reads his girlfriend’s favourite books while she reads his. “It’s like an illumination, even though we know each other by heart,’ he says. “Our favourite books reveal a lot about who we are, it illustrates a lot of things about our respective inner worlds. It is a very rewarding and intimate experience.”

What’s on Larose’s own list of favourite books? Les fous de Bassan, by Anne Hébert, Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five or the Children’s Crusade, Graham Green’s Picture Post, Romain Gary’s Les Cerfs-volants and Gabriel García Márquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude.

And what might we learn about him by diving into his small, ideal library? “You’d probably learn that I’m drama queen, I’m a diva,” he says with a laugh. The 25-year-old lyricist and musician has completed two-thirds of a Bachelor’s degree in Comparative Literature at the Université de Montréal. “You might also learn that I’m a cynic who loves humans. As one of my friends says, inside every cynic, there’s a disappointed optimist.”

One can detect an underlying tension between this muted aversion for humanity and a burning desire to embrace it on GLU, Zen Bamboo’s debut full-length album, released in March 2020. The record expresses the desire to work on the continuity of our world, and the fear that said world will end soon, by our own hand.

Qu’est-ce qui restera après de nous/ Qu’est-ce qui restera après/ Si nos bébés à nous/ On les avale, on les déjoue/ Si nos bébés à nous/ On les renverse sur nos joues,” ((Translation: “What will be left of us, after / What will be left after / If our babies / We swallow them and defeat them / If our babies / Are spilled on our cheeks”), Larose asks in “Xoxoxo,” a song that is to GLU what “La Monogamie” was to Malajube’s Trompe-l’œil: a work where the euphoria of sex and the anguish of death dance together through the night.

“I often write songs as one would build a beast, to fight those monsters that haunt me.”

“‘Xoxoxo’ is about the unbridgeable gap between this generation’s anxiety about having children and how we approach sex purely as a hobby, mindlessly, and without protecting ourselves,” says Simon. “I started thinking about that one night – the amount of unprotected sex that people who don’t want children have – and it started to haunt me, it became a monster. I often write songs as one would build a beast, to fight those monsters that haunt me.”

And yet, a very jovial Larose sings “Moi j’aime vivre/ Et j’aime vivre/ Et j’aime vivre encore/ Encore plus fort, ” in “J’<3 vivre” (“I love to live / I love to live / I love to live again / Ever harder”). “Je veux tout de la vie/ Sans le moindre compromis,” he goes one singing on “Glu (coule sur moi)” (« I want everything from life / Without compromise »). A bit schizophrenic, maybe? No wonder that the first incarnations of GLU were divided in two distinct entities: “Five life songs – the life side – and five death songs – the death side.” But the definitive version is fraught with babies, food, and scenes of devouring, halfway between life impulses and deadly impulses, firmly establishing Simon Larose as an author who prefers asking questions to giving answers.

Whether it’s their lyrics or music, it’s been quite a while since a band from Québec has combined such artistic ambition with such a strong desire to reach as many people as possible. GLU is the kind of album that moight renew your faith in the future of rock. Ardent admirers of Malajube, Zen Bamboo’s members (Larose, guitarist Léo Leblanc, bassist Xavier Toukan, and drummer Cao) tapped producer Julien Mineau for this album after working with Thomas Augustin, Malajube’s other “brain,” on their previous EPs.

“Ironically,” explains Larose, “I think that if we wanted to avoid sounding like a Malajube pastiche, we needed to work with Julien – because if there’s anyone who doesn’t want to sound like Malajube, it’s Julien Mineau.”

The producer, who now lives in Saint-Ursule (about a one-hour drive northeast of Montréal), brought the band what Larose calls “kamikaze ideas.” Which means? “Julien is the type of guy who’s not afraid to try stuff without knowing what the outcome will be. He’s never afraid to question everything: putting the end of the song at the beginning, making an acoustic song heavy, changing the key of a song, or its chords. We agreed that anything was possible, that a song is not a sacred thing, and that we’re allowed to twist it – and that’s when the process began in earnest.”

Nothing is sacred in his creative process, but music itself holds something sacred for Larose, and on GLU, he appears to be constantly chasing the idea that life makes no sense. “Yes, there is a transcendent need in me that’s often disappointed,” he says. “Music becomes this vehicle through which I try to dig deep to see – and this is going to sound stupidly mystical – the Great Beyond.”

As the COVID-19 pandemic upends the economy – mass layoffs, non-essential business closures, and schools shuttered indefinitely – the world has turned expectedly to artists for solace and hope. This, many artists are told, is the perfect time to write that massive hit, or unifying “We Are the World” song. But for many musicians, COVID-19 offers little inspiration; instead, it’s revealed how vulnerable their lives and livelihoods are.

Mark Marczyk,

Mark Marczyk

Balaklava Blues and Lemon Bucket Orkestra member Mark Marczyk, was watching Toronto gigs, European shows, conferences, and an extensive U.S. tour abruptly cancelled when he took action, quickly gathering artists and sponsors to create the ad hoc series URGNT in late March.

“A lot of times its been our [artists’] responsibility to respond creatively and emotionally in a way that expresses our humanity,” says Marczyk. “Not that everybody should be doing it, but our politicians, economists, and journalists have a specific role to fulfil, and I think our artists also have a role to fulfil. Let’s document this moment in history from our perspective. What is the beauty and tragedy of the crisis? And at the same time, have a practical response. Employment Insurance, and other, bigger support [plans] take months and applications, whereas we can get somebody to upload a video and put a hundred bucks into their bank account immediately.”

Since its first virtual show, URGNT has morphed, scaling back from Measha Brueggergosman’s Great Hall show to intimate home performances in order to adhere to the social distancing and gatherings rules. Marczyk says adapting, not giving up, is one of the greatest lessons they’re learning. But whether the series will grow beyond a crisis response depends on audiences.

“People donated online to the idea of doing shows in empty venues, that was compelling to people,” he says. “Now we’ve adapted our model. We might find that people are still really motivated by that, and want that experience. And if they don’t, then the reality is that we’re going to run out of money and not be able to do it anymore.”

Tamara Kater

Tamara Kater

For music manager Tamara Kater, watching how the fallout has affected her clients is disheartening. “The losses so far total more than $75,000 for the three months, and will be well over $100,000 if the summer festival season is also cancelled,” she says. “In comparison, my artists have recouped $2,400 in donations and online concert payments [as of late March].”

As she and her clients re-evaluate what comes next, she’s pondering if series like URGNT are a healthier alternative that will make touring less integral after the crisis passes.

“[Touring] is arguably the most demanding and caustic part of being a musician, not to mention how terrible it is for our environment,” she says, citing its gruelling emotional and physical effects. “The only silver lining of this terrible situation is if it provokes some honest dialogue about how unsustainable touring is, and what the industry can do to shift the balance to a more diverse revenue base for artists.”

Heather Bambrick

Heather Bambrick

Singer and JAZZ.FM91 radio host Heather Bambrick says her losses include a Newfoundland and Labrador tour postponed, the East Coast Music Awards cancellation [she was nominated for 2019’s Fine State, and set to perform], as well as lucrative corporate gigs shut down. She’s invested in adjusting her home studio to potentially allow her to still do voice-over work and other gigs, but her worries go beyond the financial. “We’re concerned about missed opportunities, losing momentum on certain projects, and whether or not an already struggling industry is going to be able to recover from this,” she says.

For now, she’s taking comfort that her return to radio is bringing audiences all over the world together. “Financially, it doesn’t add up to much, but it’s something, and I feel very blessed to be able to bring music, and hopefully some sense of normalcy, to listeners’ lives right now,” says Bambrick.

But while she embraces new means to reach audiences, the road still calls. “The new virtual performances are great ways for artists to give audiences ‘tastes’ of their performances prior to shows,” she says. “From a marketing or promotional perspective, I think this is definitely a thing we can use to our advantage. I also hope that audiences will miss seeing live music. For me, there really is nothing like being in the same room and experiencing the ‘vibe’ of a performance in person.”

Allison Russell, Birds of Chicago

Allison Russell, of Birds of Chicago

Allison Russell of the duo Birds of Chicago is also missing the road. “Trust me, when this is all over, I’ll be savouring every highway mile and red-eye flight,” she says wistfully.  “We’ve lost all of our shows into June; and we’re bracing to lose the entire summer – over half our yearly income.” Because of this, Russell views technology as a saving grace.  “We’re going to do our best to make our content more readily available for our community, via all the 21st Century modes we’re blessed with: Patreon, live-streaming concerts. As bad as this feels, when I think about how this would impact artists even 15 years ago, we’re in a better position to deal with this now.”

JUNO nominee Corin Raymond (managed by Kater) is drawing on the lessons of the road to bolster him. “Musicians live like actors: there’s always troughs and valleys between tours, between paydays,” he says. “So, having the point of view of a travelling musician might even be an advantage at a time like this.”

Corin Raymond

Corin Raymond

After Raymond returned to Toronto, following the JUNO Awards’ abrupt cancellation, and 40 shows halted, he noticed that even though gigs were cancelled, his fans were reaching out.

“I feel woefully inadequate when attempting to describe the support and love of my fans and what it means to me,” says Raymond. “I’m being crowd-surfed on their hands. Friends and fans have been sending me donations and beautiful messages – and real mail! – this past week, letting me know that my work is not forgotten. My life and livelihood are based on an economy of generosity, which inspires itself; love is like that. My job is to give people everything I have to give, sometimes a little more than that – and in return, my fans and friends pay me with money that feels like it’s been kept in their hearts to be spent only on something special. It’s a deeply rewarding way to get paid, because the money I make is an actual manifestation of real love, which doesn’t stop just because I’m off the road.”

Silver Linings?

Good can come out of this, and it involves music lovers, fans, and corporations.

“Encourage people to purchase CDs directly from artists so that the money they’re paying goes straight back to the artists, rather than to a third-party provider who’ll take a cut of the sale.  On Friday, March 27, BandCamp announced they would not take a commission that day, allowing artists to retain all sales income. There were some 800,000 items sold, resulting in artists being paid $4.3 million. We need more of that, right now!” – Heather Bambrick

“Even a modest uptick in the numbers of people buying merch, and actually purchasing albums [and] singles, in addition to streaming, would make a huge difference in artists’ bottom line.” –  Allison Russell, of Birds of Chicago

“This crisis only shines a stronger light on corporations [YouTube, Spotify, Apple] to be as creative in finding solutions for better compensation to creators as they were in disrupting the music business model in the first place.” – Tamara Kater [who cites the Spotify COVID-19 Music Relief Project as a good first step].

“I was crowdfunding last year to finish my latest album and accompanying book (Dirty Mansions, 2019). It really hit home just how ready my fans are to support me. So, my ‘Plan B’ will definitely involve launching something in the Patreon style, an arrangement to allow my fans and I to connect and inspire each other in an ongoing way.” – Corin Raymond