Songwriting isn’t an activity that’s hazardous to your health, but for triple-JUNO-Award-winner Kiesza, who suffered a traumatic brain injury in 2017 – when her Uber was struck by another taxi – she has to really listen to her head and know when to take a break. “It’s a lot on the brain to write lyrics,” she says.

“The funny thing about brain injuries is they go forward and backward. I always think that I’ve crossed another line or another hurdle that it’s behind me, and then suddenly I relapse. I’m not crashing as much as I used to, then last week I crashed the whole week.”

Kiesza – born Kiesa Ellestad in Calgary and now living in Toronto – is just releasing Crave (on Aug. 14, 2020), the long-awaited follow-up to her 2014 debut Sound of A Woman — which sold a million copies and contained the ‘80s-inspired dance-pop smash “Hideaway” (now closing in on half a billion views on YouTube alone). But it isn’t full of introspective songs about healing, health, or struggle.  In fact, if one didn’t know about the accident that caused a shutdown of the electrical nerve pathways to one side of her brain, the dance-pop songs seem like a natural follow-up to her breakthrough from six years ago.

“I wasn’t ready to go back into what I’d just come out of,” says Kiesza. “It was this really dark, dark, dark time, and I’ve been literally climbing my way out of it just to see the light again. It’s been hard. It’s been the hardest thing I’ve ever gone through. So when I finally was in a place where I felt like I was ready to re-launch, I wasn’t ready to go into that again. I wanted positive energy, especially with the pandemic going on right now. I felt like that’s what the world needs, too. So I chose to make this album really upbeat and really positive.

“Honestly, my songwriting, in many ways, has gotten stronger”

“‘Love Never Dies’ is probably the closest one you’re going to get to start to scrape the surface,” she says of the second-last song on Crave, a powerful ballad that sounds like a James Bond movie theme. “There’s more coming. That’s tapping into that depth, and that pain, and those feelings. It’s a lot to go back to. I get overwhelmed. And with my recovery, just being stressed out or overwhelmed like that, it actually causes my head to relapse. So I’m just not even physically in a place where I can do that.”

Collaborating Carefully 
Kiesza has co-written for Rihanna and Jennifer Hudson, worked with Duran Duran, and collaborated with Skrillex, Pitbull, and Diplo, as well as with many people for her own songs. But now writing with others requires some ground rules she didn’t have before her injury:  no smoking, for one. She’s been writing with a lot of local artists and rappers. “I have to tell everybody that they’re not allowed to smoke weed,” she laughs. “Usually I would just put up with it. I’ve never done any drugs or anything, but I’m really strict. My head can’t handle being around any sort of smoke.” While she still writes quickly — “I’m actually still faster than the average songwriter” — concentrating on lyrics can give her a headache, so her partners must be understanding and patient. “Sometimes I’ll have to let people know when my head does swell up, or feels like it’s hurting, and that I’m too tired to finish, and just re-book for another time. Or I’ll just let them know that I’m unable to come up with new lyrics right now,  just because of how my head feels. I like to step away, maybe do them on my own time, and come back and record.”

That material will be “compartmentalized,” as Kiesza says, on her next album. “Honestly, my songwriting, in many ways, has gotten stronger, because it unlocked a lot of stuff going on internally while I was recovering,” she says. “My lyrics really expanded. I did begin writing a lot more personal stuff, going back to my youth. I’ve been getting as much of my own inner truth out as I possibly can, just out of my body, out of my soul, and on to some form of paper or digital notepad. There’s so much to decipher right now and to go back through.

“And then the next album is going to have a different sound and a different mood.  I like that because whatever mood I’m in, I select my playlist based on that. So I’m approaching my albums that way. I have some acoustic folk songs. How do I put out a guitar style [of music] after Crave?  I’m just going to do it. It’s little confusing, but to me it’s important to make sure that all of that gets out or else people are not going to know me.”

She says she writes in “so many genres.” Her very first album, written and released during her second semester at Selkirk College in Nelson, BC, with money from a grant she won from a then-new Calgary radio station, she told SOCAN in 2014, was “all over the place, very experimental. You get orchestra songs, a big-band jazz song, a funky song, a country song that goes into gospel, soft-rock mixed in with soul.”

This skill of adaptability has enabled her to write for a range of other artists, and also reveal more of herself. “It’s actually really confusing for people who work with me to try to figure out what to put out, but I’m really embracing that aspect about me,” she says. “That’s what makes me unique, is the fact that I actually can jump genres. So I’m trying to find ways to fuse all the styles that I write in.

“I definitely want to have lifelong fans. It’s way more important for me to really make sure that my music contains every aspect of who I am.”

Prior to the release of their acclaimed debut EP, Studies in Grey, Super Duty Tough Work was a group that needed to be seen live to be believed. Relying on the potency of silky bass lines and honey-soaked horns, paired with exacting lyrics about sky-high ambitions, the eight-piece hybrid rap-jazz-R&B group channeled the beating heart of ‘90s East coast hip-hop into legendary performances across the country. When they finally got around to recording, the response was swift and gushing: In 2020, Studies in Grey was long-listed for the Polaris Music Prize, and nominated for a Western Canadian Music award.

The band is self-described as “golden era taste, current era based.” To constrict its social location to Winnipeg obscures the internationally-inspired influence that SDTW’s globally sourced players — drawn from American locales like Boston and Ohio, and as far as Argentina — bring to the group. “The city is a cultural hub for other things, but if we’re talking about ‘hip-hop’ or ‘Black’ music, Winnipeg isn’t producing those things in great mass,” explains the band’s lyricist and vocalist, Brenden Kinley, who performs as Brendan Grey.

“Winnipeg and hip-hop aren’t two enticing words that go together, but we have different experiences and world-views than what most people would associate with a group of people that are ‘from Winnipeg.’”

Grey grew up in a musical household filled with the music of artists as diverse as Bruce Cockburn, Grandmaster Flash, Prince, and De La Soul. He remembers falling asleep watching his parents make music together, his mom singing and playing the piano. “I was 10 and started to play instruments, then really never stopped,” he says.

Though Grey works professionally as a drummer, he crafts the lyrics for SDTW with an ear for how melodies can wrap around, amplify, and change lyrics; intentionally hanging them below the percussion on a song, or carefully placing them on the apex of a beat. “Everything is rhythmic,” he explains. “I’ve been drumming and writing lyrics for so long, it’s natural to think about [the relationship] to rhyming and sub-divisions; like taking a solo by using your words.”

Typically, Grey brings lyrics to the band, who come up with an arrangement. But, as we’ve all had to learn to adjust to a new normal of sheltering in place, the group’s songwriting process has become more collaborative, making use of this moment of pause to attempt a new approach to creating.

“[I have] one or two close friends that are producers. Essentially, I would make the demos and then bring those to the band, who would re-interpret them,” says Grey. “As far as lyrics, it’s just me sitting and writing; some of the stuff on the record is more than five years old, and some of it was written just a few days before going into the studio.

“When it’s all boiled down, it’s Black resistance music” — Brendan Grey of Super Duty Tough Work

“I have a few books, and a whole bunch of loose-leaf pieces of paper: I go through them, lay them out, look at them, and move stuff from page to page. Now we’re doing a lot more group writing, which means getting together and throwing ideas at each other, responding, recording, and then re-visiting.”

It makes sense that the group would be amenable to change. The melodic machinery Super Duty Tough Work have built into their sound pays homage to visionaries of ‘90s boom-bap — Gang Starr, Digable Planets, and A Tribe Called Quest — who were adept at capturing the spirit of the social zeitgeist with a single biting lyric. On “Bounty,” Grey slips in a Nas reference shortly before name-dropping Colin Kaepernick; on “Hypnotic,” he ruminates on success and drive with open-ended curiosity. It’s an intentional semantic decision, rooted in contributing to the legacy of the emancipatory expectation of jazz and the reclamatory ambition of hip hop.

“When it’s all boiled down, it’s Black resistance music,” he explains. “It doesn’t always have to be overt. You don’t always have to make a statement. Sometimes it’s just the act. So, you can either be like, ‘Fuck the police,’ or you can just have a party, or a gathering, where everyone’s having a good time and enjoying themselves. Those are both acts of resistance in my mind. That’s the tradition that Super Duty Tough Work comes out of.”

“FTP” is perhaps the clearest execution of the group’s exploration into the many manifestations of resistance music. Initially inspired by a version of J Dilla’s “Fuck The Police” (not to be confused with NWA’s “Fuck Tha Police,” written by Ice Cube and MC Ren) — that the band would perform during “Dilla Days,” a yearly tribute to the artist — now it rings with a new sense of urgency, as the alarm to defund the police is ringing internationally. Previously unrecorded, Grey wanted to elevate the aspiration of the original.

“Some of the lyrics [on the original] I agreed with 100%, some of them less,” he says. “Honestly, I felt that in some aspects he just wasn’t hitting hard enough.” It became a crowd favorite at their shows, and a contender for the album. “I wasn’t really sure whether to include that on the record or not,” says Grey. “But it needed a second verse, and I was stressed for a really long time.

“It took me over a year to write the second verse, because I wanted it to be fact-checkable; with points that couldn’t be argued easily, or could be taken as a matter of opinion. I tried to make it relatable so that many people can see their experiences in the music — when we can see that we’re all fighting the same thing, and that those issues cross, that’s power.”

Singer-songwriter Bernardino Femminielli’s last fur years of silence provided an opportunity to take stock. Time to reflect on his glorious failures, his underestimated work and his corrupted relationship with his hometown of Montréal. This exile, both literally and figuratively, was as necessary as it was fertile: by leaving Montréal for Paris, Femminielli found the inspiration to compose three cathartic albums, starting with L’Exil, published by the startup label Éditions Appærent, set up by his collaborators Pierre Guérineau (Essaie Pas, Feu St-Antoine), Jesse Osborne-Lanthier, and Will Ballantyne (City).

“What I like about Paris is that it’s a somewhat desperate city, and I connect with that,” says Femminielli with a smirk. Four years after the stunning Plaisirs américains, the poet, performance artist, and songwriter who moved to Paris over a year ago, now reveals the first part of a triptych that he hopes will rid him of his demons, Daddy and Johnny.

He and his wife left everything behind: Montréal, his friends, ex-business partners, and the shipwreck of his restaurant Femme Fontaine – erected on the ashes of the iconoclastic Bethleem XXX, at the gates of the city’s Little Italy. He got rid of everything but his urge for freedom and creativity, which he preciously preserved until landing in Belleville, in the 19th arrondissement of Paris, where we reached him.

“Belleville is kind of the anarchist neighbourhood,” according to Femminielli. “But it’s mostly a working-class area, there’s a lot of immigrants. There are Chinese, Vietnamese, Thai restaurants, mostly in the lower part of Belleville. Around here it’s very diversified and gentrified, lately – to be honest, the area where I live was quite shady just five years ago. I remember that I would never make it to the street I live on today because it was too… let’s just say it was a no-man’s land. Nowadays, there are families, some bourgeois, but it’s still a working-class neighbourhood. There’s still poverty around, you can see it every day.”

It was there that he wrote the lyrics for L’Exil, over musical compositions that date back to Plaisirs américains. On “French Exit,” the album’s opening song, he fuses three musically different pieces into one 12-minute offering where he spews everything in one fell swoop. He recites, “Quinze ans dans ce trou, j’ai besoin de m’exiler/ La mort dans les lèvres de l’amour/ Sur ton joli corps, petit clown, petit clown, petit clown” (“Fifteen years in this hell hole, I need to exile myself / Death on the lips of love / On your pretty body, little clown, little clown, little clown”), before a motorik beat starts, leaving behind a black cloud of synths.

Femminielli’s work is fascinating, because it wears its references on its lapel, like medals on a general, yet it resembles nothing every recorded in Québec (except, perhaps, some of Lucien Francoeur’s work). Somewhere between krautrock and disco, more spoken-word than sung, his texts have both Serge Gainsbourg’s aesthetics and Gainsbarre’s panache, with crude and even salacious images – but on this album, intimate above all, as if taking stock had prompted the artist to bare all.

L’Exil, and the next two parts of the triptych – described as “more fanciful” compared to this “realist” album – are “a way for me to exorcize and make peace with the past and, in the end, being able to laugh about it all,” says Femminielli, offering a good example of the humour (or cynicism?) typical of his writing. “To be honest, my life is very theatrical. I wanted to express it that way, not by incarnating a storyteller, but by being the victim of my own bad experiences. That’s why it’s quite a personal album.” Personal, yet sensitive to the world around him: on “French Exit,” he mentions French President Emmanuel Macron, and makes several Parisian references.

“I’ve written a lot by walking around Paris,” says Femminielli. “I found inspiration here, the yellow vests movement, the Notre-Dame-de-Paris blaze, the quite heavy atmosphere of the city, of late… It’s kind of an album that looks at Paris as a tourist would; even though I know Paris quite well, I still have a fresh, innocent, and naive outlook on it. I still see what Parisians no longer see.”

Weaving through all that, he also looks at his demons, Daddy and Johnny, with a fresh outlook. They aren’t even two sides of a coin, but rather two Mr. Hydes, “a fragmented projection of myself,” which Bernardino stage directs in the gloomiest moments of his albums and stage performances. Daddy, the dominant pervert, and Johnny the “little clown,” reduced to the role of a sex slave who is often on a leash during his concerts.

“Johnny gives me a reason to say that, in the end, I’m the most pathetic one,” says Bernardino.” It’s a bit like the concept of the oppressor and the oppressed: the character that I [Daddy] play is that of the oppressing macho that gets destroyed, and I start from that point to see where it’ll go. L’Exil is also a healing process. Leaving [Montréal] to get rid of that poison, leaving that other side of me to become someone else.” It’s an idea he expresses eloquently on the album’s title song, when he whispers, “Nous allons offrir le spectacle d’une mort dramatique,” (“We’re going to give you the spectacle of a dramatic death”).

“It’s a good summary of the triptych: the story of a pathetic macho oppressor and of his gigolo who can’t even tie his shoelaces,” he says. “When they see it onstage, people can laugh at it, but they can also try to understand what’s going on, what it all means. What I’m saying is never gratuitous; I explain it a bit, but I believe people need to get it according to their own feelings.”