Journey from Kiran Ahluwalia’s debut album Kashish-Attraction through to her latest Sanata: Stillness, and you’ll trace the unique evolution of an award-winning singer-composer who has entranced listeners around the world by crossing musical borders with fearless grace and sure-footed artistry.

Ahluwalia calls Sanata “a fruition of musical ideas I’ve been building up.” Those ideas are rooted in the Indian and Pakistani forms she’s been involved with her whole life – most notably the ancient, love-and-pain, rhyming-couplets-and-refrain form of the ghazal. The songs also reflect a more personal integration of the Saharan desert blues sounds that emerged on her fourth CD Wanderlust (2007). “I fell head-over-heels for this sound,” she recalls. “This electric-guitar-heavy, mellow-yet-groovy African blues resonated with me, and I started exploring it intensely.”  Her fifth album, the JUNO Award-winning Aam Zameem: Common Ground (2011), saw her collaborate with two Saharan Tuareg bands, and the adventure continues.

“I never dreamed I could be a musician full-time.”

“With Sanata: Stillness, I’m creating this hybrid without Tuareg musicians, approaching it from an Indian music standpoint, but contained within my band,” she says. Digging into that canon of Saharan blues and Indian music, Ahluwalia latches onto rhythm before the melody and words progress too far, taking her ideas to acclaimed guitarist-arranger Rez Abbasi for a creative back-and-forth before bringing tabla, keyboards, and jazz elements into the mix.

Sanata: Stillness sees Ahluwalia’s lyric-writing come to the fore. “On my first three CDs, I found exceptional ghazal poets in Toronto, people who were born in Pakistan and whom I would not have met had I not moved here, so I was lucky to have such a treasure chest of lyrics,” she explains. But as her sonic palette has expanded over her most recent three albums, Ahluwalia found herself crafting lyrics more often. “I started writing lyrics to fit the melodies I was creating because there was a need,” she explains.

For Ahluwalia, music has been a serious pursuit since early childhood. Her study of music began in India and continued in Toronto, where she moved with her family at age nine. After graduating university and a brief work stint, she studied music full-time in India for a year.

“Then the bug bit me,” laughs Ahluwalia, now based in New York. For a decade she moved between India, where she would spend several months of intense study, and Canada, where she’d work to save up for her next trip. All the while, she was performing and building her repertoire. “I never dreamed I could be a musician full-time,” she explains. “I wanted to live in Canada, and thought I could never make a living singing in another language.”

Ahluwalia may translate the Urdu lyrics of her songs for the liner notes, but her music conveys meaning with an eloquence that transcends language and goes straight to the heart.

Turning the Page
Commissions from other artists – specifically dancer Jahanara Ahklaq and violinist Parmela Attariwala –marked a crucial turning point for Ahluwalia. “It got me going,” she says. “I was being pushed to do something for myself, but I found it difficult, partly because my training in Indian classical music had been about improv. Then along came these people who had certain criteria, and deadlines, and more faith in me than I had in myself at that time. After that, I loved composing.”

Musically speaking, duo Alfa Rococo has constantly evolved, ever since their first steps as a band in 2004. Following a very promising debut album (Lever l’ancre, 2007) that was chock-full of high energy electro-pop ditties formatted for FM radio, David Bussières and Justine Laberge followed up with Chasser le malheur in 2010, a sophomore effort that was undoubtedly more sophisticated, but also much darker. Then, in 2014, the chic tandem dropped Nos cœurs ensemble, a much more organic-sounding album that’s informed as much by ‘80s new wave as by Passion Pit’s sunny pop, the result being a very accomplished work filled with 11 potential hits that are as engaging as they are danceable.

As far as Bussières is concerned, a great pop tune must first and foremost have a killer melodic hook, but it also requires lyrics the listener can easily remember: “Simplicity is key. It’s the same as a great guitar riff: it needs to be short and punchy, so its etched in your mind. A great pop song is the perfect balance between the music and lyrics, they must be in sync and express the same energy. Everything needs to flow and groove while remaining accessible.”

“Talking about love in a sincere way is quite a challenge.”

Songs of Love

The dark melodies and torn-apart, inward-looking lyrics of Chasser le malheur are far behind. On their new album, the Laberge/Bussières team adopted a much more positive outlook, not unlike the rainbow that follows a storm. “When you think about it, almost 98% of love songs are about breakups,” says Bussières. “We were in a very positive state of mind during the creation of this album, we wanted to express the power of love. We have been together as a couple for 15 years, and that’s what we’ve experienced. Yet talking about love in a sincere way is quite a challenge. It’s not that easy to find the right angle, the right tone, and to not sound cheesy. Looking back at this album, I think we can safely say we’ve succeeded.”

Recently married, David and Justine set out to celebrate love with Nos cœurs ensemble (literally, “our hearts together”), and understandably so. For Bussières, who sings and plays guitar, being a couple in a creative environment not only advances but greatly simplifies sharing ideas. “The more we work together, the more this is becoming one of our greatest strengths. We are each other’s first audience, Justine is my second pair of ears. Your best friend might not always tell you the truth, but when you’re a couple, it’s much easier to be truthful. We’re constantly sharing ideas and working on songs. It truly is a full-time job. I can understand that for some people, it can become alienating to work with your life partner, but not for us.”

New Beginnings

Now signed to Coyote Records, Alfa Rococo is writing a new chapter of their career, a necessary move for the artists. Says Bussières: “It was a positive move, it brought a breath of fresh air to our project. It was beneficial, and boosted our motivation immensely. We talk to people at our label very often and keep in touch with what’s happening, we have a very proactive relationship with our label. It’s also a challenge for us since we need to deliver, and that makes us want to work even harder.”

Since November 2013, the couple also runs their own home studio, an invaluable investment that facilitates their creative process. “It’s a small lab that helps us avoid making mistakes between the moment where we come up with an idea and the moment where we actually record the song,” says Bussières. “Let’s just say it saves a lot in travel time. We often have most of our ideas in the morning, so the studio is right there, a few steps away, allowing us to work anytime we feel like it. The downside is we don’t see people much when we’re in the creative process, and we even become slightly misanthropic after awhile.”

Justine gave birth to their first child in January 2015, but Alfa Rococo will already be back onstage in April. For the musicians, taking a whole year off was simply out of the question; they love being on stage too much for that. “It’s important for us to keep going, to move forward,” says Bussières. “The birth of our first child was a wonderful moment and we want to take it all in, but we need to play! Our stage show is a work-in-progress, we’re constantly improving on it. To us, playing live is like our recess after work. It’s what we love the most, and being away from the stage for too long would literally drive us mad!”

Turning the page
“I played on Dobacaracol’s 2004 album, Soley, and it was fun, but I felt I needed a project of my own, I needed something more. Next, I worked for Cirque du Soleil and thought: we’re going to go on tour, play at night and we’ll compose during the day. We started Alfa Rococo around that time and we started saving up to produce our first album. In early 2005, we went on a European tour for a year. We composed most of the first album’s songs in hotel rooms.” – David Bussières

La Bronze is far from a newcomer on the Montreal music scene. She released a self-produced EP in 2012. “I kept things simple, to me, that EP was like a business card,” she says. As for her first, eponymous, full-length album, it came out in September 2014 and it definitely didn’t remain below the radar.

Born in Montreal of Moroccan parents, La Bronze, a.k.a. Nadia Essadiqi, was raised in the Aylmer area of the Outaouais region before returning home. A die-hard music lover, her musical taste is as eclectic as can be, ranging from Lhasa to James Blake to The Black Keys. Her outside-the-box pop songs incorporate many influences and genres, with strong lyrics veering on slam poetry at times, some rock energy and splashes of electro. The artist also mentions “some trip-hop somewhere in the mix, too.”

“Bronze is all at once soft and rough, dirty and clean. I like its inherent poetry.”

The fusion of genres culminates on the track “Explose-moi” [“Explode Me”], a song which sees La Bronze give everything she has and rip her own heart out of her ribcage to give it the the one she loves, still beating in her hands: 

J’aurais voulu être celle que tu veux toujours pour dessert / I wanted to be the one you always want for dessert
J’aurais voulu être celle qui te manque même quand je suis là / I wanted to be the one you miss even when I’m next to you
J’aurais voulu être celle que ta mère préfère / I wanted to be the one your mom prefers

Her delivery is still animated by a youthful ferocity, and it’s obvious even on record that she has a magnetic stage persona, where she plays drums standing up, accompanied by a guitarist and keyboard player. The opportunities to see her live last fall were scarce, thanks to the buzz she started generating (over 28,000 downloads of her track “La jeunesse feline” on iTunes!), but such occasions will be more plentiful during the winter and spring of 2015.

“Yes, I can confirm that. I just changed bookers,” she says. “I feel very confident with my current team. I don’t have any expectations, I don’t know exactly how things are supposed to happen, at what speed and in what order. I’m grateful for what is happening to me and I’m ready for whatever’s next,” says the artist, who got a chance to perform in front of industry movers and shakers last June in Los Angeles. La Bronze presented her live act during three SOCAN-sponsored showcases, one of which was on the stage of the mythical Sunset Marquis Hotel. “It was an awesome experience, my music was very well received, and the fact I sing in French wasn’t a problem and, as a matter of fact, it was even a plus… People there found it exotic!”

La Bronze might have been absent from concert venues last fall, but Essadiqi was still busy as she starred in Le cœur animal, a stage play she wrote and starred in at Théâtre La Chapelle in late October. The play bears the same themes as her songs do: devouring passion, burning desire, sexual or otherwise, thequest for freedom… She says, “I did write the songs and the play at the same time!” It’s through acting that the 28-year-old came to a career as a professional artist. These days, one can catch her in several popular Québec TV series such as 30 vies and Toute la vérité, as well as in movies such as Denis Villeneuve’s Incendies, where she played “a small role as a bitchy secretary, one of the few funny moments in the movie.

“But through it all, I was always drawn to music.  I started making music when I came back to live in Montréal, where I started in street percussion bands; I can do music through rhythm. One thing led to another, and playing percussion instruments made me want to write songs and sing them.” Essadiqi is a very instinctive person, and whether it’s music or theatre, she’s mainly self-taught, but does attend the occasional private class and professional development workshop.

“Bronze is an alloy made of copper and tin, known for its electrical conductivity and resistance to corrosion,” she says. “It’s used to make weapons, medals, and jewelry, notably. I love what the name evokes: metal, vibrant colours, contrasts. Bronze is all at once soft and rough, dirty and clean. I like the sonority of it, its inherent poetry.”

Bear her name (and face) in mind. The Bronze Age has just begun.

Turning the Page
In this era where so many performers – from your run of the mill pop sensation to the most left-field songwriter – are “discovered” through talent contests, La Bronze thought she too would give that a go… No luck, though: For three years in a row I tried getting in Les Francouvertes, but I was never chosen. At some point, I just decided I’d go about it some other way, via a different route. I was a bit disappointed, but in the end I just let go and I turned the page.”