What if making music was a privilege that had to be exploited? La Fièvre, a duo composed of Ma-Au Leclerc and Zéa Beaulieu-April has accepted that mandate, and turned it into a mantra. These modern witches have embraced post-punk, injecting it with their environmental and feminist concerns, while mastering all that electro has to offer – and taken it all the way to the semi-finals of the Francouvertes last fall. Their first, and self-titled, album, released on Oct. 30, 2020, invites us to realize everything that’s collapsing around us.

La Fièvre“The over-arching idea behind our album is really a feeling that we have to do better,” says Beaulieu-April, the voice of the duo. The ecological crisis, and the hardships that particularly affect women, stand as pillars in their songs – which are not exactly weapons, but rather the means of shouting down, and getting out, everything that’s no longer right.

“We’re trying to re-connect with a sense of community that’s been lost during the pandemic,” continues the songwriter. “LGBTQ people who find their strength together in celebrating Pride, women who stand up against sexual violence, people who campaign for the environment… All those who depend on their clan, and who have something to lose or defend at this time, are hurt by the isolation due to the pandemic.” There’s a call to action in the music of La Fièvre: an invitation to find oneself, and step out of one’s comfort zone as well. “It’s even more noticeable a song like ‘La crise,’ says Beaulieu-April, “because it says that if you want change, you have to touch the others to keep moving forward.”

The message carried by the two women is as true in their music as it is in their musical journey: You’re not going to get rid of us. “You don’t want us, you don’t want to hear our message, but here we are anyways,” says Beaulieu-April. “We have no intention of stepping aside.”

Ma-Au was classically trained on guitar, and Zéa went everywhere with her djembe (and African hand drum). That’s how their paths crossed when they were in Grade 11. “We decided to do a song about accessibility to drinking water for Secondaire en spectacle and what we did back then was far from electro.,” says Beaulieu-April.

Their current style took hold on an EP released in 2017, and from that point on, their project gelled more seriously. By that point, Ma-Au left the guitar behin,d, and started exploring piano and, naturally, synths. “She started creating all of our sounds. That truly is an art form. I started writing lyrics that were in synch with everything we love, namely pretty enraged electro-pop,” she remembers.

As modern witches, they have a connection with tarot, astrology, and the occult. “We’re very inspired by all that, and there’s an undeniable connection with feminism,” says Beaulieu-April. “Claiming we’re witches is claiming our place among women who were excluded because they were at ease with their healing powers and their sexuality. To us, it goes hand-in-hand with our commitment to eco-feminism. It is really close to who we are and what we do.”

Club music and electro aren’t often associated with  political discourse, but the duo insist on reminding us that everything is possible. “We put a lot of effort in researching our sounds. The sounds you hear on the album were all created from scratch by Ma-Au using instruments or programming. They’re sounds created from nothing, and it’s true that to an outsider, it may seem much easier than strumming a guitar. But it’s much, much harder,” says Beaulieu-April.

Everything is malleable in what they do, as Zéa works the themes on one side, and Ma-Au prepares rhythms at home. Then they meet, and the juncture of sounds and words becomes a manifestation of what might exist if we all united. “I know how to program and Ma-Au knows how to write, so there are a lot of opportunities for sharing in our duo,” says Beaulieu-April.

La Fièvre is convinced that having a sense of community has never been more important than it is today, and the fact that music venues have been shut down for several months means messages are no longer circulating. “Initially, we’d planned to launch our album in a swingers’ club last May,” says Beaulieu-April. “We thought it would be cool to meet people we don’t know, to listen to people we never hear about. We spent everything we had, and then some, to bring this album into the world, and then we were faced with an impasse.”

Music that tries to live online has its limitations and, for Beaulieu-April: “It’s artificial, fast, and it feels incomplete So let’s cross our fingers, and reclaim the expression that now stands at the heart of the music industry as a challenge, a threat, or a hope: We have to re-invent ourselves.”

It’s hard to compete with the Christmas classics – “Jingle Bells,” “The Little Drummer Boy,” “Santa Claus Is Coming To Town,” “Let It Snow,” “Santa Baby,” “God Rest You Merry, Gentlemen,” “Deck The Halls,” “Frosty The Snowman” – the list is endless. (Some are copyright-protected, some are in the public domain.) But every year, songwriters give the holiday song format a go: snow, check; fireplace, check; chimney, check; mistletoe, check; maybe a Santa here, a ho-ho-ho there.

For a songwriter, the thing about a Christmas song is its shelf life. It can be broadcast on radio, TV, online, played in retail stores, dentists’ offices, and so on, year after year, in perpetuity, meaning a steady seasonal stream of performance royalties for the songwriter(s), throughout their lifetime(s). It can even be re-released every year (hello Mariah Carey).

Former Bee Gee Barry Gibb – one of the world’s greatest songwriters – recently caused a stir by expressing to the BBC his view on modern Christmas songs: “A bit too much of a marketing trick,” he said. Of the 1,000-odd songs the group wrote, not one celebrated the festive holiday. Bah! Humbug!

Sometimes, just like any other song, at any other time of year, writing a Christmas lyric can be cathartic. In 2018, pop-rock singer Corey Hart penned “Another December,” a touching and unique personal tribute to his late mother, but universal enough for anyone who’s lost someone and must get through the holidays without them.

“We were super-close, and the holiday seasons were particularly poignant and melancholic after her sudden passing in 2014,” Hart says. “The songwriting process helped me traverse through some of those emotional minefields to a more peaceful space of reconciliation.”

“It’s so quiet / But I hear you every time the choir sings,” he croons, and later, “All that you taught me since I were a child / All of your light still shining through me, ever so bright on this Christmas / Bright on this Christmas night… Oh, Mama, how I miss you most on every Christmas Eve.”

“‘Another December’ may well be one of the few Christmas-inspired songs not included on a traditional Christmas offering, but rather on a standard album,” Hart believes of the piece, that was added to his Bob Ezrin-produced EP, Dreaming Time Again, in 2019.

If you’re lucky enough to get through 2020 without experiencing a loss, there’s also the isolation felt from the strict recommendations not to celebrate the holidays with people outside your household, in order to curb the rampant spread of COVID-19, as cases rise exponentially. For many, this Christmas will be sad, lonely, or just plain weird.

To capture that feeling, and in keeping with her noir-pop sound, Vancouver artist Kandle co-wrote the appropriately titled “Christmas Mourn” on Zoom with Debra-Jean Creelman, formerly of Mother Mother, about longing for a significant other who lives far away.  “The first line I came up with was, ‘I wasn’t warned of the many ways the holidays can make a girl mourn,’” she laughs, adding that the lyric, “Underneath the mistletoe, I long for you and kiss my phone,” is “very real for me.”

The part-guilt-trip, part-lovesick ballad was inspired by old classics like Elvis Presley’s “Blue Christmas” and “all the Bing Crosby stuff,” says Kandle. “The goal was how to make it sound classic and timeless, and add strings and sleighbells, and the kind of melodies that are new, yet predictable and catchy. And I wanted to put a twist on it and make it sound very vintage, but have completely modern, COVID-related lyrics.

“That was the fun of it,” she explains. “Making something that sounds uplifting and beautiful, but lyrically is quite sad. We can’t be with our loved ones this year. I think it has to be a really depressing year to get me to write a Christmas song [laughs]. I don’t think I know how to write really happy songs.”

Johnny Reid decided to turn that COVID frown upside down. The country singer has released a handful of original Christmas songs, dating back to 2009 with “Waiting for Christmas to Come,” and just released a deluxe version of the My Kind of Christmas EP from last year. He’s covered a range of topics from sadness to anticipation.

“The goal was how to make it sound classic and timeless” – Kandle

“Before I even started writing for these Christmas albums, I thought, ‘What’s Christmas to me?’ Christmas is home. Home, good one. Family. Friendship. Innocence. Magic. Anticipation. I’m trying to capture the emotion of what Christmas is, and it’s very subjective because Christmas is a lot of [different] things to different people,” says Reid.

“Then, there are certain colours that you need to use: snow and angels and bells and church and choirs. All these images and words that are undoubtedly connected to Christmas. But the real approach for me is to try and capture the spirit of Christmas, usually lyrics, melodic, and music, and try and tie that together to take people to Christmas time.”

For this historic year, Reid – who moved to Canada from Scotland with his parents when he was 13, and now lives in Nashville – set out to write a song called “Christmas 2020,” with his frequent co-writer Jodi Marr.

“I was going to write what everybody’s feeling,” says Reid, “and then I thought, ‘What we should do is just accept the situation for what it is, and get on with Christmas and have some fun.’ That was the idea. The opening, ‘What a year this has been / I won’t be sad to see it end,’ I think a lot of people feel like that.”

In the rollicking pop song “A Time For Having Fun,” instead of lamenting that we can’t all get together as usual this Christmas, he sings, “If hindsight is 2020 / Let’s sing and all be merry / Let the sleigh bells ring again, my friends.” Then he throws in some pandemic life references: “Hang virtual mistletoe – it’s free” and “Zoom call a Christmas party.”

With lyrics so tied to this year, will this be the only Christmas song in history with an expiration date? Reid doesn’t think so.

“It will be a long time, I believe, before people forget 2020,” he says. “There’s going to be grandparents, people my age in their 40s, teenagers, and even kids. I believe the shelf life, to me, is going to be consistent with the amount of people that remember this crazy time.”

A Partial List of 2020 Christmas Songs
Arkells – “Pub Crawl”
Carly Rae Jepsen – “It’s Not Christmas Till Somebody Cries”
Charles Spearin – “The Christmas Box”
Chilly Gonzales – “The Banister Bough”
Command Sisters – “Steal Your Heart”
Colleen Brown –  “What Do You Want for Christmas”
Ellevator – “Urge for Going”
Fortunate Ones – “Hold On To Christmas Day”
Friggin’ Arab Orchestra Company (FOAC) – “Arab Ladies Sing Christmas Carols Written By Jews”
Gowan (with Stuck On Planet Earth) – “Can You Make It Feel Like Christmas”
Jeffery Straker – “Come Walking in the Snow with Me” and “I’ll Be Missing You This Christmas”
Jenn Grant – “Downtown Christmas Eve”
Jordan Klassen – “Came Back on Christmas Day”
JP Saxe (with Julia Michaels) – “Kissin’ In The Cold”
Lowell – “To Mary”
Mark Malibu & The Wasagas – “Christmas Twist”
Michele Mele – “Christmastime in Canada”
Nova Carver-Cook – “A Different Christmas”
PoLe – “Chestnuts Roasting On A Dumpster Fire”
Reuben and the Dark – “Xmas in California”
Said the Whale – “Wanting Like Veruca”
Sarah MacDougall – “Out Of This Blue”
Sloan – “Kids Come Back Again at Christmas”
Stephan Moccio (with Gary Levox of Rascal Flatts) – “Christmas Will Be Different This Year”
Steven Hardy – “I Won’t Be Home for Christmas”
Tegan and Sara – “Make You Mine This Season”
Zeus – “Marching Through Your Head (Christmas Edition)”

“Does this make me a Grammy-nominated producer???” Toronto producer FrancisGotHeat tweeted on the day the 2021 Grammy nominations were announced. Of course, the 24-year old was being coy – he actually was part of the nomination for a Best Reggae Album Grammy, for his work on Skip Marley’s song, “Higher Place.”

Racquel Villagante, FrancisGotHeat, Camille Mathews, SOCAN

Racquel Villagante, FrancisGotHeat, Camille Mathews

Known primarily for his hip-hop productions over the past few years, the producer admitted he was surprised by the nomination being in a reggae category. But he welcomed the “pretty crazy”  creative process around the song, which he attributes to his connection with Malay, a Los Angeles-based producer who’s worked with Frank Ocean, John Legend, and Alicia Keys, among many others.

“ [Malay] likes to involve me in a lot of the projects he’s working on,” says FrancisGotHeat. “I had sent him the beat earlier. And then he took one element from the beat I sent him, and he built his own melodies around that… Then he sent me that back, I put on some drums, and some 808s, and some bass. And that’s all the record really needed. I sent it back to Malay, who’s in the studio with Skip during all of this. He heard it and jumped on the beat, and then he FaceTimed me right away, he had to tell me, like, ‘Yo, man, this is so fire,’  and all that. It was pretty much organic, even though we weren’t in the same room.”

FrancisGotHeat’s working relationship, being signed with Malay, means he also has production credits for pop artists like Zayn and Lykke Li, and he says the experience has helped broaden his creativity. “What I love about working with him is, he’s never doing hip-hop or R&B, like I usually am,” says Francis. “So he’s always pushing my boundaries, trying to force me to have a bigger sound than I have already. It always drives me to try something different, that I would never normally try.”

FrancisGotHeat first came to prominence as a hip-hop producer, with his self-described “ambient and eerie” sound, notching credits for local artists like Tre Mission and Roy Woods – before his major breakthrough scoring the Sampha-featuring  “4422” from Drake’s More Life project. This success came after logging time and making crucial connections at The Remix Project.

“On a lot of my streams, I probably spend more time talking to the audience than making the beat”

It was at that renowned creative hub that he was able to fine-tune his love for hip-hop with his background as a multi-instrumentalist, and strengthen his working relationship with Wondagurl –  who he met in their teenage years, at Toronto’s Battle of the Beatmakers, where they engaged in an extended face-off battle. Francis attributes that night as the moment Toronto’s music scene was put on notice about the then-15-year-old’s potential.

Since then, FrancisGotHeat and Wondagurl have gone on to work together on tracks such as Big Sean and Eminem’s “No Favors,” Bryson Tiller’s “Blowing Smoke” and Lil Uzi Vert’s “Feelings Mutual. ”She’ll just, like, ask me for a particular vibe, or I’ll start playing something,” says FracisGotHeat. “And then she’ll just say, ‘Oh, that’s dope,’ and I’ll just keep building off it. When I feel like it’s ready, I’ll send it to her again, she’ll do her thing.  Working with Wondagurl is one of the easiest things ever.”

Like everyone else, FrancisGotHeat found that the ease of his creative process was impacted by COVID-19. In the early days of  the North American lockdown, like many producers and DJs, he made his presence known on Instagram.  But then, feeling restricted by the one-hour window time-slots, he made the switch to Twitch, after seeing what producer Kenny Beats was doing on the platform.

“I decided to try it out, because he was the only other producer on there, really,” says Francis. “And then the audio is way better on Twitch, and they can actually see my whole screen. And I can actually talk to people properly on there. I’m very shy to begin with, so for me to even try to do it was really, really weird at first. But the first stream, I had very low expectations, and then 30 people pulled up. I’m, like, ‘Wow, okay, you know what, I’m just gonna keep this going.’”

Over the past few months, FrancisGotHeat’s online confidence has grown in step with his audience, which regularly numbers in the thousands, as he’s let viewers in on his process of creating beats, and hosted songwriting sessions with Jessie Reyez, and his frequent collaborator Anders, among others.

Yet for FrancisGotHeat, the streams also provide him with an opportunity to give back. He recently held Heat Check, a songwriting contest that doled out music-production software to the top three entrants, and he’s also raised money for charities. Days after the Grammy nomination, he hosted a prize-pack remix contest, playing an impressive mountain of remixes, submitted by emerging producers, of a song by Los Angeles vocalist NEVRMIND.

Throughout the event, Francis remained humble and readily accessible to the audience, and the producers chiming in on the chat. While he’s providing opportunities for up-and-coming beatmakers, it’s evident that FrancisGotHeat gets as much out of the process as he puts in. “On a lot of my streams, I probably spend more time talking to the audience,  answering questions and bantering with them, than making the beat,” says Francis.  “One thing they’ve told me is, a lot of producers don’t talk to them on their stream. I find that weird, because the main reason I’m on here is to talk to you guys, answer your questions, and whatnot.”  (He was similarly open about his production techniques at a SOCAN “Cooking Beats” session at Canadian Music Week in 2018.)

Now, in the pandemic era, FrancisGotHeat considers his streaming sessions an inherent part of his workflow, despite his initial reluctance  “They [Twitch] were really on me about it,” he says. “Like, ‘Yo, you can’t just do it one time, you got to keep it consistent. Because you’re not gonna see results in a week, it’s gonna take time’… And then, after the first month or two, I got really comfortable with it. Now it’s like second nature to me.”