Laura NiquayShe was born with a guitar in her hands, in a family of musicians that sang Hank Williams as much as it did Georges Moustaki. “I inherited my family’s talent,” says Laura Niquay who, on April 30, will release a new album of folk and rock songs titled Waska Matiwisin, which means “circle of life” in her native Atikamekw language. “I was born to be a messenger,” she says. “That’s my talent and it’s important to value the talent you have.”

But the most important thing, insists the singer-songwriter, is to enunciate clearly while singing. “Especially since I write more and more with disused Atikamekw words that were used before,” she says. “It’s good for the young people in our community, especially those who live in urban areas,” as she is now, having moved to Trois-Rivières, more than three hours away from her home village of Wemotaci, northwest of La Tuque, Québec.

One example of such disused words, which can be heard on “Moteskano,” a folk song propped up by electric guitars, and rock as well as traditional drumming: “Nikinako ketcikinako,” sung in the chorus. It means “taking our shoes off and putting our shoes back on.” “It’s something we express differently today,” the musician explains. “What’s more, our Nation has three distinct communities that all speak Atikamekw slightly differently. I have nephews and nieces who live in the city, and who are slowly losing the use of our language, and this affects me a lot. It’s important for me to sing properly in our language.”

Niquay’s creative process is meticulous: she consults elders and works with techno-linguists – “three Atikamekw women who specialize in the field” – to make sure she has the right words in her songs, and to try to rehabilitate some that time has almost erased from memory. “I actually learn new words that I’ve never heard before, and that’s why it’s important to work with a techno-linguist,” she says. That’s not to mention the new words that enrich the vocabulary of the ancestral language. “Like the word ‘computer,’” she says. “That one hasn’t existed for very long!” And if you’re curious, it’s translated as “Kanokepitcikan.” The word for “iInternet” is even more complex: Pamikicikowipitcikan.

You won’t, however, hear those words on Waska Matiwisin, because Laura Niquay prefers signing about the universal rather than the modern. The importance of family, respect for nature, the sacred, and the spiritual realm are the central themes. “But above all,” she says, “it’s an album about resilience,” a word whose meaning was already too well understood by First Nations peoples before it became a mantra for the rest of Canadians during the pandemic.

“There’s also a song about mourning, ‘Otakocik/Hier,’ because we go through a lot of it in our communities, that also touches me a lot,” she says. “Another song, ‘Nicim/Mon petit frère,’ is about suicide. They are, however, songs that aim to prevent these things; that’s why I consider myself a messenger. I certainly don’t want to be a downer, but I just want to share my perspective on this ‘circle of life’ we all find ourselves in,” she says, with its dramas and happy moments. “We all live with our problems no matter where we are in the world. We’re all human, and this album was made for everyone.”

Niquay spent three years working on the creation and recording of the dozen or so songs on Waska Matisiwin, at Sophronik Studio in Verdun, under the direction of producer Simon Wall. They range from the soft, slide guitar-driven folk ballad “Aski/Terre” – which she sings with a voice that she herself deems “gravelly” – to the powerful rock of the formidable “Eki Petaman/Ce que j’ai entendu, to the aforementioned “Nicim/Mon petit frère,” an astonishing collaboration with Shauit, on a vaguely reggae groove, sung in Atikamekw and Innu.

One of the most touching songs of the album is “Nicto Kicko,” where Niquay’s soothing voice is carried by the sound of an upright piano, before beckoning an orchestra. The title means “Three Days,” which refers to the amount of time during which the artist didn’t hear about her father. “I turned that story into a slow song, because three days without a word is a long time, especially since it was snowing,” she says. “One of my uncles had been found dead at home and we were hoping it wouldn’t be my dad’s case.” Three days later, he was seen coming out of the grocery store. “Il ne nous avait jamais entendus / Parce que pendant trois jours Il voulait être seul / Avec ses écouteurs aux oreilles,” Laura sings softly. (“He never heard us / Because during those three days / All he wanted was to be alone / With his headphones on”).

“Most of the time when I’m writing, I’ll look for a melody, and I record myself to make sure I don’t forget,” says Niquay. “If I happen to hear a melody while I’m dreaming, the first thing I do when I wake up is to play it on my guitar. Then I write the lyrics. Sometimes I use other people’s stories, because a lot of people write to me. They share their stories, they confide in me. I look for the right words in their stories, and I use them to write a song.”

Not a single facet of music creation slips through musician Mélanie Venditti’s fingers. While her album Épitaphes (2019) unfolded like a long, calculated, and precise farewell, her self-produced and self-released EP Projections, released on April 30, 2021, offers six unique pieces that unfold like scattered slices of life, that can be understood together or separately.

Melanie Venditti“These songs came slowly, in no particular order, over the course of two years,” says Venditt. “My album was very cerebral, as if I was writing a book, but this time, I wrote what I was living, no matter what it meant.”

Epitaphs brought us to the heart of Venditti’s mourning of her mother, in a calculated, dutiful remembrance. “This time around, it’s the opposite,” she says. “I let the music come to me.”

Obviously, 2020 was the year of pandemic self-isolation, but the stormy return of the waves of #metoo, in July, is also part of the collective memory of the past year. Regardless of what this movement evokes as a memory, trauma, or vague feeling, we have all, in one way or another, experienced or witnessed significant discomfort. “When I read some of the testimonials, I realized that it stirred a lot of stuff that I had experienced,” says Venditti. “It’s at the very heart of this EP, it truly fed my creativity.”

The result is sensitive, and she delicately underlines important observations that bring us back to the basis of the movement: the incoherence of a victim’s speech is legitimate. “It’s normal for someone who’s been abused or harassed to be unclear,” she says. They’ve experienced a trauma.” There are undeniably things that someone can never explain, understand, or judge unless they’ve experienced it themselves.

In her ethereal interpretation, Venditti addresses our relationships with others through what we love and what we hate about them. “I think that what bothers us in ourselves, we perceive more in others, and it’s the same for the things we love,” says Melanie. “It’s basic human nature to reproduce what we’ve experienced, whether it is good or bad. I was greatly inspired by that creative vibe.”

Even if it’s mainly due to lack of budget, and to benefit from the solitary time offered by COVID, that she chose to self-release her EP, Venditti doesn’t deny that there’s a “this is what I’m capable of” aspect to her decision. Producing is a another task at which she’s very adept, and she hopes to be able to do it for others in the future. “I’m competent enough to do that,” she says. “Women have a hard time saying they’re competent. And as women, we’re not afforded the opportunities to do so very often. I’ve also realized, recently, that I lack role models. There are very few women who do what I love – producing, creating songs for their project, playing on other people’s projects, and arranging.”

Venditti considers herself a musician first, and feels most comfortable in that role; songwriting came later. For “Projections,” she chose a starting point that she considers more “academic”: the piano. “What’s fun about this process is that it’s not the vocal melody that dictates the chords,” she says. “Everything starts with the music. You can see your chords more clearly on a piano. In university classes, we use the piano to understand all kinds of music theory. But if I grab a guitar, it’s often a no-brainer. With the piano, music isn’t just wallpaper for the lyrics: it has its own language.”

And when it’s time to say things and name them with words, Venditti likes little phrases that say a lot. “I’m very inspired by Philémon Cimon, who has complex ideas supported with simple words,” she says. “That way of writing touches me, and that’s what I try to achieve with my writing.”

While all the strands in the complex arc of music-making appeal to her, Venditti believes that there’s still a lot of work to be done so that women have the same opportunities as men. The chance or audacity to try things, to make mistakes, and to change course, isn’t given to women,  and isn’t innate, either. “Early in their careers, guys are much more likely to say ‘yes’ when asked to work on a project, even if they don’t feel they have what it takes,” she says. “I hope that women, in the next few years, will have more confidence in themselves, and that they’ll be given the visibility they don’t have yet. And that’s the responsibility of radio stations, big productions, and festivals, among others, because a woman who dares and speaks loudly is usually perceived as hysterical.”

The leap into the creative zone must become automatic for women, and large projects must, according to Venditti, offer a certain number of opportunities. “We need to stop hiring women to copy notes that a man has recorded,” she says. “Women need to be involved in the creation from the start. The results will be different. The creation will be that much richer. It’s time.” Indeed, it’s time.

In 2010, Jodie Ferneyhough had an epiphany. Or was it a mid-life crisis? After three decades working as a music publisher (starting in the mid-1990s with peermusic Canada), the executive had a moment that afforded him some insight to imagine what came next.

“I was ready for a change,” Ferneyhough recalls, about his decision to leave Universal Music Publishing – and the music industry, briefly. “I was pissed off at the government and wanted something different in my life.”

Not sure what that something different was, he focused first on his health. After getting in shape and running an Ironman triathlon, Ferneyhough registered a company called CCS Rights Management (the letters are the initials of each of his children), just to have something on the books. “I didn’t expect it to take off,” he says. “Much to my chagrin, it did!”

The music publisher enjoyed that Summer spending extra time with his family, but as Fall rolled around, his wife told him it was time to get back in the game. Taking a modest loan from his mortgage, Ferneyhough invested in a tracking system to monitor royalties and provide artists with statements. Initially, he was the only employee. From the outset, the raison dêtre was to serve – and take care of – creators.

Today, CCS clients include Angry Mob Music in the U.S., Galileo MC in Germany, Alondra in Spain, and Spin Master, the Canadian children’s entertainment behemoth, best known for the hugely popular TV show PAW Patrol. Colin James has signed an exclusive administration and neighbouring rights deal with CCS for his entire catalogue, as well as future songs. CCS signed a deal with Kassner Music, which controls songs by The Kinks, Van Morrison, and KISS (more about that later).

“Artists and writers need good quality administration,” says Ferneyhough. “They need a hands-on touch, someone to work for them, and frankly, protect them. A lot of writers say, ‘I don’t need a publisher.’ Maybe, at one time, but the business now is so complex and so diluted… there are so many ways to get money, so many royalties and streams, that artists can easily miss collecting everything they’re owed.”

“A lot of writers say, ‘I don’t need a publisher,’ but the business now is so complex that they can miss collecting everything they’re owed”

CCS started with a focus on administration. Since then, the Toronto-based company has grown into a globally-minded organization that also specializes in music publishing and other creative services, for an ever-expanding roster of writers, artists, musicians, producers, and corporate clients. The company recently announced the launch of a new neighbouring rights division, and confirmed exclusive, worldwide deals with Tate McRae and Montréal-based record label Higher Reign Music Group.

Ferneyhough also remains active in the industry; he sits on the boards of  both Music Publishers Canada (MPC) and the International Confederation of Music Publishers (ICMP); he’s also on the advisory board for SXWorks, the music publisher services arm of SoundExchange. “The No.1 service of a publisher is advocacy, and making sure our writers are being fairly compensated,” he adds. “I take my role on these boards seriously, because we’re dealing with people’s livelihoods.”

In many ways, despite three decades in the industry, Ferneyhough says starting a publishing company was like starting his career anew. Sure, he’d built up an extensive list of contacts, but most were based in North America, and publishing today is a global game. Ferneyhough started building CCS Rights Management’s client-base, and reputation, first by networking – regularly attending Midem (the world’s leading music forum for the global music industry). “I stood at that first gathering of my peers, petrified,” he says. “After I got over my fear, I stuck my hand out and started talking to people.”

One of the first connections he made was London, U.K.-based Kassner Music, a leading independent global music publisher. Kassner’s vast portfolio includes the rights to many legendary songs, recorded by equally legendary artists. Three years and many conversations later, CCS signed a deal with Kassner. The company continued to grow, one conversation and one deal at a time. Ferneyhough travelled extensively throughout Europe, shaking more hands.

What Ferneyhough has learned the most, as CCS Rights Management celebrates more than a decade in business, is that variety is the key. “I always felt to be a successful publisher, especially in North America, you have to have as much diversity as possible,” he says. “A record label can be a punk label, a hip-hop label, jazz label, etc., but publishers need to be musically agnostic.

“Being a music publisher is a bigger challenge than ever before,” he adds. “When I started in the business nearly 30 years ago, publishers did three things: collected money from the record companies, collected money from SOCAN/ASCAP/BMI etc. and, once in a while, did synch. Now I collect income from… I can’t even count how many sources!”

Another way he takes care of artists: The Unison Benevolent Fund

Taking care of artists is Ferneyhough’s reason for getting out of bed in the morning. Apart from CCS Rights Management, and his family, the music man is most proud of seeing the growth of the Unison Benevolent Fund. A couple of years before founding his company, in 2009, Ferneyhough and his industry colleague Catharine Saxberg, SOCAN’s Vice President, International Relations, came up with the idea for this charitable organization over cocktails at the JUNOs in Vancouver, B.C.

In July 2011, The Unison Benevolent Fund received its initial commitments of $250,000 from Music Canada and Slaight Music, followed by a $100,000 commitment from a collective of music publishers in 2012. Since then, the non-profit has grown exponentially, providing financial relief, support, and resources to musicians in need. “It just grew and grew and grew,” Ferneyhough says. “It’s sad that it has to exist, but it does.”

Nowhere was this need more apparent than when COVID-19 hit Canada. Since the beginning of the pandemic, Unison has seen a 5500 percent increase in relief applications, with new applications coming in daily. A COVID-19 Relief Program fundraising campaign saw the public and industry respond, kicking in millions to help all the artists who saw their livelihoods threatened with the shuttering of the live music industry. Then, on March 12, 2021, Unison Fund’s Financial Assistance Program received a one-time grant of up to $2 million from the Government of Ontario to immediately support individual musicians and industry workers, many of whom have lost their sources of income during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“You are seeing these people’s livelihoods destroyed – not just musicians – riggers, truck drivers, roadies,” says Ferneyhough. “We’re a multi-billion-dollar sector, and supporting these people through Unison is more important than ever before.”