Laurence Nerbonne

Photo: Kelly Jacob

A year ago, Hôtel Morphée – singer Laurence Nerbonne’s band –  announced that they were breaking up. It was a sudden end that nobody saw coming. “I was just as surprised as you were by that announcement,” says Nerbonne. “We made different life and career choices, and our goals were no longer aligned. But no matter what, Hôtel Morphée was the best of schools for me.”

But even though the transition was sudden, it was also smooth. “Everyone has their job in a band,” says Nerbonne. “Now, it feels like there’s no longer any distance between my songs and myself, between the audience and me. It feels even more authentic now. I am what I am, and it’s something I hadn’t had a chance to do before.”

Just as Marie-Ève Roy, Fanny Bloom and even Beyoncé (!) before her, Laurence Nerbonne is taking the solo leap of faith. She launched her first eponymous album on March 18, 2016. On “Montréal XO,” the album’s first single, she joyfully announces her comeback (loosely translated):

Je reviens, je reviens chez moi (I’m back, I’m back home)
Je reviens, cette fois fais-moi entrer (I’m back, this time let me in)
Je reviens, cette fois je vais rester (I’m back, this time I’m stayin’)
I’m back, the energy will flow

It’s a comeback, but it looks more like an arrival, and Nerbonne even calls it a “birth.” “There’s something dizzying about it, but I can also say I’ve never been more ready,” she says. “I totally assume everything.”

Who’s Afraid of Pop Music?

XO is a 10-song album produced in collaboration with Philippe Brault. Both sweet and sour moods are wrapped sonically elaborate music reminiscent of Scandinavian pop. The set of songs is like a breath of fresh, springtime air. A classically-trained violinist, Norbonne says music has moved her deeply since her youngest age. Nowadays, she feels inspired by the current crop of pop producers like Diplo, Skrillex, The Weeknd and Christine & The Queens. She devours Laurence Nerbonneeverything currently popular in that realm. “Lately, I’ve noticed that we’re looking for a lot of things in music, and that it occupies an ever-important place in our lives,” she says. “We all work alone sitting at a computer… It comes naturally that people accompany their daily lives with soundtracks that soothe and move them. People need music.”

Is music so ever-present now because it’s so readily available? In the realm of royalties, not everything is so rosy; there are many irritants for music creators. “I recently talked about it with my friend Stefie (Shock) who knew the Golden Era of record sales,” says Nerbonne. “I’m not really affected by it, since I’m not part of the generation that sold albums… I think we’re going through a transition phase with regards to streaming and the new ways to disseminate music. We can’t just sit back and complain about it. It ‘s become unavoidable.”

Nerbonne is a fan of Lykke Li and Lorde, and harbours an immense respect for the latter’s work. “This woman asserted herself and made a place for herself in the studio,” she says, “turning down arrangements to use hers instead, and she uses her voice a lot, which is something I do, too. When I can choose between a synth or my voice, I often choose to pitch-shift (enhancing the high or low frequencies of) my voice.”

A Free Woman

Laurence’s lyrics are a snapshot of the issues that concern the new generation. “Tinder Love” takes a look at the precipitous love affairs born in cyberspace, and the disillusion that they bring to human relations. Does the “XO” in the album title – typographic metaphors for a kiss and a hug – relate to the way we express love through a screen? “Yes, on the first degree, but it also means ‘totally free human being’ in Web-speak,” says Nerbonne. “It’s not a code known by most, but kids use it to express appreciation beyond sexual preference, gender and nationality. Kids nowadays are much more open and they avoid stereotypes. Maybe it’s because they’re less influenced by the Catholic church? Whatever it is, I find them very inspiring. They’re more accepting and don’t glorify barriers and boundaries.”

There’s definitely something fresh in Nerbonne’s brand of scintillating pop, like a wind of change is sweeping throughout her entire album. “I want to do empowering stuff,” she says. “On Montréal XO, I wanted to re-create that feeling you get when you’re in a club and you hear a song you love and everyone starts dancing and we’re all sharing an experience together.” Laurence wanted that euphoric feeling on all of the album’s songs. And she got it, now that she can do everything she wants uncompromisingly.

“It’s a leap of faith and I’m thrilled about it.”

There are too few female producers in this industry. Sure, a few names readily come to mind when one thinks of “songwritresses” who took control of their creative projects, such as Emilie-Claire Barlow and her collaborator Steve Webster, who were nominated at the 2016 JUNOS for Record Producers of the Year. Or Grimes, whose Art Angels was one of 2015’s most critically-acclaimed albums.

Enter a newcomer in the select club of female singer-songwriters, beat-makers and producers, but, strangely, she has a man’s name. RYAN Playground, née Genèvieve Ryan-Martel, launched her first EP Elle in February on then Secret Songs imprint, which is run by another Canadian electro beat-maker, Ryan Hemsworth. This first effort highlights Playground’s impressionist writing, which turns on finely crafted rhythms and atmospheres, rather than your typical A-B-A-B-C-A pop song structure.

“I don’t limit myself to any given structure.”

“I don’t limit myself to any given structure,” says the Montréal-based artist. “When I finish one part of a song, I build the next according to how I feel at that moment. I really don’t mind if, in the end, it sounds like several songs rolled into one. Weird structures are inspiring to me, and I hope they’ll inspire those who are seeking something new.”

Even though Elle is largely self-produced and the result of sterling work, Playground did, however, also tap Hemsworth for the production of “Folders,” the first single. It’s a song that has a very special significance for the artist. “Those lyrics mean a lot to me, and I really wanted to work with him, so it was the perfect time to do so,” says Playground. “I’ve always been a fan of Secret Songs, so releasing Elle on that label was the only logical thing to do.”

Judging by her incredibly busy schedule in the coming months, RYAN Playground is about to become a household name in the Canadian electronic music scene. “I’m working on a new project that should come out in late summer, early fall and include many collaborations,” she says. “And people all across the country will be able to catch me live in May!”

You certainly can’t accuse siblings Matthew and Jill Barber of rushing into their first album as a duo. Between them, these two acclaimed singer-songwriters have a discography of 14 albums (Matthew eight and Jill six) as solo artists.

Fans catching their solo shows over the years have often been treated to guest appearances by the other Barber, and these isolated examples have proven that the pair of brother-and-sister voices can harmonize sweetly and smoothly.

The two Barbers finally decided to forge ahead on a full duo album last year. The result is The Family Album, released April 1, 2016. “We didn’t feel in any hurry to make an album together,” says Matthew. “We knew it would happen and that we had our whole lives to do it. The timing was right last year, in terms of our album cycles. Jill had just had her first child, her son Josh. She suggested the time was right, and my theory is that maybe having a baby was putting her even more in a family state of mind, perhaps wanting more family around.”

“It’s good for your creativity to write with something different in mind.” – Jill Barber

The pair decided a joint (and jointly-produced) album should be a combination of cover versions of songs that they both loved, plus new original compositions that they’d write specifically for the project. With Matthew based in Toronto and Jill in Vancouver, they grabbed chunks of time together in each city to sort out possible cover choices and share their new tunes. Three new Jill Barber tunes (“One True Love,” “Big Picture Window,” and “Today”) and two new Matthew Barber songs (“Grandpa Joe,” “Sweeter The Dawn”) made the final cut.

Jill found the challenge of writing for The Family Album creatively inspiring. “It felt a little different than writing for my own albums,” she says. “It’s good for your creativity to write with something different in mind. It puts a few interesting parameters in there. I know Matt felt the pressure to not just write another love song, as you’re going to be singing it with your sister. You can’t get too sexy with the lyrics!”

The choice of album title has a resonance beyond the simple sibling connection. “We wanted it to be like a family photo album,” says Jill, “full of nostalgia and stories, with a warm and comfortable feeling. I think we succeeded at that.” Themes of family dominate their original tunes, with “Grandpa Joe” being a tribute to the grandfather the siblings never met.

Whittling down the outside material to cover was a tricky process. “When you can choose any song in the world, it’s hard to figure out which kinds of sounds you want to focus on,” says Matthew. “It also meant that if either of us had any reservations about a song, we just moved on.”

The six cover songs comprise three written by Canadian songwriting greats (Neil Young, Gene MacLellan, and Ian Tyson), one tune popularized by Leonard Cohen (“The Partisan”), plus songs by ace Americana singer-songwriters Bobby Charles and Townes Van Zandt.

Jill Barber, Matthew Barber“We’re proud Canadians, but we didn’t want to limit ourselves to making a Canadian covers album,” says Matthew. “With the songs still on our short list, we realized that the sound that was emerging for the album was, broadly speaking, a Canadian take on Americana.”

In searching for material, Matthew fortuitously came across “Song to a Young Seagull,” a hidden gem in the catalogue of the late, great Canadian singer-songwriter Gene MacLellan. “Through the process of brainstorming songs, I spent time on YouTube scurrying down some rabbit holes and listening to things I’d never heard before,” says Matthew. “That song was on there in the form of a demo sung by Gene.” The Barbers ran the song choice by Gene’s daughter and fellow songsmith Catherine MacLellan, a friend of the pair.

Interestingly enough, the Barbers have never tried songwriting together. “I haven’t done a lot of collaborating in my songwriting at all,” says Matthew. “The closest I’ve come was in 2014, working with Justin Rutledge on songs for a theatrical adaptation of The Graduate. On this album, it worked out the way we did it, writing on our own and then polishing the songs together.”

“For some reason I’m not sure we’d be the best co-writers,” says Jill. “Sometimes it’s nice to have a little bit of distance in life from a co-writer.” Singing together is a different matter. “That does seem to come naturally to us,” says Matthew. “We’ve never really had to work hard to find a good blend together.”