“When I was younger, I constantly questioned my style; nowadays, I’ve understood that it’s when I don’t overthink it that I’m truly myself…” Leif Vollebekk is lucky: he only needed three albums to arrive at this fundamental revelation. Not that his previous albums were banal, for from it: Inland and North Americana, two ambient folk gems, earned him rave reviews here and in Europe, where he was when we reached him for this interview. Following a gig in Paris, he had just arrived in Brighton for more concerts, part of a tour alongside American singer-songwriter Gregory Alan Isakov—“an amazing guy in the vein of Leonard Cohen”, says Vollebekk. Based on the reactions to Twin Solitude, his latest album released at the end of February, Vollebekk could easily headline his own tour, to which he says, “could be, but I like the idea of reaching an audience that’s not mine, plus being an opening act is a humbling experience.”

“The first take is always the best, because when I do a second one, it’s like I become the spectator of my own song.”

With his calm and delicate spoken voice, Vollebekk’s singing voice – often compared to that of Jeff Buckley – is surprisingly intense, with an elegant tremolo. His voice is agile and spontaneous, and its beauty is enhanced by a rough touch that he doesn’t try to polish off. “To me, the first take is always the best, because when I do a second one, it’s like I become the spectator of my own song,” says Vollebekk. “As a matter of fact, I end up kinda listening to my memory of that first take in my head. That’s when I start over-analyzing the song, and thinking about how to improve this part or that part of it: there was a nice crescendo here or a nice decrescendo there… Then you start copying yourself, and the original imperfect beauty of it fades away.”

Clearly, Vollebekk likes spontaneity. Indeed, the vast majority of Twin Solitude was recorded live with the whole band – and yes, indeed, almost entirely in one take. “I showed the chords to my musicians and we dove in,” he says. “Except for the strings, which were overdubbed – as well as “Vancouver Town” and “Elegy,” the sound of which I wasn’t satisfied with, and re-recorded in one quick session – I’ve always kept the free spirit of the first version.”

Vollebekk also uses this highly instinctive approach for his lyrics, which are much more impressionist than narrative. “The great Russian film director Andreï Tarkovsky once said something that made a big impression on me: my movies will never be symbolic, but always metaphoric,” says Vollebekk. “OK, I know it sounds pedantic to quote Tarkovsky, but it’s a way to express the fact that I want to create images and feelings, not messages. Words can have many meanings, and I don’t want to set their meaning.”

Although Vollebekk’s songs often seem to be floating in ether – and indeed, one of his songs is titled “Into the Ether” – they’re also often anchored in a specific territory: Telluride, Big Sky Country, Michigan, Vancouver… all places that can easily be located on the map of the mythical North Americana. “I don’t know where that’s from,” he says. “There were a lot on the first album and I tried to avoid that on the second, but it just came back on its own! It’s strange in a way, because I prefer songs about fleeting moments, yet moments that I can re-live every time I sing about them.”

Multiple meanings and evanescent sentiments are all well and good, but what about the album’s title, which – coming from a young man who sings in English, is from Montréal, but was raised in Ottawa by an Anglophone father and a Francophone mother – inevitably reminds us of the “two solitudes”? “I actually hadn’t thought about it at first, even though it’s part of who I am,” says Vollebekk. “In the rest of Canada, I feel really Francophone, and the reverse is also true. I’m very comfortable with my double identity.”

But no matter on what side of the linguistic fence he finds himself, Vollebekk has less chance of ending up alone.

It happened when John met Paul. It happened when Bryan Adams met Jim Vallance, and when Drake met 40. It happened when someone’s chocolate fell into someone else’s peanut butter. It’s the classic story of the sum being more than the individual parts.

And it happened when SOCAN members Breagh Mackinnon, Carleton Stone and Dylan Guthro ­– three Nova Scotia-based, solo singer-songwriters – got together at a SOCAN-sponsored Gordie Sampson Song Camp in the summer of 2011 in Cape Breton.

“That was the first time that we had all played music together and collaborated,” says Mackinnon. “Carleton and I are both from Sydney, so we kind of knew of each other before and had played some shows, but that was the first time that we all came together creatively.”

Between them, Mackinnon, Stone and Guthro (son of musician and SOCAN member Bruce Guthro) have made six solo albums and worked with some of the brightest lights in Canadian music, including JUNO Award-winning duo Classified and David Myles, producers such as Howie Beck (Feist, Hayden), Hawksley Workman (Serena Ryder, Tegan and Sara) and Broken Social Scenester Jason Collett.

“We were making music together so much, we decided to make it official and just start one band.” — Breagh Mackinnon of Port Cities

But when the three combined their musical and songwriting talents at the song camp, it was the start of something bigger – although at first they didn’t know it. For the next three or four years, they continued writing songs together, contributing to each other’s albums, sharing bills and playing in each other’s bands.

“And then, just a couple of years ago, we were making music together so much, we decided to make it official and just start one band,” Mackinnon says. That musical penny dropped in 2015 when they officially formed Port Cities. They were soon signed to Warner Music Canada, and in early 2017 they released their eponymous debut album, which they recorded in Nashville.

To produce the album, they prevailed upon the good graces of their Song Camp host once again. Fellow Nova Scotian Gordie Sampson has carved out a space for himself in Nashville as one of Music City’s most sought-out songwriters and producers, having worked with the likes of Carrie Underwood, Keith Urban, Miranda Lambert, Florida Georgia Line and many others.

“We’d been there a number of times to write songs,” says Guthro, “but to go down and work on our own music was really cool. We were very lucky that Gordie is so well-connected down there, and he has his go-to guys; he knows all of the players, the musicians and engineers, and whoever we needed. We were constantly blown away by how fast and how incredible they were. One chord chart, listen through the song once, make a note or two, and go in and, first or second take, just kill it.”

While in Nashville, they also made sure to take advantage of the wealth of songwriting talent there. In fact, a few of the songs on the album were written in Nashville with songwriters they’d met through Sampson.

“Every trip that we go down there, we try to do some sessions with the writers there,” says Mackinnon, “because, obviously, some of the world’s best songwriters live in Nashville. We would always be writing on our own, but we wouldn’t want to pass up the opportunity to write with some of those incredible writers down there as well.”

But when the trio started to choose which songs they were going to record as Port Cities, they initially dug into their respective individual back catalogues for songs that hadn’t yet found a home.

“So we kind of started from there,” Stone says, “but then as we were finishing the album, we figured out a really good work flow, just between our three creative minds. So I think that’s become more the reality as of late.”

The collaborative writing process they hit upon capitalizes on their different musical strengths and diverse musical backgrounds.

“I feel like I can be more of the lyric-title-concept guy, and one of my weaknesses would be melodies,” Stone says, “where Dylan is amazing at melodies, and Breagh’s a jazz prodigy, so she has all these musical tools in her toolbox, that I have no idea [how to use]. I think that’s why the collaboration works really well. Our skills complement each other when we’re in the co-writing situation, which is one of the reasons why we kept working together after we met. And that’s only gotten stronger as we’ve evolved as writers and friends, really.”

So far, the fruits of their collaboration appear to be catching on with listeners. Their song “Back to The Bottom” topped Spotify’s Viral Hits Chart, attracting more than 340,000 streams to date.

After having recently toured as an opening act for fellow East Coaster Rose Cousins, the trio is revving up for some album release shows on their home turf. Then Port Cities will set out for a U.K. tour in May, before returning to Canada for the summer festival season. By the fall, they’re back in Europe for more shows, finally returning home for more dates in Canada.

The flow they’ve found by combining their unique voices and talents has begun to carry them far from their home ports, but you won’t hear a sour note from Port Cities.

“We’re pretty much booked till Christmas, it seems like,” Stone says, “so we’re not complaining.”

After leaving his stamp on more than 325 songs in the 50 years of his career so far – including four SOCAN Classics – Michel Robidoux was finally persuaded by Pierre Lapointe, two years ago, to revisit and record eight of his immortal songs, two new ones, and one that his mother wrote when he was three, “Petit Ange Blond.”

In the end, those 12 songs, produced by Lapointe’s invaluable collaborator, Philippe Brault, remind us all the extent to which Robidoux is a genius of melodies, composition and arrangements.

“I’m really enjoying this because I’m finally hearing those songs as I had imagined them when I wrote them,” says Robidoux. “Of course, arrangers will do what they please, and appropriate your songs once you let them go. I played Jean-Pierre [Ferland] Pierre Flynn’s superb version of ‘Le Petit Roi’ as well as the two stripped-down versions of ‘Le Chat du café des artistes’ [written by Lapointe and Ariane Moffat], and he said: good job, Robidoux!”

The Robidoux premier album also features Alex Nevsky, Bïa, Daniel Bélanger, Marie-Noëlle Claveau and Catherine Major, who all contribute to re-visiting Robidoux’s musical legacy and extensive track record: La Boîte à Clémence, L’Osstidcho, the Charlebois-Forestier classic where “Lindbergh” came from, Jean-Pierre Ferland’s classic Jaune, Leonard Cohen’s I’m Your Man, Renée Claude (“Ce soir je fais l’amour avec toi,” which is magnificently reprised by Major), the cult children’s TV show Passe-Partout (175 episodes co-written with Pierre F. Brault), and even a collaboration on Pierre Lapointe’s Punkt! (2013), not to mention his bass-plying duties in the country band Les ours.

And since Ferland was mentioned earlier, we had to talk about Jaune a bit, since two songs came from that album. Robidoux was part of the in-studio creative process until producer André Perry fired him and instead hired two Americans, Buddy Fasano (who came up with the piano intro for “Petit Roi”) and Art Phillips.

Once Jaune was released, Ferland hooked up with Robidoux and his touring musicians, who were part of the Bulldozer show at the Wilfrid-Pelletier hall (Guy Latraverse, the show’s producer, had authorized the onstage presence of a huge yellow bulldozer).

But no matter the nature of the adventure, Robidoux always was the figurative designated driver, the most sober one, in charge of keeping the brood under control in the studio or onstage. But once the job was done: party!

“Look at the Lindbergh album cover,” says Robidoux. “Next to my name, they wrote ‘Musical Connector.’ I was the link between all those out-there musicians, and I was in charge of making sure they’d get to the studio on time, and ready to play. We recorded part of it at the [now-defunct] Stereo Sound on Côte-des-Neiges [in Montréal] and the rest at André Perry’s studio. In 1967, Robert and I hung out at the Esquire Show Bar, which was the spot to hear American soul musicians. You can hear it on the album, especially the organ groove on ‘Engagement.’

“But by 1969, I was exhausted from being ‘Tout écartillé’ [the title of one of the songs which freely translates to “discombobulated”] in Paris with Robert. The big show at the Olympia, non-stop partying, I had to take a break, it was getting too heavy for me. That’s when I told Jean-Pierre I was available.”

Leonard Cohen is another one of Robidoux’s ex-bosses. Cohen had heard some of his work in 1988 and immediately hired him on for his I’m Your Man album, and Robidoux ended up as the album’s artistic and musical director, arranger and keyboardist.

“When the time came to record his vocal tracks, he was surprised that I was still there, while all the other musicians had left,” says Robidoux. “He said I was the first musician interested in sticking around for the vocal takes. He cut me three cheques for the three songs I co-wrote (two ended up on the album, ‘I’m Your Man’ and ‘Everybody Knows.’ And one of the three cheques bounced,” he says with a guffaw. “Cohen had access to an unlimited budget from Columbia (CBS Records) and he’d just gotten a Crystal Globe Award. But he still cut me a bounced cheque!” Turned out it had something to do with an overzealous bank teller. That infuriated Cohen and he immediately compensated Robidoux for his trouble.

Following an open-heart surgery and quadruple bypass, Robidoux now thinks of his health, first: “I smoked for 59 years. We weren’t exactly choir boys, back then. We basically abused every substance. But I’m an old Micmac, I’m tough…”

But why release an album now? “I chose to be a session musician and a composer,” he says. “But now is the time, man!” Robidoux plays on eight of the album’s 12 songs. “What am I proudest of? My Felix trophy for best arranger on the Passe-Partout Christmas album (Le Noël de Cannelle et Pruneau) ,because that award was voted by my peers. Let’s not forget François Dompierre was also in the running! That’s no small feat.”

Not bad for a musician who can’t read or write music. Does it make you want to record another album? “You bet!”