Born in November 2011 of a chance encounter between three hip girls – Vivianne Roy, 22 (guitar), Katrine Noël, 21 (ukulele) and Julie Aubé, 21 (banjo) – at New Brunswick’s Accros de la chanson competition, Les Hay Babies have taken the music scene by storm. After releasing their first EP, Folio, and opening for Lisa LeBlanc in 2012, the dynamic singer-songwriter trio garnered six Music New Brunswick awards and won top honours at the 2013 Francouvertes festival. Just like that.

“We didn’t know it was a competition,” Roy admits, referring to the Accros de la chanson (or “Song Addicts”) contest. “We thought it was a festival. Once we found out, we went ‘Wow, OK,’ but we weren’t expecting anything. We were based in New Brunswick and had to make the trip each time to play. So we didn’t have much of a chance to see other artists perform, but the whole thing was a big help, for sure. It really was a springboard for bookings in venues and festivals, as well as for the release of our album. That’s definitely what kick-started our career.”

Out of sight, but not of mind

Last April, the first Hay Babies full-length album, Mon Homesick Heart, hit the stores. Produced by François Lafontaine (Karkwa, Alexandre Désilets), it contains 11 indie-folk-country-psyche original songs written on the road, far away from family and boyfriends. “You can hear it in our songs,” Aubé points out.

While “J’ai vendu mon char” (“I Sold My Car”) explores the Hay Babies’ playful side, songs like “La toune du soundman” show a more vulnerable and moving aspect of their personalities. As Noël explains, “this is the most personal song I’ve written so far, and one of the first where I talk about myself directly. I had been away for a month and a half, and I was homesick, hence the album’s title. I don’t always draw inspiration from the same sources, though. Some of my songs refer to things I didn’t go through myself, others are pure fiction.”

As a songwriting collective, the Hay Babies are a democratic team trying new approaches as they go along. “We’ve never had a specific working method,” says Noël. “Sometimes I’ll write a song from start to finish, or just about, and I’ll bring it to the band for us to work it as a group. Sometimes we’ll work on another girl’s composition. Other times, we’ll start with a scrap of text we can’t fully develop for some reason. The three of us can also sit down start writing a new song from scratch.”  “We all get to give our two cents worth about each song,” Aubé further explains. “That may give rise to a jam, but there’s no set formula.”

Acadian talent

While artists like Lisa LeBlanc and Radio Radio have loomed large on the Quebec music scene for a few years now, Acadian musicians have tended to shy away from the limelight. “I think we all suffer from some sort of an inferiority complex,” Aubé explains, “because we have  no structures back home to help us to succeed, and you can’t make a living just playing gigs around New Brunswick. You have to go to France or Quebec. You’ve got to export yourself. And not everyone is ready to do that. It means getting out of your comfort zone, and it isn’t easy.”

“The fact that many young Acadian artists are beginning to make a living with music is encouraging others to try their luck,” Noël adds. “There’s always been talented musicians here, and lots more are waiting to be discovered.”

Overnight sensations

Have the Hay Babies found it hard to adapt to their instant fame after two critically and publicly acclaimed albums and many sold-out shows? “No,” Aubé replies. “You know, as we live outside Quebec, there’s lots of things we aren’t aware of. There are tons of articles written about us that we never get a chance to read. Each time we get there, we’re shocked to realize how well-known we’ve become. We played for 700 people as part of the last FrancoFolies Festival in Montreal, and we were expecting nothing!”

“Initially,” Roy recalls, “I had planned to work in music, but I had no idea you could make a living with it. I was going to be a journalist or an album cover designer, but not up front. This whole thing pretty much caught me unawares.”

“From the word go,” adds Noël, “we forged ahead without taking the time to look back and take it all in. We’re spoiled, and happy that our work is being appreciated, but I don’t think we’re able to appreciate how huge what’s happening to us is. We’re just grateful to be able to make a living in music and have a good time.”

On the road (again)

After spending a “laid-back” summer, the Hay Babies are gearing up for a tour of France, and  appearing in the ROSEQ Fall showcase program, the Coup de cœur francophone festival and various other events. “Each of us also has small individual projects on the side,” Roy points out. “Then, next year, it’s back to songwriting for a new album of English-language songs. We’re also planning to spend more time on the production side of the next album than we did on the last one.”

Aubé sums up: “For us, performing in English is a creative choice. We’re all bilingual. We’ve played lots of English songs that have not yet made their way to an album. I think it’s a sad thing when you create something you’re proud of, and you can’t release it. Besides, performing in English could bring us closer to our American country roots and, who knows, maybe help us tour south of the border or in other more Anglophone places. It would be a bit crazy not to try to get people to hear our songs. In music, you can’t set limits for yourselves. You’ve got to keep exploring and looking around.”

Jill Barber is well acquainted with risk. “It’s what I find thrilling about being an artist,” she explains, “both when I’m on stage and when I’m deciding what I want my next artistic move to be.”

Her fearlessness has served her well. More than a decade into her career, Barber, 34, has sold more than 100,000 genre-straddling albums, been nominated for more than 30 awards, and had her music featured in commercials and television shows, including the Netflix hit Orange is the New Black. She recently signed on to be an ambassador for the Save the Children charity, and just published her second children’s book, Music is for Everyone.

It was her decision to pursue motherhood, however, which finally gave her pause. “My big fear in deciding to have a child was that after 10 to 12 years of trying to gain momentum in my career, I would have to put on the brakes,” she admits. “That really scared me.” Determined to keep things rolling along, Barber made a promise to herself: before her baby was a year old she would put out an album. “I decided to be a working mom,” she says, “but of course, I felt a bit like I was rolling the dice, because I really didn’t know what it would be like.”

“I can’t follow the muse because I’m chasing my baby.”

It was a gamble that paid off. In September 2013, six weeks after the birth of her son Joshua, Barber was back on stage, performing at the New York City premiere of the American television series, Masters of Sex. Staying true to her word, she released her sixth full-length album, Fool’s Gold, in June 2014. Produced by longtime collaborators Les Cooper and Drew Jurecka, and engineered by Stu Young, the album sees Barber musing on both love and heartbreak in a series of new songs touched by jazz, blues, Motown and country.   “I feel really proud of this record,” she says. “I feel like it’s really clicking with people, which is really nice.”

While she now takes Joshua on the road with her with when she performs, the Vancouver-based Barber is quick to point out that she couldn’t do it alone. “There’s no secret!” she laughs. “It only works because I have a lot of help.” Her husband, CBC Radio 3 personality Grant Lawrence, took a paternity leave to join her on the road for the first six months, and she now travels with a nanny. She also credits Joshua for being an easy baby. “He just goes with the flow. He’s a really good traveller.”

Barber says motherhood has also required her to take a more disciplined approach to her songwriting. “None of the songs on this record were written at midnight when I was struck by inspiration,” she laughs. “The way my life is right now, I can’t follow the muse because I’m chasing my baby.” Instead, she carves out regular time for writing, and to work with her collaborators.

As she matures as a musician and performer, Barber – who won the SiriusXM 2012 Jazz Artist of the Year award as well as the 2013 Western Canadian Francophone Album of the Year for Chansons, an album recorded entirely in French – says she’s also getting more comfortable saying no when she needs to.

“Because as musicians we love what we do so much, it’s easy to exploit that love,” she says thoughtfully. “I want to be a nice person, but I’m also realizing that I don’t have to be quite so accommodating. I still want to work hard for opportunities, but I would like to not have to hustle for them all the time.”

Still, Barber is grateful for everything she’s been able to accomplish since she cashed in her savings bonds (all gifts from a grandparent) more than a decade ago in order to try her hand at making music full-time. “That was a risk, I guess,” she laughs, “because up until that point, that was my life savings!” But Barber, who ended up recording her first full-length album, Oh Heart, at CBC’s Studio H in Halifax soon after, also knew it would be more of a risk not to try. “My ultimate goal back in 2004 was to not have to work a day job,” she recalls. “To me, that was success.”

Looking ahead, Barber says she hopes to be able to collaborate more formally with her first musical inspiration, older brother Matthew Barber. Refusing to let fear keep her from pushing her own musical boundaries, she also has plans to work towards making what she calls a “full-on country record” at some point down the road.

“When I look at my record collection, it crosses a lot of genres, so why as an artist should I be expected to represent just one?,” Barber muses. “I write all the songs, and for me, that’s what ties them together.”

Discography: A Note to Follow So (EP) (2002), Oh Heart (2004), For All Time (2006), Chances (2008), Mischievous Moon (2011), Chansons (2013), Fool’s Gold (2014)
SOCAN member since 2003

It all Started With a Song.

When last year’s major label debut album of that name soared up the charts (the title track single became the most added song in one week at Canadian country radio, ever), it kicked off a 12-month period that has loudly introduced Brett Kissel as a fast-rising young star whose time has come.

The album’s success helped the Alberta-raised, Nashville-based singer-songwriter take home the 2014 JUNO Award for Breakthrough Artist of the Year, and in July he scored more nominations (eight) for the 2014 Canadian Country Music Association Awards (CCMAs) than any other artist.

“This year is one I’m never going to forget. It is just incredible.”

As Kissel says, “This year is one I’m never going to forget. Any time I stop to take a few minutes to reflect, I almost go crazy. It is just incredible.” Helping keep Kissel sane is the realization that he’s earned this success through a potent combination of talent, sustained hard work, and a winning personality. The kid’s no novice, as he alludes to in noting “they say it takes ten years to be an overnight success, and I’m right about that stage now.”

Indeed. His first album, 2003’s Keepin’ It Country, was released when Kissel was just 12. In 2006, he was nominated for the CCMAs Chevy Trucks Rising Star award – the youngest nominee ever.

As his debut’s title indicates, the young Brett Kissel’s style was firmly in the traditional, stone-cold-country vein. That was also showcased on three following independent albums, the last two of which, Tried and True – A Canadian Tribute (2006) and My Roots Run Deep (2008), sold an impressive 70,000 total copies. Most of those sales came at his shows, as the teenaged Kissel gigged relentlessly. “It’s sometimes frustrating to hear people say ‘you didn’t pay your dues in the bars,’” he says. “Well, I was too young for the bars, but I played every small town in Alberta, repeatedly.”

In 2003, Kissel’s commitment to country music as a career was cemented via a remarkable interaction with Johnny Cash, one of the biggest influences on the young singer. “When I heard June Carter Cash passed in May 2003, I sent a letter of condolence to Johnny Cash,” Kissel recalls. “At that time I had recorded Keepin’ It Country, with songs on there from Johnny, Jim Reeves, Marty Robbins and Wilf Carter.

“On Sept. 12, 2003, I was staying home from school as it was my big CD release concert that night. My mum wakes me up in the morning and says ‘I’ve got great news and sad news.’ The great news was that my concert in my community of Glendon, Alberta, had sold out, 600 tickets in a village of 300. The sad news was that Johnny Cash had died that morning. Then my dad came home with the mail, including a big double-envelope for me. Inside was an 8 x 10 [photo] autographed by Johnny Cash that said ‘To Brett. Jesus First. – Johnny Cash.’ To get that on the day he died, and the day I was releasing my first record, is something I’ll never forget. I see this as a true tale that shows everybody this is what I’m meant to be doing!”

This conviction has instantly impressed the industry types that Kissel has encountered. An early mentor, noted Canadian songwriter/producer Steve Fox, recalls their first meeting. “Brett walked up to our table at the CCMAs about ten years ago, acoustic in hand, sang us some old-time country, and proceeded to tell us who the writers were, who the artists were, who produced the albums and who shook a tambourine on the recording. That may be a tad hyperbolic but it’s not far off. Point is, he charmed us all and blew our minds. Even people unaware of his talent were struck by his moxie and salesmanship, but also his genuine respect and knowledge of those who came before him.” Fox went on to collaborate with Kissel on songwriting, as well as producing and dueting on Tried And True.