Long-distance relationships. As anyone with experience of these in a romantic sense can attest, they pose many emotional and logistic challenges. Making them work is a very difficult proposition.

That also applies to long-distance creative collaborations. Several prominent SOCAN members (and a few of their international comrades) are currently in such writing and recording relationships, so how do they keep the flame burning? Comparatively new technologies like file-sharing and Skype have been eagerly adopted by some songwriters as valuable tools of their trade, while others still insist on the direct, in-person approach.

Given his rural Ontario base, you might expect acclaimed singer-songwriter and in-demand producer Hawksley Workman to staunchly advocate for online creative collaboration. Not so. Now making a real impact in indie rock “supergroup” Mounties alongside Vancouverites Steve Bays (Hot Hot Heat) and Ryan Dahle  (Limblifter, Age of Electric), Workman stresses that in-person communication is crucial. 

“I think songs can definitely be written over the internet, but the music we were all inspired by was a collective human experience.” — Hawksley Workman of Mounties

“We’re very much a ‘performance’ band,” he says. “As the drummer, my part of the creation process is to inject live excitement, something that doesn’t translate to file sharing. I think songs can definitely be written over the internet, but the music we were all inspired by was a collective human experience. It’s about people in the same room smelling each other’s sweat.”

Workman rarely uses online communication in his production work (prominent clients have included Serena Ryder, Tegan and Sara, and Great Big Sea). “I e-mail mixes whenever my ridiculous rural internet will allow,” he explains, “but I’ll likely never be an ‘online’ guy.”

Rising country singer-songwriter Tim Hicks is more open to online collaboration. A recent SOCAN No. 1 Song Award winner for his first hit, “Get By,” a song he co-wrote with Casey Marshall, Neil Sanderson (Three Days Grace), and Tyler Hubbard and Brian Kelley (both of Florida Georgia Line), Hicks regularly co-writes remotely with Sanderson and Marshall. “I’m on the road all the time,” he says, “or I have the kids during the day as my wife works. If we can get a quick remote session in to keep those creative juices flowing, that makes all the difference.”

One attempt to all meet for a session in the Sound Lounge writing room at SOCAN’s Toronto office ran into a roadblock, Hicks recalls. “Neil was going to drive from north of Toronto, and I was coming from St. Catharine’s, but there was a terrible snowstorm that day,” he recalls. “We couldn’t drive in, but poor Casey didn’t get the memo in time and he went to SOCAN. I went onto Skype with Neil, who then ‘FaceTimed’ Casey on his iPhone or iPad. We were stretching technology to the max to get this session done, but we did get a song finished!”

Hicks explains that, “I write via Skype or FaceTime with other guys in Vancouver and Nashville all the time. It can be difficult sometimes ‘cause there is that delay, but that’ll get better in time.” He has also enjoyed more conventional in-person writing room sessions in Nashville. “They’re soaked in tradition there, and that approach has worked for so many years,” he says.

Fearing & White is definitely a long-distance collaboration, from Canada to Australia. Halifax-based roots-music veteran Stephen Fearing now balances a prolific solo recording career with membership in Blackie and the Rodeo Kings and, since 2008, his duo with fellow singer-songwriter Andy White. The Irish-born White now calls Australia home, creating obvious challenges. But the duo has overcome these to release two albums, their self-titled 2011 debut and 2014’s Tea and Confidences. Two joint compositions have also surfaced on BARK albums.

A flexible band whose name has changed as often as its lineup, the Thee Silver Mt. Zion Memorial Orchestra got started in 1999. This year, the unpredictable clan released their seventh full-length album, Fuck Off Get Free We Pour Light On Everything, a dense, urgent and furiously dishevelled opus (just listen to “Austerity Blues”) partly dedicated to the City of Montreal and containing some serious sonic assaults: listener discretion is advised.

As creator of the (sometimes highly politicized) lyrics of the Mt. Zion squad, Efrim Menuck (on guitar, piano and vocals) believes he knows why this is. “We’ve been a quintet for the past six years now,” he explains. “This was the first time we were writing an album in this format. It was different for the other albums. I believe that the fact that we were writing songs for a restricted number of people made for a more concentrated, more vital energy on this album. Also, we performed a lot of live concerts in the last few years, and the fact that we were constantly on the road had an effect on the final result.”

“In 2014, the barriers between compositional styles have been broken. Now, every musician on the planet has access to an amazing palette. You can make music freely.”

With blues, metal and garage music influences, the new album is a calculated departure from the band’s post-rock (a term Menuck hates) early influences. “In actual fact, our roots are in punk rock! We cultivate a healthy distrust of everything that isn’t local. The moment there’s doubt in our minds, we say no. It’s that simple. If we can seem rude to some people, it’s just that we’re shy and suspicious,” Menuck explains wryly.

Completed by Thierry Amar (bass, vocals), Sophie Trudeau (violin, vocals), Jessica Moss (violin, vocals) and David Payant (drums, vocals), the quintet goes about developing its repertoire in a strictly democratic manner. “That’s the main thing,” Menuck explains. “We begin with a riff, a melodic line or just a handful of chords from a jam session, and we take it from there. These can be contributed by anyone in the band. Then we spend a considerable amount of time finding a simple music segment and building as many variations as we can around that initial core until we reach the point where we have a song that can be as long as forty minutes or so. We then shorten this to a more reasonable duration.

“We discuss all arrangements together. Sometimes one of us will have a stronger opinion and try to impose that vision. Then the three string players [Amar, Trudeau and Moss] sometimes bring a more ‘chamber music’ feel to the end product. The music always comes first. That’s not negotiable. When we reach the point where the instrumental piece is roadworthy, I can sit down and try to come up with lyrics that bring all this together.”

With three musicians (Menuck, Amar and Trudeau) also performing on a regular basis as part of Godspeed You! Black Emperor, all five Mt. Zion members are full-time musicians. Are they living depraved rock-star lives? Well, not exactly.

“We’ve been very lucky in the fact that we’ve been working with people who believed in us from the very start, and have remained our friends to this day,” says Menuck. “Essentially, we make our living on the road, but everyone’s on the road these days, and the competition is fierce. We love what we do, and I believe it’s important to think small. We don’t have a manager. We don’t undertake excessive tours. We do everything ourselves. We take a homespun approach, keep expenses low and split our small pie in a reasonable number of pieces. All we’re trying to do is make an honest living. And it’s not easy. It’s becoming harder all the time. Sometimes I think I should get out of the music business and do something else, but I’ve been doing this for 20 years now. At this stage of my life, I don’t know what else I could do. My C.V. says ‘Musician,’ period.”

Mt. Zion is planning to keep busy until the fall. Incisive guitar and booming violin aficionados were pleased to hear the news of the release of a Mt. Zion EP in May, and of another one later in the year, always without compromises, no matter what. “In 2014,” Efrim Menuck says, “the barriers between compositional styles have been taken down. Now, every musician on the planet has access to an amazing palette. You can make music freely without feeling you’re making a deep or formal statement. This is one of the great things about making music today. You can do whatever you like. After being around for a number of years in this business, you kind of need to find a track that can motivate you to keep going.”

Her parents had decided to move the family to the middle of nowhere to make sure that she, her sisters and their brother wouldn’t get into any trouble. But even tucked away in the Southern Manitoba rural town of Aubigny, marijosée (without a capital M) lost none of the impetuousness she displayed as a five-year-old. Every now and then, she would plan to run away from home, surreptitiously fill her backpack with food and head for path leading to the main road. “I inevitably turned back before reaching the road because it was so far away,” recalls the musician, whose first full-length album, Pas tout cuit dans l’bec was recently released.

Music came into marijosée’s life around that same time. Her Franco-Manitoban parents used to drag the kids to mass every Sunday. “My dad sang in the choir,” says mariejosée. “He had such a loud voice you couldn’t hear the other singers. It was embarrassing! He eventually signed me up for the choir too, because he and my mom wanted us to be able to sing in French. During long car rides, they used to make us translate our favourite English songs into French. That’s how Bill Withers’ ‘Lean On Me’ became ‘Penche-toi sur moi’,” she recalls, laughing at the literal translation. Obviously, it worked. Although perceptible in person, the singer’s English accent is almost impossible to detect on record, as if she had assimilated the peculiar musicality of the French language through osmosis.

“Every two years I would change specializations – moving from classical singing to pop to jazz and even to country,”

Then came the traditional piano lessons. Before each session, the teenager used to stick her used gum under the piano because her teacher didn’t allow chewing. After accumulating an impressive collection of multi-coloured flattened bubblegum balls, she switched to voice lessons, but her own way: “Every two years I would change specializations – moving from classical singing to pop to jazz and even to country,” she says. “This provided me with new ideas and techniques to choose from as I was trying to discover my own voice. In the end, I think that jazz was my greatest influence. I’m extremely attracted to that music style because of the freedom it allows in terms of improvisation and sudden rhythm changes. Let’s say it agrees with my borderline personality disorder,” she giggles.

Departing from the electro style of her 2011 first EP Rebondir (Bouncing Back), marijosée’s new album explores jazz influences, coloured by sometimes unpredictable, sometimes warm vocal effects and replete with standup bass lines and jumpy percussion.

“Jazz has been the other great discovery of my career,” marijosée explains. “When I switched from singing lessons to percussion lessons, my voice and my phrasing changed. I started singing more rhythmically, separating words more clearly and experimenting with sound.” She now writes her own vocal melodies from rhythms she drums on any surface she can reach. “I wrote the album’s title track from a beat that turned me on. That song tells the story of how my family encouraged me to go for food instead of for a music career.”

“Pas tout cuit dans l’bec,” is not the only selection addressing marijosée’s career as a singer-songwriter. “Promesse de la fontaine” (“Fountain’s Promise”) contains the answer to those who encouraged her to move to Quebec for the sake of her career. “It’s not that I refuse to leave Manitoba because, in a way, we don’t have all the tools we need here,” she says. “Grants are fine, but I don’t have a record or management company at my disposal. At the same time, I don’t want to move just to try my luck in Quebec. If I were to receive a concrete offer, I might change my mind, but re-locating to Montreal to keep my fingers crossed and stand on a street corner with my hat and my guitar… That’s not my bag.”

And if most of the other tracks of her album deal with the complex relationships that exist between marijosée and men, the reason simply is that she thinks that all the men she’s met since breaking up with her former husband were “stupid idiots.” But that’s another story. “Stay tuned, and when you listen to my upcoming second album, you’ll find out if I’ve finally met the right guy,” she jokes. At press time, marijosée was scheduled to perform across Canada with dates in France and Switzerland in the summer months.