Aube is the title of Mehdi Cayenne’s third album, launched in November 2015. Aube (dawn), as in the promise of a new beginning, yes, but mainly “because of your lips’ rounded shape when you pronounce it,” explains the Ottawa singer-songwriter. “It’s a soft, feminine word, contrary to my previous album’s title, Na Na Boo Boo! I wanted to drift towards that kind of sensibility. There’s something cyclical about the album: dawn is not the conclusion of something, but the premise of a story.”

We are worlds away from the happy, quasi-punk mess of Oh Canada, the song that helped Mehdi turn many heads in many contests in 2014. He left the Festival en chanson de Petite-Vallée with four trophies and the Trille Or Gala with three… The many honours and recognitions keep piling up for the 28-year-old artist.

“The chords, mostly major, and frank, straightforward and open-minded lyrics. . . I’m drawn to such emotional nakedness.”

So, where does the change in tone on Aube come from? “I was looking for the same type of intensity and dynamic variations, but at a much lower decibel level,” says Cayenne. Rest assured of one thing, however: he hasn’t lost his unclassifiable and atypical nature. “I’ve kept some elements of musical eclecticism, surprise and anti-conformism,” he says. “But on this album, I sought inspiration in more candid classic works like Rodin, Van Gogh or… La Compagnie Créole!”

He Who Talks More Says Less

Mehdi CayenneIn almost all of his interviews, Cayenne mentions La Compagnie Créole. He says, “The chords, mostly major, and frank, straightforward and open-minded lyrics… I’m drawn to such emotional nakedness. It’s also expressed in the choice of topics. There’s something risky in that process, there’s no hiding behind something cool.”

Stemming from the thr Ottawa Valley’s slam poetry scene, Mehdi Cayenne (née Hamdad) writes texts that are as nimble as they are solid. To wit, his song “Pigeon-Voyageur”:

Nos mots sont des sons qui vont loin [Words are far-travelling sounds]
Mais qui n’expliquent rien [But they can’t explain anything]
Ainsi les poèmes meurent d’envie [That’s why poems are dying of envy]
de se lover dans nos mains [To curl up in our hands]

“Words designate a concept or an idea,” says Cayenne, “but the more we conceptualize things, the more we forget that reality is perceived before it is named.”

There’s something extremely sensual about the album, almost like a kiss blown to someone who is leaving. Is it a break-up album? Not really. Is it a tale of desire, a convoluted adventure, a tango of the impossible? Most definitely. But even on a song such as “Crève-coeur,” where Cayenne’s sometimes tortured singing is reminiscent of Jean Leloup’s, it’s suffering rather belligerence that rises to the surface: a howling animal lickng his wounds.

“It’s true that I’m more pained than angry,” says Cayenne. “I’m interested in all the reasons for a relationship, before, during, and after. I also harbour a desire to intermingle the sacred and the profane. The carnal side of things, but without forgetting the clumsy candor of a catechism class.”

The Story of Rivière

Megdi CayenneThere’s grandiose sentiments, the ideal of love, and there’s the coffee pot you set on an element of the stove. Small gestures of daily life that exist alongside great mystical surges; that’s all part of Mehdi Cayenne’s DNA. “I arrived in Québec as an infant because of civil war,” he says. “My mother is French. I’ve lived in Montréal, Moncton, Ottawa, New York City, briefly, but I was born in Algeria. My grandfather and 14 generations before him are Sufi imams. Sufism is the mystical branch of Islam. You find the same idea in Prévert, the intermingling two poles that seem to be worlds apart, uniting poetry and realism, joy and pain. “

The Cayenne in his stage name comes from the Cayenne prison, the backdrop to the life of Henri Charrière, an author Mehdi discovered when he read Papillon. Except here, the prison he’s trying to avoid is the one we sometimes build in our own minds. This, then, yields a well-fitting name for an artist who does things his own way, without ever closing doors and, so far, totally independently.

When asked where he sees himself 10 years from now, Cayenne says he’ll be happy if he’s found a way to re-invent himself. What makes him positively jubilant is the fact of “anticipating an artistic evolution, because when you look at it dispassionately, being an artist is quite monastic. You write songs, albums, you tour, then you go home and start over. I just I find a way to not repeat myself.”

That’s what he achieved with Aube, an album that’s like a novel composed of poems, the story of a narrator and of Rivière, who is akin to the spirit of a wandering love. “There was never such linear narration on my previous albums,” says Cayenne. “Aube is an absentee ode, because Rivière is at once omnipresent but never there. You wonder who or what Rivière is? Rivière is that which upsets you yet, from the inside, saves your life.”

Watch “Je te veux,” performed by Mehdi Cayenne onstage at the Mercury Lounge in Ottawa during the launch party for his album Aube on Nov. 4, 2015.

With the opening of a dedicated studio at 604 Records’ latest digs in Vancouver’s Railtown district, Jonathan Simkin (head of 604 Records, Light Organ Records and Simkin Artist Management), has realized his longtime dream of providing his artists with a truly multi-purpose space that speaks as effectively to the present state of the music industry as to its future.

The facility was inspired by an experiment at their former offices. “We bought this new building a few years ago and moved in around Canada Day 2014,” Simkin says, “but we’d had a smaller space before that. Basically, a band on the label, The Organ, had made a record, but weren’t happy with it. They came to me and said, ‘We want to re-do our album. We know you’ve spent a bunch of money, but you’ve got this space in the back of your offices. We could record there and it won’t cost you anything.’”

This was before the bottom dropped out of the studio business, when costs per day still ranged from $1,000 to $2,000 in some rooms, he adds. And, based on the success of the record and the ongoing use of that first room by other 604 artists, Simkin decided he’d like to do more recording in-house.

“I’ve been telling the artists, ‘Look at it as a blank slate; it’s up to you to create the work and use the space creatively.’”

“It got used a lot, especially by our ‘baby’ bands, which was nice because they could take their time,” Simkin says. “And I liked that we were making music in the building and our staff could hear it and become a little closer to it,”

Ideally, however, he wanted to create a studio space from the ground up, one that was properly isolated and constructed and would allow 604’s roster and third-party clients to create, record and distribute a diverse array of content, in keeping with the evolving appetite of fans.

Enter former Simkin management client Carly Rae Jepsen and “Call Me Maybe,” the success of which made the idea more feasible. “We were going to do this sooner or later,” Simkin says, “but ‘Call Me Maybe’ sped up the process.”

The location of their existing building was already heavily developed, so Simkin searched up-and-coming areas for the right space; one large enough to hold offices and the studio, and that would be a solid investment.

“That left Chinatown and Railtown, which has become the hottest part of Vancouver,” says Simkin. “Three years ago Railtown was still pretty run-down, but it’s changing rapidly. It’s like there’s a restaurant or condo going up every day, and property values have exploded. That wasn’t the reason we did it, but it was a nice side effect. And it didn’t seem like a big deal. It seemed natural. I’d been thinking about it for so long that when we had the resources I was, like, ‘Okay, let’s go find a building.’”

In addition to functioning as a recording studio – with two production rooms, a control room and a live room – the facility has a green screen, infinity wall and makeup bar, making it ideal for photo and video shoots. The centerpiece of the control room is a vintage SSL console that formerly resided at Vancouver’s Little Mountain Studios, which was used by the likes of Bon Jovi, Motley Crue, Aerosmith and Nickelback. “That’s how Chad Kroeger came to acquire it,” says Simkin. “And when I told him what I was doing, he said, ‘The board’s sitting here and if you want to refurbish it, you can keep it at 604.’”

The first streaming event held at the studio was the Oct. 23, 2015, release of the Marianas Trench album Astoria, which included a Q&A with the band, a performance of four songs, and additional content streamed live. “It was a bit of a guinea pig,” says Simkin. “We weren’t sure if the site was going to crash, so we were kind of mellow on the promotion.” Still, the event attracted 11,000 viewers. “And that’s amazing, the power of social media, of going straight to fans and having 11,000 people show up with very little advertising. It was exciting.”

Highly flexible, 604 Studios offers multiple means of monetizing content – none of which involve physical product. A small paid audience (roughly 25 people) can see the show live, and the event can be recorded and offered as a paid download, video-on-demand, or streaming.

Admittedly, building the space was an aggressive move, but the expense, Simkin says, was building the space and acquiring equipment: “Now the bleeding’s over and we’re reaping the benefits.”

The only time Simkin had second thoughts was when Josh Ramsay (lead singer, principal songwriter and producer for Marianas Trench) took a tour of the facility. “Josh didn’t say much,” says Simkin, “which freaked me out because he usually has something to say. So I was, like, ‘What do you think?’ He looked me right in the eye and said, ‘Simkin, you’ve got the biggest balls of anyone I’ve ever met.’”

That made Simkin wonder if he’d made a horrible mistake, but Ramsay says, “I thought it was a bold move, and I think you’ve got to be bold. Having a record label where you can record your album, shoot your videos on a soundstage, do live streaming – that all-encompassing entity – is a great concept. It’s set up for where the industry is going. I think what Jonathan has done here is taken an honest look at the future and adjusted for it in a really intelligent way.”

Anything that reduces the time, money and hassle of getting content from band to fans is a good thing. Down the line, as an investment property, it’s solid, and it’s a window for fans to see the creative process for themselves. Says Simkin: “I’ve been telling the artists, ‘Look at it as a blank slate; it’s up to you to create the work and use the space creatively.’”

And they are: one of 604’s bands wants to use the space to do a weekly TV show. Additionally, it’s a rental space, which has already been used for photo shoots, third-party videos and by the TV show The Flash. “It was built primarily for our artists,” says Simkin, “but if we can rent if from time to time, we’d be silly not to do it.”

Jack Black as an inspiration to a young songwriter? An unusual mentor for sure. Then again, Francesco Yates isn’t your typical Canadian crafter of songs. He wrote his first one when he was only 11 years old, after watching the heartwarming 2003 Jack Black comedy School of Rock; he signed to Atlantic Records at 16; and his recently released debut self-titled EP features “Change the Channel,” a co-write with 10-time Grammy-winning producer Pharrell Williams, of “Happy” and The  Voice fame. Did we mention Yates recently turned 20?

When we catch up with the fledgling singer-songwriter, he’s resting at The Oswego Hotel in Victoria, B.C., a couple of days after tearing up the red carpet, playing a 2015 American Music Awards pre-show concert with Alessia Cara, Shawn Mendes and Gabi, and later acting as one of the presenters at the gala. Asked how he’s doing, Yates simply says, “I’m maintaining.”

To understand how Yates maintains this laid-back persona, let’s first flash back nine years to that pre-pubescent epiphany when he penned his first composition.

“Next year, I plan to take over the world one little curl at a time.”

School of Rock is what ignited the whole movement I took towards music,” he recalls. “Jack Black inspired me a lot, and so did many of my music teachers in school, who’ve taught me more than just music. I’ve had the great privilege of working with a lot of great people, many of whom symbolized what Jack Black was trying to teach the kids in that movie.”

And working with Pharrell? “He is the Sensei… The Minister of The Funk,” Yates says. “He was instrumental in shifting the way I thought, and shifting the way I see music. You learn a lot from him. I was just trying to soak up as much as I could during those sessions.”

What specific lessons did Pharrell teach Yates? “He taught me to not be as afraid,” he says. “He’s very good at taking things that don’t seem like they work with pop music and putting them into pop music. With him and me, it was the electric guitar. He encouraged me to be that guy on the guitar, which I always was in my basement, but wasn’t otherwise. He taught me to put that in the forefront. I didn’t know where to position it… It was nice of him to impart his wisdom.”

Yates signed to Atlantic Records as a writer at 16, but only just released his first EP this past fall – a six-song collection, marked by “Better to be Loved,” for which he created a stunning performance at the 2015 SOCAN Awards (see the video below); the catchy single “Call Me”; and the Pharrell-produced “Change the Channel.” What took so long? Yates says he needed to find himself first before putting his songs out to the world.

“I’m figuring that out every day, as all of us are,” he says. “I don’t think I’ve found myself so much, but what I will say is that EP has a lot of diverse stuff on it. I just wanted to show all of the things that I can do. It was more a showcase, if you can call it that, rather than a complete, painted picture.

“An album is a consistent and painted picture, as well as the singles that are on it,” he adds. “The EP is supposed to be a demonstration… like a sketch, just touching on some of the things.”

When can we expect the completed canvas? In 2016, for sure, according to Yates. “As far as an art motif goes, I’ll have a blank canvas and will see the image more clearly,” he concludes. “Next year, I plan to take over the world one little curl at a time.”

Watch a red carpet video interview from the 2015 SOCAN Awards:

Track Record

  • CBC included Yates on a list of their Top 25 Canadian Songwriters under the age of 25
  • Yates was featured on the huge Robin Schulz hit, “Sugar”
  • He won the Heatseeker award at the 2015 Canadian Radio Music Awards for his single “Better To Be Loved”

Francesco Yates (EP, 2015)
SOCAN member since 2013