It’s been a mere three years since Cuban-Canadian duo OKAN – comprised of percussionist Magdelys Savigne and singer/violinist Elizabeth Rodríguez – hit the music scene, but in short order the pair have released the Independent Music Award-winning EP, Laberinto, their 2020 JUNO-nominated debut album, Sombras, and received a JUNO win for their work with Battle of Santiago. This summer, they’ll release sophomore album, Espiral.

Raised in Cuba and educated at the same university – Rodríguez knew of Savigne as being one of the few female percussionist at the time – it wasn’t until their separate moves to Toronto, and subsequent involvement in Jane Bunnett’s all-female-ensemble  Maqueque, that they became friends and collaborators. Since then, they’ve married the traditional and modern, Cuban rhythms and western influences, via Afrobeat and jazz, in an increasingly celebrated sound.

“I’m from a very traditional city – Santiago de Cuba,” says Savigne. “I grew up with ballads, ancient, traditional Cuban music. Composers and singers like Beny Moré, Celia Cruz, Oscar de Leon [was] my childhood. No kids’ songs – all ballads from ancient times.”

“You can’t try to make the other person think like you, or write like you.” – Magdelys Savigne of OKAN

Rodríguez, raised in Havana, enjoyed classic Cuban artists like Benny Morea, while also embracing salsa sounds, and controversial performers like Cuban, Miami-based singer, Willy Chireno. “[He] was completely forbidden in Cuba,” says Rodriguez. “He would sing songs about liberation of Cuba, and liberation from communism. I would have to listen to him very quietly and low.” Both say that Western pop music, from AC/DC to Madonna, were also forbidden musical treats.

Their own work merges ancestors, immigration, love, heartbreak, and the Cuban political climate. “We’re from Cuba, but we want to show our Cuba, not the Cuba always shown,” explains Savigne. She says that as new Canadians, they’ve found creative inspiration in the diverse cultures, musicians, and genres they’ve encountered living in Toronto. “It’s impossible not to be influenced in this city,” says Rodriguez. “Songs like ‘Quick Stop’ show my fiddle and bluegrass influence, along with Turkish rhythms. ‘1000 Palabras’ shows our Spanish heritage. ‘Mas que nada,’ our similarities [with], and love for, Brazilian culture.”

For the pair, composing and songwriting together is about allowing both voices, including their differing influences and ideas, to be organically expressed, no matter how initially opposite they might seem.  “You can’t try to make the other person think like you, or write like you. It’s finding that fine line of putting those two worlds together with respect. We share all the songs,” says Savigne. “Elizabeth helps me with lyrical content when I need it, and I help her with arrangements and chord progressions. We debate the songs a lot, and then, when we have a clear picture of it, we share it with our musicians. The more we play them, the better the songs get, until their final stage.”

Instrument choices are essential to composing and songwriting for both multi-instrumentalists. “Elizabeth uses the piano most of the time. [It’s] a very complete instrument and the perfect tool for composition. I sometimes use my percussion instruments [most notably the bata percussion] for rhythm patterns that I can use on different songs.”

“I usually compose very late at night,” explains Rodríguez. “I love the silence of the night for that.  Mags [aka Savigne] is more of a day person. She has a crazy idea [for] a song and suddenly it’s done – printed and ready to go. She pushes me to write lyrics if she needs some.”

While the pair find strength in combining their creativity, their advice to artists making music solo is to always be true to your own voice, embrace feedback, and – most importantly – keep the faith.

“Try, try, try, and never stop trying,” says Rodríguez. “Maybe the first result isn’t the best, [but] it will open the door for another result, and so on, and so forth. Never give up.”

Things have changed for Kevin Saint-Laurent – a.k.a. Souldia – since 2014, the year that saw the release of his cutting third album, Krime grave. The ex-convict who, in the past, proclaimed having “a hard time following orders” is now stuck at home, obeying the self-isolating orders of his premier. “It took a pandemic to stop me!” he says, amused. “But for real, it’s the first time in I don’t know how long that I’ve had a whole month off.”

Don’t miss the discussion our Editor Eric Parazelli had with Souldia about the impacts of the COVID-19 crisis, to the left.

In this case, however, it’s a well-deserved pause. On top of the 13 albums he’s released over the last decade, either solo, in a duo, or in a group, Souldia has worked very hard since the release of Survivant with about 50 shows in 18 months. “They weren’t your average shows, either, I played the biggest stages I have so far and I headlined festivals…”

Hence the very simple title of this new offering, a significant one that arrives at a crucial moment in the rapper’s career. “Backstage represents the year I’ve just had,” he says. “I wrote all of it on the road, or in the green room. It’s the story of my life behind the scenes. I was never down with persona rap, with rappers that separate their rap from their reality. In my case, it’s almost a problem how true it all is.”

We’re miles away from pointless ditties about champagne, girls, and parties that the album title might represent; rather, it’s a new chapter in the rapper’s diary which he’s been writing, on-and-off, since 2009’s embryonic Art Kontrol. Here, we once more find Souldia traumatized by violence, and trying to escape reality through music and legal drugs. “I think of myself as deeply traumatized,” he says. “I got out of the streets, but I’ll have to deal with shady stories for the rest of my life, because the people in my life didn’t just disappear. Sometimes I look back and I’m, like, ‘Wow! I’m so glad I got out and made other life choices.’”

“Mélomane,” one of the many singles released ahead of the album, is about the contrast that will probably always be a part of who Souldia is. Having escaped the underworld of the streets of Limoilou (a working-class neighbourhood of Québec City), the rapper mixes sordid flashbacks with insights on the importance of music in his life. “Entre faire la musique et vendre la drogue/Le choix n’est pas facile faut ramener la money/Identifier le corps de son frère criblé de balles en train de pourrir à la morgue,” the artist raps in his calm and incisive flow. (“Choosing between making music and selling drugs/  Isn’t as easy as it seems, you need to make money/ Hiding your brother’s decaying, bullet-ridden body at the morgue”) .

“Sometimes I’ll find inspiration in a conversation I had with a friend,” he says. “I call to see how he’s doing, and he tells me he had to ID his brother at the morgue. Then I’m in the studio and I write about it. I’m like a sponge… It’s like I carry the baggage of all what those guys tell me about. That’s why I feel so liberated when I release an album. I’m getting rid of that baggage.”

Yet, it can sometimes be confusing. Whether it’s brutal videos (like the one for “Mélomane,” where we see a huge drug operation that ends in a bloodbath), or some clearly more aggressive productions (notably the repeated firearm sound effects in the chorus of “SKRAB”), Souldia is at ease with his penchant for violent images. “But you need to see there’s a limit to all that,” he claims. “If you pay attention to my lyrics, it’s clear I don’t condone using drugs or descending into a world of violence. I put basic values forward.”

Without going as far as reciting them like rosaries, notions such as sharing, resilience, respect, and loyalty permeate wide swathes of Souldia’s output, and even more so on this new album. “I try to find a balance,” he says. “If the album feels too dark, I’ll re-balance it by adding a song, or cutting one out. It’s a new way of doing things for me. Before, I’d go in the studio and just record what was on my mind, that’s it.”

Souldia“Magnifique” is one of those songs that brings some light to the album. “T’étais le meilleur papa du monde quand t’étais présent,” Souldia confides, in a touching text about his late father, who also led a life of crime (“You were the best dad in the world, when you were around”). “That took me a long time to write,” says Souldia. “I still have open wounds about my dad. When he died in 2011, I’d just gotten out of prison. There was a ton of things happening in my life and I didn’t have time to grieve. What I did instead was drink two bottles of cognac per show, straight from the bottle. I drank his death for four years, it was all a blur… That song helped me find peace with all of it. I hope it touches people.”

Such is the noble mission of an artist who, every day, gets hundreds of messages on social media. Messages from people who identify with his music and who, sometimes, manage to “get out of the mess they’re in.” “I feel like my job is done when I read stuff like that,” he says proudly, and with good reason.

It’s those people he addresses on “Invité mystère,” where he declares that to him, music is a “small, human way to make yourself useful.” It’s the type of softness- and light-filled sentence that would’ve been surprising coming from Souldia just a few years ago. “I’m evolving on the human level,” he says. “I don’t stop myself from writing what I feel, and I don’t censor myself, and I’m aware that there are several ways to send a message. I think more about the way what I say is going to be received.”

The album’s musical direction – Souldia produced it, alongside Christophe Martin and Farfadet – also mirrors this more balanced approach: the basslines are heavy and the beats striking, yet the piano melodies are emotional and sensitive. His typical melancholy trap is more fine-tuned. Except for a few refreshing touches like the flute in “Sexto,”
or the afro-trap rhythm of “Les Derniers seront les premiers,” Backstage is by far the most consistent album Souldia has released since the caustic Krime grave, which was produced by Ruffsound. “That’s in large part due to my team,” he says, citing his new sound engineer (Christophe Martin) and his new label, Disques 7 ième Ciel.

This changing of the guard was necessary after more than a decade with Explicit Productions: “I learned a lot with Explicit. It’s still the best experience of my musical life, but I needed a second wind for what’s to come, a new direction and, above all, a new team to support my decisions,” says Souldia. “Patrick Marier [founder and Jack-of-all-trades at Explicit] did an amazing job, but we both felt like we could no longer offer anything new to each other.”

Now fully settled within the label that won the Record Label and Record Production Team of the Year during last fall’s Gala de l’ADISQ, Souldia is, more than ever, positioning himself as a “team guy.” The rapper, a born unifier, tapped peers from various backgrounds to feature on his eighth album, including rap Québ’s current leader, Loud, the mighty Limoilou twins Les Sozi, the poster boy of “rap gentil” (“sweet rap”) FouKi, Tizzo, Montréal’s leading figure of street rap, as well as two heavyweights of French rap, Seth Gueko and Sinik.

“I’ve been a unifier of people since I was a kid,” he says. “Even in the streets I had the reputation of building solid teams. But the point is not to exhaust myself doing thousands of features. I was going in that direction for a while a few years ago. I would collaborate with everyone instead of getting a bit of rest. It started weighing on my mental health.”

At 35, Kevin Saint-Laurent is trying to achieve in his life the same balance that he’s seeking in his music. “Every year we see artists just falling apart,” he says. “I’m increasingly aware of that and now I feel like I have the resources I need to forge ahead. I have a much more wholesome lifestyle.”

Lucky for him, that lifestyle works well during this forced hiatus. “It’s like a luxury jail,” he says laughing. “I feel like a drug kingpin behind bars.”

Until she released House of Many Rooms in 2015, Liala Biali’s recording career had been comprised mainly of cover versions. It was only after years of seeing other singer-songwriters perform their own songs in a live setting that she found the courage to speak in her own voice. Over the phone from her home in Toronto (she’s been living in New York for much of her career), Biali explains how life insinuated itself into her new, now very personal, songwriting on Out of Dust, her new album out on March 28, 2020.

Following up all the accolades she deservedly received for the album Laila Biali in 2019 (which earned the JUNO for Vocal Jazz Album of the Year, and both the SOCAN Composer and Keyboardist of the Year honours at the National Jazz Awards) was going to be a challenge. Initially, Biali had sold her record company on a travelogue-themed album – a collection of songs inspired by a proposed cross-country U.S. road trip, since the Vancouver-born artist had just become a dual citizen. “But then all of this stuff started becoming undone in our personal lives.”

A family member had committed suicide; a dear friend and mentor succumbed to cancer; and then, after returning with her husband and child to live in Canada, she fell seriously and mysteriously ill. It turns out that the house they rented, and where most of Out of Dust was written and recorded, was infested with an invisible, crippling, toxic mold. “There were moments when I thought, is this the end of my career?” says Biali.

Up to then, her songwriting subjects tended towards societal issues, like the refugee crisis, the Sandy Hook shootings, neighbourhood gentrification. Now the inspiration came from closer to home for her and her husband, co-producer and drummer Ben Wittman. The struggles were “consuming our lives and consuming my thought life,” says Biali. “As writers and as musicians, those [life concerns] ultimately do become songs.”

“I used to think that you sort of tame songs into a genre.”

The results are moving, inspiring, and – remarkably – life-affirming songs. In particular “Wendy’s Song” addresses the passing of her friend, and “Glass House” deals with suicide.

Biali’s Back Catalogue

Out of Dust (2020)
Laila Biali (2018)
House of Many Rooms (2015)
Live in Concert (2012)
Tracing Light (2010)

“Take Me to the Alley” (2020)
“Sugar” (2020)
“River” (2019)
“The Book of Love” (2019)
“A Child is Born” (2018)
“Heart of Gold” (2018)
“We Go” (2018)
“Got to Love” (2018)
“Yellow” (2018)

“What I’ve been learning, as a relatively new songwriter since I released House of Many Rooms in 2015, is that the songs themselves dictate the direction of the music to a large degree,” says Biali. “I used to think, especially as someone who comes from jazz, that you sort of tame songs into a genre.” Biali was trying, successfully at times, to shove square pegs into round holes. But it wasn’t satisfying.

Then she remembered a lesson she learned from her days working behind some other songwriters. An early career detour had her backup singing and/or playing piano alongside some stellar performers (including Paula Cole, Suzanne Vega, and Sting). “I got to listen to how they connected with their audiences, and how the stories they told behind [their] uniquely personal material connected on a whole other level,” she says. “[The original material] impacted me as a musician – it was something that I just began to explore.”

Her side-gig as host of CBC’s Saturday Night Jazz since 2017 has also proved a major influence. As per CBC policies, the show’s producer, Lauren Hancock, picks the music, so Biali gets to hear some tracks for the first time, along with her audience. She explains that, because of the show, “I’ve been exposed to music that I wouldn’t have been otherwise. As a songwriter, what that has led to is the discovery of songwriters who I can identify with in jazz, who are exploring the nexus of jazz and something other, perhaps, taking a slightly more mainstream approach to jazz. Having a chorus that repeats, and using techniques that borrow from more straightforward, more commercial songwriting.”

With a jolt, and a laugh, Biali swings back to talking about Out of Dust and offers a positive exhortation: “The album’s not a big downer!” she says. “The topics could suggest that it’s a bit of a down record, but there’s always this thread of hope, because,” she pauses, then after some consideration, audibly shrugs and concludes, “that’s who I am.”