Olivia Penalva has watched her latest single, “Love Me,” rack up more than 20 million streams on TikTok, and her pop covers have gone from YouTube to appearing on American Idol and America’s Got Talent, but the Gen Z singer still gets excited by what’s perceived as an older-school achievement.

Olivia Penalva“The biggest thing for me is radio, actually,” she says. “[‘Love Me’] is rising on pop radio, and CHR, which is so crazy. The numbers keep going up the charts. It’s kind of blown my mind.”

The 20-year-old from Vernon, British Colombia, first heard her voice on the radio at age 13, when her whimsical holiday song “Christmas For Two” hit the Top 30. The track was co-written in the fall of 2013 in L.A. with Sony/ATV writer Andrew Allen, who’s also from the Okanagan region of BC, and had scored his own Christmas hit in 2009.

“It was my first trip to L.A. and we didn’t know what we were going to write, but I remember the topic of Christmas came up,” says Penalva. “You know that around Christmas time, not only is radio always looking for more Christmas songs, they’re looking for Canadian artists who have Christmas songs? I remember laughing, thinking, ‘Okay, it’s not even winter, but I’ll get in the spirit’.”

Her openness to other people’s ideas has served her well as she’s paired up with songwriters of various musical backgrounds on a series of one-off singles and EPs. “Love Me” was co-written by Penalva and SOCAN members Emery Taylor (best known for pop and EDM) and Brian Howes (whose many rock credits include smash hits for Daughtry, Puddle of Mudd, and Skillett). Earlier collaborations include “Ferris Wheel” with Brian West (Nelly Furtado, Maroon 5), and “Forgettable” with Josh Cumbee (Madonna, Nick Howard).

“I think I fell in love with co-writing right away”

“I think I fell in love with co-writing right away,” she explains. “Writing by yourself can be kind of intimidating. Being in a room with other writers, talking to them and sharing experiences, but also leaning on each other for ideas, that opened a whole new world for me. It’s always different, and I just have such a good time doing it with other people. It’s such a fun thing.”

Collaborating with writers also helped address a challenge particular to teenage songwriters: how to write deeply about the human condition when you’re just beginning to have your own life experiences? Penalva admits her early songs like “Ferris Wheel” were trying to “work with” her age, but she soon outgrew it.

“I love creating melodies. I also love writing lyrics, but I struggled with knowing what to say for so long because I was so young,” she says. “After a little while I was like, ‘You know, this is fun, but there’s more depth to me.’ The people I was writing with would help me spark those ideas, and through their experiences give me a little guidance. I think that helped me a lot learn about songwriting. And then the last two or three years, getting into adulthood, something opened up in me. I couldn’t stop after that.”

Penalva says that since the start of the pandemic, she’s been writing non-stop, even if trips to L.A. and Nashville have been replaced with Zoom sessions. She’s preparing to release her first full-length album later this year, and has so many tracks to choose from she needs to consult a list of all the songwriters, so as not to leave anyone out.

Some names jump out: Nolan Sipe, whose “Honey, I’m Good” was a Top 10 Billboard hit for Andy Grammar; SOCAN Award winner Daniel Powter (“Bad Day”); Ryan Stewart (Carly Rae Jepsen); Tyler Spry (of One Republic); and Jessica Mitchell, who co-wrote “The Chase” on Celine Dion’s Courage.

As for what it might sound like, the singer doesn’t give much away. “This year, I’ve just kind of embraced everything,” she says. “That’s what so great about pop music nowadays – as long as you’re true to yourself, you can do anything.”

Montréal-based rapper and singer Hua Li couldn’t have hoped for a better timing: she released her EP Yellow Crane in late November of 2020, a project she intended as “a love letter to Wuhan,” the capital of the province of Hubei, in east-central China. That’s where her roots are, and where her grandmother and part of her mother’s family still live. It’s a city of more than 10 million inhabitants that was, until February 2020, largely unknown by a majority of our planet. It’s a city that, a year later, is in need of a little TLC…

Hua LiYes, that city. The alleged Ground Zero of the COVID-19 pandemic. Not exactly a city’s ideal way of becoming known to the entire world. “It’s quite a coincidence, because I’d decided to write songs about Wuhan before the pandemic,” says the songwriter. “I took that idea with me during my residency at the Banff Centre for the Arts and Creativity last March, almost a year ago. Except by March 2020, everyone had heard about Wuhan…”

Li was in Banff when the first lockdown happened. “Suddenly, all that was going on completely changed the perspective of my project,” she says. “I initially envisioned an EP that would tell the city’s history, with plenty of facts, so that people could learn a few things about the place it has in China – it’s a major city, it’s huge! – despite the fact that no one knows about it. But because of everything that was going on, I decided I would instead write a love letter to the city, almost like a promotional campaign to counter everything bad that was being said about Wuhan in the wake of this virus.”

While Li wrote three of the four gorgeous songs on Yellow Crane, the closing one, “Electronic Girl,” is a cover, originally performed by a virtually-unknown math-rock band called Chinese Football. “I had a vague idea that I wanted to do a cover of a band or artist from Wuhan on this project,” she says, because that city is considered to be the cradle of Chinese punk, the only city in the nation to have such a musical scene.

“I asked members of my family to go out and scout songs for me, but I wasn’t thrilled by their suggestions,” says Li. “I did know that there’s a real indie rock scene in Wuhan – obviously, it’s not a scene that my family follows! I started by exploring shoegaze bands from Bejing – shoegaze is huge there! – and one thing leading to another, I found Chinese Football.”

Hua Li’s electronic neo-R&B/hip-hop groove and Chinese Football’s math-rock may seem like chalk and cheese, and she readily admits not having much interest for that branch of prog-rock. But, she says, “I was really intrigued by this song. I really like indie rock, which is partly where I came from, and it’s one of the reasons why I really felt at home in Montréal” – which is where she wrote and recorded (with the help of producer and multi-instrumentalist Alexander Thibault) the songs on Dynasty, her debut album, released in September 2019 on Next Door Records.

Long story short, her version of “Electronic Girl,” which she sings in Mandarin, is formidable, as are the cool rap track “Water ,” the highly melodic “Four More Days” (a “quarantine love song”), and “Dream Narratives in Modern China.” Yellow Crane is the prefect coda to Dynasty, a record that, thanks to the pandemic, didn’t enjoy the life it deserves on stage.

“I won’t lie, the last year was very hard for me,” says Li. “The majority of my family still lives in Wuhan, so the situation freaked me out a lot more than the people around me here… As to whether what I’ve experienced this past year will be expressed in my new songs, I would say that my opinions and convictions have always been reflected in my work, even if not really explicitly.

“I write things that are always very personal to me, and often about human relationships – not necessarily love, but rather, the role I play in all my relationships with others. And in this respect, I think, everything I’ve been able to experience eventually emerges. Everything that happens around me finds its way into my music, especially since 2020 should have been a busy year of concerts and tours for me. I had to re-invent myself – isn’t that the word of the year! – after being forced to self-isolate, so I wrote a ton of new material. And because there was so much anxiety and uncertainty in the air, it felt good to be able to channel it all into creation.” Hua Li hopes to release a new album in early 2022.

Throughout history, tragedy, heartbreak, and unfathomable loss are experiences that have inspired artists to write songs. While they start from a personal place, when combined with the zeitgeist when they were written, these songs can resonate with generations long after the songwriter is gone – because of the shared feelings evoked by the words and the music.

“I’ll Never Smile Again” is one such song, inducted into both the Canadian Songwriters Hall of Fame (CSHF) and American Recording Hall of Fame, and a part of our country’s deep well of treasured compositions.

Flash back to the 1930s. The Great Depression lingers. Unemployment is high. Europe edges closer to World War Two. In Toronto, 23-year-old Ruth Lowe writes a “I’ll Never Smile Again.” The sentimental ballad comes to her following not just one, but two huge losses: the death of her father in 1932, followed by the passing of her husband in 1939.

Lowe had a gift for music. After her father died, she supported the family by selling her songs and performing them. This was the start of the golden age of the Big Band era. Lowe climbed aboard. After hearing her sing in Toronto one night, bandleader Ina Ray Hutton invited her to join her all-female orchestra, full-time. Lowe agreed and hit the road.

After a gig one evening in Chicago, the songwriter had a blind date with song man Harold Cohen. The pair fell in love and soon married. After only one year of matrimony, tragedy struck Lowe for the second time when Cohen unexpectedly passed away.

“Losing the two men she loved in her life, in such a short time, inspired the song,” says Lowe’s son Tom Sandler. “My mom was so heartbroken. She said to my aunt, ‘I’ll never smile again without him,’ and the next day she sits down and quickly writes this haunting song.”

Lowe shared the song with Toronto bandleader Percy Faith. He loved it. With the songwriter’s permission, Faith arranged and recorded a 78 RPM single with his orchestra. Faith first broadcast the song in 1939 to CBC listeners on his regular program Music By Faith.

But Lowe knew she had a hit on her hands beyond Canada. The ambitious songwriter shared the recording and sheet music with bandleader Tommy Dorsey, through his guitar player – who happened to be dating one of Lowe’s girlfriends at the time. The bandleader listened to “I’ll Never Smile Again,” and like Faith, was moved.

Ruth Lowe, First Billboard Chart, I'll Never Smile AgainDorsey arranged a new version of the song with his band, and then brought it to Frank Sinatra and the Pied Pipers to record. The sentimental song ended up launching Sinatra’s career; it was not only the crooner’s first No.1 Billboard hit, but the first No. 1 record on Billboard’s modern chart, staying atop it for 12 weeks, in 1941.

“With the war raging in Europe, there was a lot of heartbreak going on, and more to come,” says Sandler. “All these women were losing their loves and their husbands to war and then here comes a story of a woman losing her man. The song resonated. I call it a flashpoint in music history: Dorsey, my mom, Sinatra, the war… everything came together. It went through the roof on the charts!”

Like all great songs, more than a half-century later, “I’ll Never Smile Again” still stands the test of time. The composition inspired Frank Davies to create the CSHF. And through the decades, “I’ll Never Smile Again” has been covered by Fats Waller, Sarah Vaughan, Billie Holiday, Big Joe Williams, Count Basie, Dave Brubeck, Oscar Peterson, Eddie Arnold, The Platters, Carl Perkins, Cleo Laine, Barry Manilow, and Michael Bublé, among others.

On film, the song has been heard in Good Morning, Vietnam and The Color of Money, and on TV’s The Fugitive, McHale’s Navy, Leave it to Beaver, and the Ed Sullivan, Perry Como, and Lawrence Welk shows.

An impressive legacy for a song written out of heartbreak, by a 23-year-old widow from Toronto.

To learn more about Ruth Lowe’s legacy in song, read the book Until I Smile at You, written by Sandler and Peter Jennings, published in 2020, or visit www.untilismileatyou.com.