This fall, British Columbia-founded, Toronto-based duo Once A Tree –  Jayli Wolf and Hayden Wolf – released their new EP Fool’s Paradise, the follow-up to their 2018 Indigenous Music Award-winning album, Phoenix. On the new release, they explore loss, trust, and love that heals, and frees. For the couple, and creative partners, these themes — once resigned to love songs on the radio — became reality when they met.

Raised in B.C., each grew up in the Doomsday religion — an apocalyptic belief system that proselytizes disasters that will destroy Earth and humankind. Both young, aspiring, multi-disciplinary creatives — Jayli is an actress, Hayden a photographer —were forbidden from pursuing their artistic dreams. But a virtual chance meeting changed everything.

“We started communicating long-distance, through social media,” explains Jayli. “We were both doubting the doctrine of our community.”

After bonding online, Hayden decided it was time to do so in real life, jumping on a Greyhound bus for a 13-hour ride to Jayli’s hometown. The pair spent their first night together writing music, and the next month making art. All of the art-making eventually led to love. Realizing that they had something special, they wasted little time.  Excommunicated from their community by family and friends, they took off to Toronto with just their suitcases and guitars.

“I won a songwriting contest through APTN,” says Jayli. “They were going to just fly me out to Toronto to shoot a music video.  I asked them if instead of getting me a return flight, they could get us two one-way tickets. We had no money, we didn’t really know anyone here at first, and we were on-and-off homeless. But then Hayden was accepted into a non-profit arts program called The Remix Project. That’s when he started to really focus on his beat-making, and experimenting with different production styles.”

Hayden grew up with a camera in hand. Once in Toronto, he used every opportunity to forge new connections, doing gigs whenever the opportunity arrived. Then an angel, and Canadian music icon, by the name of Gord Downie, popped up.

“I was offered a gig doing BTS [behind the scenes] photos for a short film,” says Hayden. “When I got to set, I realized that the lead actor was the Gord Downie. During a break for lunch I thought to myself, ‘Man this is your chance to share your music with someone big in the industry.’ I got the courage to go ask if I could show him some of my stuff. Gord was one of the most down-to-earth, gentle souls. He sat with me and listened, while giving me some great advice. That’s when the writer of the short film overheard the music and approached us. His name was Gavin Sheppard. He told me how he helped start a program called The Remix Project, and that I should apply.”

“We had no money, we didn’t really know anyone, we were on-and-off homeless” – Jayli Wolf of Once A Tree

Hayden was accepted into the program, opening doors that may never have happened otherwise, including their first indie record deal, music management, and a job working for Drake’s OVO brand. Working with the OVO team gave him a rare, much-sought-after education in making art.

“I [became] Senior Photographer at OVO for over four years.” says Hayden, “getting to produce and direct visual content for the brand. It taught me an extreme work ethic. The whole team around Drake are dedicated visionaries, and it was an incredible experience to work alongside them.”

Today, the pair are taking their vision further. Once A Tree – described by Hayden as the circle of life, “knowing that energy doesn’t die, it transforms” — fuses organic folk instruments with electronic beats, to tell stories of resilience and loyalty against all odds. Their song “Born for This” was selected for a 2018 Nissan KICKS national TV ad campaign. The stunning pair also create all the visual content around their work ,and they’re each working on solo projects – Jayli on a debut solo album (which promises to be raw and personal), and Hayden producing cover art and music for various Toronto up-and-comers (including Jayli).

Looking back, they both marvel at their fortuitous connection. Hayden says it’s allowed them to access lives they may not have had, if not for each other: “I think these themes [love, sacrifice, and healing], we never fully experienced before we met each other and started a new life together. We now experience unconditional love from the people in our lives. We’ve made friends that love us for who we are, not just the God we pray to. We feel like underdogs in a lot of ways, but we’ve never given up on ourselves or our dreams. We keep aiming to bring more love into our everyday lives, more joy, more freedom.”

Songwriting: Sharing the Dream

  • “Make sure to listen to the world around you. You never know what line someone will say that could inspire a song. Or what sound could ignite ideas for production on a song.”
  • “Write with other songwriters [as the duo did at the 2018 SOCAN Kenekt Songwriting camp]. We just started collaborating more, and bringing in new energy to our writing spaces. It’s good to riff off of others.”
  • “Always write with your voice recorder on. You never know what little melody will come out in the most perfect way.”
  • “I think for us, writing about personal experiences, or things with which we have a deep connection, allows us to create intimate and more vulnerable lyrics.”

When it comes to songwriter reality, truth is better than fiction.

At least, that’s how it’s worked for Virginia To Vegas principal Derik Baker, who’s scored more than 260 million streams (and three SOCAN Awards) since he began the project back in 2014.

“I think every good song comes from a true story – or at least a little bit of it,” says former tour guide Baker, a few weeks after releasing his second EP of 2020, don’t wake me, I’m dreaming, and his latest single “Palm Springs (the way you made me feel),” following the earlier A Constant State of Improvement. “Where I really started to connect with people that were fans of my music was when I started to tell stories that were more authentic to myself. So, it’s an anomaly – the more specific you are to past experience, the more it touches people.”

Ergo, the backstory to “Betterman,” a milkshake-smooth pop ditty that’s earned Baker 10 million streams thus far. “‘Betterman’ is the true story of me driving home from Los Angeles with my tail between my legs, after a bad breakup and at a low point in my life,”  Baker recalls of 2019’s re-location to Toronto. “I had my dog in the passenger seat, and my car filled with furniture and pictures, realizing that I was going to move back into a bachelor apartment and start my life over.”

Baker says the melancholic nature of the experience offered a particular challenge in terms of appealing the song to a pop audience. “How do you tell it in a poetic way, that’s catchy, and for people sing along to?”

And then there’s his biggest hit, the 50-million-streams-and-counting “Just Friends.” “That song is a story about summer infatuation in Toronto,” the Virginia-born Baker explains. “The song idea is that I was living in L.A., but writing a song about Toronto while I was in Toronto, [about] missing Toronto.

“How do you tell it in a poetic way, that’s catchy, for people sing along to?”

“There’s a line in the song that says, ‘So why don’t we go out and get a drink in the west end,’ and the initial version was, ‘Why don’t go get a room at the Westin,’ as I was talking about the Westin Harbour Castle hotel on Queen’s Quay. The song’s about how you’re having an awesome summer day, being on a boat on the lake, you know, that feeling when you’re in Toronto, feeling a little day-drunk, and having a really great time with someone that you’re infatuated with.  So, it was trying to capture that emotion.”

The Wax Records artist, responsible for such Canadian Top 10 hits  as “We Are Stars (featuring Alyssa Reid),” “Selfish,” and “Lights Out,” says he prefers to write with a team.  He’s established a coterie of collaborators that includes professional songwriters Mike Wise, Justin Alexis, David Charles Fischer, Geoff Warburton, and Nathan Ferraro.

“Everybody brings something different to the table, whether that’s melodic output; or having access to cool vocabulary; or being able to check the math on something; or structure the overall arc of the story,” says Baker, who’s formed a partnership with Republic Records for this new EP. “Everybody has different strengths and weaknesses. I find that with my  group of friends, what we do together complements each other, and makes my best music, in my opinion.”

And what does Baker consider his own greatest strength? “I really like context, and story, and thinking of colour – like, let’s paint the picture of this specific situation,” he replies. “My friend Geoff is really good at articulating on how to say things that make the most sense, while my buddy DCF – if we can’t get that one perfect rhyme, he’s like a workhorse, he never gives up. So it’s kind of neat.”

“I’m a late bloomer,” says drag queen Tynomi Banks of her burgeoning music career. “But now I’m in attack mode.”

Banks – real name Sheldon McIntosh – has performed on stages across Canada, and graced billboards and TV ads for Spotify, Netflix ,and Hudson’s Bay. She got her big break as a contestant on the inaugural season of the Canada’s Drag Race reality-TV competition.

Now, she’s carving out time in her busy schedule to follow one of her first loves: singing. As a kid in Pickering, Ontario, Banks grew up listening to a variety of genres, from Canadian icons like Celine Dion and Shania Twain, to R&B and Jamaican music. In high school she took music classes, and performed big numbers from Les Misérables, Joseph and The Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat and West Side Story. “I was the only boy in the class, so I got to do a lot of the leads,” says Banks. “And this was pre-puberty, so I was hitting Mariah Carey notes.”

Although her passion for music was put on the back burner while she became well-known as a dancer and drag queen, Banks would continue to sing on her own and sometimes, even incorporate it into her drag performances for comic relief. “People would tell me after shows, ‘You have a voice. You can sing for real,’” says Banks. “But I was so afraid of pursuing it.”

That changed this year. “When COVID-19 hit, I realized you only live once,” says Banks. “I thought, ‘Let’s get over this fear.’”

She’s spent the last few months in writing sessions with other musicians, working on original songs and exploring genres. “A lot of the songs are R&B and poppy, but one of the songs has a cool island vibe. It’s like a kaleidoscope of different sounds,” says Banks. “At first it was really scary to put my personal thoughts on paper. But after I recorded my first song, I was on fire.”