One show was all it took for the members of Johnson Crook to realize there was something special going on between its four members. Shortly after meeting at Canada’s Music Incubator artist entrepreneurship program in 2014, Noel Johnson, Jared Craig and brothers Nathan and Trevor Crook decided to do a one-off gig at Toronto’s Cameron House; based on positive feedback from friends and colleagues, they decided to form a band and see where things went.

What followed were sessions that the band describes as “freeing,” especially since there weren’t any deadlines or musical limitations. It allowed the band to bring an array of influences to the table, from Stevie Ray Vaughan and The Eagles to contemporary artists like Terra Lightfoot and Leon Bridges. As a result, the band slowly began crafting a sound of their own, rooted in country, folk and ‘70s rock, but with a heavy emphasis on their strongest asset: harmonies.

This was all captured live off the floor on their debut full-length recording, The Album. While the project explores love and heartache, there’s also an undeniable Canadian theme that runs throughout its lyrics, which stems from each member’s experiences growing up in small towns (though all four members are based in Toronto now). It’s something the band is unabashedly proud of, saying they’re not concerned with being “too Canadian… When travelling across the country and playing in so many different cities, we’re always made to feel at home. While the landscape changes, it seems like we’re always playing for our friends and neighbours.”

One of those friends now is iconic Canadian rock musician Tom Cochrane who, after hearing their track “Mr. Nobody,” offered to record it with them. “Tom was incredibly generous,” the band says. “The song already had a lot of vocals going on, and his voice and phrasing fit in seamlessly.” Just another harmonious step forward for the band.

On Sept. 14, 2017, Ramachandra Borcar’s work did not go unnoticed at the Gémeaux’s technical and trade awards gala. He won two trophies for his work on the TV series L’imposteur, that airs on Québec’s TVA network: Best original Score – Fiction and Best Musical Theme: All Categories. Already nominated eight times in his career as one of SOCAN’s #ComposersWhoScore, the man known to some as Ram, the DJ and musician, definitely had a smile in his voice. “Believe me, it’s always great to win an award,” he says.

The production team of L’imposteur had created the ideal creative context for their screen composer. Because director Yan Lanouette-Turgeon and Borcar have known each other going back to their fruitful collaboration on the feature film Roche, papier, ciseaux – which won a Jutra Award for its soundtrack – music was involved very early on in the development of the series. Before filming even began, Lanouette-Turgeon sent a few scripts to Borcar so that he could get acquainted with the storyline. Then he sent rushes before even one episode was finally edited. That was more than enough to inspire a musical direction.

“For season one, L’imposteur was almost entirely shot behind closed doors with actor Marc-André Grondin,” says Borcar. “There are no parallel stories. That made this thriller incredibly intimate. I therefore didn’t want the music to be too big; I even wanted to create proximity. That’s why I used abstract instrumental sounds with a lot of rhythm played on percussion instruments.”

Borcar, who’s always looking to surprise, took the musical genre where it usually doesn’t venture in a thriller TV series. And that’s exactly where Borcar finds his joy: defying rules and innovating. “I didn’t want to do a traditional musical theme with harmonies and a 4/4 signature,” he says. “Instead, I chose to opt for a musical construct akin to a collage, a mosaic, with abstract sounds and a lot of effects. I dug into electronic, experimental and electro-acoustic music. That was my canvas.”

The next step was to dig into the story itself, to refine certain segments of the music. Borcar leaned on the idea that the main character has a secret twin by composing melodies that play around with the feeling of duality. This led to clarinets, electric guitars and trombones playing as a duo or calling and responding to each other discordantly. “In my mind, it’s the composer’s role to work with the story,” says Borcar. “I work in parallel with all the narrative elements, without twisting it, or needlessly distracting from it, yet always making sure the music has its own personality. I aim for the perfect union between image and sound.”

Ramachandra BorcarTo this end, he looks everywhere for sounds that will create a unique link with the story. He’ll sometimes use his collection of unique, self-made instruments, which he hunts all over the web, but mostly via inventors he meets at major trade fairs, such as the NAMM (National Association of Music Merchants).

Having already crafted 33 musical themes for films, documentaries, and TV series (Un crabe dans la tête, Famillia, Le prix à payer, L’ange gardien), he decided a year ago, to split his time between Montréal and Los Angeles. That decision was prompted by being signed with the Evolution Music Partner agency, which represents him in the U.S.

“I’m not leaving Montréal behind, I’m just opening myself up for new creative possibilities,” he says. That’s all that matters to Borcar. This deep-seated need for musical versatility, this desire to work in many musical genres – he himself plays several instruments – is what stimulates him the most. “I don’t like things to be easy or repetitive,” he says. “My dream as a composer is to constantly re-invent myself, surprise myself, go where I wasn’t expecting to go, musically. And to work on projects that leave me no choice but to surpass myself.”

When Lights was 18, she moved to Toronto and legally changed her name to reflect her onstage moniker, intent on establishing a career in music. “There was no Plan B”, she recalls with a laugh.

It was a gamble that clearly didn’t require one: in the last decade, the alt-pop artist formerly known as Valerie Anne Poxleitner has released three albums; had her songs streamed more than 100 million times online; won a slew of awards including two JUNOs (for New Artist of the Year in 2009 and Pop Album of the Year in 2015, for Little Machines); and released dozens of videos, each garnering millions of views. In the process she’s also amassed lots and lots of devoted fans, including more than 700,000 who follow her on Twitter, along with over a million more on Facebook.

But when she started plotting her fourth studio album, Skin&Earth, due out later this month, Lights, now 30, decided she was ready to tackle another personal goal.  A longtime fan of comic books, she’d always imagined creating one of her own, and wondered about connecting it to her music.

“I think there are a lot of music fans that are comic fans, and a lot of comic fans that are into music,” says Lights, who saw the potential for a mixed-media crossover project that would give audiences the incentive to listen to an entire body of work, rather than simply streaming singles.

She imagined crafting a comic that would connect thematically with the songs on the album, while drawing a listener or reader into a story. And although she’d never created a comic before, Lights was undaunted. “I’ve always been someone who goes all the way into something,” she says. “It’s not that complicated for me.”

Born to missionary parents, Lights grew up travelling the world, and was home-schooled. She began writing songs as a child and credits her father, Eric Poxleitner, for encouraging her early efforts. “He really made me believe in myself,” she says. “I would write a song and show my dad, and he would act like it was the greatest thing he ever heard.”

It was a foundation that served her well as she sought advice on where to start with her new project. Reaching out to a number of comic book writers for advice, she connected with industry heavyweight Brian K Vaughan (Y: The Last Man, Ex Machina, Runaways) who encouraged her to try penning the story herself, rather than hiring an outside writer and artist.

“What I’ve learned is that if you really want to do the work, you can accomplish anything.”

Before long, Lights had roughed out a story about a woman named Enaia, navigating life in a desperate, post-apocalyptic world where everything – from the schools to the grocery stores – is run by a single super-corporation. In Enaia, Lights found something of an alter ego, and soon found that the character was allowing her to exploring darker themes in her writing.

For Lights, fiction uncovers truth
“A fictionalized character has allowed me to be more myself,” says Lights, who explains that she’s struggled with delving into darker subjects like sex, anger or violence in her music because her audience – many who may feel they know her thanks to her robust online presence – has tended to presume that everything she writes about is directly tied to what’s happening in her own life. “You can get trapped feeling like you can only talk about the stuff you’re experiencing at that very moment,” she says. If she writes about heartbreak, for example, people unjustly question the stability of her marriage to Beau Bokan (lead singer with the American metal-core band Blessthefall). “So accessing these topics through the character was helpful.”

With the storyline in place, Lights began the process of working on the album, opting to embrace co-writing, and push herself to work with new people. Channeling Enaia, Lights would arrive at writing sessions with a clear sense of what they needed to work on that day, an approach that she says enabled her to overcome the insecurities that sometimes come when working with strangers.

“I’d go in with the storyline and say, ‘This is what we’ll write about today.’ It became a conduit for immediate creativity, instead of starting the session by bantering about what we wanted to write about,” she says.

Both the writing process and darker subject matter also allowed her to experiment with her voice, discovering a new depth. “It was really awesome,” she exclaims. “It really let me open up a part of my voice, and let me sing with more soulfulness.”

While Lights and her co-writers generated 60 songs out of the year-long process, she chose 12 for the album, with each one describing a different part of Enaia’s story.

For the entirety of the songwriting process, Lights was also hard at work refining her skills as a comic artist. Turning to YouTube tutorials and drawing mentors when she needed them, she began the laborious process of sketching out her story, frame by frame, pushing herself to continue even when she felt completely daunted by her own ambition.

“I was chanting to myself through the hard work, ‘I’m actually doing this!’,” she says of the exhaustive process of creating her 160-page comic book. “That’s really the only way you can achieve your dreams.”

LightsLights acknowledges that even she is a little astonished by how much she’s been able to accomplish since turning her attention to creating Skin&Earth, especially given that she’s been doing it while parenting her three-year-old daughter, Rocket Wild (who herself boasts an impressive share of Instagram followers).

“I’ve surprised myself a lot,” says Lights. “Four records in, after 10 years in the industry, to be able to still surprise myself is awesome. Two years ago, I wouldn’t have believed I could do this comic. But what I’ve learned is that if you really want to do the work, you can accomplish anything.”

Lights, always cognizant of wanting to bring Enaia to life in some capacity, now sports the bright red hair of her comic character – just another manifestation of the fearless boundary-pushing she’s embraced in life and music.

“Now I have all these other things that I want to do,” she laughs. “Too often we shut ourselves down before we try new things because we doubt ourselves. I’ll never do that again.”