When John MacPhee was 10, his older brother taught him to play Nirvana’s 1991 hit “Smells Like Teen Spirit” on the electric guitar. Neither had any idea that more than two decades later, the younger MacPhee would be fronting the pop-rock band Paper Lions, backed by his brother Rob on bass, their childhood neighbour Colin Buchanan on guitar, and high school pal David Cyrus MacDonald on drums.

“We’ve been jamming with the same four guys for quite a long time,” says McPhee, now 33. “We’re really like family – we’ve shared so many experiences, good and bad, together. There’s a foundation there that’s far more unshakable than friendship.”

MacPhee credits that foundation for supporting their evolution since they first began performing together 12 years ago in their native Prince Edward Island, where Paper Lions is still based.

“I feel we’ve upped our game on every level.” – John MacPhee of Paper Lions

That familiarity that has also allowed the band, who have opened for CAKE, Tokyo Police Club and Hollerado, among others, to push their own musical boundaries –  most recently with their third full-length album, Full Colour, which includes the catchy, synth-heavy single “Believer.”

“I feel we’ve upped our game on every level,” says MacPhee of the album, due out this spring. “From the songwriting, lyrics, melody, production… the whole thing. We feel really proud of it.”

To create the album, the band spent hours in a Charlottetown studio that they were able to rent regularly for a few days every week. “So songwriting and recording became more like a nine-to-five for us,” he says. “It was a different process than with past albums, but really rewarding.”

MacPhee says that having regular, uninterrupted time to work together on trying out new sounds, coupled with band member Colin Buchanan’s in-house engineering and production skills, allowed the band more room to experiment. “I think we had 25 demos coming into the recording,” he laughs. “Because of that, the sound and mood is more diverse than on previous records.”

Already boasting a roster of quirky videos, the foursome has since finessed a re-imagined live show, which includes a catwalk and projections to complement the new album’s energy. “It’s so much fun,” says MacPhee. “We’ll look back, both at this record and this new live show, as a turning point in our careers.”

If a recent performance at Toronto’s Mod Club is any indication of things to come, MacPhee is right. He recalls walking out onto the catwalk before a packed house and hearing the audience singing along with him. When he hit a bridge in the song, MacPhee says he took a backseat and let the audience take over. “It was the first time that’s ever happened,” he laughs. “I had no control at that moment. It was a real highlight for me, as a performer and as a songwriter, to see a song being embraced that way.”

But no matter what the future brings, MacPhee says that the band plans to stay rooted in its home province. “It’s just a matter of going for a long drive, which isn’t something we shy away from. And the advantages of being here outweigh the cons,” he says, describing his recent purchase of a 2,600 square foot Gothic Revival Catholic manse for $80,000. “You just can’t do that in the city.”

Ultimately, MacPhee says it’s also about staying close to the friends, fans and family members who keep them going on a daily basis.  “There’s a security that comes with that,” he says. “And it’s probably what has allowed us to do this for so long.”

Track Record

  • Paper Lions’ video for “Travelling” has been viewed 7.65 million times on YouTube.
  • In its earlier incarnation as Chucky Danger, the band won the 2006 East Coast Music Award for Pop Recording of the Year for their EP 6-pack.
  • In late 2015, when they spotted talented 12-year-old busker Braydon Gautreau in their native Charlottetown, they invited him to sing “Travelling” onstage with them at their show that week.

Two Brothers, a Major, and a Minor (2003), 6-pack (EP, 2004), Colour (2006), Chucky Danger (2007), Trophies (2010), At Long Creek (2012), My Friends (2013), Full Colour (2016)

While many musicians and songwriters make their way from the garage to the stage without getting a sense of the work that people do behind the scenes – building that stage, putting up the infrastructure for festivals, even cooking for the bands and crew – there’s something to be said for having that experience.

That’s exactly what the Ontario College of Trade’s (OCT’s) “Tune In, Trade Up” campaign provides, by giving participants “a hammer, a wrench, and a backstage pass,” as well as an opportunity to earn while they learn one of a variety of skilled trades – including heavy equipment operator, general carpenter, electrician, truck/coach technician, cook, or hairstylist. These working people are “the stars behind the stars,” says Director of Communications and Marketing at OCT, Sherri Haigh, and without whom, as the Road Hammers’ Jason McCoy says in a video on the organization’s site, “we literally do not have a stage to stand on.”

The idea for the program came about during a conversation between Haigh and Music Canada President Graham Henderson. “I ran into Graham in 2014,” Haigh explains. “I approached him and said we’re trying to get kids interested in the trades, and we also see the important role that music plays in supporting the trades through hiring them to do all the things behind the scenes.” That led to OCT getting involved in the 2015 Boots and Hearts and Way Home festivals, and to shooting a video aimed at attracting potential participants.

First launched in the Fall of 2015, the program is expected to expand for the 2016 festival season. This year, OCT is also sponsoring Canadian Music Week. “We’ll have a booth there and we’ll talk about the trades behind the scenes,” says Haigh, adding that more segments of the music industry, labels among them, are expressing interest in the program.

Bluntly, for musicians to get a sense of how important the trades are to making anything from an indoor concert, to festivals, to club shows happen is a valuable experience, regardless of what segment of the industry they’d like to work in. The more a performer knows about the challenges the tradespeople behind a show face, the more they’re likely to recognize that you’re in it together – making for a unified effort to ensure that the audience has the best experience they possibly can.

There are benefits to anyone who might see a future for themselves in such trades – musicians or not – but also to the industry overall, Haigh says. She cites a prediction by The Conference Board of Canada that the country will experience a shortage of more than 360,000 skilled tradespeople by 2025, and in excess of half a million by 2030. Given that the Ontario music industry is a substantial economic engine – generating hundreds of millions of dollars on an annual basis – the program clearly provides benefits beyond those cited earlier by Jason McCoy. Frankly, without the tradespeople who do this work, festivals and large-scale concerts simply couldn’t happen.

“It’s not just about the music industry,” Haigh continues, “and not just for young people, but also for those looking at, perhaps, taking on a second career in life.” And Haigh also sees a direct correlation between what SOCAN and OCT do. “SOCAN is protecting the integrity and success of artists and their craft,” she says, “and for us, it’s protecting the integrity of people who go through apprenticeships and training and making sure the people working [in the industry] are legitimately certified, respected and protected. So we have common goals.”

There are too few female producers in this industry. Sure, a few names readily come to mind when one thinks of “songwritresses” who took control of their creative projects, such as Emilie-Claire Barlow and her collaborator Steve Webster, who were nominated at the 2016 JUNOS for Record Producers of the Year. Or Grimes, whose Art Angels was one of 2015’s most critically-acclaimed albums.

Enter a newcomer in the select club of female singer-songwriters, beat-makers and producers, but, strangely, she has a man’s name. RYAN Playground, née Genèvieve Ryan-Martel, launched her first EP Elle in February on then Secret Songs imprint, which is run by another Canadian electro beat-maker, Ryan Hemsworth. This first effort highlights Playground’s impressionist writing, which turns on finely crafted rhythms and atmospheres, rather than your typical A-B-A-B-C-A pop song structure.

“I don’t limit myself to any given structure.”

“I don’t limit myself to any given structure,” says the Montréal-based artist. “When I finish one part of a song, I build the next according to how I feel at that moment. I really don’t mind if, in the end, it sounds like several songs rolled into one. Weird structures are inspiring to me, and I hope they’ll inspire those who are seeking something new.”

Even though Elle is largely self-produced and the result of sterling work, Playground did, however, also tap Hemsworth for the production of “Folders,” the first single. It’s a song that has a very special significance for the artist. “Those lyrics mean a lot to me, and I really wanted to work with him, so it was the perfect time to do so,” says Playground. “I’ve always been a fan of Secret Songs, so releasing Elle on that label was the only logical thing to do.”

Judging by her incredibly busy schedule in the coming months, RYAN Playground is about to become a household name in the Canadian electronic music scene. “I’m working on a new project that should come out in late summer, early fall and include many collaborations,” she says. “And people all across the country will be able to catch me live in May!”