“Did I stop to breathe?”

The first words of “Waltzing Disappointments,” the opening song on Pascale Picard’s fourth album, The Beauty We’ve Found, are evocative. “A song about depression; that sets the mood, doesn’t it?” she says, with a tinge of irony. “The message is clear,” she says about her album. “That’s where we’re going! It’s not post-partum depression; I battled depression when I was younger.”

Pascale PicardThrilled by the solo adventure on which she embarked on years ago, Picard has built a brand-new, light-alloy fuselage for herself, 18 months after giving birth to her daughter, and four years after her previous release, All Things Passed.

“When I started writing songs, my pain was my inspiration,” she says. “My life was very tumultuous when I was a teenager, I was truly unhappy. I talked about suicide a lot, and about all the dark thoughts that inhabited me. But it was too intense to express in French. It would’ve split me right in half. Writing about it in a second language allowed me to open up a bit more. Plus, my English got better with time.

“Having a child means I’m not alone in my own, tiny universe,” she continues. “It’s changed me profoundly. I’ve become hyper-sensitive in general. Everything seems more beautiful, or sadder. I look at everything with a magnified heart.”

Like a sneak peek inside a secret closet, this ethereal, pared-down album sees Picard baring the darker side of her moods – over layers of piano and strings, a few guitar licks courtesy of Simon Pedneault, and a silky, harmonic dialogue devoid of sonic overload. All this was achieved with the ideal musical accomplice, multi-instrumentalist Antoine Gratton, a maestro of textures, who offered Picard the perfect musical setting.

“The themes are rather sombre,” she admits, “but I do believe we all need to see both extremes of our souls. I didn’t set out to make a darker album. Antoine and I really connected, and we were all-in. He managed to dress up the songs without altering the demos I’d made.” In other words, the musical magic happened, but without any clearly defined rules.

Recorded in two six-day sessions at b-12 studio in Valcourt (where the collective project Sept jours en mai was recorded in 2015), the nine songs composed by the creator of “Gate 22,” her mega-hit, transcend the endeavour. “I didn’t want to punch in and out, 9 to 5,” says Picard. Both new parents, Picard and Gratton invited their own parents over, so that they could take care of the kids while the duo was working in the next room.

“I look at everything with a magnified heart.”

Picard is happy to share her varied sources of inspiration. “‘The Beauty We’ve Found’ is like the carpe diem song on the album: love isn’t permanent, but you shouldn’t stop yourself from loving someone because of that. ‘Witch Hunt’ is clearly a dark song, feeling rejected, the intolerance of others… ‘La tempête’ is the only song in French on the album, and it talks about the death of my step-mom, three years ago, from cancer. ‘Too Little Too Late’ is about alcoholism, collateral damage, etc.”

There are no drums on the very country “Rock Bottom,” and “In Town” sounds like it’s straight out of a Quentin Tarantino movie. “That song tells a story I could totally see made into a video,” says Picard. “It has a slight alternative-trash side to it that I like.”

One thing’s for sure, The Beauty We’ve Found is an essential bedside record. The lyrics are more accomplished, thanks in part to her participation in Xavier Lacouture’s writing workshops in Tadoussac. “It’s the first time I’ve developed tools for writing,” says Picard. “For a self-learner like me, that’s a bonus.”

Picard is now 36 years old. When Me Myself & Us came out in 2007, her English-language songs immediately shot her to the stratosphere of show business, and to immense potential for international success. Aside from the infectious “Gate 22,” several more radio hits came out of that album, and turned the spotlight on her. The woman from Québec City, who grew up in Sainte-Julie, then Charlesbourg, and Beauport, before settling down with her family in Stoneham, is an avid snowboarder.

“A lot of people asked me to sing ‘Sorry’ last summer [during her solo tour],” she says. “It had been quite a while since I played that song!” The context, however, is very different from when she started. “I played bars and I would get asked to play all kinds of stupid stuff.”

What advice would today’s Pascale Picard have offered to the 2007 version of herself? “I would sing ‘Whole’ [the new album’s closing song], which is about believing in yourself, and listening to yourself.”

We would be remiss if, after her generous conversation, we didn’t talk about the fact that Picard was invited (along with The Stills) to open for Paul McCartney at his 2008 concert on the marking Québec City’s 400th Anniversary. “People still stop me in the street about that,” she says. “I was really at the top, back then. The ‘it’ artist. We didn’t even do a sound check. There were snipers on the roof of the Concorde hotel! If Paul had come a year before or after, I wouldn’t have been the one they called to open. If he’d come this year, Hubert Lenoir is the one they would’ve asked!”

Jon Vinyl doesn’t look back at his first foray into songwriting very fondly. “It went horribly,” he says with a laugh. “It was really hard for me to put how I feel into words, follow it with a catchy melody, and on top of that, sing in the proper key.” Even though the process was rough at first, the gratification the now-21-year-old Pickering, ON, native got out of creating something musical “felt amazing,” and he was instantly hooked.

Fast-forward a few years to the present day, and Vinyl (born Jonathan Hamilton) has figured out a songwriting formula that works for him; one that draws inspiration from his everyday life, and comes out in the form of gorgeous, sparkling R&B vignettes. Influenced by some of the genre’s biggest heavyweights, from Luther Vandross to Frank Ocean, Vinyl’s delivery is thoughtful and measured, taking its time to transform thoughts on fleeting romances (“Cherry Blossom”) and past experiences (“Nostalgia”) into expansive melodies that immerse the listener in Vinyl’s personal sonic universe. “My music being relatable is something that matters most,” says Vinyl. “Knowing that my lyrics may help someone who’s going through something makes this journey worthwhile.”

One of Vinyl’s biggest goals is to perform in front of thousands of fans, and see them shout his lyrics back at him one day. It’s a work-in-progress, but his music did find a way to reach thousands, if not millions, early on in his career when a rather famous high school friend of his shouted him out on social media: Shawn Mendes. Mendes shared “Nostalgia” with his fans, and as a result gave Vinyl a big boost. It’s a friendship that he still values today, and he says the two have lots of “in-depth conversations” about music and life.

“We talk about the trials and tribulations of songwriting, honest lyrics, and writer’s block,” he says. “The one thing we always realize after speaking is that our passion for music exceeds all doubts in the end.”

It’s an important and confident perspective to have, as Vinyl readies himself for his next big step. In 2019, he’ll release his debut EP, to an audience surely waiting to sing his songs back at him.

Saturday night and Sunday morning.

That’s how Matt Mays describes the difference between his albums Once Upon A Hell Of A Time and the just-released Twice Upon a Hell of a Time: the former, an energetic, electric offering and the latter, its mellower acoustic twin.

“I thought these songs should have been a bit more torn-down,” says Mays of his motive behind making Twice. “The songs sounded a little happier on Once than what they really are, so Twice is truer to form, in terms of conveying its lyrics. Plus, it was fun.”

When Once was released a year ago, the 13-song effort – co-written and produced by Wintersleep’s Loel Campbell – was characterized by Mays as “a party-rock record for the broken-hearted.”

He and producer Eric Ratz (Danko Jones, Monster Magnet) strove to re-interpret Once with a much different vibe. For example, on Twice, “Perfectly Wasted” is re-cast as a piano-driven waltz. “Faint of Heart” is transformed from a pounding rocker to a wailing pedal steel ballad, and “Ola Volo” trades in its electric guitars for ukulele-driven momentum.

“It’s amazing what a tempo, or key, or vibe change will do to a song.”

“Songs are strange that way,” says the Hamilton-born, Toronto-based architect of seven albums, and a couple more with his old band The Guthries. “A lot can change if you arrange them a different way.

“Going through the acoustic versions was enjoyable because every song and lyric was already written, so it was just a matter of ensuring that each interpretation was very unexpected and different than the original album version. What I couldn’t get out on Once, I managed to shake out on Twice. Maybe that’s why I was keen to do it. I got it out of my system with both of them, that’s for sure.”

The intriguing factor regarding both albums is that many of the tunes were written acoustically, arranged as rockers for Once and then converted back to the basics for Twice.

“Half of them I had written on acoustic and some of them were not quite done, so I finished them while I was underway on Once,” says Mays. “‘Station Out Of Range,’ was written on a ukulele and then we really amped it up. Then, it was fun to take the electric riff back to the acoustic.”

Mays finds that creating dual versions of songs can yield two emotional apexes. “On ’Ola Volo,’ the guy in the first verse is in a state of distress, really needing to find somebody to help him. In the acoustic ‘happy ukulele’ version, it’s the same person, but they’re not nearly in as much trouble. They’re sort of hanging out at the beach in Hawaii, singing post-faith. That’s one of the most drastic changes. The other song is ‘Never Say Never,’ where it’s more fun, and almost too loud and fast on Once. On Twice, it ends in a state of mind that I was in when I actually wrote it: quite a bit more sad, and real, and raw.”

Whenever he writes, Mays says his instruments of choice are acoustic guitar, piano, and ukulele. “I write until the songs are what I hear in my head and I make sure they can hold up on their own,” he says.

In possession of a key to Lee Harvey Osmond member and pedal steel whiz Aaron Goldstein’s studio, Mays rises early, “before my filters start turning on, when my brain is still too tired to exhibit anything good, and before I start worrying about everything else the day has to offer” in order to work on songs.

Mays’ Faves: Three From His Own Work
“They’re the ones that I feel I didn’t write, but channelled: ‘A Spoonful of Sugar,’ ‘Chase the Light’ and ‘Terminal Romance’ – ones that came so fast that I don’t even feel like they’re mine. ‘Station Out of Range’ was one of them, too.”

He likes to experiment. “It’s amazing what a tempo, or key, or vibe change will do to a song,” he says. “It’s not a complete 180, but it definitely takes my mind down different roads. It paints different pictures.”

If inspiration hits when he’s not in the studio, Mays records them on his phone and strives to finish them. “If that window comes, it’s very important to stop what you’re doing, cancel any plans, and try to finish it,” he says. “Don’t put the guitar down until you’ve completely done [with] at least a version of the entire song. Sometimes I’ll get super-excited about something else, and then forget about it or leave it. But if you force yourself to finish, you’re scot-free once you get it into your voice memos.”

Mays says the Once/Twice Upon a Time albums have changed his approach to songwriting. “The older I get, I’ve learned not to write more songs, but to spend more time channeling them,” he says. “It seems the more I sit down to try to write, the fewer keepers I get. The ones that seem to resonate the most come without any real effort or planning, so I’m trying let those through more often.”