One thing is clear for Patrick Watson: things will never be the same. “We have to realize how much hip-hop and R&B have transformed the way song lyrics are written,” he says. “Folk’s pretty metaphors are dead. From now on, lyrics have to be direct, and straight to the point. The level of vulnerability displayed in hip-hop and R&B has pushed the limits. And once you cross that vulnerability line, you can’t go back.”

Patrick WatsonMontréal’s singer-songwriter has just launched Wave, his best album so far. It’s a luminous offering, despite having been born out of the pain of losing his mother, and a friend. It’s also a bold album because it marks a departure from the sonic dynamic that has characterized the five previous ones: instead of lengthy songs filled with orchestral flourishes, we’re now witnessing an uncharacteristic sense of self-discipline from Watson, who readily admits that he’s always draped himself in “dramatic” arrangements, as he calls them.

Two things have transformed his approach to songwriting. The first was Frank Ocean’s Blonde, but more on that later. The second one fell on his lap during the writing of Wave. “Adam Cohen gave me a call and said that there’s one of his father’s songs for which they still haven’t found the right arrangement,” he says. “So he sends me this Leonard Cohen demo and I hear him sing over this music – the classic honk honk of synths; it was quite delightful! I got rid of the music and only kept the vocal track, which was quite powerful on its own. Man, the conviction you hear in every single word he utters, it’s so rich and touching!”

That song is called “The Hills,” and it’ll be featured on the posthumous Leonard Cohen album Thanks for the Dance, to be released on Nov. 22, 2019. Watson composed new arrangements, “but to be honest, I don’t know if [Leonard Cohen] would’ve liked them,” he says. “I wanted to enhance the dark side of the lyrics, and maybe he would’ve preferred the opposite, which would have worked, too… I simply tried to be in tune with the lyrics, and the sound of his voice, with more modern, electronic orchestrations,” a sonic element also noticeable on Wave.

Watson is adamant that working with this unreleased Leonard Cohen voice track completely changed his own way of writing and singing. “Just hearing his voice, without any music, and hearing that conviction,” he says. “There’s no need to underscore it with music.” He points out the fact that the suave “Melody Noir,” on his new album, is totally a reflection of this newfound Cohen influence.

“I think the mistake a lot of musicians make is to play music in the hope of becoming someone else.”

The lyrics are self-sufficient, Watson insists. He sees Cohen as a “heavy-duty writer, just like Bob Dylan. For those guys, the text is so important, and at that point you realize that the more potent the lyrics, the simpler the music. You don’t hear them using huge arrangements or extravagant musical ideas; it’s the text that dictates what the music should do. The only genius who might be an exception to this rule is Tom Waits,” someone whose lyrics are as elaborate as the music. “Closer to us, an artist like Fred Fortin is also of that ilk.”

But back to Frank Ocean, who had a profound and transformative effect on Watson, musically as much as lyrically. “There’s no way that rap and R&B have not considerably changed the way we make music, nowadays,” regardless of the style, says Watson adamantly. “It’s not a question of form – R&B rhythms have nothing in common with what I do. It’s a question of sound, of how you mix music. If you sing playing the piano, you record in a single room, while when you use electronics, it’s right there, front and centre, but the voice needs to be front and centre too. That is how production techniques influence the lyrics: everything is more direct. That has an influence on the way I write and deliver certain rhymes.” Songs such as “Turn Out the Lights” – which is delicate and nearly minimalist compared to Watson’s earlier work – and “Wild Flower” are examples of the influence of the modern and discretely electronic production techniques of R&B.

“To be clear, the influence is not in the sound per se, but in how I understand the intention behind that type of production,” says Watson. “I believe it’s important to me, as a musician, to properly grasp and understand the intention behind those songs. It’s a lengthy process, I’ve spent months and months recording demos before grasping that idea.” Four to five times more songs than the 10 that made Wave’s final cut were recorded as demos.

Four years after Love Songs for Robots, Patrick Watson has managed to re-invent his writing and musical approach, and gives us this Wave of pure, unadulterated emotion that, wrapped in self-discipline, become paradoxically more troubling than when he draped his compositions in luxurious orchestrations. Here again, he says, the key lies in the intention. “You can’t just decide to change your sound like you would pin a picture on the wall and stare at it to imitate it,” he says. “I think the mistake a lot of musicians make is to play music in the hope of becoming someone else. One’s music is nothing but the expression of who one is. If you try to be somebody else musically, everyone will hear that. If you want to do something new, if you want to change sounds, don’t change your music, change yourself: the music will follow. Your intentions are what gives the music you create all the colours it has.”

Dave Sampson is enjoying a cup of coffee at home in Halifax, taking a break after several weeks promoting his new six-song EP, the countrified All Types of Ways. On the wall across from where he sits hangs a framed Gold record, marking domestic sales in excess of 50,000, for his 2016 song, “No Pressure, No Diamonds,” which Classified recorded and released as a single with Snoop Dogg. Last February, Sampson inked deals with Sonic Publishing and the Paquin Artist Agency, and in the spring Tourism Nova Scotia used one of Sampson’s songs (“Gets Me Through the Night”), a co-write with Dylan Guthro (of Port Cities) and Sam Ellis, for an international ad campaign. Sampson also just placed a song on Nurses, a new Canadian drama set to air on the Global TV network this fall.

At times, it all feels surreal. The reality? these successes are no fluke. The 29-year-old songwriter has been building his career for years now by learning the craft, and the business, from industry veterans like fellow East Coaster Gordie Sampson (no relation).

The real turning point came a decade ago when he met Gordie. The Grammy-winning songwriter invited him to his Gordie Sampson Songcamp. Since then, the pair have become best friends. These annual retreats also introduced Dave to the Nashville co-writing method he now uses to craft new songs, and also to many other Nova Scotia-based singer-songwriters, like Mo Kenney, Carleton Stone (also of Port Cities), and Guthro.

Born in Sydney, Cape Breton, the songwriter moved to Halifax eight years ago. During his first few years in the city, Sampson played to half-empty barrooms; sometimes, the staff were his sole audience. Following the release of his new EP in early October, Sampson sold out his favorite local venue, The Marquee Ballroom.

When it came time to pick a producer for this EP, his good friend Gordie Sampson was the logical choice, and Music City, where Gordie’s now based, was the right locale.

“I use collaboration as an excuse to get together with people, drink some coffee, and write great songs.”

Before learning about these sessions, you need to hear the back-story. It was 2017. Dave Sampson had no money, but he had songs ready to record. To finance these sessions, the songwriter sold his 1966 Martin acoustic guitar, and booked time with a producer at Toronto’s Phase One Studios; members of the Arkells were his backing band.

“All the stars were aligned,” he recalls. “Unfortunately, these sessions never came out to what I needed them, or wanted them, to be – so I ended up sweeping those songs under a rug!

What The Critics Say

  • “Heartfelt, energized and emotional, Dave Sampson has obvious natural talent as a Maritime singer-songwriter.” – Grant Lawrence, CBC Music
  • “Dave Sampson writes a great, heartfelt pop song and has a warm, inviting, laid-back style that will no doubt appeal to a wide cross-section of people.” – The Scope, St. John’s, NL
  • “Is Dave Sampson pop, folk or indie? Who cares if the songs are good!” – Stephan Cooke, The Halifax Chronicle Herald

Sampson returned to Halifax with no guitar, no record, and no money. While figuring out what to do next, fate intervened. Some funding from FACTOR came through. He was back in the game with a new vision, and ready to take another shot at recording some songs, this time around with his pal Gordie. The Sampsons convened in Nashville at The Sound Emporium, the legendary studio where records such as Kenny Rogers’ The Gambler and soundtracks for movies like O Brother, Where Art Thou? and Walk the Line were born.

When he’s not in the studio, or on the road, most of Sampson’s time these days is spent at home doing administrative work, so scheduling songwriting time is essential.

“Sometimes I’ll sit at home at the piano or on the couch with my guitar, cooking up ideas, but songwriting for me works best when it’s a job,” he says. “I love collaboration, because I get to work with other people, open my mind, and use my brain to develop these relationships. That’s important for me mentally. I’m such a people person; I need humans around me all the time, and as a solo artist I picked a job where you’re alone a lot. I use collaboration as an excuse to get together with people, drink some coffee, and write great songs. I leave smiling every time!”

There’s no reason to take your time when you have enough friends to ably carry everything you wish to say. Pierre Lapointe arrives with his third album three years, produced by a third friend in a row, Albin de la Simone, who’s allowed Lapointe to walk off the beaten path, with his eyes barely open. Déjouer l’ennui is a collection of “lullabies for children who grew up too fast.”

“Each project is the expression of a friendship,” says Lapointe, who tapped David-François Moreau to produce 2017’s La science du cœur and Philippe Brault for the production of 2018’s Ton corps est déjà froid.” I create very fast, so it’s the best way to avoid repeating myself,” says Lapointe. “If I’d made those three records as rapidly, and on my own, it wouldn’t have been as good.” He could have elected to learn the techniques for successful self-production, but that’s not where he wanted to go. “I voluntarily left that hurdle so that I have to turn to others for it,” he says. “That way, even if you work alone, you’ll always come up with something new.”

It is Albin de la Simone, present at our interview, who homogenized this story of ennui, that one can easily mold to one’s heart. “We started from the song ‘Le monarque des Indes’ [‘The Monarch of the Indies’],” says the producer. “We wrote it together and felt it would set the direction of the album. Everything that came afterwards was put through the filter of that experience, and we pushed aside anything that wasn’t caught in that net.”

Lapointe gave Albin a list of what he wanted. The starting point in question is a moment, a memory from the PUNKT tour during which Pierre and his musicians played “La plus belle des maisons” – heard on Déjouer l’ennui – centre-stage, around a single microphone. That emotion had to be re-born with the same essence. “I sent Albin Creole nursery rhymes, and songs by Manno Charlemagne, Haiti’s Richard Desjardins,” says Lapointe. That was how they would defeat ennui.

Several more friends participated, which allowed Lapointe to distance himself from his own perspective, and to inhabit many universes. Among them was Daniel Bélanger, who wrote the music for “Vivre ma peine.” “We had to fit Daniel’s guitars into our molds,” they say. The song “Pour déjouer l’ennui” was written by brothers Hubert Lenoir and Julien Chiasson, and re-worked alongside Lapointe to conform to the chosen direction. Philippe B contributed “Vendredi 13,” which Lapointe plays as “an homage to the one who was always close by.”

Drummer José Major was challenged by having to fit within the album’s soft approach, where big, percussive rhythms were rare. “He had the biggest challenge,” says Lapointe. “He had to play at one or two on a scale of 11.” “We wanted him to caress the skins instead of hitting them,” adds Albin. “That’s what created the instrument’s warmth.” “We brought everyone back to the essence of things by breaking their habits,” says Lapointe. “Like asking Philippe Brault to play guitarrón, which he’d never played before.”

Once he’s chosen his producer, Pierre Lapointe readily accepts all the changes in direction that may come. He allowed Albin’s wind to carry him toward new ideas. “This album actually does fill a gap, from which I thought his discography suffered,” says the producer. “My habits are diluted in Albin’s choices, and in the talent of my friends who collaborated on the album,” says Lapointe. “It allowed me to put my finger on what I needed: cooling down. It’s actually the first of my albums that I listen to for my own enjoyment. It sounds self-absorbed, but I hope it has the same effect on the people who listen to it.”

For Lapointe, whose humility is ever-evolving, all music is drafted from a central point, and the many hands that contribute to the music help it crystallize around that point. “Everyone pours their energy into something that belongs to everyone and no one at the same time,” he says. “I don’t feel the need to appropriate it, even though it’s my face on it.”

In 2021, the Conseil des arts et des lettres du Québec will recognize the 20th anniversary of Lapointe’s career, but he’s just thankful to still be around. “I’m not one to do assessments,” he says. “I’m here, now, and tomorrow.” What he chose to do – in order to avoid worrying about the pressure generated by his desire to be counted among the greats – is to constantly take risks, and challenge himself to do new things. “Friends, work, abandon: it’s a lifestyle that I’m comfortable with,” he says.