On a summer night in Cleveland (the one in Québec’s Eastern Townships), a bunch of friends light up a few fireworks – the kind you find in roadside stores. Among them is Poirier, the veteran Montréal-based electronic music producer. While watching the ignition process with his daughter, the man, whose first name is Ghislain, has an epiphany: what he’s looking at is the cover of his eleventh album, Soft Power.

Poirier, Soft Power“The image was shot with an iPhone!” says the musician, with the same enthusiasm that he felt that night. “I didn’t have my phone on me, so I told Mani [Soleymanlou, a theatre actor and Poirier’s friend]: ‘Take a picture of this. I think it’s my album cover!’ I like the slightly random aspect of the photo, and yet you can give it meaning. A flame in the middle of the night fits with Soft Power. It also fits with my work: fireworks that you buy and light yourself, you can find that everywhere. That image has an extremely local aspect, but there’s also something universal about it. [He pauses and starts laughing] I never thought I’d say something so deep about fireworks!”

Local and universal: those adjectives also happen to best describe the man and the music he’s been creating for more than 20 years, a mix of influences from all over the world – Brazilian, African, Caribbean – that have ultimately become typical of the diversity of his hometown of Montréal.

Generally motivated by his desire to set the dancefloor on fire, this is Poirier’s first album where he’s creating songs in the more traditional sense, with verses, choruses, and heady melodies to boot. His list of guest singers reads like a playlist for the most suave of happy hours: Flavia Coelho, Flavia Nascimento, Boogat, Samito, and Mélissa Laveaux. “I do consider it a song-based album,” he says. “I wanted young children to be able to hum along. I would even say it’s an album of chanson Québécoise!”|

Be that as it may, it’s still light-years away from the likes of Paul Piché, or Vincent Vallières. “Sure, but for me this album is a point of view,” says Poirier. “I’ve always seen myself as a bridge between communities, cultures, and types of music. So my point of view is that even though there are no songs in French on the album, it’s an album of Québécois songs. My world view is typically Québécois. And the hub at the centre of it all is Montréal.”

At a time where we grow increasingly aware of cultural appropriation, such hybridization demands respect for other cultures, and awareness of the limitations and pitfalls of such a position, when the person behind it is a white, Francophone man.

“I’ve been aware of this for 15 years, but Québec has only become aware of it in the last two years,” says Poirier. “When I released soca songs in 2009, and I was interviewed by Trinidadians from Toronto, do you not think they questioned me about it?”

And what did he tell them? “I told them I’d done my homework,” he says. “[Playwright] Robert Lepage didn’t do his homework. And he didn’t take notes when he did his remedial class. You have to listen. If we go back to my analogy to a bridge, you need to know where the banks of the river are to build a bridge. You must be genuinely interested! But that doesn’t mean you have to walk around in a boubou…”

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“When I’m working on a song, I often find it hard to listen to it with fresh ears. What I like to do is crank up the volume to 11 and go into the next room over in the house. I look out the window while I listen to it. When you do that, whatever’s wrong with the song becomes instantly obvious.”

In titling his album Soft Power, Poirier also refers to his new rapport with his work, which has been obviously, transformed by the fact that he’s now the father of a three-year-old daughter. “I’ve understood that work is not the only thing that defines us,” admits the self-confessed recovering workaholic. He wants us to re-acquaint ourselves with the old-fashioned value that is ennui.

Isn’t it a little strange that a musician wants his audience to feel ennui? “What I mean is that there’s power in restraint,” says Poirier. “We live in an era where people have become unable to be bored or contemplative. I don’t mean my album is incomplete, but I want it to have space for people to inhabit it. Good stories aren’t the ones where everything is said.”

R&B singer LOONY grew up in Scarborough, in the Northeast end of Toronto, where she taught herself how to sing as a kid, attended rock music summer camp, and released her first mixtape in high school.

“In Scarborough, people feel a little distant from the [downtown] core,” says LOONY, 26. “There’s not much to do here but create – and get in trouble.” Before she left to study English Literature at McGill University in Montréal, LOONY says she was “acting in a careless, reckless kind of way.” When she moved home, she found herself returning to her old ways.

On her sophomore EP JOYRiDE, released in April 2020, she explores her relationship with her old neighbourhood, while reckoning with past experiences and bad relationships.  “Going for a joyride is a crime, but I also thought of it as a vehicle to turn these feelings into something else that I can control,” she says.

The EP mixes neo-soul and R&B, with LOONY’s intimate, emotional voice anchoring each song. She worked closely with producers Akeel Henry – a former apprentice of Drake producer Noah “40” Shebib –  and Adam Ponang, to develop her experimental, genre-blurring sound.

LOONY started writing lyrics when she was back in Scarborough, but her time in Montréal greatly impacted her songwriting. At McGill, she fell in love with James Baldwin, Toni Morrison, Virginia Woolf, and T.S. Eliot. “I would skip a lot of classes, but I remember going one day when we were talking about the poem ‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock’ by T.S. Eliot,” she says. “It blew my mind. I was like, ‘Oh, this is what I’m missing out on? Because this is fire.’”

With her upcoming concerts postponed, LOONY’s spending her days hanging out in nature and writing new songs. “I don’t think it’s a coincidence that there are so many amazing artists in the East end,” she says. “There’s more green space, and more room to figure out what you want to do.”

There’s a westbound wind
Blowing through the ridge again
You can stay in, or go outside
And wait for it to die
But either way, it never ends

—“The Ridge” de Julian Taylor

Our past is always present. Even when we try to leave lost memories behind, they return in unexpected and unimaginable ways. How or why these pieces of our personal history reveal themselves is different for everyone. For Julian Taylor, the spark that took him on a nostalgic trip of contemplation started with death.

Julian Taylor

Not just the passing of one person, but losing everyone on his mom’s side of the family tree (three aunts and his step-grandmother) in quick succession. To process those losses, the singer-songwriter wrote a series of letters to those who cared for him when he was young, dictating them to his phone. These digital epistles became the skeletons for The Ridge. The new batch of songs was recorded at The Woodshed (Blue Rodeo’s studio in downtown Toronto) and released on June 19th in honour of his grandmother’s birthday, and Juneteenth (aka Emancipation Day) in the United States.

A mellow, acoustic departure from his work over the past few years with the  Julian Taylor Band (self-described “Pilgrims of Funk, Soul, and Roll”), The Ridge has surpassed 300,000 cumulative plays on Spotify and counting; earned rave reviews in publications across North America (including coverage from American Songwriter); and seen Taylor earn significant airplay on BBC 2 in the U.K., and on 70 stations in Australia, as well as accolades from fellow artists such as William Prince, AHI, and Rhett Miller (of the Old 97s). All of which is humbling for Taylor, who’s also the host of the weekday drive-time radio show on Indigenous-forward radio station ELMNT-FM in Toronto, and has been appointed to an advisory committee for the Toronto Blues Society.

“I’ve been banging on the wall for a long time,” he says. “You put something out and share it with the world and you just hope people will enjoy it.”

“The ridge is like a cut — a divide, in half, of me”

If they’re enjoying it, it’s because the songs connect with listeners, via universal themes to which they can relate. Some speak of hope and love (“Human Race,” “Ola, Let’s Dance”), but mostly, the songs look back to take stock of one’s place in the universe. Taylor cites one example of how these songs have resonated, describing a note he received from a Black farmer from the U.S. Midwest who told him how much “The Ridge” meant, as it dispelled the stereotypes that all Black folks live in urban areas.

Reviewers have commented that The Ridge is fresh, yet also has a vintage sound. “All my records sound like that,” Taylor says. “I’ve usually got one foot in the past and one in the future.”

Putting these lyrics and melodies to tape was therapeutic. Taylor tries to heal an unseen scar — one that’s haunted the musician, and marked his existence, ever since he was a child: his realization that he’s an outsider. This is especially true for the title song.

“People have asked me what The Ridge stands for,” the songwriter explains. “First, it stands for Maple Ridge, the short form for the place where I spent my summers growing up. It’s also a metaphor. The ridge is like a cut — a divide, in half, of me — not only from an emotional standpoint, but also from a social standpoint as a Black and Indigenous person growing up in a predominantly white experience.

“The Ridge speaks to the pain caused, and left in me, by losing those people so rapidly,” Taylor adds. “It also speaks to that split, and my feeling of not belonging.”

Taylor started singing and writing songs as a teen. Ever since, he’s been a staple of the Toronto music scene, and Taylor chronicles his early attempts to find his voice on “Ballad of a Young Troubadour.” He found success and a major-label deal on Warner Music Canada fronting Staggered Crossing in the late 1990s and early 2000s; more recently, he’s led the Julian Taylor Band. Despite his affiliation with these groups, the artist says he’s always felt he’s a singer-songwriter first and foremost.

Despite his gratitude for the record’s success, Taylor is struggling during the COVID-19 pandemic, and afraid of what the future holds. “I haven’t slept in four months,” he says. “I’m fearful of a lot of things. This time is not like any other I’ve experienced. It’s hard to explain. I’m scared for [the future of] the music industry and the hospitality industry… I’m scared for the next generation. Are they going to be a bunch of germaphobes? How do you teach people not to touch each other? That’s insane!”

While none of us have an answer to Taylor’s rhetorical question, or know when the pandemic might truly end, we do have his songs. And for now, that’s enough to help us heal.