In the Spring of 2018, Rachael Bawn was minding her own business, quite literally, when she accidentally found herself signed to the record deal of her dreams. “It kind of happened backwards,” she says in Toronto, just before the release of Chasing Lights, her debut album on BMG in the U.S.

Her team was methodically following a strategic plan for Bawn to establish a social media presence, laying the groundwork for an eventual signing. She’d already completed the album, produced by Mike Krompass (Smash Mouth, Jordan Knight), and executive-produced by Dean Jarvis (The Weeknd, Alessia Cara), both of whom share songwriting credits with Bawn, and others, on the album.

“We had the entire album done, we even had all of the branding done,” says Bawn. “Basically, we’d done everything independently up to that point. We’d been working with a social media PR company based out of New York City, and they brought me there just to shoot some live footage so that we had that content. They set up this show at The Iridium and they had me perform there.”

The venue originally planned for the performances was booked, and The Iridium was their “Plan B” location. “When we got there, we found out the night was hosted by Fieldhouse Music, which is under the BMG umbrella,” says Bawn. Unbeknownst to her team, Fieldhouse founder John Loeffler had just been named Executive Vice-President for BMG in New York. The rest, as they say, is history.

The 20-something Bawn set out on a songwriting career when she moved to Toronto from Hopeville, in Northern Ontario, at 19 years old. However, she put her musical ambition on hold for a few years after her father passed away from cancer. She spent several years counselling and mentoring young women – four full years with one group of girls – before returning to her first love, music. She caught the attention of Dean Jarvis, who then introduced her to Toronto-based Mike Krompass. Her work with young women still fresh in mind, Bawn set out with a specific goal: to write an album with a positive message. “Every song had [to have] something that people can relate to, [that] hopefully inspires and helps people,” she says.

Jarvis and Krompass set up sessions in Nashville and Los Angeles, where Bawn worked with a wide swath of experienced writers. Although the album songs are all collaborations (except for “Trying”), Bawn says, “Every song on the album has a piece of me in it. Even if it was geared towards a lot of the stuff the teens I was working with were going through, there was always something I could relate to, and [I always] put a part of myself into the song.”

Bawn describes the division of labour as pretty even. “I have a lot of fun with melodies, but I’m also very particular when it comes to lyrics,” she says. “I think as a songwriter, I really try not to be cliché… because they’re more geared towards teenagers, I try to keep them a little more conversational, I guess, rather than super-deep and poetic. It depends on the song. It was always different, depending on the writer I was working with.”

Rachel on the road: Three tips for live performance

  • “You’ll have great and excited audiences, and you’ll have ones that aren’t, but this is where you grow as a performer – by having fun with it, and bringing the energy, no matter what.”
  • “People want to be seen, so I always try to make eye contact, or point out people that are really engaged.”
  • “People love to sing along, so to keep them engaged. I always work a cover song into my set.”

Serious issues, such as eating disorders and self-harm, are dealt with in an honest fashion. “I spent so much time with [her mentoring group] that it was easy to put myself in their situations, and imagine how it felt,” says Bawn. She recalled similar feelings from her own school days, too.

“I was really insecure,” she says, “and I would never have gone to school without makeup on. I spent so much money on clothes, and pretending to be something that I wasn’t, really. I was trying to live up to this standard. I remember the feelings of insecurity, and how that can lead to influencing the choices you’re making, and the people you’re surrounding yourself with, and the situations you find yourself in. I mean, kids make really bad choices sometimes. It’s just part of growing up, and learning who you are.”

Since the signing, Bawn has been working on new music, and gaining some valuable performance experience. “I toured a lot last year,” she says. “I toured the States for five weeks with High School Nation, a travelling festival, then this fall, from October to December, I was touring the East Coast of Canada with Live Different, a charity based out of Hamilton, with motivational speakers.” Bawn’s songs were interspersed throughout the programme.

Now, on the eve of her record release, the whirlwind years of writing, recording, and performing the songs has finally come to a head. “It’s exciting,” says Bawn. “I feel like this day has been coming for a long time, and I’ve been singing these songs for the past year while I’ve been touring, so it’s surreal. I think on the day it’ll hit me a little harder.” It probably will.

It’s said that a sophomore album is harder to create than a debut, according to singer-songwriter Émilie Kahn. “People put a lot of pressure on us to create an album that’s better than the first,” she says. “That might be difficult to manage, but personally, I wasn’t saying to myself: ‘This album has to be better.’ My problem was that I had a ton of ideas for this record. I struggled from the get-go, because I was trying to force my songs to go in all kinds of directions, musically.”

Let’s jump to the punch right now: Outro is a better album than the previous one, 10,000, released in 2015. And it’s true as much on the writing side as on the production side. “I find that too,” says Kahn. That said, here’s the real urgent question: Why release this album under your real name, Émilie Kahn, rather than under the moniker Émilie & Ogden? She knew that question would come.

“I did that for several reasons,” says Kahn. “Initially, I had a band name because I didn’t like that idea of attaching who I am as an artist to my name. It was a way of acknowledging that in this business, one needs to know how to market oneself. I liked the idea of separating the person from the artist, but… I don’t know, I guess I’ve realized it’s impossible to do that. There’s no separation between myself as a person and as an artist. Also, to be honest, after three years, there were still some fans who had no clue what Ogden was, exactly…”

To those in the know, Ogden is her fetish instrument. It’s the name of a range of instruments created by Chicago-based harp builders Lyon & Healy, privileged by folk and pop musicians because of their light weight and versatility. Ogden has become Émilie’s signature, thanks to the instrument’s silky harmonies that imbue her indie pop songs with an ethereal yet tense aura. It’s a feeling of being suspended between two states of consciousness, halfway between ethereal pop and an indie-rock aesthetic, darkened by drums and guitars.

“People get the impression the harp is a difficult instrument, but it’s very close to the piano,” says the artist, who was at first a player of the recorder, an instrument that allowed her to enroll in a classical music Bachelor’s program. “It was in Cégep that I fell in love with the harp; I found a teacher on internet and took private lessons,” she says.

Because she’s older now and knows herself better, Kahn admits that this album, released under her real name, will sound more personal and sincere. “Yet, the evolution from Émilie & Ogden to Émilie Kahn is natural,” she says. Which is not to say that evolution was an easy one, and she recalls having recorded a pile of demos in preparation for this second album. But she ended up trashing all of them.

“I went through a crisis,” she explains. “I knew from the beginning that I wanted to work on this album with Warren [C. Spicer, Plants & Animals’ singer/guitarist]. I called him and admitted I had no idea what I was doing… He said, ‘We’ll sit down together, will calm down, we’ll just play music. We’ll take a look at the songs you have, and see where it goes.’”

After that crisis, she got back to work: a full week of writing until the wee hours. “It’s funny, because I got that question a lot when the first album came out,” she says. “‘How do you write your songs?’ I never knew what to answer, because it’s a very intuitive process for me. I never knew where a song came from. But this year, I wrote much more with other musicians, and had writing sessions. That’s when I realized that there are many different ways to write a song.

“I get the impression that a lot of musicians tend to start with the music – they find chords, rhythms, then the melody, and find words to fit in. I’ve always given a lot more importance to lyrics. I like my voice to stand out in the mix of my songs, so that the lyrics are clearly heard.

“I’ve always loved writing, from my childhood on,” says Kahn. “Writing down my feelings is the easiest way for me to get them out. That’s why I start with words over a melody. A single sentence can be the basis of a song. But this year, I forced myself to write differently, in a much more pop way. I have a friend who’s a producer, he composes beats on his computer, and I write lyrics on top of them. This album made me realize I want to move towards pop a lot more,” says the musician, who loves it when songs seem to write themselves.

“My favourite songs are the ones I write in 10 minutes, in one sitting,” she says. “Generally speaking, most of the songs that ended up on this new album were created that way. It starts with a sentence that pops into my mind, and the rest just falls into place… It’s a difficult thing to describe.”

On his album Parce qu’on aime (Because We Love) the young father sings about the ups and downs of a couple who’ve become parents, as well as those of a planet that seems to have subscribed to hatred.

CorneilleCorneille isn’t a powerful social media presence, but you can still find a few pictures of he and his partner dressed to the nines on one red carpet or another.

Quite the opposite of the daily grind chronicled on Parce qu’on aime, the eternal gentleman’s eighth album. The record features 11 songs, without the typical sort of filters that transform truth into a fairy tale for the sake of the song. To wit, the unequivocal, and unfiltered, title of the second song: “Manque de sommeil” (“Lack of Sleep”).

“When you’re successful, you get the impression you need a formula, but there is none, and that makes us super-insecure,” says the 41-year-old artist, about the doubt he’s long harboured, and finally sheds on this album. “It’s a danger that faces most artists who are very successful right from the start: when you start looking for that formula, you lose your spontaneity, your creativity, and your authenticity. It can quickly become tiresome when, every time you walk onstage or release an album, you’re betting your own life on it – when it could simply be cool, simple, and easy. Being creative requires you to be bold, to get to the bottom of things, and often, getting to the bottom of things simply means fundamentally remembering who we are.”

It turned out to be just as cool, simple, and easy as an SMS he got from his wife, Sofia de Medeiros. “What if we told our story as parents?” wrote his wife, and official lyricist (since 2009’s Sans titre) while he was in the studio. What if they told the story of the storm that’s rocking their days and nights, that fills their hearts with joy, and makes the bags under their eyes heavier every day?

“We were right in the middle of it all, we weren’t getting enough sleep, and it had an impact on our entire lives. We were incredibly irritable,” says Corneille, laughing. The father of a three-year-old daughter and an eight-year-old boy now sings (although they’re her lyrics): “Ne me regarde pas comme ça / Je ne t’aime pas moins / Je nous ai juste perdus de vue / Ça fait des années qu’on ne dort pas / Ce n’est pas que je suis loin / C’est la fatigue qui m’a en garde à vue.” (Don’t look at me like that / I don’t love you any less / I’ve just lost touch with us / We haven’t slept in years / It’s not that I’m far away / Exhaustion has me in its custody).

“We thought it was a good song to write, precisely because it’s not an Instagram theme,” says Corneille. “A song about sleep deprivation is not quite sexy, but we wanted to talk about the transformation of love, from the passion of the beginning to becoming deeper and deeper. We wanted to chronicle the daily lives of two people who chose each other to overcome the inevitable adversities of life. We need to talk about the less spectacular and less idyllic side of love.”

True Soul

Although Corneille’s music is hip to current American R&B and pop sounds, he also adheres to the great tradition of soul – one that embraces life, and avoids music that’s only about bodily impulses. Thus, he’s simultaneously a father and a citizen on Parce qu’on aime, an album where, on the song “Philadelphie,” he salutes Ella Fitzgerald as well as Boys II Men in a homage to the city, a Mecca of unpretentious music.

“Making soul music is an attempt to be true,” says the man who hasn’t been truer since Parce qu’on vient de loin (2002), the album that introduced him to audiences in Québec and in France, but that also revealed his horrible past.

The new impression we get, being re-acquainted with someone with whom we’d lost touch, isn’t just  an impression. Although he was never totally absent, it’s true that for quite awhile he hadn’t inhabited his somgs with as much intensity as he did when he sang about his urgency to live (Parce qu’on vient de loin), the insistence of his inner demons (Seul au monde), or his craziest ambitions (Rêves de star). His previous project, Love & Soul, was, after all, a covers album.

“It takes two to tango,” he says. “My absence was largely my choice. I needed to take a step back and I put my energy elsewhere: into my marriage, my family, my psychological reconstruction. I went to therapy, a thing I hadn’t done at the peak of my success, and that meant less time to promote my albums… Plus, I did offer songs to radio stations, but they didn’t play them. There are cycles that are beyond our capacity to understand [re: audiences, radio], and not over-think. We don’t control anything, and I feel reassured, now, to know that.”

Taking Time to Say Things

CorneilleSo not only does he voice his feeling of powerlessness, when it comes to the world’s many injustices, on a song like “Tout le monde,” Parce qu’on aime’s first single, but Corneille actually tackles current events on “Le chant des cygnes,” a song that was inspired by the SLĀV “scandal.” (The Robert Lepage play about slavery that initially had employed no Black actors, or people of colour, and was cancelled because of it.)

“In the first verse, I sing, ‘Pardonnez-moi mon offense/ Si j’étais toi,/ C’est comme ça que j’aimerais que ça commence’ (‘Excuse my offence / If I were you / That’s how I’d like it to begin’), and that summarizes how I feel about it. When I sing that, I’m putting myself in the place of people who thought it made no sense that a stage play about slavery would not feature a single black actor. It’s an utterly legitimate complaint, although the violence with which some people expressed themselves is very debatable. The only way to defuse the situation is to tell the offended person: ‘I respect your feeling, it is totally valid.

“However, right now,” he continues, “everyone immediately polarized: ‘Freedom of expression! Artistic freedom!’ If you address an issue without first admitting that it’s valid, the person who’s complaining can only escalate. It all lacked a lot of tact, sensitivity, and subtlety. And immediately after, there was a kind of backlash: ‘Are you calling us racists?’ No, all we’re saying is that being Black means having a unique experience of the world, which does not automatically mean white people are the Great Oppressor.”

But why didn’t he express himself publicly about this? Because he’s very conscious of the fact that, in the middle of a crisis, even the most level-headed words run the risk of being distorted, or worse, unheard.

“We’re all under the impression we need to say a maximum of things in a minimum of time, but there are subjects that cannot be debated if you don’t take the time required,” says Corneille. “Cultural appropriation is a much too complex issue to debate with tweets.”


The Wisdom to Love and Listen to Oneself

Parce qu’on aime: the title is both an intimate assessment, and a wish for a humankind that – based on the hate-filled pollution in our online lives – doesn’t seem to have chosen kindness.

“I notice, just like everyone else, the polarization of our online lives and of our collective lives,” says Corneille. “I see the disarray, and the sadness, that comes from this desire to exist in the eyes of others. We all want others to think we’re hot, smart, and gorgeous, which is completely unrealistic.”

Pardon the slightly sappy conclusion, but Corneille maintains that the only important thing is how the people we love see us, as well as making sure the actions we take are, as much as possible, true to the voice inside each of us.

“I came to a point in life where I realized every time I didn’t listen to myself, I failed, and every time I did, things worked out,” he says. “Not necessarily on a commercial level, but every time I listened to my inner voice, I grew as a person.”