Rachel TherrienWe reach Rachel Therrien, the 29-year-old trumpet and cornet player, in Brooklyn for this interview while the Rimouski native – who’s part of the Emi R. Roussel and Jérôme Beaulieu generation – was paying her dues in the jazz capital of the world before hooking back up with her Québec quintet in a few weeks.

“There are a lot of people in Brooklyn, but not many tall buildings,” says Therrien. “It’s very cosmopolitan. There are two or three jazz clubs just a stone’s throw from my pad. The Cats, in Manhattan, is my favourite, I just can’t afford the admission fees in places like the Blue Note. I like more relaxed spots where we can jam. Going to live shows is always inspiring, but being part of a community is when it becomes really rewarding.”

The New York community has clearly welcomed her. On New Year’s Eve 2016, she had been invited to play the prestigious Kennedy Center in Washington alongside a big band. Quite the way to conclude a year that was rich in projects of all kinds. Chief among them was the release of her third album, Pensamiento: Proyecto Colombia, an immense opus of Afro-Colombian rhythms recorded there with 12 local musicians. Home Inspiration, her previous record, came out in 2014, three years after her debut, On Track.

“What really gets me going is challenges,” says Therrien. “I chose the trumpet, which is far from an easy instrument, it’s very physical. You can’t go a day without playing, otherwise you regret it for a week! Why the trumpet? I started high school late because we moved, so when I got to the music class, everyone had picked their instrument, all that was left was a trumpet and a trombone. I had to look it up in an illustrated dictionary, I had no idea what a trumpet looked like!”

“I think it’s regrettable that the Toronto and Montréal jazz scenes don’t mingle; we barely know each other.”

Unapologetically curious, Therrien has the mind of an explorer. She’s spent a lot of time in Havana and Banff, among other places, where she took part in various workshops alongside about thirty mentors – such as the erudite Dave Douglas, which inspired her in a series dedicated to jazz composers.

“I want to make not just jazz accessible to my generation,” she says, “but everything else that’s in the margins: Latin jazz, African music, Eastern European music… Jazz is the philosophy of conversation. I hope to synthesize all that and turn it into my own music. If I could go back to school, I’d study ethnomusicology!”

In 2013, and for the next three years, Therrien received a SOCAN Foundation grant to support exchanges with other musicians. Held during the Montréal Jazz Fest, a partner in this project, these meetings happen every night at 11:00 p.m. at Bleury Bar à vinyle. Therrien invites American and Canadian musicians from her contact list, most of whom don’t know each other. Each of them plays two of their own compositions., which are are rehearsed before the show. “What matters most is the dialogue between the musicians,” she says.

The winner, alongside her quintet, of the 2015 TD Grand Jazz Award is very optimistic about the next generation of local jazz players: “The new generation is eager and highly creative,” she says. “I look at the younger musicians coming out of university and their level is impressive, but I think it’s regrettable that the Toronto and Montréal jazz scenes don’t mingle; we barely know each other.”

Her favourite trumpet players? “Chet Baker, Ambrose Akinmusire, Miles Davis, depending on the period, Douglas and Blue Mitchell, whom I’ve stolen many a solo from,” says Therrien. “They all have a signature sound. But maybe it’s a paradox, I’ve always preferred being told I play well than being told I sound good. I think I have good ears, so I prefer doing my own research and create my own music.”

Therrien will soon export her talent to Spain, next spring, where she self-booked a mini-tour of jazz clubs on her own. Networking. Contacts. Full speed ahead.

Among the ambitious works staged at the 2016 edition of Toronto’s Luminato festivalSong of Extinction struck a particularly powerful and timely note, due in large part to the emotional musical journey through geological time created by composer Rose Bolton.

Described as an immersive visual and sonic exploration of the Anthropocene era (the newish buzzword many now use for our current epoch), the 50-minute, multi-media production encompassed many of the forms Bolton has been engaged with during her impressive, productive career: chamber music (performed by Music in the Barns Chamber Ensemble); vocal music (Tafelmusik Chamber Choir members, and VIVA! Youth Singers); pop music (“using a popular song format, with lyrics and vocals front and centre,” she explains); and live electronics (executed by Bolton).

Song of Extinction evolved out of a collaborative back-and-forth between documentary filmmaker Marc de Guerre, Order of Canada-inducted poet Don McKay, Music in the Barns director Carol Gimbel, and Bolton. It continues the exploratory method Bolton’s enjoyed since age nine, when she played every instrument she could get her hands on (from piano to violin to Salvation-Army brass instruments) and started to write music.

“I wanted to be more like painters, who create a work and then it exists, and they don’t have to give it to someone who renders it.”

Awards and commissions came early to Bolton, who received a Bachelor of Music degree from the University of Western Ontario in the early 1990s, then took a couple of years off to study privately with Toronto composer Alexina Louie and write. She then earned her Masters in Composition at McGill University, which she completed in 1998. Bolton had relished her creative adventures in the electronic-music studios of Western and McGill, but she kept getting commissions for instrumental work and picking up accolades along the way, such as the Toronto Emerging Composer Award in 2001.

Rose BoltonIn 2005, after a busy year that included the world premiere of a major commission for Esprit Orchestra, she took a step back. “I started to look at my body of work up to that date and realized that I wanted to have control over the future of my own writing,” she recalls. “In those early years, I allowed commissions to guide me. I also got involved in traditional Irish and fiddle music, I played in a country band and folk ensembles, wrote orchestrations for pop bands. It was all about being part of a scene – playing gigs, then being a composer. It was great, it kept me busy. And I didn’t have to think about what I should be doing.

“But I wanted to be more like painters, who create a work and then it exists, and they don’t have to give it to someone who renders it,” she continues. “So I got serious in 2005 and started building my own studio. [Graphical modular software music studio] Reaktor started to happen, so all I needed was a better computer. I got an early version of Logic, and a digital recorder to collect samples. By 2007 I had a commission.”

Bolton now spends half the year composing score music for her partner Marc de Guerre’s artful social-history-themed docs, such as Who’s Sorry Now (CBC, 2012) and Life After Digital (TVO, 2014), and the other half writing concert music (both commissions and personal music). Her studio light is pretty much always switched on.

When she started working in film eight years ago, she would create early sketches. “But often you don’t know what the mood is going to be before the film is edited, you might only have a few minutes of footage,” she explains. “For the documentary genre, Marc likes electronic music, and I often end up blending in instruments. I’ve developed my skills of how to produce and mix – the whole process has really changed the way I think about music.

“As a concert composer, if you’re commissioned to write music for a string quartet, once you know who you’re writing for… that’s it,” she laughs. “But when I’m doing a documentary soundtrack, sometimes an instrument won’t work, so I try different sounds – try a horn, try a synth, try a sample, let’s try bells! But with a commission, well, you can’t fire your horn player!”

Bolton says de Guerre, who was a visual artist before turning to film, had the idea for Song of Extinction a few years before they met. As they began to discuss his ideas, Bolton knew she wanted to use a chamber choir and instruments, but the music didn’t take shape until she began working with McKay. “I had music sketches, he would write a poem and send it back – poetry and music were happening simultaneously,” she recalls. “Don would say, ‘You can do what you want with the words,’ so I would turn his poem into something more like song lyrics, boil it down to its essences, which he was fine with.”

The ideas for the instrumentation kept changing until Music In The Barns came on board, but Bolton always intended to use a chamber choir. “My idea was to have humans singing about extinction,” she says. “In the end, we had singers from Tafelmusik and 30 singers from a youth choir. So they would sing together, as opposed to having a soloist, and the two choirs would sing back and forth, similar to human discussion among friends or on the news.

“There’s always a back and forth,” she says. “It’s the way that ideas take shape.”

“You can dance if you want to.” It was a missive from Montréal. A command given by infectious synth riffs, rap-type singing and a mid-tempo beat perfect for clapping along and yes, dancing. Oh, and a medieval-themed music video in which singer Ivan Doroschuk played pied piper to a group of maypole dancers.

Men Without Hats broke out of Canada with this oddball creation at the height of new wave – landing at No. 3 on Billboard and charting in Australia, Germany, the U.K. and beyond. In 2010, “Safety Dance” resurfaced in the smash TV series Glee; Doroschuk seized the renewed interest to record Love in the Age of War (2012) and assemble a new band, which currently tours around the world. SOCAN spoke to him from his home in Victoria, BC.

Take us back to the scene in Montreal where Men Without Hats came to be.
There was a lot of experimentation, not only in music but clothing, and painting and other audio-visuals, and the technology was changing fast. We started with no keyboards at all – an art-school noise band. Then I got the chance to go electronic and it changed the direction. That was a time where punk and new wave were lumped into the same category. We all shared the same stages and same ideals. One thing about Montréal in that period that allowed for such creativity was the fact that all the record company head offices were in Toronto. It gave us a lot more freedom to express ourselves. We didn’t have to be the next Parachute Club or Spoons. There was no chance someone from a label was at the back of the room waiting to sign us to a contract.

How did you discover synths? They were still rare and expensive at that time.
I took piano lessons all my life. My mother was a teacher at McGill and I grew up with classical music, full on. So I was ready for the technical side of it. I also loved progressive rock bands like Genesis and Yes. Where I went to school, I had a lot of very rich friends. When we got investments, that’s something we worked on right away, getting access to that equipment.

Is it true you wrote “Safety Dance” after getting tossed out of clubs for slam dancing?
Pretty much. It was the dying days of disco. Every now and then you’d hear Blondie or maybe a Devo song in the clubs. Then my friends and I, we’d get up and start pogoing – the precursor to slam-dancing. People didn’t know what we were doing. They thought we were picking fights and we’d get tossed out. So that’s basically why I wrote the song.

Your singing style in this track is almost spoken word. Where did that come from?
I credit my vocal styling to people like Bryan Ferry or Lene Lovich. For the 12-inch single though, we had to stretch things out, so I came up with the idea of talking. It was a spur-of-the-moment decision. I really modeled the whole spelling out the words thing after Grandmaster Flash and the beginning of rapping. We didn’t use it anywhere else, in other songs. It was just a time and place.

What do you think made it catch on?
It’s the message: That you can dance if you want to. That really resonated with people. That, plus the video. It didn’t look new wave at all – no sunglasses or pointy shoes. So anybody could listen to it. Jocks, punks, goths, your mother. Everybody could relate; there was no uniform or hairstyle that went along with it. And with the video being medieval, it was timeless.

You really did create this term “Safety Dance” out of nowhere. How much is playing with language part of the appeal of songwriting for you?
That’s the magic of music. Sometimes it clicks. Musician and magician are close words. The spell can be in the lyrics.

How did this song change your life?
It was life-changing, for sure. MTV didn’t have a lot of videos in those days, so we were on heavy rotation. I remember getting out of a tour bus in upstate New York and went into a store and the cashier pointed at me and started screaming, “It’s him!” and I thought she had mistaken me for someone who robbed the place. She was literally crying. “He’s the guy from the video.” That was the moment I realized things would be different from now on. It was interesting, to say the least. When you’re writing songs, you don’t set out to write a bad song. But when it actually does stand the test of time it’s quite humbling. It’s gotten to a point that the song is so much bigger than me. I’m just the ambassador of the song – I go around the world presenting it. A lot of people don’t even know the name of the song, or the band, or my name.

And that’s fine with you?
More than fine. That’s great. It makes you realize it’s a big world.

What do you think when you see people dancing to a song you wrote about someone trying to stop you from dancing?
I think the message got through. I got my wish.