There’s a scene, early in the 1951 animated film version of Alice in Wonderland, where the protagonist, her skirts ballooned out around her like a parachute, takes a tumble down a rabbit hole and falls into a dark abyss. As Alice descends, she pauses to turn on a lamp, later picking up a book, reading in contemplation as she drops. Eventually, while musing about whether she’s falling to the other side of the earth, she flips and lands, upside down, in Wonderland.

For Rich Aucoin, working on his third full-length album Release (due May 17, 2019), the film provided the perfect inspiration for the existential angst he’d been grappling with. “I wanted to use Wonderland as a metaphor for how we form our beliefs and our world-view,” he says, musing about Alice’s descent into self-awareness, “and about how we deal with existing in the universe.”

The resulting album, which Aucoin admits he almost called Death, combines electronic beats and soundscapes in songs that feel contemplative, but far from dark. With titles like “The Mind,” “The Self,” and “The Fear,” each song is to be read as something to be released (as in “release the mind,” “release the fear,” etc.). Fittingly, the album kicks off with a short song, “The Base,” in which Aucoin samples American neuroscientist Sam Harris leading a guided meditation.

And as with many of Aucoin’s previous albums, The Release is designed to synchronize with film: in this case, to a version of Alice in Wonderland that he’s edited to give it a narrative flow better suited to explore his chosen themes.  “Everything I’ve written so far has synced up to a film,” says Aucoin, who’d always planned to go to film school, but instead completed a degree in contemporary studies and philosophy.

Indeed, it was near the end of that formal education that Aucoin, a classically-trained musician who taught himself music recording and production as a 13-year-old, first decided to try his hand at creating a new soundtrack for an existing film. The result was Personal Publication (2007), his debut EP, which was written to synchronize with How the Grinch Stole Christmas. Unknowingly, he’d also charted a course for this career.

“The first shows were me sitting on the side of a stage playing keyboard while people watched the movie,” he laughs. Aucoin’s version of the animated film, with its original soundtrack, amassed more than a quarter million views on YouTube before he received a cease-and-desist letter from the copyright holders ordering him to take it down.

In the years that followed, Aucoin, began making music only after setting parameters within which to work – a practice he maintains today.

“For every project I work on, I make a list of rules, and of those rules, one of them needs to be doing the opposite of what I did the last time,” he explains. He wrote an album designed to sync with a film he made by combining three films starring Jimmy Stewart (Pubic Publication, 2010), and later made another to match up with an edited version of The Little Prince (2014’s Polaris Prize-nominated Ephemeral).

“For every project I work on, I make a list of rules.”

At one point, to honour a rule about not making his next album alone, he travelled across the country making recordings with more than 500 people, including three choirs, incorporating them all into an album that eventually became 2011’s We’re All Dying to Live. While each artist would play a song verse or a chorus, many contributions were reduced to eight-second samples.

When he began performing that album, however, Aucoin realized that he was unable to re-create its collaborative sound on his own. Unable to afford to hire a band to back his gigs, he began encouraging active participation from his audiences, who he would ask to sing song choruses and other song elements. That experience evolved into Aucoin’s trademark high-energy, interactive approach to performing, popular on the festival circuit, which he refers to as “dance floor-style, with confetti and parachutes.”

Two-wheeled Touring
Aucoin did his first cross-Canada tour by bike in 2007 to support his debut EP, Personal Publication. It was a journey that took him 81 days, during which time he also raised money for Childhood Cancer Canada. At that point, he’d already crossed the country once, while performing in his brother’s band, the Hylozoists. “I felt like it was a whirlwind,” he says, deciding that he wanted to take in the country at a more leisurely place. Aucoin allowed himself a week to travel between cities, carrying his keyboard, projector and laptop, along with his camping stuff. More than a decade later he did it again, traversing the United States on two wheels to promote his 2018 EP Hold, and to raise money for the Canadian Mental Health Association. Though he’s quick to admit that he’s not a serious cyclist, Aucoin enjoyed his time on two wheels. “I really wanted to see the States in a slow way.”

While his approach to making music has enabled him to follow his own curiosity, and to continue learning, Aucoin – who’s been nominated for 10 East Coast Music Awards over the years – laughs at how time consuming his creative process can be. Particularly his fascination with syncing music and film. “It’s one of the reasons I’m almost 12 years into making music, and have only released two full-length records,” he says. “These things take time.”

But that, he says, is going to change. Aucoin admits he’s been feeling frustrated with the pace at which his career has been evolving. “I feel like I’ve been up to bat forever, and have been hitting impressive but foul balls, but there’s been no home run,” he explains. As a result, he is now intent on putting out music more quickly: at least an album a year, if not more, in the years to come, “so that I can never have a break in releasing music until my career is done.”

One almost hears an echo of Alice, thinking about her place in relation to others as she falls into Wonderland, or as Aucoin puts it, “contemplating whether she exists as an ego or just as a series of conscious experiences.” Whatever happens next, Aucoin says he’s happy with what he’s produced so far, is also ready to take his career to the next level.

“I think that if it does happen for me, I’ll have a lot of things to talk about and show someone,” he says with a smile. “I’ll be able to say, ‘Here are all the things I’ve spent 10 years doing, while you haven’t heard of me.’”

“Admittedly, the timing of this release isn’t optimal, because I’ve always considered this music to be best suited to cold weather,” says cellist and composer Justin Wright. This seasonal mishap can easily be forgiven, because with warm weather being fashionably late, his Music for Staying Warm doesn’t seem all that off-season.

Following experiments in amalgamating analogue synths and strings – both with the band Sweet Mother Logic and his solo EP Pattern Seeker – the Montréal artist is now exploring new avenues on his first album recorded as a quartet. The music falls somewhere between contemporary music and post-rock – fans of Godspeed You! Black Emperor should totally dig it. Falling, also, between the strictest codes of composition, and improv, Wright’s sound is part of an instrumental music movement that’s gathering more and more momentum.

“Early on, I knew I’d most likely never be the best cellist or the best composer in the world, so I knew I had to find a new angle, a very personal way of being creative with my instrument,” he says. “That’s why I like to give myself limits and challenges. For this album, I wanted every sound to come from a stringed instrument. People would be amazed at the strange sounds we can extract from these instruments.”

“With this project, I’m really putting myself out there, and it’s making me nervous!”

Inspired in part by Brian Eno’s Music for Airports, Wright also chose a utilitarian title that refers to the project’s initial spark. At the invitation of an art gallery that wanted a soundscape for the 2016 edition of Nuit Blanche, he composed a few melodies that would act as a sonic tapestry for people who would literally walk in to warm up during the event, which takes place in the middle of winter. Lo and behold, passers-by stayed longer, and paid attention to his work.

Those initial compositions later evolved into a dense and complex body of work that’s simultaneously cerebral and sensitive. The album comprises four “drones,” minimalist pieces built around sustained, trance-inducing notes. “I listened to a lot of tizita music from Ethiopia,” says Wright, “which usually only uses two chords, and I was fascinated by these pieces that seem to have no beginning or end… As an instrumentalist, there’s something fascinating and hypnotic about playing minimalist music. The number of variations you can apply to a single note is amazing.”

The album was recorded at the Banff Centre for the Arts, where Wright went for a third stay. If you close tour eyes while you listen, you can easily imagine being at the heart of this idyllic environment. “It’s hard to not be impressed and inspired when you work there,” he says. “The studio has windows on all sides, and no matter where you look, you see those majestic Rocky Mountains. Sometimes, it’s mind-blowing, but creatively, it’s good to be reminded how small we are in comparison to the universe.”

Maybe the fact that he studied molecular biology in university taught him to pay close attention to nature, but one supposes that this modesty also comes from being a serial accompanist. If you follow the Québecois underground scene, you’ve probably seen him play alongside artists such as Common Holly, Krief, Raveen, and many more. His talent as an instrumentalist and arranger can also be heard on recent albums by Jeremy Dutcher, winner of the Polaris Prize, and Mich Kota, two unique artists that are redefining contemporary First Nations culture.

“I honestly think I don’t have a grand message to champion through my music,” says Wright. “I try to touch upon universal themes, because I don’t believe that the story of this white dude who grew up in a posh environment is that interesting,” he says with a chuckle. “For First Nations artists, however, it’s different: their voices were repressed for so long that it’s crucial that they be heard today, and I’m happy to lend my talent to artists who have so much to say.”

And no matter what its creator thinks, Music for Staying Warm has a lot to say, even without words. One can definitely hear the personality of an artist we hope to follow throughout his whole career. “I admit that being an accompanist is somewhat comfortable,” he says. “You don’t need to make big decisions, you just put yourself at the service of someone. With this project, I’m really putting myself out there, and, honestly, it’s making me nervous! I didn’t expect all this to be so big, but as the project moved forward, I learned to appreciate my own work.”

Jesse Mac Cormack isn’t the self-centred type. Far from the continuous, calculated speech of a politician, he saves his words for when it really matters. After three EPs showing constant evolution, he releases Now, his debut full-length album, on May 3. It’s a recording that’s as highly anticipated as is a solution to climate change. It’s called Now, as in “now or never.”

Jesse Mac Cormack“The longer it is, the better,” goes the saying that seems designed to describe precisely what Mac Cormack was working on all these years. “It’s been about three years since I started placing the tracks, recording, making demos,” he says, like someone who’s just arrived home from a long journey.

And now, everything’s ready. The table is set, the waiting is over. Now is both the album title, and its fourth song. “The cover art is Death Valley National Park in California,” he says.  “In it, there’s a place called Badwater Basin, and everything around you is salt. It’s a truly moon-like place, a gorgeous end-of-the-world inspiration. There was life there, once; there was an ocean, a jungle.”

How does one describe today when tomorrow becomes a utopia, when one is unsure of everything? Mac Cormack thinks of things to come. “We took my kid there, she was about 18 months old, and we took a picture,” he says. “I told myself that I put someone on this earth and when I was born, the world was ongoing. But when she gets to first grade, teachers are going to tell her that the world will end. But it’s also a Now that’s open to interpretation.”

A need for rhythm

It was once he got back from touring the songs from his EPs (Crush, Music for the Soul and After the Glow) that he knew what he was going to create next. “I felt I needed more rhythmic songs,” says Mac Cormack. “It’s more fun to play live. I needed catchy hooks.” Which is how uber-catchy songs like “No Love Go” came to be written.

“It wouldn’t be humble to say I found the recipe,” he says, still unsure of what will happen. He’s managed, throughout the years, to build himself an army of fans that are waiting for this Now, this momentum, his record.

A debut album matters a lot. “That’s why I did three EPs over a long period of time,” says Mac Cormack. “It’s pointless to record an album no one is anticipating.” And the people anticipating this album are here, there, everywhere. All ages: “During my shows, the young ones are in front of the stage dancing,” he says, “and the older ones are at the back sitting on stools.”

What he writes and composes comes to him “just like that.” These songs only have one thing in common: their creator. They range from heady pop rhythms, to intimate moments where nothing’s left but Jesse, his piano, and us. In a bubble. “I did write drum-less songs, but it’s never calculated,” he says.

As far as the production goes, “it started as something totally bare, and ended up with a full orchestra.” The topics range from personal relationships, to the ins and outs of choosing a new beginning, to drugs, and social anxiety.

Becoming one with the artwork

Backing up Jesse, and at the service of the artwork, are Francis Ledoux, Étienne Dupré and Gabriel Desjardins “They have this ability to forget everything else and produce exactly the song you want them to do,” says Mac Cormack. And just as these guys can become one with his work, the man himself has, for many years, become one with other people’s work. He’s produced albums by Helena Deland, Emilie & Ogden, Rosie Valland, and Philippe Brach, to name just a few. “It’s really important for me to be able to do that,” he says. “The busier I am, the more creative I get, I have less time, and that means I know I need to wake up. Other people’s projects nourish me. I’m constantly learning. I love music that isn’t my own.”

Mac Cormack has never been afraid of pop music – James Blake, Travi$ Scott, Drake, and Rihanna are all on his playlist. “I’m not afraid of clichés,” he says. “I believe clichés are clichés for a reason. One needs to play with them. I love big, monster beats. I also listen to a lot of techno, for a side project I want to release soon.”

Changing lives

“Hey, I put a kid on this earth since the last time we chatted about music,” Mac Cormack says, almost as if he’s surprised himself. “I wanted to finish this album before my child was born. The label, Secret City Records, asked me to keep working on it. I did, but a year after she was born. It’s been quite a challenge to juggle all that. It’s a life-changer, as they say!”

Things have changed since those days when he would get inspiration mainly at night, while riding his bike, or wandering downtown. “Now, I’m running a 9-to-5 schedule,” he says. “A friend told me, ‘I went to the woods to create, I got lost, and that’s how my music was born.’ I barely have time to go to the pharmacy!”

Despite his visits to there, Mac Cormack is creating constantly, even if it’s subject to an office-hours schedule. “I try to have one guest a day in my studio,” he says. “A day is successful only if something happens.”