While everyone, including creators, is self-isolating as much as possible, can we already predict an exceptional musical harvest in the wake of the COVID-19 situation? KROY is adamant: “There’s going to be a baby boom and an album-boom.”

After all, it’s often in the worst of times that artists are at their best. A prime example of this is La Bolduc’s timeless classic, written during the Great Depression: Ça va venir, découragez-vous pas (“Things Are Gonna Get Better, Don’t Give Up”). Her song was a comforting message of encouragement and an ode to resilience, sung with her signature “turlute” that’s still heartwarming to this day. Just like the intimate catastrophe of having your heart broken, social and global crises such as the COVID-19 situation are a source of inspiration for lyricists. That which contaminates our collective mind will necessarily percolate into popular music.

Isolation and solitude will undoubtedly be ubiquitous themes in the music that will come out of this event. “Hey, I’m always writing songs about that!” says KROY, bursting out in laughter. “But I do feel like it will be a hot topic in the coming months: the need to connect, to stay together, the desire to be surrounded by people, and missing human and community contact.”

“It’s the small, individual stories that are going to come out of this huge subject, that will be interesting.” – Nelson Minville

Nelson Minville, who’s written more than 350 songs – for the likes of Céline Dion, Paul Daraîche, and so many more – thinks the effects of this slump and suspension of the normal course of things will take a while to seep into radio playlists.

“It’s too early to tackle the topic head-on,” he says. “It’s the small, individual stories that are going to come out of this huge subject, that will be interesting. It’s as if someone asked me to write a song about the environment, but the environment in and of itself is not a subject. The real story is a grandfather who goes for a stroll by a river with his grandson and says, ‘You see, we used to fish, here.’ Now that’s a song! The environment is not a song, it’s too vast, it’s boring. There’s going to be beautiful songs that come out of this, no doubt, but they won’t necessarily be about the pandemic itself. There’s going to be stories that come out of the subject.” Someone losing their job, or losing a loved one, for example.

Creating on the Spot

Artists are a reflection of our society, as clichéd as that sounds. It’s even more obvious during crucial, strange times like these. They become the voice of the many.

At this juncture, where everything still feels raw, and we’re still struggling to adjust to social distancing, Michel Rivard has decided to tackle the situation head-on, and deliver one song a day. Cœur de Pirate promptly answered the call of premier Legault and, in a song, invited her fans to stay home and stop the propagation of the coronavirus. Her humorous exercise was echoed in a similar one by singer-songwriter and producer Laurence Nerbonne. On March 18, she posted her very entertaining “COVID-19 Remix” online.

“I wanted to express the overwhelming worry everybody feels this week,” she says, “while we waited for the borders to be closed, finally, and for the U.S. to react, and Trudeau to snap out of it. It’s kind of my job to take the pulse of society and turn it into art to make people smile. That’s the main reaction I got from people. It made them laugh.”

But beyond themes directly linked to the virus, the self-isolation instructions have forced authors and composers to get back to their drawing boards, if only to kill time. Stuck between four walls, as if they were on a writing retreat in a remote cabin, there’s plenty of pportunity to take advantage of this truly exceptional situation by creating new material.

Choses Sauvages’ Marc-Antoine Barbier is one of them. “We were in our van to go play in Alma and Dolbeau just before this all started,” he says. “Our last gig got cancelled… There are no more shows happening, Félix and Thierry work in bars, and I freelance in cinema, where filming has also been cancelled… We’re all somewhat off now, you know. We’re all on EI now. So we’re focusing on composing, and that’s going to be a full-time job for a while.”

Daily Solitude 

For creators who aren’t fuelled by jam sessions, introspection remains the most fertile ground for verses and choruses. Just as Nelson Minville (“I spend my life with my head between speakers trying to come up with words”), Laurence Nerbonne, or Camille Poliquin, a.k.a. KROY. Hubert Lenoir’s creativity blooms in silence and ennui. “In my case, seriously, I was already almost self-isolating for about a month,” he says. “So when it happened, I told myself, ‘OK, I guess I’m just gonna carry on what I was already doing.’…This comes at a time where I’ve stopped giving shows. My last tour was in Europe last November. I’ve been in a creative mood since then.”

Whereas others are rushing to get material out, whether it’s to change their minds, or out of fear that the public will forget them, the “son of no one” says he’s serene, even relaxed, and he’s thankful. “I’m really lucky,” says Lenoir. “If this happened two years ago when my album was coming out, it would have been rough to see all my shows cancelled… Even if the shows are just postponed, there is a question of timing… My thoughts really go out to all my colleagues impacted by all this.”

Beat SexuKnown as DJ Charny, a nod to the small railroad town where he grew up, guitarist Jean-Michel Letendre Veilleux shows us his love of dancing on this, the first real Beat Sexü album. Concocted over a period of five years in close collaboration with Jean-Étienne Collin Marcoux, this album allowed the pair to project themselves well beyond the limits of the 418 area code. From being mentioned in the nightly news on the Côte-Nord region of the CBC to the four stars the album earned from La Presse, their music has attracted a lot of attention.

“We weren’t expecting that,” says Veilleux, who everyone calls Jim. “It feels like this relationship that’s going around in circles, like f—k-buddies that have been together for two years but never said, ‘I love you’ to take things to the next level. We’d done everything together, but we hadn’t committed.”

His roommate and colleague Marcoux explains the wait more pragmatically. “I wouldn’t call this a side project,” he says, “but we were busy with so many other things that this always ended up being pushed aside… That’s what happened with Anatole. It had to come out as fast as possible because of Alex’s record contract… We were working in the studio, but we made ourselves available to him. Not that we weren’t willing participants, just like when Hubert Lenoir asked me to go on tour with him… But it was still time we were supposed to devote to Sexü.”

Veilleux and Marcoux are also the co-founders, artistic directors, and maintenance men of Pantoum, the epicentre of Québec City’s independent music scene. They were, however, longing to reveal their own material after welcoming so many bands into their studio and rehearsal spaces.

After several lineup changes, Beat Sexü recruited keyboardist and backing vocalist Odile Marmet Rochefort (ex-Men I Trust) and bassist Martin Teasdale. The quartet sealed the deal with the final version of “Plumage,” the album opener that they debuted during the Francouvertes five years ago. The song has evolved considerably since then. Veilleux explains: “Our basic idea is to make people dance. Jean-Étienne and I have always loved dance music. I loved Justice back in 2007. Later I got into house music and discovered cumbia, Brazilian, and African music. We wanted to embrace those influences.”

We’re undeniably dealing with the same band – their desire to make us move remains the same – but the arrangements on Deuxième Fois have grown more refined. “We used to sound very disco rock, but we’ve grown out of that,” Marcoux admits. “I already do disco with Gab Paquet and Anatole. We still love it, we’re still Giorgio Moroder fans… But the thing is, there are so many more types of dance music that let us explore different sounds… Disco is quite archetypal, and you quickly hit a threshold because the 4/4 time-signature is limiting.”

As the band’s drummer, singer and lyricist, he let his enthusiasm run free when it came to choosing percussion. Marcoux plays the vibraphone on “P.S.” while on “De jardin à courge,” he unexpectedly, liberally uses a cuíca. “It’s everywhere in Brazilian samba, especially from the Rio area,” he says. “It’s a skin over a steel drum and the skin has a bamboo stick glued in the middle of it. You use a wet cloth and rub the bamboo stick while you change the pressure on the drumhead with your other hand. The most well-known music with cuíca in it is probably the Austin Powers theme song.”

Beat Sexü’s music is what happens when the barriers between music genres are broken down in the lower part of Québec City. In this era of streaming, where more than ever, the whole world is listening, the pair is thinking globally. “It’s funny, because when you look at the Apple Music stats, you also see the Shazam stats, and the majority of searches for us come from outside Québec,” says Veilleux. “Paris, Calgary, Hamilton, sometimes in the States. It’s not a lot, about a dozen a week, but at least we know our music travels.

“We know what we do can be exported,” the guitarist adds. “We had proof with ‘Corridor’… it can be done in French! We’d like to carry on in that vibe.”

renforshort (sic), the Toronto artist formerly known as Ren, was gearing up for the release of her EP, teenage angst, for Interscope/Geffen, when life as we know it ground to a halt. Her March showcases in Toronto, NYC and L.A. were postponed, as efforts to flatten the curve of the coronavirus spread became increasingly stringent. The 17-year-old speaks for all of us of at this crazy time when she says, “It’s not fun.”

The singer, bassist, and guitarist – who posted covers and originals for several years under her birth name Lauren Isenberg, and even won a competition for singing a classic Chinese folk song, “Mo Li Hua,” in Mandarin – more recently, under her hypocorism Ren, amassed five million streams with two originals, 2019’s heart-stealing ache “Waves” and buzzing pop-worm “Mind Games.”

After meeting producer Jeff Hazin in 2016, her sound developed from what she now calls “calm and bedroom poppy” — said as if that’s completely boring and unimaginative — to a cool, scrappy alt-pop, not unlike Billie Eilish. She takes an unfiltered say-whatever approach to lyric-writing that could be lines from Netflix’s The End of The F___ing World, but set to music.

“Sometimes I wanna stick a cigarette in my eyes,” Ren sings in the mercurial stomp “I Drive Me Mad,” and in the plucky groove “idc,” she confesses, “Right now all I wanna do is choke you till your face turns blue.” I mean, who hasn’t thought such things, perhaps even said them out loud? But renforshort puts them in a song, there for life.

Her co-writers, she says, “Love that stuff. They eat that up. They want that,” she laughs.

Although there are some other people involved in teenage angst, her main co-writers are Hazin, Matthew Kahane, and David Charles Fischer – and have been since 2016.

“As I’ve gotten older, me and Jeff, together, experimented more until we found what we wanted. It took a really long time,” says Ren. “Jeff is very adventurous with his production, and every time I come up with lyrics that I think are too edgy, or one of them does, we’re all like, ‘Wow, that’s just the best thing that I ever heard in my life,’” adding, with a laugh. “We’re all just a little bit twisted.

They have a brotherly feel to them, but they also just all feel like friends. We forget how big the age difference is when we’re all together. It doesn’t feel like I’m sitting with a bunch of mid-to-late 20-year-olds. They’ve all lived through high school and they really understand where I’m coming from. It makes it very easy to talk with them and sit down and write.”

“Every song we love more than the next.”

Ren wrote her first song at age 13: “Hopeless Town,” produced by Nathan Ferraro, then of The Midway State, and worked on three originals with producer Justin Gray in L.A. Before the emergence of renforshort, her earlier songs didn’t truly show certain aspects of her personality — self-doubt, humour, a sharp tongue, confusion — and what it’s like growing up in this social-media, “likes”-chasing world.

Back then, she says, “Sometimes I’d take personal experiences, and either blow them out of proportion, or just start becoming a character.  I dunno,” she pauses and laughs. “Nothing super-eventful in the romance world has happened to me in my short life.”

On teenage angst, the more aggressive-sounding “Luv Is Stooopid” decimates a bed-interest for even contemplating those three little words, but several of the other songs reveal insecurities. In “Bummer,” she writes,Looking in the mirror / My reflection got me triggered… I can’t hear the compliments / Just feeling shitty… Will it always be a bummer?” And in “I Drive Me Mad,” she goes so far as to write about an anxiety attack and hyperventilating. “It’s just hard being human,” she sings.

Being so open in her work is fairly new for Ren.  “It took until I had a panic attack in a session, and they didn’t think I was going to be able to write a song that day, for me to understand that writing about more personal things and experiences is actually a relief,” she says. “And it’s more true and honest. That’s when I started writing more about personal things like that. I thought I wasn’t going to be able to write a song that session, but it ended up working out and actually opening me up to a whole new side of songwriting.”

She praises Hazin, Kahane and Fischer for helping her get through the times when she did have trouble writing songs “because I just felt like garbage.”  She says all three men are very funny, and “being in a room with them is mostly us laughing. They’re all so talented, they just don’t realize it.”

Does Ren realize it? “I don’t sometimes,” she admits. “Everyone doubts themselves. If you don’t doubt yourself, you don’t have room to improve because you think everything’s already fine. So, I think it’s a good trait that we all share.”

Ren has no doubts, however, about the quality of the 7-song Teenage Angst. “I’m beyond happy with the work that I have right now, but you never know when you’re actually there,” she says. “We’re still being very adventurous with our sound, and we’ll continue to be for a long time. That’s gotten us to good places, because every song we love more than the next.”