Serge Fiori is smiling and relaxed. Sitting in a comfortable chair in his Longueuil home, he talks about topics ranging from his Harmonium and Fiori-Séguin days to his 1986 début solo album, through the creation of the famous Just For Laughs music theme and his contribution to Nanette Workman’s Changement d’adresse album. But there’s one recurring theme – his new self-titled album. Fiori is quite proud of that one, and it shows.

“I was not interested in making more albums. I was totally absorbed with the film music I was writing. I enjoyed myself tremendously, and thought I would be doing that for the rest of my life. After scoring Luc Picard’s Babine, I talked with Normand Corbeil, with whom I was planning to develop a new film music project, but he left us before he and I had time to settle down to work. What a loss,” Fiori says sadly.

Fiori’s new project started materializing when Pierre Lachance, his producer, introduced him to singer-songwriter-producer Marc Pérusse (Luc De Larochellière, Daniel Boucher), and they instantly got along. “This album is the direct result of our meeting. Half of it is Marc, and half of it is me. Our sounds harmonize. And there is more to come. We’re planning to continue making music together,” Fiori, a great fan of Joni Mitchell and Steely Dan, promises.

Performed in the same bluesy voice (“Demandé” [“Asked”], “Zéro à dix” [“Zero to Ten”]) and on the 12-string guitar that made him a household name four decades ago, Fiori’s first album in 28 years is a sophisticated collection of aerial Fiori/Pérusse string-brass arrangements including super catchy melodies such as “Seule” (“Alone”) and nods to Harmonium (in the L’Heptade-like guitar riffs and the contribution of former band member Monique Fauteux to “Jamais” [“Never”]). While Fiori found no interest in listening to his previous recordings in the past, things are different with this album’s 11 titles. “It’s the first time this is happening,” he says. “It’s strange, I have the feeling this is an album made by someone other than me. It feels like the result of an out-of-body experience. It comforts and cuddles me. And this has nothing to do with ego. I have nothing to defend or prove. I listen to it simply because it’s a blast. It’s just an album, but it’s alive!” 

“I have no control over my creative channel. It’s frustrating. When it opens up, it’s torrential. In the meantime, I just get ready. And wait.”

Alive, and thematically contemporary too: a song like “Le monde est virtuel” (“The World is Virtual”) could not have been written in Harmonium days. “Over the past four years, on Facebook, I’ve tried to coin phrases that many people could identify with. Some very distressed have been writing to me. They are so lonely. This is where that song came from,” Fiori believes.

Written over just ten days (“one song a day”), the new collection is the result of a concentrated output not unlike the creative bursts Fiori had experienced in the past: “The channel opens up,” he explains, “and here we go again. It can last for any given period of time, and I write everything at once – words and music. I still don’t understand how this really works. I am always shocked when it happens. I couldn’t write a tune the way a craftsperson does. Instead, this energy comes over me. I have no choice – I’ve got to work that way. I’m also aware that my approach must be honest. I can’t censor myself or target an audience. I have no control over my creative channel. It’s frustrating. When it opens up, it’s torrential. In the meantime, I just get ready. And wait.”

What is Fiori’s take on today’s music industry? “There’s so much talent, yet no consumers. I my early days, things were raw. We created our own industry by going against the flow. The difference was that we had followers. Today, no matter what you do, people aren’t interested. It’s become a singles market. Worse still, the new generation is wont to neglect our musical roots. Way back when, I used to buy a record, sit down, open a bottle of wine, stick my head between the speakers, and groove. I don’t see people doing that today.”

Asked about his future projects, a weary looking Fiori smiles, and insists that what he needs right now is some rest. “As soon as the process was over, I collapsed. I hadn’t realized how much this was taking from me. This album caught me by surprise, and I’m not sure where I’m going to go from here. I take it a day at a time. I know is that I’d like to try something new – a visual show, a 3D show, something with Cirque du Soleil… I think I’m done with film music. I’m ready to take on a new challenge. If it works out, fine. If not, let this last recording be my singing off, my final word.”

Those hoping to catch a live Fiori show will be glad to hear that he’s seriously considering recording his current album’s songs on DVD in an intimate venue. “I’m looking into lots of ideas right now. I would like something with specific moods. I’m looking forward to performing again. I miss that. And I would like to work with a fantastic band. I want us to indulge!” So, no doubt, do his fans.

A seasoned pianist, refined melodist and composer open to creative exchanges, Yves Léveillé has just released an album he called Essences des bois (Essences of the Woods) and which, as the title suggests, puts woodwind instruments front and centre. This seventh Léveillé release is inhabited by a spacey sonic landscape where the listener may slow down to admire specific contrapuntal elements or gently follow the melodic line around clusters of saxophones, flutes, oboes, English horns or clarinets, backed by a rhythm section of drums, double bass and piano.

Forest soundscape

Linking his decision to work with an instrument family to a painter’s palette choice, Léveillé explains that he “wanted to create an album with a different overall colour. By staying away from the brass instruments that are prominent in jazz music, I was able to produce a more muffled, pastel-tone coloration. This may be what provides listeners with the feeling of easy breathing and airiness that they experience hearing this piece.”

Léveillé, who was given the honour of being the first musician to play the new Casavant organ of the Palais Montcalm’s Raoul Jobin Hall in Quebec City a few months ago, feels a close connection with his audience, and claims that this contact can be established from the very moment a composer chooses a title for a piece of music. “In a concert setting, I’ve noticed that titles predispose listeners and bring them to a particular listening state,” says Léveillé. “Titles make it possible to involve listeners by holding them accountable for their own interpretation of the music they are about to hear. A case in point is Perceptible, the opening piece of Essences des bois, which I intended as an invitation to the listener to get ready for the journey. That’s why I placed it there.”

Is the choice of themes or sources of inspiration as important for a jazz composer as it is for a folk or pop songwriter? “Jazz composers find inspiration in their own past experiences, too,” says Léveillé. “What changes over time is the level of subtlety in the piano technique, enabling a more precise expression of specific ideas or feelings. It boils down to cutting out verbiage and concentrating on what’s essential… I couldn’t describe to you the roundabout way I took to achieve this!”

In the composer’s own words, Léveillé’s jazz writing is a quest for truth: “Whenever I listen to music, any music, whether it be contemporary, sophisticated or way out there, it’s got to be something that touches me. I must feel something moving at the solar plexus level. And I have to be in that exact same state to be able to write music. Only when the time comes to polish it up and put the finishing touches do I ever bring the toolbox out.”

Connecting with others

Far from being a solitary pursuit, however, Léveillé’s quest has been marked by significant collaborations along the way. “At one time, I was working on a project with the New York pianist Eri Yamamoto, and I got the idea of inviting the prominent multi-instrumentalist and Oregon member Paul McCandless to join us. We formed a trio, and the experience helped me get an even deeper insight into the sophistication of woodwind instruments.”

Following his successful partnership with Yamamoto and the release of Pianos (2010), Léveillé is now considering a new project: “While I was in the Big Apple recently, we started exploring the idea of creating, along with Ikuo Takeuchi, a series of compositions inspired by traditional Japanese music. We will be approaching the Japanese folklore from a contemporary and a modern vantage point to see where that will lead us. This project will keep us busy for part of 2014, as will the En trois couleurs concerts with percussionist Marie-Josée Simard and pianist François Bourassa.”

A recent winner of the Quebec Music Council’s Opus Award for jazz concert of the year, that trio performed the opening concert of the Jazz en rafale festival at L’Astral concert hall in Montreal last March. “I’m working on a number of projects simultaneously,” the musician explains, “including a presentation of the Essence des bois music in a septet setting, a performance with Marie-Josée [Simard] and François [Bourassa], the collaborative project with my New York City Japanese colleagues, my regular quartet…”

Léveillé does not share the view that jazz music is king of the Montreal summer music programming, but remains forgotten for the rest of the year. “You have to stay on course,” he says. “The work always goes on. You have to approach presenters, create events and so on.” As founder and artistic director of Productions Yves Léveillé, an organization working in the area of modern jazz concert production and presentation since 2002, the musician can “confirm that this kind of work isn’t easy, but that many opportunities open up if you are proactive – which I am!”

His work has won Grammys, JUNOs and an Emmy, and he’s been nominated for an Oscar. He’s an acclaimed solo artist, frequent collaborator with Arcade Fire, composer for ballets and symphonies, and the music industry’s go-to guy for lavish orchestral arrangements. On top of that, Brian Eno is one of his biggest fans.

And yet, Owen Pallett still finds himself wracked by self-doubt. “I always feel like I have something to prove,” admits the 34-year-old indie pop auteur. “I’m constantly trying to prove to myself that my songs are worth writing. I don’t see that as a bad thing,” he adds. “A lot of songwriters out there haven’t settled into a confident state.”

Growing up on a small farm outside of Toronto, Pallett began studying music at age three, playing violin in a youth orchestra at 12, writing songs at 14, and was accepted to the University of Toronto to study composition on a scholarship, graduating with honours in 2002. He initially recorded in the band Les Mouches with drummer Rob Gordon and guitarist Matt Smith, before writing and recording as Final Fantasy, a name taken from his favourite video game.

A one-man string section, performing with looped violin, vocals and synths, Pallett was hailed as a virtuoso. While arranging strings for Arcade Fire’s Funeral and Neon Bible albums, he recorded his Final Fantasy recordings Has a Good Home and He Poos Clouds. The latter won the first Polaris Music Prize in 2006.

Still, Pallett plummeted into despair. “Most of my low points have been private meltdowns,” he confesses. “I get too wrapped up mentally in the music I’m making and it screws up my chemicals.” His worst time came in early 2007, after parting ways with Leon Taheny, his main collaborator on He Poos Clouds. “I had to do something different, so I went to my parents’ house and tried to record,” Pallett recalls. “But I had no background in home recording. I got so depressed that I stayed in bed for five weeks.”

“When I’m making my records I’m primarily interested in making something beautiful.”

The turnaround came when he dropped the Final Fantasy moniker, after legal threats from the video game’s Japanese owners, and began recording under his own name. His first release as Owen Pallett was 2010’s Heartland, an orchestrated concept album that drew widespread praise. Pitchfork called it “the pop Brian Wilson might have made had he grown up infatuated with [Broadway musical composer Stephen] Sondheim rather than [vocal pop group] The Four Freshmen.”

At the same time, Pallett worked on Arcade Fire’s The Suburbs, which swept the Grammy, JUNO and Polaris awards. Suddenly, he was in demand by major pop artists, lending string and orchestral arrangements to recordings by the Pet Shop Boys, Duran Duran and R.E.M. More recently, artists including Taylor Swift and Franz Ferdinand have called for his services.

Film work also came calling, including the Cameron Diaz movie The Box, the Chlöe Sevigny thriller The Wait and the Oscar-nominated Spike Jonze sci-fi romantic comedy Her, starring Joaquin Phoenix. Surprisingly, film scoring doesn’t thrill him. “It’s usually the least collaborative act of music-making,” says Pallett. “Your score is often a slave to the picture rather than the other way around. Plus, you have to consider the saleability of the movie and manipulating audiences’ emotions.”

Doesn’t Pallett worry about his own albums’ saleability, or effect on listeners’ emotions? “Sure, I’m always trying to listen to my records through the ears of my potential audience,” he replies. “But when I’m making my records I’m primarily interested in making something beautiful.”

Pallett’s new album, In Conflict, certainly features some of his most beautiful – and disturbing – music to date. “I think I’m getting closer to the balance of scary and funny and optimistic,” he concedes. The album may also be Pallett’s most accessible to date. Eno, one of his heroes, plays guitar on the title track, synth on “The Riverbed” and sings layered back-up vocals throughout. Pallett calls him “my magical amulet.”

Is Pallett now ready to perform for larger crowds? “Not really,” he says, laughing. “With Heartland, I felt I’d reached my biggest audience – and loved it.” He adds, “If I can keep playing the same size rooms for this record and the next, I’ll be very happy. I’ll feel like I have a sustainable business model.”