If we told you about a Canadian musical trio that’s sold more than three million records, performed at the White House, won three JUNOs, and been named to the Order of Canada, you’d probably be wracking your brain to figure out who it could be (or trying to decide which president was a secret Rush fan).

You likely wouldn’t think of Sharon, Lois and Bram, the group that emerged from the Toronto folk music scene in the ’70s to enrapture children and their parents with singalong tunes about elephants, mosquitos, and salty dogs. It’s easy to take children’s music for granted, but Sharon, Lois and Bram deserve those accolades for introducing children to many different styles of music, as well as themes of peace, love, and tolerance in the lyrics.

Sharon Hampson, Lois Lilienstein and Bram Morrison were folk musicians in Toronto who met through Mariposa in the Schools, an outreach program of the folk festival, that sent musicians to perform for children in schools. They recorded their first album, One Elephant, Deux Elephants, in 1978, and began touring the next year when it became a hit. That tour has continued, on and off, for four decades, fuelled by many albums and a TV show – temporarily halted by the retirement, and then passing, of Lois Lilienstein. Now, a whole new generation is coming to the shows to sing along.

“The response has been wonderful,” says Sharon. “We start to sing, and people start to sing with us. We’ve met a lot of people who grew up on us and come back with their families. And one of the sweetest things is when they’re singing your songs to their children. That’s the best you could hope for.”

The road does take a toll, however, and Sharon and Bram are finally going to call it a day – maybe – after their 40th anniversary farewell tour winds up this summer. But first they went into the studio to record some songs originally written by Joe Hampson, Sharon’s late husband, a member of the folk group The Travellers. And in September, they’ll release a book based on their most beloved song, “Skinnamarink” (originally arranged by Sharon, Lois & Bram) which has been re-recorded with new lyrics by Sharon’s daughter Randi, a Toronto lawyer.

The late creative spurt started when Sharon and Bram appeared on a children’s album by NeedtoBreathe’s Josh Lovelace, who has credited SLB with turning him on to music as a child. “Seeing them in the studio, how much they enjoyed it and how good they sounded, I asked why they haven’t recorded as a duo in all these years,” says Randi. “At the same time, ‘Skinnamarink’ was being discussed as a book project, and I said, ‘This song isn’t long enough to be a book. I think it would benefit from some additions – would you mind if I took a stab at it?’ So then we started talking about recording some of my dad’s songs, and expanding them.”

Randi added lyrics to several songs, with Sharon and Bram’s blessing. “I’ve been fiddling with other people’s lyrics for years,” she says. “In law school, I re-wrote songs for the variety show. But with ‘The Colour Song,’ I just knew it needed a rainbow verse. It just felt like the right thing to do. And to have had the trust of my mom and Bram to do this, to give my dad’s music an opportunity to be heard by other people, that’s been incredible. And to be in the audience when they’re singing my words has been unbelievable.”

The other tracks (all of the songs are being released as singles) include “The Hug Song,” “Different,” and “Talk About Peace,” which features a guest vocal by Jim Cuddy. “When I hear him on that song, it thrills me,” says Sharon. “He’s such a glorious singer.”

“Different,” which celebrates diversity with lines like “It would be an awful shame if everyone were the same,” was released to coincide with Sharon and Randi’s participation in Toronto’s Pride Parade in June.  “It’s such an important message,” says Sharon. “You’d think things would get better and you wouldn’t need them, but the messages of Joe’s songs keep coming back.”

And it seems Sharon is leaving the door open just a crack to come back herself. “I won’t miss the travelling part so much, but I’ll miss getting on the stage and singing with the audience,” she says. “I don’t know what lies ahead, but I do know that we’re not done singing.”

This summer, as fans celebrated the Toronto Raptors’ historic win, many were celebrating to the music of Just John x Dom Dias, the dynamic Toronto duo whose “Pull Up” track made it onto the official Raptors playlist, alongside heavy hitters like Drake’s “Nonstop” and Cardi B’s “Press.”

“It was really cool,” says Just John (John Samuels) from his home in Toronto. “A lot of Raptors fans really connected with that record and started following us. And after some of the winning games, they would play our track.”

“We’re fortunate and grateful to be a part of this history, this legacy,” adds Dom Dias.

While some call their inclusion on the playlist “talent meets perfect timing,” the duo call it “energy,” something they credit for everything – including their collaboration.

In early 2018, producer Dom Dias came across a sponsored Instagram post featuring Just John. Dias was intrigued, immediately reaching out with a beat. “John really liked the beat and we got in the studio next day,” explains Dias. “That record he recorded is ‘Pull Up,’ the one the Raptors chose.” Instantly, the pair found something in each other that they were looking for. “I saw his style, his persona and his lyricism, and that caught me off-guard. The moment we got into the studio, it was super-easy to work with him.”

And for Just John, founder of the award-winning art collective Blank Canvas, Dom got the multi-faceted vision for which he was striving. “I felt like my prayers [were] answered, because I was struggling, trying to find [producers] that understood the kind of energy I wanted to record. And, also, someone who challenges me to be a better artist. Dom was, and has been, that person.”

“We make things that we like. We’re making vibrations.” – Just John

Dom gave John a space where the threads found in his collective could be laced just as powerfully in his sound. “I sharpened my teeth [in] the DIY art scene,” says John. “A lot of my ideologies are about taking up space unapologetically. Staying true to yourself. Living in love, not fear. I voice a lot about my own experiences, about police brutality. And sometimes it’s just the energy I’m rebelling against, the energy itself in the record. When people come see us, they’re connecting with that energy. They want to let loose, turn-up, [and] get free themselves. I think that’s another piece we contribute to music.”

The pair often make music every day. Dom will create beats and present them to John in person. “I’ve known John long enough to know when he really likes a beat, and when he really doesn’t,” says Dom. When they agree on a beat, John lives with it for a few days.

Just Dominating: Critical Praise

  • “Just John’s collaboration with producer Dom Dias has turned his energy level up to 11, and made them both impossible to look away from.” – NOW Magazine, Nov. 16, 2018
  • “They’ve already created an unrelenting hype around them, including sold-out shows and label love.” – Exclaim, April 30, 2019
  • “A sonic match made in heaven… The Toronto duo have been making some serious waves during this short run, and that’s thanks to a handful of great videos and tracks including the incredible cut ‘Soundboi.’” – Complex, April 21, 2019

“It’s a very independent, autonomous process,” says John. “Dom makes a beat; I trust him in that, and he trusts me in the performance and the lyrics. And then we are open to the collaborative synergy that can be created in the negative space. We’re always editing. ‘How can we make this better? How can we make this cooler? Ooooh, that was a mistake. Ooooh, that mistake is fire! We can use that in the record.’”

Drawing from various genres, including hip-hop and punk, while channeling manic, raucous energy to create cathartic release, the pair recently released their EP, Don III, and a video for “Pull Up.” They’re also working on new music that they describe as combining their “manic, mosh-pit energy with a beautiful, lucid dream.” And they continue to shrug off any aspirations of fitting into a mainstream “Toronto sound.”

“It’s never, “Let’s try to make it sound like this,’” says Dom, who uses everything from crazy snares to elephant trumpeting, to take listeners into adventurous sonic spaces. (The elephants don’t receive royalties for the recordings, they confess with laughter.) “It’s, ‘Let’s try and make a feeling.’”

John agrees. “We make things that we like,” he says. “We’re making vibrations. There has to be innovation, you have to be a visionary. You have to be OK with some people not getting it right away, and really champion what you’re doing. If we were looking to our contemporaries [for inspiration], we’d already be too late.”

Jeffrey Piton

Photo: Guillaume Beaulieu

His velvety voice tells you that Jeffrey Piton isn’t one to force things. “When I compose, I don’t push too hard,” he explains. “I sit down to write, and if nothing relevant or interesting comes up, I don’t worry too much about it. I set the whole thing aside, and get back to it the next day. I don’t see any point in insisting. It’s like when you go fishing: you get there with your rod, and sometimes you catch a fish, sometime you don’t.”

The nine biggest ones he’s “caught” since the 2015 release of his first album, La Transition, can be found on his new recording, Blind, released in May 2019. The album is sung in English, except for two songs in French: “Panorama” and, above all, “Californie,” Piton’s favourite song. “It’s an inside joke between me and my girlfriend,” he explains. “Sometimes, when you’re going through a rough patch, you can mentally see yourself checking your bank account, selling this and that, and wondering how long you could last in California on the proceeds…  It’s the feeling I think I was able to convey in that song.”

Born in Kingston, Ontario, and having spent stints living in Germany, Gatineau, and St-Jean-sur-le-Richelieu as his father’s military career demanded, the singer-songwriter explains that releasing an album mostly written in English somehow made him feel like he was returning to his roots. “When I was growing up and learning to play the guitar, I was playing English songs,” he explains. “It’s actually when I was first involved in La Voix [during the first season of the televised singing competition, the Québec franchise of The Voice] that I started singing in French for the first time. The reason was that on the show, once the live performance stage was over, I had to perform in French for reasons of [language] quotas on television. And I liked it a lot, which made me want to have my own Francophone repertoire, hence my choice to release my first all-French recording.”

So here he is again, with a proven formula that’s both timeless, and in continuity with his first album. “I often say that I put some pop in my folk. because I enjoy both styles,” says Piton. “The instrumentation is more folk-like, but I have melodies that could qualify for pop music. It remains within the singer-songwriter range, and my new album isn’t all that different from my first one. However, I feel that I’ve evolved as a songwriter, and that I did so in the direction I want to take. I feel that I’ve produced something that’s more and more like me.”

What Piton remembers from his La Voix experience six years ago is the stress, and the “showbiz side” of the production, “but what I enjoyed most were the people I got to meet,” he says. “Guys like David Laflèche, with whom I made my French-language album, and with whom I worked again on this just-released one.” This time, Laflèche produced half of the album, the other half being produced by Piton himself, “which I’d always dreamed of doing.

“I’ve always passionately loved recording and music production, so I decided to take the big jump for half of the album,” he says. Piton hired his musicians – Francis Veillette on pedal steel, Catherine Laurin on violin, Max Sansalone on drums, Laflèche on bass and electric guitar – who joined him at his place for the recording sessions. “It felt like skydiving when I did that,” says Piton. “It was a great experience, both in terms of songwriting and decision-making. ‘Producer’ is a hat that I enjoy wearing, and that I’ll continue to wear as I go along.”

Piton is a great consumer of instrumental and ambient music – primarily Jónsi & Alex’s Riceboy Sleeps, the album released by the Sigur Rós’s guitarist and vocalist Jón Þór Birgisson (Jónsi), and his partner and Parachutes member Alex Somers. Piton delights in the delicate and melodious folk songs that echo the calmer repertoire of Iron & Wine on his new album.

With Piton, the music and the melody always come first. “I always use a guitar to write,” he explains. “I like hearing what I play without having to play it, this is what works best for me. So I play my guitar while humming melodies over the music, without lyrics. Once I come up with a structure that has an interesting sound, I record it on the computer; this way, I can re-listen to it without having to play it again, which allows me to concentrate on the melodies. It’s strange, but I’ve noticed that when I play everything back as I write the lyrics, part of my brain remains concentrated on helping me play the guitar part better!

“So the lyrics then follow. I usually sit down with my notebook, but sometimes I’ll resurrect bits of lyrics that I have lying around on scraps of paper. When I come up with a line, I write it down for later use. I rarely experience strokes of genius… Writing is an exercise. And that’s a good thing, because the more I write, the better I get to be at conveying the feelings that come into a song.”