“I feel like I muscled it into existence. I was the midwife to my own difficult birth in terms of this album,” says Kaia Kater, speaking about her upcoming release Grenades, an album that diverges creatively – instrumentally, lyrically, and emotionally – from her past work:  “[It] was really driven from a place where I wanted to challenge myself,” she says.

A year ago, changes were afoot for Kater. Drawn to new sounds and art forms, she found herself abandoning the aesthetic of West Virginian music that defined her previous works. She wanted to write an entire album of original music, but knew that to do so, she needed to become a stronger writer. So she challenged herself to write, whether the muse appeared or not.

“I did a lot of journaling, a lot of sense writing,” says Kater. “I entered this place of trying to be ok with writing ‘bad’ songs. It was mostly lunging ahead even if I couldn’t see the forest for the trees.”

What came next was surprising: Kater realized that in order to push forward, her go-to tool – a five-string clawhammer banjo used to write previous songs – had to be reconsidered.

“I wanted to describe the invasion from my father’s perspective as a child.”

“I was getting a little bored with my own interpretations of traditional music, or maybe just moving past them, in the same way I felt I was growing past the banjo as a songwriting tool,” says Kater. “I grew frustrated with the fact that every time I hopped on the banjo, it felt like the same evocations were coming out. And they were nice. I could have filled an album with those songs, but I wanted something different, another feeling, and another palette out of the songs.” It was her guitar and electric piano that provided the shift she needed.

Kater’s Creative Craft: Three Songwriting Tips

  • “When you hear a poetic turn of phrase, or read a passage that inspires you, write it down right away, before it slips your mind. Keep a list of these words and phrases on your cellphone, or in a journal, for later.”
  • “Write without judgment. The editor’s brain stymies the creative one. Forget the rules sometimes. Have a verse that doesn’t rhyme. Write an entire song without a chorus, even if the song never leaves your bedroom.”
  • “Get a writing partner. Sometimes writing is inspiration. Mostly, writing is creative work. Like an exercise partner, a writing partner helps keep you accountable to the tasks you’ve set for yourself. Pick someone non-judgmental who you trust, and meet a few times a month to share your creative work with each other.”

The next step: explore! With the assistance of a grant from the Canada Council for the Arts, Kater ventured off on a solo trip to the island of Grenada. Raised by a Québecois mother and a Grenadian father, Kater had not visited the island since she was a child, but was now compelled to make the journey. Months before, sensing that Grenada would yield significant power on the album, she spent Christmas learning about her father’s youth, and the 1983 American invasion of Grenada that changed his life.

“I wanted to record my dad talking about it,” says Kater. “My mom actually told me a lot of stories, [but] he never really talked about it. I started asking him, ‘What is your story?’ It was really emotional. The album title, based on the song ‘Grenades,’ is a play on Grenada. There were no grenades dropped in Grenada, it has nothing to do with that, [it’s] this idea about explosion and war. I wanted to describe the invasion from my father’s perspective as a child. The first line: ‘Surf the waves now, taste the metal on your tongue/March the dogs of war into the sun.’ It’s the idea of this beautiful, incredibly fertile island and then, just like, guns and metal and war, and what that does to a child.” Armed with her father’s poignant stories, Kater was off to his ancestral land. Once on the small island, she immersed herself in what she calls “regular days,” rather than weeks filled with beaches and scuba diving. The time there reverberates throughout the album: from the old film photos of the island in its artwork, to colourful expressions like “beat the water” in its lyrics.

The evocative “Meridian Ground” is especially potent. It’s imbued with the stories of her great-great aunt, found deceased in her bed with a joyous smile upon her face, and an uncle who as a child swam out onto the docks where massive cruise ships landed, terrifying tourists with the sight of his small body appearing out of deep waves. It reveals stirring poetic power. The song is reminiscent of the subversive works of Dominica-born British author Jean Rhys, whose 1966 novel Wide Sargasso Sea – an anti-colonial response to Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre – gave voice to the untold story of Eyre’s antagonist, the “mad woman in the attic.” Here, Kater uses her father, via plainly woven interludes, to voice a history long silenced.

“La Misère,” is another stunning song, loosely inspired by the island. Signed to Smithsonian Institution’s Folkways Recordings label, Kater visited their exhaustive archives in Washington, DC, hoping to find a song from Grenada. Shifting through their catalogues, she discovered one from the village of Boca, a field recording taken in 1957 by anthropologist/label head Emory Cook. Inspired, she recorded the melody and wrote new lyrics to it, creating a French lullaby with a sound that belies its sadness. In some ways, it sums up the very water that Grenades wades through: how to keep thriving in spite of life’s inescapable struggles.

“I’m alluding to dancing, or moving, despite your broken limbs,” says Kater of “La Misère.” “Being able to push yourself emotionally, or put something into the world, despite how you feel you might be fractured, or broken.”It’s a challenge she captures beautifully.

If John Alexander had only achieved one milestone in his multi-decade career – signing Alanis Morissette, and facilitating her watershed Jagged Little Pill album – it would have been more than enough to cement his position in rock music industry history.

John Alexander, Aerosmith

John Alexander (bottom) with Steven Tyler and Joe Perry of Aerosmith (left).

But throughout a long, storied career – one that has encompassed artistry, management, record companies, publishing, performance rights, and now a very strong suit in consultancy – Alexander’s vision has resulted in some other exemplary accomplishments, thanks to his acute business acumen.

“I always negotiated good and fair deals, club dates, tours, record deals, and/or publishing deals for my artists,” says Alexander, who began his professional career in the mid-1970s as John Pulkkinen, lead singer of Octavian, a seven-piece Ottawa pop band known for such hits as “Good Feelin’ (To Know)” and “Round and Round.” They released one album, Simple Kinda People.

“I was a teacher at the time in Ottawa,” Alexander recalls. “When we got the deal, I told my parents, much to their dismay, ‘I’m going to quit teaching and join a rock band.’ They didn’t like that too much, until they heard me on the radio one day, and said, ‘That’s cool.’”

Octavian toured coast-to-coast, but eventually went their separate ways in 1979. Alexander joined bassist Terry McKeown to form Alexander/McKeown Management, representing Warner recording artists David Roberts and the Teddy Boys, as well as Montréal singer-songwriter Luba, and Toronto rockers Sheriff, the latter two signed to Capitol. It was under Alexander’s tenure that Sheriff recorded “When I’m With You,” the song that would, extraordinarily, top the Billboard Hot 100 in 1989 – four years after the band broke up.

“We sent Jagged Little Pill to every major record company in America and Canada, including MCA. Everybody passed.”

John Alexander, Alanis, Ringo

John Alexander with Alanis and Ringo.

But his greatest moment was yet to come. Invited by MCA Records to head up the Canadian label’s A&R division, Alexander received a demo tape from a young Ottawa artist looking for her first break into the record business. “I got a tape from Alanis when she was 10 years old – a song called ‘Fate Stay with Me,’” Alexander recalls. “I loved her voice, but I was so new in A&R, I figured that if I signed a 10-year-old girl from my hometown, I may not be in A&R that long. It took four more years before I was re-introduced to her.”

That re-introduction came from local musician Leslie Howe, who sent Alexander a demo of his band One To One, piquing enough interest for the A&R man to visit Howe’s Ottawa studio to hear more. While there, Howe asked Alexander if he had a minute to listen to something from a young artist he was working with at the time.

“He played me a video he did in Paris with Alanis Morissette, and I was so intrigued by what he showed me that I flew back to Toronto. I didn’t sign One To One.” Instead, he signed Alanis. But Howe did produce both dance-pop Alanis albums issued by MCA Canada – her self-titled debut and Now Is The Time­ – selling more than a total of 200,000 copies here, and earning her a JUNO Award for Most Promising Vocalist.

Despite her success, Morissette’s MCA option wasn’t renewed, and Alexander says the songwriter told him that she didn’t think she’d have a career singing other people’s lyrics, but wanted to sing her own. By then the New York-based Senior VP of East Coast Publishing for MCA Music Publishing, Alexander agreed, and stuck by her despite her un-renewed publishing option. Alexander asked his friend, professional songwriter Glen Ballard, to meet with her. Ballard was a producer at Quincy Jones Productions, who’d worked on the Michael Jackson classics Thriller and Bad. He had also co-written the MJ hit “Man In The Mirror,” the No. 1 Jack Wagner single “All I Need,” and the Wilson Phillips chart-topper “Hold On.”

“It became a fortuitous contribution,” Alexander understates. The duo co-wrote the sea-changing Jagged Little Pill, which has sold more than 33 million copies around the world, won seven Grammy Awards, and established Morissette as an international superstar. It was spearheaded by the caustic “You Oughta Know,” an angry feminist anthem that inspired a trend of similar singers,from Meredith Brooks to Tracy Bonham.

“Glen Ballard did the album on spec,” Alexander recalls. “I didn’t pay him – he just took [percentage] points [of the sales].” In hindsight, what amused Alexander was the initial lack of response to Pill by everyone to whom he submitted it. “Once the album was made – I had hired Alanis a manager named Scott Welch – he and I sent it to every major record company in America and Canada, including MCA. Everybody passed,” he says. Lawyer Ken Hertz finally convinced Madonna’s Maverick Records co-founder Freddy DeMann and A&R head Guy Oseary to hear the record. Morissette was signed immediately. “After hearing the album at Glen’s house, Freddy turned to me and said, ‘John, I think you’ve discovered the female Bob Dylan for our generation,’” Alexander recalls.

John Alexander, Avril Lavigne

John Alexander with Avril Lavigne

For Morissette’s publishing deal, Alexander recalls a moment where he was questioned – just as the writing for Jagged Little Pill was underway – whether the company should renew its option. Alexander was adamant. “When you’re in this business, and you’re in the position of believing or not believing in artists, you have to stick up for what you believe in,” he says. “And I’m proud that I said, ‘Just do it,’” says Alexander, who also negotiated to eliminate the right-of-refusal clause that cleared Morissette’s path to Maverick.

His record-company and music-publishing days behind him, the former senior VP of Membership with ASCAP has moved on to consulting, recently brokering some Yangaroo agreements with NARAS (the National Academy Recording Arts & Sciences, home of the Grammy Awards), the Academy of Country Music, and Montréal-based digital media and entertainment company HITLAB.

He’s also hoping that lightning will strike twice with Boulevard, a Vancouver-based rock band that Alexander originally signed to MCA Canada in 1988. Boulevard split, then re-united in 2015, and released a new album called Luminescence in 2017 that’s received European acclaim.

His future looks bright, but even in his past, Alexander has influenced generations through his decisions. As he humbly states, “I’ve contributed to the Canadian music scene.”

Les LouangesA bunch of teens are riding in a 1996 forest-green Tercel. In circles. Smoking spliffs. Your typical suburban ennui.

On the other side of the river, the lights of Québec City’s old buildings brighten up the night. The view from Lévis is splendid for a numbed teen who cares to look.

Sitting on the passenger side is Vincent Roberge, 18. He’s struggling to finish his CÉGEP diploma in jazz guitar, in Ste-Foy. His friends listen to Queens of The Stone Age. “Lévis is a rock place,” he says. “But we also listened to Malajube’s La Caverne.”

For Roberge, music is a buffet that serves more than distortion. Odd Future’s avant-garde rap and the creative beats of Knxwledge have also found their way to his ears. At the same time, his teachers introduced him to the grooves of Curtis Mayfield and Sly and the Family Stone, while his parents would play Moby in their car.

Demon Days by Gorillaz is the first album I bought with my own money,” says Roberge. “I must’ve been 10 or 11. I’d heard about the album on Musique Plus. I loved the characters that were drawn on the cover.”

Now a young adult living in Montréal, Roberge couldn’t have known, back then, that the same Damon Albarn would still be with him, twelve years later while he was putting the finishing touches on his first album, La Nuit est une panthère (The Night is a Panther).

Released under the moniker Les Louanges, “because it’s more mysterious than Vincent Roberge,” his album stands apart from the Francophone musical landscape in Québec. At the crossroads of jazz, R&B, and modern urban styles, the 14 songs are reminiscent of Frank Ocean’s sensual agility, Kamasi Washington’s stunning boldness (saxophone included), and Thundercat’s endearing nonchalance.

“That’s why I picked up on Damon Albarn’s music,” says Roberge. “Just like me, he’s a greenhorn who navigates the waters of African-American musical references. Coming from Québec white suburbia and tackling that type of reference required a lot of courage or, at the very least, that I have fun with it. Same for writing songs in French. We’re kinda silly in Québec in this regard. We speak French, we’re taught to master our language for years and years, but we still have the impulse to write in English when we make music…”

The confidence to write in French came to Les Louanges when he attended the École de la chanson de Granby in 2015, training that led him all the way to the Rencontres de la chanson d’Astaffort, created by none other than Francis Cabrel. Not to take anything away from the newbie, but it’s hard to understand just how songwriting training in Astaffort could have any influence on Les Louanges, whose music is light years away from singer-songwriter folk music.

“The very song-centric support network for emerging artists we have is important and necessary, but all my life I’ve fought to not get sucked into the often soft, sugar-coated folk format,” says Roberge. “The main take-away of those workshops, for me, was to learn how to write in French. I remember poring over several of Richard Desjardins’s songs to understand where their magic came from,” says the young man who sometimes covers Desjardins’s “Señorita.”

Covering topics such as being a teen in Lévis, or a broke young adult in Montréal, the lyrics on La Nuit est une panthère go from colourful atmospherics to straight-up realism with great aplomb. The off-kilter melodies dance over unpredictable compositions. “That’s why I wanted to title the album La Nuit est une panthère,” says Roberge. “I feel it aptly describes the realism just as well as the wilder, surreal aspect of the record. That, plus I found a black panther statue for eight bucks on Kijiji in Saint-Hyacinthe. I figured it was a sign that the statue should be on the album cover. The panther is pretty cool, eh? “

Yup, but not as cool as the music on the excellent album  that nears its image.

Les Louanges
La Nuit est une panthère
Available on September 21