Sophie PelletierStanding out in such a talent-rich musical landscape as that of Québec isn’t an easy task, but it’s always easier when one has a clear vision of where one wants to go, and what one wants to accomplish. Singer-songwriter Sophie Pelletier is from that breed of artists whose path in music has been traced since her childhood.

The whole province got acquainted with her in 2012 when she was a finalist on the popular talent show Star Académie, which afforded her the opportunity to sing with Lionel Richie, Johnny Hallyday and Mika. But her art was really informed by years and years of watching her family onstage, and exploring her big brother’s album collection. The young Rivière-Ouelle native had already accumulated two decades of experience since she first attempted writing lyrics and playing on her dad’s guitar.

Pelletier knows what she wants, how she wants to hear it, and how it’s supposed to sound. In her mind, everything is crystal-clear. Following the head rush of Star Académie, which left her confident and strong, she took her time to cherry-pick the collaborators who would understand her. She found just the right ear in André Papanicolaou, Vincent Vallières’ guitar player. She appreciates the praise of the man she chose to produce her first album. “He’s the one that made me believe that my songs are good, and that I should keep going in that direction,” says Pelletier. “He was the catalyst of my creative process.” Le désert, la tempête was launched in 2015, and spawned two pristine folk-pop radio hit singles, “Sans remords” and “Accroche-toi.”

Two years later, Pelletier tapped Gaële to help fine-tune the lyrics of her second offering, Les météores, released on April 24, 2017. “She was amazing!” says Pelletier. “She taught me two essential things: how to have fun writing and how to structure my creative process.” As the organized woman that she is, Pelletier adopted a work ethic that helps her drive a song idea to completion. Lines that come to her during the day are further explored during the evening (“with a couple of glasses of wine,” she admits, laughing). The next day, she’ll re-visit the structure, fine-tune the rhymes, and dig through her lexicon to take the song to its logical conclusion.

Yet one needs to have their mind on writing in order to create new songs. The self-described “intermittent creator” needs a calm environment. She can only get into the right frame of mind for writing when the hubbub of touring and promotion slows down.

For her second album, she surrounded herself with an all-star cast of collaborators: Dumas (who wrote a song for her), Fred St-Gelais, Marc Dupré and Samuel Joly, as well as Gautier Marinof on production duties. The latter has recently worked with Jérôme Couture, Renée Wilkin, and Étienne Drapeau, as well as co-producing one of Dupré’s albums.

But Pelletier is the one firmly holding the reins of her destiny. “People have encouraged me to keep control of my career, to manage my copyrights, keep ownership of my masters and self-publish my songs,” she says. “That’s why I created my own company, Uniforce Production, alongside Geneviève Morin, my manager and my associate, to whom I delegate the administrative and marketing aspects of my career.”

A long time ago, she realized her songs are good. Not good as in “a good song,” but good as in “they do good for people,” including herself. Music can heal. Music is precisely what allowed her to see clearly during less rosy periods in her life. Now, she imparts her know-how through Projet Victoire Musique. “I created workshops where everyone is welcome, where people learn how to use music as a moral support, for the good it does them,” says Pelletier. “Children are especially fond of this approach.” Her experience and studies in specialized education are still useful in this regard.

Helping others is a recurring theme among her mid- and long-term goals: “I’d love to write and compose for other artists, becoming a mentor for younger artists, while carrying one with my own evolving career,” she says. This curious and ambitious artist would love to explore Europe, and France in particular, but also wishes to explore writing in English so she can play with her voice, her music and dig deeper in that direction.

She certainly has everything it takes to succeed.

After 20-plus years working for Canadian major labels in A&R (Artists and Repertoire), in early 2017 Fraser Hill formed his own independent company, frazietrain productions Inc. Conceived as a music consulting firm to serve both signed and unsigned artists, with a specialization in cross-genre A&R and artist development, the company takes its moniker from a nickname Hill was given many years ago.

“That came from the guys in [the band] Pride Tiger,” Hill says, laughing. “They were having fun with me one night and it stuck. So, when it was time to name the company, there it was.”

The transition has been on the horizon, Hill says about his decision to strike out on his own, adding that it’s not the first time he’s worked independently: “I’d been on my own for a while as a manager and producer for a number of years,” he says.

Hill started out in the mid-1970s as an engineer/producer. “I was crazy about music, but I couldn’t play and really wanted to be in it somehow,” he says. After studying at Humber College in the broadcast program, he landed a gig as an assistant at Toronto’s Eastern Sound. That changed his life, he says, recalling the first session he worked on –with Anne Murray. “It had to be around 1977 and I was just an assistant, sitting by the tape machine, getting everybody coffee. That’s how it started,” he says.

Later, Hill formed a management company, Mighty Music Entertainment, with agent Ed Smeall, and co-managed The Northern Pikes. Hill and his business partner, Rick Hutt, also co-produced and engineered a number of the records including the Pikes’ Snow in June, which garnered them a JUNO Nomination for Engineer of the Year.

“It’s the one fundamental, from being in the studio to being in A&R. It was always the common thread; learning how to listen.”

From there he moved on to EMI Music Canada, ultimately becoming Senior Director of A&R, before transitioning to Universal Music Canada after their buyout of EMI. “I had a tremendous time with Universal and EMI all those years, and learned a ton from some fantastic folks,” says Hill. Among them were Randy Lennox, Deane Cameron and Jeffrey Remedios.

“What I want to do is to be an artist’s advocate,” says Hill. “To help artists make records and advise them on the process. Having done it for so long, and for so many people, I really felt I had a service that I could offer – because there’s a lot of young people, young artists, who are doing things on their own because the digital age allows that.”

Being that kind of advocate – one with a wealth of experience in marketing, promotion, and facilitating partnerships between artist and producers, agents and others in the industry – is key to what frazietrain is all about.

There’s also a benefit to the artists he works with – particularly now, given the fact the barrier to entry, at least in terms of recording and releasing a record, is lower. Having the benefit of outside ears, someone with experience in both the studio and in A&R, is highly valuable.

Fraser Hill, Shawn HookAs for the benefits of going independent, “There’s excitement to being on your own, because you never know what twists and turns are in front of you,” says Hill. “It’s invigorating, it’s entrepreneurial, and I really like that. It captures where I was [when I was] engineering, producing and managing.”

Back in the day, prior to the digital shift, there were a certain amount of hoops you had to jump through to even have access to the kind of expertise that Hill offers. “The great thing about technology is that it levels the playing field, allowing people to get in,” he says. “Now there are some incredibly talented people embracing technology and just tearing their way through it. But it doesn’t hurt them to have experience as the second ear to adjudicate what they’re working on; someone on their team who says, you know, I think a little more effort here is going to help you get to where you want to go sooner, and be happier with the result.”

Ultimately, while an artist has to make their own decisions, they certainly won’t suffer from informed guidance. And Hill is uniquely suited to provide that guidance, having worked as a producer/engineer with the likes of Anne Murray, Red Ryder, Grapes of Wrath, The Northern Pikes and many others and in A&R with artists such as Serena Ryder (his first signing at EMI), Shawn Hook, 2015 SOCAN Songwriting prize winners Dear Rouge, The James Barker Band, Wes Mack, July Talk, These Kids Wear Crowns, and Kreesha Turner.

He continues to work with artists he encountered during his time at Universal, and is currently working with Donovan Woods on his next album.

In all of his work, the thing he carries forward is “always listening.” That’s been key to every aspect of Hill’s career. “It’s the one fundamental, from being in the studio to being in A&R. It was always the common thread; learning how to listen, and learning how to take the music in… listening critically and making the right musical choices for the song.”

Roch Voisine’s 22nd album was released with 10 new, finely-crafted pop songs that are primed to take over radio throughout the Francophone world. Who knows, maybe even the whole planet, with such irresistible choruses, and strong musical hooks that go well beyond any linguistic consideration. The album, Devant nous (which can both mean “ahead of us” and “in front of us”), is a promising return to pop form after 10 years Voisine spent exploring outside his comfort zone, only to re-centre himself.

“During this period,” says Voisine, “I released three albums of Americana, as well as two other projects, Confidences and Duophonique; a crooner showcase with Corneille and Garou called Forever Gentlemen; and, two years ago, I released Movin’ on Maybe, an English album… There’s quite a bit of variety there! But then, I also realized that if I wanted to make something meaningful, that will reach people where they’re at right now, I needed to go back to pop. Life changes, and we no longer touch people in the same way.”

But how?

“Before we dove into the production of this album,” says Voisine, “my manager, Mario Lefebvre, and I decided to get up-to-date to figure out how we’d adapt to this new reality: people don’t listen to music the way they used to. I also wanted to change the way I work, with a different team; in other words, I wanted to re-invent myself. Mario put together a great team, everything was in place for me to work the way I wanted to. One thing I knew for sure was that there weren’t going to be a lot of ballads or sappy love songs. I had a head full of songs that make you want to move.

“My problem wasn’t that I’d lost my drive to write songs, but rather that I wanted a more meaningful musical format. You get to a point in life where you want to reach out to more than a small group of people with your songs. More universal themes and looking to the future. It’s possible to make intelligent pop songs, and I believe these 10 songs are proof of that.”

Many Québecois and European collaborators contributed to the music and lyrics of Devant nous, but the most important role in this new odyssey was entrusted to Jay Lefebvre – credited as a composer, co-producer and arranger – who is also a creative partner for pop-punk band Simple Plan.

There were challenges, Voisine admits. “One of them was singing  ‘Entre mes mains’ (‘In My Hands’),” he says. “It’s uber-poppy, with broken beats, and I really wondered how I would properly deliver it.”  “Tout me ramène à toi” (“Everything Brings Me Back to You”) is the album’s first single and it promptly reached the top of the Francophone Canadian Top 100. “We wrote one chorus and one verse and the magic was there, we didn’t have to change anything,” he says. “‘Devant nous’ started out as a ballad, and as we worked on it, it became more uptempo. Yet, when you slow things down a bit, the meaning of the lyrics becomes more evident, especially in French.”

Roch Voisine

Roch Voisine at the 2016 Gala de la SOCAN. (Photo: Frédérique Ménard-Aubin)

The album was recorded in November and December of 2016 in three different studios. Two months prior, Voisine participated in a musical tribute to legendary songwriter Luc Plamondon during the 27th Gala de la SOCAN in Montréal. He sang an emotional rendition of Plamondon’s SOCAN Classic “Ma mère chantait toujours,” which Voisine sang 25 years ago.

What’s really surprising, however, is that for the first time in his career, Voisine sings a Plamondon-penned song on his new album. “I didn’t want a Plamondon song, I wanted to write with Plamondon,” he says. Plamondon wrote the lyrics to “Nos Combats”, while the singer wrote the music, and tweaked the lyricist’s words.

Successful Québec singer-songwriter Corneille invited his friend Barnev Valsaint to do vocal harmonies on the song. “He’s a personal friend and we live five minutes from each other,” says Voisine. “I’d tell him, ‘Once you’ve dropped your son off at school, swing by for coffee and to swap a few ideas…’”

Voisine is the sole owner of his entire 22-album catalogue, including the publishing rights; he has long understood that a well-organized company, from the studio to the stage, from production to legacy management, was a must. “Hélène” belongs to him;’ she always will.

“If you want radio play but don’t do pop songs, well, good luck,” says Voisine. “Markets are different from one country to the next, and at the centre of the Francophonie. What I want is to play everywhere! Radio in France is transforming, looking for an identity, while here, we’re lucky, because there’s still adult-oriented radio [AOR] that gives some space to its artists. We want to be able to promote ourselves decently. Whatever might be said about the internet, it’s not always the solution; people who use those platforms don’t want to pay for music, while Facebook is not – in my case, anyway – what helps me sell records to a wider audience, as TV used to do a while back.”