German playwright Bertolt Brecht invented the word verfremdungseffekt to describe the feeling of coming into contact with something strange and unknown. Even though the word wasn’t uttered during our interview with Thus Owls’ Simon Angell, it was obvious that’s what he was trying to convey about the desire he shares with his musician wife Erika to break through the “invisible barrier” between the audience and their band. Brecht called the process“breaking the fourth wall.” This idea – simple, yet difficult to execute – turned out to be the fuse that kick-started the creation of their current, fourth album, The Mountain That We Live Upon.

“We’d been working on this for 18 months,” says Angell, referring to the conceptual concert Thus Owls gave last month at Montréal’s Centre PHI. “It’s kinda weird that we worked on the show before working on the album,” he says, before adding, “one feeds the other, as they say.”

People usually write new songs before recording them, and then taking them to the stage. But here, with no other songs than the ones from their three previous recordings (the last one, Black Matter, came out in late 2015), while thinking about their live show, an album manifested itself.

“Generally, for a concert, the band plays on an elevated stage, with the audience in front of them,” says Angell. “We wanted to break that. We wanted people to come into our world, just as we’re in theirs. A level playing field, if you will.” Centre PHI was the perfect place for that. A lab. The band in the middle of the venue, with the audience all around them. “We couldn’t ask for a better venue,” says Angell. “We were six musicians: the core of the band, Erika, myself and drummer Samuel Joly, plus three additional guitarists dispersed in the audience. In another room was an installation with a typewriter and mic hooked up to delay effects, as well as Karl Lemieux, who was in charge of projections during the show. And a contemporary dancer. It was quite the multi-disciplinary performance!”

It was awesome, says Angell. Even the sound was optimal, despite the technical challenges of having guitarists and their amps in various spots of the venue. “It was the best sound I’ve ever experienced in my career as a musician – it even changed depending on where you stood in the room,” he says. But what would Brecht, a well-known aficionado of tortured indie rock, have thought about it? He probably would’ve said, it’s nice, but what’s the point? Breaking a wall is fine, but what do you have to say?

“Good question,” the musician admits. “It all comes back to the concept of the album, which was mostly developed by Erika, since she’s the lyricist. So, Erika and I are a couple, and we were considering the project of having kids and starting a family. It took us years before deciding we were going for it. That’s the concept of the album. The time it took for us to make that decision. The album’s lyrics talk about our concerns, especially from her perspective, a feminist point of view. How it changes everything in the life of a couple, how it impacts work, creativity. It’s an album about our rapport to the concept of family.”

The doubts that underscored their conversations can clearly be heard on The Mountain That We Live Upon. As is the habit for Thus Owls, greys win over light, and Erika’s voice pierces through foggy guitars and drums. Even the brightest melodic spells are clouded over by Angell’s guitar playing.

“That’s us, basically,” says the musician. “It’s the expression of our personalities, even though we’re not gloomy people. Life isn’t black or white, there are grey moments; we’re all humans in the same way. We’re only trying to express that musically. Sweet and chill moments, with weirder times… That’s life!”

As he explains, even their writing method is strange. Each on their own. They rarely work together on a song. “We’re both quite solitary persons,” he says. They each come up with song ideas, then share them with the other, and a game of creative ping-pong ensues. It’s in the studio, with the full band, that any given idea gets embodied.

“We’re not the type of band who’ll spend a year in the studio to fine-tune the result,” says Angell. “We recorded this album in four days, because we love the live vie of things. All the songs were recorded with three takes or less. We love this… I don’t want to say ‘jazz,’ but we do chase the energy of the moment. I believe this energy vanishes after three takes. If you don’t have it, the energy isn’t there, so we throw everything out and get back to it some other time.” Everything was recorded live at the Hotel2Tango studios; the sound is raw, “the drums ‘bled’ into the piano.”

As for the concert that’s the genesis of this project, Erika and Simon Angell want to perform it again in that multi-disciplinary format. In the meantime, the couple will have a few great opportunities to perform the songs from The Mountain That We Live Upon: on Nov. 30 at Bar Le Ritz PDB where they’ll open for Marissa Nadler (and again on Dec. 1 at Toronto’s Baby G), on Jan. 18, 2019, at Théâtre Outremont, back in Montréal, guesting for CHANCES, and on the 24th at Sala Rossa during the young and new festival Lux Magna, also in Montréal.

When CTV’s The Launch was preparing for its own launch in 2017, musical director Orin Isaacs gave Hill Kourkoutis a call. He was in search of a keyboard player, but upon learning that she played the guitar, he invited her to be part of the show’s house band. The award-winning, multi-instrumentalist/singer – also known for producing, songwriting, and composing – was the perfect choice. And being on a show dedicated to launching the careers of singers and songwriters was the perfect place for Kourkoutis.

“You’re working with so many incredible people that I feel like I learn something new from everybody, every day,” she says. The show also led to a friendship with “Solider of Love” winner Poesy, and the pair co-writing “Strange Little Girl.”

We intended to write something that was about embracing the fact that we can all be a little strange, we can all be so many things,” says Kourkoutis. “[Its] a wonderful thing to have something that just resonates with so many people, on such a real level.”

Story and collaboration are integral strands in Kourkoutis’s creative DNA. At five, she started writing songs; once her parents realized that she’d never be a dancer, they bought her the guitar she always wanted. She eventually started playing piano, and though later trained in theory and sight-reading, she had a natural ear for instruments, easily teaching herself to play bass and drums. David Bowie, the Go-Go’s (“for their pop sensibilities”), and Jimi Hendrix were early influences, as well as Sheryl Crow, “for the sole fact that she not only wrote her own songs and played all the instruments live, but also produced her own records.” At 12, Kourkoutis started writing for her own all-girl band, which included country artist Meghan Patrick.

The biggest leaps for me began when I started co-writing.
“There’s a lot of people that naturally have an ability to write songs, but in order to write a well-crafted song, there are things that you start to think about more consciously: the construction of melodies, lyrics, and how they interact with the music underneath. I became more conscious of them when I was writing with more established writers. With every writer you learn a new trick.”
Songwriting is a muscle that needs to be exercised.
“At first, it’s difficult to know how to write on demand. When I started, I just wrote when I felt that feeling I needed to express. But when you go into songwriting sessions, you need to be able to quickly harness any emotion at any given time. Come into sessions prepared. Whether it’s a hook, or a lyric, or a chord progression, that always helps get the ball rolling in co-writing sessions.”
You need to give yourself a space.
“I’m a big fan of rituals, setting up a space no matter where I am, so that I’m able to do certain things. A big part of being able to work on the road was having my tools with me – my studio in a backpack. I created a portable studio that I could take with me, whether it was a hotel room or a dressing room.”

“As I started to become more entrenched in songwriting, I got to know a lot of other songwriters that inspired me,” she says. “Lisa Dal Bello was a huge inspiration, and also Simon Wilcox, who I started writing with at a very young age.”

Though Kourkoutis’ first “big moment” as a songwriter came with writing music for Canadian Idol contestants Mookie and the Loyalist (Sony Music), it was a community of independent songwriters that helped her hone those skills.

“I’d been writing with artists in the independent Toronto music scene for years before that,” she says, “and we’d all been helping each other co-write on each other’s projects. So that really is where it started, the collaborative process, in terms of writing.”

Recently, Kourkoutis’ music has moved from the charts to commercials and the screen, including Private EyesThe Adventures of Napkin Man!, and Kim’s Convenience. “There’s been several trajectories that have led to those opportunities,” she says. “I had a few agents that were licensing my material. But a lot of those things also came from personal relationships I’d established with music supervisors.”

Motion pictures and music go hand and hand, for the film-trained songwriter. “I can’t do a film project without thinking of the soundtrack behind it,” says Kourkoutis, “and I can’t write a song without thinking about what the story is. It’s really interesting, you write a song and you don’t necessarily have an idea of where it could end up, and then it ends up in a very specific scene. Just to see how a song can influence that scene, it’s always exciting.”

Her ever-growing success means she’s put some passions on hold, including no longer touring. “That was a pretty big decision for me, because I love it, and I’ve had the honour of playing with such amazing artists over the years [Serena Ryder and The Weeknd, among others]. But I found it really hard to be creative on the road. A big reason why I started doing music in the first place was because of the creativity, because of the songwriting and the craftsmanship that goes behind building a song. Now my M.O. is about focusing, and production and songwriting is where my focus is at.”

The year 2019 will mark the 15th anniversary of Montréal’s “transmusical” rap group, Nomadic Massive. The event will be celebrated with the release of a new album of original material simultaneously in Québec and France, where the talent of the six founding members has found some footing. In the meantime, the band – impatient to showcase their new material – released an EP, Miwa, on Nov. 23, 2018. To mark the occasion, we had a chat with members Meryem Saci and Waahli.

Nomadic MassiveWithout the slightest need to confer with each other, Waahli and Saci concur on one thing: the cement that bonds the six members of Nomadic Massive is hip-hop. Waahli has just released his first solo album, Black Soap, replete with touches of Haitian Creole and Afrobeat and Afro-Caribbean rhythms.

“I grew up with ’90s American hip-hop,” says Waahli. “That’s the rap music that has shaped my appreciation of that culture and the way I express myself musically,” says the singer and rapper, who expresses himself in French, Creole and, mostly, English. “As a teen, I didn’t speak very good English,” he says, “but I chose to go to an Anglophone school so I could understand the language of rap, and become more familiar with hip-hop culture. As for Creole, it’s natural: I was born here, but my parents were born in Haiti.”

As for Meryem Saci, the only difference is that she emigrated to Montréal from Algeria, about 20 years ago. “I was already into rap before I got here,” she says, “but in Montréal it became serious. I was into R&B at first – I wasn’t sure rap was my cup of tea – but when you’re a fan of R&B, you’re in phase with hip-hop. Besides, my passion for rap music was crucial in my learning of the language (French and English), and that’s not counting the whole culture, the history of black people in America, and the way this music evolved around the world. And then, rap became a tool to protest, take a stand, and advocate. Rap is a space for free expression.”

Rap and multi-culturalism are, clearly, the two cornerstones of Nomadic Massive’s creative powerhouse, a bona fide melting pot of ideas and influences. Waahli raps in Creole, Meryem sings in English and Arabic, “then there’s Tali and his Jamaican Patois, and the Spanish influence of Lou [Piensa, rapper and composer],” as well as Ali Sepu, a multi-instrumentalist with Chilean roots, Rawgged MC, who also has Haitian origins, and producer/composer/studio rat Butta Beats. All of them form the core of the group, around which gravitate a number of regular collaborators, notably singer-songwriter Vox Sambou.

“That’s what’s so great about it,” says Saci, who launched her own solo album, On My Way, in the spring of 2017. “We agree on a set of fundamental values that inform our social and political stances. Some of the themes we talk about are closer to the heart of this or that member of the band, but in the end, we all share similar points of view. If there is a level of criticism or a debate among us, it shows up in the lyrics, but the message is unified.”

This is especially true for Miwa, a collection of new songs that sets the tone for the upcoming album. “We created this album differently than the previous ones,” says Saci. “This time around, we had the opportunity to really work, all of us at once, in the same place, in a context where we could create the music and the lyrics at the same time, at our own pace.”

This collective way of working – instead of each on their own with their own ideas, demos and backing tracks – was fostered during the band’s summer 2017 tour of France. “We wanted to start working on an album from scratch, all of us together,” says Saci. “We put everything on the table: our ideas, our instrumental tracks, our jams, and then we picked what inspired us. When we all agreed on an instrumental track, we’d work on it to come up with new arrangements as a group, and then we worked on the melody and the lyrics. It was mostly a chance to jam together, find sounds, re-arrange things, develop themes, and then move on to post-production and calibrate everything in the studio, tweaking drum sounds or song structures. The goal was to achieve a perfect harmony between recording organically and digital post-production.

“We don’t set out with a clear concept when we start working on an album. Take the new EP, we didn’t set out thinking it was going to be titled Miwa [which means “mirror” in Creole]. But once we decided that ‘Miwa’ was going to be a single, and that we were going to make an EP, we naturally started focusing on related themes: introspection, a reflection of the world around us. It came naturally. As for the upcoming album, we’re still working on the theme.”

That surprise will come next spring. In the meantime, Miwa is just out now.