Véronique Labbé

Photo by/par Lynn Gosselin

Véronique Labbé was 16 when she started singing country alongside her mom, Lise Roy, in Thetford Mines, Québec. Now 35, she celebrates her 20 years on the music scene with the launch of her fifth album, Mon Noël Country, released a few weeks ago. She’s also nominated no less than seven(!) times at this year’s Gala Country (Québec’s premier country music awards), taking place on Nov. 19, 2016.

“Nowadays, I’m doing more of an American-style country-pop, I’ve become a kind of flavour of the month, but it wasn’t easy; people used to want to hear more traditional songs,” says Labbé, whose tour includes a tribute to Shania Twain.

In other words, Renée Martel isn’t a model for her, no more than Patrick Norman – both demi-gods on the Québec country scene. “There are so many niche markets in country music; Renée Martel and Patrick Norman are more country-folk. I’m more on the pop side,” says Labbé.

Our own country girl tis closer to a Terri Clark, a Travis Tritt, or even a Sheryl Crow, for whom she’s been an opening act. “In my teens, I’d watch CMT (Country Music Television) and I dreamt of a big career like theirs,” she says. “And even though I’m not Anglophone, I managed to share a stage with them.”

So how do you stand out from the rest when you sing country music, in French, in Québec? “Country music is about spilling your guts,” she says bluntly. “The words you sing need to be understood by the listener right away, regardless of their education level. Especially if you’re singing about heartbreak! On my first album, I sang using a normative French, and people didn’t get my country because it was a tad too sophisticated.”

The first award she won was a SOCAN Prize at the St-Tite festival in 2005. “That opened up my eyes on the whole universe of copyright and royalties, and luckily, didn’t change my musical personality,” she says. Labbé has played in St-Tite, Québec’s country Mecca, n less than 19 times. The songwriter was once more saluted by SOCAN during the 2015 Montréal Gala, in the Country Music category, of course.

“When I write a song, it’s the music, first and foremost,” says Labbé. “Melodies come easy to me. It’s the lyrics that demand a lot of work, the thing I find the hardest. So this is what I do: I record my music tracks in the studio; at that point no more than 25% of the lyrics are written. It’s after that, when I listen to the instrumental tracks, that words begin to flow. It’s not necessarily a method I’m fond of, but I have to give myself an ultimatum for words to finally come, so I can finalize the creative process.”

However, the song “Du côté bleu du ciel,” the title track of fourth album, (with lyrics by Nelson Minville, music by Marc Dupré), is an exception – and is nominated as Song of the Year at the Nov. 19 Country Gala. “It was at the very limit of what I do, but I like that type of writing!” says Labbé. “I need to be really moved to accept a song from someone else. That one did me some good, even though it’s a lot more commercial and less country.”

Véronique Labbé is also a TV and radio host for En route vers l’ouest, and she believes SOCAN played an important role in her musical career. “A lot of country artists kick-start their careers with covers to get better sales,” she says. “But to stand out, they need to write their own hits. That’s what my show is there for: getting them known. Without new songs, there’s no evolution. Otherwise we’ll end up singing only hits, just like in a karaoke bar.

“Being a SOCAN member to me is like a protection of me as a creator. They collect and distribute the royalties, but with the kind of music I do, I don’t get as much radio play as other musical styles. It would be nice to have a country music Soundscan.”

Year in, year out, Labbé gets on stage about 50 times. With 2016 drawing to a close, Mon Noël Country caps things off nicely. “The music is country, but with Christmas songs,” she says. “The tough part is knowing where to accentuate. I consciously avoided certain country riffs and punches, so things didn’t get too redundant. Luckily, there are a lot of chord progressions in the Christmas repertoire that totally harmonize with country music.”

The Nov. 19 Gala has been circled on Labbé’s calendar for a long time. And it’s not hard to understand why: her seven nominations at the Gala are for Album, Songwriter, Female Singer, and  Concert of the Year, as well as Radio and TV Show of the Year for En route vers l’ouest, and the SOCAN Song of the Year for “Du côté bleu du ciel.”

“It’s the SOCAN Award that I covet the most!” she says.

Right from the start, Patrick Lavoie dove into music with urgency and versatility. Those qualities drive his entire career as a multi-instrumentalist whose love for all musical genres knows no bounds. Animated by a desire to write songs – and throughout his university degree in classical cello – Lavoie was looking for a vocation. “It rapidly became about earning a living through my music,” he says. “I even busked in the metro. I wanted my income to stem from that passion, not even from teaching music. If that didn’t pan out, I was going to abandon the idea and study biology.”

Thanks to his friendship with screen director Yves Christian Fournier, Lavoie was able to delve in composing music for TV ads during the first decade of the 2000s. That’s when he realized how much joy he derived from composing music. “The toughest contracts are the first ones,” he says. “In that domain, no on asks about your diploma. They want to hear what you’ve done before. I can’t even count the number of demos I produced during that period.”

A special work relationship began to develop between the composer and director. Early on, Fournier picked up the habit of sharing his thoughts and desires concerning each of the projects he’s working on. Lavoie decided to create temporary demos ahead of Fournier’s shootings. “Music is a big source of inspiration for him. It opens the way,” says Lavoie. Such was the case for the feature film Tout est parfait, in 2008, and for the 2015 TV series Blue Moon – during which Fournier juggled 37 different temporary soundtracks throughout the shoot. The movie adventure carried on with Fournier for Noir (2015) as well as with director Martin Talbot on Henri Henri (2014), a soundtrack that earned Lavoie a nomination at the Canadian Screens Awards.

Nowadays, Lavoie also scores the music for TV series such as Feux (directed by Claude Desroriser) and the aforementioned Blue Moon. It’s a demanding mandate that requires the composer to be highly organized. Well aware of the value of time, Lavoie has stuck to his method of composing based on the script, even before seeing the first few episodes. This head-start, he believes, gives him more efficiency and more sensitivity when he delivers the final product.

“Time is of the essence with series,” he says. “It takes me a week to compose for a 52-minute episode. That’s a total of 30 minutes of music per episode. One needs to be super-organized and methodical to achieve quality in such a short time. If I haven’t finished composing by noon, I know I’m going to run out of time to produce that music over the course of that day.” Every morning, Lavoie enters his home studio with a tight, efficient work plan. For Blue Moon, he came up with an ambitious, string-based orchestral score that requires him to record up to 50 instrumental tracks on his own. And not a second goes by where efficiency doesn’t also include emotion and beauty.

As for Feux, he began composing without knowing what the conclusion of the series would be. This time, the composer didn’t want the the main musical themes to be tainted by the psychological thriller’s ending. Instead, to guide him, he relied on a very fine understanding of the characters’ psychology. Lavoie is the first to admit that a series like that, which forces us to look at our own dark inner workings, is quite demanding for him. “The music for Feux came easily, but it was very hard on a personal level,” he says. “I was exhausted at the end of each day. I was going through so many emotions… A soundtrack that works is a soundtrack that carries strong emotions. And to achieve that, I had to live every moment of it, from composition to delivery. Music doesn’t deceive. You need to be true, because it’s the language of emotion.”

One thing is undeniable for Lavoie: Music expresses our emotions without a single word. And to achieve this, music uses the composer, their life and their emotions as the path to its true nature.


[soundcloud url=”https://api.soundcloud.com/tracks/289133830″ params=”color=ff5500&auto_play=false&hide_related=false&show_comments=true&show_user=true&show_reposts=false” width=”100%” height=”166″ iframe=”true” /]

Back in May of 2016, First Nations pop/rock band Midnight Shine played two showcase performances at Canadian Music Week (CMW) in Toronto. It’s doubtful that any other CMW act had a more eventful trip to the fest, as vocalist/guitarist Adrian Sutherland explains from his Northern Ontario home in Attawapiskat.

“I come from a very poor family here,” Says Sutherland. “My grandparents lived a very traditional life, and everything on our table was from the land. That’s still alive in the community. I have to go out and kill geese and caribou and moose, still. We have to fill our freezers, and that’s part of life in the far North. The harvest is about family bonding and our culture, too.

“It was very tough for me to cut my hunting short and come all the way out by snow machine, travelling on sea ice to get home, and then to CMW. That’s my commitment to the music. I’m willing to do whatever it takes.”

The other members of Midnight Shine come from different communities in the James Bay region in the far North. Guitarist Zach Tomatuk and bassist Stan Louttit are from Moose Factory First Nation, and drummer George Gillies from Fort Albany First Nation.

Formed five years ago, Midnight Shine’s public debut was opening a Trooper gig. They’ve since released two well-received albums, 2013’s self-titled debut and 2014’s Northern Man.

Their career received a major boost when agent Ralph James of United Talent Agency took the band under his wing. Their CMW appearance also drew major, nationwide media attention, including a sit-down interview with The National, the front page of the Toronto Star, a live performance and interview on CTV’s Canada AM, two Canadian Press stories, a featured video on Daily Vice, and stories in the National Post, Hamilton Spectator, Winnipeg Free Press, Calgary Herald, Halifax Chronicle Herald, and more.

“There are good stories to be told from Attawapiskat. I hope we’re one of them.” – Adrian Sutherland of Midnight Shine

As the group’s primary songwriter, Sutherland has been hard at work creating songs for a third album. “We’re hoping to get back into the studio by early spring, and we’re talking to a few different producers,” he explains.

One new song, “Sister Love,” will come out as a single soon, and is drawing a favourable early response. “It’s based on a poem written by my sister,” says Sutherland. “It’s about the struggles we face every day, and some of the hardships we have to go through in life. It explores the feeling of wanting to go back to a time when things weren’t so hard, being around your family and the kinship that existed back when things were good.”

Look for other upcoming material to tackle First Nations themes more directly. Earlier Midnight Shine songs like “Northern Man” and “James Bay” are definitely rooted in Sutherland’s culture and home region, but he’s now ready to address social and political themes more directly.

“My writing today is a lot different than on the first two albums,” he says. “I don’t want to force myself into any direction, but something that’s been on my mind is the residential schools. My mom was in that system for several years and I’ve seen how that has affected her life. I want to tell her story. Then there is the issue of missing and murdered aboriginal women. I now feel compelled to write about these things.”

Midnight Shine’s sound is poppy and melodic rock, but Sutherland explains he’s now looking to incorporate more First Nations sounds. “I’m looking at other artists in the James Bay area to help bring the music to life,” he says.

“In the past, we haven’t put cultural embellishments into the music, but things are changing. I’m thinking about putting some traditional drumming on the new record, and I’m working on songs written in Cree. That’s a lot harder than writing in English!”

Since Midnight Shine formed, such Canadian Indigenous artists as Tanya Tagaq and A Tribe Called Red have had a huge impact, nationally and beyond. Sutherland acknowledges drawing inspiration from their example, and from Gord Downie’s recent Secret Path project. “Gord is just so courageous and doing phenomenal work now,” he says.

In turn, Midnight Shine’s growing success is proving inspirational to those in Sutherland’s own community of Attawapiskat. That area has been the subject of plenty of negative media attention in recent years, but Sutherland stresses “there are good stories to be told from Attawapiskat. I hope we’re one of them.

“I think we’re inspiring the younger kids. It’s hard for them to grasp that here is a band that lives in the community, they can talk to us. That’s not something they’re used to. As a group, we’ve been very mindful of getting into these communities to play shows. It’s our duty to inspire these young people, and remember our roots.”