Photo: Jocelyn Riendeau

Photo: Jocelyn Riendeau

Everything you need to know about Vincent Vallières is contained in one photo inside the booklet for Le temps des vivants, his latest and seventh album. In the picture, he’s at home in his songwriting environment. On his work table are various objects, packets of guitar strings, a dictionary; behind him is a wall of records, a few guitars and a picture of Yvon Deschamps. This is where the first drafts of songs make their way to the second-stage lab.

Following up after such a fruitful, lengthy adventure as the Fabriquer l’aube album is no small feat. “On va s’aimer encore,” remember ?

“I told myself, pause for a moment, and see what the future has in store for you,” says Vallières. “Ever since I started in 1999, it’s the same cycle. I finish an album, tour, and repeat. As the years have gone by, I’ve learned to say no, because I’ve worked really hard throughout my career so that people would say yes to me. We concluded our biggest tour two years ago at the Festival de la Poutine, and when we parted ways, I told the guys, “Don’t wait for me, you’re free. Find work elsewhere, because I don’t know when I’ll get back to work.’”

Michel-Olivier Gasse and his girlfriend launched into the Saratoga adventure, drummer Simon Blouin ended up touring Europe with Véronic Dicaire, and André Papanicolaou produced several albums and is embarking on a tour with Pierre Flynn. These guys were Vallières’ crew on three of his albums, Le repère tranquille (2006), which sold 45,000 copies, Le monde tourne fort (2009), which sold nearly as much, as did Fabriquer l’aube (2013).

During this two-year hiatus, Vallières renewed his love of music, attended tons of concerts, and spent countless hours crate-digging at Montréal’s vinyl paradise, Aux 33 tours.

“The process leading up to my phone call to François Plante [Vallières’s new collaborator] was long, but I never doubted my capacity to write new songs,” he says. “Can I still surprise myself, out-do myself? Which, ultimately, boils down to: Can I be better?” The answer took the guise of the prolific musician and record producer Philippe B. Vallières needed a straightforward opinion.

“I told him, I’ll play my tunes for you and you tell me what you think,’ because I knew he could totally diagnose them,” says Vallières. “Then I hired George Donosso III [guitars, drums, etc.], who works with The Dears, and has very set, clear ideas about the sound of his productions. They’re not necessarily fans of my music, so they don’t see my songs in the same way a fan would. That’s what I wanted from them: to be shaken and de-stabilized. We jammed in our rehearsal space, looking for sounds, adding synth bass, farfisa organ or some vibraphone, stuff I’d never done before, but always with respect for the energy of the demos.

“And after playing different versions of the demos, I ended up re-writing whole verses, and I even slowed some songs’ tempos.” “Pays du nord” is the perfect example of what Vallières means by that. It took several attempts to come to fruition. “In the end, the final sound of that song re-shaped the lyrics,” says Vallières. “The character in the song embarks on a kind of wandering, he moves on and night falls, but I changed the story. In the beginning, there were children…”

Vallières has won several awards, most notably the Prix Félix-Leclerc de la chanson in 2005, the Prix Gilles-Vigneault in 2007, the Song of the Year Félix in 2011 (for “On va s’aimer encore”), as well as many Francophone SOCAN Popular Song awards: “Café Lézard” in 2008, “Entre partout et nulle part” in 2011, “On va s’aimer encore” in 2012, and “Loin” and “L’amour c’est pas pour les peureux” in 2015.

Le temps des vivants is clearly a new direction. It’s obvious right from the album’s first notes. It was a team effort, which also involved a returning Papanicolaou on guitars as well as Amélie Mandeville’s voice. The songs are rejuvenated by bolder sounds. It’s still undeniably Vincent Vallières, but the road travelled is not the same. It’s more modern.

Is he ready to play live? “Not so long ago, the music world was quite different,” says Vallières. “In that way, radio was helpful to me. When you play a festival with 30,000 people in attendance, and it’s no longer just your fans who know more than half of the set list, but pretty much everyone there, and people are flicking their lighters and singing in unison, it’s quite a wonderful thing. People identify with songs, they want to listen to them.”

And buy them, he could well have concluded.

Decades before Jenson Vaughan became known as a hit maker for Madonna, Britney Spears and currently, High Valley, the Dartmouth, NS, native was in the dark about the artistry it took to write a song. So he plucked one out of the air.

“I formed a little a capella group,” says Vaughan, recalling his high-school years. “And because of my jazz background, I knew how to arrange and understand music. Before long, somebody told us that we sounded good, and we should do our own music. None of us knew any songwriters, and it never occurred to us that we could do our own music.

“So I told them I’d write a song for us. I went home that night, sat down and literally from my mind – no instrumentation – I started piecing together a voice and a chorus, lyrics and melody. I didn’t think anything of it. The next day I showed it to them, and they were all shocked. And then I thought, okay, if they can’t do that and I can, then maybe I have some inherent skill.”

Strangely, it still took some years before Vaughan, who co-wrote the Grammy-nominated and JUNO-winning “This is What It Feels Like” by Armin van Buuren and Trevor Guthrie, embraced that skill.  After he graduated from high school, he re-located to Las Vegas for a year and formed a folk-rock band with fellow songwriter Jason David, playing small cafés for a year before setting his sights on Vancouver. “My older brother lived there, and I didn’t want to go back to Nova Scotia,” Vaughan explains. “I wanted to continue my adventures and learn new things.”

“It was a grind and a gradual process, and not settling at a certain level, but just wanting to continue to improve.”

At the age of 26, Vaughan officially became a late-blooming songwriter. He set up a MySpace account and uploaded a few of his songs to see what people thought. Aside from positive feedback, Vaughan received offers from some individuals willing to place songs for him, telling him he could make money. “I was, like, ‘Oh, tell me how that works!’” Vaughan remembers.  “I started building a network of people who taught me the process. As soon as I realized I could turn that skill into the reality of a career, I dropped everything else. It was a 100 percent commitment: it just took me a while to realize that I could do it.”

He spent five years in his Surrey basement, woodshedding his craft, working on numerous projects. “I had some little dance cuts here and there before my success really took off. But at that time, any little taste of success seemed like a monumental achievement to me,” he concedes.  “I had never achieved anything – just teeny little things here and there – maybe a song that came out in Italy, and then I just built it from there.

“The one that really clicked the most was with Steve [Smith] and Anthony [Anderson] of SA Trackworks in Vancouver, a songwriting production team,” says Vaughan. “In 2009, they brought me in to do a song called “Take Your Hands” for a Japanese group called Tohoshinki. We ended up getting the cut, and it sold something like 350,000 copies. To me, that was insane. My first royalty cheque there might have been $8,000 or something like that. When I first got $70, I couldn’t believe it. I thought, if I can make $70, I can make $700, and so forth. It was a grind and a gradual process, and not settling at a certain level, but wanting to continue to improve.”

Although Vaughan was hungry for success, he stayed patient and eventually signed with Patrick Moxey at Ultra Music Publishing. “I think I held off for the right deal,” he says. “It wasn’t long after that I got a track from Benny Benassi and I wrote a tune that ended up getting placed with Madonna. And he introduced me to Armand van Buuren’s team… Those things really enabled me to leverage further, on all fronts.”

For the No. 1 U.S. dance and global hit “Girl Gone Wild,” Benassi, the Italian DJ and record producer, initially sent the track through Moxey to Vaughan. “I added lyrics and melody, sent it back, and they loved it,” Vaughan recalls. “Then two weeks later, I got a message from Patrick saying, ‘M likes the song.’ I was like, what is that? And then I thought, wait a minute… He can’t possibly mean Madonna. That’s how I found out.”

Since then, Vaughan has contributed to songs by DJ Antoine (“Bella Vita,” a Swiss chart-topper); Steve Aoki (“Delirious (Boneless)”); Era Istrefi (“BonBon”); Omi (“Hula Hoop”); Kelly Rowland (“What A Feeling”); Britney Spears (“Til It’s Gone”); and most recently, High Valley’s new “I Be U Be” single, as well as the anticipated comeback single for Taio Cruz, “Signs.” Vaughan claims that his co-writes have accumulated global sales of an estimated 10 million.

As a writer, Vaughan says he often creates on piano. “I write lyrics and melody,” he says. “I also arrange music. I just don’t typically fully produce the songs. But I do often write on piano, and sometimes on guitar. At the beginning I was writing more on guitar, even though I’m not a great guitar player. Sometimes, I’ll just hear some melody or arrangement in my head, and I’ll write that way.”

Vaughan says in a typical situation, he’ll receive instrumentation from a producer, or he’ll start the song himself. “I’ll write the melody or the lyrics to the producer’s submission,” he explains. “Or I’ll essentially get the song written, then send it to different producers, find the production I like the most, and use it to shop around.” As his stature as grown, Vaughan has been able to work directly with the artist, or the artist’s production team, to help develop the arrangement and the recording. “I’m pleasantly surprised with how things are turning out,” he admits.

Constantly on the road, collaborating at song camps around the world, Vaughan says he has no shortage of work. He’s currently writing with Drake producer Boi-1da, and also with Tiesto; plans to write and record a jazz album with Matt Dusk; runs his own JV Records out of Toronto; is working on a joint publishing venture with Patrick Moxey; and has even released his own single, “Gonna Be Yours,” in Spain.

“There’s this constant gnawing at me on the inside, that I need to create,” Vaughan admits. “And it’s not really something I need to go outwardly for: I have no shortage of inspiration from within. If I’m taking too much time away from it, I feel like I’m not living up to my potential when I’m not writing, because I feel it inside. It’s like a painter who constantly has to paint, I guess. I need to write almost every day.”

Here’s another in our series of articles dealing with songwriting duos. This time, we’re featuring the acclaimed performers and songwriters Karen Young and Coral Egan, a mother-daughter team whose recently released album Dreamers is being described as a “two-voice exploration” by the team’s senior half.  

It was written in the stars. It was only a matter of time. Coral Egan agrees, and Karen Young qualifies the statement: “We sang together on a recording before,” she says. That was before Coral began her solo career, and before the release of her 2004 album My Favorite Distraction, at a time when she was still learning her craft as a backup singer on her mom’s recordings.

Karen Young, Coral EganStill, a duo recording bringing their voices together and featuring both their names on the same album cover? It had to happen, but why right now? “I often say that my best inspiration is called ‘last minute!’” Coral explains. “I believe that once you’ve said, ‘This is it, the time is now,’ something good comes out of it – because you don’t spend much time thinking. The result is genuine.” Karen adds that before thinking of making a duo recording, the Young clan was toying with the idea of making “a family album with my brother, folk and country singer, and his daughter. What we had in mind was a project for four voices, not just two!”

“But there came a time when it all clicked into place,” Karen recalls. That was in December of 2014 on Télé-Québec’s Belle et Bum TV program, when Karen and Coral were asked to sing Joni Mitchell’s “River”as a tribute to the 14 victims of the École Polytechnique massacre in Montreal 25 years earlier. Coral recalls that they found and rehearsed their vocal harmonies in the car on their way to the studio. “It was all so very natural, easy, and joyful,“ says Karen. “We love singing together!” That was the definitive moment when they both realized that making a recording together was a possible, and even pretty nice, thing.

So the idea of a duo recording caught on, in spite of the anxiety caused an unexpected illness for Coral. The young musician has “fully recovered” from the symptoms of the Guillain-Barré syndrome, a rare auto-immune disease of the nervous system that seriously affected Coral’s mobility and reflexes, and forced her to stop working for a while. However, a duo concert last summer at the Festival international de jazz de Montréal re-kindled the duo recording project flame. The time to make it happen had come, and it took place in singer Louis-Jean Cormier’s Studio Dandurand over the holidays.

“I think that writing a song with someone else is something like a sweet dance. You have to find the right pace, the right dynamic.“  – Coral Egan

Karen Young, Coral EganOn the resulting Dreamers album, the two singers mix their strong, clear, nimble and perfectly compatible voices to create a superb sound. The two performers also chose the right material, a blend of covers (of a Catherine Major song, for instance), sacred songs and Brazilian music influences. The stunning performance of harpist Éveline Grégoire-Rousseau –  who’s worked with Karen Young (as have Pierre Lapointe, Philippe B, and Ingrid St-Pierre) – provides a unifying element.  “It’s a very interesting instrument,” says Coral. “It’s both harmonic and percussive, and the airy tone of the harp goes very well with our voices.”

Could it be said that this “two-voice exploration” is more a reflection of the mother’s musical universe than that of the daughter? “One of the influences you don’t hear on the album,” says Coral, “is soul music. I grew up listening to Stevie Wonder, and my love for his music still greatly influences my creative choices and my singing voice. Of course, Karen loves soul music too, but it’s not part of her musical influences. I think she wouldn’t have felt comfortable if I’d forced her to sound like a soul singer!”

“We did try that kind of duo for a concert. We worked on some sort of a soul medley that didn’t pan out,” Karen laughs. “But I truly love the songs. I ‘ve always wished I were able perform Marvin Gaye’s “Trouble Man,” for instance, but it’s not my strong suit. I believe that the eclectic choice of the album’s material is more like me, although what we were trying to convey was our whole shared musical life. Everything I gave her and taught her. It’s our personal musical history, in some way.”

The creative achievement here was in the search for balance, if not compromise, between two musical worlds that; they’re different, but linked together in a filial bond. That experience will definitely be continuing, since tour dates have been set, and a second album may be in the offing. Would they be tempted to write original songs together?

“There might be a reason why that’s not happening,” says Coral. “You can’t force it. The reason we haven’t written something together yet is simply that we’re not ready!  But this album has taught us things we didn’t know about ourselves. I learned, for instance, that I can be forceful [in the recording studio], while my mother is more subdued, and more willing to trust the moment and the work of the musicians. Me, as soon as I get a flash of insight, I have to get it out right away, and to share it on the spot. I think that writing a song [with someone else] is something like a sweet dance. You have to find the right pace, the right dynamic.”

Just a matter of time, then?