For her third album, Geneviève Toupin decided to use the Willows moniker. It’s a stage name, but a project name as well. The word refers to the tree, obviously, but also, and mainly, a town in California and a ghost town on the Western Canadian plains. “I really enjoyed the parallel between those two locales that are part of the album’s lyrics,” says the svelte brunette with the piercing blue eyes. “And I liked the word, quite simply. It allowed me to address my Anglo and Métis roots, but also my Franco-Manitoban roots. There’s something very visually evocative in that word. Plus, I loved the idea of putting forth a musical and visual identity.”

The Long and Winding Road

This folk gem was produced by Émilie Proulx, Toupin’s “musical soul mate,” who has also accompanied her onstage since 2009. It is an intensely personal and luminous album, with delicate arrangements, that was initially planned for release last year, backed by a totally different team. “I’ve travelled far and wide. This album came via a long and winding road. I left my record label in 2013 and tried working with a few producers, but I just wasn’t ready. I had written about 30 songs, but they all ended up in the trash. When I realized Émilie was a perfect fit, I knew she’d be the ideal producer, too. From that point on, everything went super fast,” explains Toupin, who set up camp in Montréal in 2003.

And it turns out that places have had a big impact on the artist, a fact that’s obvious to even a casual listener of the album’s 11 tracks. She explains: “While I was in the creation process for this album, I realized how much landscapes, plains, wide open spaces and open skies inhabit me. I started writing in California and finished in Montréal. Also, having grown up in a small village in the Southern Manitoba countryside definitely had an impact, too. This bond with wide open spaces and nature has inhabited me since I was a child. To this day, it’s still something that has a deep impact on me and my writing. It’s deeply rooted.”

Cultural Legacy

Even though Toupin grew up in a French-speaking family, once she reached her teens, she devoured Anglo music and struggled to make a place for herself in a vastly Anglo environment. For this new project, she fully embraced this cultural duality. “When I started the creation of this album, I’d just finished another entirely English one (The Ocean Pictures Project) and I’d become unable to write in French. To resolve this situation, I had to embrace that duality and to allow myself to write like I speak, by mixing both languages. The first songs I wrote were ‘Valley of Fire,’ ‘Bill Murray’ and ‘Stardust Motel.’  Those three songs are the ones with the most English in them. I gave myself permission to write exactly as I hear it in my head.”

But despite her Métis roots and the ever-present duality, Geneviève doesn’t feel like she’s on her own. She considers herself as a full-fledged member of a new community of young songwriters and musicians. As she says: “I mean the Montréal community, but also the whole of the Canadian francophonie. I feel privileged to be a part of those scenes and to be surrounded by so many artists that inspire me every day. That’s truly priceless.”

Believing in magic

Following her very positive experience in the web series La Tournée des cafés (nominated at the ADISQ Awards in 2012), Toupin developed a taste for collaboration. As a result, almost a dozen musicians and composers collaborated on the Willows project, including André Papanicolaou (Monsieur Mono) and Marianne Houle (Monogrenade). Yet, one question begs to be answered: how does one choose who to collaborate with when one’s musical universe is so intimate, soft and delicate? “I always pick collaborators whose sensitivity is very close to mine,” says Toupin. “That’s the case of Sébastien Lacombe’s universe, which completely aligns with mine. I want to surround myself with people who instinctively understand that type of writing. You need to go with the flow. But I also noticed that a certain chemistry can happen between artists and that I also need to trust that.”

Following a three-week stay in France and the 2014 Coup de cœur francophone tour, Toupin now wishes to take her show back on the road in Québec and the rest of Canada – Vancouver, Ontario and Saskatchewan are already on the schedule for 2015 – and she’ll also collaborate with Chloé Lacasse on her musical project. In other words, there isn’t much downtime. “You know, I’m very fortunate for all the travelling I do,” she says. “Just that, to me, is tremendous. I wouldn’t trade places with anyone!”

Turning the page
“When I was 19, I travelled to France. I was studying science and was considering going into medicine, but I decided to take a year off. I had top grades, but I missed music, so I left to go work in Paris. When I got back to Manitoba, I decided that I was going to do everything I possibly could to earn a living from my music. I abandoned all my other projects. And that’s what I did.”

“Just be cool.”

That’s a phrase Rich Walters likes to repeat to himself. “When shit hits the fan, just be cool and take the punches, and you’ll get through this,” he says. “It’s worked so far.”

Indeed, for Walters, it’s worked very well so far. A burgeoning star composer in the film and TV industry, his music is heard in films, on radio and on television, including internationally syndicated Canadian TV shows such as Cold Squad, Falcon Beach and The L Word. He’s been nominated for two Emmy Awards and a Gemini, and he won a LEO in 2013 for his work on the TV mini-series Ring of Fire.

“You’ve got to be willing to sacrifice a lot in your life if this is what you want to do.”

In the early winter of 2014, he was working on music for a new series called Olympus (Greek mythology meets Game of Thrones) that airs in March on the Syfy network in the U.S. He was also jetting off to Los Angeles, after having been personally invited by Grammy- and Oscar-winning composer Hans Zimmer (The Lion King, Gladiator, The Dark Knight, 12 Years a Slave) to co-write music for a new film by Neill Blomkamp (District 9, Elysium) called Chappie, starring Hugh Jackman and Sigourney Weaver.

With that kind of Hollywood cred, it’s no surprise that Walters, 46, divides his time mostly between L.A. and his home base in Vancouver, although he’s also worked a lot in London (at Abbey Road and Air studios, no less) and in Prague.

But his entrée into the film world came about rather indirectly. After studying music theory and composition at what is now Capilano University in North Vancouver, Walters spent several years playing percussion in electronica and rock bands. Then, about 15 years ago, he landed an easy gig as a dialogue assistant at a large post-production facility in Vancouver. Once in the door, he was able to parlay his proficiency with Pro Tools into a new career.

“I started to sell myself as a music editor first, and I had a direct line to all these people I knew already,” says Walters. “So this ‘nothing job’ ended up being a great jumping-off point for getting my career going.”

It’s a lot of work – typically 12- to 14-hour days, seven days a week – but he’s not complaining. “I love it,” he says. “I’ve got a great studio, I work for myself and I get to write [music] all day!”

What’s the secret?

“You’ve got to be willing to sacrifice a lot in your life if this is what you want to do,” says Walters, “and you’ve got to be prepared to work harder than the next guy and just do whatever it takes,” he says. “Take care of your clients and bust your ass.”

And just be cool.

“It was when I was working at a post-production studio, and I kept seeing these composers roll in. That was my light bulb moment: I’m musically trained, I’m theoretically trained, I’m a multi-instrumentalist, I know the software. I thought, ‘If these guys can do this, I can do this. This is what I want to do with my life.’”

Selected Credits: Composer (Film/TV): Olympus (2015), Ring of Fire (2012 TV mini-series), The L Word (Seasons 1 & 2), Neverland (2011 TV mini-series), Falcon Beach (Season 2) Music Editor (Film): Chappie (2014), Elysium (2013), Capote (2005), Tin Man (2007), Riverworld (2010)
Music Editor (TV): Continuum (Season 1), Missing (Season 1), Cold Squad (Seasons 3 & 4), The Outer Limits (Season 5)
SOCAN member since 1997

Songwriting collaborations come in many different shapes and sizes. Methods range from Nashville country songwriters arranging a co-writing ‘date” in a Music row office to contemporary pop, dance, R&B and hip-hop artists who may credit seven or eight writers, producers and beat-makers on just one track. Hit songs in all these genres are, increasingly, created through collaboration.

Artists in other genres have also adopted the collaborative approach. Here, we’ll explore two recent, highly acclaimed Canadian album projects, Namedropper by roots songstress Oh Susannah, and Just Passing Through: The Breithaupt Brothers Songbook, the brainchild of the songwriting team of brothers Don and Jeff Breithaupt.

“Everyone in the community loves Suzie [Oh Susanna], so it was all, “Yes, I’ll write you a song.’” – Ron Sexsmith

As the title jokingly suggests, Namedropper features contributions from an A-list of Canadian singer-songwriters, all friends with Oh Susannah (Suzie Ungerleider). The concept behind Namedropper was suggested by her producer, Jim Byson (himself a well-respected songsmith). “Suzie initially pitched me on the idea of producing a covers record,” Bryson recalls. “Off the top of my head, I said ‘That seems to [have been] done a lot by Canadian female artists. Why don’t you have people write songs for you?’ It just seemed a fresher idea.”

The pair approached Ungerleider’s talented songwriting pals, who responded immediately and positively. The reaction confirmed both the peer respect Oh Susanna enjoys as an artist and the genuine affection she personally attracts. As Ron Sexsmith notes, “Everyone in the community loves Suzie, so it was all, “Yes, I’ll write you a song.’ It’s a cool concept and it came together in an inspired way.”

The impressive list of artists delivering one new song apiece: Joel Plaskett, Royal Wood, Keri Latimer (Nathan), Jim Bryson, Melissa McClelland (Whitehorse), Old Man Luedecke, Luke Doucet (Whitehorse), Amelia Curran, The Good Lovelies, Jim Cuddy (Blue Rodeo), Jay Harris, and Rueben deGroot. Ron Sexsmith contributed two, “Wait Until the Sun Comes Up” and “I Love the Way She Dresses,” a co-write with Angaleena Presley.

The accomplished result is the most stylistically eclectic of Oh Susanna’s six albums to date. “That is exactly what I wanted,” says Ungerleider. “We specifically asked the writers not to all send slow, waltzy tunes [her forte]. Some writers approached it more as if they were writing a song they’d do. That was fine, too. The whole idea was to stretch what I’m doing and that is exactly what we got with these songs. I feel lucky.”

Jim Cuddy, a longtime friend, fan and duet partner of Oh Susanna, contributes the moving ballad “Dying Light,” based on their mutual love of soul music. “I once heard Suzie sing ‘The Dark End of the Street’ at a Gram Parsons tribute,” he recalls. “I thought ‘My God, you have this powerful soul voice that isn’t exhibited in your own material.’ I knew she’d have the vocal dexterity for my song.”

Ron Sexsmith wrote “Wait Until The Sun Comes Up” with typical creative ingenuity. “Suzie e-mailed me, and I thought ‘“Oh Susanna,” that’s a Stephen Foster song.’ I have a Foster songbook and a song there, ‘Nellie Bly,’ reminded me of ‘Wait Until the Sun Shines.’ That gave me the title, and I wrote the thing in 30 minutes, with a Buddy Holly pop feel.”

Bryson’s song “Oregon” leads off Namedropper. “That was a song I’d already written, but Suzie kept going back to it,” he says. “I pleaded, ‘Don’t put it at the front of the record, I’ll look like a jerk,’ but she liked where it fit.’

With many songs submitted in raw form, Bryson worked with Ungerleider on the instrumentation and arrangements. “You get to try different things, bouncing ideas back and forth,” says Bryson. “Suzie is very clear with her thoughts and opinions. To me, overseeing this record was pure joy.” The core band on Namedropper included multi-instrumentalist Bryson and drummer Cam Giroux, Oh Susanna’s husband.

As has been well publicized, the album’s scheduled Fall 2013 release was delayed a full year after Ungerleider was diagnosed with, and treated for, breast cancer. Now healthy, she and Bryson recently played Canadian dates and headed to the U.K. in early 2015.