A good song is a good song, but many of the things that make a good song evolve over time. Instruments and technology cycle in and out of popularity; new sounds come to the foreground; nostalgia grips the dial for a little while. For many artists and music fans, it all comes down to the lyrics, and this might be one of the most explicit and obvious markers of changing times.
So with all due respect to the great songwriters up to and including the first decade of the 21st century, CBC Music is shining a light on some of the newest Canadian songwriters right now who are meeting the moment — pens, iPhones and laptops in hand.
Carly Rae Jepsen
Carly Rae Jepsen is a juggernaut pop songwriter. For over a decade she has relentlessly released banger after banger. She’s often derided for empty lyrics that reveal very little about herself but that’s the genius of CRJ: the ubiquity is the point. She crafts anthems that you can belt from the passenger seat with all the windows down, the kind of unadulterated pop that isn’t pressed about being cool. The moment she started to get the recognition she deserved (or at least when Music Twitter began to take her more seriously) was after Emotion and the Emotion B Sides EP were released, but she’s been solid since the beginning. Her hooks beg to be chanted and she cranks out earworms on the regular.
It sounds effortless, but it’s far from, and that’s the mark of a true pop songwriter. She writes a lot: she wrote more than 200 songs before settling on the 12 that would end up on Emotion. She synthesizes ideas about love in all its forms to make the kind of widely palatable, bright, shiny pop that can take on dozens of meanings. Take “Too Much,” from her album Dedicated: the “girls just wanna have fun” energy of the chorus could easily be about grappling with obsessive tendencies, depending on the listener’s perspective. — Kelsey Adams
When I party, then I party too much
When I feel it, then I feel it too much
When I’m thinking, then I’m thinking too much
When I’m drinking, then I’m drinking too much
I’ll do anything to get to the rush
Now I’m dancing, and I’m dancing too much
So be careful if you’re wanting this touch
‘Cause if I love you, then I love you too much.
No artist of this generation is lyrically more memorable than Drake. He may not be unpacking complex metaphors in his verses, but he’s a master at writing lyrics we can all relate to — the poet laureate of the everyday moment. Drake often provides the perfect word or phrase we need, whether we’re getting into the weekend or getting into our feelings; whether we’re falling in or out of love. This shouldn’t come as a surprise from the guy who made sayings like “Started from the bottom” and “YOLO” fodder for everything, from Instagram hashtags and T-shirts to stock trading and cultural-economic movements. He’s also incredibly versatile, able to deliver fiery breathless verses, make you laugh at a witty play on words, or just sit back and ride a beat — sometimes all in the same song.
Like many of the best songwriters, Drake also deals in the deeply personal and confessional, using his life as a way for the listener to reflect on theirs. Sure, he raps about success a lot, with lines like, “Drinkin’ every night because we drink to my accomplishments,” but you don’t need to drive a Maybach in order to relate to having your heart broken or to being worried about your family. — Jesse Kinos-Goodin
Yeah, I want things to go my way
But as of late, a lot of shit been goin’ sideways
And my mother tried to run away from home
But I left something in the car and so I caught her in the driveway
And she cried to me, so I cried too
And my stomach was soakin’ wet, she only 5’2″.
Even from Haviah Mighty’s days with feminist rap group the Sorority, her star power shone around her like a spotlight. It wasn’t just the flow of her verses but also her skill as a songwriter. Mighty’s phenomenal, Polaris Music Prize-winning solo debut, 13th Floor, firmly established her triple-threat genius: phenomenal rapper, electrifying performer, and flawless lyricist. — Andrea Warner
We go to the bin then we can’t pay the fine, now the jail is who your employer is
This voyage is super intentional
You used to be students in medical
The moors and Indigenous Blacks were the smartest and honestly truest professionals, literally teaching you about chemicals
My history isn’t viewed on a pedestal
Try to tell me only few of my ancestors had anything to offer
If we wasn’t strong, you would never bother
If we wasn’t awesome, you’d never put all of your resources in just to get to conquer.
JP Saxe’s gift is taking inner monologues — neuroses and all — and putting them in music for everyone to hear and feel. In “If the World Was Ending,” when he repeatedly asks “You’d come over, right?” he’s not expecting an answer. This is one of those fantasy conversations we have, testing out scenarios that will never happen but are thrilling in their emotional possibilities. Somehow, his ramblings fit perfectly into the song’s meter, despite all the syllables and minutiae contained in his stream of consciousness:
It really got me thinkin’
Were you out drinkin’?
Were you in the living room, chillin’ watchin’ television?
It’s been a year now
Think I’ve figured out how
How to let you go and let communication die out.
But Saxe can also condense a universe of feelings into a single line: “All I do is get over you,” he sings in the pre-chorus of break-up song “A Little Bit Yours,” low in his register. Instead of a wail of anguish (which comes later, in a stirring refrain), it’s a crushing admission of his heart’s defeat. Does all this self-exposure take a toll on Saxe? His debut album’s title track, “Dangerous Levels of Introspection,” provides a clue, but one hopes these songs are as therapeutic for him as they are for the listener. — Robert Rowat
While not a household name, Calgary’s Jenna Andrews has built a mighty portfolio as a songwriter to the stars. Her credits in the past decade include Drake, Majid Jordan, Benee, Lil Nas X and Lennon Stella. (Given OVO’s notably male-dominated roster, Andrews’ contributions are especially notable.) But Andrews’ pop prowess shines brightest in her work in the K-pop sphere, co-writing three of the biggest worldwide hits (“Dynamite,” “Butter,” “Permission to Dance”) in recent years for South Korea’s most successful musical export, BTS, proving she has a golden ear for infectious melodies. — Melody Lau
Smooth like butter, pull you in like no other
Don’t need no Usher to remind me you got it bad
Ain’t no other that can sweep you up like a robber
Straight up, I (got ya)
Making you fall like that (break it down).
Jessie Reyez is one of the sharpest, hardest-working songwriters in the business, and she’s honest about how difficult that life can be. “Make sure you love it, because there’s going to be days where it’s super hard,” she told CBC Music in an interview last summer. “Like, oh, you want to do this because you don’t want a regular job? You end up working twice as hard in a creative industry when you’re carrying your own business on your back.” Her lyrics are at once fiery and vulnerable, able to deftly break open the doors to music industry abuse on “Gatekeeper” or climb into the dark corners of a love you should let go of — but can’t — on “Before Love Came to Kill Us.” She’s won four Juno Awards and been shortlisted for the Polaris Music Prize for her solo work, but she’s also in high demand elsewhere: Reyez has written songs for Dua Lipa, Calvin Harris and Normani, among others, and has twice collaborated with Eminem. — Holly Gordon
‘Before Love Came to Kill Us’
Love you in the worst way
You knock me down like a heavyweight, mm-mm
We fell in love, got a KO, oh no
Too damn young, so we broke up, no go
So much for a wedding date, ha.
July Talk (Leah Fay and Peter Dreimanis)
As one of Canada’s most enduring alternative rock bands, July Talk has been through seasons. Forming in 2012, the group’s stomping early work was the catalyst for what would become a career in unparalleled onstage chemistry. There wasn’t a gimmick in sight — not in the retro-licked, duelling boy-girl lead vocals of Peter Dreimanis and Leah Fay, nor the way they climbed around the stage (and each other) without skipping a beat. What was present all along was Dreimanis and Fay’s ability to read each other and share the responsibility of telling each other’s deepest secrets to the outside world.
With their 2020 album, Pray For It, the raucous party was traded for softness, quieting the rumble long enough for us to truly grasp the exquisite realness of their wordplay. On “Identical Love,” the pair trade vows around the transformative power of real love, slowing time alongside the wash of a distant sax and keys. It’s the stuff of poetry, the stuff you wish you knew how to say but often can’t — which is why their role in the Canadian landscape remains as precious, if not underrated, as ever. — Jess Huddleston
I want to be changed, I want to be rearranged
My love for you eternal, I trust an open flame
I want to be transformed, I want to be transformed
The evening heat surrounded us
It blossomed from the cup
The only one of their kind
As we try to define identical love.
Singer-songwriter/composer Chloé Pelletier-Gagnon, a.k.a. Klô Pelgag, is one of the most unique songwriters in Quebec right now, and she is consistently being recognized for it. She won the Félix-Leclerc Prize for song as well as songwriter of the year at the 2017 ADISQ Gala for her album L’étoile thoracique, and her 2020 album, Notre-Dame-des-Sept-Douleurs is currently on the Polaris Prize short list. Pelletier-Gagnon’s visceral writing has been garnering attention since her critically acclaimed debut, 2013’s L’Alchimie des Monstres.
The songwriter possesses a sense of theatricality and an abundant imagination that she expresses with highly colourful turns of phrases, often taking risks with her writing — something that sets her apart from her contemporaries. Pelletier-Gagnon chooses words that create a parallel universe, painting vivid images of ferrofluids flowers (“ferrofluides-fleurs” from “Les ferrofluides-fleurs”) and the incontinent sun (“soleil incontinent” from “Le soleil incontinent”). In her first two albums, a lot of Pelletier-Gagnon’s poetry is steeped in nostalgia and sadness, often referring to life, love and death with powerful metaphors. Those skills are still found on her latest album, but with a more blunt and concrete twist, as you can see in “Für Élise.” — Caroline Levesque
Paraît qu’elle dort sur une branche tout en haut du séquoia
Qu’elle ne se nourrit que d’oranges et des livres de Kafka
Paraît que sa peau est si blanche qu’elle aveugle les colombes
Que son sourire est plus étrange que celui de la Joconde.
When a 23-year-old Lowell, real name Elizabeth Boland, burst onto the scene as Arts & Crafts’ most exciting new signee in 2014, many of the same stories were told about her and her debut album. Reputable publications like the New York Times and Rolling Stone couldn’t get enough of her dancer-turned-student-turned-indie star story, when really it was her songwriting aptitude that immediately set her apart from her newcomer peers. What she’d reveal over the next almost decade was a formidable back pocket of hooks, human lyricism and very little interest in the centre stage at all — shelving her bold, solo persona in favour of life as a meticulous songwriting fairy godmother.
If her pop pen touches a song, magical things can happen. Working with the likes of Madison Beer, Tate McRae, Demi Lovato, Hailee Steinfeld and Lennon Stella, Lowell’s penchant for relatable, often heartbroken sentiments is a known commodity, and not limited to those she assists — her own 2020 singles showcase artful and expertly worded reflections on the disoriented state of her world and the world at large. She’s lived a lot of life, and can expertly identify other artists who have, too, helping them translate their earthly experiences with care — and sometimes into a certified hit. — JH
‘God is a Fascist’
God is a fascist
And he holds all the cards
He brought us together just to keep us apart
And there’s nothing more tragic than this thing that we are
I’m a hopeless romantic who didn’t get the part.
When Scott Zhang, better known as Monsune, released his breakout track “Nothing in Return,” he was a 19-year-old university student experimenting with songwriting. It’s about falling all over yourself for someone who isn’t really putting in equal effort, romantically. It’s racked up millions of views and streams across YouTube and Spotify since its release, and soundtracked many wistful nights of unreciprocated affection in the process. The runaway success of “Nothing in Return” was a sign that, like any great songwriter, Zhang can expertly take the personal and make it universal. Then he disappeared for two years, privately honing his sound and taking his time with new music.
The hiatus was well worth the wait. When he re-emerged in 2019 with “Outta my Mind,” a track with a slinky and sexy R&B sound with lyrics to match, he illustrated that he could do more than brooding bedroom pop. As with other acts in his Toronto cohort (he runs in the same circles as BadBadNotGood, Jonah Yano and Moneyphone), it’s difficult to pin down his sound. Regardless of genre, that raw vulnerability is always there in the writing, like with “Mountain,” a song that was nominated for the SOCAN Songwriting Prize in 2020. It chronicles a period of upheaval in the singer’s life, with Zhang wondering if his relationship can weather the storm. — KA
At the base of your mountain
I saw myself in you
And I could stay another summer
Or a day, another day or two
And I never had to say it but I’ll try
Acting like the pleasure was all mine
Don’t you want to come down?
‘Cause I’m so bored of walking on the same old sky.
Mustafa can do it all. He can write hits that stick to the Billboard charts like glue, having penned tracks for the Weeknd, Camila Cabello and Usher. But it’s his recent solo output that really secures his spot as one of the country’s best songwriters right now. His Polaris Music Prize-nominated debut album, When Smoke Rises, is a stunning display of his raw, heart-wrenching lyrics. He tackles the violence and death he witnessed growing up in Toronto’s Regent Park neighbourhood with patience and empathy, but also sometimes anger and urgency. He transforms grief into beauty, but never compromises on the truth. Mustafa is a storyteller whose poetry and music will only grow stronger and more influential with time. — ML
All of these tribes, and all of these street signs
None of them will be yours or mine
But I’ll be your empire
Just stay alive, stay alive, stay alive.
Acadian Baie Sainte-Marie artist Jonah Guimond, a.k.a. P’tit Belliveau, writes in the Acadjonne language of Nova Scotia (a language that rap duo Radio Radio took to the mainstream at the end of the 2000s), using a lyrical lexicon unique in its colourful, poetic imagery. The 25-year-old singer-songwriter and composer, who released his debut album, Greatest Hits Vol. 1, last year, doesn’t overly intellectualize his narrative. Instead he writes about the contemporary vagaries of adult life — those ordinary, everyday scenes — through simple words that blend French and English. In “Drivin’ on Empty,” he sings, “J’aime le feeling du vent dans mes cheveux/ j’ai point beaucoup d’possessions, mais j’suis tout l’temps heureux.” (“I love the feeling of the wind in my hair/ I don’t have a lot of possessions, but I’m happy all the time.”)
When Guimond inserts social commentary into his songs, it is straight to the point. His humble words paired with distinct melodies are the main attraction, and though his lyrics don’t come dressed up, they leave a lasting mark on the listener’s imagination. This year, P’tit Belliveau was a finalist for the SOCAN Songwriting Prize and the 2021 Slaight Music Emerging Songwriter Award, as nominated through the Canadian Songwriters Hall of Fame, showing that this small-town Nova Scotia artist is already making waves on the national music scene. — CL
‘Les bateaux dans la baie’
Mais c’est OK
Tu sais j’écoutons point
C’t’es yahoos-là anyway
Day to day
Être content pis plein d’amour
C’est la mission day to day.
Jahron Anthony Brathwaite, a.k.a.PartyNextDoor (PND), is often seen as an enigma in the Toronto music scene. As popular as he is in the R&B industry in North America, it’s not surprising how under the radar or “underground” he is as a singer-songwriter. Most might know him by his popular tracks “Loyal,” “Split Decision“ and “Not Nice,“ where he expertly weaves Afrocentric progressions into his songs to make people connect emotionally and move at the same time. However, many don’t know he’s penned some of the greatest songs in hip hop and R&B for other artists.
Working with various high-profile artists, PND has been behind Billboard chart-topping songs like DJ Khaled’s “Wild Thoughts” and Calvin Harris’s “Nuh Ready Nuh Ready.” He wrote the infamous chorus of Rihanna’s 2016 summer dancehall anthem, “Work,” with his signature use of repetition: “Work, work, work, work, work, work / When you ah gon’ / Learn, learn, learn, learn, learn? / Me nuh care if him / Hurt, hurt, hurt, hurt, hurting.”
Though his songwriting is straightforward and interpretive, his rhythmic phrasing and lyrical play leave people wanting more with repetitively catchy and recognizable formatting. PND is a strong songwriter whose work speaks for itself. — James Tulloch
All the way ’round, I’m loyal
I got money on me and I’m loyal
I got money in my pocket, I’m loyal
Pain goes away when I’m tipsy
Pain goes away when you’re with me
Even when your troubles all look risky
It’s all under control.
How does Rae Spoon make everything so beautiful? They’ve been at it for more than 20 years and as their own life and perspective have shifted, so too has their music. They grow into deeper versions of themselves with each record, and they let us witness their journey one song at a time. — AW
‘Try Again at Everything’
I will wear your grandmother’s ring
And try again at everything
I do not trust the ground
But I float above it when you’re around
I would not have believed
When I failed life and it failed me
That I could find a family
When I thought it was so out of reach
We both want to stay free
To let forests grow and storms on seas
And wildness which is everything
If it’s true to you then it’s true to me.
Tenille Townes has been writing songs since her early teens, pairing excerpts from her journal with the chords she learned on her first guitar, gifted to her by her grandparents at 14. Then came a debut album at 17 and a move to Nashville a year out of high school to follow her music dreams. Now, nearly a decade later, Townes is a country songwriter who is true to herself, and who feels comfortable taking her time to get what she wants. Her powerful voice sings from a place of understanding, sometimes of an experience that she may not have lived (“Somebody’s Daughter,” “Jersey on the Wall (I’m Just Asking)”) but can fully embody — an empathetic, thoughtful storyteller. “She’s always had this kind of conviction about being a little different,” one of her co-writers, Daniel Tashian (who co-produced Kacey Musgraves’ 2018 Grammy-winning album, Golden Hour), told CBC Music last year. That difference has made Townes stand out as a tenderhearted, no-holds-barred, country voice of a generation. — HG
I drive home the same way, two left turns off the interstate
And she’s always standing at the stoplight
On 18th Street
She could be a Sarah, she could be an Emily, an Olivia, maybe Cassidy
With the shaky hands on the cardboard sign
And she’s looking at me
Bet she was somebody’s best friend, laughing
Back when she was somebody’s sister
Counting change at the lemonade stand
Probably somebody’s high school first kiss
Dancing in a gym where the kids all talk about someday plans
Now this light’ll turn green and I’ll hand her a couple dollars
And I’ll wonder if she got lost or they forgot her.
Tobias Jesso Jr.
As a solo artist, Tobias Jesso Jr. penned songs that felt like long-lost classics dusted off and presented anew. His songs, like “How Could you Babe” and “Without You” evoked ’70s piano balladeers like Randy Newman and Harry Nilsson, tapping into a sound that was more timeless than trendy. But six years removed from his debut album, Jesso Jr. has left the spotlight and is now applying his singer-songwriter sensibilities to other artists. Most famously, Jesso Jr. co-wrote Adele’s 2015 single, “When we Were Young,” but he has also worked with Shawn Mendes, Florence and the Machine and Haim. — ML
‘How Could you Babe’
So long, my only friend
I guess we gave it a try
And then I guess we tried again
I don’t remember why
But nothing’s as hard to do
As just saying goodbye
And when love is in the way, you gotta say
“I guess love ain’t always right.”
Vivek Shraya is an utterly original voice whose lyrics are poetic, powerful and, often, deeply personal. The title of the track below (from her 2017 album Part-Time Woman), is also the title of Shraya’s 2018 best-selling book of essays. Shraya’s bracing humour and radical vulnerability, in relationship with her queer brilliance and incisive cultural commentary, invite listeners and readers to be transformed and liberated by compassion, critique, accountability, wit, pain, beauty, solitude and joy. She’s one of the most daring and original artists of her generation. — AW
‘I’m Afraid of Men’
In my house
Don’t even turn the lights on
‘Cause I shine so bright
But when I open the door
My glow starts to fade
‘Cause I’m afraid
My neck hurts from checking my shoulder
My feet hurt from walking faster
Are you hitting on me?
Are you hitting on me?
Or are you going to hit me?
Over the past decade, the Weeknd has grown from mysterious R&B crooner to one of the biggest pop stars in the world. Through slow jams like “The Morning,” melodic bangers like “Starboy,” and record-breaking pop hits like “Blinding Lights,” the singer can casually fit any mood. But as you listen closer, the Weeknd’s catalogue of songs is expertly tied together through a troubled persona fuelled by unfulfilling sex, drugs and wealth.The Weeknd’s lyrics aren’t for everyone (many are too explicit to even repeat here), nor are they the most complex. But they paint a haunting picture of the toxic, ugly sides of love and life. His songs tell the stories that are whispered rather than proudly professed, filling a void of empathy where it’s needed most. — Yoav Lai
‘Can’t Feel My Face’ (favourite song of the year at the 2016 Nickelodeon Kids’ Choice Awards)
And I know she’ll be the death of me
At least we’ll both be numb
And she’ll always get the best of me
The worst is yet to come
But at least we’ll both be beautiful
And stay forever young.
I just won a new award for a kids show
Talking ’bout a face numbing off a bag of blow.
The most basic human emotions are sung about constantly, and the enduring power of a skilled folk artist is not only to find the right words for them, but make you feel them deeply, as if it was your first time. Manitoba-bred wordsmith William Prince does this with ease — bridging gaps between past and present, communities, the responsibilities of both folklore and writing the future, and perhaps most expertly, the learnings of old love and seeds of fresh desire. Prince has honed this ability not only through his wise, affecting imagery, but the voice that carries them toward us; his tender baritone sweeps you into his narratives, leaving the lessons potent long after each song ends. This generation’s John Prine, Prince clearly cherishes the role of storyteller, and as each of his strummed ballads tumble forward, his legacy is similarly cemented. — JH
You can live for the moment
Or dwell for atonement in disguise
Author your fate or
Lay down and don’t even try
But direction and hunger
Will one day uncover and align
Purpose and meaning
Restitution and healing for your time.