Starting late last year, CION invited Northern Ontario songwriters to take part in the Canadian Songwriter Challenge. Sponsored by Bell Media and presented by the CCMIA, the Challenge welcomes applications from anyone in Northern Ontario who writes songs. Some participants might be musicians keen to start a career. Others might be older folks who enter the challenge to kickstart a songwriting discipline they left behind. Others might be somewhere in between.
What the participants share, however, is the experience. This year, fourteen songwriters—including Tyler Dokis, Corey Doughty, JoAnne Landry, Esther Pennell, and Sam Depatie—took part in the challenge. Here we learn about their experience, how it helped them, and what the future holds.
Elliott Lake resident Corey Doughty has played music since high school, though his career as a nurse practitioner meant that he had to put music aside temporarily. When he began to write again, old influences came together in a new sound that he realized he wanted to share. That was easier said than done.
“I always felt thwarted by a lack of opportunities,” he says. “Plus, my age–when it comes to music it’s literally a younger person’s game.”
In the Canadian Songwriter Challenge, however, these barriers don’t exist. Young and old, experienced and inexperienced, everyone can apply to participate. When Doughty’s former Sudbury Secondary teacher, Judi Straughan, posted about the Challenge online, Doughty decided to enter. Soon after, he got the call that he had been chosen to participate.
How the Northern Ontario Songwriter Challenge Works
Usually, the selected songwriters are teamed up in pairs to write a song together. Doughty, however, wound up with two partners, due to uneven numbers. Never having co-written before, Doughty worried that he might have to give up control of his art, but his fears were quashed when he started to work with his new partners.
“I’m really proud of what we came up with,” he says. “We did a lot of song development and we had a good demo ready in about 3 weeks. The thing about the Challenge is it’s not a toe-to-toe contest, so while there’s a competitive element, it’s made for those who don’t want to compete.”
One of Doughty’s partners was Tyler Dokis. Hailing from the Dokis First Nation, Dokis’ songwriting was a natural extension of his long-time connection to music. “I began listening to how my favourite songwriters used their words,” he explains, “and as I tried to emulate each of them, I eventually developed my own style that continues to progress.”
“As someone who lives in a very rural part of Ontario,” he says, “the main challenge I have as an artist is trying to build a following. There are only 3 or 4 places within 150 km of my hometown that have open mics and allow new musicians to take the stage. As someone who has a lot of pride and confidence in my songs, it’s disheartening that there are so few places to showcase them nearby.”
By putting the two musicians together, the Songwriter Challenge inadvertently kickstarted a whole new project; Doughty and Dokis now collaborate in an act called Chasing Orion. The Songwriter Challenge promotes connections and collaborations between artists, and often, it can be the incentive an artist needs to start a second chapter as a songwriter. JoAnne Landry, for example, has worked in music for decades and has studied guitar in many forms including classical, jazz, and finger-picking. Landry, a self-proclaimed “Sudburian all the way,” was excited to return to songwriting after several years of absence.
Mentorship and collaboration: Two valuable takeaways from the Songwriter Challenge
For Landry, one of the most important elements of the Challenge was the mentorship opportunities. During the process of co-writing and recording their songs, musicians in the Challenge are given the opportunity to speak with professionals – songwriters, musicians, producers, and so forth – who can give advice on everything from government grant funding to specifics on the songs themselves.
“It was like an awakening,” Landry recalls. “They’re professionals and they gave really positive feedback. It reminded me of the potential that I have to pursue a career as a singer-songwriter. You doubt yourself after so many years. I’ve always been in my jazz trio, we’d play gigs, but not be playing my music. The challenge got my creative juices going again. It really pushed me and it gave me back the confidence that I needed.”
The online workshops, mentor sessions with professional Canadian songwriters, collaborative songwriting exercises, and demo recording sessions were all of great value to each of the participants, especially in Northern Ontario where, unlike Toronto, you don’t just bump into industry professionals on your lunch break. Esther Pennell, who has participated in the challenge a few times in the past, agrees that geography comes into play. “In Northern Ontario, the venue options for playing live can be a difficult thing to find, “she says. “As well as finding gigs that value musicians and pay well.”
That’s one reason it’s so important for her to get to know and work with other artists in the region. “I enjoy the collaboration very much,” she says, “exchanging not only ideas and sharing in a project, but…I believe that knowledge is power and there is always something to teach and to learn. This year I had the opportunity to work with a friend and local artist Sam Depatie. It was a very fulfilling experience. Our writing styles are very much different but we were able to find common ground and it was very satisfying to be able to blend banjo and fiddle in a new way.”
Depatie, Pennell’s songwriting partner, started taking fiddle lessons when she was 12 and taught herself guitar shortly after. Songwriting, for her, was something that she did off the cuff, almost unintentionally. “I started writing songs in the margins of my math book,” she says. “I do my best songwriting when I’m desperately needing to do something else.”
Entering the challenge, then – where you are decidedly intentional in your music writing – was not an obvious choice for Depatie. Nevertheless, and despite some initial anxiety, she participated and completed the Challenge. For her, one of the great benefits was the new perspective she gained on her own talents.
“You get really emotionally attached to your ideas and sometimes you lose any sort of objectivity related to your own stuff,” she says. “You don’t have any perspective other than your own. Writing with another person you have to examine your stuff at a different angle.”
A rewarding and energizing experience
What everyone here shares is the fact that, after going through the Canadian Songwriter Challenge, they are re-energized when it comes to their songwriting. Each of them has plans to continue forward, having gained new skills and having learned new things about their craft.
“You don’t know if you’d enjoy it or if you’d be capable of it until you actually try it,” Depatie says to anyone out there thinking about entering the next one. “You might be surprised by the process and you might enjoy it a lot.”
To learn more about the Northern Ontario music scene and find support and resources for your next project visit CION Music.