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New voices of female pop

A fresh wave of Canadian women is poised to wash Celine, Shania and company out of spotlight

Lynn Saxberg
The Ottawa Citizen

With Celine Dion taking time off to nurture her baby, Shania Twain holed up in her castle in Europe, Sarah McLachlan on hiatus and Alanis Morissette gearing up for her next disc, the time is ripe for some new Canadian contenders to step into the international pop-music spotlight.

But of the hundreds of performers who released new albums last year, just a few seem to stand out as possible players in the music industry beyond Canada. A handful made discs that became fixtures in our CD players, and at the same time, established the connections to expand their fan base.

Four acts in particular were good enough to spark a cross-border buzz. They caused record-company bidding wars and inspired music critics to reach for new superlatives.

For some reason, they're all women. Perhaps it reflects a backlash to Eminem's misogyny, or a knee-jerk reaction to boy bands -- or maybe it's the result of general boredom with male-dominated bands that all sound the same.

The simple fact is that these women have the voices that resonate most strongly.

Five young singer-songwriters, ranging in age from 20 to 30 -- including a pair of sisters who write and perform as a duo -- have taken their careers to unforeseen levels with CDs that stood out from the pack.

Today, they are teetering on the edge of stardom in their chosen genres of music. They are: Kingston's Sarah Harmer, Victoria native Nelly Furtado, Vancouver-born Oh Susanna and Calgary twins Tegan & Sara (last name Quin).

Musically, they're very different. Harmer is a singer-songwriter who imbues her tunes with old-fashioned warmth and a roots-rock approach. Furtado is a pop singer with hip-hop and worldbeat influences. Oh Susanna -- her real name is Suzie Ungerleider -- combines a sweet country twang with a mournful edge. And Tegan and Sara write a fresh, edgy, urban style of folk with a pop twist, rendered in the uncanny harmonies sisters sometimes possess.

What these women share is timing: They have all blossomed in the past year as musicians and performers.

Here's a closer look at their music.

Sarah Harmer

Sarah Harmer is torn between singing her songs with a simple acoustic guitar, or pumping them up with bass, drums and electric guitar. She's influenced as much by Joni Mitchell as The Breeders.

The 30-year-old Kingston-based singer-songwriter first made her mark on the Canadian music scene as front woman for the indie-rock band Weeping Tile, a high-energy outfit that enjoyed turning up the volume and riffing out.

But a few years ago, Harmer took a step away from the noise and recorded Songs For Clem, a simple, quiet disc of her father's favourite songs. It was intended as a gift for him.

Her latest, You Were Here, lies somewhere in between. Listening to it, you can imagine a singer-songwriter playing acoustic guitar on a back porch.

But you can also picture that person going to the city to build up the sound by adding other players and instruments.

That's pretty much what happened, Harmer says.

"I was living in the country and spending a lot of time playing acoustic instruments," she says. "I went up to Toronto and hooked up with more of the bass-and-drums producer guy, and mixed these old acoustic sounds with the gritty Parkdale bottom end. The album kind of came together in those two parts."

Harmer's songs are unassuming, their low-key beauty characterized by straightforward lyrics and a keen sense of melody. Unexpected sounds of clarinet or Wurlitzer or cello blend into the guitar-bass-drums mix, giving a dash of retro appeal, though she also uses electronic loops for contemporary flavour.

While Harmer was fully prepared to release the disc on her own -- she recorded it with her own money, and money she borrowed -- the respected U.S. label Rounder Records jumped on it in the United States, and it's being distributed by major-label Universal Music in Canada.

By the end of 2000, Time had selected it as one of the year's 10 best albums, and Rolling Stone magazine heralded it as "a marvelously compelling meditation on the imperfection of the whole love thing," with "a dozen killer songs."

At home, You Were Here has earned Harmer two Juno nominations for best new solo artist and best pop album. The songs are even getting airplay on commercial radio stations, always an achievement for any folk-influenced artist.

All of the attention has helped fill Harmer's tour schedule. She's been on the road, off and on, since last March, and has just started another tour that will bring her to Barrymore's Music Hall on Feb. 21 and 22.

"I was hoping I had some big guns to put out with this record," she says. "I had high hopes, but I've been really happy, grateful and surprised by the way the industry responded in getting the record out and getting behind it."

Nelly Furtado

Nelly Furtado, I'm told, is too busy these days for a phone interview. This is ironic because last summer when she performed in Ottawa at the Fresh Fest, her handlers were itching to drum up some attention. She was one of dozens of unknowns at the festival -- her first CD had not yet been released and no one had heard of her.

But during that show, which was one of her first performances with her band and the songs from the forthcoming disc, Furtado was impressive, a fresh-faced, girlie-voiced cutie-pie with quirky songs and bubbly beats that stuck in your mind.

About three months later, the disc, Whoa Nelly!, came out and Furtado exploded. Rave reviews, major magazine articles, radio and video saturation -- you'd think she was going to be bigger than the Beatles.

As of this month, Whoa Nelly! has sold more than 100,000 copies, is making its way to the international market and Furtado has already appeared on high-profile TV programs such as Jay Leno and Saturday Night Live.

What's more, with Whoa Nelly! garnering six Juno Award nominations, Furtado is already acclaimed as the darling of this year's show. She's also scheduled to perform on the March 4 broadcast.

What makes Furtado so special is her creativity. She writes -- melodies, as well as lyrics in English and Portugese -- arranges the music and even produces some of her own tracks so that it all sounds fresh and modern.

Influenced as much by trip-hop as worldbeat sounds -- including the Portugese music she grew up with -- Furtado blends it into a friendly, intelligent, accessible style of pop music, summed up by the soulful, free spirit of the hit song I'm Like a Bird. Entertainment Weekly called her "the thinking woman's Christina Aguilera."

Although born (to hard-working Portugese parents) and raised in Victoria, Furtado spent a formative year in Toronto when she was 17 as part of a trip-hop duo called Nelstar.

The blue-eyed pixie was discovered by the man who became her manager, Chris Smith, and one of his clients, Philosopher Kings' Gerald Eaton, while performing at an open-mike session in Toronto.

"She was the only white female at the Honey Jam, a showcase of black women performers," Smith said in an interview with Elm Street magazine. "She stood out. I thought she had incredible tone, the way she delivered her material."

Now 22, Furtado eventually joined Philosopher Kings and Jacksoul on Smith's roster, and landed a major American deal with DreamWorks, the powerful label run by Steven Spielberg, Jeffrey Katzenberg and David Geffen.

"There's a naturalness to her and a real primal desire to be doing what she's doing," says DreamWorks executive Beth Halper. "It's her ability to challengeherself and one-up herself make the music better and better -- there's no barriers with her."

But can she live up to the hype?

Furtado, apparently, isn't too concerned. After her Juno appearance, a Toronto show, a few U.S. dates and a swing through Europe (Whoa, Nelly! is scheduled for release in the U.K. in March), she plans to return to Toronto and start work on a Portuguese-language CD.

"I want to study instruments used in the Portuguese fado tradition, the colloquialisms, the poetry," she told the National Post last month, referring to a popular style of Portuguese music. "I want to incorporate all those Portuguese church songs I heard as a kid and come up with a really good Portuguese record that is really modern at the same time. This will be a totally artistic pleasure."

And if DreamWorks doesn't think it will sell, Furtado has made sure -- through a clause in her contract -- that she can take it elsewhere.

"When you are making something real," she says. "People are always attracted to it."

Oh Susanna

About a month ago, Oh Susanna, stage name for singer-songwriter Suzie Ungerleider, gave a terrific concert at the Great Canadian Theatre Company. Backed by Blue Rodeo bassist Bazil Donovan and drummer Joel Anderson, the dark-haired 30-year-old demonstrated how she's matured into one of Canada's finest young singer-songwriters.

Her voice rang with emotion and confidence. She endeared herself to the audience between songs. And fans, who ranged from teenagers to retirees, adored her songs, especially the ones from her new independent disc, Sleepy Little Sailor.

While Ungerleider has never been an upbeat singer - she's known for writing murder ballads, of all things - her new songs are more poignant, melodic and hopeful, often bringing to mind the country-folk hybrid of artists such as Gillian Welch or Emmylou Harris.

It's a style that fits right in with what they call alternative country, or Americana, in the United States, a genre that encompasses old-style country, folk and rootsy rock.

"I think that people think of Canadian musicians in a different way now than before," Ungerleider says. "So I don't know if they necessarily think of me as doing American-style music -- maybe because it seems normal to them."

Whatever the reason, Ungerleider is starting to reap the benefits of both her musical style and being Canadian. Americans often lump her into a category that also includes fellow Canadians Harmer, Veda Hille and the metal band Kittie, along with heavyweights Morissette, McLachlan, Twain and Dion.

"They go, 'Here's another one of you young upstarts from Canada kicking our asses down here,'" she says. "It is encouraging and it's interesting that it's women that people are noticing.

"Poor men," she adds in mock sympathy. "They're just not trendy right now."

Ungerleider's disc is set for a March release by the Chicago-based label Catamount, a feat for any Canadian independent. She's also the subject of a feature story in the States' alt-country bible, No Depression, and is in demand from countless campus publications. As soon as people hear her music, it seems they want to know more about her.

Here's a start: Although born in Northampton, Mass., Ungerleider grew up in Vancouver, listening to her family's wide-ranging album collection, going to folk festivals and slam-dancing at all-ages punk shows. For her, the boundaries between folk, punk and rock were blurred, but she knew she was attracted to the dark side of popular music.

"I seek solace in music and introspection," she says. "I think I'm drawn to that because it helps you express those things and feel those things that might be a bit taboo."

Other promising developments for Ungerleider include an April release in the United Kingdom, followed by a month of touring, as well as an appearance at the South by Southwest music conference in Austin, Texas next month.

Tegan and Sara

In some ways, Tegan and Sara still have a long way to go. But after the year they've just had, you know they're going to get there.

The 20-year-old twins from Calgary (whose surname is Quin) signed a long-term deal with Vapor Records, the label owned by Neil Young (who was reportedly acting on advice from his teenage daughter, Amber), released an album that was leaps and bounds ahead of their independent work, and gained invaluable experience opening for Young himself.

The disc, cheekily titled This Business of Art, was praised for its emotionally charged lyrics and street-smart melodic groove, eliciting comparisons to the likes of Ani Di Franco and the Indigo Girls. And the twins' performances, which have always been enlivened by the sisters' banter, developed a new power and consistency on the Young tour.

"Before, we used to do a lot of talking and that used to carry a lot of the weight of the fact that we never practised with each other so were were a little rough around the edges," Tegan said in a recent interview. "But people got over it because we were funny. Now I feel like our music will stand up."

The sisters grew up in Calgary, soaking up the music their parents listened to. They started playing piano at age eight and went through a punk phase in high school. When their band broke up, they entered a battle-of-the-bands contest, and won, earning the highest score in the history of the contest and paving the way for club gigs. They played Lilith Fair and opened shows for Juliana Hatfield, Kinnie Star and Paula Cole.

Vapor came into the picture with plans to develop the Quins internationally, paving the way for releases in Europe, Asia and Australia. By every indication, the company is in it for the long haul.

"They're okay with the fact that it might take us three or four records to get the exposure that we would start selling hundreds of thousands of records," says Tegan. "So I think that's what they liked -- a challenge that they could start from the ground with us and build up. And we love that.

"We're so young so I think that we're going to change more. The next couple of years, the next couple of records are going to be really different."

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