On Sunday September 9th, the Canadian Country Music Awards are set to showcase the country’s top talent.
Before Canada’s stars take the stage for a night of awards, performances and fashion, SiriusXM has partnered with the CCMAs to crown a new Top of Country winner with a free concert on Friday September 7th in the CCMA Fan Village.
We had a chance to sit down with the top three finalists from across Canada competing for the $25,000 prize to get their take on the contest and a behind the scenes look at what goes into preparing for this epic music battle.
Central Canada Finalist: Andrew Hyatt
Our first finalist is Andrew Hyatt. Andrew decided in grade 7 that he wanted to start a band and even though he couldn’t play any instruments at the time, his 12-year-old self was convinced that he could learn and do it better. Lucky for us, his youthful ignorance got him started and he began making songs of his own. While Andrew spent his days as a nickel worker, his passion for music had him playing in church and at bars by night. He finally left his day job to pursue music full-time and hasn’t looked back since.
We’re curious about your transition from a nickel worker into country music. What was the a-ha or defining moment when you said, “I have to pursue this,” and what is something that you’ve learned throughout this process that has positively impacted your dream career moving forward?
The transition from iron work into country music wasn’t an easy one for me. I made a good and steady living in the trades, but I also woke up every day and looked for a reason to stay home and write songs. The biggest push came in the form of two injuries; the first, when I cut through the tendon in my top of my left hand. It made me realize that this really wasn’t what I wanted to do, and that realistically, I just wanted to make enough money to make a great record and tour it during the slow season. The second, when I fell nearly 18 feet holding a jack hammer, and seriously injured my back. It was several months before I could walk upright again, and during that time I made the decision to go full force into music. I decided that for me, waking up happy every day was better than waking up just to make a pay cheque; have I ever put that theory to the test over the last eight years.
I think the iron workers taught me a lot about hard work and sweat equity. I worked myself to the bone at that job, a job I didn’t truly love, so when it came to music it was easy to work tirelessly. I think that tireless work ethic is part of what has given me these great opportunities and helped me establish my career as an artist in country music.
How has fan support has inspired you throughout your career and this process?
I think seeing people championing for me as hard as they have been; people I don’t even know, has been really inspiring for me throughout all of this. The support has been amazing. Over the course of my career, it’s typically been the negative comments that have kept driving me to find success in this business. In grade 11, my guitar teacher told me I’d never amount to anything in music because I always did things my way; I made my decision on the spot that I wouldn’t stop until I was a household name.
Western Canada Finalist: Leaving Thomas
Next up meet Leaving Thomas – comprised of Bryton Udy (B) and Annika Odegard (A). It’s their first year being nominated for an award (ever!) and the feeling is still a bit surreal for the duo. Both Bryton and Annika grew up with music in their homes and though Bryton pursued a career in hockey he found himself drawn to music at age 18. Annika, always the entertainer, started in musical theatre and choirs but started pursuing music full-time when she began working on cruise ships as a piano bar entertainer. She performed for four years, saw 84 countries, and realized that writing and performing her own music was the ultimate goal. Once Bryton and Annika started performing together, they entered the country music scene and have really enjoyed the unique opportunities of the past few months with SiriusXM and the CCMAs.
How do you think this contest will influence your career in the long term?
B: The exposure that we have received from being in the Top 3 of the Top of the Country Contest has been amazing. Sirius XM and the CCMAs together have introduced us to some amazing industry professionals that we wouldn’t have met otherwise. It has also been special to spend some time with other artists that are experiencing similar things to us on their musical journeys.
We really enjoyed the song Kiss About It and would love it if you could take us through the songwriting process as a duo.
A: As much as Bryton and I love writing together, we also write individually, and this was a song that I wrote with Jody Stewart-Regner and Jason Wilkes. We actually wrote it over Skype if you can believe it because Jody lives in BC and Jason is in Atlanta! However, when Bryton and I do write together, we tend to start with a guitar riff and then I blurt out a hundred different melodies. Once we’ve decided on the melody, that’s usually when we start the lyrics (other than the hook which is usually the springboard that starts everything off). Co-writing can be a very emotional experience as we are usually writing about something that has meaning for either of us. There have been many co-writing sessions with Bryton where I usually end up crying…which is why it’s also a form of therapy for me. But that’s when we get some great songs, so it’s worth it!
Can you share any fun stories about how the fan’s support has helped you during this contest process?
B: It was really fun for us to come up with unique ways to encourage our fans to vote for us in the semi-finals. We loved hearing fans say “I was voting for you every day!” because it made us feel like they were part of the process. My favourite moments from the summer are usually when we are performing and we can hear the crowd singing back our own songs. It is still unbelievable to me!
Eastern Canada Finalist: Jason Benoit
Finally we sat down with Jason Benoit who has enjoyed an exciting career in the Canadian country music scene. With music and specifically country music, always being a big part of his family life, growing up he learned to play guitar at just 14 years old. His brother Myles taught him along with his aunts, uncles and cousins being active in the music community as they all sing or play an instrument. Jason started writing his own music at age 16 and the rest is history.
How are you feeling leading up to awards’ weekend?!
So excited! The CCMAs are always an incredible time of year when you see all your friends and acquaintances in the industry. And above all that, to be performing as a finalist in the SiriusXM Top of the Country showcase is truly such a thrill for me!
You’re no stranger to the country music scene with 4 Top 30 Hits over the past few years. What’s been special about this SiriusXM CCMA experience?
SiriusXM and the CCMA offer the highest caliber of professionalism and excellence in the country music industry. To be recognized and associated with these amazing organizations will, without a doubt, have a lasting impact on my music career for years to come and I can’t thank them enough for creating opportunities like this for country artists to break through. As for me personally? I love this industry. Country music is my life and my calling, and to play even a small part in the history of country music in Canada is truly a blessing that I never take for granted.
What’s it been like working with the CCMAs and SiriuxXM during this process?
The last few months have been amazing. The CCMAs and SiriusXM have taken such good care of their finalists. To take part in their events at such amazing festivals as Cavendish Beach and Boots and Hearts is an honour. The education they have provided about the music business is truly priceless and will no doubt shape my future success in Canadian country music.
Talk to us about the fans and how they’ve impacted your contest journey.
The fans have been SO amazing. The finalists were chosen by the fans, and the fact that so many took the time to vote daily for me means the world, and I can’t thank them enough. I received so many messages of support and encouragement from fans saying they voted every day; it was truly a touching experience to know I have that kind of support.
It was incredible to chat with these three finalists and learn more about their passion for their craft and just how much the fans influence their drive. All three finalists shared a similar sentiment when asked what they’d do with the $25,000 should they win. The unanimous answer: reinvest in themselves. Whether it’s to put money in to a live show, book studio time and hire people to help them achieve their goals, it truly does come down to continuing to create the best music possible for the fans to enjoy.
They’ve also created lifelong bonds along the way, with Jason Benoit saying, “[We] have also made amazing new friendships as the three finalists, Leaving Thomas and Andrew Hyatt, which can open doors to future partnership opportunities…the possibilities are endless.” It sounds like no matter who wins on Friday, the real winners are audiences who get to continue to enjoy country music from these passionate and talented Canadian artists.