Where are the Juno Awards' breakthrough artists now?

It’s been an exhilarating and confusing 48 years, so we wanted to find out where some of these past Juno winners have ended up.

It’s been a roller coaster 48 years, so we wanted to find out where some of these past Juno winners ended up

Do you know what Tal Bachman, Julie Masse and Kiesza are doing now? We'll help you find out. (Courtesy of the Juno Awards, Theo Wargo/Getty Images for Billboard; design by CBC Music)

Deciding what "breakthrough" means for a musician is such a subjective thing. Success markers can be personal, and sometimes unattainable, kept at a distance due to systemic barriers. If someone has built a decades-long career in the industry, but has never won an award — does that mean they haven't broken through?

That's one way the Juno Awards define a nominee in their breakthrough artist category: "To be eligible, the group must never have been recognized by the Juno Awards (i.e. never have been nominated)," reads their eligibility criteria. Sales, streams, radio play and a jury all play a role after that non-winning step has been satisfied.

This year, the field of breakthrough artist nominees covers musicians who've blown up on TikTok — and not yet had a full chance to tour — alongside ones who have been around for a decade. This year includes one of the more diverse fields of breakthrough artists that the Junos have ever had, and the range of experience is quite broad — but we won't know for at least a few years if that breakthrough label sticks.

So what happens after an artist wins the breakthrough category? If the Junos are right, artists who win in the category would be relatively unknown the year they win, then frequent the Junos for years afterward. But after doing some digging, we've discovered that it really can go either way.

Below, we look at the breakthrough artist winners over the years, and single out a few from each decade to find out where they are now.

The winners: 1970s

  • 1974: Cathy Young; Ian Thomas.
  • 1975: Suzanne Stevens; Gino Vannelli.
  • 1976: Patricia Dahlquist; Dan Hill. 
  • 1977: Colleen Peterson; Burton Cummings. 
  • 1978: Lisa Dalbello; David Bradstreet. 
  • 1979: Claudja Barry; Nick Gilder. 

Awards for breakthrough artist were handed out starting in 1974, when the category was called most promising vocalist of the year — and it was divided up between men and women. That first year's statues would go to two artists whose names would show up as nominees again, but who wouldn't take another Juno home: Cathy Young and Ian Thomas, the former whose main discography comes from two albums in the '70s, and the latter whose work as a solo artist and with various bands have seen him release close to 20 albums since that win. Young, who was nominated for best female vocalist in 1975, was included in a 22-storey mural in 2017 on Toronto's Yonge Street, commemorating the local music scene through the decades.

While those names might not be as well-known today as they were in 1974, there are some that will stick out: Gino Vannelli (1975), Burton Cummings (1977), Claudja Barry and Lisa Dalbello (1978), whom Hill Kourkoutis, the first woman to be nominated for a recording engineer Juno this year, recently name-dropped as a big influence. Nick Gilder, the frontman for Sweeney Todd, won in 1979 and released music into the 2000s, and won two more Junos, one solo and one for Sweeney Todd's work. Dan Hill won in 1976, and just two years later he'd win three more Junos for composer, male vocalist and album of the year. 

The results in the '70s would show that many of the winners in the most promising artist category would be return Juno nominees or winners, if not known names today — not bad.

The winners: 1980s

  • 1980: France Joli; Walter Rossi.
  • 1981: Carole Pope; Graham Shaw.
  • 1982: Shari Ulrich; Eddie Schwartz. 
  • 1983: Lydia Taylor; Kim Mitchell. 
  • 1984: Sherry Kean; Zappacosta.
  • 1985: k.d. lang; Paul Janz.
  • 1986: Kim Richardson; Billy Newton-Davis.
  • 1987: Rita MacNeil; Tim Feehan.
  • 1989: Sass Jordan; Colin James.

The 1980s are when things started to get more prophetic. Rita MacNeil,  k.d. lang and Kim Mitchell won the award before becoming household names at the Junos, as did Carole Pope and Sass Jordan. Interestingly, Bryan Adams was nominated in both 1980 and 1981 and lost to Walter Rossi and Graham Shaw, respectively. He'd soon win a different Juno, for male vocalist of the year in 1983, disqualifying him from the most promising artist category (and his first Grammy nomination would come three years after that). 

Italian-Canadian musician Walter Rossi is famous for having been a backing guitarist for Wilson Pickett, during Rossi's time as a session musician before he broke out solo. In a 2011 interview, he talked about his work in the '60s, and how he was invited to play with both Little Richard and David Bowie's bands. (He declined, as he wanted to stay close to his sick father in Montreal.) After releasing his third album and winning his first Juno, Rossi spent a decade running a 65-acre horse farm in rural Quebec that he bought with his wife. During a 20-year break between albums, Rossi worked as a music producer. He released his last album, Secret Sins, in 2006. iHeart Radio reported news of his death after an illness just a few days ago.

Kim Richardson, one of the few musicians of colour to win this award until we hit the 2010s, took it home after releasing her hit dance single "He's my Lover" at the age of 19. She followed it up in 1987 with the Juno for best R&B/soul recording for "Peek-a-Boo." Richardson's mother is legendary jazz and blues singer Jackie Richardson, and acccording to the Montrealer Online, Kim moved from Toronto to Montreal after her early success to do things on her own terms. "My experience with Toronto was having to come up to snuff," she said in the interview. "I felt like Jackie Richardson is your mom, so you better bring it. I always wondered if people thought I was getting gigs because I was Jackie's daughter. I think moving here, cleared the slate." 

Kim became engrossed in the Montreal scene, both anglo and francophone, and as of last year was part of the cast of the weekly Télé-Québec gospel show Y'a du monde à messeThough she won her first Juno in 1986, Richardson didn't release her debut album until 2006, titled Kaleidoscope. Her sophomore album in 2011 has so far been her only other release, though Kim has been incredibly active as a performer to this day.

The winners: 1990s

  • 1990: Alannah Myles; Daniel Lanois. 
  • 1991: Sue Medley; Andy Curran.
  • 1992: Alanis Morissette; Keven Jordan.
  • 1993: Julie Masse; John Bottomley.
  • 1994: Jann Arden.
  • 1995: Susan Aglukark.
  • 1996: Ashley MacIsaac.
  • 1997: Terri Clark.
  • 1998: Holly McNarland.
  • 1999: Melanie Doane.

The 1990s were pretty stacked in terms of winners and, increasingly, the nominees. In 1994, the Junos combined the award's male/female sections and started to give out one award. (In the breakthrough artist category, gender parity doesn't seem to have become a problem after 1994, but the breakthrough group award has historically been given to many white men.) Alannah Myles and Daniel Lanois took the first set of awards for the decade, nudging out Mary Margaret O'Hara, Mitsou, Roch Voisine and Rufus Wainwright. Alanis Morissette won in 1992, three years before her seminal Jagged Little Pill album would come out. And from 1994 onward, the winners all make a lot of sense.

But 1991 and 1993 are a bit of a different story. Sue Medley won (against Holly Cole) on the strength of her hits "Maybe the Next Time" and "Dangerous Times," which charted for weeks, and her self-titled debut solo album, which achieved gold status. She toured as an opener for Tom Cochrane and 54-40. But according to an interview with In Focus Magazine in 2010, by the time Medley released her third and final album, 2000's Velvet Morning, it was without the promotional power of a major label, and she just didn't have the reach she needed for it to land. She eventually turned to teaching music, which she loved, and at the time of the interview had moved from L.A. back home to B.C. and was starting a teaching business. 

Julie Masse, who appears to be the only French-language artist to win the award, won the year after she released her second French album, À Contre Jour, in 1992. Two years later, she would record her first English album, Circle of One, with producer Corey Hart — whom she first met while the two were co-presenters at the 1993 Juno Awards, and whom she would later marry. Masse would go on to release a compilation album in 1996, and has sung on Hart's albums, but has not released music since. A 2012 story in La Presse detailed how both Masse and Hart had devoted their time to their kids for years, though Hart has released two albums and been inducted into the Canadian Music Hall of Fame since that interview.

All in all, the 1990s were a more accurate snapshot of the names people would know for years to come — even if those names were predominantly white folks.

The winners: 2000s

  • 2000: Tal Bachman. 
  • 2001: Nelly Furtado.
  • 2002: Hawksley Workman.
  • 2003: Avril Lavigne.
  • 2004: Michael Bublé.
  • 2005: Feist.
  • 2006: Daniel Powter.
  • 2007: Tomi Swick.
  • 2008: Serena Ryder.
  • 2009: Lights.

The 2000s are when the list of nominees tip into being just as well known as the winners. Sarah Harmer, Sam Roberts, k-os, Kinnie Starr, Fefe Dobson, Sarah Slean and Martha Wainwright were all up for the award, but didn't win. Most of the names on the winners' list continue to show up regularly at the Junos to this day, save for three: Tal Bachman, Daniel Powter and Tomi Swick.

Tal Bachman kicked off the decade with the first win, and while "She's so High" was all over the radio (and the world), nothing from his followup and final album hit as hard as that earworm. He hasn't released anything since 2004. (He did, however, launch a public campaign to reinstate key lime pie on the menu of a restaurant he frequents.) 

Similarly, you may not know Daniel Powter's name (Bachman did have a couple of famous family members to help him with that), but you'll recognize "Bad Day" as soon as you hear those first piano notes — mainly because it, too, was always on the radio, but also nudged by American Idol's use of it for the fifth season's elimination montages. In addition to Powter's breakthrough artist Juno (beating out Wainwright and Divine Brown), he and "Bad Day" won a couple of Billboard Music Awards and grabbed a Grammy nomination, and the song also was big in Japan — in 2007, "Bad Day" and Powter took home four wins from the Japan Gold Disc Awards. Powter continued to release music but nothing really hit the mainstream the same way — and in 2009, Billboard named "Bad Day" the top one-hit wonder of the decade

Hamilton singer-songwriter Tomi Swick beat out Patrick Watson in 2007 (who would later win the Polaris Music Prize for Close to Paradise), after releasing his debut album, Stalled Out in the Doorway, in 2006, which was also nominated for best pop album that same year (losing to Nelly Furtado's Loose). He subsequently toured with the Barenaked Ladies, the Goo Goo Dolls, Feist and Blue Rodeo. He continues to write and tour music, but has yet to reappear at the Junos. 

The winners: 2010s

  • 2010: Drake.
  • 2011: Meaghan Smith.
  • 2012: Dan Mangan.
  • 2013: The Weeknd.
  • 2014: Brett Kissel.
  • 2015: Kiesza.
  • 2016: Alessia Cara.
  • 2017: Ruth B.
  • 2018: Jessie Reyez.
  • 2019: bülow.

Now we're getting into the era of recent memory. The 2010s aren't yesterday, but they're pretty close when you think of how long it takes to build a musical legacy. Some of the biggest names in Canadian music today are on this decade's winners' list: Drake (beating out both Justin Bieber and Carly Rae Jepsen), the Weeknd and Jessie Reyez; plus Dan Mangan, Alessia Cara, Brett Kissel and Ruth B (who beat out Kaytranada, another big Canadian name today). Shawn Mendes, Mac Demarco, Caribou and Tobias Jesso Jr. all show up on the nominees lists. 

Two names that stand out: Meaghan Smith and Kiesza. 

Smith recorded a cover of the Pixies song "Here Comes Your Man" for the (500) Days of Summer soundtrack in 2009, the same year that her excellent debut album, The Cricket's Orchestra, was released. She subsequently opened for k.d. lang and Sarah McLachlan. Smith released a Christmas album the year after winning the (then titled) best new artist Juno, and her last album on Warner, Have a Heart, came out in 2014. The former animator recently had a collection of mini portraits on display at Quebec's Galerie d'Art Charlevoix, but for "personal and health reasons," as she told the Globe and Mail, she stopped touring in the mid-2010s and lost her record deal because of it. Settling back into Halifax, Smith started a custom songwriting project called Our Songs, which she continues to run. She released Timeless, an album of songs from that project, this year.

Kiesza's 2014 song "Hideaway" was everywhere (her viral one-shot video for it currently counts nearly 250 million views), and the following year when she won breakthrough artist of the year, she also won the Junos for video and dance recording of the year. But a serious car accident in 2017 forced her to take a break from music. "I was unstoppable, and then suddenly I couldn't even get out of bed," Kiesza told q in 2020. She had to relearn how to use her body after her brain injury, and was eventually able to release a second album, Crave, in 2020. She also released a new EP, Tommy, earlier this year, and recently performed on The Ellen Show with characters from her upcoming NFT band, the Milk Way Project, according to Globe Newswire

The winners: 2020s

  • 2020: Lennon Stella.
  • 2021: JP Saxe.
  • 2022: TBA.

It's too soon to tell where both Lennon Stella and JP Saxe will end up in the future, but the signs are promising. JP Saxe's hit song with Julia Michaels, "If the World was Ending," was nominated for a Grammy last year, and artists Sam Smith, Keith Urban, H.E.R. and Alessia Cara collaborated with him on a re-release of the song in 2020.

Lennon Stella, who starred on the ABC hit show Nashville alongside her younger sister, Maisy, and Connie Britton, is popping up everywhere, including on the theme song for the spinoff show How I Met Your Father, and on a song with Charlie Puth for the 2020 Scoob! movie. She also featured fellow breakthrough artist winner Saxe on the 2020 track "Golf on TV."

This year's nominees include 347aidan, Faouzia, Jessia, Pressa and Tesher — we'll find out on May 15 whom the Junos think we should be watching. 

Wherever you are in the world, you can tune in to the 2022 Juno Awards on Sunday, May 15. You can watch live on CBC-TV and CBC Gem, listen on CBC Radio One and CBC Music and stream globally at CBCMusic.ca/junos

Simu Liu will host the 2022 Juno Awards. (CBC)


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