Cristina Fernandes

Cristina Fernandes. Listen harder.

A few years ago, we saw City and Colour was playing a show in Toronto and decided to throw our hats in the ring to try and secure a photo pass. Being a small, independent magazine, we assumed the request would see the fate of most previous attempts to shoot or interview “big stars”—no reply at all—but my fatuous optimism told me to send the request anyway.

I found the name of their publicist, Listen Harder. A quick scroll through their website showed an impressive list of clients… Arkells, Alexisonfire, Barenaked Ladies and The Lumineers to name a few. I now did the same thing I had done several times in the past; crafted an email introducing myself and the magazine, followed by our photo pass request and a very hopeful “thanks in advance” before my signature. Two names appeared on the contact page, both holding the same title of “Owner & Publicist”—Jen Cymek and Cristina Fernandes. Betting that Cristina was Portuguese and would certainly do a solid in the name of Portugal [did I mention my fatuous optimism…], I sent it directly to her.

A day or two later, I received an email from Cristina. We did not get to shoot City and Colour but we got a reply, and that was a win in our books. She explained that even if Listen Harder couldn’t fulfill the request, everyone deserves the courtesy of a reply. Respect.

Over the years we became penx-pals of sorts… I’d send off an email asking for advice and she’d reply in typical Cristina fashion; complete, organized and thorough—occasionally followed up with a phone call for good measure.

When we published The Protest Song in issue 012, we shared the article with everyone who was mentioned. The only response received was from Ron Hawkins, who thanked us and asked for a copy. We obliged and in turn asked for an interview. This became the cover story of issue 013. Excited, I called Cristina. “Ron is the best. You could’ve called me, we do publicity for Lowest of the Low! [his band]”… Of course you do.

So when it was time to do issue 014, I did just that. “Hey, it’s me… I just met a couple of The Sheepdogs… they’re rehearsing at the soundstage… any chance—” “Let me call Ryan.” And like that, another super cool cover story secured… and I finally got to meet my pen-pal. 

What I’m trying to say is that this interview with Cristina was a long time coming. She has one of the coolest jobs anyone could ask for… she plays drums… she’s met David Bowie… she’s a certified “cool mom”… and after five years of asking, she finally pulled some strings and got us that City and Colour pass…

LUSO LIFE: You and I are well acquainted by now but for those that don’t know you as well, give us a little background on yourself.

CRISTINA FERNANDES: I was born in Terçeira, Açores and immigrated to Canada at 10 months old. I grew up in Gatineau, Quebec and went to high school and university in Ottawa. My parents were such a big influence on me as far as my love of music and wanting to pursue a career in music. My Mom worked on the U.S. PX base in Açores so my parents were very influenced by American culture, movies, and of course music. I was contemplating taking entertainment law in Uni, but when I heard a new music business school named Harris Institute had just opened in Toronto in ‘91, I packed up and moved here – much to my Mom’s chagrin…my Dad was way cooler about it [laughs]. While at Harris, I was lucky to quickly land a job at an indie label doing Quebec radio promotion because I spoke French. I soon took over working national publicity and realized how much I enjoyed the connection to the artist. I took a few years off from the industry to raise my son, who is actually following in my footsteps and is a publicist for Listen Harder. In truth, a lot of the motivation to start my own business instead of working for a label was to have the flexibility to raise my kid. After doing publicity just under my name, I founded Listen Harder in 2004 with my longtime friend and business partner Jen Cymek and haven’t looked back.

LL: Having grown up with Portuguese parents and being raised in Quebec and then Ottawa, before eventually coming to Toronto, you’ve had a lot of different environments. What was the musical situation at home? What type of music were you listening to growing up?

CF: Music was a huge part of my childhood, and family celebrations specifically 50’s and 60’s rock n’ roll which my parents were big fans of…Elvis especially. But they generally just had great taste in all sorts of music, including Portuguese, classic country, big band, blues, soul, jazz, pop. My Dad’s vinyl collection was a treasure trove. When we got together with my extended family, my Uncles would inevitably pull out the old accordion and everyone would jam and freestyle verses. When I was 11, I dug into my Dad’s Beatles records and lived and breathed the Beatles well into high school until branching out.

LL: What was your first concert?

CF: Johnny Cash in Ottawa! I think I was 10-ish. My parents took me to the coolest shows when I was little.

LL: How would you sum up what you do?

CF: Have you ever seen the YouTube video titled, ‘herding cats’? It’s kind of like that when you work with musicians. [laughs]. A music publicist’s role encompasses many responsibilities, but at its core, it involves amplifying the band or artist you represent, fostering media interest, and cultivating and safeguarding the artist’s image.

LL: What does a typical day look like? Anything that would surprise people?

CF: I’ve often been asked, ‘What does a music publicist do?” Truthfully, many people are unaware of how a band secures a spot on a breakfast TV show, as an example, to promote
 their latest record, and that’s a significant part of my job. Additionally, I handle tasks such as crafting and distributing press releases to relevant media outlets, pitching and organizing press interviews in conjunction with album releases or tours. 

LL: Favourite part of the job? Least favourite/toughest?

CF: I think my favourite part of the job is probably being out with an artist overseeing press or at award shows. I especially love going to do q with Tom Power on CBC, and tv stuff. It’s also nice to get some face-time with journalists and producers you mostly communicate with via email. Attending our artist’s shows is a pretty fun part of the job too, and watching the audience’s joy. One of the toughest parts is undoubtedly working with incredibly talented artists whom we adore, yet struggle to garner media interest either due to their lack of recognition or because they just don’t resonate with media. 

LL: When you’re not working, how are you spending your time?

CF: I love what I do for a living, but I really do enjoy my off-work time especially at this stage of my life and career. Unlike some in our industry who may have FOMO or feel compelled to work non-stop, that’s not my vibe. Weekends off are sacred to me; they’re all about resetting and reconnecting with what truly matters. I cherish spending time with my husband Pat and going on hikes in High Park with our beloved dog Ali, hanging out with my son and daughter-in-law and hosting their circle of friends. Cooking is a passion of mine, I love to dance, do fun workouts like boxing, and immerse myself in endless astronomy and science videos. My newest hobby is playing drums.

LL: How do the neighbours feel about you picking up the drums?

CF: [laughs] I have the best neighbours that I’ve lived next to for 26 years. It’s a Roland v-drum kit (electric) so thankfully, I don’t have to torture them with my drumming. But I absolutely love it. I bought a kit during the pandemic to keep my husband sane. He’s a talented musician and plays many instruments, but drums is just pure fun for him. I realized I had a bit of a natural affinity for it so I started lessons late last year with the awesome Joe Torchia who drums in a band I used to do publicity for called The Dying Arts. It ends up you can teach an old dog new tricks [laughs] I’m also in an enviable position. I get so much encouragement from so many great drummers I work with when I text them little progress videos, like Tyler from Barenaked Ladies, Sam from The Sheepdogs, Jordan from Alexisonfire, Zach from Jane’s Party, Hawksley Workman… 

LL: You’ve had an extensive career and surely the landscape has changed over time—from radio interviews and music publications like NOW to predominantly internet and artists’ careers changing off TikTok’s. What would you say the biggest shifts are, how do you navigate these and how do you feel about the way things are headed?

CF: That’s a great question. When I first started doing publicity in the late 90’s/early 2000’s, being indie certainly wasn’t cool. You’d need to be signed to a major label for media to pay attention to you. Fast forward to when MP3s and Napster came along, and that was a major game-changer. The music media landscape has undergone a significant transformation over the years, reflecting the evolution of technology and audience preferences. One of the most notable shifts has been the transition from traditional media outlets like print to a digital-centric landscape, and the emergence of streaming services. Platforms like TikTok have proved to be powerful tools for artists, reshaping the trajectory of their careers and redefining how they connect with audiences, but it’s not for everyone. As a music professional, you really need to roll with the punches and adapt. 

In terms of how I feel about the direction in which things are headed, I see both challenges and opportunities. While the digital landscape offers unparalleled reach and accessibility, it also poses challenges in terms of standing out amidst the noise and maintaining authentic connections with audiences. Part of my job is to navigate these changes and continue to elevate artists and their music in meaningful ways.

LL: While at Dine Alone, we had the pleasure of walking down memory lane with you as you basked in all the records you had been a part of. There’s an obvious pride that comes with this. Any especially fond experiences that come to mind?

CF: Oh my gosh…too many great memories to mention. Sometimes I feel like I have ‘imposter syndrome’. I felt the same when you asked to profile me. But when we did the photoshoot on the 2nd floor of Dine Alone HQ, I realized that every platinum and gold award on that wall were records that I did publicity for and that is a pretty cool feeling to know I had an important role in their success. 

A couple of memorable highlights that come to mind…

Meeting David Bowie was an unforgettable moment, all thanks to the incredible music promoter Anya Wilson, who used to be his publicist during the Ziggy years in the UK. She not only kickstarted my career in the industry but also taught me the ropes of radio promo. When she learned of my admiration for Bowie, she promised to introduce me to him when he visited later that year – and true to her word, she did. Witnessing their bond firsthand was remarkable, and it was evident how much she meant to him. That experience truly solidified my passion to pursue music publicity.

Another standout memory was being with The Sheepdogs in NYC when they performed on The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon after beating a ton of artists to grace the cover of Rolling Stone Magazine. I watched the Roots warming up in their dressing room which was ridiculous! Larry David came to the afterparty and it was fun seeing the band who are big fans hanging out with him.

Bedouin Soundclash who I first started working with in 2004 opened for No Doubt in 2009, and the whole band visited Bedouin’s green room to thank them and wish them luck which was incredibly classy. It was heartwarming to see how they interacted with James, who was around 12 years old at the time. Gwen Stefani was very sweet to him and he took a photo with her which undoubtedly earned him some bragging rights at school [laughs]

There were also some monumental firsts along the way – like the exhilarating moment when one of our artists performed at the MuchMusic Awards and the JUNOs for the first time. I remember sitting with Rainn Wilson at the MMVAs and him telling me how much he liked Bedouin. And who could forget the surreal experience of the Raptors mascot kicking off Alexisonfire’s sold-out show at Budweiser Stage right after the team clinched the NBA Championships? It felt like stepping into a fever dream.

At the end of the day, there would be no Listen Harder without Alexisonfire and that’s thanks to my longtime friend Ryan Kerr who is now the VP of Record Store Day Canada. He worked for EMI back in 2003 and he gave me the first Alexisonfire cd that had just come out on a label called Distort distributed by EMI and told me to, ‘just listen to it!’ I got absolute goosebumps listening to that band the first time. I sought out their label guy Greg Below and also their good friend and manager, Joel Carriere who is the founder of Dine Alone Records and Bedlam Music Management. I told them I would love to work with them, we clicked and the rest is as they say history. When they won their first  JUNO for Breakthrough Group of the Year, my first award winning artist, that was pretty special. Fast forward to 2023 and seeing them win the JUNO for Rock Album of The Year felt just as good.

LL: Rumour has it, you may have played a role in Dallas Green pursuing a solo career as City and Colour… first and foremost, thank you. Secondly, can you tell us that story?

CF: I definitely feel weird about taking that kind of credit! His management team, Joel and Tricia from Bedlam obviously had a lot to do with that [laughs]. I just remember Dallas had written these beautiful songs that didn’t really fit in with Alexis and he seemed a bit torn about what to do with them. I still have an original burnt CD with Dal’s handwriting featuring songs that eventually became his debut and Platinum selling album, Sometimes. We were all just really encouraging him to put them out as a solo thing and thank goodness he did! Dine Alone has become part of my extended family ever since. We’ve worked so many great domestic and international artists either indie or on other big labels over the years, but the relationship with Dine Alone will always be a special one. 

LL: Starting any business is daunting, but a music PR business seems like it could be especially challenging. How did it come about? Was there any point you thought, we can’t do this?

CF: It’s funny because whenever I’ve been asked to speak on a panel as an industry expert, inevitably a couple of people come up to me afterwards and ask me how they can ‘do what i do’. The reality is music publicity can be a challenging field to crack into. You can have a degree in communications, and a diploma from a music business program, and I can even hand you our entire entertainment contact list, and it wouldn’t matter because you have to earn a name for yourself. I interned like many people I know and cut my teeth working for a small indie label and mentoring with other people. Over many years I’ve nurtured relationships with media, and slowly built a reputation to get to the point we’re at now. 

I already alluded to it but my son was the main motivator to strike out on my own. I took 2-3 years off to raise him, so when I started thinking about getting back into the workforce, I wanted the flexibility of being arm’s length to him and pick him up from school. But it certainly wasn’t easy. Back when I started, indie publicists were few and far between and so was a paycheque. I even quit the industry for a few years until after my son was born. James’ Dad gets all the props for supporting us while I built a name for myself. 

LL: Evidently, you have more than hit your stride and have now amassed an impressive list of clients; Alexisonfire, Barenaked Ladies, City and Colour, Jorja Smith and The Lumineers just to name a few. Any big next steps on the horizon?

CF: Well, I am so glad you asked, David! We just recently started working with a new band from Toronto called Good Kid who I predict in the next few years will be one of the biggest bands to come out of Canada. It’s actually a fun story. James asked me if I had heard of them. He was a fan of their music and the fact that they let content creators use their music for free without fear of their videos being taken down. He played some of their stuff for me, and I loved it. I joked ‘how can we work with these guys?’ I figured they already had a publicist so didn’t think much else of it until – I kid you not – a week or so later I got an email from their management asking if we’d be interested in working with them. We are so excited to see their career unfold and be part of their team.

At the end of the day, Jen and I won’t take on a client if we don’t have the bandwidth or if the music doesn’t resonate with us personally. It doesn’t matter how popular the artist is. Although us industry folks often refer to album releases as projects or campaigns, it is not lost on Jen and I that the music we champion embodies another human’s blood, sweat and tears…their hopes and dreams. We take that responsibility seriously.

LL: As mentioned, you’re no stranger to stardom—do you have any memories of being star struck by anyone you’ve met? Anyone you’d like to meet?

CF: Oh, I didn’t think I’d make it through meeting Bowie before it happened. Looking into his famously coloured eyes was surreal. But once we met and started chatting, I was totally fine. He was funny and so charming. At the end of the day, we are all just human beings. Outside of that, I don’t really get too starstruck. 

LL: What’s on your bucket list? Can you give us one or two things you’re yet to check off and perhaps a couple you’ve already accomplished?

CF: Retire? [laughs] Obviously I love my job… I’ve been able to do some really cool things, and had the privilege of meeting and working with countless wonderful people. But over the last few years, what’s been truly driving me is the joy I get from mentoring my son. I think the most fulfilling thing of all will be when I can hand over the reins, knowing it’s in capable hands. 

LL: Who are you listening to these days?

CF: I am currently in my 90’s r&b era 🙂

LL: Sunny and cold or warm but gloomy—what are you choosing?

CF: Damn, David, that’s not fair. I was born in Portugal! I love the sunshine, but I’ll take warm and gloomy as long as it’s a short-term thing.

LL: You’re taking someone out to eat in Toronto—where are you going and what are you ordering?

CF: Hands down, steak-frites at a nice French restaurant, is my favourite meal. We have so many amazing French restaurants in Toronto, it’s hard to choose one. I have been going to Le Select Bistro since it was on Queen St. West back in the late 90’s so I’ll have to pick them. We took our son out to Matty Matheson’s Prime Seafood Palace for his 26th birthday and that was pretty special. Matty did a chef’s table for my son and his gf at Parts & Labour when James was a teenager. He’s longtime friends with Alexisonfire and Cancer Bats so we’ve known him for many years. It’s so heartwarming to see all of Matty’s incredible success.

LL: Fav venue in the city? Core memory from there?

CF: That’s a tough one considering how many music venues I’ve been to in this city over the years. Considering the memories I have of my artists playing Budweiser Stage during the summer, I’d have to go with that. Massey Hall also gets a special shout out. Seeing City and Colour play there the first time was so special. Hannah Georgas and I went to see Lauryn Hill together at Massey and that’s a show I will never forget. We were in the front row, her band was on fire, and she wasn’t late! [laughs] The Opera House in the 2000s/2010s especially. Danforth Music Hall has great sight lines and we always run into people we know so it’s always fun seeing shows there. If they could move HISTORY to the west end of the city, I might be there every week.






Cristina Fernandes
Cristina Fernandes
Cristina Fernandes
Cristina Fernandes
Cristina Fernandes

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