There’s no recipe for success, and Alexandre Poulin is well aware of it. On Les temps sauvages, his fourth album, the popular storyteller steps away from pop clichés and pens lyrics that are halfway between hope and resignation.
Poulin could’ve been fashionable. His clear penchant for Americana would’ve pleased commercial radio programmers who still, to this day, rely heavily on folk.
But the Sherbrooke native loves to go where he’s not expected. “I thought I was really original, back in 2007, when I came out with songs with mandolin and banjo – but I’m over it now,” says the artist, who’s now opted for more ethereal melodies. “Anyway, I’ve never liked being on the highway. I prefer to walk off the beaten path.”
Les temps sauvages, as a matter of fact, is a rebuttal to those all-too-well-worn paths, those accepted routes we sometimes take without thinking about it. He sings about a virtual love-at-first-sight (“Les amours satellites”), a powerless, jobless man facing capitalist forces (“Bleu Big Bill”), and the realization that a love affair is slowly dying (“Nos cœurs qui battent”), while he himself ponders his thirst for freedom and confronts “the obligations of a society that consumes us while we consume it.”
“We live in a rather hallucinating era where everything goes way too fast,” says Poulin. “I’ve always fought against this frenetic pace, but I’ve reached a point where I no longer quite know how to do that.”
Yet that’s precisely what he did last December; slow time down. Exhausted after the tours for his two previous albums, he thought the time had come to take a step back. “I had the chance to take a year off from the stage,” says Poulin. “It’s one thing to be passionate about your work, but it can easily turn into a trap. At a certain point, your body sends signals to you,” he admits.
But as beneficial this break was, it was far from a holiday. His break from work was short, and Poulin rapidly began writing his fourth album. Even though he’s a crafty storyteller, he decided he wanted to shed the myth surrounding him, the one that pigeonholes him as an impassive storyteller who willingly refuses typical pop music song structure.
“I’m known for my chorus-less songs, but if you listen closely, you notice that I’ve written many over the course of my first three albums,” he says. “This time around, however, I wanted to make a conscious effort to strip down my stories. I took away anything that was stuffy or useless.”
Indeed, his many songwriting collaborations with quite openly commercial singers such as Garou, France D’Amour and 2Frères have contributed to him no longer rejecting the pop canon de facto.
The 2014 success of Poulin’s song “Comme des enfants en cavale” also contributed to opening his mind about it all. “This kind of totally unexpected success is very gratifying, especially since I’d given up any hope of radio play by that point,” he says. “As a matter of fact, I consciously applied the same guiding line on Les temps sauvages. Instead of trying to make an album that would sell, I set out to make an album I would buy.”
To steer him through this process, Poulin tapped his longtime partner-in-crime, Mathieu Perreault, and the expert arranger Guido Del Fabbro (Pierre Lapointe, Groenland) to co-produce the album. “Having someone like Guido – who’s much more left-field than I am, musically – on my team was very reassuring,” he says. “When we were recording, I would regularly ask him, ‘Is this too pop?’ whenever I had any doubt. And even though I meant it jokingly, it often gave me a good idea of which way to go.”
It’s partly because of this minutiae and strong work ethic that the singer is slowly but surely gaining popular and critical applause. And while he’s still somewhat of a well-kept secret in Québec, Poulin is starting to reap the benefits of his hard work on the other side of the Atlantic. When he was invited on to the immensely popular talk show in France, On n’est pas couches, in February 2014, he was immediately catapulted to the top of the French iTunes bestsellers chart.
“It’s the kind of TV show that has an incredible impact on your career,” he says. “But I’m not delusional: I’m far from being a star in France. It’s very much like here: the buzz comes from the ground up, and it took a long time before major media outlets started paying attention. As weird as I think it is, I also have to admit it serves me well. A decade after I started my career, there are still people who are discovering me, and see me as a newcomer.”