When we reach Antoine Corriveau for this interview, the young singer-songwriter is still in seventh heaven. He’s just won the SOCAN Songwriting Prize (and the $10,000 cheque that comes with it) thanks to his song “Le nouveau vocabulaire,” and he sees this victory as a validation that he is indeed on the right path. “There’s no doubt that a prize such as this one will allow me to relax a little,” he says. “The last year has been completely crazy for me, and that’s the kind of thing that reminds me I must concentrate on music.”
Up until very recently, Corriveau still earned a living as a freelance graphic designer. But since launching his album Les Ombres Longues (The Long Shadows), he’s reached a new plateau. Without being a radio chart dweller, he’s making new fans nonetheless, one by one, and his gig schedule is getting longer and longer.
“I self-produced my first album and during my first tours, the number of people in the audience was inversely proportional to the distance I drove to get there,” says Corriveau. “Still, I’m glad I didn’t become popular overnight, and had to go through the motions to earn my dues. If I had to do it all over again, I’d do it exactly the same. Nowadays I play in venues where there were only 10 people the first time around, and now there are 50; to me that’s a great improvement!”
If people are catching up, maybe it’s because of his voice’s peculiar timbre, reminiscent of Daniel Lavoie’s. But mostly, it’s for the quality of his songs, which skillfully mix the intimate and the universal – songs that he crafts patiently, like a Swiss watchmaker. “This prize makes me especially proud, because it touches on the very core of my trade,” says Corriveau. “Not the show, the sound or the lighting… just the song and all the work it entails. And I can tell you that there is quite a lot of work in ‘Le nouveau vocabulaire!’ The first draft of it came to me quickly, but after that I spent three or four months just putting the finishing touches on it. Sometimes I can spend weeks on a single word.”
“I often write in a very automatic, informal manner. To me the message always wins over form.”
Sung using the perspective of an all-encompassing “we,” “Le nouveau vocabulaire” is a song halfway between a manifesto and a confession, that can be understood on many different levels. The song tackles two themes that are ever-present on his new album: breakups and, mostly, the Montreal social upheaval of 2012, the so-called “Maple Spring.” “I hope the young people that took to the streets will keep at least part of the spirit of solidarity we felt then alive while they grow up,” explains Corriveau, who remains quite positive with regards to the aftermath of the event. But regardless of where Québec society is headed, Corriveau will remain, capturing the zeitgeist in his own unique way: lucid, sensitive, and aptly poetic.
“I’ve never felt I was mimicking anyone’s style, but I certainly can’t deny I have some fetish writers,” he says. “People like Leonard Cohen, Bob Dylan and Nick Cave are all writers I admire, and they all share one thing: they are, first and foremost, poets. These are artists that won’t hesitate a moment to write a song with 40 verses and no chorus, and all three are formidable raconteurs.”
Yet Antoine also has immense admiration for rappers who possess so much lexicological leeway, and fearlessness in wringing the neck of classical poetry’s rules. “I don’t mind truncating a word right in the middle, or not respecting the metrics,” explains the singer-songwriter. “That’s why I often write in a very automatic, informal manner. To me, the message always wins over the form. Even when I did graphic novels, I considered I was much more of a raconteur than just an illustrator: I was great at telling stories, and just good enough to draw them.”
That why Corriveau is still writing stories. For himself, of course, but for others too, as he’s done for Julie Blanche’s album. “I must admit that the first time I wrote for someone else, I was very hesitant at first,” he says “I was wary of letting go of my best ideas and weakening my own repertoire. Nowadays, I’ve made my peace with that, and I tell myself that I can still sing those songs if I want to. They are my songs, after all!”
Besides, it’s obvious he’s not about to run out of ideas, and if all goes according to plan, Corriveau will launch a new album in the fall of 2016. “Until then, I’m just writing non-stop,” he says. “I’ve got drawers full of riffs and lyrics snippets that are waiting to become full-fledged songs. I’ve realized that, in actual fact, creating an album is nothing more that: a deep clean-up session.”