Singer-songwriter Bernardino Femminielli’s last fur years of silence provided an opportunity to take stock. Time to reflect on his glorious failures, his underestimated work and his corrupted relationship with his hometown of Montréal. This exile, both literally and figuratively, was as necessary as it was fertile: by leaving Montréal for Paris, Femminielli found the inspiration to compose three cathartic albums, starting with L’Exil, published by the startup label Éditions Appærent, set up by his collaborators Pierre Guérineau (Essaie Pas, Feu St-Antoine), Jesse Osborne-Lanthier, and Will Ballantyne (City).

“What I like about Paris is that it’s a somewhat desperate city, and I connect with that,” says Femminielli with a smirk. Four years after the stunning Plaisirs américains, the poet, performance artist, and songwriter who moved to Paris over a year ago, now reveals the first part of a triptych that he hopes will rid him of his demons, Daddy and Johnny.

He and his wife left everything behind: Montréal, his friends, ex-business partners, and the shipwreck of his restaurant Femme Fontaine – erected on the ashes of the iconoclastic Bethleem XXX, at the gates of the city’s Little Italy. He got rid of everything but his urge for freedom and creativity, which he preciously preserved until landing in Belleville, in the 19th arrondissement of Paris, where we reached him.

“Belleville is kind of the anarchist neighbourhood,” according to Femminielli. “But it’s mostly a working-class area, there’s a lot of immigrants. There are Chinese, Vietnamese, Thai restaurants, mostly in the lower part of Belleville. Around here it’s very diversified and gentrified, lately – to be honest, the area where I live was quite shady just five years ago. I remember that I would never make it to the street I live on today because it was too… let’s just say it was a no-man’s land. Nowadays, there are families, some bourgeois, but it’s still a working-class neighbourhood. There’s still poverty around, you can see it every day.”

It was there that he wrote the lyrics for L’Exil, over musical compositions that date back to Plaisirs américains. On “French Exit,” the album’s opening song, he fuses three musically different pieces into one 12-minute offering where he spews everything in one fell swoop. He recites, “Quinze ans dans ce trou, j’ai besoin de m’exiler/ La mort dans les lèvres de l’amour/ Sur ton joli corps, petit clown, petit clown, petit clown” (“Fifteen years in this hell hole, I need to exile myself / Death on the lips of love / On your pretty body, little clown, little clown, little clown”), before a motorik beat starts, leaving behind a black cloud of synths.

Femminielli’s work is fascinating, because it wears its references on its lapel, like medals on a general, yet it resembles nothing every recorded in Québec (except, perhaps, some of Lucien Francoeur’s work). Somewhere between krautrock and disco, more spoken-word than sung, his texts have both Serge Gainsbourg’s aesthetics and Gainsbarre’s panache, with crude and even salacious images – but on this album, intimate above all, as if taking stock had prompted the artist to bare all.

L’Exil, and the next two parts of the triptych – described as “more fanciful” compared to this “realist” album – are “a way for me to exorcize and make peace with the past and, in the end, being able to laugh about it all,” says Femminielli, offering a good example of the humour (or cynicism?) typical of his writing. “To be honest, my life is very theatrical. I wanted to express it that way, not by incarnating a storyteller, but by being the victim of my own bad experiences. That’s why it’s quite a personal album.” Personal, yet sensitive to the world around him: on “French Exit,” he mentions French President Emmanuel Macron, and makes several Parisian references.

“I’ve written a lot by walking around Paris,” says Femminielli. “I found inspiration here, the yellow vests movement, the Notre-Dame-de-Paris blaze, the quite heavy atmosphere of the city, of late… It’s kind of an album that looks at Paris as a tourist would; even though I know Paris quite well, I still have a fresh, innocent, and naive outlook on it. I still see what Parisians no longer see.”

Weaving through all that, he also looks at his demons, Daddy and Johnny, with a fresh outlook. They aren’t even two sides of a coin, but rather two Mr. Hydes, “a fragmented projection of myself,” which Bernardino stage directs in the gloomiest moments of his albums and stage performances. Daddy, the dominant pervert, and Johnny the “little clown,” reduced to the role of a sex slave who is often on a leash during his concerts.

“Johnny gives me a reason to say that, in the end, I’m the most pathetic one,” says Bernardino.” It’s a bit like the concept of the oppressor and the oppressed: the character that I [Daddy] play is that of the oppressing macho that gets destroyed, and I start from that point to see where it’ll go. L’Exil is also a healing process. Leaving [Montréal] to get rid of that poison, leaving that other side of me to become someone else.” It’s an idea he expresses eloquently on the album’s title song, when he whispers, “Nous allons offrir le spectacle d’une mort dramatique,” (“We’re going to give you the spectacle of a dramatic death”).

“It’s a good summary of the triptych: the story of a pathetic macho oppressor and of his gigolo who can’t even tie his shoelaces,” he says. “When they see it onstage, people can laugh at it, but they can also try to understand what’s going on, what it all means. What I’m saying is never gratuitous; I explain it a bit, but I believe people need to get it according to their own feelings.”

Songwriting isn’t an activity that’s hazardous to your health, but for triple-JUNO-Award-winner Kiesza, who suffered a traumatic brain injury in 2017 – when her Uber was struck by another taxi – she has to really listen to her head and know when to take a break. “It’s a lot on the brain to write lyrics,” she says.

“The funny thing about brain injuries is they go forward and backward. I always think that I’ve crossed another line or another hurdle that it’s behind me, and then suddenly I relapse. I’m not crashing as much as I used to, then last week I crashed the whole week.”

Kiesza – born Kiesa Ellestad in Calgary and now living in Toronto – is just releasing Crave (on Aug. 14, 2020), the long-awaited follow-up to her 2014 debut Sound of A Woman — which sold a million copies and contained the ‘80s-inspired dance-pop smash “Hideaway” (now closing in on half a billion views on YouTube alone). But it isn’t full of introspective songs about healing, health, or struggle.  In fact, if one didn’t know about the accident that caused a shutdown of the electrical nerve pathways to one side of her brain, the dance-pop songs seem like a natural follow-up to her breakthrough from six years ago.

“I wasn’t ready to go back into what I’d just come out of,” says Kiesza. “It was this really dark, dark, dark time, and I’ve been literally climbing my way out of it just to see the light again. It’s been hard. It’s been the hardest thing I’ve ever gone through. So when I finally was in a place where I felt like I was ready to re-launch, I wasn’t ready to go into that again. I wanted positive energy, especially with the pandemic going on right now. I felt like that’s what the world needs, too. So I chose to make this album really upbeat and really positive.

“Honestly, my songwriting, in many ways, has gotten stronger”

“‘Love Never Dies’ is probably the closest one you’re going to get to start to scrape the surface,” she says of the second-last song on Crave, a powerful ballad that sounds like a James Bond movie theme. “There’s more coming. That’s tapping into that depth, and that pain, and those feelings. It’s a lot to go back to. I get overwhelmed. And with my recovery, just being stressed out or overwhelmed like that, it actually causes my head to relapse. So I’m just not even physically in a place where I can do that.”

Collaborating Carefully 
Kiesza has co-written for Rihanna and Jennifer Hudson, worked with Duran Duran, and collaborated with Skrillex, Pitbull, and Diplo, as well as with many people for her own songs. But now writing with others requires some ground rules she didn’t have before her injury:  no smoking, for one. She’s been writing with a lot of local artists and rappers. “I have to tell everybody that they’re not allowed to smoke weed,” she laughs. “Usually I would just put up with it. I’ve never done any drugs or anything, but I’m really strict. My head can’t handle being around any sort of smoke.” While she still writes quickly — “I’m actually still faster than the average songwriter” — concentrating on lyrics can give her a headache, so her partners must be understanding and patient. “Sometimes I’ll have to let people know when my head does swell up, or feels like it’s hurting, and that I’m too tired to finish, and just re-book for another time. Or I’ll just let them know that I’m unable to come up with new lyrics right now,  just because of how my head feels. I like to step away, maybe do them on my own time, and come back and record.”

That material will be “compartmentalized,” as Kiesza says, on her next album. “Honestly, my songwriting, in many ways, has gotten stronger, because it unlocked a lot of stuff going on internally while I was recovering,” she says. “My lyrics really expanded. I did begin writing a lot more personal stuff, going back to my youth. I’ve been getting as much of my own inner truth out as I possibly can, just out of my body, out of my soul, and on to some form of paper or digital notepad. There’s so much to decipher right now and to go back through.

“And then the next album is going to have a different sound and a different mood.  I like that because whatever mood I’m in, I select my playlist based on that. So I’m approaching my albums that way. I have some acoustic folk songs. How do I put out a guitar style [of music] after Crave?  I’m just going to do it. It’s little confusing, but to me it’s important to make sure that all of that gets out or else people are not going to know me.”

She says she writes in “so many genres.” Her very first album, written and released during her second semester at Selkirk College in Nelson, BC, with money from a grant she won from a then-new Calgary radio station, she told SOCAN in 2014, was “all over the place, very experimental. You get orchestra songs, a big-band jazz song, a funky song, a country song that goes into gospel, soft-rock mixed in with soul.”

This skill of adaptability has enabled her to write for a range of other artists, and also reveal more of herself. “It’s actually really confusing for people who work with me to try to figure out what to put out, but I’m really embracing that aspect about me,” she says. “That’s what makes me unique, is the fact that I actually can jump genres. So I’m trying to find ways to fuse all the styles that I write in.

“I definitely want to have lifelong fans. It’s way more important for me to really make sure that my music contains every aspect of who I am.”

Jazz begat funk, which begat disco, which begat house music. In clubs and warehouse parties of 1980s New York City and Chicago, house music began taking shape, and by the turn of the decade, a subgenre called “deep house” came to be. From that point on, a young man in Québec City saw the course of his life become increasingly clear.

The reason why you may not have heard about SOCAN member Fred Everything – unless you follow or are part of the deep house scene – is arguably because no one is a prophet in their own land… and because that genre has always preferred remaining somewhat under the radar.

Since breaking onto the international scene in 1995, Fred Everything—né  Frédéric Blais in Hull, Québec—has held club residencies in Montréal, Toronto, and Honolulu as well as regular gigs in London, Chicago, and San Francisco, and has headlined some of the biggest festivals and clubs in major cities across the U.S., Europe, Asia, the Middle East, and even South Africa and Russia, as well as popular party destinations like Ibiza and Croatia.

As a world-renowned producer and remixer, he has more than 250 releases to his name – including five full-length albums – while his respected label, Lazy Days Recordings, has launched nearly 80 recordings, not counting compilation albums, by a “who’s who” of the deep house world.

In 2019 alone, he garnered 1.1 million streams on Spotify, and he recently produced a remix for Dominique Fils-Aimé, who won the 2019 Félix award for Jazz Album of the Year at the ADISQ Gala.

You might wonder how or where, exactly, deep house falls within the spectrum of what’s widely called EDM (Electronic Dance Music), and Fred offers us a simple explanation: “EDM has become an umbrella term for electronic music in general, but it’s also a music genre associated with festival dance music and big ‘drops.’ It’s designed and engineered to appeal to huge crowds; it’s more formulaic and functional. I don’t like EDM, but I don’t have a problem with it. I think it can be a gateway for a younger generation into the wider world of electronic music.”

Although inextricably associated with the deep house genre, Fred sees himself as a far wider-ranging artist, who strives to blur the boundaries between genres, hence his “Everything” moniker. “I’ve worked my way through so many styles over the years,” he says, “but it’s true that there’s a common thread in my productions when it comes to harmonies, sounds, and textures. Sonic qualities are as important as musical elements to me.”

Fred was classically trained, for a little while, as a child. “I was never a great student,” he admits. “I think that’s mostly because I was more interested in being hands-on, even at an early age, and I didn’t understand how proper training would help me down the line.” It wouldn’t be long before he bought his first synth, an Akai AX-60, after working for a full summer washing dishes in a restaurant. He founded a few bands with friends, at the time more interested in the ’80s alternative/new wave sound, before discovering the whole house and techno scene booming in England in the early ’90s.

Seminal British labels like Warp and Network would become pivotal. “Looking back, I was always interested in electronic sounds,” Everything says. “Synths and vocoders fascinated me from a very young age. I was also a bit of a loner and an only child, so electronic music offered a safe alternative to create music on my own.”

Cue the rave scene. “After that initial period of playing live with a few of my bands, I went solo and played in raves in Québec City and Montréal,” says Blais. “After a while, I decided to leave my instruments in the studio and I started DJing, while continuing to make music at home. It’s only when I moved to Montréal in 1995 that I started signing music internationally and touring outside North America.” The rest, as they say, is history.

“My artist name reflects the liberty to defy boundaries that I want to have with my music”

With his international profile growing steadily from that point on, Fred would re-locate to London for a few years before briefly coming back to Montréal, and then re-locating to San Francisco for eight years.

Whether or not you’re familiar with the genre, actual – and good – house music albums are rare, because the genre is mainly single-oriented, as are most dance music genres. Many have tried simply collecting their singles and calling that an album, but that never works, because the golden thread that weaves through a great album, regardless of genre, is lacking. Fred, however, stands out as one of those rare artists to have released more than one bona fide – and good – deep house albums.

His 2004 album, Light of Day was voted Best House Album of the Year by DJ Magazine and he was invited to perform it with a full band at the prestigious Montréal International Jazz Festival. That same year, he won the Best Electronic Artist award at the now-defunct Montréal Independent Music Initiative (MIMI) Awards. In 2016, he was ranked the No. 1 Deep House Producer by Traxsource, one of the biggest online music stores for everything electronic and dance.

Gear Head
Many musicians have a tendency to be obsessed with their instrument or instruments of choice, sometimes to the point of collecting obsessively. Such is not the case for Fred, but we still asked what his favourite gear is, and why. “I always say that all you need is one nice polyphonic synth and one mono synth,” he answers. “Although I have much more than one of each, my vote would go for the Prophet 6 as the best modern polyphonic synthesizer and any Moog for monophonic. The Minitaur is a great entry point, but the Model D is the ultimate one. I also love Arp, Oberheim, and of course, classic Roland machines. The Arturia Beatstep Pro is also a great tool for me to sequence and trigger older equipment.”

Asked if we can ever hope to see him onstage as a live act again, he’s pretty adamant. “Not at the moment, but never say never!” says Fred. “It would most likely be by myself rather than with a band. My ultimate dream would be to have an orchestra perform my music for my 25th anniversary as a recording artist this year. Montréal Symphony Orchestra, in case you read this…”

Indeed, 2020 was planned as a year of celebration for the musician, who was due to embark on a spring-summer world tour as a DJ, for now – marking his 25th anniversary on the world circuit and the 15th anniversary of his label. But then COVID-19 derailed those plans.

Still, not bad for this one-man army, who also manages his own career and business! “I’ve had booking agents on and off,” he says, “but I’ve also done a lot myself, and never had a manager. It becomes very taxing, sometimes, and it makes it hard to concentrate on the creative side of my job, which should be the main focus. But over the years, I’ve learned how to juggle all of that.”

Keep on juggling, Mr. Everything!