Alexandre Bernhari’s day job is as a pianist for a modern dance troupe. The rehearsal just ended and the pianist is once again free to become a drummer and a singer, to transform back into Bernhari, although that’s not quite his real identity. A journalist published his real name and he feels unmasked – and a little irritated. “Even when I was in my previous bands, L’Étranger and L’Ours, I used a pseudonym,” he says. “I’ve always loved keeping things a little mysterious, I don’t like things to be set in stone.”

“Let me be somebody else,” he sings in his song “Au nord de Maria.” “Certain lyrics on the album are about identity,” he explains. “Not only do I say it, but I become it when I sing. Right from the get-go, when I started working on this project, Emmanuel Éthier, the producer, and I agreed that my voice would serve the music.”

“All these people shouting slogans at night… it definitely had an impact on me and my songs.”

Speaking of his voice… The first time one hears it, it’s rather stunning. It’s pitched very high and sculpted by tons of reverb  – not unlike that of Claude Léveillée, Christophe or even Malajube’s Julien Mineau –  but with a sophistication that’s more akin to the European rock tradition of Indochine or The Cure. “A nervous breakdown voice,” as music critic Sylvain Cormier wrote, and “the result of a lengthy trial and error process,” as the key player puts it. “Ultimately, I’m satisfied with the result, because it’s not a flat album. It’s all over the place and my voice is but one of the elements. There’s also a story, a narrative with a beginning and an end.”

There is indeed the story of an encounter that happens right in the middle of a street action during the 2012 Montreal student protests. The keyword here is “engagement,” whether emotional or social, because Bernhari’s first album was born and shaped by those protests and their unique energy. “True, it’s the swing of things,” he says. “I was there, I marched, I was part of the movement. All these people shouting slogans at night, and the strange echo of their voices on the surrounding buildings, it definitely had an impact on me and my songs. But obviously, it goes deeper than that.”

There’s something epic, frenetic and even chivalrous in Bernhari, whether from his German and Russian war-inspired allusions, or the images he uses, such as Bartabas galloping backwards. The protagonist is a deserter, and his muse is a queen named Kryuchkova. “Yeah, I’m that type of person,” he admits. “That intensity feeds me, especially on stage. ‘’m seeking verticality, I try to elevate myself, only to come back down on piano and voice songs like ‘Je n’oublierai jamais’ or ‘Matapédia.’ More often than not, that’s my favourite part of a concert, when a connection with the audience is made and we all come back down together.”

Many discovered Bernhari during last summer’s Francofolies when he opened for Fontarabie at Théâtre Maisonneuve. Onstage, the musician sits at his drum kit installed right up to the edge of the stage and it’s quite a sight to behold when he plays his drums with one hand, keyboard with the other and sings all at once, transfixed by “Kryuchkova,” the album’s magnificent climax. The song is driven by its rhythms, as a march, a protest, a budding love story. The drums are the song’s undeniable dynamo. “When you have complete control of the rhythm, it allows for something symbiotic to occur with the voice and something gets anchored down,” says Bernhari

After honing his skills in his previous two bands, L’Étranger and L’Ours, Bernhari is now regaling us with his ethereal rock, and lyrics that so aptly serve the music. And there, once again, is his voice, close and distant all at once, just like those dancers packing up their stuff and chit-chatting while they take their legwarmers off next to the pianist with multiple personalities.

Turning the Page
Before flying solo, Alexandre Bernhari was the cornerstone of two bands. “I started L’Étranger as a solo project, but as time went by, nearly a dozen musician gravitated to the project. It was a live experience, I remember I would go on stage with my face covered in gold… What fond memories! Some of the members of L’Étranger left and what remained became L’Ours… Until everyone went their own way.” That’s when Alexandre turned the page, and Bernhari was born. “There was a click. It was more fragile before. But I got my act together and I felt that some things were falling into place. That feeling became very real when [record label] Audiogram expressed their interest.”