Welcome to the latest in our series of stories on the creative meetings of songwriting duos. Paroles & Musique met with Gabriel Louis Bernard Malenfant and Jacques Alphonse Doucet – better known as the voices of Radio Radio – to discuss the state of exile required to create their special brand of debonair, tongue-in-cheek rap.
Even though it’s a cloudy Tuesday afternoon in a Mile End café in Montréal, the guys are dressed to the nines, as always. “For Jacques, it comes naturally, he dresses like that every day,” whispers Gabriel Malenfant in my ear while we wait to order, staring his bearded acolyte (who’s wearing a navy pinstripe suit with a butter-coloured shirt and tie). We didn’t ask if they dress that way on days when they isolate themselves from the outside world to work on new tracks.
Whatever the case may be, Light the Sky is the latest result of such sessions. It’s the duo’s fifth album, but their first without the help of the longtime sidekick, DJ Alexandre, who left to pursue a solo career as Arthur Comeau after tinkering with other pseudonyms, notably “Nom de plume.”
But let’s get back to our coffee, and the event that prompted this meeting: the release of this new album of party anthems, their in English only. And even though that means no more of their amazing linguistic acrobatics – where French, English and the regional Acadian dialect of Chiac was as typical as poutine râpée – the core of their appeal remains: electro-pop party anthems. For this album, they tapped the production talent of Shash’U, J.u.D. and Alex McMahon as well as Champion for the song “‘Cause I’m a Hoe.”
“As on the previous albums, there is that unpretentious, fun first degree,” says Jacques Doucet. “But there are also deeper themes. That’s kind of the idea behind the title, Light the Sky, which symbolizes that the conversation we want to have can go very far.” One needs to scratch the surface very little in order to find some songs whose themes are deeper than leisure and dancefloors. “We also want to write songs that touch on subjects people don’t expect us to touch,” says Malenfant.
“We are so good at feel-good stuff – that ‘Acadianness’ of which we’re emblematic – but you need to go beyond the hooky choruses to find our depth.”—Gabriel Malenfant of Radio Radio
The least we can say is that they have a rather unusual workflow, for rappers. Despite being wordsmiths, they’re not the type to carry a notepad and pencil in the breast pockets of their stylish blazers. For them, writing is neither something spontaneous, nor a daily routine. All their albums followed the same work plan: “We extricate ourselves from our friends, families, lives, and we furiously work on writing and recording the album,” says Malenfant.
But despite that, some ideas are born on the road during tours. “We jam on ideas, hooks, we laugh at our stories, we are constantly arguing about everything, says Malenfant. “We record everything in our phones; we’re perpetually researching song concepts. But once the album project is on track, we go for a solid recording session, preferably outside of Montréal.”
Work on Light the Sky started almost a year ago during one of those work sessions in Cuba. Ah, the life of the rich and famous! “We had just launched the previous album, but we immediately went to Cuba to ‘re-focus’ and start thinking about our next album,” says Doucet. “A little time at the beach, then back to our rooms to write, or make beats, for an hour or two.”
The idea of making an English-only album had been in the air for a while. Which explains a change in the work venue: Brooklyn, last September. Says Malenfant: “We wanted to be part of the local culture, of this Mecca of rap. Turns out we were surrounded by French people and Québecois,” he laughs. Shash’U’s and Alex McMahon’s productions were pretty far along, so all that was left to do was to write the lyrics and record the vocal demos.
The guys each write their own lyrics, but each heeds the other’s comments. “We have our themes, we brainstorm, and within a week, we have a general idea of the album’s direction,” says Malenfant. Everything comes together in the studio. “We do it all at the same time; I can’t write without the music,” continues Malenfant. “Once we have a good hook, everything else comes naturally: the theme, the verses, the chorus. When we went to Brooklyn, we only had Shash’U’s instrumentals; everything else was done in Montréal.”
For Radio Radio, an album is a snapshot in time, an initially spontaneous thing that’s then elaborated on and polished to perfection. “The music that inspires us has to be dynamic, bouncy, happy,” says Malenfant. “And then we simply elaborate on them.”
The party-anthem side of Radio Radio’s music stems from their work method, but doesn’t entirely summarize its spirit, the rappers warn. Let’s go back to the meaning of the title Light the Sky. One can approach star-gazing in one of two ways: “You can look at the sky and take in the moment, be grateful for what we’re getting out of it,” says Malenfant. “Or we can study the stars, observe them intently, look for answers.” That’s what Doucet calls the astrophysical aspect of Radio Radio’s songs.
As Malenfant concludes, “We are so good at feel-good stuff – that ‘Acadianness’ of which we’re emblematic – but you need to go beyond the hooky choruses to find our depth. Our choruses are often light-hearted, but the verses veer off in a completely different direction. Like on “‘Cause I’m a Hoe,” we talk about the issue of prostitution in our society. People don’t expect us to be talking about stuff like that. Party tunes are all well and good, and we like them. But look a little bit further and you’ll see there is a subtext.”