Here’s the latest edition in our series about songwriting collaborators. In this edition, we present one of the most efficient songwriting duos in the Québec pop music scene of at least the past five years, the partnership between songwriter Karim Ouellet and his sidekick, musician and producer Claude Bégin.
Always on time, like a Swiss train, Karim Ouellet already awaits us at the café where we’ve agreed to meet for our interview. But where’s Claude? On the road somewhere between his base of Québec City and Montréal. “Claude’s Claude…,” says Ouellet with a knowing grin. “I have doubles for the keys to his studio, so that when we’re supposed to work in the studio and he’s late, I can at least get in and start working on my own.”
OK, so the notion of being on time is widely divergent between those two creative minds, but when it’s time to get busy, Bégin and Ouellet operate as one. All three of the Ouellet’s albums – Plume (2011), Fox (2012) and the brand new Trente – were carefully crafted with the help of Bégin, who also recently launched his own solo career with a debut album, Les Magiciens.
In just five years, thanks to Karim Ouellet’s commercial and critical success, the creative duo has adderted itself as a dominant and rejuvenating force on Québec’s pop scene. Ouellet’s albums, just as Bégin’s album, have a distinctive, fresh and undeniably modern sound; bouncy pop music, with lush electronic colours that hint at their hip-hop upbringing. Karim was a fan of Accrophone, a hip-hop duo of which Bégin was half in the mid-aughts. Their first collaborations hearken back to Movèzerbe’s album Dendrophile (2009), a hip-hop/funk/world collective that also included Boogat and Alaclair Ensemble’s KenLo, also brilliant representatives of Québec City’s music scene.
“Movèzerbe was the first time we worked together on a common project that we really cared about,” explains Ouellet. “I’d worked on some of his songs before, and he’d helped with my first EP. I met Claude in 2005 or 2006 through common friends. Our friendship grew organically.”
“Our sound relies entirely on our method of building hip-hop rhythms and slapping songs written with a guitar on top of them.” — Karim Ouellet
The duo’s methodology is apparent in between the notes of Ouellet’s albums. “Claude has a unique style,” says Ouellet. “He can do many things, but they always have a tinge of hip-hop. It’s all in his technique for building rap beats, using loops, and very distinctive sounds, with layers of sonic elements. He’s been a beatmaker for a long time, and I’ve done my fair share, too. And that – doing rap music – is how we learned the tricks of the trade. His sound, our sound, relies entirely on our method of building hip-hop rhythms and slapping songs written with a guitar on top of them.”
Their four-handed creative process was more apparent on Ouellet’s first two albums, while for the latest, Trente, “I worked in solo,” he says. “Claude is much more the arranger and producer than a co-creator.”
Dishevelled, with his long-haired mane in disarray, Bégin finally arrives at the café after trying to find parking in the construction cone-littered downtown area for awhile. He’s got a long day ahead of him; after our interview, he’s off to the Quartier des Spectacles to rehearse for the opening concert of the FrancoFolies, which will feature, among others, Alaclair Ensemble, a group of which he’s part.
“Karim is the guy I’m most used to making music with,” says Bégin. “The Alaclair guys have a group mentality, everyone pitches in, everyone comes up with ideas, a beat, a verse; we meet up in my studio and sometimes, I don’t even need to touch anything. With Karim, it’s a give-and-take situation: he comes with his song, his idea, and we know what we need to do, how to get to the final result. His type of tunes, of ideas, with my type of production and arrangements, it just works.
“What defines my style? First, I’d say my vocal harmonies, and then my arrangements. I add layer upon layer of sound elements to my productions, sometimes too many. It’s something I’ve been faulted with. It’s my style, but I’ve been trying to tone it down… Then it’s rap, rhythm programming, I’ve become quite proficient at that. I had a drum set-up in my studio, but I took it down because I barely ever used it anymore. We do pop, but with a big beat, and the tension of rap. Radio seems to dig it, anyways, it seems to be a trend in pop music.’
Karim Ouellet will play Montréal Métropolis on June 17, during the FrancoFolies, and following his concert he’ll spin a DJ set at the Métropolis’ Shag. Claude Bégin will open for him that night. Here’s a tip: check out the outdoor Rednext Level concert, the day before at 11 p.m.: there’s a very good chance you’ll catch Ouellet and Bégin onstage then, too!