Here’s the latest edition in our series about those happy creative meetings between two songwriters. In this edition, we meet two endearingly bonded artists: folk singer-songwriter Chantal Archambault and her man, songwriter and musician Michel-Olivier Gasse, together known as Saratoga.
As the saying goes, necessity is the mother of invention. It sometimes yields beautiful projects, as Michel-Olivier Gasse explains while we sit on the terrace at a café: “Chantal had started doing solo concerts, but didn’t quite enjoy being onstage alone,” he says. “So I started accompanying her. And the day after one of those concerts, on a very small stage, with very limited technical means…”
“Very restrictive!” insists Chantal Archambault, sitting next to her partner.
“…she sang her songs,” Gasse continues. “I was right next to her with my acoustic bass, and I sang over her shoulder, so that the only mic on stage would catch my voice, and… well, I think it was charming.”
“People came to talk to us after the show,” adds Chantal. “They were saying, ‘My God! It’s so beautiful when you two sing together like that!’”
That was less than two years ago. Last fall, Gasse and Archambault drove to New York City. “We stopped for the night in a small village,” says Gasse. “We got drunk in our motel room, and that’s when we decided that we were going to get this thing going.” That village was Saratoga. “Well, the story is a bit more complicated than that,” Archambault giggles. “We take almost 15 minutes during our concerts to explain the details.”
It’s mostly Gasse who tells the tale, because, as Archambault says, “My strength is composing the songs, writing. His strength is interacting with the audience. In that sense, Saratoga is a complete project: the combination of his stage presence and my songwriting.”
She’s gotten used to it over time. Archambault has released three solo albums, and she’s made a place for herself as a mellow and reassuring presence on Québec’s folk scene. As for Gasse, who was previously in the band Caloon Saloon, he’s better known as a writer – with two novels published by Tête première – and a bass player for the likes of Vincent Vallières and Dany Placard, to name but two.
They’ve created two distinct, established creative universes that required harmonization. And they’re the first to admit that it’s harder than it looks. “We’re still learning to compose together,” says Archambault. Their first five-song EP was recorded in a jiffy because they had gigs already booked, but nothing to sing. Only two of those five songs were recorded together; the remaining three came from their respective archives. But now, with a record contract and a first album expected in October of 2016 – scoop: It’ll be called Fleur – the duo had to get to work last January.
“Once the writing period for the album was over, we’d found our work dynamic,” explains Gasse. “First of all, it’s not split 50/50: we realized that Chantal is excellent for finding a lead, a direction, a melody – she is an outstanding melodist. As for me, I’m not totally confident in what I can accomplish on my own, with only a guitar in my hands. I have a hard time expressing everything that’s in my mind in a clear way.”
Archambault jumps in: “The melodies came easily. As for the lyrics, I would often find the spark, a rough idea, and Gasse would fine-tune it. He’s got this knack for analyzing someone’s work in an objective and critical way, to see what works and what doesn’t in a song. And he’s always right!”
Yet, for Gasse, writing a song is harder than writing a book. “It’s incredibly hard to write songs,” he admits. “I can write a fifty-page story much easier than I can write a song. I’m a raconteur, I speak very fluidly. I don’t have any difficulty writing about a flower pot for a whole page, it comes to me naturally. But when it comes to a song, it’s a space that needs to be filled, and you must respect the meter, the right rhymes. Add to that the fact that not all words can be easily sung. It has to flow, and the listener has to believe every word you sing. If, for example, you’re going to use the word bus in your song, you better make sure it’s believable. Maybe bus is a bad example, but there are worse words than that to try and fit in a song.”
The other challenge had more to do with themes: where would the boundaries be for this common musical world shared by the duo? “That was also a challenge: writing ‘we’ songs,” says Archambault. “I’ve always written in the first person. He wrote boy songs with his band, and I wrote chick songs, so we needed to find themes that wouldn’t sound corny, and we wanted to avoid writing only songs about ourselves. The goal was to make music, not talk about our relationship as a couple. Quite a challenge.”
Also sprach Saratoga.