Here’s the latest edition in our series of stories about the creative meetings between songwriter/composers. This week sees the meeting of two characters that seem worlds apart: Yves Lambert and Josh Dolgin, better known as Socalled. When two free musical spirits and their respective passions for tradition collide, the result is explosive!
Another first in this series on songwriting duos: the interviews were conducted separately. Lambert, a bona fide forefather of Québec’s traditional-music scene, and former linchpin of higely successful Quebec group la Bottine Souriante, is true to himself on this day: ebullient, passionate, and on time for our meeting in a café in Montréal’s Mile End neighbourhood.
But where’s Socalled? Lost somewhere in the city, one can presume. Lost in his studio, busy producing songwriter Sarah Toussaint-Léveillée’s first album, we hope. Maybe he’s nursing a Chanukah hangover, because of eight days of celebration during this unusually mild month of December? “Socalled is one helluva weirdo, but I love weirdos,” says Lambert, with a smirk that says he’s not a bit surprised that his friend forgot our rendezvous.
Earlier in 2015, our missing weirdo launched his incredible People Watching album, a musical melting pot where pop, funk, rap, reggae and traditional Jewish music party together. Lambert was featured on that album in a duet with legendary reggae/dancehall singer Josey Wales on a song called “Bootycaller.”
As for Lambert, he recently released Lambert dans ses bottines, an album celebrating his forty-year musical career – arranged, recorded and produced by Socalled. “We’re kindred spirits,” says Lambert, explaining the nature of his relationship with Dolgin. “We don’t come from the same place, but he’s just as passionate as I am for tradition. He’s a true champion for it, he respects it, and that’s what we have in common.” Joined on the phone later that day, Socalled will add, “Also, we’re both accordionists!”
“I owned cassettes by La Bottine Souriante, I was a big fan. The way they mixed trad and jazz was unbelievable to me” — Socalled
Yves Lambert didn’t know of Socalled’s productions when they met for the first time about 10 years ago, during a benefit concert for Jeunes musiciens du monde. But Socalled was totally familiar with the work of La Bottine Souriante.
“I owned cassettes by La Bottine,” he says. “I was a big fan. It’s the only truly innovative music from Québec that I heard – their unique blend of trad and jazz, for example, was unbelievable to me. There are a lot of similarities between Québec and traditional Jewish music: they are both very festive, lots of wedding and other special events music, and both are often motivated by a desire to escape the daily grind,” explains Socalled. Lambert shares this perception.
These two were meant to meet. It happened in Copenhagen, of all places, in 2009 during the WOMEX festival, a showcase for World Music. It was an instant match made in heaven, and they gladly exchanged phone numbers. Lambert, who had “energizing” stage experiences next to Socalled, immediately thought about him to produce Lambert dans ses bottines.
“We met a few times during the summer of 2015 at his mess of a place behind the Mordecai-Richler library,” Lambert recalls. “We were both in our summer buzz, overwhelmed with projects, we were hot, but we had to do it. The mission was simple: re-visit my old material. Then we’ll work on newer material.”
In the very specific case of Lambert dans ses bottines, the composition work was mainly orchestration since, with the exception a few old Lambert or Bottine creations, all songs are taken from the traditional Québécois repertoire. But that didn’t take away anything from the collaboration: one need only listen to what happened to songs like “Le petit porte-clé tout rouillé” or “La cuisinière” after Dolgin was done with them.
“One needs to intimately know that repertoire’s history before even thinking about having the right to mess with it,” Socalled insists. “Yves is an expert of that repertoire. All that time we spent together during the summer was used discussing, listening to each song to get to its very core, and what made it what it is, and what we were going to do with it. Going back to the grooves, harmonies, melodies, to the very foundation of this music, and building from that. You can’t just slap a house music beat on top of a song and pretend you’ve created something new.”
A few musical directions were outlined either by La Bottine Souriante or by Lambert and his Bébert Orchestra. “‘D’un bon matin,’ for example, already had a reggae feel to it,” explains Lambert. “With Socalled, all we did was take that idea to its logical conclusion, with a real reggae band.” Other directions were reached through consensus, after swapping many ideas.
“Here’s what our meetings were like,” says Lambert. “I got there with my computer, played Josh some songs – not for too long, never the whole thing – so he didn’t become too influenced by the original versions. And then we’d talk about it.” The first recording sessions with Lambert and his trio happened early in the fall, once the musical directions were well established.
“We got everything we needed to get out of our songs, and then Socalled and his collaborators started working with that material,” says Lambert. Such as American trombonist Fred Wesley, who wrote the brass arrangements. “Fred Wesley, on my friggin’ record, James Brown’s own arranger, can you imagine!” says Lambert.
Socalled agrees. “For Yves’ record, we needed the fusion to work flawlessly,” he says. “Create a true convergence between Québec’s traditional music and klezmer music, or Wesley’s funk, while using samples. It’s a delicate operation, each element needs to be carefully dosed. The rigodon, the turlute, podorhythmia, mandolin; I made up a mental list of what characterizes Québec’s traditional music and I tried to preserve those elements while coming up with new sounds.”
This musical collaboration between these two champions of folklore has paved the way for further projects, notably on original material, where two musical universes collide. Lambert is adamant: this is just the beginning. Stay tuned! Among the other ideas floating around is a stage musical that would retell a rich, yet forgotten chapter of the history of Montreal – written and composed by Lambert and Dolgin!