CanaillesWalking the tightrope between live shows, painting the town red, and hundreds of hours spent between nine people in a tour van, Canailles managed to arranbge for the launch of their third album, Backflips, which comes out April 28, 2017. We met with Daphné Brissette (voice, melodeon) and Erik Evans (mandolin, voice) over great pints of a very floral IPA, as they – the musicians, not the pints – explained how folk/bluegrass musicians often have much more rock ‘n’ roll lives than rock stars.

“It’s when we play live that I’m reminded what we do is super-cool. I can’t imagine doing anything else, but still… Despite all the great times, I often wonder what I’m doing with my life,” says Brissette.

Not to worry, though. This kind of existential reflection occurs early in our conversation, simply because it’s related to the new album title. “To me, doing backflips is a way to let loose and be happy, a moment that’s very similar to madness,” says the singer. “It’s a way of letting go that’s typical of our lives within Canailles. We surf on that constantly, onstage and in real life. But backflips also give way to doubts: Should I let go? Do I have the right to let go? Am I having too much fun? Am I going to regret this tomorrow? Am I doing the right thing? I’m constantly thinking those things, and I know most of the other band members tackle those dilemmas, too.”

Without being unduly melancholy, several songs on the album touch upon that very subject: “Gna” (a stompin’ bluegrass number), “Tête en lieu sûr” (a nod to old-time Appalachian folk music) and “Backflips” (the title track, with vintage blues licks) all go there.

“Being a musician is f__ked up. You’re constantly giving. The only moment you’re not giving is when you’re writing. And the fact that your career can be over tomorrow is always in the back of your mind. You never know when everything is going to come crashing down.” — Daphné Brissette

What about the rest of the album? It’s imbued with all those magical moments Canailles has lived through by allowing themselves to do backflips, night after night. “I’m not very anxious by nature,” Erik Evans readily admits. “I understand Daphné’s worries, but I’m more in denial about them than her. If we’re going to crash into a wall, well, so be it; I’ll get back up. I only worry about not living the moment to its fullest. I constantly feel like I need to live today as if it’s my last day. Being a musician is a life of opportunities. When we’re on tour, I want to see everything, even if we’re only staying in that town for 24 hours. That’s what gets me going. It’s energizing, even though I always come home completely exhausted.”

The Belt of Shame

Luckily for the band members, this lust for life creates just as many memorable moments as it does doubts. “Our first album, Manger du bois, was quite a naive little number,” Evans recalls. “We wrote songs for the sake of writing songs. It’s a mish-mash of feelings, and we never expected anyone to actually listen to it. The second one, Ronds-points, is calmer. We worked with a deadline, we had to write. So we wrote about our hardships before and during Manger du bois. We got rid of our shit. For this third record, we took our time, and we focused on the fun we’ve had with Canailles since we started.”

The song “Margarita,” an eccentric country number, talks about alligators, a volcano and a Belt of Shame. It’s a compendium of glorious, or inglorious, memories, depending on the point of view, that are part and parcel of the Canailles mythology. It’s a spirit that’s earned a few members of the band (Bressette, Evans, guitarist Olivier Bélisle and percussionist Annie Carpentier) a unique nickname as “the shit team.” “The shit team is whoever can’t be found the day after a gig,” Brissette explains with a grin. “It’s the kind of people where you never quite know where and how they’re going to spend the night. Are they going to sleep outside, end up in the hospital, or puke in a corner? They’re the unreliable ones.” Vaguely related to Canailles, Bernard Adamus is also a member of the S Team. “He’s the Obélix of the group. He fell in the vat when he was a wee one!”

“The Belt of Shame is a typical shit team story,” adds Evans. “It happened at an outdoor music festival in Saint-Gédéon. We shared the stage with Québec Redneck Bluegrass. All the ingredients were there for an after-show party that would take no prisoners. We were supposed to crash at a nearby hostel, but, obviously, the shit team decided to not get on the shuttle and keep partying on-site. I got to the hostel at 9 a.m., I had no idea where my room was, and it doesn’t matter anyways, since we have to be outta there by noon. I decided to go swim in the lake, in the meantime, and I lay down on a picnic table. I haven’t slept all night. It’s 11 now. I fell asleep on the table bare-chested with my arms cross over my belly. At noon the sun hits hard, especially on a redhead. I got the worst sunburn in my life, except on my belly, where my arms had rested. It looked like I was wearing a white wrestling belt over my red body. Those marks were visible for a year. Even the next summer, the Belt of Shame would re-appear whenever I would catch some sun. That’s what being in the Shit Team is all about.”

Other members could resent the four S-Teamers, but Canailles is a close-knit group. If you ask them what makes them happy as a band, they’ll talk about their gigs, and those weeks spent writing in a cabin. As a matter of fact, even though the songs are mostly written by Brissette, Evans and accordionist Alice Tougas St-Jak, all songs are attributed to all the members of the band. “Regardless of who came up with a song, we always split the royalties in eight equal parts,” Evans explains. “We don’t care. We’re all in the same boat. Besides, each band member is in charge of their own arrangements. Our double-bass player, Antoine [Tardif] wanted to bring in a Hawaiian-inspired song. We assembled it together. Our drummer Étienne [Côté] came to the studio with new rhythms for the album. And pretty much everyone pitches in for the lyrics. We’re not about to start bickering about who did what to split the royalties.”

There’s a notebook entitled Code of Living in the glove compartment of Canailles’ tour van, and it’s another good example of the band’s esprit de corps – including the one member not named so far in this story, guitarist Benjamin Proulx-Mathers. The book is used to keep track of everyone’s good and not-so-good deeds, all of which are attributed a score. “So, if someone does something for the good of the band, they get points for that,” Brissette explains. “You bring a set of [the] pétanque [game] with you? Five points. Cleaning the van is also a good point earner. But you can also lose points if you do stuff that’s not in the band’s interest. Farting in the van loses you half a point. At the end of the tour, there’s a prize for the band member with the highest score. It may seem trivial, but we get so bored in that f__king van that the silliest thing entertains us.”

But according to Evans, what that game does, mostly, is turn the “unreliables” into ass-kissers. “I try to earn as many points as possible so I can fart,” he laughs. “Half a point might not seem like a lot, but when you’re nursing a hangover, it can add up really fast.”

It’s (almost) the end of the world as we know it, but for the moment, Katie Stelmanis feels fine. When I connect with the leader of electronic pop outfit Austra, she’s “in this weird tree house, in Amiens, a small town in the north of France – kind of in the middle of nowhere. It’s pretty sweet, actually!” The space is serving as her (literal) green room for a local show that’s part of a six-week European tour. While it certainly makes for a nice change from the usual graffiti-and-band-stickered backdrop you find in most backstage areas, it’s also the perfect setting to talk about Stelmanis’ latest album. It’s a record that’s consumed with deep thoughts on the state of our planet – and what humanity must to do to protect its proverbial rickety treehouse before its supporting branches collapse.

Future Politics is the third album Stelmanis has released under the Austra name, but, as its title suggests, it’s the first to really point her usual inward gaze outward. Informed equally by Naomi Klein’s eco-conscious critiques of capitalism, and the utopian promise of ’70s science fiction, Future Politics grapples with the fragile state of civilization – socially, economically, environmentally – but sees hope in technology’s mobilizing and liberating potential. By sheer fortuitous coincidence, the album was released on January 20, 2017, the same day a certain egomaniacal reality TV show host was inaugurated into the highest office of the world’s biggest superpower, effectively putting his itchy-Twitter finger on The Button. It’s a circumstance that has elevated Future Politics’ songs – whether the house-throbbed title track mission statement or the electro-shocked Mother Earth address “Gaia” – from speculative social commentary to unofficial soundtrack of #TheResistance.

Of course, such an outcome was the furthest thing from Stelmanis’ mind when she holed herself up in Montréal two years ago to start writing the record. “Future Politics is obviously more political than anything I had ever done, but I also wrote it before we’re in the position we’re in now,” she clarifies. “This was before Donald Trump was even on the horizon, before Brexit happened. I was just unearthing these problems on my own that I wanted to bring to light, and then they exploded into this neo-right wing movement. I don’t know if I could do it in the climate that exists today. I definitely wouldn’t make the same record right now.”

But for all its focus on the big picture, Future Politics also contains some intensely personal songs, like “I’m a Monster” and “I Love You More Than You Love Yourself.” For Stelmanis, they all come from the same unsettled place. “With a song like ‘Gaia,’ I wasn’t intending to write about climate change,” she says. “I was writing about the emotional reaction to reading about climate change and the degradation of the environment. It was based on a very real reaction and, to me, that reaction is not that different than breaking up with somebody.”

As Stelmanis tells it, writing in isolation – first in the midst of Montréal’s “cold, dark, depressing” winter, then in “colourful, warm, sunny” Mexico City – was a deliberate attempt at cutting herself off from the outside world, after spending the previous four years constantly touring and recording collaboratively with core bandmates Dorian Wolf (bass) and Maya Postepski (drums). “I always like to go to the opposite of what I’ve previously done,” she says, and it’s a theme that recurs throughout her musical career. Raised in Toronto, she received classical training for piano and voice as a child, only to turn her back on a future in the conservatory by picking up the guitar in her teens. “I don’t know why I started playing it, because I didn’t listen to guitar music,” she says. “I guess I liked Ani DiFranco. I used to do open mics, even though I didn’t really know how to play acoustic. I’d just do Spanish style; like, the strumming would be really fast and intense.”

“I wasn’t intending to write about climate change. I was writing about the emotional reaction to reading about climate change… To me, that reaction is not that different than breaking up with somebody.”

Alas, Stelmanis’ proverbial path to Lilith Fair was road-blocked when she befriended Emma McKenna, who inspired her to switch to electric and form Galaxy, a scrappy, punky power trio in the Sleater-Kinney vein. But once that short-lived group ran its course, Stelmanis pursed a solo career in earnest. In 2009, she released a debut album, Join Us, that bore evidence of her classical training, through its baroque piano arrangements and operatic vocal flourishes, but shot it through a mischievous, synth-freaked DIY spirit acquired through her time in the indie rock trenches. The record was released through the Blocks Recording Club, the Toronto co-operative that nurtured the rise of everyone from violinist Owen Pallett to hardcore heavyweights F__ked Up. And in the latter’s guitarist, Mike Haliechuk, Stelmanis found an unlikely mentor.

“I would send him tracks and he would offer advice,” she says. “It sounds counter-intuitive, but Mike has more of a pop mentality. He was able to make my songs more listenable, with more classic, regular structures and arrangements.”

With Haliechuk’s help, Stelmanis produced the demo that eventually landed her an international deal in 2010 with Domino Records under her new name: Austra. Though as Stelmanis sees it, “there wasn’t really a definitive transition. It happened really slowly. The Austra songs were more developed and more thought-out. They were recorded and mixed professionally, as opposed to the Katie Stelmanis stuff, which is way more DIY. I think Austra is just a more normal version of Katie Stelmanis.”

But if Stelmanis viewed that shift as a natural progression, to those who had followed her career up to that point, the contrast was blinding. Where the ultra-low-budget video for the calamitous 2009 track “Believe Me” sees Stelmanis and friends cheekily traipsing through the woods to stage a cosplay showdown between puritans and witches, the visual for Austra’s debut single, “The Beat and the Pulse” (initially issued as a 12-inch on Haliechuk’s One Big Silence imprint) introduced a much darker, more disturbing vision. Over the song’s icy, strobe-lit electro thump, Stelmanis presents herself as the peroxide-blond high priestess of an underworld strip club populated by mutant, demonic lap dancers.

That aesthetic boldness carried over to her live presentation, which has grown more elaborate and choreographed as 2011’s Feel It Break and 2013’s Olympia elevated her to the international touring circuit. Where Stelmanis once meekly tucked herself behind an electric piano when playing solo, with Austra, she holds court centre stage, dramatically punctuating her vocal ascensions with arm gesticulations like a goth Stevie Nicks.

“It was just a matter of becoming older, more mature and more comfortable in my own skin,” she says. “In the beginning, I just couldn’t take myself seriously and the imagery reflected that: it was always a bit tongue-in-cheek, and a bit of a joke, but that was just me being totally insecure in front of a camera. And over time, it’s become a learned thing. Now that I’ve been in front of the camera more, I’m a lot more comfortable with it. It’s easier to try to take yourself seriously and present an image you’re imagining in your head. But that definitely takes some courage.”

However, even as Future Politics cements Stelmanis’ reputation as one of the most striking and provocative voices in contemporary indie pop, she admits she’s still acclimatizing herself to certain aspects of life in the limelight. As the lines between the underground and mainstream have become ever more blurred, it’s not uncommon to see artists from the former realm take a crack at writing songs for artists who dominate the latter—think of Justin Vernon’s dalliances with Kanye, or Dirty Projectors frontman Dave Longstreth picking up credits on Solange’s A Seat at the Table. But when Stelmanis’ label recently suggested she collaborate with a seasoned L.A. song doctor, with the goal of shopping of the results around to the highest-paying diva, she couldn’t quite work up the gumption to accept the offer.

“Like, how would that work?” she ponders with a laugh. “It seems like such a cheesy thing to do. Like, does one person do the chorus? I can’t even fathom it. Writing is such a super-vulnerable thing for me, because 90 percent of what you do is probably terrible. So being in a room while other people are hearing that 90 per cent would be horrible! The world only ever hears the top 10 percent of what you’re working on.”

I first came in contact with Samuele’s universe two years ago, during the semi-final of Québec’s Francouvertes’ competition. Her song titled “Pas toi” (“Not You”) – in which a mother struggles to explain to her young child, with all the sensitivity such a thing requires, that it’s not the child their dad is leaving, but her – totally blew me away. I remember thinking that this woman was some kind of Hochelaga-born Lynda Lemay [Hochelaga is a poor and somewhat tough Montréal neighbourhood. – Ed. Note] I also thought that the song, included on Samuele’s 2011 EP Le goût de rien, boasts an outstanding lyric.

SamueleWe bumped into each other a few times after that at Le Plateau school, a music-oriented primary school where our kids both play clarinet in the wind-instrument orchestra. When the kids put on a concert, you can spot Samuele’s unruly blonde mane in the stage direction booth. I also heard that she works at the uber-cool Rock Camp for girls that takes place during the summer at La Sala Rossa. In short, I’ve been interested in Samuele’s career for a while now, because I feel she has something rich and unique to offer. And indeed, she graced us with her first “official” album on April 7, 2017.

There were a few projects, and many songs, before that: two English-language demos under the name Starless Sky, the aforementioned 2011 bilingual EP Le goût de rien, and 2015’s Z’album, which, according to the artist herself, was foretelling of Samuele’s current artistic birth.

“Le goût de rien left a bad taste in my mouth,” she says. “I found it hard. I was ready to give up singing and I decided to record Z’album so I could leave on a positive note… Then I played a few gigs as a one-woman band and found my confidence again. Once, during a sound check, I told my musicians that either the crowd would get into it, or I was moving to a commune to grow vegetables.”

Luckily for us, the crowd got into it. Samuele won the highest honours at the Festival international de la chanson Granby, which allowed her to pay for the mixing, mastering, printing and promotion of an album which was written and recording largely at the same time. Meanwhile, her identity as an artist came into focus. The blues in her folk-rock is now better integrated, and will stay that way.

“It’s a groove that comes to me naturally,” she says. “The riffs are simple and come from the gut. When I play music, I follow my instinct, my body takes the lead, not my mind. Over the years, through playing together so much, my musicians and I have forged our own sound.”

Samuele relishes the thought that posters with her album title – a feminist slogan that makes one smile and think at the same time – will be plastered all over Montréal. It’s a thought-provoking sentence indeed: Les filles sages vont au paradis, les autres vont où elles veulent (Good girls go to heaven, others go wherever they want). At a time when some people are questioning the place of women in music, and the recognition given to their work, Samuele arrives at the right time, with her strong, fulsome, and loudly claimed stance. To wit, the album’s opener, “Égalité de papier” (“Equal on Paper”), is a feminist manifesto:

Compte avec moi le nombre d’élues à l’Assemblée (Count along with me the number of women at the National Assembly).
Comment parler d’égalité quand ceux qui ont le pouvoir de décider si devrait ou pas naître un bébé n’ont jamais eu eux-mêmes le pouvoir d’en porter ? (How can you talk about equality when those with the power to decide if a child should be born or not don’t have the power to bear one?)
Comment t’expliques à une fille qu’elle est égale aux garçons quand jouer « comme une fille » c’est d’échapper le ballon ? (How do you explain to a girl that she’s equal to boys when people say she “throws like a girl”?)

Je joue aussi bien que le nombre d’heures que je consacre à ma passion et puis de toute façon, je joue comme une fille ; je joue bien, je joue fort et je ne m’excuse pas de prendre le décor. (My playing is as good as the number of hours I devote to my passion, and besides, I play like a girl: I play well, I play loud and I don’t apologize when I make a mistake.)

And Samuele doesn’t stop there: she follows up with “La sortie,” a superb song about self-determination that ‘s musically reminiscent of Tori Amos’ “Cornflake Girl.” “When I play that one live, I throw myself on the floor during the guitar solo!” she says. Samuele is free, and it always feels good to be in the presence of an artist that has both wings and horns.

The last time I saw her live was during the preliminary rounds of this year’s Francouvertes, where she played as part of the SOCAN-sponsored “J’aime mes ex” series. Between two songs and with her typical flair, Samuele – who is also a speaker for GRIS-Montréal (Groupe de recherche et d’intervention sociale) in high schools – de-mystified pan-sexuality, queerness, trans-sexuality and poly-amorous relationships, and she puled it off without making the rest of her show heavy.

Just before our interview ended, she taught me that there were neutral Francophone pronouns like “ille” and “iel” and that many things are being tried at the moment for people who define themselves as non-binary. “Saying and explaining stuff is in my nature,” says Samuele. “Making the invisible visible is a powerful process!” As is her music, strong enough to inspire each and every one of us: boys and girls, good ones and rebels.