Caroline Savoie had toyed with the idea of a pursuing a pop music career long before getting early exposure in France in The Voice in 2014 and taking top honours at Québec’s Festival international de la chanson de Granby in 2015. Those initial experiences helped her lose her morbid fear that her folk music might become contaminated by a “sweet pop” label. “Now I deal with it,” she says.” But for quite a long while, I was afraid of getting caught up in a model that would stick with me for the rest of my career…”

The same fear caused her to think twice before competing on The Voice: “It’s funny, because in the beginning, I was very critical of myself,” she says. “Actually, the first time they invited me, I declined. However, seeing as we were talking about 10 million viewers… Business-wise, the rewards are so great, I would never have recorded in New York if I hadn’t done it, and I developed the best work ethic I ever had. Looking back, I’m very glad I did it.”

Savoie faced the maelstrom of pop music life with tact and resilience. “What you have to do is get into it deep enough to enjoy the visibility and the benefits, but not deep enough that you get caught up in the machine,” she explains. Now that her song-competition days are over, she’s putting great store in clarity as she prepares to officially launch her career by releasing her debut album. “I found it hard to play the covers game at times,” she says. “It’s not for everyone. I’m a songwriter, so if there’s one thing that The Voice really taught me, it is the ability to say ‘no’ at times, to stay grounded.”

Caroline SavoieThe Granby song competition was a major catalyst in Savoie’s quest to accept her pop “fate.” “I still can’t believe I won the Granby contest,” she says. “So many talented people have come out of there! It did a lot for my self-esteem. Better still, since I was slated to perform on the last night of the preliminaries, I was able to watch all 23 people who were scheduled to perform ahead of me! I think it helped me accept myself for what I am. My lyrics are very simple, I don’t try to wax too poetic… So I thought, ‘Yes, your lyrics are simple, yes, you perform pop songs, so deal with it and have fun!’” Seeing as she came out as the top winner, and collected some 15 prizes along the way, there’s no doubt that she did indeed “have fun,” and lots of it.

Poised to present us with her first official release on Spectra Musique, Savoie seems excited about what she and her top-notch accomplices have committed to tape. The album is produced by Jay Newland (Norah Jones, Eric Clapton, Paul Simon) and his musicians (Adam Levy on guitars, Dan Rieser on drums, Zev Katz on bass and Glenn Patscha on keyboards), and Savoie is still pinching herself at the good luck of having had the opportunity to work with them. “I was a bit afraid of getting there and finding out I was just another product,” she says, “but they really got into in the project, they were enjoying themselves. Jay only works with his favourite artists. The first song we recorded was ‘Aux alentours,’ and when we were done, I locked myself in the bathroom and cried like a baby because I was so overwhelmed!”


The album’s first single, “Y’en aura,” is a great source of pride for Savoie. “It’s a tune I wrote really fast,” she says. “I basically wrote it thinking about somebody specific, and I think I got it right. Onstage, it’s a song that gets a reaction from the audience, and I’m really proud of that.”

And how does she enjoy performing? “Actually, I think it feels a bit like being in my own living room,” she says. “I love interacting with an audience, telling stories, talking with people… I think there’s something very Acadian there. In New Brunswick, people are really simple and nice. It’s very typical… Y’know, the big metropolis is Moncton, and that’s [only] 100,000 people, so it doesn’t take long to feel at home.”

Thanks to her honesty and spontaneity, Caroline Savoie seems unlikely to be swallowed by the big bad machine after all. And that’s a credit to her artistic integrity.

Lisa LeblancShe could easily have stepped onstage once more and kept on doing what made her famous. And that was no small feat. In an era of austerity and tanking record sales, Lisa Leblanc sold 140,000 physical units of her first eponymous album, thanks to the success of her emblematic song, “Ma vie c’est d’la marde” (“My Life is Crap”), the kind of song that stays with you for your entire career, just as “Hélène” did for Roch Voisine.

“I was overwhelmed by the phenomenon,” says Leblanc, in hindsight. “I’m from the Maritimes. I love chit-chatting with people. My inspiration comes from the encounters I have, and the conversations I have, with people. But at that point, I had to put up a self-preservation mechanism, because there were simply too many people at once. It’s a beautiful problem to have, and I’ll always be grateful for my audience, but I simply can’t chit-chat with everyone for 30 minutes. On the one hand, you don’t want to hurt anyone, but on the other… I was exhausted, on the cusp of a real burnout.”

Then, in the Fall of 2014, her Highways, Heartaches and Time Well Wasted EP introduced us to another side of her. Not only was she now singing in English, but she did it in a supercharged, folk-punk-rock style. If her actual, intentional goal was to alienate commercial radio – which had always supported her anthemic Francophone choruses to that point – she couldn’t have done it any better. But the question remained: would she dare do that for her second full-length album, too?

“Life on tour is non-stop adrenaline. And then Pow! You have six months off to write new songs alone in your apartment. Hello, angst!”

The answer is loud and clear. Released on September 30, 2016, Why You Wanna Leave, Runaway Queen? is mostly in English, but its 12 songs form a motley collection of folk music styles: explosive on “Ti-Gars” (one of the rare Francophone songs on the album); traditional bluegrass on “Dead Man’s Flat”; nostalgic and minimalist on “I Ain’t Perfect, Babe”; introspective on “Why Does It Feel So Lonely (When You Are Around)”; and nearly Hawaiian on “Dump the Guy ASAP.” All of the guitar distortion is in place, and the banjo sounds as if it’s being played by the devil himself – especially on her brilliant cover of Motorhead’s “Ace of Spades.” Fans of her first album, beware: Leblanc is back where we don’t expect her. But her character and colourful personality are the same as ever.

“During the tour supporting the first album, we were playing it in an increasingly rock style,” she says. “The EP and new album are simply a reflection of that trend, and it’s even more obvious now. But this musical direction has nothing to do with singing in English. A French album would’ve sounded exactly the same. I think, ultimately, that it’s simply that I like movement. Standing still and trying to re-create the buzz of my first album held absolutely no appeal for me.”

This notion of movement will manifest itself throughout the interview. “Why You Wanna Leave, Runaway Queen?” is aptly titled. “It’s pretty much the sentence that summarizes the last five years of my life,” Leblanc explains. “It’s like I’m incapable of standing still. Ever since I left home, I stayed in Granby for a year to attend the École nationale de la chanson. Then, from 19 to 26, I was on tour non-stop. I’ve spent my whole adult life on the road. When that’s all that you know in life, how can you be expected to come home and just be ‘zen?’ That’s why there are so many musicians who come home and feel totally lost. Life on tour is non-stop adrenaline. And then, Pow! You have six months off to write new songs alone in your apartment. Hello, angst!”

Six months is exactly the amount of time Leblanc had before recording began for her new album, for which not a single song was written yet. So, instead of freaking out, she succumbed to the call of the open road: she embarked on a two-month road-trip across the U.S., her second one in as many years. “The first was a dream come true,” she says. “During the second one, I really took time to fully enjoy every moment. I met a ton of people. I took banjo lessons. I improved my playing, I played jam sessions here and there. I came back with a few song ideas. The block was finally over.”

Back in the city, she headed to the studio, where producer Joseph Donovan (Sam Roberts, The Dears) was waiting for her. After working with Louis-Jean Cormier for her first album, and Emmanuel Éthier for her EP, Leblanc was once again in motion. “I’ve been a Sam Roberts fan since my teens,” she says. “And it was Joseph Donovan who produced his third album, Chemical City, one of my favourites. I like starting from scratch and working with new producers and new musicians. It’s the same thing with this album; it’s an opportunity to start all over again and play small clubs in the U.S. That motivates me.”

Leblanc has nothing but praise for Donovan, who convinced Sam Roberts to sing on her song, “I Love You, I Don’t Love You, I Don’t Know.” “Joseph really helped me get over my writer’s block,” she says. “He coached me. We met every other week for writing lessons. I’m not a fan of routine, but being forced to work on this album was beneficial for me. It helped me convince myself that I’m a normal gal. I’m more ‘zen.’ I’m slowly getting to understand that travelling is fun, but it can also be fun to decorate your apartment and unpack your boxes.”

The release of Oobopopop, their bubbly but unpronounceably-titled album, is an opportunity to discover the leaner, meaner version of the formidable groove machine formerly known as Misteur Valaire. But fear not, the five-headed beast hasn’t lost any members, it merely simplified its name, reducing it to a simple surname. Enter Valaire, the latest incarnation of a constantly evolving band.

Yet, it’s only at the very end of our conversation that we touch on the name change, which turned out to be the least traumatic decision in the group’s history. When asked about it, KiloJules, Luis, Tô, France and DRouin can barely remember when it happened. No endless debates, just a desire to take things to the next level and subtly mark the passage. Change in continuity.

And there’s a lot of change on this very funky album, starting with the presence of a singer who could almost be considered a new, full-fledged Valaire member. Alan Prater is a living legend who once shared the stage with Michael Jackson. The Florida-born singer and musician is a familiar face to patrons of Montréal’s Dièze Onze bar, where he has a weekly gig with The Brooks. “The album’s underlying intention is quite simple: do some good to the people who hear it,” says Luis. “The lyrics are lighthearted and straight to the point, and they fit perfectly for Alan’s personality, because he’s a real party machine!”

There are other voices on the album, most notably Luis’, as well as those of their BFFs Fanny Bloom and Camille Poliquin (Milk & Bone). New York-based rapper Kahli Abdu and Pierre Kwenders are featured on the excellent “Apata Palace,” an explosive afro-funk,/hip-hop/soca number. Still, Prater’s voice stands out. “We used to pick our guests according to each song; if it had a rock or hip-hop vibe, we’d pick a singer that would be a good fit, without trying to establish continuity,” Luis explains. “It’s a fact that up to now, we’d never tried to define where vocals fit in Valaire,” admits Tô. “Enter Alan, and we immediately clicked. The first time he came in the studio to record his vocal track, he didn’t hesitate for a second and sang ‘I do the Oobopopop,’” remembers Jules. “It came out so naturally that we were all floored.”

“Everybody contributes their ideas and the ones that stick are the ones that best serve the song.” – France, of Valaire

When asked to describe the overall sound of their new offering, the band members turn to this journalist – “You’re the specialist, aren’t you?” says France with a wicked grin – but ultimately agree and settle on “funky.” The inspirations for the album were a trip to Louisiana (“We were just looking for somewhere warm in February”, offers DRouin), piles of 70s vinyl, and endless vintage hip-hop listening sessions. From that, the band members simply let the groove build organically. “Of all our albums so far, I think this is the one that will age the best, because it’s our most coherent yet,” says France.

That begs the question of how the songs – and cohesion – are born in this leaderless group. Who sets the tone? Everyone and no one, apparently. “Everybody contributes their ideas and the ones that stick are the ones that best serve the song. In the end, no one really knows who did what,” says France. “Certain members of the band have known each other for 25 years, so let’s just say our ego problems have long been resolved!” quips DRouin. “Strangely, though, we still haven’t found the Valaire recipe, but we’re still looking,” admits Luis. That’s not to say Valaire is devoid of a modus operandi: “The one thing that’s changed the most in the way we create over the years is technology. We use Dropbox a lot,” says Tô. “Even if we’re all in the same room, as soon as one of us comes up with a nice riff or a good sample, we drop it in the box,” Jules explains. “Once it’s there, everyone is welcome to use it, revisit it, transform it.”

Thus, by pilfering their sonic treasure trove, the Valaire boys came up with their most organic album yet. “We’re like an old couple; there’s a ton of stuff that happens naturally, without the need for words,” says Luis. They may be an old couple, but thankfully for us, their passion hasn’t dwindled.