On his album Parce qu’on aime (Because We Love) the young father sings about the ups and downs of a couple who’ve become parents, as well as those of a planet that seems to have subscribed to hatred.
Corneille isn’t a powerful social media presence, but you can still find a few pictures of he and his partner dressed to the nines on one red carpet or another.
Quite the opposite of the daily grind chronicled on Parce qu’on aime, the eternal gentleman’s eighth album. The record features 11 songs, without the typical sort of filters that transform truth into a fairy tale for the sake of the song. To wit, the unequivocal, and unfiltered, title of the second song: “Manque de sommeil” (“Lack of Sleep”).
“When you’re successful, you get the impression you need a formula, but there is none, and that makes us super-insecure,” says the 41-year-old artist, about the doubt he’s long harboured, and finally sheds on this album. “It’s a danger that faces most artists who are very successful right from the start: when you start looking for that formula, you lose your spontaneity, your creativity, and your authenticity. It can quickly become tiresome when, every time you walk onstage or release an album, you’re betting your own life on it – when it could simply be cool, simple, and easy. Being creative requires you to be bold, to get to the bottom of things, and often, getting to the bottom of things simply means fundamentally remembering who we are.”
It turned out to be just as cool, simple, and easy as an SMS he got from his wife, Sofia de Medeiros. “What if we told our story as parents?” wrote his wife, and official lyricist (since 2009’s Sans titre) while he was in the studio. What if they told the story of the storm that’s rocking their days and nights, that fills their hearts with joy, and makes the bags under their eyes heavier every day?
“We were right in the middle of it all, we weren’t getting enough sleep, and it had an impact on our entire lives. We were incredibly irritable,” says Corneille, laughing. The father of a three-year-old daughter and an eight-year-old boy now sings (although they’re her lyrics): “Ne me regarde pas comme ça / Je ne t’aime pas moins / Je nous ai juste perdus de vue / Ça fait des années qu’on ne dort pas / Ce n’est pas que je suis loin / C’est la fatigue qui m’a en garde à vue.” (Don’t look at me like that / I don’t love you any less / I’ve just lost touch with us / We haven’t slept in years / It’s not that I’m far away / Exhaustion has me in its custody).
“We thought it was a good song to write, precisely because it’s not an Instagram theme,” says Corneille. “A song about sleep deprivation is not quite sexy, but we wanted to talk about the transformation of love, from the passion of the beginning to becoming deeper and deeper. We wanted to chronicle the daily lives of two people who chose each other to overcome the inevitable adversities of life. We need to talk about the less spectacular and less idyllic side of love.”
Although Corneille’s music is hip to current American R&B and pop sounds, he also adheres to the great tradition of soul – one that embraces life, and avoids music that’s only about bodily impulses. Thus, he’s simultaneously a father and a citizen on Parce qu’on aime, an album where, on the song “Philadelphie,” he salutes Ella Fitzgerald as well as Boys II Men in a homage to the city, a Mecca of unpretentious music.
“Making soul music is an attempt to be true,” says the man who hasn’t been truer since Parce qu’on vient de loin (2002), the album that introduced him to audiences in Québec and in France, but that also revealed his horrible past.
The new impression we get, being re-acquainted with someone with whom we’d lost touch, isn’t just an impression. Although he was never totally absent, it’s true that for quite awhile he hadn’t inhabited his somgs with as much intensity as he did when he sang about his urgency to live (Parce qu’on vient de loin), the insistence of his inner demons (Seul au monde), or his craziest ambitions (Rêves de star). His previous project, Love & Soul, was, after all, a covers album.
“It takes two to tango,” he says. “My absence was largely my choice. I needed to take a step back and I put my energy elsewhere: into my marriage, my family, my psychological reconstruction. I went to therapy, a thing I hadn’t done at the peak of my success, and that meant less time to promote my albums… Plus, I did offer songs to radio stations, but they didn’t play them. There are cycles that are beyond our capacity to understand [re: audiences, radio], and not over-think. We don’t control anything, and I feel reassured, now, to know that.”
Taking Time to Say Things
So not only does he voice his feeling of powerlessness, when it comes to the world’s many injustices, on a song like “Tout le monde,” Parce qu’on aime’s first single, but Corneille actually tackles current events on “Le chant des cygnes,” a song that was inspired by the SLĀV “scandal.” (The Robert Lepage play about slavery that initially had employed no Black actors, or people of colour, and was cancelled because of it.)
“In the first verse, I sing, ‘Pardonnez-moi mon offense/ Si j’étais toi,/ C’est comme ça que j’aimerais que ça commence’ (‘Excuse my offence / If I were you / That’s how I’d like it to begin’), and that summarizes how I feel about it. When I sing that, I’m putting myself in the place of people who thought it made no sense that a stage play about slavery would not feature a single black actor. It’s an utterly legitimate complaint, although the violence with which some people expressed themselves is very debatable. The only way to defuse the situation is to tell the offended person: ‘I respect your feeling, it is totally valid.
“However, right now,” he continues, “everyone immediately polarized: ‘Freedom of expression! Artistic freedom!’ If you address an issue without first admitting that it’s valid, the person who’s complaining can only escalate. It all lacked a lot of tact, sensitivity, and subtlety. And immediately after, there was a kind of backlash: ‘Are you calling us racists?’ No, all we’re saying is that being Black means having a unique experience of the world, which does not automatically mean white people are the Great Oppressor.”
But why didn’t he express himself publicly about this? Because he’s very conscious of the fact that, in the middle of a crisis, even the most level-headed words run the risk of being distorted, or worse, unheard.
“We’re all under the impression we need to say a maximum of things in a minimum of time, but there are subjects that cannot be debated if you don’t take the time required,” says Corneille. “Cultural appropriation is a much too complex issue to debate with tweets.”
The Wisdom to Love and Listen to Oneself
Parce qu’on aime: the title is both an intimate assessment, and a wish for a humankind that – based on the hate-filled pollution in our online lives – doesn’t seem to have chosen kindness.
“I notice, just like everyone else, the polarization of our online lives and of our collective lives,” says Corneille. “I see the disarray, and the sadness, that comes from this desire to exist in the eyes of others. We all want others to think we’re hot, smart, and gorgeous, which is completely unrealistic.”
Pardon the slightly sappy conclusion, but Corneille maintains that the only important thing is how the people we love see us, as well as making sure the actions we take are, as much as possible, true to the voice inside each of us.
“I came to a point in life where I realized every time I didn’t listen to myself, I failed, and every time I did, things worked out,” he says. “Not necessarily on a commercial level, but every time I listened to my inner voice, I grew as a person.”