On Encre rose, his ninth album, Corneille sincerely lays bare his lucid vision of the world, and gives life to a dream he’s been cherishing for a long time: paying homage to early-‘80s soul and R&B.

Corneille“I’ve always wanted to do an album that was painted with that colour palette,” says the singer, a fan of Stevie Wonder, Hall & Oates, Prince, Luther Vandross, Shalamar, and so many more artists who left their mark on that era.

And in this case, “always” means for at least the past 15 years. Fifteen years during which the singer-songwriter kept his desire buried deep inside himself.

Yet two songs on his previous album (“Manque de sommeil” and “Le bonheur”) hinted at this musical direction, with rhythmic guitars, funky basslines, and an almighty groove. Corneille was finally letting go.

“The issue, as far as I’m concerned, is that it [the late ’70s and early ’80s] was a period where soul and R&B were all about love songs, and it’s not in my DNA as a writer to go towards that theme,” he says. “I didn’t want to be limited,” he adds, as an explanation for the time it took to come out with this project. “It’s the music I listen to in my car, the music I’m a fan of, so I was very conscious of the amount of work it was going to require. I was a bit shy and reserved, because I’m so intimately bonded to that music.”

To achieve this coupling of the music he loves with his songwriting DNA, Corneille opened himself up to the world, and everything that’s upended our daily lives and societies since he released Parce qu’on aime in 2019. “I found inspiration in the emotionally-charged news about this unprecedented time, when the West has never been so fragile,” he says, referring in particular to the pandemic, and the global geopolitical balance which, in recent months, has gone from unstable to completely chaotic. “I wanted to make sure this would be genuinely introspective.”

Corneille’s intent with this new offering is for it to be like an outstretched hand, an invitation to re-build bridges. As the title indicates, the lyrics are a reflection of the images of love, passion, and tenderness, and of the colour pink (“rose” in French). “We need to hear that kind of message, because while we lived through a pandemic and a political crisis, there was another crisis: the one of words,” he says. “We were swimming in vitriol and inflammatory discourse, and I myself let myself be caught in the taking-sides trap. The more I got caught in that mindset, the less I could recognize myself,” he confesses. “For a long time, I comforted myself by thinking it was easy to have a dialogue with me… Until the pandemic happened, until [the death of] George Floyd happened, until the #MeToo movement happened… I realized that I was just like everyone else, and I could be quick to pass judgment. The more I gave in to these natural human impulses, the worse I got. I asked myself what layer I felt like adding. Should I add a layer of anger? Do we feel like exploring new avenues? I had only one priority when I wrote those words: opening a dialogue. And the only way to do that is through benevolence.”

The path to this reflection was facilitated by the singer’s wife, Sofia de Medeiros. The actress, model, and Portuguese-Québécois lyricist, to whom he’s been married for 16 years – wrote or co-wrote the lyrics to all 10 of the songs on the album. “Each one of these songs is an extension of a conversation I had with Sofia,” says Corneille. “To be honest, the main thing I learned is that we would benefit from managing our societies the same way we manage our couples relationships,” he says.

I had only one priority when I wrote those words: opening a dialogue”

“The worst thing that can happen to a couple is not being on the same wavelength,” he continues. “It’s OK to disagree, but the goal is to not go to bed angry. You share responsibilities and interests. And a harmonious couple is one that understands its common interests. These last few years have made us understand that everything that’s happening in China, Africa, and now in Ukraine, is of concern to us, too. The notion of inter-dependency is applicable now more than ever, which is where seeking our common interests kicks in. And that’s why it’s important to build something together. This lesson from married life can be applied to every aspect of everyday life. It’s a huge challenge, but it’s commensurate with the need.”

If his marriage is the foundation of the reflections that populate his new songs, his children are largely responsible for the clearly optimistic tone. “That’s the great novelty in my optimism!” he says, in a kind of self-congratulation. “As a father of two, I’m more anchored in real life. My first albums were created in a kind of utopia, but nowadays, I have to include reality in what I do. Besides, I find hope more powerful when it relates to something real.”

And hope does shine brightly on many of his new songs, especially on the scorching “Pause, Nouveau monde” and “Nouveau pouvoir.” Yet, it’s on other, less immediately attention-grabbing songs, that hope takes on a deeper meaning. A nod to Muhammad Ali’s one-time boxing technique, which consisted of voluntarily staying on the ropes in order to let the opponent tire himself out by dishing out the blows, “Rope-a-Dope” symbolizes “a different approach to life,” which relies on resistance rather than constant and necessarily exhausting attack.

*“People didn’t get what Ali was doing at first, but then it dawned on us that he was waging a psychological war on his opponent by exhausting him physically,” says Corneille. “Then, at the very end, he dealt a blow that ended the fight. It’s a beautiful metaphor for life: sometimes we feel like we have to retaliate to every single blow life throws at us. Except sometimes it’s better to avoid those blows, and save our best for the right moment. The whole idea is to save one’s precious time.”

“Saving one’s precious time” is also the message that carries “Petit pas,” a song Sofia and Corneille have dedicated directly to their eldest son, now 12 years old. “It came from something Sofia and I realized: nothing ever moves fast enough for him,” says Corneille. “He wants to get there before he gets there! And as we tried to show him that not everything had to go so fast, we realized that we were also teaching ourselves a lesson.

“As adults, we’re all caught up in this fast-paced culture, both in the professional realm, and in the more intimate realms of our lives. But the absurdity of it all is that we’re racing against people who aren’t even going in the same direction as us. The result is that a lot of people get to their destination, but feel just as empty as when they started. They ran during all that time, but they’re not even happy to have made it to the finish line,” he says. “In a 100-metre dash, there’s only one destination: the finish line. It makes sense to be competitive in that context. But that’s sport. Life is not a competitive sport.”

Corneille knows what he’s talking about when he says that. He learned it in the wake of his meteoric rise to fame with his first two albums. “That was in 2005 and 2006, when I was at the peak of my career,” he says. “I was playing sold-out arenas in Europe like the Zénith, series of concerts at the Olympia… And at the end of each show, I felt empty. I’d then go to my five-star hotel room and think I wasn’t getting anywhere, spiritually, no better than when I was in my flat in Longueuil before it all took off.

“I’ve put so much effort in for my career, sacrificed so much thinking everything would be fine once I made it. Except nothing was fine, and I got more problems instead! Managing success is not easy. No one teaches you how to manage that,” he confides. “The thing is, it’s a lesson that’s very hard to convey, much like ‘money can’t buy happiness’. So yeah, I do understand what motivates everyone to run like they do.”

He understands, but has chosen to slow down; baby steps. This is the new Corneille, one who now understands the power of scaling back.