The heady urge to go see what’s out there, further afield: that’s what motivated singer-songwriter Damien Robitaille over the past two or three years, during which he strayed away from the music world to better return to it with Univers parallèles, his fifth album – fourth for the Audiogram label – no less than five years after its predecessor, Omniprésent. Thus, the album, defined by big backing vocals and a disco-funk groove, is permeated by the theme of escape.
“Music is curiosity, the joy of discovery,” says Robitaille, reached on the road to Trois-Rivières during the a promotional tour for Univers parallèles. “I don’t like to repeat myself, just as I don’t like listening to the same music over and over again. And when I find something [new], I become obsessed. I recently discovered ABBA – I mean, of course, I knew ABBA, but I started seriously listening to ABBA, you know? Man, their stuff was good! Take ‘Dancing Queen,’ everybody knows that song, but when you listen carefully… My God, it’s good; the arrangements, the recording, everything!”
Maybe that’s what Robitaille needed to get back into the studio: re-kindling his excitement in the presence of music, 15 years after the launch of his first (self-produced, eponymous) album. Although he won’t spell it out: “An urge to go see what’s out there, further afield? Well… It’s more simply, that life kept throwing interesting projects at me, and I took them on.”
And so, recently, we watched him as an explorer of the American Francophonie in Bruno Bouliane’s excellent documentary film Un rêve américain (2013). He also co-hosted, alongside Vincent Gratton, the TV series Ma caravane au Canada, aired on TV5 and UNIS. “I also did TV shows about dogs… A whole bunch of different stuff, you know? I was busy enough that I didn’t feel the need to write as much…
In the end, TV and film are all well and good, but they take one away from music, “even though I did do a solo tour that lasted a year-and-a-half,” Robitaille insists. But after four years devoid of new material, “it was time to get back to it. Ultimately, I just needed to make an effort to find some time for it. It needed a conscious decision to pull the plug and devote an entire year to writing and recording.”
“So I said to myself, no influences. Let everything come out naturally and keep the best of it.”
The result: Univers parallèles, an album with no musical influences, as the artist likes to point out, to mark a clean break with Omniprésent, an album which championed his love of Latin music, “because my wife is Colombian.” This time, “I said to myself: no influences. Let everything come out naturally and keep the best of it.”
There’s less focus on a type or genre of music – which means the sound of the album isn’t country like L’Homme qui me ressemble (2006), nor Latin, as with Omniprésent. Produced by Carl Bastien, Univers parallèles’s golden thread is voices; his own, as well as those of Marie-Christine Despestre and Dawn Cumberbatch.
“When I laid down the demos, I played around and did my own backing vocals,” says Robitaille. “In the end, I felt like keeping my distance from the ‘digital’ sound of the previous album [recorded in a tiny Miami studio]. I wanted a live-in-the-studio album, at least as far as the percussion, drums and backing vocals – all three of us singing together – were concerned… I needed more soul.” Mission accomplished, especially on the closing trilogy of the superbly solemn “Chance en or,” followed by “Oasis” and “Ennemi imaginaire.”
But funky Robitaille is also back on this album, especially on another trio of songs: “Rêve récurrent,” “Sortie de secours” and “S.O.S.” One thing’s for sure, Robitaille knows how to do groovy R&B and funk in French. Do we hear some ABBA in there? “It’s actually more of a reggae influence,” says Robitaille, citing one of his past obsessions. “Roots, rocksteady, I absorbed all of it.”
Reggae Robitaille? We’d buy a whole album of that! “I think Homme autonome was my reggae album… but with soul arrangements,” he says. “Songs like ‘Plein d’amour’ or ‘Jésus nous a dit’… That one was directly inspired by a Junior Murvin song, you know which one I mean?” And he starts singing the first verse from “Soloman,” a song from the classic Police & Thieves album (from 1977, produced by the legendary Lee “Scratch” Perry): “Solomon was the wisest man / But he didn’t know the secret of a woman…”