Mercure en mai (Mercury In May) is a simply beautiful title, according to Daniel Bélanger, who has released the 12th album of his 30-year career. Anyone living in Québec during the past three decades can whistle one of his songs, some of which might even, for some, be the soundtrack to a crucial moment in their life, and evoke nostalgia whenever they hear it. Whether in May or at any other point in the year, he’s always had a unique perspective on the days of our lives, and the time that goes by.

Daniel Belanger“Here’s how to choose a title in three easy steps,” says Bélanger. “Mercure. That word has always resonated with me. When I was a kid, my brother came home with quicksilver [liquid mercury, i.e., mercure, in French], and I found it fascinating. Mercury is also the planet closest to our sun, and I wanted this album to be very luminous. May is the fifth month of the year, and I come from a family of five siblings. I even called an astrologer friend and asked, Mercure en mai, what does that mean? He said, ‘It means absolutely nothing, Daniel.’ I said, ‘Perfect!’”

The singer-songwriter has forged ahead with several projects at once, over the course of the last two years: a poetry book, Poids lourd, which was published by Les Herbes Rouge in the late summer of 2022; an instrumental album, Travelling, released during the pandemic – which is the soundtrack to Luc Picard’s movie Confessions; and, of course, Mercure en mai.

“I had the poems in Poids lourd since 2019,” says Bélanger. “Luc Picard reached out to me about scoring his movie while I was working on my album. The pandemic afforded me freedom in each of those projects,” says the artist, who gladly switched from one discipline to the next.

Words exist without music for Poids lourd, Bélanger’s first book of poetry. “A poem is only concerned with itself, whereas a song’s lyrics are like [part of] a couple,” says Bélanger. “They have a project, and they need to have a talk with the music. It’s tedious to set a poem to music. A poem already has its own musicality embedded in the words. I’n thinking of Robert Charlebois’s ‘Sensation,’ a song where he used a poem by Rimbaud. He succeeded beautifully. You need to think of everything… The music needs to think of everything.”

In a film, however, the music also thinks about the image, and reacts to it like a custom glove. “They send me 20-minute sections of the movie,” says Bélanger. “Obviously, I don’t start by scoring the end of the movie, but sometimes, I’ll place an arrangement at the end of a 20-minute segment, and then I circle back to the beginning of it. I always work with a first draft, followed by fine-tuning – once I get the bigger picture. It’s a bit like making a pie before cutting the excess dough around it.”

When it comes to writing the text of a song, Bélanger always starts with the music, which becomes the guide for the lyrics – never the reverse “Except for ‘Joie’ and ‘Dormir dans l’auto,’ songs for which lyrics were already written, he says. “They were like hockey players waiting for the draft, but it had been a very long time since I’d worked that way.”

After circling back to listen to all the songs he’d written willy-nilly for Mercure en mai, Bélanger examined the lot and questioned himself. “I had a full month of work before me, and I thought it was all quite luminous. Then I said to myself ‘The challenge now is to not kill all that light,’” he says, laughing. “But at the same time, my outlook on things has changed over the years. Who knows? Maybe three years from now I’ll feel like this is a very pessimistic album. But there’s no doubt I was influenced by the lifestyle imposed on us by the pandemic. Except I didn’t want to talk about that; it’s all we heard around us, how life was hard. So I set to work in a transformation factory: starting with a harsh reality and transforming it into something a little brighter. I humbly believe it was a very noble endeavour.”

Thirty years ago, Bélanger introduced Québec to a writing style and a way of doing things that – over time, but relatively quickly nonetheless – became a bona fide classic. His debut album, Les insomniaques s’amusent, released in 1992, included the hit singles “Ensorcelée,” “Opium,” and “Sèche tes pleurs,” songs that unite people no matter what the current dominant emotion of the group is.

“There’s nothing left of the way I worked 30 years ago,” says Bélanger adamantly. “Technically, I composed with a guitar, a pen, and a piece of paper. I didn’t have the means to record at home. I worked in a studio with a producer, who had his idea of what it could be. I knew what I didn’t want, but I had no idea what I wanted.”

In hindsight, Bélanger’s incredibly grateful to have had the chance to work with Rick Haworth, who left his sound unadulterated. “I was in good hands before I reached a point where I was technically competent and had the means to my ends,” he says. “Nowadays, I can basically do everything from my home studio. I only go out to record drum tracks.”

The final musical product to which he now has access is the result of a reflection process that occurs ahead of the range of possibilities. “I think a lot,” he says, “because everything is possible. Do I replace my bass with someone else’s? Who’s going to do what, so it’s even better? These are questions related to composing, that will force me out of the studio.”

As a creator without a clear modus operandi, intuition is the soil in which Daniel Bélanger’s creations grow. ‘It’s often the first line I write for a song that will determine the subject matter and the universe where it will live,” he says. “It’s not necessarily the music that inspires further musical ideas.” Notwithstanding his solo ideas, Guillaume Doiron (bass) and Robbie Kuster (drums) also dropped by Daniel’s studio for this album, after which Pierre Girard took charge of the mix.

And if these new songs seamlessly weave in and out of the classics he plays live, it’s out of a concerted effort to respect the past. “It’s my older songs that have allowed me to live the life I live. I will never disrespect those songs,” says Bélanger. “I’m always happy to perform them. People have heard me sing some of those songs for 30 years, so there’s always someone crying when I perform one live. It doesn’t take much to create nostalgia. Some of your first album’s songs are already part of someone’s memories when you release your second one. We listen to music alongside what we’re going through. Music is a breath of fresh air. But despite all that, each album represents, for me, the present.”

In his view, the song “Soleil levant,” from Mercure en mai, could never have existed on Les insomniaques s’amusent. “It would’ve been impossible,” says the songwriter. “There’s electronic drums in there, and I wrote it on the bass – something that, back in those days, would’ve been more of a production choice. The technical side facilitates things for me, it’s become my language.” But although studio-based decisions and actions are choreographed to better carry their message, this doesn’t mean Bélanger is a fan of written music. “I don’t write and I don’t read sheet music,” he says. “I don’t work with pieces of paper. When we recorded Chic de ville (2013), we went to Nashville to record the strings with Carl Marsh. Michel Dagenais, who was co-producing the album with me, sent him the sheet music. At that point, he was closer to a translator than anything else,” Bélanger remembers with a chuckle.

From 1992 to 2022, eras and trends have changed, ideas have evolved and so has our worldview. Themes such as the seasons, time, and the human condition have evolved in Bélanger’s body of work, as he confirms. “I’ll always be inspired by the world I live in,” he says. “Solitude will always be a source of inspiration. Whatever an individual has to confront when they step out of their home, because of their status, and what they experience in our society. What I find very interesting, and what will always be topical, is the effect of the outside world on individuals.”

If it could be said that Bélanger creates his songs the same way one would create a jigsaw puzzle: He’s the only one who knows how many pieces there are, and what the finished product looks like. “At the end of the day, it’s quite an ‘in-my-own-head’ kind of process,” he says. “I have a very hard time describing how I feel from one moment to the next. Take ‘Soleil levant.’ I wanted it to feel like someone zapping [channel surfing]. I realized I could do something that felt like when you’re zapping on your TV or tablet. I feel like we’re constantly zapping from one moment to the next. Each solo could last longer, each moment too, but we move on to the next one. It’s a metaphor for my life.”

Initially launched to respond to the pandemic, First Up with RBCxMusic has strived to help emerging musical artists with funding, marketing, and educational programs ever since. Back in the Spring of 2020, the fund started by helping more than 100 artists with $1,000 each, towards creating performances to be streamed on the RBCxMusic Instagram channel. Each week, a new slate of artists could be seen and heard, Thursday through Sunday evenings, throughout that first summer of COVID.

Shannon Cole, RBC’s Vice President of Brand Marketing, explains why the program was originally created, as a virtual performance series to support emerging Canadian recording artists. “[When the] industry came to a complete standstill, the other trend that we were seeing was that musicians, by and large, have secondary [employment] in service, or restaurant, or retail [businesses], so they were also decimated in their supplemental income,” she says. “Our funding was spent in a typical summer on music and festivals. We were able to re-direct some of that money… to support artists that had suffered a huge loss of income due to the pandemic.”

First Up: The Current Cohort

Ari Hicks – Toronto
Bebe Buckskin – Calgary
Cec Lopez – Winnipeg
DESIIRE – Toronto
Jennie Harluk – Calgary
Jhyve – Toronto
Kennen – Newmarket, ON
Kin Crew – Halifax
KROY – Montréal
Logan Richard – Charlottetown
Ludic – Surrey, BC
MICO – Toronto
Olivier Faubert – Montréal
Pisceze – Toronto
Shantaia – Warman, SK
Stun – Winnipeg
T-Rhyme – Saskatoon
Vox Rea – Vancouver
Zenesoul – Brampton, ON

Since then, First Up with RBCxMusic has evolved dramatically. In 2021, it supported 27 new artists, along with nine from the first group, again helping with enhanced live performances (where government guidelines allowed), mentorship, media & promotional support, and networking opportunities.

With live performances now back on the table, First Up with RBCxMusic shifted gears. “We’re all kinds of delighted to welcome the return of live music,” says Cole, “so a lot of what we’re able to do now is provide performance opportunities, live and in the flesh, for some of our roster of First Up artists.”

Cole calls the 2022 version the most comprehensive version of the program to date. “We were excited to provide elevated performance opportunities through our partnership with Live Nation Canada and regional partners,” she says. Working with them, the 19 members of the current cohort have had opportunities to appear at sponsored events across the country, including, RBC Bluesfest in Ottawa, the Cavendish Beach Music Festival in the Maritimes, the RBC Canadian Open, and the Toronto International Film Festival.

This year’s cohort also had the opportunity to participate in an Artist Summit, hosted by the Canadian non-profit Conscious Economics. Attendees were invited to in-person seminars about networking, finances, development, and learning. “These are very, very dedicated to their craft and their industry,” says Cole. Another new partner in the program has helped to curate the artists that participate. Recognizing that bankers aren’t necessarily music experts, First Up RBCxMusic invited AWAL, an alternative to the traditional record label, to help with the selection process.

Cole also describes diversity and inclusivity as imperatives. “RBCxMusic really believes that a career in music should be accessible to every artist who’s talented, passionate, and driven. That’s really our guiding principle,” she says.

She explains that measuring the success of the program is complicated. “An artist’s trajectory is so subjective and unique that we don’t necessarily look at specific metrics to track an individual artist’s success,” she says. “But, from a macro level, we put a ton of value on the feedback that we receive from our partners, and from the artists. We’ve had overwhelmingly positive feedback to date. I think even you and I chatting today puts some value and recognition on the program from the industry, and from leaders like SOCAN. I think that’s the validation that we need and desire at this point, to know that we’re on the right track and that we need to keep going.”

The artist feedback is indeed positive. “The RBCxMusic program has provided me with the tools to scale my career both here in Canada, and also on a global level – something very important for me as a Queer, first-generation-immigrant musician,” says DESIIRE, one of the program’s beneficiaries. “The team at RBCxMusic has provided me with the platform to have my music and story shared to a whole new audience.”

Cole is optimistic for the future of the First Up with RBCxMusic. “Our goal is to build on the momentum,” she says. “It’s been a phenomenal year for live music. I think we’re going to see that continue. I’d love to broaden the opportunities with our First Up featured artists, and that can be in a number of different ways. Whether it’s live performances, or even just P.R. or media opportunities for these artists. Just getting their names, faces, music out there to the world.

“Something I find terribly rewarding, that we’ve heard from the feedback, is that networking and mentorship with industry leaders is something with which we can help,” says Cole. “That’s the connective opportunity in which we have a role to play, and something that I’d like to see continue. Just more of what we’re doing, and more impact.”

First Up with RBCxMusic looks forward to sharing more about how artists can apply in 2023. Follow @RBCxMusic on Instagram for updates on applications opening. When they’re open, they’ll be available here.

ThaisIn the second half of her twenties, Thaïs is looking straight ahead and finding a perfect balance for the pieces of her life. Accustomed to living with the type of fear that leads to pride – and convinced that grief leaves faster when dancing than when feeling sorry for yourself – she arrives with a fully-formed album that allows us to see both sides of a coin without having to flip it. On Oct. 7, 2022, she pieces everything together: Act 1 and Act 2 of Tout est parfait will become whole, and form her first LP.

“I cry when I’m happy. I cry when I’m sad,” says Thaïs. “I love contradictions, and this project is a bit like a statement that says, ‘OK, it’s sad, but let’s dance.’’’ The singer-songwriter is comfortably with the kind of spontaneity that comes by collecting endless song ideas in her phone, knowing that she’ll have to circle back to them. “There will always be a dose of solitude and melancholy in what I do, but I feel in control, I love my life,” she says.

The first stage of Tout est parfait was born during a creative bubble, alongside Renaud Bastien, during the pandemic. “I really enjoy recording demos on my own and then, with Renaud, who co-produced the album, it becomes easier to express what I want to,” says Thaïs. In this two-headed production process, the young singer-songwriter feels the need to hold the pieces together herself, to make sure that nothing escapes.

“I think it’s important that I reclaim that as a woman,” she says. “To confirm that I can make things happen. Producing as a team does bring some fresh air to my music, and lets my songs breathe while they’re in someone else’s hands.”

Her creative mode is often triggered by solitude. “I doodle on my keyboard and play around in Logic,” she says. “I create rough sketches of beats, with no precise idea of what they’ll become. I play songs that I’m obsessed with over and over, and I use elements I love as starting points for my own creations, a bit like you would trace a drawing and create an entire new one with your own style. It almost becomes an exercise in style.”

Relationships, family and heartbreak are central to her work, but all of that is presented as a huge fresco that’s not easily deciphered. “I’m very prudish, all things considered,” she says. “You’ll understand a lot if you take a moment to look a little closer.” It’s very important for her to place imagination at the heart of things, not just for her own power to generate ideas, but also ours.

“We can question, imagine, philosophize with Tout est parfait,” says Thaïs. “I’ll turn 27 this fall, and I often wonder what I did with all the time I wasted. But is that time really wasted? I want to know if I’ve properly managed my time on Earth so far.” Not a lighthearted line of questioning! “I know!” Thaïs says, giggling. “It’s intense, but I’m a lot less of a party pooper than I used to be. I dive deep into stuff that upsets me, but it’s to better emerge with something that makes me feel good.”

Once the songs were finished, the two acts were presented to the team as a matter of course: “Something happy and dance-y in Act 1, and something with autumnal melancholy and tranquility in Act 2.” It’s also to make the pleasure last that things are done this way. “We work so hard on these songs. We want the pleasure to last as long as possible,” says Thaïs.

She thinks of the song “Banksy” as “a bridge between her present and her future.” “It’s not the most radio-friendly, or the most danceable, but I open my shows with it because it’s kind of a portrait of who I am today,” she says.

Speaking of live shows, she does explore a variety of approaches. Jérémie Essiambre regularly joins her for a duo show. Then Antoine Perreault sometimes joins them on guitar. And on the album proper, we hear strings, played by Eugénie Lalonde and Camille Poirier-Vachon. “It’s super-moving to hear that. I played those strings lines on my keyboard, but it takes on a whole new dimension when it’s played in the flesh, there’s something magical about it,” says Thaïs.

Armed with her début album, she’s poised to conquer Europe as the opening act for Cœur de pirate. “I feel very lucky, and I sometimes find that de-stabilizing, but I always do everything with joy,” she says. “I talk about shows in Europe like it’s super-normal, but I’m always kind of pinching myself.”