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.
“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.”