“I’ve got a meeting at 2:30. If I have time for a quick pee and a coffee before we start, we’ll be fine,” she says, right from the start of our interview.

Managing an overloaded agenda at this time of year is perfectly normal for festival programmers like Isabelle Ouimet, who acts in that capacity for the Montréal International Jazz Festival and Les FrancoFolies de Montréal, Ouimet graciously agreed to answer Paroles & Musique’s questions, despite our timing, in the beating heart of festival season.

As if that wasn’t enough, her daughters have passed on their stomach flu to her, but the programmer soldiers on, in the knowledge that she’ll indeed wrap up the gargantuan show schedules for both events, year after year.

So how did she end up at major festival booking companies Spectra Musique and evenko (which programs Osheaga, IleSoniq, Lasso, Yul Eat, Heavy Montreal, and ’77)? Let’s take a look back.

What were her first musical loves? “That was way back!” says Ouimet. “I played horns in a marching band in St-Norbert, in Lanaudière, the village where Jean-Pierre Ferland lived.” In 1999, after finishing high school at the age of 16, she moved to Montréal to study at cégep du Vieux Montréal, graduating with a Bachelor’s degree in Journalism. “That’s when I started playing in bands,” she says. “And because I was a journalist for our student paper, I quickly came into contact with the local scene. Take Les Cowboys fringants: I became aware of those guys in 2000, around the time of their song ‘Léopold.’ At the very beginning, they were a band that was much closer in style to Les Denis Drolet.”

Arseniq 33 and Les Marmottes aplaties were also part of her musical landscape. “The proximity of Café Chaos to the cégep played a big role,” says Ouimet. “I saw all the artists you could imagine, as well as playing there myself. Later, I started hanging out at [nightclub] L’Escogriffe.” She remembers people like Luc Brien and Suzie McLelove (of Les Breastfeeders), Junkyard Dogs, etc. Thirteen years ago, she joined the band Buddy McNeil and the Magic Mirrors, “my first serious band, as a bass player,” she recalls.

Isabelle Ouimet“My first job in the business was copywriter at Annexe Communications,” she says. “The next one was at Bonsound. One of the bosses, Gourmet Délice, was my roommate back then.” Her first steps in the world of publicity and public relations then led her to Spectra, where she then switched to the agency branch of the company, in a role that was more marketing-oriented.

Next, she founded her own communications outfit, La Royale Électrique, a venture that lasted eight years. One of her clients was the M for Montréal festival. “My role as a programmer happened organically,” says Ouimet, “after working in basically all the other areas of the music industry, including a stint at Six Média.”

She started as a programmer for Coup de cœur francophone in 2017, and became Executive Producer at M for Montréal from 2018 to 2021. “I’m really into contemporary and experimental music, and all kinds of very niche genres,” she says. “It’s not quite the mandate of the Francos, even though there is a bit of space for that in it, but it remains a mainstream event that targets a varied audience. Let’s not forget, Francophone music is not a genre in and of itself.”

Somewhere both established and emerging artists are newcomers; the next generation. “Since I’m slightly more left-field and naturally more curious, I think Maurin [Auxéméry, the director of programming for the Francos and Jazz Fest] saw that as an opportunity to dig a little deeper in those niches. Obviously, it’s a lot easier to do that within the framework of the jazz fest. The amalgamations are multi-dimensional.”

As far as the Francos go, all major musical trends come alive. She mentions Aswell, Greenwoodz, Fredz… Speaking of the latter, she says, “Their aesthetic is different from that of their predecessors. They have TikTok accounts, they’re web personalities. The Francos is a place where you can give life to all your fantasies, while respecting the production costs and logistical limitations.”

At this year’s Montréal Jazz Fest, the large Rio Tinto stage has been moved East, to the Parterre Symphonique side, where there are already two stages. “That zone of the festival will be like a mini-fest within the festival proper,” says Ouimet. “Overlapping show times are my biggest challenge this year. It’s highly complex for a programmer to find a logic to it all.”

Access to the diversity of cultures if a hot topic lately. “The nice latitude of Spectra’s events is to remain free,” she says. “It’s a precious thing to be free of the pressure to be profitable. I can book an artist no one knows because I know it’ll be packed, no matter what. That’s the playground in which I can have fun.”

In other words, the Jazz Fest can dive right into a multitude of trends to create its own unique musical universe. “The goal of the festival is evolution,” says Ouimet. “I’ve booked more than 100 shows this year. We deal in big volumes as talent buyers.”

If we consider all the layers that have contributed to the development of Isabelle Ouimet’s career, this is indeed a peak – the result of 25 years of hard work to achieve her depth of knowledge.