Radio-Canada recognized her as the Breakthrough Jazz Artist of the Year in 2019, and this month, she’s on the cover of Châtelaine magazine, not to mention her 2020 JUNO for Best Jazz Album last summer. Dominique Fils-Aimé is one of the most prominent Canadian musicians of the moment, in all markets and languages. Her new album Three Little Words comes out Feb. 12, 2021.
She’s known for her ability to tame the blue note, making it work for her with ease, to write her own songs, and to tackle monumental classics like “Strange Fruit” without batting an eyelash, delivering an excellent rendition. To hear Fils-Aimé’s voice for the first time is to believe in the reincarnation of revered giants like Billie Holiday. It’s believing that, in the end, jazz has never died – even though Montréal has long since lost the El Morocco club, and other leading institutions of the golden age of cabarets and big brass sections. It’s as if she belongs to another era; a lost paradise.
On her third solo album, the final episode of a trilogy that started with Nameless in 2018 – a musical triptych imbued with a thirst for emancipation and freedom – Fils-Aimé extends her range, and her horizons. The album opens with “Grow Mama Grow,” a soul song with doo-wop tones, that also incorporates a clarinet score that evokes both the klezmer tradition and Arabian sounds. It’s difficult to choose one of two worlds so far away from each other, and that’s is precisely the point.
“There are influences that intersect, that have blended together to create something else,” says Fils-Aimé. “I allowed myself to use all the warm influences that I’ve listened to in my life. Music that comes as much from Latin America, as from the Ivory Coast or Cameroon, as from the Arab world. I fed off all that, and allowed myself to use everything I had consumed, and bring it out in this album.”
The album’s first three songs also borrow quite a bit from the Motown era, in large part because of the genre’s typical handclaps, mingling with joyfully repetitive choruses, and divine vocal harmonies that are entirely sung by Fils-Aimé herself. One would think they’re listening to an old vinyl record by The Supremes at the beginning of “While We Wait,” but the rest of the song quickly transforms into something closer to Gospel… something downright spiritual.
“My sister studied music, and her CD collection was almost like being in a record store,” she says. “Every day, while she was at school, I’d go shop in her collection, and I would choose one or two albums, not more, just so she wouldn’t notice. Some I played a lot more than others. I remember one Aretha Franklin album that I must’ve kept for about a month. I was fascinated by her voice. Those are among the first songs I memorized, even though I didn’t speak English.”
From catchy soul, the singer-songwriter switches to the blues (“Could It Be”) before entering a more introspective, meditative segment, made up of contrasting, sometimes luminous laments. The title piece breaks with this sadder yet hopeful passage, filled with a desire for redemption. From the very first bars, the percussion integrated into “Three Little Words” announces new colours, and an unexpected taste of African music – reminiscent of Fatoumata Diawara and Oumou Sangaré. What Fils-Aimé offers here is really in the same register as what these two Malian women are producing.
“It’s true that it’s different from what I’ve done in the past,” she says. “I wanted to get back to the roots, with primal rhythms that are really hard-hitting. Percussion has that effect on me. They hit me and make me want to move. There’s something incredibly organic about a taut skin vibrating over some kind of wood pillar. Percussion is almost visceral.”
Doing It for the Right Reasons
It’s common knowledge that Fils-Aimé dabbled in photography public relations before veering into music, but it’s definitely not because the singer was unaware of her own talent, or discovered it late, or by chance. She sang from a very young age. “I’d record myself on the answering machine when my mom wasn’t home,” she says. ”I’d sing songs that I liked, because I was curious to hear what I sounded like. I still remember how shocked I was when I heard myself for the first time, but I didn’t care, because I loved singing so much. I told myself that I’d sing in key eventually. I’d also sign up for the school talent shows to overcome my stage fright. I’ve always loved going towards things that scare me, because you feel so strong when you confront them!”
If Fils-Aimé resisted her destiny as a solo artist for so long, it’s in large part because she preferred remaining in the shadows. Not because shy, but because discretion becomes her. “I started making music professionally with a friend who’s a filmmaker,” she says. “We founded a small company and I wrote music for her videos. I always felt more comfortable with the idea of composing, and not necessarily being a public figure.”
Even as a child she rejected the idea of having a career in music. While some would sell their souls – or their moms – to become stars, the Montréal singer has always feared celebrity. She’s the antithesis of an influencer or an “Insta-babe” turned singer. “I have to admit fame has always scared me,” she says. “There’s something about it that I find truly frightening. Right now it’s fine, there are a few people who know me, it’s totally manageable. It’s not like I’ve become a superstar, but sometimes I find it intense to have more attention than before, or more people who recognize me. It’s always bizarre for me.”
Her current wave of success wasn’t part of the original plan. In fact, Fils-Aimé’s participation in La Voix (the Québec franchise of The Voice televised singing competition) was prompted by a researcher who found her most obscure recordings online and convinced her to give it a go. “I was really expecting to stay underground, to interest only a few niche radio stations, very, very specialized,” she says. “I would’ve been fine to remain a more obscure artist, but in the end, I’m not going to turn my back on the fact that there are more people interested in what I do than I expected; I’m grateful for that. It allows me to reach more people, and do them some good.”
Sharing the love: that’s what motivates Fils-Aimé to tame her fears. It is an ideal that’s wise and altruistic, and in complete contrast with the race for likes at the root of social media.