“I’m looking for the movie within the song,” says Émile Proulx-Cloutier, author, composer, singer, filmmaker… and let’s stop there, because otherwise, his resumé will fill the whole screen. On this polar Sunday morning, we meet at a café not to talk about his television, documentary, or stage play work, but about his songs – and the movies hidden within them. Twelve in total, featured on his sophomore album Marée Haute, launched in November of 2017.
“How do you tell that story?” says the creative powerhouse. “Does it need an army of brass, or just a simple electro beat? Waves of strings, or all kinds of instruments no one has ever heard about? That’s the question. To me, music must serve the story.”
The story first, the sonic cosmetics after. Each of these 12 new compositions is a universe unto itself, with a beginning, an end, and a message. Music underscores the verb, and the singer’s breath has to be perfectly calibrated to the story. On Marée Haute, the music is very diverse from one song to the next, yet the album as a whole is cohesive. As theatre people say, he achieves a unity of tone. Boileau summarized the concept in L’Art poétique: “Qu’en un lieu, qu’en un jour, un seul fait accompli/tienne jusqu’à la fin le théâtre rempli.” (“In this place, on this day, one thing achieved / A theatre full until the end.”)
The artist was 26 when everything gelled between his cinema studies, his acting career, and his love of song. “All of a sudden,” says Proulx-Cloutier, “I realized that telling a story, enjoying words, caressing the keys of a piano, getting on stage to play characters and situations… Wait! Songs are the crossroads [of all that]. Above all, they’re a way for me to do all the things I love.”
Like writing, for one. For Proulx-Cloutier, a song is written in the same fashion as a movie script. “Do you know what screenwriters do when they don’t know how to close a scene?” he asks rhetorically. “They write moments down on Post-Its and play around with them. That’s what I did with ‘Retrouvailles.’ I wrote that song on cue cards. Thirty-six sentences. And then I found out how to tell that story.”
As above, each song is a universe unto itself. Memories from high school resurface on “Retrouvailles” (“Reunion”). The wear and tear of the working life on the body and soul of a labourer on “Mon Dos” (“My Back”). Illness and a father’s last breath on “Derniers mots” (“Last Words”). And his adaptation of Marc Gélinas’ and Gilles Richer’s “Mommy, Daddy”, a classic of Pauline Julien’s repertoire, and of Dominique Michel’s before her. It becomes even more relevant when Proux-Cloutier’s character in the song asks why native languages no longer exist in the mouths of First Nations communities.
It was obvious on his first album, and still is on Marée Haute, that Proulx-Cloutier sings for a reason. His songs are messages. “My fun side comes out on stage; I do say a lot of silly things!” he says. “Not to be entertaining, but as a diversion, to make people open to the tragic revelation of the next song. It keeps the pendulum swinging.”
In Proulx-Cloutier’s creative process, words usually come first. Ideas, pell-mell, he explains, smartphone in hand. “On here, the notepad app contains about 600 entries,” he says. “I sometimes wake up in the middle of the night to write. Anywhere, I open a page and start writing about what’s going on around me. At all times, songs are ripped from real life.”
It’s a life spent between theatre stages, film sets, and his family. Albums need a deadline to come to life; having been invited to be the spokesperson of Saguenay’s Regard sur le court métrage festival in March, 2017, he promised the organizers that he’d present a unique concert composed “of 80 percent new material,” he says. “I told them I would break in 10 songs.” It was the proverbial kick in the ass that he needed, spurring him to go through the 600 notes buried on his cellphone. “I had to finish the album!” he says.
Fours years after entrusting Philippe Brault with finding the best way to sing his films on Aimer les monstres, Proulx-Cloutier tapped composer, arranger, violinist and producer Guido del Fabbro for his second album. “When I met Guido, I first told him, ‘I want to have a hand on the wheel, but not both,’” he says. It was his way of giving the producer all the latitude he wanted to dress up his images and melodies.
“I had been such an interventionist on the first album, always looking for justness, that I did not give Philippe the latitude he needed,” says Proulx-Cloutier. “This time around, I gave it my all in the compositions, but I left the production and orchestration entirely to him.” Compared to his first album, Proulx-Cloutier says he freed himself a lot when it came to the harmonic progressions of the compositions on Marée Haute. “I had fun with form,” he says, “and I allowed purely musical, instrumental, moments to exist. It gives the arranger the space they need to be free. I’m constantly looking for stories and images, but this time, I embraced the idea that music can also tell the story.
“Songs,” he adds, “are the places where everything is possible at minimal cost. Doing a stage play means asking the people to come, there’s a lot involved. Gilles Vigneault said songs are like a pocket mirror. Something you carry with you, and something in which you can ‘scope’ yourself with, whenever you feel like it. It’s a portable art form. Not a minor art, but an art of miniatures. It’s miniature cinéma.”