Seldom has such unanimous praise been lavished by the public, the media and the music industry on a group’s début album. All it took the Gaspé duo of Stéphanie and Mélanie Boulay to become the sensation of the Quebec music scene in the first half of 2013 was a recording titled Le poids des confettis (The Weight of Confetti), a 13-song album, mostly of their own composition.
Some might call this instant success, but it didn’t quite happen that way for the young sisters, if you factor in some 10 years of trial and error, and considerable touring experience as backup singers for major Quebec artists. Les Soeurs Boulay needed that exposure to hone their distinctive sound and develop a sparse writing style that goes straight to the heart.
Mélanie: “We started singing when we were little girls. We both sang in the school choir and sometimes performed duos at the end of the school year. Later, we went our separate ways, but both of us studied music. Stéphanie sang on tour for Kevin Parent after her graduation in Montreal. I was already writing songs on my own, and Steph too. It was really hard – nothing sounded right. We had yet to find our sound. The Soeurs Boulay project was born sort of accidentally a couple of years ago. We recorded a Simon & Garfunkel song, “The Boxer,” and posted the video online. Some of our friends told us it was great stuff, yet it was just this thing recorded on Steph’s computer. The sound was really poor, but people wanted to hear more!”
Stéphanie: “So we decided to put a show together! One thing was for sure – we did not want to sing covers. Instead, we took some of Mélanie’s songs and some of my own and worked on our vocal harmonies. Our repertoire of original songs had reached a total of about ten songs by the time we took part in the Francouvertes festival last year. The next thing was to set some time aside for us to write during the tour that followed. It was intense, but we were eager to ride the wave. We felt the wind was on our side. For once in our lives, everything was nice and easy! People offered to help us find venues – how could we let the opportunity go by?”
Paroles & Musique: Much has been made of your professional experiences with major stars like Michel Rivard and Kevin Parent. What did that bring you?
Mélanie: “Mostly a close look at the music industry. Watching those people with years of experience continue to give their all to their music and their concerts was an inspiration to us – we could see that they were in this business for the right reasons. Sometimes when it gets too involved and we’re tired, thinking about this helps us put things back in perspective. We’re so lucky to be able to make music!”
Stéphanie: “But these experiences also left traces musically. As backup singers, we had to come up with new harmonies almost on a weekly basis, which was great training for us. We sang for Dany Placard, Chantal Archambault, Alex Nevsky – all this repertoire was new to us, and now it’s part of our musical background somehow. Today we try to refine our vocal harmonies so that they are not always a third above and below the lead vocal melody – we’re introducing more unison singing right now. One thing you learn from working with other artists is to how to listen and know your place. While they are singing, you need to pay attention to rests, so you can catch the ball and throw it back. We do the same thing with our own music now – it’s airy, it’s got some breathing space. It doesn’t have to be crowded all the time.”
P&M: You perform two songs penned by Stéphane Lafleur of Avec pas d’casque. How did this come about? Why do these songs suit you? Performing third-party material is a double-edged sword, since it may invite comparisons.
Mélanie: “We really wanted a Lafleur song, so we approached him. He turned us down initially because he was too busy, but he called us back after a couple of weeks to see if he could learn more about us so he could feel more comfortable writing a song for us. We confided in him for two solid hours, as if he was someone we’d known for 10 years! Finally, he went, “OK. Let’s write a song.” He put words in our mouths that we would not normally have had the nerve to use in a song addressed to a guy, like ‘Take off your clothes!’”
Stéphanie: “It’s like he helped us take our art further because what we’d planned to do on this album was to stop censoring ourselves and be as real as we could possibly be – vulnerable and strong at the same time. Our other new songs were all about assertiveness and the quest for personal identity, and we had felt that Lafleur could provide us with words that we would not have the guts to write, but wouldn’t mind singing. For us, there was no shame in having someone else write something for us because, although we’re keen on making it as singer-songwriters, what we really, really enjoy doing is perform lyrics we love and can identify with.”
This summer, Les Soeurs Boulay performed as part of the Montreal FrancoFolies festival as well as in the concert presented by this year’s finalists in the Francophone version of the SOCAN Songwriting Prize before the opening of the festival on June 12 at L’Astral. In July, they had dates in France and Belgium, including an appearance at the Francofolies de Spa. In the fall, it will be Quebec’s turn – and the duo has bookings until 2015! That’s what you call entering people’s hearts through the front door.