Unheralded, Stéphane Côté started making his way from Quebec City to the larger world of show business some 20 years ago. Yet, although he managed in that period to shine at music competitions, release album after album, work with major artists, perform extensively here and in Europe, collect more than his share of kudos and attract a solid fan base, this 41-year-old self-taught artist remains insecure to this day.
“I’m never quite sure,” he candidly admits, “particularly where I am concerned. Things are going slowly, but they are going. Someday I’ll just have to come out of my cocoon.” Quite the understatement when you consider that Lynda Lemay, another seasoned singer-songwriter, was moved to tears when she was offered an opportunity to sing “Au large de nous” (“Away from Us”) with him on Ballon d’héliHomme, his fourth and most recent album.
Côté’s lingering self-doubts may well go back to his childhood years in a household where both parents were deaf and where there were no words and no music. “My decision to become a songwriter may have been a reaction to that. I’ve always been fascinated by words. When I was 14, a friend gave me a guitar and taught me my initial chords. However, I only wrote my first songs six or seven years later. For me, writing my own songs was a formidable prospect.”
In the meantime, Côté performed covers of songs by Paul Piché, Michel Rivard, Beau Dommage and Jim et Bertrand before discovering the work of French singer-songwriter Georges Brassens, his ultimate inspiration.
“That did it,” he explains. “I learned to sing all the tunes of his compilation albums by heart. I thought his lyrics were so right – simple and complex at the same time.”
Gradually, Côté started composing original songs, but had to wait for five years before finding the nerve to perform then in public, notably at the Saint-Ambroise and Granby music competitions and festivals, where he reached the finals and the semi-finals respectively.
“I couldn’t believe it! Then I took part in other competitions, played bar gigs and ended up competing at the Petite-Vallée festival, which I won in 1999 at the age of 28. This is when I realized that the universe was sending me a message and that I was meant to keep going as a singer-songwriter.”
Rue des balivernes, his first album release on the Studio Sismique label (the first single was fittingly titled “Chemin d’escargot,” or “Snail Road”), was critically acclaimed, if only for its bright lyrics, and its release was followed by more than 150 concerts in Quebec, France, Switzerland and Belgium.
Discovered by producer Marie Bujold, who took him under her wing, Stéphane’s songwriting career was underway, and he never stopped writing or composing since. “I have a daily routine. I get up early, make my coffee, start looking for excuses, and eventually sit down to write for three to four hours. I always start with the melody and add the lyrics later on without worrying too much about length. I write about states of mind, about feelings, about the things that make me laugh or cry.”
As if by accident – it’s funny how talent attracts talent – Côté soon began partnering with recognized creators. First, there was Réjean Bouchard, who produced the shifting ambient atmospheres of Le Cirque du temps, Côté’s sophomore album. Then there was Alain Leblanc, who toured with him from 2007 to 2012, helped him “become comfortable on stage” and went on to arrange and produce Des nouvelles, his third opus. Ballon d’héliHomme, which was released last spring, was produced by Éric Goulet because Stéphane “felt a need to be more spontaneous with more introspective tunes. I now realize that people really identify with what I am going through.”
Côté’s folk and country sounds and colourful lyrics deal with topics ranging from relationships to human behaviour to the meaning of life. “I wrote ‘Du soleil et du vent’ (‘Sun and Wind’) at a time in my life when I felt a great need for space and light,” the songwriter recalls. “The lyrics of ‘Une lettre’ emerged as a tribute to the late Bruno Fecteau. ‘Ballon d’héliHomme’ is all about disillusion, but it ends on a hopeful note, with the prospect of madness as a refuge. In a way, it’s the album’s flagship piece.” One of the album’s cuts, “C’est vrai,” a piece about love and friendship, is a duo with Brigitte Saint-Aubin.
Going forward, Stéphane Côté plans to continue to explore his gifts as a lyricist. “I would like to write for other artists, as I did before with the young Valérie Lahaie and with Lina Boudreau,” he says. But not immediately. Right now, Côté is committed to successive tours of France and Quebec, but you can bet that the titles of his fifth album will soon start floating around in his creative mind.
“I want well-matured songs,” he cautions. “I don’t feel like rushing into things.” A familiar refrain!