“Sharing, swapping ideas with artists from different communities, that’s the spirit of music,” enthuses Florent Vollant from the get-go. “I think I get that from the elders: as far as I can remember, I’ve always tried to use music to get close to others. And I can say that I’ve been blessed, because I’ve shared the stage with some incredibly inspiring artists.”

That’s quite an understatement! For 25 years now, Vollant has performed here and abroad, proudly representing the language and culture of Maliotenam’s Innu community all around the world. From the heyday of Kashtin to his very successful solo career, the singer-songwriter has become one of the most familiar faces of the First Nations. With the release of his most recent album, the excellent Puamuna, Vollant makes it clear that he’s not about to stop enchanting us.

“It’s true that I’m a nomad, because I’m basically always on tour.”

Although his music can’t really be called traditional – his folk-rock musings are closer to that of his friend Richard Séguin that they are to aboriginal rhythms – Vollant is well aware of the importance of his people’s ancestral traditions. It’s even thanks to them that he discovered his artistic soul: “It harks back to my earliest years,” he explains. “I would look at the traditional singers beating their drums in ritualistic ways that are millenia old, and I was mesmerized. Stretching the drum’s skin taut before the ceremonies was, for me, a way to access this culture and, above all, a way to reinforce this community feeling.”

Later, in the mid-80s, he founded Kashtin with his friend Claude McKenzie, and the duo’s first eponymous album, led by the single “E Uassiuian,” was a worldwide hit despite being sung in a language that only a handful of people speak. That adventure ended in the mid-90s and both artists went their separate ways. Just like his ancestors who roamed their territory for game, Florent went stage hunting.

“It’s true that I’m a nomad,” says Vollant, “because I’m basically always on tour, so much so that I feel I’ve been on the road for many, many moons. But I can’t help it: I need to be on the move!” Despite this unctrollable urge to move, Vollant still felt the need to settle down and plant his roots solidly in Maliotenam, where his family established itself after being uprooted from his native Labrador by a mining company.

Florent

That’s where he built his own recording studio, Makusham, in 1997. Throughout the years, his studio became a cultural epicentre both for the community, and for artists outside the community, such as Richard Séguin, Zachary Richard and Marc Déry. Yet somehow, ironically, Vollant himself never recorded an entire album of his at Makusham until Puamuna. “For each of my previous projects, I worked in part here, but this time around, I truly felt I needed to record the whole thing here,” he says. “I believe it had an impact on my mindset, and feeling of the record. There’s something more peaceful about it that comes from the environment. Before recording, I’d take long walks in the woods, this magnificent scenery, or I’d pay a visit to family and friends. Maybe that’s why the record took me three years to complete!”

One could hardly blame him for taking his time, because Puamuna truly is a great album. It’s built around the same folk and Americana frame as its predecessors, and allows us to glimpse a serene Florent Vollant, feet solidly planted on the ground, but gazing at the heavens. There’s something ethereal about it, starting with its title, which means “dream.” “Dreams are central in our culture,” explains Vollant. “The elders taught me that singing is not a game or mere entertainment. Culture, music: that’s the stuff life is made of, and all inspiration comes from dreams. It is our duty to transmit those dreams to the rest of the world using song and drums.”

And even though this album bears his name, he had a whole team of collaborators to back him up during its creation. Vollant co-produced it with Kim Fontaine and Réjean Bouchard, his brothers in sound. There was Pascale Picard, who sang a duo on one of his songs adapted from Innu. And there was his longtime friend, Richard Séguin, who gave him the only French-language song on the album, the magnificent Tout est lié, a song about the indestructible bond between First Nation peoples and their land.

“I was blown away when I read the words, and I asked Richard where he found the inspiration for all that,” says Vollant. “He simply told me that he only wrote about stuff I had told him before, and my reaction was, ‘I say beautiful stuff like that?’,” he remembers, laughing. “We’re like brothers and share many things, especially the fact that we both had a career in a duo before going solo. But, seriously, we have an obvious musical and social kinship. Richard is not the type of guy to write songs about Indians in his Montréal apartment. He came here and he partook in our rituals and our culture. He definitely is, to me, one of the dream bearers.”

Before letting him get back on the road (when we met for this interview, Vollant was getting ready for a concert in Rouyn-Noranda), we were compelled to ask Vollant’s opinion on the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, a proceeding that stirred very painful memories for all the Native people of his generation. “It’s difficult but unavoidable if we want to move forward,” says the artist.

“We need to turn towards the future now,” says Vollant. “You know, 50 percent of the Natives in Canada are less than 30 years old, and they’re starting to get involved in band councils, some even becoming chiefs. Those young people didn’t not know [about] the boarding schools, but they still have to deal with the old clichés and die-hard stereotypes natives have always had to deal with. It might sound somber, but I’m very positive about what I see happening all around me, youngsters honouring their roots while doing completely new stuff. Think of artists like Samian, A Tribe Called Red, Shauit… They’re shaking things up and giving our culture a very positive appeal.”

Are you some kind of optimist, Vollant? “I have no choice,” he answers. “I have to be. For my own kids and the future generations, we must believe that things can get better.” And no doubt, Vollant will keep contributing to this movement… one dream at a time.

http://florentvollant.com/


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The name Terry Jacks has become synonymous with one of the biggest songs ever to come out of Canada, his 1974 soft-rock smash “Seasons in the Sun.” But the Vancouver singer-songwriter’s history on the charts began in the 1960s, first as a member of garage group The Chessmen and then with The Poppy Family, a group fronted by Jacks and singer Susan Pesklevits (his former wife). Their debut album featured “Which Way You Goin’ Billy,” a mournful track inspired by the American women left behind during the Vietnam war, which peaked at No. 2 on the Billboard charts, hit No. 1 in Canada, and earned Jacks a JUNO Award for Best Producer. His most recent release is Starfish on a Beach, a double-CD anthology of his four decades in music. He spoke to SOCAN from his home by the coast in British Columbia.

“I had to work line after line, phrase after phrase.” – Terry Jacks

Take me back to 1969 when this song was written. Where were you at in your career?
Well, I had quit university – my family wanted me to be an architect. I was writing some music, and had some hits in Vancouver with The Chessmen. Buddy Holly was my idol, and I wanted to do the kind of thing he did. To make little pictures, little emotional portraits in songs. I was more interested in writing than in singing.

This song was written specifically from the point of view of a woman. How difficult was that?
It was very difficult. When I wrote songs for Susan, the inspiration came from me, then I had to change it into the way a female would think. I had to work line after line, phrase after phrase. That song was originally called “Which Way You Goin’ Buddy?” with a guy singing. I had the melody, and was going to write it about my idol. But I then I read an article about all the young American men leaving for Vietnam, and the women left behind, so I sort of changed the whole thing around, to write it for her.

I have to ask you about Susan’s recent public comments. She is claiming the song was not written about Vietnam and was actually named after her brother.
Absolutely ridiculous! I got the name Billy from one my favourite Canadian groups, The Beau Marks. I was looking for a name, something very common, then on my jukebox I saw their song “Billy Billy Went A-Walking.” And I remember laughing, “Which way you going Billy? Well, he went a-walking!” I wrote the song, I know what it’s about. I know how I named it. I don’t understand what she’s trying to do.

There were very few Canadian groups on the Billboard Top 10 in the 1960s. Why do you think with this song The Poppy Family managed to break through?
Well it started in Canada. It went to the top, with no CanCon either, because that didn’t exist yet. Right in the middle of the British invasion. It was such a left-field song, but I think it started in all the secondary markets, the little towns, and then the big markets started to look at it.

I’ve read that you turned down an appearance on the Ed Sullivan show with this song. True?
Here’s the reason I didn’t want to do Ed Sullivan: I was offered to represent Canada [at Expo ‘70] in Osaka, Japan. I thought that would open up international markets, much more than doing a TV show. We were big in the states already, and I wanted to go to Asia. That was an easy decision.

You were self-managed at the time, right? You produced the record and you were handling all the band’s bookings?
Correct. I also handled the publishing. That was very important, I learned that right away. That if you have control over things that’s the only way. Nobody tells you what you can and can’t do. But it all starts with control of your music, writing what you want to write, straight from your heart.

After all these years, what have you learned is the secret to your songwriting?
Simplicity. It’s the hardest thing to do, in writing, arranging, producing. But to have breathing room in the songs, that’s of essence. It’s like old rock ‘n’ roll was very simple, they portrayed one feeling or emotion. Not like today’s music, which is so scientific and technical and crowded. To me it’s very simple: you have something you want to get across in words and melody. I never wanted to be rich or famous, I just wanted to make little stories, little song pictures, that would do to others what Buddy Holly did to me. I never tried to get complicated. I never tried to be above the people.


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“I’m a failure as a songwriter.”

Coming from anyone else – say, your dentist or your local barista – this admission might not be surprising. Coming from Randy Bachman, it deserves a double-take.

After all, Bachman, as a founding member of two legendary Canadian rock groups – The Guess Who and Bachman-Turner Overdrive – has written or co-written a wealth of classic hit songs, including “Takin’ Care of Business,” “These Eyes,” “American Woman,” “You Ain’t Seen Nothing Yet,” “Let it Ride,” “Undun” and “Looking Out for No. 1.” Hardly the track record of a failed songwriter.

Surely he’s joking. Well, yes. But here’s the thing: he’s only half-joking. Let’s look first at the joking half of that statement.

“Nobody’s ever done a song of mine from a demo. I’ve had to record it myself, make it somewhat of a hit, and then it got covered.”

The joke is, of course, that Randy Bachman is about as successful a songwriter as you’ll find anywhere. He’s sold more than 40 million records worldwide, is credited with more than 120 gold and platinum albums and singles, and has charted No. 1 hits in more than 20 countries.

In addition to the chart successes and sales, his trophy case must rival Wayne Gretzky’s. Bachman has received 11 JUNO Awards and a dozen SOCAN Classics Awards (for songs with more than 100,000 airplays). He’s received the Order of Canada and the Governor General’s Performing Arts Award (with The Guess Who). He’s been inducted into Canada’s Walk of Fame twice – as a member of the Guess Who and as a solo artist. And he’s the only double-inductee in the Canadian Music Hall of Fame, first in 1987 with The Guess Who, and also in 2014 alongside his BTO brethren.

Nor are the laurels limited to his homeland. Last year, he was welcomed into the Musicians Hall of Fame in Nashville, and in 2011 the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers (ASCAP) gave Bachman their Global Impact Award. If you take that to mean he quite literally rocks the world, you would be correct.

His most recent honour arrived this past June when Bachman received the SOCAN Lifetime Achievement Award at the 2015 SOCAN Awards. “It was nice to get acknowledged for my classic hits – and I’ve got maybe 12 or 15 of them – that obviously that represented,” Bachman says, “but I’m always hungry for the next hit. I would have rather got what MAGIC! got, which was the Song of the Year. [It’s about] the new songs. I’m still a songwriter – still writing great, great, great songs.”

But here’s the not-so-joking side of things: Bachman is actually semi-serious about his “failure” as a songwriter. Or at least he’s been frustrated in one regard: the man who co-wrote “Laughing” isn’t so tickled that even though his classic songs have been covered by such artists as Lenny Kravitz and Mavis Staples, he’s been largely unsuccessful at getting established artists to record his own solo tunes.

“Nobody’s ever done a song of mine from a demo,” says Bachman. “I’ve had to record it myself, make it somewhat of a hit, and then it got covered. So my covers were ‘These Eyes,’ ‘American Woman,’ ‘You Ain’t Seen Nothing Yet’ – things that were already hits.”

You would think that with Bachman’s writing résumé, artists would be lining up to see what else he’s got. But whenever he’s hung out his “The Songwriter is in” sign like Lucy in the Peanuts comic strip, the queues haven’t materialized. Instead, it’s been crickets chirping. He even journeyed to the songwriter’s Mecca, Nashville, spending time there, on and off, from the late 1980s through to the late ‘90s, trying to break in to its well-established songwriting circles. No dice.

The experience left Bachman scratching his head. “Every song I wrote there – and there were some great songs – never, ever, ever got covered by anybody,” he says. “It just… it never happened. Finally, I gave up.”

Bachman still has his eyes on the prize, however. Once a hit-maker, always a hit-maker.

“I’d love to do a song for Céline Dion, a really, really incredible, great singer – that kind of thing,” he says. “And I’ve written songs like that, that are really high-class, heart-jerking, great vocal, three-or-four-octave-range songs that I can’t sing. I’ve got pockets full of those that I’m just waiting to play for somebody.”

Has he lost his songwriting mojo? Not according to him. In fact, he feels he’s a better songwriter now than when he was cranking out all those hits. “I get better all the time,” he says brightly. “Without a doubt, I would say I’m way, way, way better now than I was then.”


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