Jack Black as an inspiration to a young songwriter? An unusual mentor for sure. Then again, Francesco Yates isn’t your typical Canadian crafter of songs. He wrote his first one when he was only 11 years old, after watching the heartwarming 2003 Jack Black comedy School of Rock; he signed to Atlantic Records at 16; and his recently released debut self-titled EP features “Change the Channel,” a co-write with 10-time Grammy-winning producer Pharrell Williams, of “Happy” and The Voice fame. Did we mention Yates recently turned 20?
When we catch up with the fledgling singer-songwriter, he’s resting at The Oswego Hotel in Victoria, B.C., a couple of days after tearing up the red carpet, playing a 2015 American Music Awards pre-show concert with Alessia Cara, Shawn Mendes and Gabi, and later acting as one of the presenters at the gala. Asked how he’s doing, Yates simply says, “I’m maintaining.”
To understand how Yates maintains this laid-back persona, let’s first flash back nine years to that pre-pubescent epiphany when he penned his first composition.
“Next year, I plan to take over the world one little curl at a time.”
“School of Rock is what ignited the whole movement I took towards music,” he recalls. “Jack Black inspired me a lot, and so did many of my music teachers in school, who’ve taught me more than just music. I’ve had the great privilege of working with a lot of great people, many of whom symbolized what Jack Black was trying to teach the kids in that movie.”
And working with Pharrell? “He is the Sensei… The Minister of The Funk,” Yates says. “He was instrumental in shifting the way I thought, and shifting the way I see music. You learn a lot from him. I was just trying to soak up as much as I could during those sessions.”
What specific lessons did Pharrell teach Yates? “He taught me to not be as afraid,” he says. “He’s very good at taking things that don’t seem like they work with pop music and putting them into pop music. With him and me, it was the electric guitar. He encouraged me to be that guy on the guitar, which I always was in my basement, but wasn’t otherwise. He taught me to put that in the forefront. I didn’t know where to position it… It was nice of him to impart his wisdom.”
Yates signed to Atlantic Records as a writer at 16, but only just released his first EP this past fall – a six-song collection, marked by “Better to be Loved,” for which he created a stunning performance at the 2015 SOCAN Awards (see the video below); the catchy single “Call Me”; and the Pharrell-produced “Change the Channel.” What took so long? Yates says he needed to find himself first before putting his songs out to the world.
“I’m figuring that out every day, as all of us are,” he says. “I don’t think I’ve found myself so much, but what I will say is that EP has a lot of diverse stuff on it. I just wanted to show all of the things that I can do. It was more a showcase, if you can call it that, rather than a complete, painted picture.
“An album is a consistent and painted picture, as well as the singles that are on it,” he adds. “The EP is supposed to be a demonstration… like a sketch, just touching on some of the things.”
When can we expect the completed canvas? In 2016, for sure, according to Yates. “As far as an art motif goes, I’ll have a blank canvas and will see the image more clearly,” he concludes. “Next year, I plan to take over the world one little curl at a time.”
Watch a red carpet video interview from the 2015 SOCAN Awards:
Aube is the title of Mehdi Cayenne’s third album, launched in November 2015. Aube (dawn), as in the promise of a new beginning, yes, but mainly “because of your lips’ rounded shape when you pronounce it,” explains the Ottawa singer-songwriter. “It’s a soft, feminine word, contrary to my previous album’s title, Na Na Boo Boo! I wanted to drift towards that kind of sensibility. There’s something cyclical about the album: dawn is not the conclusion of something, but the premise of a story.”
We are worlds away from the happy, quasi-punk mess of Oh Canada, the song that helped Mehdi turn many heads in many contests in 2014. He left the Festival en chanson de Petite-Vallée with four trophies and the Trille Or Gala with three… The many honours and recognitions keep piling up for the 28-year-old artist.
“The chords, mostly major, and frank, straightforward and open-minded lyrics. . . I’m drawn to such emotional nakedness.”
So, where does the change in tone on Aube come from? “I was looking for the same type of intensity and dynamic variations, but at a much lower decibel level,” says Cayenne. Rest assured of one thing, however: he hasn’t lost his unclassifiable and atypical nature. “I’ve kept some elements of musical eclecticism, surprise and anti-conformism,” he says. “But on this album, I sought inspiration in more candid classic works like Rodin, Van Gogh or… La Compagnie Créole!”
He Who Talks More Says Less
In almost all of his interviews, Cayenne mentions La Compagnie Créole. He says, “The chords, mostly major, and frank, straightforward and open-minded lyrics… I’m drawn to such emotional nakedness. It’s also expressed in the choice of topics. There’s something risky in that process, there’s no hiding behind something cool.”
Stemming from the thr Ottawa Valley’s slam poetry scene, Mehdi Cayenne (née Hamdad) writes texts that are as nimble as they are solid. To wit, his song “Pigeon-Voyageur”:
Nos mots sont des sons qui vont loin [Words are far-travelling sounds]
Mais qui n’expliquent rien [But they can’t explain anything]
Ainsi les poèmes meurent d’envie [That’s why poems are dying of envy]
de se lover dans nos mains [To curl up in our hands]
“Words designate a concept or an idea,” says Cayenne, “but the more we conceptualize things, the more we forget that reality is perceived before it is named.”
There’s something extremely sensual about the album, almost like a kiss blown to someone who is leaving. Is it a break-up album? Not really. Is it a tale of desire, a convoluted adventure, a tango of the impossible? Most definitely. But even on a song such as “Crève-coeur,” where Cayenne’s sometimes tortured singing is reminiscent of Jean Leloup’s, it’s suffering rather belligerence that rises to the surface: a howling animal lickng his wounds.
“It’s true that I’m more pained than angry,” says Cayenne. “I’m interested in all the reasons for a relationship, before, during, and after. I also harbour a desire to intermingle the sacred and the profane. The carnal side of things, but without forgetting the clumsy candor of a catechism class.”
The Story of Rivière
There’s grandiose sentiments, the ideal of love, and there’s the coffee pot you set on an element of the stove. Small gestures of daily life that exist alongside great mystical surges; that’s all part of Mehdi Cayenne’s DNA. “I arrived in Québec as an infant because of civil war,” he says. “My mother is French. I’ve lived in Montréal, Moncton, Ottawa, New York City, briefly, but I was born in Algeria. My grandfather and 14 generations before him are Sufi imams. Sufism is the mystical branch of Islam. You find the same idea in Prévert, the intermingling two poles that seem to be worlds apart, uniting poetry and realism, joy and pain. “
The Cayenne in his stage name comes from the Cayenne prison, the backdrop to the life of Henri Charrière, an author Mehdi discovered when he read Papillon. Except here, the prison he’s trying to avoid is the one we sometimes build in our own minds. This, then, yields a well-fitting name for an artist who does things his own way, without ever closing doors and, so far, totally independently.
When asked where he sees himself 10 years from now, Cayenne says he’ll be happy if he’s found a way to re-invent himself. What makes him positively jubilant is the fact of “anticipating an artistic evolution, because when you look at it dispassionately, being an artist is quite monastic. You write songs, albums, you tour, then you go home and start over. I just I find a way to not repeat myself.”
That’s what he achieved with Aube, an album that’s like a novel composed of poems, the story of a narrator and of Rivière, who is akin to the spirit of a wandering love. “There was never such linear narration on my previous albums,” says Cayenne. “Aube is an absentee ode, because Rivière is at once omnipresent but never there. You wonder who or what Rivière is? Rivière is that which upsets you yet, from the inside, saves your life.”
Watch “Je te veux,” performed by Mehdi Cayenne onstage at the Mercury Lounge in Ottawa during the launch party for his album Aube on Nov. 4, 2015.
Story by Olivier Robillard Laveaux | December 1, 2015
Les Cowboys Fringants just released Octobre, their ninth studio album in 20 years. Even though the band members are now considered veterans of the scene, they have no intention of growing old and indifferent in their cozy suburban environment.
It all started in L’Assomption, a small town of about 20,000 located about 45 minutes northeast of Montréal – when there’s no traffic. Picture a high school sometime in the mid-‘90s. Jérôme Dupras is the mascot of his cohort. Every day, the young bass player scours the school’s hallways and gives bear hugs to everyone, boy or girl. Students are on their guard: everyone knows that Dupras can pop out of nowhere and grab you at any time. Everyone also knows about his comedic country band because their guitar and violin players—Jean-François Pauzé and Marie-Annick Lépine—also attend that school.
That day, Jérôme was walking towards me during recess, a huge grin across his face. I was bracing for impact, convinced I was his next “victim”.
“Olivier, we need a drummer for the Cowboys Fringants. There’s a jam going down on Friday. Would you like to play with us?”
As a grunge-fed kid into Weezer, Nirvana and Hole, this drummer obviously thought that country was, at best, uncool. Moreover, the rapid-fire snare drum acrobatics typical of the Cowboys compositions seemed a little too complex for my abilities. I immediately answered back: “Thanks, but no thanks.”
“I believe that fact that moving back towards socially and politically engaged songs is in no small part dictated by the fact that we’re all parents, now” — Karl Tremblay
Twenty years later, the Cowboys Fringants have released nine albums, selling nearly a million units in total, won 11 Félix awards, and toured extensively in Québec and Europe. I’m sitting across the table from the band in La Tribu’s (their record label) offices while I reminisce about this potentially life-changing offer. “We only knew two drummers, back then: Dominique Lebeau and you,” Dupras remembers. “One of you accepted the invitation and I don’t think he has any regrets even though he’s no longer with the band.”
Now all on the cusp of their forties, the four musicians and singer Karl Tremblay can be called veterans of the scene. “There’s no doubt that when your band was around in the golden age of the cassette tape, you’re a veteran,” jokes Tremblay referring to 12 Grandes Chansons, the very first, cassette-only, Cowboys’ release launched in 1997. “Thanks to Jaromir Jagr, we also know that veterans can be very good at what they do and stand out among their younger peers,” says Dupras.
Built to Last
Try as you might, I dare you to name even one other Québec band that has been active without interruption for 20 years, while maintaining a constant level of popular and critical acclaim. According to the bass player, “a very large part of that longevity is due to the fact that we have had an incredibly loyal audience throughout the years. It’s easy to keep going when the demand is there.” That holds true not only in Québec, but in Europe also, with the band giving on average 12 overseas shows each year. “When we play in Europe, we play 1,500- to 6,000-capacity venues,” explain Jean-François Pauzé. “We’re so lucky, it’s like we’re rock stars. We tour major cities and get to major venues on our tour bus. And that’s with zero help from commercial radio stations. It’s all word of mouth.”
For Karl Tremblay, a big part of this is linked to the fact that the band never moved to France, like so many Québec artists trying to break the European market. “If we toured over there six months out of every year, we’d surely play smaller venues because there would be more shows. We prefer a densely packed two-week tour, instead. We whet people’s appetites even though it’s not really intentional. Now that we all have a family life, we don’t wander away from home for too long. That too helped the band stay together for so long.”
Another of the band’s secrets for success: no one member of the band carries the weight of the whole group on their shoulders, because none of the band’s songwriters are front and centre. “Jean-François writes the songs, I sing them. Since we need each other, this prevents any kind of ego-tripping. We’re aware of our respective roles.”
Yet, things haven’t always been this harmonious. In 2002, when Break Syndical came out, the Cowboys were young, hot-headed and impetuous. Their respective roles were not as clearly defined and everyone tried to upstage everyone else during the recording sessions. Says Marie-Annick Lépine, “Time taught us everyone’s strengths and roles. So much so that for this new album, we asked external producers – Gus Van Go and Werner F. – to help us evolve beyond our safety zone, and that was a first. They taught me to work on my arrangements with the specific song in mind and not only according to my impulses or personal mores.”
Now established in New York City, Gus Van Go, the ex Me, Mom and Morgentaler stalwart, is mostly known for his rock productions (Trois Accords, Vulgaires Machins). Anyone would be hard pressed to predict his intervention in the Cowboys Fringants’ country universe. “We wanted to go outside Québec,” explains Pauzé. “Over here, all the record producers know what we sound like. And even the ones that don’t know us have a preconceived idea of what our music is like. That’s why we wanted to work with Gus. He knew nothing about the band. It did us a lot of good sonically.”
It is indeed true that a song like “Les Vers de terre” and its tex-mex twang is a departure. Same goes for the hypnotic blues “Mon Grand-Père,” or the undeniably Pink Floydian finale, “Pub Royal.” “We did get a lot of help from our drummer, Pierre Fortin, for the arrangements,” adds Lépine.
Does that mean that the current drummer is taking a bigger role in the band than was expected (a few musicians have taken turns in that role since Dom Lebeau left)? “He’s taken exactly the role that we hoped he would” says Lépine. “We gave him carte blanche for the rhythm section, and his ideas greatly influenced our songs. The album’s opener and title song, “Octobre,” started out as a ballad. He suggested we speed it up, and that’s the version we used on the album.”
Even though the band is exploring new musical avenues, fans won’t be on foreign ground when it comes to Pauzé’s lyrics. Here, his flair for creating characters – “Marine Marchande,” “La Dévisse” – is equalled only by some of the most politically engaged texts of the Fringant’s repertoire to date. He takes no prisoners when the time comes to criticize our individualistic society. One might think Québec society hasn’t changed a bit since 2002’s En Berne.
I’m appalled by our society’s utter apathy,” says Pauzé. “Instead of coming together, we isolate ourselves in consumerism. As if our individual growth could be defined by what we purchase. Maybe it’s some kind of nostalgia for the ‘60s and ‘70s, but I long for a society that’s motivated by forward-looking projects, especially with regards to the environment, an area where Québec has everything it takes to become a world leader.”
That’s all well and good, but aren’t the band members at risk of being assimilated by this apathy, all of them being parents and mostly suburbanites? “I admit we can’t honestly say that none of our songs apply to us, too,” says Pauzé. “I do live comfortably and I don’t know that I could sacrifice much of that comfort. Contrary to what many believe, I’m not some kind of schoolmaster. We’re citizens of a Western country that comes with a certain level of comfort. That doesn’t mean we can’t ponder the future.”
In their defence, the group has never stopped supporting the Fondation Cowboys Fringants – which contributes to reforestation activities – since its creation almost 10 years ago. Dupras is the Foundation’s president, and to him one thing is clear: “The 21st century will be the century of cities, much more than that of provinces or countries. And since neither Québec nor Ottawa are putting any kind of social project, it’s in communities that things are happening. Urban areas are picking up where others left off, and an incredible number of citizen-led initiatives are making our cities more pleasant.”
For example, thanks to the Cowboys, 10,000 new trees were planted in the Centre de la Nature de Laval after a benefit concert in April 2015. “Karl came back from the inauguration all teary-eyed,” confides Lépine. “That forest will grow at the same speed as my kids,” adds Tremblay. “In 20 years, I’ll take them there and show them what dad and his friends did. Actually, I believe that the fact we’re moving back towards socially and politically engaged songs is in no small part dictated by the fact that we’re all parents, now. When people talk about climate changes in 2050, it seems far off in the future… until you have kids of your own. My kids will be my age in 2050. What kind of world are we leaving behind for them? Will they benefit from the same opportunities we did?”
Just as a veteran player is a natural leader in a sports locker room, the Cowboys Fringants are natural leaders because of their assurance and direct action.