Twenty years after its modest beginnings at Zest, on Bennett St. in Montréal’s infamous HoMa district, the showcase/contest Les Francouvertes has become a must-see event. And even though the list of past winners is impressive in and of itself, what has truly established the event’s reputation is its impact on Québec’s music scene for the past two decades.

Wednesday, April 13, 2016, 11 p.m. Montréal’s Lion d’Or is bustling with excitement as Sylvie Courtemanche, the Director of Francouvertes, is about to announce the three artists who will duke it out at Club Soda during the finals of the 20th Anniversary edition.

Tonight is the third and last semi-final, and provides the occasion to award many generous prizes amongst the 21 contestants. In the end, Mon Doux Saigneur, Caltâr-Bateau and La Famille Ouellette are chosen as the three finalists. The ultimate winner will also grab a $10,000 cash prize.

That night, some faces are clearly disappointed, but others are downright euphoric. “We’ve unsuccessfully registered to participate for four years and now we’re headed for the finals… You bet I’m effing flabbergasted!” says Caltâr-Bateau’s bass player, Étienne Dupré. “Funny thing is, I also drum in Mon Doux Saigneur… It’s going to be a big night for me!”

“It’s fun to see that the feedback is so good,” says Mon Doux Saigneur’s frontman, Émerik St-Cyr, in a much calmer tone. “At the very least, it gives me hope that I’m not crazy, and that following one’s passion might be a decent way to earn a living.’

David Bujold’s band, Fudge, barely missed making it to the finals, and he’s a bit disappointed. “I find it hard to finish fourth,” he confides. “We came so close…”

The guitarist and songwriter is far from a loser, though, and he leaves the contest with a few prizes, including a $1,000 cash prize awarded by SOCAN for his song “Ju.” “I’ve participated in a certain number of contests so far, and the best song prize always seemed out of my league, so despite not making it to the finals, this is a great night.”

Mere inches away, members of La Famille Ouellette can barely contain themselves. “We REALLY didn’t expect this,” admits J-S Houle, the band’s keyboard player and singer. “Our first show as a band was in the preliminary rounds. The Francouvertes became our excuse to crawl out from the shadows and launch our own project, as a bunch of friends.”

Love at First Sight

Eight years ago, electro-pop trio La Patère Rose also played its very first show during Francouvertes” preliminary round. A few weeks later, they won the contest’s 12th finals.

Éli Bissonnette, the founder and head honcho of record label Grosse Boîte, was a member of the jury that night. “It was the first time I saw them on stage and they totally blew my mind. I wrote to them the next day, and shortly thereafter, we had signed them,” he remembers. “We don’t necessarily come to Francouvertes scouting for a new artist to sign, but we’re never immune to love at first sight. The same thing happened last year with Émile Bilodeau.”

Francouvertes Loco LocassSomething similar also happened on Feb. 7, 2000. That’s the night rap trio Loco Locass won the now-legendary final round where they beat, among others, Les Cowboys Fringants. “We hadn’t even played 10 shows when we won that contest. That’s where we learned how to really work a crowd,” reminisces Chafiik. “We knew the Cowboys were electrifying onstage, so we gave everything we had during the finals.”

Among the jury members was Patrice Duchesne, who at the time was artistic director at the Audiogram label. “For a band like us with basically no stage experience, Les Francouvertes was quite a fast track,” says Batlam. “It was the launching pad for our album and, ultimately, for our band – because Audiogram re-released our album a few months later.”

More recently, François Bissoondoyal of Spectra Musique also made a pleasant discovery. “Francouvertes was instrumental in us signing Philippe Brach,” admits the label’s director. “We’d had an eye on him for a while, but seeing him in a spacious venue with a good P.A. and a captivated audience was very helpful.”

Obviously, Francouvertes is not just about the winners. Last year, Eric Harvey, a talent manager for Ambiances Ambiguës and founder of the Duprince imprint, spotted singer Rosie Valland, who didn’t make it to the finals. “I’d heard her first EP, but it’s when I witnessed her stage presence during the semi-finals that I decided to approach,” he recounts. “The Duprince label was officially launched in September 2015 with the release of her album.”

Beyond the Label

Karkwa finished second in 2002, and their “defeat” was far from being just that. That year, remembers Sylvie Courtemanche – the director of Francouvertes, who’s been involved in the event from the start in 1996 – the winners were the now defunct reggae band Kulcha Connection. “Later, Louis-Jean Cormier admitted to me that finishing second was the best thing that ever happened to Karkwa. It was like the kick in the ass they needed to up their game,” says the woman who became the  Francouvertes  director in 2005, when it moved from Zest to Lion d’Or. “Winning the Francouvertes when the time isn’t right can be harmful.”

Karim Ouellet

Karim Ouellet also finished second in the contest. Already signed to a label when he participated in 2011 – something that’s no longer possible under the contest’s new rules – the singer had no specific goals.

“It was my manager who told me about Francouvertes for the first time. I’d just released an album and we were looking for ways to promote it,” says the Coyote Records artist. “The thing was, I’d already done [the Festival International de la Chanson de] Granby and I didn’t really feel like doing another contest… But it wasn’t long before I figured out that Francouvertes was more interesting, particularly because it’s a contest that is attuned to the local scene.”

A year before, Bernard Adamus, who was part of the Grosse Boîte roster, was in the same situation. With his Brun album already out, the singer-songwriter decided to use the contest as a way to gain stage experience. “All I was looking for was assurance and credibility. I’d get a big adrenaline rush every time I’d get onstage,” recounts the artist. “I remember it was a special feeling, because I knew half of the bands I was playing with. I’d run across them at some point or another, at Quai des Brumes or Inspecteur Épingle.”

Although it’s true that the local folk microcosm has always been an important hotbed of talent for the contest, things are slowly changing.

Bernard AdamusThis year, for example, several finalists – notably Ponteix, Cy, Simon Daniel and McLean – were from outside of Québec. “Maybe it’s the HayBabies effect,” says Courtemanche, referring to the Acadian band who won the contest in 2013. “It’s quite frequent that a band influences the cohorts that follow. For many years, we got a lot of demos that were clearly influenced by Karkwa or Les sœurs Boulay.”

Miles away from the sound of those artists, the current trio of finalists – all of them from Montréal – bring a breath of fresh air to the contest, if only by their imposing orchestration and their bold musical hybridization.

“This year is really special, says Courtemanche. “We’re dealing with large bands with arrangements that are a lot less sparse than last year… Let’s just say it’s a lot more expensive in beer vouchers!”

The Francouvertes Finals
Club Soda, May 9th

As Chairmen of Québec’s rap scene, the six members of Dead Obies are the very incarnation of the bold, up-and-coming new generation. Raised on American rap in the late ‘90s and early 2000s, they were mainly inspired by diverse and multi-lingual literature. They truly broke onto the scene in 2013 with Montréal $ud and followed up with this year’s Gesamtkunstwerk, a critical and popular juggernaut that was, however, shunned by the industry’s institutions – who can’t stand the “Frenglish” used by the band throughout their œuvre.

Resilient combatants driven by a desire to be the flag-bearers of a polyphonic culture, the band stands and delivers. “At the end of the day, we speak French with our audience, in all of our releases, etc.,” says Jo RCA, one of the band’s rappers. “I come from a South Shore Francophone family who parks their car in the driveway. As a general rule, a 51% ratio of French content is required to be considered Francophone, but for some obscure reason, an institution like Musiaction requires a 70% ratio. Thing is, there’s basically just Dead Obies who fall into the category. Lucky for us, Bonsound, our label, can and wants to support us. But it does send a weird message,”

Create, Right Here, Right Now
Beyond the ire of public funding – the band has been asked to refund an $18,000 grant from Musicaction for failing to comply with their Francophone content ratio – the Obies clearly know what their audience wants: the album was at the top of the sales charts in Québec when it came out, and fifth in Canada overall. This feat was accomplished without much help for the usual commercial suspects who, to this day, turn a blind eye on locally sourced rap.

The situation is basically impossible to explain from a logical standpoint. On the one hand, you have the institutions and other major networks who basically just don’t know how to handle this phenomenon; on the other, you have the millennials and their cultural identity anchored in both official languages – and a few mouse clicks – who are yelling for more, more, more…

And it’s precisely in that somewhat disconcerting, spontaneous divide that Dead Obies strive and become perfectly relevant. They stand and deliver.

A Six-Headed Hydra
“We roll with peeps from both sides of the Main,”

they rap, referring to Montréal’s Saint-Laurent Boulevard, a major north/south axis that serves as the historical and symbolic boundary between the Francophone community to the East and the Anglophone community to the West.

 The band operates as one beat-maker fuelling five very distinct voices and lyrical styles, and their creative process is achieved around those distinctions. “We work as a unit, we influence each other, we set each other on different trains of thought, and even rhymes,” says Jo RCA. “We want our material to be representative of each one of us. Our differences also influence our creative process, and therein lies the Dead Obies’ unity, what makes our cell so complex and wide-ranging. The connection between each and every one of us is mind-blowing.”

Their songwriting often resides in something rather intangible, like the zeitgeist of each member’s individual reflections, but always using an infallible equation: “We are all very abstract thinkers, it’s probably our strongest common creative denominator,” says Jo RCA. “We hate when everything is easy, spoon-fed, when there is no second, third, or fourth degree. Our tracks must be able to breathe and have a life of their own. I think we’ve made great strides towards that goal on the new album.

“Our main goal is simply to create great tracks that, we hope, the audience will react to. When we come up with a track, we play it back to each other for months. And then comes the time where we feel it’s time to release it to the world. It can sometimes be strange to witness how a song created spontaneously, in a specific moment and state of mind, ages. It happens all the time to me: I’ll listen to an old song of ours and hear something completely different than what I remember I intended when I created it!”

One thing’s for sure, few artists are in a better position than Dead Obies to unequivocally claim its own relevance in a not-so-inclusive cultural landscape. On both sides of the Main.

The Québec six-stringer Steve Hill is at the top of the Canadian Blues scene from sea to shining sea thanks to his seven Maple Blues Awards in two years, as well as the Blues Album of the Year JUNO award in 2015. And that’s just the beginning.

What’s behind all these awards? His four self-produced albums titled Solo Recordings, Vol. 1, Vol. 1 ½ (EP), Vol. 2 and Vol. 3 – the last one released a few weeks ago – bring the total of his recorded output to nine releases in 25 years on the scene by the amazing guitarist who found his own unique groove in his solo work.

“That’s what I like about the new paradigm of the industry: the proximity to the people; you develop actual relationships.”

“With the industry undergoing so many changes, he says, “the fact is I couldn’t afford musicians anymore; I had to re-invent myself. Before going on this solo adventure, I was $30,000 in debt. When I played Club Soda, I would post the posters all over the city myself, with the help of my bass player.”

And record sales weren’t any better. “Before starting my own label, No Label, I would earn a buck fifty per record sold after the first 40,000 copies,” he says. “With last record company, I earned 40 cents per copy sold. Today, I don’t have a manager, I don’t have a label, and I sell outside of Québec! When I visit Toronto or Western Canada, my albums are stocked in record stores (N.D.L.R.: he has a distribution deal with Outside Music). I do a better job of this, “he says proudly. “Twenty percent of my sales are digital, the rest are physical formats.”

Thanks to his media exposure here and abroad, and the countless awards and distinctions he’s earned, Steve Hill couldn’t be happier. “My concerts are sold out,” he says. “After the show, I go straight to the merch (T-shirts, records, posters) table myself and I meet the people for an hour. I take pictures with them, we talk, I autograph guitars, boobies, whatever! [laughs] That’s what I like about the new paradigm of the industry: the proximity to the people; you develop actual relationships. People write to me on Facebook and I reply as fast as I can.”

Steve Hill

Photo: Scott Doubt

This success has meant that he gives about 125 concerts per year, and the telephone is ringing off the hook; downtime is rare. “I recently had no concerts booked for a few days straight, so instead of flying down south, I took a break from being the frontman and became a simple session player,” he says. “I went into the studio to record two songs with singer-songwriter Pépé and Marc Déry, who’s producing his new album, and I showed up at Bistro à Jojo (a famous live Blues spot in Montréal) just for the fun of jamming. A few days later, I was in the studio again with Erik West Millette (Trainz), and Kevin Parent was in the studio next door working on his new album. He invited me to collaborate on one song. I love to play, and it’s rare that I’m available for this kind of stuff.”

But for now, Steve Hill remains a one-man-band. With one foot on the kick drum to maintain the cadence, he sometimes shakes a makeshift shaker, a can filled with loose change, taped to his right foot. To round things off, a drumstick is affixed to his guitar neck, so that he can hit a hi-hat and cymbal.

All the while, he produces multiple hypnotic riffs that range from rural and modern blues to rock, country and folk. “Everything is live, I don’t use sampling,” he says. “It’s an honest reflection of who I am as an artist,” says the man, who calls himself a “guitar whore. I own over thirty guitars and more than twenty amps.”

Steve Hill has two more Canadian tours booked in 2016 and he’s currently looking at offers for dates in the States, Europe and Brazil in 2017.

In concert at Montreal Club Soda, April 28th.