The 2023 edition (and 10th Anniversary) of the Gala Country, which celebrates the Québec country music community – is upon us! Here are the five SOCAN members nominated in the Breakthrough Artist category.
Justin Lagacé changed his stage name to Legacy, something that’s easier to sell abroad, and he comes from the same country stronghold as Ghys Mongeon, who was among SOCAN’s new faces of country in 2020.
Legacy looks more like Everlast than he does Laurie Leblanc, or Matt Lang – each of whom looks exactly like what we imagine a country singer would. The artist from the Outaouais has an exceptional baritone voice, one that commands attention, and serves as a major asset that he welds to his hip-hop roots. What we have here is a singular, innovative, and fresh artist in the country ecosystem.
“I’ve always listened to country music,” he explains. “I’ve been playing music since I was 12 years old. Now I want to make new country in English. And it’s really important to me that you don’t hear a Francophone accent. When I sit down to write, it feels like my pen naturally gravitates towards English.”
Now 24, Legacy’s experience as a semi-finalist on La Voix (the Québec franchise of The Voice TV singing competition) in 2019 taught him a lot. “They’re incredibly long days, but Éric Lapointe put a lot of trust in me,” he says. “We even worked on a country cover of a Colocs tune. But through it all, I stayed true to myself.”
Two EPs – Tempted, Pt. 1 and Pt. 2 – revealed an initial bundle of high-quality songs that would feel right at home on American charts. They were released by Balistique musique, a label founded by former Montréal Alouettes football player Étienne Boulay, and top-tier producer John-Anthony Gagnon-Robinette. One listen to “Broken Man” and “Small Town Prayer” and you’ll have no doubt about his future.
Another former contestant on La Voix three years ago, this Berthierville-born artist has garnered six nominations. The 30-year-old songwriter took an unpaid leave of absence from his job as a correctional officer to devote himself entirely to country music.
“Country music chose me, but I was on the fence: do I sing in French or English?” he says. Inspired by the new country sounds of Americans Luke Combs and Morgan Wallen, Degrandpré finally chose French, “but I was afraid my songs would sound corny,” he says. It appears singing in the same language as Oscar Thiffault is far from a heresy.
Released in May 2022, his album Soir de quai gave him wings, and his songs “Ta toune préférée,” “Colorado,” and “Bang Bang” have resonated strongly throughout Québec. “I like sentences that aren’t too polished, just as if I was talking with my buddies. I think we found the right recipe,” says the guy who defines himself as a romantic seducer, with a cavernous voice.
He introduced himself at Montréal’s Corona Theater in March of 2023. “I felt I was on the right path when I realized the audience knew the lyrics to all 11 of the album’s songs, and not just the three on the radio,” says Degrandpré. Then, on August 18, he became the first Francophone artist from Québec to play on one of the two main stages of Montréal’s Lasso festival.
Things didn’t let up for Sandrine Hébert after she was a contestant on the 2022 edition of the Québec TV singing competition Star Académie. Averaging three shows a week, she gives more than 150 performances a year. Beside being nominated in the Breakthrough Artist category, she’s also on the ballot for the People’s Choice Award.
“I truly felt the impostor syndrome when I heard the news,” says Hébert. “I wondered if I truly belonged in that group.” Born in Coaticook, a city in Québec’s Eastern Townships, this singer-songwriter was still working with horses at a vet not that long ago, but she quickly made a ton of contacts, and now manages to earn a living from her shows. But not yet from her songs.
“Star Académie made me want to create original material,” she admits. “Toby Gendron and Sylvain Michel helped me with the creation of my song ‘On part s’une ride,’” she says. “I needed tools and I knew it. The melody that I was offered was the inspiration for the lyrics. “Comme des fous” (2023) is more nostalgic and visceral, because I’m singing about my dad, and it’s a nice continuation alongside “Noël chez nous,” says Hébert, about her three most popular songs to date.
“I’ve been making music for four years, and I can feel I’m not at my full potential yet,” says the artist, who admires Canadian country singer Jess Moskaluke. “It’s hard for me to sort through the various styles you can hear in my music.” Her first EP will be released in 2024.
Guillaume Lafond is nominated in several categories – Contemporary Country, Songwriter, Song of the Year, Album of the Year, Male Vocalist, and Breakthrough – and is at the peak of his career (so far) with his excellent song “Rien à faire,” a fearsome earworm.
Born in Saint-Constant, and now based in Richelieu, the 2021 Star Académie alumnus has joined forces with Mario Pelchat (2Frères, Paul Daraîche, Guylaine Tanguay) to give us a more intimate country flavour. Accompanied by his acoustic guitar, Lafond’s reassuring voice floats over musical structures that are airy and bluster-free. His album, À destination, has also been nominated at the ADISQ Gala.
“I’ve loved country since my teens, and giants such as Hank Williams, Johnny Cash and Merle Haggard all touched me with their truth-filled songs,” he says. You clearly understand that the man places a lot of importance in the authenticity of his message and craft.
His creative partner is David Laflèche, a musician who delighted everyone two years ago by leaving behind the TV shows where he was a regular house-band musician to launch the very intimate Every Day Son. “We listen to the same type of country music,” says Lafond. “David doesn’t mince words, and didn’t hesitate to change lyrics here and melodies there; I’m super-open to that,” he adds, with the humility of a beginner.
“We completed the album in three weeks,” he says. “David enlisted veteran Nashville musicians like Russ Pahl, who plays pedal steel. The result is 10 country, folk, and rock songs, my first compositions and my first 10 songs in French. I found inspiration in stuff that happened in my own life. It’s my story, ultimately.”
Isa Morin’s first, seven-song EP, Je t’aime comme ça, was released in 2023. It’s an excellent showcase of full potential for the Beauce-born singer-songwriter, who writes her country, folk, and pop songs with her life partner.
Morin, previously a contestant at the Festival international de la chanson de Granby and the Cégep en spectacle contest, is also a survivor: she had a brain tumour removed in 2020.
“You must always push forward,” she says. “That health scare got me in touch with my emotions, and that influenced the way I write songs. I’ve started writing them on my own, but I write way better when I’m working from a melody. It had been 25 years since I’d written song lyrics. I wanted to write with greater eloquence, so I took classes in writing circles. Each text is rooted in an emotion. It’s important to me that my songs are unlike any other; I want to avoid the comparison game.”
The recording process during the pandemic took about two months. One of her favourite songs, “Hockey Mom,” came quite naturally: “We had one hour left in the studio. We recorded my voice with and without music. It was an unlikely moment that changed a lot of things, because I’d been singing alone with my computer for six years!
“I was brought up listening to our local country radio, and my father is a singer, and so was my grandfather.”
Gala Country, 10th edition (2023)
Hosted by Guylaine Tanguay
October 26, 2023, Club Soda, Montréal