GeoffroyLesson of the day: don’t trust your eyes. To wit: Geoffroy, ex-contestant on La Voix [the Québec franchise of The Voice TV singing competition]. Three months ago, he released an English electronic pop album titled Coastline: Silky smooth, melancholy, romantic sounds, simple yet expertly crafted verses, collaborations with electro-pop peers such as Fjord and Men I Trust. Everything required to harvest plays on Spotify and YouTube, right where it needs to be. Yet behind the polished and charming image is a young man who knows the business inside and out, and talks about it with the same driving passion that fires his musical career.

Let’s talk business for a moment in this online magazine otherwise dedicated to songwriters, composers, music publishers and their work. Having been selected for the first SOCAN showcase at Printemps de Bourges in April 2017, when interviewed Geoffroy, he was also getting ready not only to sing for the French market, but also to do business as the only Québec singer-songwriter invited to participate in the Accelerator segment of the 51st annual MIDEM in Cannes, June 6-9, 2017.

And he’s no stranger to MIDEM. “I went a few times when I worked in the biz,” he tells us the day before his departure for the French Riviera. “After I graduated, I was hired by the Analekta label, and they’re always at MIDEM. Classical music is booming in Asia, and there are always a lot of delegates from China at the event.” He also went back while he was getting his Master’s degree in industrial management of arts and music in Spain.

“As an artist, it’s useful to know how to talk to your manager, your publisher, your label people, it’s useful to know all the aspects of this trade.”

“I’ve always had one foot in the business side of things and the other in the creative side,” says Geoffroy. “I’ve always made music for my own enjoyment, but I never had the guts to put my creative stuff forward. I’d never planned to become an artist as a ‘Plan A,’ so I built a solid ‘Plan B’ to work in the business, something that I was not only truly interested in, but also very useful to me now. As an artist, it’s useful to know how to talk to your manager, your publisher, your label people. It’s useful to know all the aspects of this trade.”

Geoffroy has always played music “without ever taking it too seriously,” he says: piano lessons starting at about eight years old, then guitar and drums, followed by singing lessons “to come out of my shell and prove myself that I could sing.”

In the spring of 2014, he participated in the popular La Voix, and released his first EP, Soaked in Gold, the following year. “That first EP allowed me to gauge public interest,” he says. “Bonsound got involved in the project, and that’s when I thought, ‘OK, maybe there’s some potential here…’ I forged ahead and took two years to write and record Coastline, and now here we are.”

Just a few hours from boarding a plane for France, where he’ll perform onstage and go through three booked-solid days of meetings with industry types from all over Europe – where his music is already getting quite enviable attention. Geoffroy has already signed with a booking agency, and may hire a radio tracker to ensure that his songs, available as downloads, are nonetheless played.

“The music industry is fascinating because it’s constantly evolving,” says Geoffroy. “There’s no formula for success, apart from having a good song, of course. After that, it’s a lot of strategizing, of different ways to market the music, various segmentation strategies. It’s super-interesting…”

Obviously, singing in English is one of those strategies to maximize a song’s impact, but in his case, it wasn’t a calculated choice: “I grew up in Notre-Dame-de-Grâce [a predominantly Anglo neighbourhood in the Western part of Montréal] in a family that was not only Francophone, but Francophile. Yet I also grew up with Anglo and bilingual friends, and I went to school in English.”

GeoffroyAdd to this mix the influence of American pop music and “it just comes out better in English,” says Geoffroy. “I tried writing in French, but I was never satisfied with the result. But never say never, as they say. Lately I’ve been listening to a lot of Haitian music, a lot of kompa. I know it’s very foreign to French pop, but I feel like exploring that.”

But just out or curiosity, where does that tinge of a British accent come from, then? “Funny you should mention that,” says Geoffroy. “Others have remarked on that, too. You can hear it on songs like “Trouble Child.” When I was recording the album, I was listening to a lot of Peter Gabriel and David Bowie. I think I was kind of playing a character, and recorded it in that mindset.”

Another misconception about Geoffroy is that he sounds like he’s from Québec City, which, lately, is teeming with English-singing electro pop artists. “That’s because of La Voix, where I met Gabrielle Shonk,” he says, referencing the singer-songwriter at the forefront of that Québec City musical tribe. “It’s through her that I met that whole gang of musicians and producers. They’re all super-nice and cool to work with, people like Men I Trust and Fjord. It just felt natural and fun to collaborate with them; I wasn’t thinking strategically. And you know, people in Québec City have much smaller egos than Montréal people, so they’re much nicer to work with.”

Claude DuboisOn June 16, 2017, at the FrancoFolies de Montréal festival, at the end of his show Dubois en liberté, Claude Dubois started pointing at people in the audience while the irresistible melody to his classic hit song “Comme un million de gens” was stretching out.

“Like you! Like me! Like you! Like me!” he shouted, looking left and right, at the mezzanine, or at the floor seats. “Like us,” we could have shouted back. The communion with the audience was rich, intense.

Now aged 70 and battling cancer, Dubois probably never dreamed that this song would become a popular anthem, decades after he wrote it. As so many of his songs did.

Officially, “Comme un million de gens” – which became a SOCAN Classic in 1994,  and was inducted in the Canadian Songwriters Hall of Fame in 2008 – dates back to 1966, at least as far as the writing is concerned. The recording of the song came a bit later, however. And a bit further, as it were, since it was recorded on the other side of the Atlantic.

A Hippie in 1968

“I was in France in 1968,” says Dubois. “It was a year of turmoil, over there. I had swung by England before arriving in France. It was the height of the hippie days. At the time, I was with a Parisian with Italian roots. I was just a guy parachuted there from America.

“I was attracted by France and its culture. I lived in a riverside apartment. And because I had long hair, they thought I was a student and I got arrested constantly. Only to be immediately released. Still, I tried to remain discreet…”

So much so that the popular Dutch singer Dave (“Vanina,” “Du côté de chez Swann”), who was living in France, helped Dubois out during these hard times. “Dave took me under his wing. We would go from restaurant to restaurant to sing and pass the hat [laughs]. Nowadays, he truly is a survivor of his generation and has his own TV show in France.”

Revolutionary Inspiration?

A few months after arriving in France, Dubois recorded the song for posterity. He believes the lyrics were an accurate mirror of what was happening on both continents at the time. “The song was inspired by here (Québec) and there (France). Québec was also going through an awakening at the time. I was inspired by the concept of family in its broadest sense. Not just mommy and daddy, but cousins too. The song said to not be fooled. That everyone had their place in society.

“When I played it for the Pathé-Marconi people, they said: ‘Don’t you think we’re already in enough shit as it is? Another revolutionary song!’ The label bosses called me the ‘maritime genie’ because of how I dressed. I told them that if they gave me back the rights to the song, they’d never have any more trouble with me. And they did. I was already perceived as free.”

When the time came to record “Comme un million de gens,” Dubois and his colleagues had very well-known studio neighbours. “At the end of that year, I ended up at Pathé Marconi’s studios. It was actually at EMI’s. We were in Studio B, and The Rolling Stones were in Studio A. We didn’t quite have the same budget. They would stay in a studio for months on end. We only had a few hours. For the recording, we used Red Mitchell, a guitarist from Québec who at the time was touring Europe with Jean-Pierre Ferland. Otherwise, all the musicians were French [from France]. The result, which is the version everyone [in Québec] knows, was absolutely perfect.”

“Comme un million de gens” was released by Columbia Records as a single in 1969. It was also released in Europe by the label La Compagnie. “That was Hugues Aufray’s label, but it came out a little later (1970),” says Dubois.

Immediate Success

“The song went straight to radio,” says Dubois. “It was unprecedented. It was a country song, but back then, country songs didn’t have socially charged lyrics about mass movements.

“I absolutely didn’t expect it to become a hit. I saw what I was doing as arts and crafts. But I didn’t become a star because it was played on the radio. To those who think Dubois was a hit at the time, I say, ‘You’re wrong.’ My career was always a rollercoaster, and I don’t even count my personal issues [laughs]. I only mean my career.

“The number of people who love you do not translate into the amount of money you have, you know. Les Classels and Les Hou-Lops, for example, made much more money than songwriters back then. You could call my success an ‘off Broadway’ success.”

But it’s been ongoing for five decades, now, as last week’s show so eloquently proved.

Quick: name the biggest-selling reggae single of all time? Surprise: it’s “Informer,” the 1992 crossover hit from Irish-Canadian singer-songwriter Snow. Born Darrin O’Brien in the North Toronto housing project Allenbury Gardens, Snow discovered Jamaican music through his neighbours, and was discovered in turn by New York rapper MC Shan, who produced his debut album 12 Inches of Snow. The slick pop beats and rapid-fire patois vocals about a snitch hit No. 1 on the Billboard Charts, where it stayed for seven weeks, eventually selling more than 8 million copies. “Informer” wasn’t Snow’s only hit (1997’s “all-star mix” of “Anything For You” was No. 1, in Jamaica and 2000’s “Everybody Wants to Be Like You” won the MuchMusic Video Award for Best Canadian Video), but it remains his defining song.

What kind of music were you into as a kid?
Rock. My first concert was KISS at Varsity Stadium with my brother. He was nine and I was six. We used to put on KISS concerts in a neighbour’s basement. Make-up, fake blood, everything. Meanwhile, upstairs, they were playing Jamaican music. Where I grew up, it was mostly Irish. And then when was 14, Jamaicans started to move in. They introduced me to their music.

What appealed to so much you about reggae?
I don’t know. Growing up, my mother was always into music. R&B, though. No rock. No country, Nothing else. When I started getting those dancehall tapes from my neighbours? I was just hypnotized by the voices! I would just rewind the tapes constantly, playing the songs over and over. “What did he say?”  The singers just captured me.

When did you start writing your own songs?
Before “Informer,” I wasn’t anything like that.  I wasn’t a songwriter, or a performer, or nothing. I got charged with two attempted murders, went to jail. And while was in jail, and I just came up with these verses: [Sings] “Informer. You know say Daddy Snow me, I’m gonna blame. A licky boom-boom down.” Like a jingle. But I had never been in the studio. I’m just a fan of music. Then when I got out, I went to New York, I ran into MC Shan, right? And he was like “I heard you can sing? Come to my house!” He taught me everything. About music. About harmonies.  I didn’t know anything about writing, but melodies just came to me. You’d put on a beat and I’d just hum melody after melody. And that’s how it started. Now, I think I’m a professional, but I wasn’t then.

How long did it take to write the song?
Maybe a day. When I first met MC Shan, I was always singing, “skippity boom down.” He kept singing it all day, too, he loved it.  But we changed it to “a licky boom-boom down.” I was just having fun. And I think that’s what made it. Because I actually wasn’t expecting it to be big.

Is it true you were in jail when the song went to No. 1?
Yes. We did the record in New York. We did a video. But I had to go back to Toronto, to go to jail. So I signed the contract. Then went to jail, for another year. I figured that’s what I was doing with my life. Nobody around me had made it big. And first time I saw my video was in jail. I got a weekend pass to go on MuchMusic.

How do you describe your vocal style in that song?
It’s kind of sing-jay. You can hear a little bit of Michael Rose. Junior Reid. Sting. All these influences on me. I just spit out words. I’m not a lyricist. I’m not Eminem. I just grab the moment and do what I feel.

Jim Carrey made fun of the song on In Living Colour – with a spoof called “Imposter.” What did you think of that?
It was perfect! Because it’s not wrong! [laughs] He’s Canadian, so that’s why I let him get away with it. Weird Al asked us too, but we said no.

What’s the best thing that happened to you because of “Informer”?
I don’t have to boost no more. No more crime. That was the best thing. But the worst thing was it gave me more money, so I was drinking too much. But I’ve quit. I got rid of that.