Guillaume Arsenault, the star of the 2001 Petite-Vallée song festival, released his first album, the rock-rooted Guillaume & l’Arbre), a year later, and followed up in 2006 with the folkier, more intricate Le Rang des Îles. His 2009 release, the clever Géophonik, was a mixture of sophisticated arrangements and ingeniously blended electronic and folk sounds. His latest offering, the self-produced Oasis station-service, came out last September after an unusually long hiatus for the artist from Baie-des-Chaleurs in the Gaspé Peninsula.
“As a creator, you can’t force things to happen,” he says. “All you can do is condition yourself to welcome inspiration. I had planned to move in many directions from the word go, and I actively explored new avenues everywhere I turned. This also included new songwriting challenges, writing and composing in unfamiliar ways. This is one of the reasons why this latest album was so long in coming. Another reason was that some of the musicians I was working with were located in Montreal while others lived in the Gaspé Peninsula,” the 37-year-old artist explains.
An adventuresome creator
Resulting from multiple songwriting sessions, the 12 selections of Arsenault’s latest album are replete with colourful lyrical imagery and performed in a warm, yet detached voice through dusty twang-guitar riffs and Morricone-esque grooves – a significant stretch for the Bonaventure-born artist. “I joined some musicians in Montreal and we played jam sessions, recording ourselves as we went along,” he says. “On my way back home on the train, I would listen to all that stuff and set aside the best improvised sections to use them later as songwriting material. What came out of this was a distinctive sound. I fell in love with a baritone electric guitar with a sound that brought together the slow-moving melodies and the more nervous side of electronics. In some way, I wanted to create movie-like songs reminiscent of Sergio Leone’s films or [rock singer-songwriter] Fred Fortin’s early work. It was a personal challenge, and the result is much more melodic. My goal always is to get so deeply involved in the creative process that I no longer have to worry about doing things wrong.”
“I see the horizon as a soul shaper, and I try to catch images in mid-air wherever I go.”
A veteran theatre, documentary and web music composer, Arsenault has been calling himself a full-time musician since 2009, and has since hosted numerous songwriting workshops in elementary and secondary schools as well as the Petite-Vallée Songwriting Camp. A seasoned traveller, he’s spent a considerable amount of time out West over the past few years, and was deeply moved by a Southern road trip he once took: “I hitchhiked across the U.S. and Mexico, and came back home without a single photograph or concrete reminder of my journey. I still cherish these memories, and they inform my songwriting to this day. I realize the word ‘horizon’ keeps reoccurring in my lyrics. I see the horizon as a soul shaper, and I try to catch images in mid-air wherever I go. If I were living in a large city like Montreal, I would be writing about concrete, but when I look away from my house right now, all I see is farmer’s fields, trees and bales of hay. This is where my inspiration is coming from,” the trained cabinetmaker-turned-songwriter reveals.
As he began hosting songwriting workshops around 2002, Arsenault had to get to the root of his own personal creative process. “Once I was able to see how I was going about things, I had no desire to repeat the same process over and over,” he says. “That brought me to work differently over the years. The starting point, for me, always is a musical ambiance of some sort. The next thing is the blending of words and music – first the striking images, then the rest of the lyrics. Before this last album, I often fussed for a long time before adopting specific phrases or images because I was bent on depicting exactly how I felt and expressing precisely what I wanted to say, with the result that I was throwing away a lot of interesting stuff. I got rid of that approach with Oasis station-service, and it’s been a relief.”
Now caught up in a whirlwind of activity, Guillaume Arsenault continues to collect new sounds for his research and creation project on the Gaspé soundscape (his “Sound Tourism” project) while performing live shows, composing theatre music, writing a play and touring local secondary schools. Far from having exhausted his materials, this all-around creator sees the songwriter as a witness to the world: “You can talk about yourself, of course, but there is a way to do that. It’s the ‘show me, don’t tell me’ kind of approach. And I feel I still have much to show people. This is a good sign for whatever comes next.”