One gets this strange feeling from harmonica player Guy Bélanger, that of a man who blindly followed the path that unfolded before him, out of sheer instinct. Starting with an evening of celebration when, as a teen, he decided to switch from the recorder to the harmonica as his instrument of choice. “I didn’t choose it, it chose me,” he says. It continued with film and TV scoring, after having criss-crossed Québec as the harmonica player for Bob Walsh and Les Colocs.
Bélanger is a self-taught composer and musician, and his career is a singular one, littered with lucky breaks and accomplishments. But, mainly, he’s driven by a deep-seated desire to be where no one expects him. “I love saying that I’m out for fresh air with my harmonica,” he says. “I take it elsewhere to see if she’s there, and she always is.”
It was family ties that drove Bélanger to score movies, since his brother, Louis, is a film director. It all started with Post Mortem but really took off thanks to Gaz Bar Blues, a soundtrack he created alongside guitarist Claude Fradette. “We were really inspired, especially by Ry Cooder’s work on Paris, Texas,” says Bélanger. “Something was happening…” This chemistry worked out well for the duo, which went on to win the Québec Film Award for Best Film Score in 2003. This chemistry also exists between the Bélanger brothers, part of a brood of eight siblings from Val d’Or; to this day, their professional collaboration is still going strong. “Louis really fine-tunes his screenplays,” says Bélanger. “Everything is precisely calculated, dosed, thought through. It would be disrespectful to come to that with broad strokes and bombastic music à la John Williams. In any case, I would be unable to do that.”
Louis Bélanger is loyal to a brother who serves him well. Guy wrote the music for The Timekeeper (2009) and Route 132, alongside Ben Charest, which garnered him a second Québec Film Award in 2011. Les mauvaises herbes, Louis Bélanger’s latest film, marked a milestone for Guy because it was the first time he composed all of the movie’s music on his own. “I was ready for that,” he says. “It’s not that I wanted to work on my own in the studio; quite the contrary. But I did want to prove to myself that I would be able to.” On Les mauvaises herbes, therefore, the brothers agreed on something from the get-go. There would be no reference to reggae and the omnipresent ganja that comes with it. Guy found his inspiration after watching some of the rushes. “Louis shares his screenplay and filming moments during the principal photography,” says Bélanger. “Based on that, I send him music ideas upon which he then comments. Often times, Louis will ask me to strip things down. And then a little more. And a little more, still. Louis forces me to bare my music. I’m not there to underscore the emotions, I’m there to accompany them.”
Composing with the harmonica does come with its own set of challenges. “I don’t want to sound country or too bluesy,” says Bélanger. “I don’t want to sound like Neil Young or Bob Dylan. There’s something very convivial about this instrument. All of our grandfathers played it.” The fact that the harmonica sounds like singing, its resemblance to the human voice, makes it a distraction to a movie’s dialogue. This is why, sometimes, Bélanger will write with his harmonica, then call upon a friend to transpose the melody to another instrument such as the guitar, which was the case on Les mauvaises herbes.
Bélanger also seeks to surprise listeners and trump his own instrument; disguise it, if you will. That’s especially the case for his work on the TV series Séquelles, which airs on Série+ this spring, a series directed by his brother, and whose music he scored with longtime collaborator Claude Fradette. “For this thriller, we’ve created an anxious, atonal atmosphere,” says Bélanger. “It’s all about texture. It was a delicate layering process where I doubled, and even sometimes tripled, the harmonica tracks. The instrument is completely transformed: we made it say something completely different.”
Bélanger also wrote for Louis Saya’s Les Boys TV series, and through it all never stopped his work as a musician. To him, those are two sides of the same coin that inspire each other and stimulate his creativity. Examples of this abound: To wit, he’ll play two concerts at l’Astral during the Montreal Jazz Fest. Back in 2014, he released Blues Turn, a record that garnered him the 2014 Harmonica Player of the Year prize at Toronto’s Maple Blues Awards, as well as a nomination at the International Blues Challenge in Memphis. He’ll also appear on Céline Dion’s next album. And he’s been rehearsing in his garage for a new album he plans to release next November. The line between those two universes is so fine that Bélanger never hesitates to play music he’s written for Gaz Bar Blues or Les mauvaises herbes onstage. ‘I really dig doing that,” he says. “Those compositions are sometimes no longer than 30 seconds in the context of the movie, but on stage, me and the gang take off for 7 to 10 minutes. It’s wonderful.”