You try to hold me down so I became a soldier/ Built up all these walls and now I’m climbing over… Oh Lord! but I ain’t going back.
These intense lyrics from Québec singer-songwriter Jonathan Roy, in “Keeping Me Alive” — whose live acoustic video has earned more than 49 million views since it was released in September of 2019 — “fired me up,” he says of giving music another go.
“I think that’s what it’s doing for people,” says Roy. “There’s a lot of people writing me, people that are being abused, or have mental illness, and it’s like an anthem. And that’s what it did to me when I wrote it. It picked me up off my ass and said, ‘You know what, Joe, you’re going to do this for the rest of your life, so stop whining. You’re going to have hard days, just get through them and keep doing what you love.’”
The song – co-written with Brian Howes (Hedley, Hinder, Mother Mother) and Jason Van Poederooyen (Boys Like Girls, Hinder, Hedley) – shows an honesty, self-reflection, and vulnerability that some people wouldn’t be comfortable exposing. The kicker is in the resilient motivational words, Your fueling of the flames gonna show you what I’m made of.
The son of Patrick Roy, the legendary goalie of the Montréal Canadiens, Jonathan hasn’t had an easy climb in the recording industry. He started as a professional musician after he decided not to continue a career path on the ice with the QMJHL’s Quebec Remparts, where he played in 2008-09. But his first love was always music. In his teens, he started putting his poetry to song, and released three albums independently — 2009’s What I’ve Become, 2010’s Found My Way, and the Francophone La Route in 2011 — before his dad introduced him to Corey Hart in 2012.
The “Sunglasses at Night” hit-maker took the younger Roy under his wing, signing him to his Sienna record label, distributed by Warner Music Canada, and writing many of the songs. Among them were 2015’s peppy pop single, “Daniella Denmark,” and 2016’s reggae-lilting “You’re My Ace,” both found on Roy’s 2017 album Mr. Optimist Blues – but none bore the intensity, rawness, and soul that would come.
“Things with Corey and Warner were going not so well,” says Roy. “We weren’t on the same page. I wanted to go on a different route, musically. I’m someone that writes pop melodies and lyrics, but I’ve always felt like my voice and my true essence as an artist has always been more alternative, so that kind of scared a lot of people.
“Almost four years ago now, I bought a van, sold everything, and traveled. I just needed to take in some fresh air, so I was hiking, rock climbing, scuba diving, just nature stuff, and getting away from the music. I was fuckin’ lost, completely lost. I went out to Arizona, Utah, L.A. I was camping on the PCH [Pacific Coast Highway] in L.A. and met up with Brian Howes. Warner were the ones to connect us together. Got in the studio, and ‘Keeping Me Alive’ was the first song we wrote.”
“I wanted to write a song about all these things that were holding me back”
Howes was in Malibu at the time, but is now back on Vancouver Island, where he and Roy continue to collaborate. “He connected with my story. He understood what I was going through,” says Roy. “He was also in bands and knows the business, knows how hard it is, knows how confusing it can get.”
The first line that came? “I think it was, ‘He tried to hold me down.’ That hit home right away,” remembers Roy. “I was writing about all the things that I felt held me back, from my dad telling me that I wasn’t going to succeed in music, that I should’ve focused on education, to me wanting to release more music and Warner not being happy with everything, or controlling what they wanted for me out of my music, or what Corey wanted. I wanted to write a song about all these things that were, in my mind, holding me back.
“The first few lines came out, and then the chorus was the big defining moment, ‘Breaking every chain that you put on me.’ It was getting control of my art and control of who I am. That process has been going on for a while now. And it’s still gonna go on. As I grow older, I feel I’m more on my ‘X.’ And that’s probably because I’m in full control of what I’m doing.”
They recorded an alternative rock/pop version (it reached No. 1 in Quebec on Le Palmarès Radio Top 100), but Roy had this idea for a live acoustic version. It was made into a video – directed by Samuel Gauthier, starring dancer Jean Yannick Tangara and including the backing vocals of powerhouse Kim Richardson — but Roy never guessed it would connect with tens of millions the way it has.
“I remember we struggled to get to 10,000 [views],” says Roy. “It just started to get on people’s radar. The quality of the video is beautiful. I think people connected with it. It’s just the combination of everything: good timing, a good song, good lyrics.”
Roy is back in Québec, working on new material, and just released an equally powerful song and video, “Lost.” He’ll be working with Howes again soon, with an EP due to drop in May of 2021.