Ian Kelly is a happy man. In fact, it’s the first thing that comes to mind when listening to his fifth album, Superfolk, which came out last March. Recorded after the birth of his third child, Superfolk is a record filled with hope and light, produced by a man who doesn’t shy away from his joy. Despite his natural inclination for rather depressing lyrics, the Québec singer-songwriter seems to have found peace, and didn’t hesitate to focus his new album on the joys of family life.
“It’s a fact that being happy in love is a relatively new subject for me, but I needed to find a certain counter-weight to my songs about how screwed up the world is!” says Kelly. “Besides, even though things are generally screwed up, there are still many things to celebrate in this world. All I really hope for is that people come out of my concerts with a smile and a light heart…”
The creator of “Montréal” found his happiness in the hills of the Laurentians – more precisely, in Morin-Heights. Over an hour’s drive North of the city where he’s spent most of his life, Kelly bought a home for his young family, who were growing weary of the city. “It’s the perfect place for me. I’m just outside the village, but still within reach of high-speed Internet,” he says with a laugh. “I’m not completely cut off from the world, you know. The sidewalk stops just before my house, but I can still walk to the convenience storeif we run out of milk!”
But his house in Morin-Heights has mainly allowed Ian Kelly to achieve his lifelong dream: building a real studio where he could produce his albums, and those of other artists, from beginning to end. A place of inspiration. “With today’s technology, you can record anywhere, but I still wanted to have a room with its own sound, where you can place the mic more than an inch away from the singer’s face,” he says. “And there was also the drive to actually build something with my own hands, according to my standards: I can still see myself shovelling gravel only two years ago, while preparing the foundations. Today, I have a professional studio 30 seconds from my living room, which allows me to stay close to my family when I work.”
Kelly isn’t the first artist to move to this area. Éloi Painchaud and Jorane also have their own studio, a few minutes away from Kelly’s, and this proximity has already led to a beautiful collaboration. When the time came to create the English version of the theme song for the movie La Guerre des Tuques, Éloi immediately thought of his neighbour to translate the song. Ian gladly did so, not knowing that the person who was going to sing it was none other than Céline Dion! “Let’s just say that ‘I wrote for Céline Dion’ kinda looks good in your résumé, but I haven’t seen a royalty cheque yet, so I can’t tell if it was a lucrative job!” giggles the singer. Can he picture himself writing for others on a more regular basis? “It’ll never be my main line of business,” he says. “I do it when I’m asked, like in the case of Térez Montcalm. Oddly, since I’m a self-sufficient songwriter, I never have the impulse to think that others might need songs, let alone my songs!”
“I don’t know if it’s because I’m more demanding of myself when I write in French, but in the end, only one thing matters: it must be a great song.”
Another reason for Kelly’s obvious happiness when Superfolk came out was that the album as we know it almost didn’t exist. Kelly made headlines in the Québec media after announcing that someone had stolen his hard drive and the backup copy – containing all of the album’s songs – from his car. The story gained traction for a few days, enough so that some believed it was all a hoax to create a buzz around the upcoming album. There really was a theft, and thanks to the culprit’s father, Kelly got his recordings back without too much trouble.
“In the end, that experience turned out to be a positive one,” he says. “I obviously felt really bad for about a day or two, but the reaction that came of that event left me totally flabbergasted. I was nearing the end of my line of credit, and I was a bit stressed out by the idea of starting all over, but I was getting calls from musicians who were offering to play for free so that I could record it again! I got coverage in newspapers here and abroad, I felt a lot of empathy for what I was going through, and it reconciled me with humanity a little.”
And even though the larceny occurred on the streets of Montréal’s Park Extension neighbourhood, the new hillbilly is not one to bad-mouth the city that saw him come of age. On the contrary: “Montréal,” the upbeat single that became the album’s locomotive, is nothing short of a love letter to the metropolis. “I hope people aren’t too fed up with it next year, because I think it would be perfect for Montréal’s 375th anniversary!” he says. Mayor Denis Coderre, take note: this truly is the type of hymn that could rally the island’s entire population! Heavily rotated on the radio, it’s also one of the biggest hits of Kelly’s career, and even though he does sing more in Richler’s tongue than in Tremblay’s, it’s certainly not his first French song.
“I know that if you want to get airplay in Québec, your chances are better if you sing in French, because when you sing in English, you’re competing with the likes of Coldplay and Rihanna,” he says. “That said, I certainly didn’t write “Montréal” with commercial intentions. Initially, I wanted the album to be half French, half English, but after listening to the whole thing a few times, I felt some of the French songs weren’t as good. I don’t know if it’s because I’m more demanding of myself when I write in French, but in the end, only one thing matters: it must be a great song.” “Montréal” is undoubtedly one of the best songs on Superfolk, as is “Comme Un Loup” (roughly translated: “Like a Wolf”), which is more about his new life in the countryside than the urban world he left behind.
Kelly is currently touring the province on the tail end of his album’s success, with a solo concert that he describes as returning to his roots. “It’s a tour that allows me to play in smaller, more intimate venues,” he says. “First, because I love being close to the audience, but also because I prefer playing to a packed 200-capacity room rather than a half-full 600-capacity venue!” Kelly also allows audience members to leave the concert with a USB key they can purchase, containing the recording of that night’s concert. It’s a liberty he can afford, now that he’s fully independent. “I love this newfound freedom and I can tell you that decision are much quicker nowadays,” says Kelly. “That said, I certainly have no regrets about my years with a label: without Audiogram, I would probably not be here talking about my music.”
Beside his tour, Kelly has a few projects that will keep him busy for the next year. He’ll spend part of the winter scoring Marc-André Lavoie’s (Bluff, Y’en Aura Pas de Facile, Hot Dog) next movie, after Lavoie directed the video for “Montréal.” Then, next summer, if all goes well, people will flock to Morin-Heights for the first edition of a music festival that he and his friend Éloi Painchaud are putting together, and which will be called… Superfolk! “My head is full of projects, and I’m full of ambitions, but being rich isn’t one of them,” says Kelly. “Every day, I feel privileged to be able to make a living from my music, but all I really want is to be able to do things that I enjoy, and that make people feel good.”