Story by Olivier Boisvert-Magnen | February 27, 2020
On Homme-objet, Luis Clavis tackles utterly contemporary themes with sarcasm, self-deprecation, and vulnerability.
Listening to the 15 tracks on his debut solo album can leave you stunned. No one expected Clavis – who’s known mostly for his playful lyrics and festive charisma as a member of Valaire and Qualité Motel – to get as personal as he does on “Farewell,” an electro-pop-jazz number with a lo-fi folk aura that closes the record. “Quand ton odeur quittera mes vêtements / Il sera sûrement temps que je les brûle,” sings the singer-songwriter gloomilyt (When your smell no longer permeates my clothes / It’ll surely be time for me to burn them).
“I wanted to confront myself and do more personal stuff,” says Clavis, seated in a café near his place. “As soon as it felt even somewhat intense or shameful, I went straight for it. There’s something fucking amazing about being in a band with childhood friends, but at a certain point, it becomes important to ask yourself what you can do on your own.”
That “certain point” never manifested itself before, even after 15 years as a member of Valaire. After becoming “somewhat by default” the band’s frontman onstage, Clavis felt the need to grab the mic as a solo act about two years, ago when two of the five band members (Tō and Kilojules, aka Tōki) went on a hiatus to work on their good friend Fanny Bloom’s album.
“Before that, I’d never considered such a thing,” he says. “As an instrumental band that evolved from jazz, we didn’t want my voice to become that of a frontman. We strived to remain equals and I liked that… but when the guys went on to work with Fanny, I had a lot of time on my hands. Enough that I asked myself, ‘What do I do with my life when I don’t have my bands?’ I started writing tracks for myself, without any pre-conceived idea of where that would go.”
Clavis started by asking himself what he had to say that was relevant. As conscious as can be about his social status, namely that of “a white male in Québec who’s privileged and had a normal childhood,” he found inspiration in Julia Cameron’s best-seller The Artist’s Way. “It’s a book that motivates people who feel blocked [to overcome their inaction],” he says. “It taught me to write whatever came to mind every day, for five minutes, without judgment. The more I wrote just about anything, I started getting ideas, snippets of verses. It really helped me find an approach, and themes, that are truly mine – because I’ve never had any kind of inspirational struggle, as opposed to some of the artists to whom I listen. I’m a white, heterosexual male, who’s never really known adversity. My parents are even still married!”
Yet, despite his comfy upbringing, the Sherbrooke-born artist managed to put his finger on several of our era’s ills. On Homme-objet, he pokes fun at the cult of appearance and instant celebrity, while being really careful to avoid sounding pretentious or overly critical.
“I judge and observe myself… There’s a degree of the poetry of defeat in that,” he says. “I grew up listening to hip-hop, but instead of doing the hip-hop bragging thing, I chose the character of a loser MC who contemplates life. I like the idea of giving value to contemplation, of living my days without feeling like I need to change the world to quench my ambition.”
“I really wondered how a non-singer like me was going to manage recording of an album of songs.”
Is he trying to embody “downsizing,” in his own way? “No, I swear!” he says, laughing. “I know I’m in the same boat as everyone else, and I don’t pretend I have the solution. I do, however, like the image of contemplation, I think it might be part of the solution. If we taught our kids to observe rather than perform, we’d probably have a better world.”
This way of seeing the world takes on quite an original life on “Cycle délicat,” where Clavis puts himself in the shoes of an almost perfect house-husband. “When I wrote that, I was thinking about the whole mental load and professional burnout issue,” he says. “I’d be totally down to be a stay-at-home husband, being the guy who takes care of everything while he waits for his wife to return home after work,” he says with a grin.
Such modern themes naturally go hand-in-hand with a musical backdrop that’s just as modern. Helped by Tōki on production duties, Clavis’ compositions are electro-pop with healthy doses of funk and hip-hop. “Beck was a big creative influence for me, especially his Midnite Vultures album,” he says. “That album is a tribute to Prince, but recorded by a skinny, not-so-sexy white man. That sensual side that doesn’t take itself too seriously, that’s a trip for me.”
Vocally, he adopts the same “not too serious” attitude, thanks to a calm and at times nonchalant approach. The rapper and vocalist (he refuses to be called a singer) took quite awhile before settling on the right tone. “I really wondered how a non-singer like me was going to manage recording of an album of songs,” says Clavis. “All I had left was honesty, the honesty of a guy who works with what he’s got – I’m light-years from being able to push notes like those people on La Voix [the Québec franchise of TV singing competition The Voice]. I’m convinced I’d have to contend with four unturned chairs if I sang there.”
On the eve of his album release, Clavis says he’s satisfied, but not quite ready yet to deal with the public reaction – even though the reception for the first two singles was good, and found airplay on commercial as well as campus radio. “I’ve been oscillating between ‘OK, this is cool,’ and ‘This is the worst album ever produced in the history of music,’ for quite a while,” he admits. “Each step is a challenge, and I like it like that.”
Photo by Étienne Barry
Les Hay Babies: Like a Soap Opera
Story by Dominic Tardif | February 25, 2020
“The thing is, it’s not texts or e-mails,” says Les Hay Babies’ Viviane Roy about the rich source material that inspired their third album, Boîte aux lettres. It’s the correspondence between a mother and her daughter, a young woman who moved from New Brunswick to Montréal in the mid-‘60s. “You know, a telephone line was way too expensive, back then. That means those letters are rich and super-detailed. Jackie tries to make her mom live what she’s living in Montréal.”
This story, however – before being about letters or about music – is a story about clothes. A few years ago, bandmate Julie Aubé inherited a bunch of clothes found by Claudette, a long-time Hay Babies fan who’d been tasked with emptying a Moncton house abandoned by its owner. You see, besides her creative work, Aubé also manages an online second-hand clothing store call OK My Dear. As such, she owns one of the most stunning wardrobes in Atlantic Canada. Although her bandmate and friend Katrine Noël is a fierce competitor for the title.
Among the clothes Claudette gave her were a bunch of letters that she initially set aside, “because the cool clothes were just so cool,” says Aubé. “I’m talking gorgeous flared jeans that would cost, like, $300 today.” Once the initial clothing-induced high subsided, the musician quickly realized what the true gem of Claudette’s gift was. “As soon as we started reading those letters, we were on the edge of our seats.”
The necessity of creating a concept album based on this correspondence quickly became self-evident, because of the vivid portrait painted by Jacqueline of her professional, social, and sentimental life as a single woman in Montréal between 1965 and 1969.
“No one could remain unmoved after reading those letters,” says Noël. “It’s like a soap opera. Oh my God, she’s auditioning to be a top model! Oh my God, she’s dating that guy! But Jackie is writing with her ego. She tries to come across as way more high-class than anyone else in Moncton. Maybe her mom didn’t want her to move to Montréal at 24, maybe she told her, ‘You’ll never realize your dreams, you should get married instead.’ And maybe that’s why Jackie lays it on so thick. It was super-interesting to guess what’s true, and what’s not.”
One happy side effect of this six-handed extrapolation, is that whereas the songs on Mon Homesick Heart (2014) and La 4ième dimension (version longue) (2016) could easily be identified by the respective style of each of the Hay Babies’ three songwriters, every second of Boîte aux lettres is clearly the result of a team effort.
“An album is not a single, it has to stand on its own.” — Viviane Roy, Les Hay Babies
And whereas La 4ième dimension (version longue) was a celebration of ‘70s soft rock, Boîte aux lettres is filled to the brim with ‘60s sounds, from the pastoral folk of “Entre deux montagnes” to the garage rock of “Almost minuit” and the psychedelic stylings of “Limonade.”
“We were also obsessed by the music grandpa and grandma played when they were making babies,” jokes Roy, definitely the most loquacious of the trio, about the obvious easy-listening references that imbue a lascivious song like “Jacqueline.”
Reading the letters was also a lesson that allowed Les Hay Babies to take the full measure of how much the liberties taken for granted by women today had to be fought for, and won, back then. “Jackie was quite the feminist for the time,” says Roy. “She had the independence to refuse to settle down and get married at 18 like she could have. She was very open-minded. It made us check our privilege. There’s a lot of stuff that’s completely mundane for us, that required a lot of courage for her. There’s such a huge contrast between what she had to go through, between her own thoughts and how she had to behave to please men, and where we’re at today. All those examples of how we’ve come a long way jumped out of her letters.”
Another aspect of Boîte aux lettres that stands out – in this era of playlists and streaming platforms that break down an album into single units – is that it presents itself as an album that has to be listened to from A to Z, flipping the bird to our constant zap-based culture.
“I’ve always believed in concept albums,” says Roy. “All albums should be concept albums, to a degree. An album is not a single, it has to stand on its own. When you invest yourself in listening to an album, it’s like being in an art gallery. When you become aware of the underlying theme, every single piece of art makes more sense. Frankly, I think there are way too many artists that are, like, ‘I have enough songs for an album.’ Well, guess what? I’ll never listen to those albums. There are so many albums that are released by artists unable to back them up with ideas.”
But have Jacqueline’s letters, from a New Bruswicker exiled in Montréal, made Aubé and Noël, who still live in their native province, want to move? Noël grimaces. “It made me want to see Montréal as it was in the ’60s, big-time,” she says. “It made me want to visit Expo 67. But moving to Montréal to go to hipster restaurants that all look the same? Not so much.”