We attended the Plage Musicale event on Sept. 16, 2020, which is a series of concerts organized by the record label Audiogram at the Village au Pied-du-courant, in Montréal.

Two finalists in the 2020 Francophone component of the SOCAN Songwriting Prize were onstage – Laurence-Anne and Bon Enfant – as well as Valence, who won the theme song of Francouvertes 2021.

For a schedule of upcoming Plage Musicale events, click here.

The executive director of the Francouvertes is restless, as the preliminary stages of the 24th edition are about to resume. She’s the very picture of a determined woman.

In 2005, Sylvie Courtemanche took a risk when she decided to revive, on her own, the competition for young musicians that was launched in 1995 by Faites de la musique and took place at Zest, in Montréal’s east end, before throwing in the towel after its eighth edition in 2003.

“Before that, I used to work with people like Steve Faulkner, the old guard; I wasn’t at all involved with emerging talent. Yet, I financed the first edition with my wages as a publicist,” she says.

Les Francouvertes receives between 150 and 250 applications, and a thorough selection process determines the 21 finalists. The recent abundance of talent gives the impression that Francouvertes might be living through a golden age. “There were just as many applicants 20 years ago, but we didn’t hear about them as much because the internet wasn’t as prevalent as it is today,” says Courtemanche.

The competition takes place over 11 nights, where each act has 30 minutes to play their material and impress a jury of seven industry members, and the audience as well. Of course, COVID-19 threw a major monkey wrench into this year’s preliminary rounds. Already, 12 contestants have appeared, and things will resume between Sept. 28 and 30. Right after the Francos and Pop Montréal. It’s now that kind of year.

“When this crisis began, I wore my rose-coloured glasses and I was very optimistic,” says Courtemanche. “We’d come up with about 70 different scenarios of how things would resume. We ended up writing to the artists very quickly because we didn’t want to cancel. We were looking for solutions.”

With those makeshift dates, things are overlapping. “What we’re doing is epic,” says Courtemanche. “It’s going to be quite a feat if we come out of next year’s 25th edition alive. Normally, this time of year is when we’re recruiting for next year’s edition, planning in general, and renewing our sponsorships. We have a lot of small sponsors who give us a small grant here and there, but our main sponsor, the presenting partner, is Sirius XM. If they pull out, we die.”

Sylvie CourtemancheBut Francouvertes has many more partners, including SOCAN, who present the Paroles & Musique Award, as well as the “J’aime mes ex” series, which features past contestants as the evenings’ opening acts. This year, we decided to pre-tape them to limit the number of scene changes. People will also be able to see the preliminary rounds, thanks to pay streaming (which still loses money, according to Courtemanche). The first 160 people to pay $10 will be allowed to join in with the 80 people admitted to Lion d’Or, and vote.

The music ecosystem has changed in 20 years. “More labels come to our shows,” says Courtemanche. “We used to see them only at the semi-finals, but now they come right from the start of the preliminaries.” And there’s greater visibility. “It’s rare that artists who apply to Francouvertes are not already somewhat on the circuit and have some stage experience, generally by playing venues such as L’Escogriffe in Montréal and Pantoum in Québec City,” she says. “Sometimes it’s a crapshoot. We don’t do auditions. They come to us, but there are lots of other contests; Granby, Ma première Place des Arts… And then there’s that rare bird who comes out of nowhere; Damien Robitaille, who won the 2005 edition, is a great example. We raid other festivals to find out which artists aren’t signed yet, and we invited them to apply to ours.”

A few words on illustrious participants?

Loco Locass (2000): “Everyone thought Les Cowboys fringants would win that year, but those [Loco Locass] guys blew us away, notably by adding Charles Imbault on trumpet. Their dynamics, and the surprises they had for us onstage, put them a notch above the Cowboys, in my opinion. And let’s not forget, rap wasn’t as prevalent, back then, which made them stand out even more. That final night was crazy.”

Les sœurs Boulay (2012): “You could hear a pin drop at Lion d’Or, and at Club Soda in the final, too. Even the industry types in the back of the room were all ears. Their project of working together was born during Francouvertes. It was a bit of a pickle, because Mélanie Boulay had also applied as a solo act.”

Les Hay Babies (2013): “They got to the preliminary stage and didn’t even know they were part of a contest. They had never heard of Francouvertes. Their manager had applied on their behalf without telling them!”

“I’m a bit of a mom,” says Courtemanche. “Calm? Me? I’m the opposite! But I’ve calmed down over the years. I’m always a little nervous at the beginning of each night. I still love what I do, even though every year I ask myself if it’s my last year. But there’s always something that hooks me back in: new ideas for social media, a new rule; that’s where I feel I’m best at what I do. Then, it’s all about surrounding myself with younger collaborators who see more shows than me,” says the happy fifty-something.

Any guess as to who will succeed Original Gros Bonnet, last year’s winners? “The nicest thing contestants can tell me is that they don’t care about not winning, because they’ve met people and made contacts and happy with their experience,” says Courtemanche. “It goes beyond the contest aspect of it all. Tons of bands have become friends just from sharing a stage at Francouvertes.”

Jonathan Personne takes his leave from reality on Disparitions, a collection of 10 dark, orchestral tracks. With hints of rock, garage and “yé-yé” (for the older crowd) music, it offers a somewhat improved vision of the time-period extending from the end of the 1960s through the next decade. An exercise in nostalgia for an era Personne missed entirely.

“Terre des Hommes” [the French version of Man and His World, from Montreal’s Expo 67] presents a certain idea of Parc Jean-Drapeau, and the ruins of Expo. “Alone before history,” Personne sings, in a voice full of echo, on the song – which sounds like it was molded in equal parts by the naiveté of an bygone period, and the disenchantment of our own time. It’s as if Personne was able to unearth the latest traces and artifacts of a lost Montréal, and turn them into something perfectly current, vaguely sci-fi, and ecologically committed.

“Sure, I wanted to come back to subject matter had already covered on the first album, namely the end of the world,” says Personne. “I still wanted to use fairly graphic stuff, like people embarking on space ships to leave the planet before it blows. It’s a tragedy, I know, but I was having fun trying to visualize it.”

An occasional music video producer and illustrator, Jonathan Personne (born Robert) is driven by elaborate arrangements, loaded with flutes, Fender Rhodes keyboards, and animal sounds – like those of the birds and the dog that can be heard on “Disparitions.” He’s created a sonic universe whose surprising instrumentation and rich textures approximate film music. The multi-disciplinary artist is looking forward to being able to create the soundtrack of his own film someday. Even now, he’s creating a short film – but refuses to say what it’s about at this time.

Personne’s ability to mix sounds and sights in such a natural way can probably be explained by the fact that he is a synesthete (one who sees sounds as colours), as are Philémon Cimon, Thom Yorke, and Billie Eilish, among others. Synesthesia is less rare among professional musicians than we think it is.

“The album cover isn’t purple, but that’s the colour I associate with this opus,” says Personne. “I also see some green when I listen to the songs. For Corridor’s Junior album, the main three colours are blue, a shade of burgundy, and a sort of slightly ochre yellow… I think that synesthesia, a word I learned two weeks ago, is feeding me as an illustrator. Music and the visual arts always influence one another, and I don’t tend to see things in black and white. Strong visuals are very, very important for an artist, particularly if you don’t have an outsized personality.”

Jonathan PersonneDisparitions was put together in the wake of the release of the album Junior, by Personne’s band, Corridor, on the prestigious U.S. label Sub Pop Records. This collection of solo songs reflects the burnout Personne was going through, at a time when all his dreams seemed to be coming true. While that whirlwind has proven creatively beneficial, he’s planning to slow down somewhat from now on.

“The story of that album is still rather unusual, and that was what caused it to be written in the first place” he says. “I was experiencing a massive work overdose, a contradictory period, during which I was fighting fire with fire by throwing myself into one more project at a time when I had overextended myself… It was also a lesson. In future, I’ll be able to say no.”

Immortalized on tape and alongside Guillaume Chiasson (Ponctuation, Bon Enfant), whose trademark as a technician is analog recording, Disparitions is the result of a fair level of risk-taking. Producer Emmanuel Ethier then had to deal with the occasional small bit of feedback, or mistake, that make the tracks sound even more organic.

“‘A mistake that sounded good,’ that’s Corridor’s motto since we recorded our first album,” says Personne. “We reserve the right to fail. To err is human, so that way we don’t sound like we’re robots.

“When it’s too pretty,” he adds, “it becomes ugly.”

Onstage Sept. 23 as part of Pop Montréal