“I no longer have impostor syndrome,” sings Fransaskois singer-songwriter Alexis Normand in the opening lines of “Mauvais sort,” the first single off of her eponymous sophomore album, launched in November 2016.
Those words are fitting, even though she didn’t write them. The lyrics to this song, and others on her surprising album, were penned by Daniel Beaumont (Louis-Jean Cormier, Tricot Machine). It’s a creative avenue Normand hadn’t yet explored: “I wanted to experience songwriting differently, so I asked [album producer] Marc Pérusse to suggest a few names,” says Normand.
“The first name on his list was Daniel Beaumont,” she adds. “We met in a Montréal café to get acquainted and see if we would jive before we started working together. I met someone with incredible sensitivity, an openness, and a love for collaborating that’s simply, and totally, based on the joy of creation. Since I live in Saskatoon and he in Montréal, the rest of our collaboration happened over the internet.
“When he sent his first text written specifically for my music, it felt like Daniel had stolen words straight from my heart and soul, especially on the song ‘Johnny Cash,’ which is one of my favourites on this album,” says the artist, who also tapped Mélanie Noël and Mathieu Lippé on two other collaborations.
“It takes a village” are the first words in the album’s thank-yous. Normand, of course, means that she got help from a few good Samaritans she met on the path to creating her album. “The Fransaskois community saw me come of age on stage… even before I was ready to think of myself as an artist,” she says. “As a matter of fact, it’s the Conseil culturel fransaskois that got me into my first songwriting, stage-scripting, and studio recording workshops. That’s what made me want to sing in French, and what led me to realize that a career in Western Canada is possible.”
Onstage, those beautiful collaborations are fleshed out alongside one-man band Marc Ferland-Papillon. The stage direction was provided by songwriter and multi-talented artist Gaële, and the show will be presented to Normand’s fans in the West starting this coming winter, and then elsewhere on the summer festival circuit in 2017. “Gaële is an artist who understands that it’s possible to feel like an outsider in Québec,” says Normand. “She helped me get over that. I asked her to help me create an intimate show, I wanted it to feel authentic, like I was inviting the audience in my living room in Saskatchewan.”
Photo by Carl Lessard
Martha Wainwright comes out of the family shadows
Story by Jim Kelly | December 6, 2016
The first sounds we hear coming over the line are the shrieks of rambunctious children splashing about in a bathtub, nearly drowning out the somewhat surprised voice of Martha Wainwright. “Oh my goodness. Hold on a second…. Get back in the bath, little children…”
We’ve reached her at home in Montréal in the midst of trying to get her two young sons, ages two and six (“but almost three and seven”) bathed and off to bed. It appears she’s forgotten about our scheduled 7:00 p.m. phone interview, and she’s scrambling to pass instructions to whoever is assisting her: “This one’s teeth are brushed… Um, how long is our interview, sir?” It’s clearly not an opportune time to chat, and so she offers to call back in an hour or so, after the kids are tucked away in bed.
It’s always been a family affair for Martha Wainwright, with all the chaos and connectivity that family brings. Music is the family business. She is, of course, the daughter of the late Canadian folk legend Kate McGarrigle and American singer-songwriter Loudon Wainwright III, who messily divorced the year she was born. After initially singing backup in the shadow of her older brother, Rufus Wainwright, she began to step out into her own spotlight in the late ‘90s with a number of well-received EPs. Her critically and commercially successful self-titled, full-length debut in 2005, and subsequent releases, have established her as a talented songwriter and a beguiling performer in her own right.
“It kind of feels like a new time; the beginning of something new.”
Her latest offering, Goodnight City, came out in November of 2016. It’s her sixth album and first solo release since 2012’s Come Home to Mama. Half of the tracks are Wainwright’s own compositions, while the other half were written for her by friends including Beth Orton, Glen Hansard, Merrill Garbus of tUnE-yArDs, her brother Rufus and writer/poet Michael Ondaatje. It also features contributions from her aunt Anna McGarrigle and cousin Lily Lanken.
The album opens with a trio of songs that are among Wainwright’s most captivating to date, led by the provocative first single “Around The Bend” (“I used to do a lot of blow / Now I only do the show”), followed by “Francis,” about her youngest son, Francis Valentine, and “Traveller,” a moving tribute to a friend who died of cancer at age 40.
After releasing Come Home to Mama and giving birth to son No. 2, Wainwright spent the ensuing couple of years “involved in intense domestic life.” When she was ready to make another record, she wasn’t sure she’d have enough songs, so she hit upon the idea of asking friends and family to contribute songs for her to record. While that was underway, Wainwright found the inspiration to write more of her own songs. “I lack discipline in my songwriting,” she explains, having now called back after putting the kids to bed, “so it’s often something that has to come over me.
“I realized this was going to be a record of two things,” she says, “because I didn’t want to abandon my own songs, but then it also allowed me to take the best of the offered songs and choose the ones that somehow really connected to my life in some way.”
That duality is also reflected in the cover photo she chose for Goodbye City, where we see two separate overlaid images of Wainwright, giving the impression that she’s facing in two opposite directions simultaneously.
“Yeah, looking at the past and the future,” she confirms. “The concept of saying goodbye to something is there, along with the title, but then also, it not being completely over.”
One of the things she’s tried to leave behind is the grief over her mother’s passing from cancer in 2010 at the age of 63. That kind of wound can be slow to heal, if it ever truly does. But healing does happen.
“For the first time, the memory of my mother and her death, I’ve come to accept more,” she says. “I’m not as traumatized by that or as hurt by that any more, and it kind of feels like a new time; the beginning of something new.”
“What I’m learning from having written it is that I think a page has been turned – no pun intended,” she says. “And with this new record too, and coming out from the shadows of my parents and my brother, and shaking off some of the insecurities that I have. I feel like that’s been one of the themes of the last 20 years, which I think I’m ready to shed.”
With her two young children now nestled in bed, drifting into dreamsongs of their own, Martha Wainwright is allowing herself a farewell glance to the past while she faces a new tomorrow.
“This record is more hopeful than a lot of my other records,” she says. “I think I’m a more realized artist in a way, maybe since turning 40, or being in this new stage or new chapter. I feel like it’s a better time for me.”
The Soulful World of Bobby Bazini
Story by Martin Melhuish | December 1, 2016
It was in his hometown of Mont-Laurier, Québec, a small municipality of less than 15,000 people in the Laurentian Mountains just north of Montréal, that singer-songwriter Bobby Bazini – born Bobby Bazinet – spent his charmed summer of 2007 and the week, he says, that changed his life.
It’s an idyllic region, once enchantingly described as a place where “a muse is keeping watch somewhere in the silence of a Laurentian forest glen, attracting artists and writers in search of inspiration.” It’s a time and place wistfully recalled in the title track of his recently-released third album, Summer is Gone. The recording marks a measured step into the future for Bazini as a songwriter and performer with global ambitions, but also takes a moment to look back at his small town roots.
Bazini was 18 that summer. He’d performed outside of the local radio station CFLO-FM for crowds attending the Festival international de théâtre de Mont-Laurier, and had become friends with Hugo Sabourin from the station – who’d shown up one day with a set of drums and asked to jam. In that same week, he not only met singer-songwriter Odessa Page, his girlfriend of nine years, but also forged a working relationship with Sabourin, with whom he wrote the song “Turn Me On.” That became the calling card for a management deal in Montréal, which helped to kick-start his career.
With the release of the single “I Wonder” in 2009 from his platinum debut album Better in Time, the music world was formally introduced to Bazini. He’s an artist who likes to keep things authentic when it comes to instrumentation – no computers or synthesizers. He also takes a great deal of inspiration from legends like Otis Redding, Marvin Gaye and Johnny Cash, but has found a contemporary style and voice of his own. And he can sing with the compelling voice of one whose affinity for the iconic performers of Deep-South roots music runs soul deep.
“The first two albums I wrote on my own and I felt like I needed to do something else with this third album.”
Between the first and second album, Where I Belong, there was a dispute with his ex-manager that prevented Bazini from recording for an extended period. It was a frustrating time. When the smoke had finally cleared, he was signed to Universal Music and on his way to Los Angeles for sessions at Village Recorder, the legendary studio which has played host to many of the icons of contemporary music, with producer Larry Klein (Joni Mitchell, Herbie Hancock) at the helm. The musicians included Booker T (organ), Jack Ashford (percussion) and Jay Bellerose (drums).
Where I Belong proved to be a huge success. It topped the Canadian Album chart in June of 2014, the year in which Bazini was the only Canadian artist to sell more than 100,000 units. He also spent a lot of time on the road, playing to capacity crowds – including a free concert at the Montreal International Jazz Festival which drew close to 60,000 people.
As Bazini contemplated the writing of Summer is Gone, he knew that it was time to try a new approach. “The first two albums I wrote on my own and I felt like I needed to do something else with this third album,” he says. “I needed to travel and get out of my comfort zone. I first went to Nashville, then to L.A., and finally to London, where I found the direction of the album.
“I had an amazing time in Nashville, but what I did there felt too close to the last album,” says Bazini, who worked there with producer/songwriter/musician Brendan Benson (The Raconteurs). “I wanted something a little different, but at the same time I didn’t want a drastic change in sound. It was a smooth transition, I think. There’s a good balance of having songs like ‘Leonard Cohen’ or ‘Summer Is Gone’ for something different, but then you recognize Bobby Bazini in songs like ‘Where the Sun Shines.’ It was important to keep that balance.”
Given Leonard Cohen’s recent ascension to the Tower of Song, the track on the album which bears his name, written in Nashville with Angelo Petraglia (Kings of Leon), makes you wonder if Bazini is somewhat psychic. “Coincidence,” he laughs. The line “She loves me like a Leonard Cohen song” will give you the general drift of its meaning.
“My first session in the U.K. was with Jake Gosling [Ed Sheeran], who works outside of London in Surrey,” says Bazini. “We sat down and wrote ‘Blood Is Thicker Than Water,’ and I remember coming back to the hotel, playing it for my girlfriend, and telling her that I thought I had the direction of the album. It was exactly what I had in mind, more of a soul feel, with a touch of rock – a little more contemporary. I wrote four songs with Jake, but there are only two on the album – ‘Bird Has Flown’ is on the 13-song deluxe version of the album.
“It’s funny, my all-time favourite records are all from the States – the soul stuff. Lately the music I listen to – my favourite music – has been coming from London, artists like James Morrison. I also like the first James Bay album. People used to compare me to Paolo Nutini, but I hear it much less now. I actually got to write with some of the writers who were involved with his first album including Jimmy Hogarth [Amy Winehouse, James Morrison, James Bay], who had written a few songs with Paolo and had co-produced the James Morrison debut album.”
Bazini’s initial reason for wanting to record in London was to work with Grammy Award- winning producer Martin Terefe (James Blunt, Jason Mraz, Ron Sexsmith), who’d worked with aforementioned British blue-eyed soul singer James Morrison in the early 2000s. Morrison’s debut album Undiscovered, released in 2006, was one of Bazini’s favourite albums at the time.
“I didn’t know if Martin would be the producer or not, but I knew I wanted to work with him,” he says. “I also knew that he was a songwriter. We booked a writing trip to London for three weeks and every session was great. Not every song from every writer I collaborated with was album material, but most of them were. I remember coming back from London with all these songs and I was so excited. I couldn’t wait for people to hear them.”
But arriving home, Bazini decided that one more trip to London was in the cards. “We had more than 30 songs, but I felt that something was missing,” he explains. “I came back with ‘C’est la vie,’ the first single from this album, which I wrote with Martin Terefe. I remember my managers and the label getting very excited about that song. When I heard it the first time produced by Martin, I felt we had not only the album finished but also the first single. I love the song because it has a nice message and it’s simple. There’s a bit of a bluesy progression but it sounds contemporary, and it’s what I had in mind.”
In the studio, Bazini says that Terefe pushed him to do more, not only with his voice but as a musician. “Martin is a very creative producer and I loved working with him,” says the singer. “I’m used to playing acoustic guitar on my records but he didn’t hire a guitar player. He suggested I play electric guitar on the sessions, which was a first for me. I play on all the tracks and I actually did my first guitar solo. That was fun, and it was pretty amazing to have that kind of support from the producer. The guitar parts are also important in terms of my sound. I write my songs with my guitar, and the fact that you can hear me play on it is part of my sound. That’s what people will hear when they come to see me live.
“The fear is, even for me, in trying something new. You never know where you’re going to end up. You want people to follow you. I know when I first released ‘C’est la vie’ as a single, there was great response, but some people were like, ‘Oh, this sounds different!’ You want to push the envelope and some fans want you to stay where you are. It takes awhile for them to get used to the change.”