If you think Nova Scotia is all maritime songwriters and indie-rock outfits, think again. Gypsophilia are a Halifax-based seven-piece collective that plays the wild swing of gypsy jazz, with a modern twist. Forming in 2004 as a Django Reinhardt tribute act, they soon began writing material and adding some klezmer, funk and rock to the mix.

“It’s never been an explicit intention to bridge those gaps,” says guitarist/bandleader and singer-songwriter Ross Burns. “It has always just happened organically… That means we’ve been able to reach ‘indie’ fans, as well as jazz fans, folks who already like instrumental music, and those who’ve never heard anything like this in their lives!”

And fans have been taking notice, with their live show gaining attention, and their third and latest album Constellation winning a 2013 East Coast Music Award (their third), for World Music Album of the Year. This summer marks their biggest tour ever, taking their new 7” release (entitled Horska) on the road, to shows and festivals across Canada and the U.S.


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Of all the Canadian heavy metal classics, none comes from such a surprising place as “Metal Queen.” Lee Aaron was not long out of high school jazz band when she co-wrote this hard-rocking ode to a female warrior. A music video featuring Aaron in a fur outfit and chains hit MuchMusic, the record took off in Europe, and suddenly the singer was a metal queen herself – during the genre’s mainstream heyday. Since then, Aaron has focused on performing jazz and theatre, writing new material and dusting off her metal material for festivals. She spoke to SOCAN from her home in Vancouver.

How did someone from a jazz background come to write a heavy metal anthem?
My scene was musical theatre. I had played sax in my school jazz band and I was very involved in singing old Tin Pan Alley tunes. I was attracted to hard rock eventually because I loved the power. Female artists seemed to be relegated to the confines of folk and pop music. I was a fan of Anne and Nancy Wilson [of Heart] and felt they were charting new territory for women to have a powerful voice in rock music, and I wanted to take that one step further.

How did you come up with “Metal Queen” with your guitarist?
George and I had played together since I was 15 years old, and written a lot together. We were playing some dumpy hotel bar on the outskirts of Edmonton. It was a tough scene, but the nice thing was that this bar was not open during the day, so they let us go down and rehearse. We were trying to prepare material for our second album. I remember that George had come up with this riff and we were jamming on it. He kept singing “Me-tal!” And I’m like, “Right, that’s so original.” Eventually I came up with “Me-tal que-en!” and we both agreed – that’s the chorus.

Who was the Metal Queen? I heard you were inspired by the animated film Heavy Metal.
Yeah. It’s all about this female heroine character who destroys a war through self-sacrifice.

Why did people think it was autobiographical?
Well, the outfit [in the music video] didn’t help, let’s be honest! The song was all about, “let’s be powerful, let’s have equality.” That was my intention. MuchMusic was in its infancy and looking for big production videos and ours went into heavy rotation. It was totally fun, I embraced it as theatre. But the public will cast you.

You stopped performing the song for a long time? Why?
I had written many songs. I had had bigger hits. Yet bookers would ask me to play it and the fans would scream for it. I started to feel angry. I wanted to be recognized as a singer and a writer, not the girl in a fur bikini. So I felt I needed to go in a different direction. I stopped performing rock at all and went back to my roots.

Looking back now how do you feel about having written heavy metal classic?
It is a bit weird. I was such a young girl, 19 or 20 years old, I had no idea it would become such an iconic song and image in the hard rock world. The nice thing is that metal fans are very passionate and extremely loyal. Two years ago I played the Sweden Rock Festival and I was shocked to find that people were waiting 30 years for me to come there. Wow! I embrace it now, all the kitsch and the nostalgia. I’m happy to get on stage and wear the metal queen crown. We’re all in on the joke.


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Paraphrasing the title of their third album launched in 2008, Caïman Fu is a strange animal. Over the last four years, everything seemed to indicate that Isabelle Blais’ band would probably never be back on our radars. As a matter of fact, even the band members weren’t entirely sure they wanted to keep feeding the crocodilian after three albums (Homonyme, 2003, Les Charmes du quotidien, 2005 et Drôle d’animal, 2008). An yet, last fall, Caïman Fu underwent a profound mutation and launched À des milles, their fourth opus that marked the beginning of a new era.

In Isabelle Blais’ on words: “Following the break I had to take after giving birth to my child came time to take stock. One of our guitarists had personal issues, we gave him an ultimatum and he couldn’t meet it, so he had to leave… We questionned our motives for making music together. Ultimately, we forged on as a trio, in an appartment, in a very intimate and stripped down way, devoid of the energy of rock and roll. Nedless to say, we experienced moments of grace! ”

For a year and a half, practicing two to three times a week, Isabelle, guitarist Nicolas Grimard, drummer Mathieu Massicotte and newly recruited bass player Dominic Laroche used their tried and true creative process – improv, trial and error, writing, rewriting, etc. – until they emerged from that appartment with almost two dozen new songs. “We experienced a rebirth, a second wind,” remembers Isabelle. “Is many ways, this album is an assessment album, and I’m really happy with the final result.”

 

In more ways than one, À des milles is the perfect example of Caïman Fu’s evolution and transformation through the years, whether it’s Isabelle’s lyrics, which are sadder and even at times dark, or the more dreamy atmosphere and energy level created by the rest of the band and polished in the studio by renowned producer Carl Bastien. “There’s no doubt that our initial approach, which was much more relaxed, pared-down and improv-based, had a great impact on the final result, confides Isabelle. Playing as a trio, not very loudly in an appartment, with a computer naturally led us to a more relaxed and ethereal atmosphere. It also changed the way I sing, if you cpompare it to when we rehearsed in an actual rehearsal studio where everything is amplified and I needed to scream to be heard.”

“It’s obvious I channled the band’s energy when I wrote. But to me, writingis always quite a solitary endeavor. I wrote the lyrics for this album either isolated in a cabin in the woods or at my place, in the city. But this time around, I was less reserved. Before, I was very hesistant to include stuff about my private life, but on this album, I voluntarily let myself be inspired by what was going on in my life. ‘Notre monument’, for example, is a song wirtten about my break-up, but written before it happened… It is me looking at something I thought indestructible but that was whithering away. There is ‘Une étoile’, which I wrote about suicide after a few of my friends chose that solutions over the last few years. ‘Avaler du gravier’ is about a great friendship disappointment that I had a hard time getting over… There is only one song related to my son, though, and that’s ‘Ma maison, c’est toi’. It started out being about absolute love, but then I realized that my absolute love will only ever be my son… I guess it’s what growing older is about; you prefer hearing about real stuff, but without being anecdotal. Songs that are about anecdotes and filled with specific details rarely interest me.”

 

Music remains at the heart of Isabelle Blais’ artistic endeavor’s, even though her acting carrer on stage and on TV is still going on strong: “Music will never stop for me, it’s fundamental for me. The minute I have the slightest free space in my mind, I think about music. It never goes away. But on the other hand, it’s harder because it’s creation, so you need to take it upon yourself. You can’t hide, it’s not somebody else’s words that you are enacting. It’s me, they’re my words, my interpretation, there’s no safety net, I’m completely exposed! It’s very dizzying, but also exhilarating…”

This coming summer, Caïman Fu will hit the festivals’ circuit and will also appear at all three Francofolies: Montréal, Spa and La Rochelle. And to think that it almost ended…

 


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