Jessy Fuchs is and always was a free thinker. Barely 16 when he joined SOCAN, he founded the Slam Disques label, is an art director and video director, he’s the frontman of punk-rock duo Rouge Pompier (loosely: Firetruck Red) and he was the bass player and main songwriter for the now-defunct band eXterio. Rewind to the mid-‘90s: at the time, he caught everyone off-guard during a songwriting workshop organized by SOCAN.

“The panel members were talking about the secrets of a good song,” Fuchs (pronounced “Füsh”) remembers. “I was getting infuriated by what I was hearing. You have to do this and that to write a good song. There was a mic so that members of the audience could ask questions. I stepped up. I was 17 and I totally disagreed with them. Everybody turned and stared at me. I said I felt like they were proposing a template, a recipe, that was tantamount to the death of creativity. I said I believed there were as many ways to write a good song than there were great songs. The crowd cheered me on. I went back to my seat and realized I really enjoyed it. I was good at something: shit-kicking!”

“People in the music scene tend to be quiet in public. They’re afraid to upset someone and lose their support. From that point on, it becomes politics.”

Eighteen years later, the musician is frequently solicited to share his opinions on the recording industry’s issues. His editorials have been published by The Huffington Post and he’s a regular on the Catherine et Laurent show, which airs simultaneously on community stations CIBL and MATV. He’s openly criticized ADISQ who, in his own words, is there to serve record producers rather than artists. He blames musicians for their inability to sell themselves during interviews. He’s opinionated and makes no bones about it. “People like the fact that I’m a musician, a label guy, and that I’m not afraid to speak my mind,” says Fuchs. “That’s quite rare indeed. People in the music scene tend to be quiet in public. They’re afraid to upset someone and lose their support. From that point on, it becomes politics.”

Really? Can one really lose that much just from criticizing their peers? “There’s nothing dramatic about taking a stand,” says Fuchs. “Opinions abound everywhere. I’ve understood that with time, things settle down and people move on.”

According to Fuchs, no one should ever feel ashamed of standing for what they believe. “No one can ever please everyone, and it’s just as true for recording artists. Whether they are pop or rock, too many musicians compromise too much by trying to please everyone. When I act as a producer or art director for records released by Slam Disques, I always warn the band members before giving them my opinion. I tell them my opinion should not matter more than that of their girlfriend or peers. I tell them that in the end, I will always let them decide because the reason I signed them is because I trust them and I’m ready to assume their choices. If I didn’t like them, I didn’t have to sign them.”

Living on $12,000 a Year

Rouge Pompier

Rouge Pompier (Photo: Jean-François Lemire)

Founded in 2002, Slam Disques – whose roster includes O Linea, Athena, Couturier, Jeffrey Piton, Les Conards à l’Orange – will turn 15 next year. That’s quite a feat when you consider the very specific niche market coveted by the label: teenage fans of Francophone punk rock. One glance at the sales and one quickly realizes that most of Slam Disques’s releases sell 500 or 600 copies at best. The only exception being eXterio, which sold 30,000 units, but that was eight years ago. “Our secret? Five employees who work for a salary that I wish could be higher, an unpaid intern, and myself –  who, until very recently, worked 120 hours a week for zero dollars. Except to buy a car two years ago, I have never paid myself a salary for my work at Slam Disques.”

This means he lived on $12,000 a year which he earned from his copyrights from eXterio’s catalogue (including their hit “Whippet”) as well as from the catalogue of Rouge Pompier and a few other collaborations, including one with Les Chick’n Swell. That meant a lot of sacrifices for Fuchs. “I don’t have a family, I have very few expenses,” he says. “All the money I earned for filming, directing, editing and screenwriting videos went straight to the label’s bank account, not mine. The merch for eXterio and the first Rouge Pompier album was paid by the label and the profits went back to the label. To me, success is not a matter of the amount of money I can make, but to the number of projects I’ve successfully put out.”

This determination is equally present in his work as a songwriter. On Chevy Chase, Rouge Pompier’s latest album, released in March 2016, Jessy and drummer Alexandre Portelance produced 145 demos. Of those, 45 were shared to their fans so they could pick the 13 songs that made the final cut of the album. “I’m not interested in bands that write 12 songs for a 12-song album,” says Fuchs. “If you really think everything you write is good, we have a serious problem. By composing 145 songs, I set no limits and I was going in every possible direction without censoring myself: there were gloomy songs, stupid songs, protest songs, pop songs… It’s the fans that picked the best ones.”

 

The Cornerstone: A Good Song

One of the songs selected by the fans is titled “Ta peau tu la brûles” (loosely: “Burn Your Own Skin”), perfectly expresses the philosophy of Fuchs’ career. “I sing about the fact that we’re the only ones responsible for our own fate,” he says. “There’s no one bigger than you to pull yourself up. I started producing concerts and records because I wanted to work in the music business. I knew I wasn’t any smarter than anyone else when I was a teen, but I also knew that hard work would get me where I wanted to be. Just yesterday, I was invited in a fifth-grade class to tell the kids how I’ve managed to earn a living doing what I’m passionate about. Every time, the message is the same. Want to be an astronaut? Perfect! Don’t listen to people who’ll say, ‘Why?’ Listen to people who’ll say, ‘Why not?’ These are the people who’ll help you get to your dream.”

And those same kids are the ones who, three or four years from now, will be Slam Disques’s new target audience, a market that is purportedly not very interested in Francophone music and even less in paying for its music. “As far as Francophone music, it’s not true,” says Fuchs. “Kids listen to every kind of music. If they like a song, they don’t care whether it’s in French, in English or in Portuguese. It is true, however, that paying for music is quite a foreign concept to them. They have access to the whole world’s repertoire via YouTube. That’s where it’s at for them. My job is making sure that they will easily have access to my artists’ songs and, from that point on, that they want to see them live and, maybe, buy their t-shirt.”

And this video director believes that the ever-popular lyric videos aren’t enough. “Rouge Pompier filmed videos for all the songs on the first album, Kevin Bacon,” he says. “For Chevy Chase’s first single, “Autobus,” we released a lyric video and a regular video. Just putting up a lyric video is useless. In 2016, on the Internet, you need to repeat the same promotional outreach to have the desired impact. A truly creative video is systematically shared a lot more on social media.”

If there’s one thing Fuchs has learned in his 20 years in the business, it’s that “you might have the best promotional plan in the world, but if you don’t have a good album with good songs, it’s just not going to work. Everything starts with the songwriter. I used to think that I could come up with foolproof marketing strategies. Fuck strategy: write good songs, and it’ll work. No promo plan can save a shitty record.”

Rouge Pompier play Montréal’s Club Soda on April 22, 2016
with Kamikazi, Les Connards à l’Orange, Athena and Noé Talbot

 


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The Québec six-stringer Steve Hill is at the top of the Canadian Blues scene from sea to shining sea thanks to his seven Maple Blues Awards in two years, as well as the Blues Album of the Year JUNO award in 2015. And that’s just the beginning.

What’s behind all these awards? His four self-produced albums titled Solo Recordings, Vol. 1, Vol. 1 ½ (EP), Vol. 2 and Vol. 3 – the last one released a few weeks ago – bring the total of his recorded output to nine releases in 25 years on the scene by the amazing guitarist who found his own unique groove in his solo work.

“That’s what I like about the new paradigm of the industry: the proximity to the people; you develop actual relationships.”

“With the industry undergoing so many changes, he says, “the fact is I couldn’t afford musicians anymore; I had to re-invent myself. Before going on this solo adventure, I was $30,000 in debt. When I played Club Soda, I would post the posters all over the city myself, with the help of my bass player.”

And record sales weren’t any better. “Before starting my own label, No Label, I would earn a buck fifty per record sold after the first 40,000 copies,” he says. “With last record company, I earned 40 cents per copy sold. Today, I don’t have a manager, I don’t have a label, and I sell outside of Québec! When I visit Toronto or Western Canada, my albums are stocked in record stores (N.D.L.R.: he has a distribution deal with Outside Music). I do a better job of this, “he says proudly. “Twenty percent of my sales are digital, the rest are physical formats.”

Thanks to his media exposure here and abroad, and the countless awards and distinctions he’s earned, Steve Hill couldn’t be happier. “My concerts are sold out,” he says. “After the show, I go straight to the merch (T-shirts, records, posters) table myself and I meet the people for an hour. I take pictures with them, we talk, I autograph guitars, boobies, whatever! [laughs] That’s what I like about the new paradigm of the industry: the proximity to the people; you develop actual relationships. People write to me on Facebook and I reply as fast as I can.”

Steve Hill

Photo: Scott Doubt

This success has meant that he gives about 125 concerts per year, and the telephone is ringing off the hook; downtime is rare. “I recently had no concerts booked for a few days straight, so instead of flying down south, I took a break from being the frontman and became a simple session player,” he says. “I went into the studio to record two songs with singer-songwriter Pépé and Marc Déry, who’s producing his new album, and I showed up at Bistro à Jojo (a famous live Blues spot in Montréal) just for the fun of jamming. A few days later, I was in the studio again with Erik West Millette (Trainz), and Kevin Parent was in the studio next door working on his new album. He invited me to collaborate on one song. I love to play, and it’s rare that I’m available for this kind of stuff.”

But for now, Steve Hill remains a one-man-band. With one foot on the kick drum to maintain the cadence, he sometimes shakes a makeshift shaker, a can filled with loose change, taped to his right foot. To round things off, a drumstick is affixed to his guitar neck, so that he can hit a hi-hat and cymbal.

All the while, he produces multiple hypnotic riffs that range from rural and modern blues to rock, country and folk. “Everything is live, I don’t use sampling,” he says. “It’s an honest reflection of who I am as an artist,” says the man, who calls himself a “guitar whore. I own over thirty guitars and more than twenty amps.”

Steve Hill has two more Canadian tours booked in 2016 and he’s currently looking at offers for dates in the States, Europe and Brazil in 2017.

In concert at Montreal Club Soda, April 28th.


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Here’s the latest in our series of stories about the creative meetings between songwriters/composers. This one is about a longtime collaboration which has turned – with the release of a mere two albums – into one of the most prominent young duos on the Québec pop scene: Elise Larouche and Marc Papillon-Ferland, better known as Eli et Papillon.

Strangely enough, the duo’s success can be attributed, at least in part, to the fact that their first songs were pirated. But don’t think that we’re talking about fans illegally downloading their work; this is a completely different type of piracy, says Larouche.

“We launched a first demo,” unassumingly, like a message in a bottle, she says. “But it caught on like wildfire over social networks, in Québec, first, and then in the rest of Canada. Some of our songs even played on Brazilian radio!

Eli & Papillon

Photo: Eric Parazelli

“But then some guy in France stole one of our songs,” she continues. “I heard about it because Anglophone bloggers had tracked him down.” The usurper was more grotesque than criminal: using a fake name, he posted other people’s songs on his MySpace page pretending he was their creator. “That guy was totally oblivious: he used as-is audio files by all kinds of artists and posted them to his page, changing the title and making up names of collaborators,” says Papillon-Ferland, still in disbelief. Nonetheless, the scoundrel had an audience of two million followers, and shortly after his misdeeds were exposed by fans of Eli et Papillon, his MySpace page was shuttered.

In the end, the whole affair gave the duo unprecedented exposure. “Thanks to that episode, we got a lot of exposure on music blogs around the world and our demo sold like hot cakes,” says Papillon-Ferland. Thus, ten years after meeting for the first time, it became clear to El et Papillon that their particular brand of pop was going to become successful. They launched an eponymous first album in 2012, and that was followed by Colorythmie in 2015, both on the Maisonnette imprint.

Their latest opus saw their songs take an even more pop-oriented direction; they were a lot less introspective, with a lot less melancholy, than on the previous album. Says Papillon-Ferland: “I listened to a lot of stuff like Coldplay and Stromae; stuff with a lot of electronics in the production.”

“What truly set the tone for Colorythmie,” he says, “was meeting Soké (Zahir) and Yannick [Rastogi],” citing two composer/arranger/producers closely linked to Québec’s hip-hop, R&B and pop scenes. “Those songs were created on a beach, with a guitar, in a very happy mindset,” he says. As opposed to the first album’s tracks that covered topics such as Larouche’s health issues, or the problems they lived through as a couple (who are now much happier as best friends).

Their creative process is very complementary, “but it’s not limited to myself writing lyrics and Marc writing the music,” she says. Words do come more easily to her, maybe because of the influence of her aunt, who’s a poet. As for Papillon-Ferland, he was born into a family of pianists. “Curiously, only my dad doesn’t have a musical ear,” he says. “My mom and sisters are all pianists.” He learned to play violin, then piano, and pursued college and university degrees in the field. “I would love to do film music, some day,” he says.

Eli & Papillon

Photo: Eric Parazelli

“When you to Marc’s place, you’ll see all the violins he learned with, from the smallest to the biggest,” says Larouche. “He’s been doing it for such a long time, music has become a science to him, especially since he can read music and has perfect pitch. I approach it much more naively, to say the least.”

Says Papillon-Ferland: “We write very spontaneously. I invite Eli over and we just get into music without thinking about it. We start with a melody that I’ll play in different keys until it feels right. All the songs on the new album were born that way; either guitar and voice or piano and voice.”

Adds Larouche: “Oftentimes, I’ll come up with simple little ideas on guitar and voice. Then Marc takes it and does his thing, making it more complex and rich.” And when Papillon-Ferland goes at it, he goes all out: synth tracks, string arrangements, percussion.. Then Larouche’s quieter mind and clearer vision will start removing the clutter, allowing the song to breathe . That makes room for her voice – thin, unassuming and warm, but highly emotional, now a tracemark of the Eli et Papillon sound. “Words come after the melody and the groove,” she says. “And they come fast, because I already have an idea and some rhymes in my head.”

Papillon-Ferland has started writing, too. He jots his ideas down in a small notebook that he carries everywhere he goes. He’s started thinking about a solo album, and hasn’t given up on his desire to compose for the movies. That is, whenever he finds some free time in between the duo’s concerts and his gigs as a stage musician for the likes of Isabelle Boulay, Marie-Denise Pelletier and other mainstays of the Québec music scene. As for Larouche, she also writes for others, notably Carole-Anne, the Québec City singer who made her mark recently in La Voix, the Québec version of The Voice.

“I like working with Marc because of his pace,” admits Larouche. “It’s fast, efficient, and we have a deep mutual understanding of where we’re going with a given song. Say we’re working on an idea, I’ll say, ‘Hey, this would work with (hums a few notes)’, and ‘Boom!’ Marc always knows what I meant. Not everyone is this precise. I don’t know anyone else who can work that way.”


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