We meet with Jonathan Painchaud in early June – three hours before he’s to take the stage during the Francofolies – and just then, he decides to include a few songs from his latest album, La tête haute (Head Held High), his fifth solo album and eighth overall, released on April 15, 2016, after a three-year hiatus. New band, new label, new record, new life; Painchaud serenely shoulders his 41 years.

Jonathan Painchaud

Photo: Julien Grimard

“I took time to fully integrate everything that happened right before, during and after the production of the last album,” he says. “It was a period of many separations, personal and professional. I had to make huge decisions, I needed a break from music, even though I’ve never had anything else to support myself financially. Year in and year out, I was among the Top 10 most played artists on the radio [in Québec]. I’m lucky. A majority of my yearly income comes from my royalties. They’re what allows me to live comfortably.”

But when you have a smash hit like “Pousse Pousse” in your pocket…

“Before that 2007 hit, I wasn’t getting played on the radio anymore,” says Painchaud. “I’d been officially branded a has-been. Radio silence from one day to the next. I wrote that song at the gym, telling myself I would pump iron to forget the irony. I wrote it thinking about the naysayers. There you go! Up yours! You can’t say anything negative about that song, it’s unimpeachable!”

Now, Painchaud has se tup his own production company, and manages his own career: “The backstage politics and logistics require a lot of energy. But the ultimate reward, the cherry on top, is the instant gratification when you play for an audience.”

The hardships of life rarely make for bad songs. “La tête haute is the album where I’m the least tense or holding back,” says Painchaud. “Letting go is pretty much the album’s leitmotif! Yet it’s been one of the hardest to write, because there was constantly something going on in my life: a death, a separation, a conflict. My mind was in such disarray that it was hard to sit down and focus on music. I needed to get my mojo back.”

“Working with Éloi is a double-edged sword… Sometimes we disagree, and you need solid arguments to make him change his mind.”

And who else but his brother Éloi to produce the album? “He was just coming out of a slew of projects,” says Painchaud, “such as La Chasse galerie and La Guerre des tuques 3D [for which Jonathan penned the track “Héros”], so we were both trying to catch our breath before going into the studio. We looked at each other and wondered, where are we going to find the energy?”

In the end, it’s the sound of the title song that became the building block for the rest of the album. “We grafted all the elements that characterize my music around that song,” says Painchaud. “More uptempo, more lively, folk, rock… The result is ten snapshots of my life at different times. Ten sides of who I am.”

And what was the creative process like this time around? “Most of the time, I write the lyrics and the music on my own using my iPad or laptop,” he says. “I make demos and play them for my brother in the studio, so that he can work on the orchestrations. Working with Éloi is a double-edged sword. Sometimes, he’ll pitch in and put an idea forward to serve a song, but sometimes we disagree, and you need solid arguments to make him change his mind,” says the younger brother, laughing. “Seasoned songwriter that he is, he’s able to single out the strengths of my songs, but also their weaknesses. He’s occasionally sent me back to my writing table to re-write a verse or chorus.”

Featured in a close-up on the album’s cover is Painchaud’s dog Peyo, who inspired one of the songs, “Le quadrupède pétomane” (“The Quadruped Fartist”). “It’s a nod to chanson Française, such as Renaud or Brassens, except I sing about my dog’s flatulence! On another of those ten songs, ‘Plus que la vie elle-même’ (‘More Than Life Itself’), there’s this super-intimate moment with my daughter, where I let myself be carried by the wind, and talk candidly about my personal life.” The song “Ma belle infirmière” is the perfect example of that. It’s currently in rotation on the radio.

“I’m more attentive to details in my music now,” confides the artist. “When I started writing songs, we didn’t care too much about smoothing the edges, but it didn’t matter as long as there was a modicum of honesty. But we certainly weren’t perfectionists.”

If we’re nominating Peak Grimes Moments from a year full of Peak Grimes Moments, a strong case can be made for the opening shot from the music video for “Kill V. Maim,” the second single from Grimes’ latest album, Art Angels.

In that scene, the camera slowly zooms in on Grimes at the wheel of a hot-pink, Barbie-fied version of the G.I. Joe Dreadnok Thunder Machine vehicle, all while a half-dozen rainbow goth girls dance and gyrate across the vehicle as it zooms through a technicolour animé speed-racer-scape.

Directed by Grimes and her brother, Mac Boucher, those first seconds go a long way to establish a video that references the TV show Law & Order, animé and the blood rave scene from the movie Blade – all for a song that Grimes says is about Al Pacino’s role in The Godfather Pt. II, re-imagined as a gender-flipping vampire who can travel through time and space.

The song itself, with its spelled out cheer/admonishment to B-E-H-A-V-E and mind-bending subject matter, place it on the outer rim of the pop music universe. According to the synth-pop musician, trying to explain to people what “Kill V. Maim” is about remains… complicated.

“They seem confused,” says Grimes, explaining how people react to learning what “Kill V. Maim” is about. “It’s honestly fan fiction, musically. Like, when I was a kid, I used to write a lot of fan fiction. I think my whole album is, actually. I think all my art is fan fiction, in a weird way. Even in the sense that it usually fails in what it’s trying to do. I feel like Art Angels is sort of like a failed rock album, and it ended up being something different – since it ended up not being a rock album, since all the beats are electronic, and all the guitars are looped and auto-tuned. It’s not a legitimate rock album at all, but it’s my fan fiction rock album. ‘Kill V. Maim’ is sort of like the most direct song in that regard.”

“I enjoy stuff that’s really viscerally pleasant and has hooks. That’s real important to me.”

While the 28 year-old, born Claire Elise Boucher, may see Art Angels as a failed experiment, the outside world doesn’t. On 2015 year-end “Best Of” lists, the album was No. 1 on NME, Exclaim and Stereogum, No. 2 on Rolling Stone and No. 3 on Pitchfork, Billboard, Consequence of Sound and The New York Times. More important than Grimes’ critical praise is her cultural impact. Look around any college campus, and you’ll likely see a more than a few young Grimes-alikes, hair dyed in rainbow hues, dressed in convention-bending combinations of steam-punk retro-futurisms. Grimes has become both the patron saint to the Comic-Con set and a fashion icon, someone equally at home at a Star Trek convention and a Versace runway show.

And that’s where Grimes’ power lies. Her nerdish enthusiasms – Game Of Thrones, MMA fighter Ronda Rousey, science fiction – are all completely genuine. It makes her seem like she’s just like one of us; a friend that shares our special interests.

“I try to keep staying excited about new things,” she says. FKA Twigs is one of her current faves. Lana Del Rey makes her “weep uncontrollably.” She “just got into The Avengers” and action movies.

Grimes’ music is the loaded, layered result of these special interests. Songs like latest single, “California,” approach the sweetest radio pop, but her live show – like her recent appearance at the costume ball/rave-up music festival Bestival Toronto – can occasionally descend into industrial-electro bombast, with Grimes trading her signature high vocal style for death-metal growls built atop cranking EDM beats. If this is “pop” music, it’s a unique kind of pop.

“I think it depends how you define pop,” says Grimes. “I think for a lot of people right now the term ‘pop’ conjures Top 40, and I think I’m pretty separate from that sonically, and in terms of how my music is made. Because my music is still made, functionally, in a pretty indie way.

“Coming up in Montreal, everyone writes, produces and performs all their own shit, and that’s something I feel pretty strongly about. But if you consider pop music to include The Ramones and David Bowie, then yes, I would consider myself pop music. I think it just depends on what you consider to be pop music, because people have different definitions. I’m hesitant to say, ‘Yeah, I’m a pop artist.’ I think a lot of artists who are rock artists, or electronic artists, are making pop music, and I think I’m just kind of in that zone. Like, I enjoy stuff that’s really viscerally pleasant and has hooks. That’s real important to me. Just because I need to enjoy making it when I’m making it.”

In a world where Beyoncé’s Lemonade album credits stretch more than 3,100 words long, the fact that Grimes writes, records and produces her music, on top of designing much of her album art, and directing her music videos, puts her in a rare place. Grimes says it’s not so much about having total control over her empire as it is a personality trait.

“I prefer to make my own music because afterwards I can know that it’s mine and not anyone else’s.”

“It’s not a super-intentional thing,” says Grimes about her independent creative streak. “I actually don’t work as well with other people. I’ve tried and it is a bit of a pride thing. So I think a lot of it is just functional, like I prefer to make my own music because afterwards I can know that it’s mine and not anyone else’s.”

It’s not like Grimes isn’t capable of partnerships. She says her favourite songs on Art Angels are “Venus Fly” and “Scream,” two songs where she sub-contracted out the vocals to Janelle Monáe and Taiwanese rapper Aristophanes, respectively. And on the business side, she recently partnered with fun. and Bleachers member Jack Antonoff’s publishing company Rough Customer for Sony ATV Music Publishing.

“I had worked with Jack on a song called ‘Entropy’ [on the Girls soundtrack].” she says. “I’d had a lot of really bad experiences in the studio, and Jack was one of the only people I worked with who I was, like, ‘Wow, you’re actually not a total creep, and you’re pretty chill.’ I had kind of already been talking to Sony, but I was kind of stressed about how big they were and how small I am. I was, like, ‘I’ll be on the lower rungs of your company.’ But then I talked to Jack and he was, like, ‘I’ve got an imprint and they won’t forget about you because I’ll be here championing you.’

“So that makes me more comfortable in doing something like this. It’s just the fear that I would be forgotten about, and he assuaged that fear. So it’s just a little more comfortable doing something like that when you know there’s going to be a dedicated person looking out for you there.”

“Creeps,” of course, remain a problem. Independent, successful female music producers are still a rare breed and in many ways Grimes is shattering a glass ceiling for music technicians. The glass isn’t breaking easily, though.

“I still feel like I hear and I see a lot of ‘I tried to make a song that sounds like Grimes,’ and then they hired a dude [to produce],” she says, somewhat irked that people would try to imitate her sound when they could have the real thing. “Just call me. No one’s ever called me for a job, really. It’s one of these things where people call a dude to imitate me. I have a lot of concrete examples of this. And it bothers me because I’m, like, ‘Why wouldn’t you call me?’ And I assume it’s my gender or something.

“But I also think there are more great female producers. I think the door is opening. Especially because of things like Ableton, and software that you can use at home. It was harder before because to get into a studio was a pretty hard thing to do. But learning to do it on your own, the technology’s gotten to a place where you can affordably do that, which is a huge door opening for a lot of people. Especially women who want to produce.”

And if that door doesn’t open easily, there’s a fair chance Grimes will help bust it wide. It’ll be easy to tell it’s her. She’ll be the one driving the hot pink war machine that just smashed through the whole wall.

AmylieBed-ridden in a Montréal hospital, Amylie could no longer move. Surrounded by her loved ones, she “didn’t have anything to offer anymore.” Even smiling was impossible. Stricken by Lyme disease, the singer-songwriter just didn’t have the energy. As proudly displayed on the cover of her current album, Les Éclats, her body was nothing but a shipwreck back then.

“I was unable to even utter a full sentence,” she says. “I spent weeks trying to figure out what was happening to me. I was constantly exhausted, I couldn’t keep up with my friends at night. At first, they thought it was cancer, then HIV,” remembers the musician, who needed 18 months to get back on her feet. “Once I got to the hospital, surrounded by the people I love, I understood something. Something clicked in my mind. I always thought that to be loved by the people you feel close to, you need to have something to offer. At that point, I was nothing, but they were still by my side. I realized at that moment what unconditional love means.”

Some people need years of psychotherapy to reach that same conclusion. All Amylie needed was being bit by a tick carrying Lyme disease. That fateful bite occurred during a hike in Bromont, where she was taking a voice training course. That tiny bite kept her out of the scene for months; oh, the irony.

Yet, her story takes on a completely new dimension now that she’s launched Les Éclats, a magnificent and calming third album that’s the direct result of her ordeal. In contrast to the romantic, orchestral atmosphere of her previous offerings, Le Royaume, and Les filles, the new album is a locomotive of song, much more raw and minimalist; the music has space to breathe. The electric guitars of Amylie, Gabriel Gratton and Olivier Langevin – sometimes reinforced with just a tad of barely biting reverb – lull us with grace and subtlety. The sounds and atmospheres are reminiscent of Feist’s The Reminder, a reference Amylie doesn’t deny.

“I started the preproduction of this album alone in the studio,” she says. “I played the guitars, bass, drums and Pro Tools! I wanted to keep things simple and remain true to what I’m able to play and need to say. It gave me a lot of confidence. I embraced that stripped-down approach. I wanted to put the words forward.” Out went the string arrangements and electronic programming that defined Le Royaume. “I wanted an album that would be easy to take to the stage without needing a whole bunch of musicians.”

“The job, shows, records, it’s all cool. But it’s fleeting. What you have, at the end of the day, are your family and close friends.”

Her lyrics reflect this wisdom:

Ne me regardez pas comme ça/ Vous avez tout déjà/ Je suis là/ Mais je ne vous appartiens pas, she sings on “Tout” (Loosely translated: Don’t look at me that way / You already have everything / I’m here / But I don’t belong to you).

Debout sur la branche d’un chêne/ Imposante comme la plaine/ Je me fous d’être à la hauteur, she goes on singing on “La Hauteur.” (Loosely translated: Standing on an oak branch / Imposing as the plains / I couldn’t care less about not living up to it)

She hits the nail on the head once more on “Mille fois”: En chemin rager contre moi-même… / Je devais être folle pour m’éprendre de mes chaines  (Loosely translated: On my way, enraged at myself / I must’ve been crazy to be smitten with my chains).

This desire for freedom, and letting go of other people’s expectations, are everywhere on Les Éclats. Family becomes a haven on “Grand-maman” and “Système solaire.” “Because of my illness, I could no longer keep up with people,” says Amylie. “I could follow my friends on social networks, getting ready to go out while I was already in my pyjamas, exhausted. It was almost like grieving. The general grief of letting go of a constantly connected life. It takes a lot of strength to let that go. Social media feeds us from the outside, by looking at what others are doing. It becomes a type of pressure. Being in the hospital, surrounded by loved ones, made me realize that what’s most important was right there next to me. The job, shows, records, it’s all cool. But it’s fleeting. What you have, at the end of the day, are your family and close friends.”

Some would call that going back to your roots, others a renewed maturity. Let’s just call it life.