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.
“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.”