Fontarabie (not to be confused with the Spanish commune of Fontarrabie, spelled with two r’s in French) is the name of an ambitious music project undertaken by Malajube leader Julien Mineau between two album releases by his highly popular band. Part film soundtrack and part classical or pops orchestra music, Fontarabie’s recently released first self named album stemmed from Mineau’s desire to take a break from Malajube’s brazenly diverse music style and try something different in the privacy of his own Ste-Ursule, Québec, home.
“I’ve changed since I started out. I wrote Trompe-l’œil when I was 22. Now I’m 33, and a completely different person. There’s very little left over from that earlier period.”
“I’d been working on personal projects and learning new techniques alone in my house for quite some time,” Mineau explains, “but I always lost interest before I could complete anything. It was either too complicated, or I was too busy playing with Malajube. Solo projects always ended up being dropped. This last project required a certain level of creative maturity, and I also wanted to be relaxed and without any stress. I wanted to create something meaningful that didn’t feel like work. I turned my house into a training lab. I bought mics, set up a small studio and leaned a few trades, such as those of arranger, mixer and sound technician. I quite enjoy doing stuff on my own without having to wait for a grant.”
Spread over a two-year period (2012-14), the creation of Fontarabie progressed slowly in an appropriately serene environment. “It’s been an extended studio session,” says Mineau. “I hardly went out to take in live music. I isolated to some extent, but I was comfortable at home with my girlfriend and my dogs. I’m a bit of a hermit anyway, more of a homebody.”
The 14 pieces on the album are only a fraction of the material Mineau accumulated for his impressive solo project. In making his final selection from some 50 songs, his chief consideration was the unity of the finished product. “I didn’t want to spread myself too thin,” he says. “I wanted something coherent with meaning and an overall thrust. Initially, it was all over the place, but I sorted things out, and that was quite a long process. I went about building the album instinctively, but I re-did some pieces dozens of times before I could finally say I was pleased with the result. That’s always been my attitude with music – I do it for myself first and foremost. I have to admit that I ended up putting pressure on myself toward the end, though. I fine-tuned many of the songs. I’d call myself a perfectionist, but not a maniac – that would be too dangerous,” he deadpans.
Sometimes reminiscent of Danny Elfman’s film compositions, Fontarabie’s music (performed by six musicians including Timber Timbre’s Simon Trottier) can also be likened to Hammer Productions or David Lynch film soundtracks. “I’m not a great listener to film music,” Mineau admits,“but that was certainly in my subconscious. I wanted to create evocations of early motion pictures, kitschy stuff, Columbo, violin glissandos. It was an exercise, really. Plus, I don’t like blending the colour of my voice into the music I make. I often think that this could alter the mood by providing too much information. That’s why half of the album pieces are instrumental.”
Even for film-like or mysterious instrumental selections such as “Morula” or “Cosmogonie,” Mineau invariably turned to the piano to compose his pieces (although he plays some ten instruments on the album). The writing of the lyrics, however, was his greatest creative challenge. “Had I decided to go without voices altogether, the album would have been able to come out last year,” he says. “All the music was ready. I must say, writing lyrics is not my idea of fun. It’s time-consuming, and much less instinctive. And more painful, too. I can come up with the music for three songs in a single day, but when it comes to lyrics, I’m always a bit stuck. I refuse to write meaningless sentences or bad puns. I’ve changed since I started out. I wrote Trompe-l’œil when I was 22. Now I’m 33, a completely different person. There’s very little left over from that earlier period,” he stresses.
After performing a memorable show last summer at the Montreal FrancoFolies festival (with 17 musicians onstage), spending some time in the New Brunswick countryside and taking part in the Festival de musique émergente en Abitibi-Témiscamingue (FMEAT), Mineau’s future plans are simple: “Writing and performing music on a daily basis, that’s what I want to do right now. Also, we never know where Malajube is going to go next, but I already have one or two Fontarabie albums in the bank. I’m on a roll in the studio, and I’d rather play stand-alone shows that go on tour at this stage in my life. Plus,” Mineau prudently adds, “I’ve made a copy of my hard drive. So, if my house burns down, I won’t lose all that work.” And neither will we.