In a video captured during the backstage media conference at the 2017 JUNO Awards, Canadian Music Hall of Fame 2017 inductee, live TV broadcast performer, SOCAN member and Canadian music icon Sarah McLachlan briefly discusses her songwriting process.
I first came in contact with Samuele’s universe two years ago, during the semi-final of Québec’s Francouvertes’ competition. Her song titled “Pas toi” (“Not You”) – in which a mother struggles to explain to her young child, with all the sensitivity such a thing requires, that it’s not the child their dad is leaving, but her – totally blew me away. I remember thinking that this woman was some kind of Hochelaga-born Lynda Lemay [Hochelaga is a poor and somewhat tough Montréal neighbourhood. – Ed. Note] I also thought that the song, included on Samuele’s 2011 EP Le goût de rien, boasts an outstanding lyric.
We bumped into each other a few times after that at Le Plateau school, a music-oriented primary school where our kids both play clarinet in the wind-instrument orchestra. When the kids put on a concert, you can spot Samuele’s unruly blonde mane in the stage direction booth. I also heard that she works at the uber-cool Rock Camp for girls that takes place during the summer at La Sala Rossa. In short, I’ve been interested in Samuele’s career for a while now, because I feel she has something rich and unique to offer. And indeed, she graced us with her first “official” album on April 7, 2017.
There were a few projects, and many songs, before that: two English-language demos under the name Starless Sky, the aforementioned 2011 bilingual EP Le goût de rien, and 2015’s Z’album, which, according to the artist herself, was foretelling of Samuele’s current artistic birth.
“Le goût de rien left a bad taste in my mouth,” she says. “I found it hard. I was ready to give up singing and I decided to record Z’album so I could leave on a positive note… Then I played a few gigs as a one-woman band and found my confidence again. Once, during a sound check, I told my musicians that either the crowd would get into it, or I was moving to a commune to grow vegetables.”
Luckily for us, the crowd got into it. Samuele won the highest honours at the Festival international de la chanson Granby, which allowed her to pay for the mixing, mastering, printing and promotion of an album which was written and recording largely at the same time. Meanwhile, her identity as an artist came into focus. The blues in her folk-rock is now better integrated, and will stay that way.
“It’s a groove that comes to me naturally,” she says. “The riffs are simple and come from the gut. When I play music, I follow my instinct, my body takes the lead, not my mind. Over the years, through playing together so much, my musicians and I have forged our own sound.”
Samuele relishes the thought that posters with her album title – a feminist slogan that makes one smile and think at the same time – will be plastered all over Montréal. It’s a thought-provoking sentence indeed: Les filles sages vont au paradis, les autres vont où elles veulent (Good girls go to heaven, others go wherever they want). At a time when some people are questioning the place of women in music, and the recognition given to their work, Samuele arrives at the right time, with her strong, fulsome, and loudly claimed stance. To wit, the album’s opener, “Égalité de papier” (“Equal on Paper”), is a feminist manifesto:
Compte avec moi le nombre d’élues à l’Assemblée (Count along with me the number of women at the National Assembly).
Comment parler d’égalité quand ceux qui ont le pouvoir de décider si devrait ou pas naître un bébé n’ont jamais eu eux-mêmes le pouvoir d’en porter ? (How can you talk about equality when those with the power to decide if a child should be born or not don’t have the power to bear one?)
Comment t’expliques à une fille qu’elle est égale aux garçons quand jouer « comme une fille » c’est d’échapper le ballon ? (How do you explain to a girl that she’s equal to boys when people say she “throws like a girl”?)
Je joue aussi bien que le nombre d’heures que je consacre à ma passion et puis de toute façon, je joue comme une fille ; je joue bien, je joue fort et je ne m’excuse pas de prendre le décor. (My playing is as good as the number of hours I devote to my passion, and besides, I play like a girl: I play well, I play loud and I don’t apologize when I make a mistake.)
And Samuele doesn’t stop there: she follows up with “La sortie,” a superb song about self-determination that ‘s musically reminiscent of Tori Amos’ “Cornflake Girl.” “When I play that one live, I throw myself on the floor during the guitar solo!” she says. Samuele is free, and it always feels good to be in the presence of an artist that has both wings and horns.
The last time I saw her live was during the preliminary rounds of this year’s Francouvertes, where she played as part of the SOCAN-sponsored “J’aime mes ex” series. Between two songs and with her typical flair, Samuele – who is also a speaker for GRIS-Montréal (Groupe de recherche et d’intervention sociale) in high schools – de-mystified pan-sexuality, queerness, trans-sexuality and poly-amorous relationships, and she puled it off without making the rest of her show heavy.
Just before our interview ended, she taught me that there were neutral Francophone pronouns like “ille” and “iel” and that many things are being tried at the moment for people who define themselves as non-binary. “Saying and explaining stuff is in my nature,” says Samuele. “Making the invisible visible is a powerful process!” As is her music, strong enough to inspire each and every one of us: boys and girls, good ones and rebels.
The heady urge to go see what’s out there, further afield: that’s what motivated singer-songwriter Damien Robitaille over the past two or three years, during which he strayed away from the music world to better return to it with Univers parallèles, his fifth album – fourth for the Audiogram label – no less than five years after its predecessor, Omniprésent. Thus, the album, defined by big backing vocals and a disco-funk groove, is permeated by the theme of escape.
“Music is curiosity, the joy of discovery,” says Robitaille, reached on the road to Trois-Rivières during the a promotional tour for Univers parallèles. “I don’t like to repeat myself, just as I don’t like listening to the same music over and over again. And when I find something [new], I become obsessed. I recently discovered ABBA – I mean, of course, I knew ABBA, but I started seriously listening to ABBA, you know? Man, their stuff was good! Take ‘Dancing Queen,’ everybody knows that song, but when you listen carefully… My God, it’s good; the arrangements, the recording, everything!”
Maybe that’s what Robitaille needed to get back into the studio: re-kindling his excitement in the presence of music, 15 years after the launch of his first (self-produced, eponymous) album. Although he won’t spell it out: “An urge to go see what’s out there, further afield? Well… It’s more simply, that life kept throwing interesting projects at me, and I took them on.”
And so, recently, we watched him as an explorer of the American Francophonie in Bruno Bouliane’s excellent documentary film Un rêve américain (2013). He also co-hosted, alongside Vincent Gratton, the TV series Ma caravane au Canada, aired on TV5 and UNIS. “I also did TV shows about dogs… A whole bunch of different stuff, you know? I was busy enough that I didn’t feel the need to write as much…
In the end, TV and film are all well and good, but they take one away from music, “even though I did do a solo tour that lasted a year-and-a-half,” Robitaille insists. But after four years devoid of new material, “it was time to get back to it. Ultimately, I just needed to make an effort to find some time for it. It needed a conscious decision to pull the plug and devote an entire year to writing and recording.”
“So I said to myself, no influences. Let everything come out naturally and keep the best of it.”
The result: Univers parallèles, an album with no musical influences, as the artist likes to point out, to mark a clean break with Omniprésent, an album which championed his love of Latin music, “because my wife is Colombian.” This time, “I said to myself: no influences. Let everything come out naturally and keep the best of it.”
There’s less focus on a type or genre of music – which means the sound of the album isn’t country like L’Homme qui me ressemble (2006), nor Latin, as with Omniprésent. Produced by Carl Bastien, Univers parallèles’s golden thread is voices; his own, as well as those of Marie-Christine Despestre and Dawn Cumberbatch.
“When I laid down the demos, I played around and did my own backing vocals,” says Robitaille. “In the end, I felt like keeping my distance from the ‘digital’ sound of the previous album [recorded in a tiny Miami studio]. I wanted a live-in-the-studio album, at least as far as the percussion, drums and backing vocals – all three of us singing together – were concerned… I needed more soul.” Mission accomplished, especially on the closing trilogy of the superbly solemn “Chance en or,” followed by “Oasis” and “Ennemi imaginaire.”
But funky Robitaille is also back on this album, especially on another trio of songs: “Rêve récurrent,” “Sortie de secours” and “S.O.S.” One thing’s for sure, Robitaille knows how to do groovy R&B and funk in French. Do we hear some ABBA in there? “It’s actually more of a reggae influence,” says Robitaille, citing one of his past obsessions. “Roots, rocksteady, I absorbed all of it.”
Reggae Robitaille? We’d buy a whole album of that! “I think Homme autonome was my reggae album… but with soul arrangements,” he says. “Songs like ‘Plein d’amour’ or ‘Jésus nous a dit’… That one was directly inspired by a Junior Murvin song, you know which one I mean?” And he starts singing the first verse from “Soloman,” a song from the classic Police & Thieves album (from 1977, produced by the legendary Lee “Scratch” Perry): “Solomon was the wisest man / But he didn’t know the secret of a woman…”