In October of 2017, Keith Kouna launched Bonsoir Shérif, a scathing affair that sees the songwriter being more corrosive than ever before, echoing the vibe of his recent stint with Les Goules (and their album Coma, released the previous year). His latest proudly stands out as a witness to troubled times, the story of a man experiencing the apparent loss of control of his society and community. “I mostly believe I did the album I needed to do at the moment I did it,” says Kouna.
Written mostly in the period between the French and American presidential elections in 2016, Kouna admitted, in Montréal daily Le Devoir, to being intoxicated by social media and the commentaries disseminated in various news sources. “It pisses me off, but I still tune in from time to time, because I need to remind myself that these people really exist.”
How does he feel now, a few months after the album’s release? “I’ve relaxed about it,” says Kouna. “I like to take a break from their existence.” Which isn’t to say he’s no longer lucid about the state of affairs. “I think we’ve just embarked on a long, bad dream,” he says. “I feel there’s a gaping social fracture, a kind of soft and hypocritical totalitarianism. And general indifference. These are complex and difficult times to gauge with any kind of precision, but let’s just say impressions and instinct are quite somber…”
Flirting with an immoderate temper, Kouna approached this social climate with an all-or-nothing approach. “I can get hyper-absorbed by current affairs, by songwriting – just as I also have long periods of fluttering, and complete disconnect,” he says. “I don’t know if it’s a survival instinct, but it surely is a counterweight to my lack of moderation.”
This is reflected in Kouna’s many incarnations: songwriter, Goules frontman, or re-visiting Schubert in 2013’s Le voyage d’hiver. Ambition clearly isn’t an issue for him, and he masterfully manages his various, overlapping creative threads. “I know quite quickly what my direction will be with this or that project and, in the case of Bonsoir Shérif, although it’s not a personal or emotional album, it remains a personal position statement. Les Goules is more abstract, you could almost say more narrative. Keith could not have sung “Coat de cuir.” Just as “Poupée” would’ve sounded weird played by Les Goules. After that, there’s the state of mind… But there’s never anything definitive. This time around, with the release by Les Goules the previous year, I felt like sticking to this direction. That’s why there are similarities.”
Yet, he still feels a need to add some nuance. “I’m really not the type of guy who’s permanently in a writing phase,” says Kouna. “I can be quite lazy, at times. I still surprise myself! I work in periods of rushes, under pressure, and somewhat last-minute. Right now, I haven’t written anything in awhile, and I don’t feel too bad about it… But when I’m in the middle of it, I become just as excessive and obsessed – so much so that I can barely sleep. Plus, one thing for sure: I don’t like repeating myself.”
That’s why he challenges himself: to stay alert, and as far away from any kind of comfort zone afforded by success. “If I get into a project, whatever it may be, it’s because I feel like it,” he says. “And part of it is something like a desire for an anti-career. Taking side roads, pauses – it keeps the whole journey dynamic. There’s something anti-corporate in there that suits me. I think it’s beneficial for me to explore, and force myself to take different approaches: Composing with the Goules or Schubert in mind, or whatever the next project will be.”
And although he’ll hit the road in a few days in Shérif mode – and spend better part of 2018 there – he’s already started working on the next project. He’s discreet about it, since it’s all still embryonic, but what’s becoming clear is that it will share the same lofty ambitions as Voyage d’hiver… “Right now, I’m having ideas that are not unlike that ambitious, obnoxious project,” Kouna says. “It’s exciting to embark on such major projects. The Voyage experience was such an enriching journey. I’d embark on a project like that in a heartbeat.”
The most ambitious journeys: that’s all we can wish for him – and ourselves, for music yet to come.