A main key to the somewhat unfathomable world of Québec pop music is one that just a handful of artists have in their possession: a Number One song on the charts. Everybody agrees that there’s a “before” and an “after” when a song reaches the pinnacle of popularity, whether it’s the fact that the whole province sings your song, or the non-negotiable fact that your royalties skyrocket.
The newest member to this Number One “Hall of Fame”, King Melrose has only just begun to take its full measure: “It’s crazy how everything’s changed,” he says. “Used to be I would call the concert promoters to introduce my project, but since the end of the summer, they’re the ones calling me!” A few shiny power chords, a bit of whistling and a bona fide earworm melody: that’s all it took for this 25 -ear-old songwriter to climb to the top of the pops, with the first single from his second album, Bleu.
The title of that single? « Ne me laisse pas tomber »; haven’t you heard? You have, you just don’t know it. It was played… everywhere.
Born and raised in a quiet suburb of Montréal by a Beatles-obsessed dad, the young man (better known as Sébastien Côté, to his loved ones) rapidly realized that he was destined to a life onstage. He cut his teeth at 16 as part of a soul and Motown cover band, but it was a few years later – when producer and manager Toby Gendron (Céline Dion, Éric Lapointe, Jean-Pierre Ferland, Jean Leloup, etc.) saw him perform onstage – that the stars seemed to align.
“Used to be I would call the concert promoters to introduce my project, but since the end of the summer, they’re the ones calling me!”
“Initially, I didn’t believe it,” says Melrose. “You meet a lot of people who make a lot of promises throughout you career, and I thought he was just another one of them. But then he got back in touch with me a year later.” And the rest, as they say, is history.
Guided by the wise advice of his new mentor, the budding artist decided to try his luck at the 2010 edition of the Festival de la chanson de Granby. “On the day of the finals,” he recalls, “I’d done a lot of shows, I was exhausted and I remember thinking to myself I have to give it all I had.” Good thinking, obviously, because it earned him the People’s Choice Award. After that, everything accelerated at breakneck speed: a second place win at the Festiblues Ahuntsic, sharing the stage with Grégory Charles at the Mondial Choral Loto-Québec, a role in the movie Les Boys, which hit the screen in December 2013, and that’s just the beginning. The culmination was the release of his first, eponymous album, early in 2014, chock-a-block with soul and pop songs that were popular with radio and music-lovers alike.
Which leads us to the here and now. His second album, Bleu, is, in his own words, more concise and closer to his roots. “I wanted to create something more intimate and personal instead of doing some kind of musician’s ego trip, which is often the case on sophomore albums,” he says. “My first album was all over the map, but on this one, I’m establishing my sound. It’s more mellow, more soulful and more sunshiny.”
And as much as he clearly knows where he intends to go, he’s also learned a thing or two after the whirlwind of the last few years. “I have no problem asking for help, which is a big change from my early days,” he says. “Knowing how to surround myself with the right people brings me a lot of good and I find it very rewarding. Letting people help me is one of the most important things I’ve learned in life so far. I’m serious.”
This happened in parallel to his tightening up of the King Melrose project. “I’ve also learned to trust my instinct, my intuition, a lot more,: he says. “The more you write, the better the odds of hitting the jackpot. I’m not making music to play alone in my basement, so yeah, obviously, I want to reach out and touch as many people as I can,” concludes the young man, totally transparent about his goal.
Story by Olivier Robillard Laveaux | December 1, 2015
Les Cowboys Fringants just released Octobre, their ninth studio album in 20 years. Even though the band members are now considered veterans of the scene, they have no intention of growing old and indifferent in their cozy suburban environment.
It all started in L’Assomption, a small town of about 20,000 located about 45 minutes northeast of Montréal – when there’s no traffic. Picture a high school sometime in the mid-‘90s. Jérôme Dupras is the mascot of his cohort. Every day, the young bass player scours the school’s hallways and gives bear hugs to everyone, boy or girl. Students are on their guard: everyone knows that Dupras can pop out of nowhere and grab you at any time. Everyone also knows about his comedic country band because their guitar and violin players—Jean-François Pauzé and Marie-Annick Lépine—also attend that school.
That day, Jérôme was walking towards me during recess, a huge grin across his face. I was bracing for impact, convinced I was his next “victim”.
“Olivier, we need a drummer for the Cowboys Fringants. There’s a jam going down on Friday. Would you like to play with us?”
As a grunge-fed kid into Weezer, Nirvana and Hole, this drummer obviously thought that country was, at best, uncool. Moreover, the rapid-fire snare drum acrobatics typical of the Cowboys compositions seemed a little too complex for my abilities. I immediately answered back: “Thanks, but no thanks.”
“I believe that fact that moving back towards socially and politically engaged songs is in no small part dictated by the fact that we’re all parents, now” — Karl Tremblay
Twenty years later, the Cowboys Fringants have released nine albums, selling nearly a million units in total, won 11 Félix awards, and toured extensively in Québec and Europe. I’m sitting across the table from the band in La Tribu’s (their record label) offices while I reminisce about this potentially life-changing offer. “We only knew two drummers, back then: Dominique Lebeau and you,” Dupras remembers. “One of you accepted the invitation and I don’t think he has any regrets even though he’s no longer with the band.”
Now all on the cusp of their forties, the four musicians and singer Karl Tremblay can be called veterans of the scene. “There’s no doubt that when your band was around in the golden age of the cassette tape, you’re a veteran,” jokes Tremblay referring to 12 Grandes Chansons, the very first, cassette-only, Cowboys’ release launched in 1997. “Thanks to Jaromir Jagr, we also know that veterans can be very good at what they do and stand out among their younger peers,” says Dupras.
Built to Last
Try as you might, I dare you to name even one other Québec band that has been active without interruption for 20 years, while maintaining a constant level of popular and critical acclaim. According to the bass player, “a very large part of that longevity is due to the fact that we have had an incredibly loyal audience throughout the years. It’s easy to keep going when the demand is there.” That holds true not only in Québec, but in Europe also, with the band giving on average 12 overseas shows each year. “When we play in Europe, we play 1,500- to 6,000-capacity venues,” explain Jean-François Pauzé. “We’re so lucky, it’s like we’re rock stars. We tour major cities and get to major venues on our tour bus. And that’s with zero help from commercial radio stations. It’s all word of mouth.”
For Karl Tremblay, a big part of this is linked to the fact that the band never moved to France, like so many Québec artists trying to break the European market. “If we toured over there six months out of every year, we’d surely play smaller venues because there would be more shows. We prefer a densely packed two-week tour, instead. We whet people’s appetites even though it’s not really intentional. Now that we all have a family life, we don’t wander away from home for too long. That too helped the band stay together for so long.”
Another of the band’s secrets for success: no one member of the band carries the weight of the whole group on their shoulders, because none of the band’s songwriters are front and centre. “Jean-François writes the songs, I sing them. Since we need each other, this prevents any kind of ego-tripping. We’re aware of our respective roles.”
Yet, things haven’t always been this harmonious. In 2002, when Break Syndical came out, the Cowboys were young, hot-headed and impetuous. Their respective roles were not as clearly defined and everyone tried to upstage everyone else during the recording sessions. Says Marie-Annick Lépine, “Time taught us everyone’s strengths and roles. So much so that for this new album, we asked external producers – Gus Van Go and Werner F. – to help us evolve beyond our safety zone, and that was a first. They taught me to work on my arrangements with the specific song in mind and not only according to my impulses or personal mores.”
Now established in New York City, Gus Van Go, the ex Me, Mom and Morgentaler stalwart, is mostly known for his rock productions (Trois Accords, Vulgaires Machins). Anyone would be hard pressed to predict his intervention in the Cowboys Fringants’ country universe. “We wanted to go outside Québec,” explains Pauzé. “Over here, all the record producers know what we sound like. And even the ones that don’t know us have a preconceived idea of what our music is like. That’s why we wanted to work with Gus. He knew nothing about the band. It did us a lot of good sonically.”
It is indeed true that a song like “Les Vers de terre” and its tex-mex twang is a departure. Same goes for the hypnotic blues “Mon Grand-Père,” or the undeniably Pink Floydian finale, “Pub Royal.” “We did get a lot of help from our drummer, Pierre Fortin, for the arrangements,” adds Lépine.
Does that mean that the current drummer is taking a bigger role in the band than was expected (a few musicians have taken turns in that role since Dom Lebeau left)? “He’s taken exactly the role that we hoped he would” says Lépine. “We gave him carte blanche for the rhythm section, and his ideas greatly influenced our songs. The album’s opener and title song, “Octobre,” started out as a ballad. He suggested we speed it up, and that’s the version we used on the album.”
Even though the band is exploring new musical avenues, fans won’t be on foreign ground when it comes to Pauzé’s lyrics. Here, his flair for creating characters – “Marine Marchande,” “La Dévisse” – is equalled only by some of the most politically engaged texts of the Fringant’s repertoire to date. He takes no prisoners when the time comes to criticize our individualistic society. One might think Québec society hasn’t changed a bit since 2002’s En Berne.
I’m appalled by our society’s utter apathy,” says Pauzé. “Instead of coming together, we isolate ourselves in consumerism. As if our individual growth could be defined by what we purchase. Maybe it’s some kind of nostalgia for the ‘60s and ‘70s, but I long for a society that’s motivated by forward-looking projects, especially with regards to the environment, an area where Québec has everything it takes to become a world leader.”
That’s all well and good, but aren’t the band members at risk of being assimilated by this apathy, all of them being parents and mostly suburbanites? “I admit we can’t honestly say that none of our songs apply to us, too,” says Pauzé. “I do live comfortably and I don’t know that I could sacrifice much of that comfort. Contrary to what many believe, I’m not some kind of schoolmaster. We’re citizens of a Western country that comes with a certain level of comfort. That doesn’t mean we can’t ponder the future.”
In their defence, the group has never stopped supporting the Fondation Cowboys Fringants – which contributes to reforestation activities – since its creation almost 10 years ago. Dupras is the Foundation’s president, and to him one thing is clear: “The 21st century will be the century of cities, much more than that of provinces or countries. And since neither Québec nor Ottawa are putting any kind of social project, it’s in communities that things are happening. Urban areas are picking up where others left off, and an incredible number of citizen-led initiatives are making our cities more pleasant.”
For example, thanks to the Cowboys, 10,000 new trees were planted in the Centre de la Nature de Laval after a benefit concert in April 2015. “Karl came back from the inauguration all teary-eyed,” confides Lépine. “That forest will grow at the same speed as my kids,” adds Tremblay. “In 20 years, I’ll take them there and show them what dad and his friends did. Actually, I believe that the fact we’re moving back towards socially and politically engaged songs is in no small part dictated by the fact that we’re all parents, now. When people talk about climate changes in 2050, it seems far off in the future… until you have kids of your own. My kids will be my age in 2050. What kind of world are we leaving behind for them? Will they benefit from the same opportunities we did?”
Just as a veteran player is a natural leader in a sports locker room, the Cowboys Fringants are natural leaders because of their assurance and direct action.
Here’s the latest edition in our series of stories on those happy creative meetings of two songwriters. In this edition, the duo we met is also a couple, namely Jorane and Éloi Painchaud, whose autumn has been a busy one – thanks chiefly to the launch of their original soundtrack for the 3D computer-animated movie La guerre des tuques.
Our conversation occurred virtually, with the artists comfortably seated in their home studio on the Laurentians, while I was in downtown Montréal. “We’re not that used to joint interviews,” says Jorane, while her husband, songwriter and producer Éloi Painchaud, smiles by her side.
The creative duo have had a very auspicious autumn, notably when it comes to awards. A few weeks ago, Jorane won the Félix Award for Best Instrumental Album of the Year for Mélopée. It’s her second Félix award, but “the first time I got the privilege to go onstage to receive it,” she says. “I couldn’t attend the gala the first time, and they never actually gave me the trophy.”
Something else that keeps the couple busy is film soundtracks. In 2007, Jorane composed the music for Un dimanche à Kigali, earning her a Jutra award. “Jorane has always made film music, even before she was actually commissioned to compose for a movie,” says Painchaud, as a way to describe his wife’s music.
“For La guerre des tuques 3D, we were initially asked to write songs,” explains Painchaud before being interrupted by Jorane: “That’s Éloi’s strong suit!” “Obviously, I come from the pop world, given my work with Okoumé and Jonathan [NdR, Éloi’s Brother],” he adds. “It’s one of the important axes of our collaboration with the film’s producers. They needed five mastered songs, five musical themes that we developed in different directions, folk-like for more intimate scenes and more orchestral for action scenes.”
The couple toiled on the movie’s soundtrack for nearly two years. “In the beginning, we worked from pencil drawings they would send us!” says Jorane. Their compositions for the film all have a common thread, which is a typically Québécois folk flavour, rather like a backdrop throughout the movie. But, Painchaud insists that none of this would have been possible without the help of arranger Tim Rideout (who also collaborated on Louis Cyr) and Ian Kelly, who translated the songs into English.
Kelly also ended up being the soundtrack’s producer and supervisor. “We had to seek artists and call them to invite them to join the project,” says Painchaud. “We were incredibly fortunate that Céline Dion accepted our invitation to collaborate.” Says Jorane: “Bear in mind that Céline is part of the generation that grew up a fan of the original movie, and she has kids, too.”
So where did the idea of a choral reprise with Marie-Pierre Arthur, Marie-Mai, Louis-Jean Cormier and Fred Pellerin come from? “We thought long and hard if we should cover it,” says Painchaud. “If we should invite Nathalie Simard to participate. Finally, it was Fred who had the genius idea. He said, ‘Why don’t we do a We Are the Tuques?’”
Jorane and Éloi’s creative process doesn’t happen in a fixed framework, and each project is approached in its own way. “When we sat down with Jean-François Pouliot [La guerre des tuques 3D’s director], I took a ton of notes,” says Jorane. “He wanted the songs to talk about this and that. That was our starting point. Sometimes, Éloi would spend the whole evening in the studio, looking for ideas. Sometimes we work independently with our guitars and then share what we’ve come up with.”
“There aren’t just two ways to write a song, there are a thousand,” adds Painchaud. “ For certain songs, we ping-ponged back and forth with sentences, ideas, melodies. For others the process was much easier.”
To Painchaud, his companion is more of a melodist. “Her phone is loaded with melodies,” he says. “Whenever she has an idea for a melody, she records it with her phone, humming. That’s very often how we begin working on a song.” As for him, he thrives on giving life to those melodies, using his guitar as well as his lyrics. “I love to write,” he says. “I’ve written since I was a kid. A song is a very specific narrative within which you can say anything you want. There’s nothing that brings me more joy than writing songs.”
“Passion is what’s most important,” adds Jorane. “At the beginning of our relationship, we didn’t work together. The first few years, we weren’t in any rush to work on each other’s material. But we’ve always been each other’s first listener, giving advice. We needed some time to get to know each other on that level, so we took our time.”
What Painchaud appreciates about their work as a duo is being there during the very embryonic stages of a work. “I think the very first draft of a song is always extremely fragile,” he says. “We listen to each other, support each other. Jorane is so full of ideas, she’s often my fuel. She feeds me, artistically.”
“You need to find the positive aspect of each other’s work and push it in the right direction,” summarizes Jorane.
You can visit Jorane and Éloi Painchaud’s home studio in the heart of the Laurentians here: