Klô Pelgag’s third album begins at what seemed to her, at the time she created it, to be the end of the road. Saddened by a major loss, and caught up in the whirlwind of a career that had become as demanding as it was successful, the singer-songwriter wrote the Notre-Dame-des-Sept-Douleurs (Our Lady of Seven Sorrows) album to exorcise her demons, and came out much stronger on the other side.
“An album captures you the way you are right now, and yet you still want it to be timeless. These two views are hard to reconcile, but I thrive on challenges,” says Klô Pelgag. Notre-Dame-des-Sept-Douleurs, her third album, took shape late last summer, when the artist was coming to the realization that, after L’alchimie des monstres and L’étoile thoracique, she was drawing a blank. She’d given her all, and was left only with a fear of things to come.
“Making an album and embarking on a 300-date tour is bad for your health,” says Pelgag. “Some people picture you travelling on this glamorous bus, where, in actual fact, seven or eight of you squeeze into a rented vehicle with stuff hanging over your heads. It’s exhausting.” Pelgag’s stories and images are realistic, because she takes the time to fully immerse herself in her own reality. “Touring was an endless road, and I was left with no mental space in which to do my own thinking.”
She ended up crashing, and then her creative power came back again in 2019. The year 2020 began with the birth of a little girl for Pelgag and her soulmate Karl Gagnon (aka Violett Pi) in mid-January, but in mid-February, her father passed away from a degenerative disease. Life was a rollercoaster, an then the pandemic set in. “I’d started missing him long before he actually left. He’d already been gone for a long time,” says Pelgag, who portrays that long goodbye in “La fonte,” a song from her new album, accompanied by a simple piano melody: Now, I’m asking you, let me go in the shadow of this body that’s no longer mine.
“It was a necessary song because it came out of the suffering I was carrying with me,” she says, “and it was very hard to accept. It’s the only song on this album that I kept simple. I didn’t want its meaning to be obscured.”
A new village
The album title is the name of a small village, a name that used to frighten Pelgag as a child, but that she learned to see in a brighter light. Like a real village, the artist’s third recording is different from her others. It was built in a familiar landscape, but everything in it is new. Each successive album is a new village that reminds us of a place where we’ve been before.
“I’m glad you see it that way,” Pelgag says, “because that’s exactly what I wanted to convey. When I put out my second album, people could hear traces from my first one, but I allowed my songs to evolve, when I performed them later on tour with my band. By the end of the tour, I already knew that I wanted to leave behind the strings that played a central part in L’étoile thoracique, and move toward something more grounded. I wanted to insert some violence and some fat into my sound. I had never before experienced such a need to express something.”
Sylvain Deschamps, her co-producer since her first album, is still the one who “receives” all her ideas. “Enjoying such significant musical collaborations is precious because, besides wanting to be a good performer, you have to be humble enough to be a conduit for other people’s ideas,” Pelgag explains. “What scares me the most always is the technical side. I can’t write or read music, but I have very sharp ears. Sylvain has greatly helped me feel stronger in everything I still don’t understand.”
Étienne Dupré, François Zaïdan, and Pete Pételle, her closest acolytes, are also seasoned musicians, part of the team that makes it possible for Pelgag to express herself. On the current album, Owen Pallett is credited for the string arrangements for “À l’ombre des cyprès” and “J’aurai les cheveux longs,” and also for the brass arrangements for “Soleil,” while Marianne Houle supervised all the string parts. Pelgag sees this album as an “accumulation,” something that kept growing during the intense period she was experiencing. “I hope that everybody can appreciate the work that went into the sound textures and movements that these people were able to create,” she says.
Sandwiched between to instrumental pieces at the beginning and the end of the album, Notre-Dame-des-Sept-Douleurs requires space and volume to be heard properly. Each listening brings out new gems. “Of course, I’d like people to listen to this album while smoking their pipes in front of a great sunset by the sea, or as they lie in a strawberry field with their mouths all reddened from pigging out, but I think the cool thing is that you can listen to it any way you want, and it still fits,” says Pelgag.
Pelgag’s third album is her most personal yet. After presenting the character Édelweiss in her previous release, she now introduces Rémora and Élise, two fictional characters who speak with as much strength as if they came out of 10-volume epic saga. “All these people are me, but they are not limited to me,” says Pelgag. “I enjoy taking a peek into myself from the outside. It allows me to be everything I want to be, and to say things I would be afraid of saying otherwise.”
The more one listens to the album, the more each story comes to life. Pelgag also has the knack of painting in full colour what has always seemed to be black and white. “Maybe I am pre-disposed [to that],” she laughs. “Writing that kind of songs is a form of letting go. When I’m writing, I know I‘m not going to judge myself, and this often is when an image will come to mind.”
After the fall
Although Notre-Dame-des-Sept-Douleurs came out of a personal setback, Pelgag isn’t about to wave a flag for mental health, believing that in many situations, “silence is best.” “I’m just a songwriter, and music that speaks of distress already plays a social role,” she says. “I’m singing about it, so I don’t have to talk about it too. You can go too far in getting artists to be spokespeople on behalf of this and that cause. Some people spend a lifetime taking post-doctorate studies in the kind of subjects that my songs are talking about. The microphone should be passed to them,” she says.
Admittedly, there are dark zones in Pelgag’s “seven sorrows,” particularly in the song “À l’ombre des cyprès,” where she’s asking to be buried. “Yes, it’s a suicidal song, even if it is a groovy one. But you know, I often talk about death, even if I do it with a smile,” she says. “The childlike illustration and the bright colours of the album cover for L’alchimie des monstres was taking us aboard a ship of contrasts that was asking us to put a name, a face, some sweetness ‘at the very top of the heart’s mast.’ Yes, I often talk about a deep unhappiness, and life always is a bit like that. There are days when you read what’s happening in the world, and you feel sorry for the world, and even pain in your own body. And then you go to the market and eat fresh strawberries, and think life is wonderful after all, it’s so beautiful. Someone stole a geranium pot from my porch last week, but at the same time, he fled carrying flowers, and I hope he will place it in his home and enjoy it,” she says with a mixture of resignation and amusement.
If “Rémora” is representative of Pelgag’s musical abilities at the present time, practically all of the new album’s other songs demonstrate her original craft, and the creative way in which she links together the songs. “I never could have anticipated all the events that drove me to create this album,” she explains in a nutshell.
In the video explaining the genesis of the Notre-Dame-des-Sept-Douleurs album, the village she’s talking about is pictured “before” and “after,” and the earlier state is far more disturbing than the sweet reality that follows. Did she place her album before, or after? “For me, the album is a long bridge between the two. It’s a process album, a rite of passage album,” says Pelgag.. “It’s both dark and transparent, it hurts, but it’s freeing. It helped me get rid of lots of crutches, unease, and anguish.”
Klô Pelgag has always known that her life as an artist wasn’t going to be easy, “but it didn’t turn out to be hard for the reasons they gave me,” she recalls. “For a long time, I needed my self-confidence to be reinforced. But right now, I’m moving in the direction of a kind of self-confidence that comes from within. I’m not about to become too complacent, though, because constant self-doubt has its good sides.”