“The thing is, it’s not texts or e-mails,” says Les Hay Babies’ Viviane Roy about the rich source material that inspired their third album, Boîte aux lettres. It’s the correspondence between a mother and her daughter, a young woman who moved from New Brunswick to Montréal in the mid-‘60s. “You know, a telephone line was way too expensive, back then. That means those letters are rich and super-detailed. Jackie tries to make her mom live what she’s living in Montréal.”
This story, however – before being about letters or about music – is a story about clothes. A few years ago, bandmate Julie Aubé inherited a bunch of clothes found by Claudette, a long-time Hay Babies fan who’d been tasked with emptying a Moncton house abandoned by its owner. You see, besides her creative work, Aubé also manages an online second-hand clothing store call OK My Dear. As such, she owns one of the most stunning wardrobes in Atlantic Canada. Although her bandmate and friend Katrine Noël is a fierce competitor for the title.
Among the clothes Claudette gave her were a bunch of letters that she initially set aside, “because the cool clothes were just so cool,” says Aubé. “I’m talking gorgeous flared jeans that would cost, like, $300 today.” Once the initial clothing-induced high subsided, the musician quickly realized what the true gem of Claudette’s gift was. “As soon as we started reading those letters, we were on the edge of our seats.”
The necessity of creating a concept album based on this correspondence quickly became self-evident, because of the vivid portrait painted by Jacqueline of her professional, social, and sentimental life as a single woman in Montréal between 1965 and 1969.
“No one could remain unmoved after reading those letters,” says Noël. “It’s like a soap opera. Oh my God, she’s auditioning to be a top model! Oh my God, she’s dating that guy! But Jackie is writing with her ego. She tries to come across as way more high-class than anyone else in Moncton. Maybe her mom didn’t want her to move to Montréal at 24, maybe she told her, ‘You’ll never realize your dreams, you should get married instead.’ And maybe that’s why Jackie lays it on so thick. It was super-interesting to guess what’s true, and what’s not.”
One happy side effect of this six-handed extrapolation, is that whereas the songs on Mon Homesick Heart (2014) and La 4ième dimension (version longue) (2016) could easily be identified by the respective style of each of the Hay Babies’ three songwriters, every second of Boîte aux lettres is clearly the result of a team effort.
“An album is not a single, it has to stand on its own.” — Viviane Roy, Les Hay Babies
And whereas La 4ième dimension (version longue) was a celebration of ‘70s soft rock, Boîte aux lettres is filled to the brim with ‘60s sounds, from the pastoral folk of “Entre deux montagnes” to the garage rock of “Almost minuit” and the psychedelic stylings of “Limonade.”
“We were also obsessed by the music grandpa and grandma played when they were making babies,” jokes Roy, definitely the most loquacious of the trio, about the obvious easy-listening references that imbue a lascivious song like “Jacqueline.”
Reading the letters was also a lesson that allowed Les Hay Babies to take the full measure of how much the liberties taken for granted by women today had to be fought for, and won, back then. “Jackie was quite the feminist for the time,” says Roy. “She had the independence to refuse to settle down and get married at 18 like she could have. She was very open-minded. It made us check our privilege. There’s a lot of stuff that’s completely mundane for us, that required a lot of courage for her. There’s such a huge contrast between what she had to go through, between her own thoughts and how she had to behave to please men, and where we’re at today. All those examples of how we’ve come a long way jumped out of her letters.”
Another aspect of Boîte aux lettres that stands out – in this era of playlists and streaming platforms that break down an album into single units – is that it presents itself as an album that has to be listened to from A to Z, flipping the bird to our constant zap-based culture.
“I’ve always believed in concept albums,” says Roy. “All albums should be concept albums, to a degree. An album is not a single, it has to stand on its own. When you invest yourself in listening to an album, it’s like being in an art gallery. When you become aware of the underlying theme, every single piece of art makes more sense. Frankly, I think there are way too many artists that are, like, ‘I have enough songs for an album.’ Well, guess what? I’ll never listen to those albums. There are so many albums that are released by artists unable to back them up with ideas.”
But have Jacqueline’s letters, from a New Bruswicker exiled in Montréal, made Aubé and Noël, who still live in their native province, want to move? Noël grimaces. “It made me want to see Montréal as it was in the ’60s, big-time,” she says. “It made me want to visit Expo 67. But moving to Montréal to go to hipster restaurants that all look the same? Not so much.”