Les LouangesA bunch of teens are riding in a 1996 forest-green Tercel. In circles. Smoking spliffs. Your typical suburban ennui.

On the other side of the river, the lights of Québec City’s old buildings brighten up the night. The view from Lévis is splendid for a numbed teen who cares to look.

Sitting on the passenger side is Vincent Roberge, 18. He’s struggling to finish his CÉGEP diploma in jazz guitar, in Ste-Foy. His friends listen to Queens of The Stone Age. “Lévis is a rock place,” he says. “But we also listened to Malajube’s La Caverne.”

For Roberge, music is a buffet that serves more than distortion. Odd Future’s avant-garde rap and the creative beats of Knxwledge have also found their way to his ears. At the same time, his teachers introduced him to the grooves of Curtis Mayfield and Sly and the Family Stone, while his parents would play Moby in their car.

Demon Days by Gorillaz is the first album I bought with my own money,” says Roberge. “I must’ve been 10 or 11. I’d heard about the album on Musique Plus. I loved the characters that were drawn on the cover.”

Now a young adult living in Montréal, Roberge couldn’t have known, back then, that the same Damon Albarn would still be with him, twelve years later while he was putting the finishing touches on his first album, La Nuit est une panthère (The Night is a Panther).

Released under the moniker Les Louanges, “because it’s more mysterious than Vincent Roberge,” his album stands apart from the Francophone musical landscape in Québec. At the crossroads of jazz, R&B, and modern urban styles, the 14 songs are reminiscent of Frank Ocean’s sensual agility, Kamasi Washington’s stunning boldness (saxophone included), and Thundercat’s endearing nonchalance.

“That’s why I picked up on Damon Albarn’s music,” says Roberge. “Just like me, he’s a greenhorn who navigates the waters of African-American musical references. Coming from Québec white suburbia and tackling that type of reference required a lot of courage or, at the very least, that I have fun with it. Same for writing songs in French. We’re kinda silly in Québec in this regard. We speak French, we’re taught to master our language for years and years, but we still have the impulse to write in English when we make music…”

The confidence to write in French came to Les Louanges when he attended the École de la chanson de Granby in 2015, training that led him all the way to the Rencontres de la chanson d’Astaffort, created by none other than Francis Cabrel. Not to take anything away from the newbie, but it’s hard to understand just how songwriting training in Astaffort could have any influence on Les Louanges, whose music is light years away from singer-songwriter folk music.

“The very song-centric support network for emerging artists we have is important and necessary, but all my life I’ve fought to not get sucked into the often soft, sugar-coated folk format,” says Roberge. “The main take-away of those workshops, for me, was to learn how to write in French. I remember poring over several of Richard Desjardins’s songs to understand where their magic came from,” says the young man who sometimes covers Desjardins’s “Señorita.”

Covering topics such as being a teen in Lévis, or a broke young adult in Montréal, the lyrics on La Nuit est une panthère go from colourful atmospherics to straight-up realism with great aplomb. The off-kilter melodies dance over unpredictable compositions. “That’s why I wanted to title the album La Nuit est une panthère,” says Roberge. “I feel it aptly describes the realism just as well as the wilder, surreal aspect of the record. That, plus I found a black panther statue for eight bucks on Kijiji in Saint-Hyacinthe. I figured it was a sign that the statue should be on the album cover. The panther is pretty cool, eh? “

Yup, but not as cool as the music on the excellent album  that nears its image.

Les Louanges
La Nuit est une panthère
Available on September 21