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

“I feel like I muscled it into existence. I was the midwife to my own difficult birth in terms of this album,” says Kaia Kater, speaking about her upcoming release Grenades, an album that diverges creatively – instrumentally, lyrically, and emotionally – from her past work:  “[It] was really driven from a place where I wanted to challenge myself,” she says.

A year ago, changes were afoot for Kater. Drawn to new sounds and art forms, she found herself abandoning the aesthetic of West Virginian music that defined her previous works. She wanted to write an entire album of original music, but knew that to do so, she needed to become a stronger writer. So she challenged herself to write, whether the muse appeared or not.

“I did a lot of journaling, a lot of sense writing,” says Kater. “I entered this place of trying to be ok with writing ‘bad’ songs. It was mostly lunging ahead even if I couldn’t see the forest for the trees.”

What came next was surprising: Kater realized that in order to push forward, her go-to tool – a five-string clawhammer banjo used to write previous songs – had to be reconsidered.

“I wanted to describe the invasion from my father’s perspective as a child.”

“I was getting a little bored with my own interpretations of traditional music, or maybe just moving past them, in the same way I felt I was growing past the banjo as a songwriting tool,” says Kater. “I grew frustrated with the fact that every time I hopped on the banjo, it felt like the same evocations were coming out. And they were nice. I could have filled an album with those songs, but I wanted something different, another feeling, and another palette out of the songs.” It was her guitar and electric piano that provided the shift she needed.

Kater’s Creative Craft: Three Songwriting Tips

  • “When you hear a poetic turn of phrase, or read a passage that inspires you, write it down right away, before it slips your mind. Keep a list of these words and phrases on your cellphone, or in a journal, for later.”
  • “Write without judgment. The editor’s brain stymies the creative one. Forget the rules sometimes. Have a verse that doesn’t rhyme. Write an entire song without a chorus, even if the song never leaves your bedroom.”
  • “Get a writing partner. Sometimes writing is inspiration. Mostly, writing is creative work. Like an exercise partner, a writing partner helps keep you accountable to the tasks you’ve set for yourself. Pick someone non-judgmental who you trust, and meet a few times a month to share your creative work with each other.”

The next step: explore! With the assistance of a grant from the Canada Council for the Arts, Kater ventured off on a solo trip to the island of Grenada. Raised by a Québecois mother and a Grenadian father, Kater had not visited the island since she was a child, but was now compelled to make the journey. Months before, sensing that Grenada would yield significant power on the album, she spent Christmas learning about her father’s youth, and the 1983 American invasion of Grenada that changed his life.

“I wanted to record my dad talking about it,” says Kater. “My mom actually told me a lot of stories, [but] he never really talked about it. I started asking him, ‘What is your story?’ It was really emotional. The album title, based on the song ‘Grenades,’ is a play on Grenada. There were no grenades dropped in Grenada, it has nothing to do with that, [it’s] this idea about explosion and war. I wanted to describe the invasion from my father’s perspective as a child. The first line: ‘Surf the waves now, taste the metal on your tongue/March the dogs of war into the sun.’ It’s the idea of this beautiful, incredibly fertile island and then, just like, guns and metal and war, and what that does to a child.” Armed with her father’s poignant stories, Kater was off to his ancestral land. Once on the small island, she immersed herself in what she calls “regular days,” rather than weeks filled with beaches and scuba diving. The time there reverberates throughout the album: from the old film photos of the island in its artwork, to colourful expressions like “beat the water” in its lyrics.

The evocative “Meridian Ground” is especially potent. It’s imbued with the stories of her great-great aunt, found deceased in her bed with a joyous smile upon her face, and an uncle who as a child swam out onto the docks where massive cruise ships landed, terrifying tourists with the sight of his small body appearing out of deep waves. It reveals stirring poetic power. The song is reminiscent of the subversive works of Dominica-born British author Jean Rhys, whose 1966 novel Wide Sargasso Sea – an anti-colonial response to Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre – gave voice to the untold story of Eyre’s antagonist, the “mad woman in the attic.” Here, Kater uses her father, via plainly woven interludes, to voice a history long silenced.

“La Misère,” is another stunning song, loosely inspired by the island. Signed to Smithsonian Institution’s Folkways Recordings label, Kater visited their exhaustive archives in Washington, DC, hoping to find a song from Grenada. Shifting through their catalogues, she discovered one from the village of Boca, a field recording taken in 1957 by anthropologist/label head Emory Cook. Inspired, she recorded the melody and wrote new lyrics to it, creating a French lullaby with a sound that belies its sadness. In some ways, it sums up the very water that Grenades wades through: how to keep thriving in spite of life’s inescapable struggles.

“I’m alluding to dancing, or moving, despite your broken limbs,” says Kater of “La Misère.” “Being able to push yourself emotionally, or put something into the world, despite how you feel you might be fractured, or broken.”It’s a challenge she captures beautifully.

Sometimes, François Lafontaine dreams of a song. A song that doesn’t exist yet. To wit: the song “Le rêve” (“The Dream”), a piece of bravery from the group Klaus’ first album. “I got to the studio and told the guys, ‘I dreamt a song!” says the trio’s keyboardist, referring to his bandmates Joe Grass (guitars, a ubiquitous session musician who plays with Marie-Pierre Arthur, Patrick Watson, and many others) and drummer Samuel Joly (also a ubiquitous session player, also with Marie-Pierre Arthur, Fred Fortin, and many jazz artists).

Throughout its eight minutes and five seconds, “Le rêve” is evocative, not only of the type of adventure one only lives in the mind while sleeping, but also that which, while wide awake, musicians give themselves when they truly let loose. After a syncopated jazz-rap intro, a heady rock riff (made heavier thanks to guest musician Fred Fortin’s bass) lays the initial muffled atmosphere to waste, until that powerful bulldozer is itself swallowed whole, toward the end, by the chiming melody of a krautrock-inspired rhythmic pattern.

“As in a dream, at first, you can’t quite make out the elements, you don’t know exactly where you’re at, then it turns into a nightmare, and the third movement is the deliverance. You come out of the dream,” says Lafontaine, a member of Karkwa and Galaxie, who has played on so many albums by other Québec artists to even attempt to list exhaustively.

Recognized and admired by music lovers everywhere in the province – even though their names aren’t spelled in big letters on the marquee of the venues they play – Grass, Joly, and Lafontaine could easily be described as super-session musicians. That’s not only because they play a lot, and often, but mainly because their contributions to other people’s music are instantly recognizable. When one sees them onstage at the beginning of a show, one knows that the evening surely won’t be dull.

But despite the collegiality of their collaborations with the songwriters who ask them for their contributions, the genesis of Klaus was the answer to a desire, shared by the three friends, to open up the hatches, unafraid of the flood.

“When you’re playing someone else’s song, your job is to bring a certain balance,” says Joe Grass. “You take their idea as far as you can, but you can’t allow yourself to steal the show. In this case, we threw balance out the window, it was more like…” The guitarist moves in hands on each side of his face as if to mime the rapid pace of a car on the highway.

In (other) words: “It means that whenever one of us had a new idea, no one else said no, ever. We’d find the balance later.” François Lafontaine’s smile suddenly makes him look like an eight-year-old. “Isn’t it great to be able to always say yes?”

So what comes out of a series of “Yeses”? A band that doesn’t fit any particular label, and whose members’ only wish is to give themselves over to the pure joy of music created with friends, not caring a bit if their explorations take them down the road of afrobeat, prog, or dance-rock.

Fun, fun, fun; the word is like a mantra for Lafontaine who almost can’t believe he signed a record deal with these two other guys. Watch him push back when one tries to label him a virtuoso. “Hell no, I’m not a virtuoso! Sam, is, though!” he insists with as much disbelief as if we’d tried to call him an astronaut. “I have infinite admiration for these guys, and I think it’s mutual. We love what we hear when we watch our buddies play.” The fact that the three compadres also sing together on the majority of the verses is another powerful metaphor of the mindset during their recording sessions.

The tours for each of their respective projects had been over for a little while. François, Joe and Samuel were having pints at the pub – as we all do. The vague ambition of a solo synths album vanished from Lafontaine’s mind the moment his friends suggested birthing Klaus. The project turned out to be, in a sense, the antidote to the fatigue that creeps up in the minds of musicians on the road.

‘Did you ever not feel like playing?’ Lafontaine asks his friend Joe Grass, before re-formulating (in a much clearer way) one of our questions.

‘It’s a funny conundrum,” he says. “When you’ve been on the road for eight months, you remember you like playing, you want to feel it every night. But at some point, it’s like a muscle that you over-use, and it becomes numb. There’s an emotional disconnect that happens between your mind and your body when you’re tired. When I was in my twenties and I would get to that point, it was an instant existential crisis! Nowadays, all I tell myself is: Get some sleep and drink less beer.”

Or create a new band!