- One thing that has really helped me is to be moving – whether it’s on a train, boat, or car, or even walking around my apartment while I’m writing, instead of sitting in one spot.
- Try writing lyrics on newspaper. It rather distracts you because there are other words underneath. That means yours don’t seem so final. The words underneath may spark something else too.
- Always change the key up. Learn the song in other keys, and that helps keep you from getting bored.
- Change instruments. I’ll go to a ukulele, or piano, or try open tuning.
- There is one tip from John Lennon: never leave a song until it’s done. You may never get that spark, that excitement, back. If you get an idea, finish the song, even if you have to miss your best friend’s funeral. Finishing that song is more important than anything else.
One can safely say that creation comes easy to Zachary Richard. To wit, the fact that, in October 2011, the singer-songwriter launched Le fou, his 20th album, a fact that leaves him completely unfazed. “Ten, thirty or twenty thousand records, it doesn’t matter to me. What matters are the emotions they carry.” The man is clearly still very inspired, always on the lookout for words and sounds. As a matter of fact, when we interviewed him, Zachary Richard confessed he was gripped with a writing frenzy at the time. “I wrote to songs in two days. I wake up at night to write the melodies I hear in my dreams. Luckily for me, I’m disciplined enough to wake up and write them down when that happens.”
“I wrote to songs in two days. I wake up at night to write the melodies I hear in my dreams.
Yet, at the heart of this candid confession lies the very core of the creative process of this Louisianian, a process that is comprised of inspiration and hard work. He is diametrically opposed to the cliché of the artist hunched over his writing desk just as anybody with an office job would. He works by letting inspiration come as much from within as from what surrounds us. “The image I like to use to describe the way I work is that of a seal hunter who waits, harpoon in hand, near a breathing hole. But you have to get on the ice for that. It’s one thing to be on the lookout, but you also need to be in the right place. One of the ways you do this, as an artist, is to have your antennas out, to observe and to feel.”
The first demos for Le fou were recorded in Montreal in the small studio located a few floors down from the condo he shares with the love of his life, Claude Thomas. Zachary Richard has worked this way ever since Cap enragé. It all starts with his guitar and a bit of rhythmic information imparted, preferably, by a human and not a machine. There is a simple reason for this preference. The artist relies on spontaneity to explores a song’s shape. To do this, he relies on his precious creative partner, Nick Petrovski. From there, musicians from Québec and Louisiana are added to the project, old friends who Zachary Richard remains loyal to, as if they allowed the Acadian and American artist to feel anchored despite always being split between Québec and Louisiana. Among the members of this inner circle are drummer Justin Allard, bassist Sylvain Quesnel, guitarists Éric Sauviat and Nicolas Fiszman, as well as pianist David Torkanowsky. Yet, the moment Zachary Richard feels his recording session is slipping back into a comfort zone, he stops everything and hits the road. You see, even though he loves people, the man is a lone wolf who prefers communicating through his music.
Le fou sees the man getting back to his Louisianian roots, which is felt as much in the lyrics as in the melodies. Zachary Richard believes in commitment whether in life or in music. Born in the U.S., he decided to embrace his roots and the diversity if his identity after discovering the melodeon, or diatonic button accordion, in the 70s. Since then, his love of everything Cajun and French, the language of grand-parents, has never stopped growing. He acquired a place in Montreal in 1998 and started using French only in his personal log. To him, the stake is unmistakable: managing to preserve the exotic aspect of Louisianian speak while using a near-perfect yet regionalist French that remains as universally understandable as possible. “Speaking French in North America is defiant, hard-headed. Sometimes, I wonder what I’m doing, because I could have had a very successful career in English… But to me, French is a treasure trove. I take comfort in the fact of going against the grain and resisting the forces of assimilation to preserve the world’s diversity.”
Despite this bias, to Richard commitment does not mean protesting or propagandizing. He prefers the roads of the heart, going back to the simple things that make one want to write a song in the first place. The song entitled “Le fou” is the perfect example of this. “I never put a song to the service of a cause. Les fous de Bassan is obviously a pro-green song that I’m proud to sing, but the inspiration is not to write a song to save the Earth. I was simply moved to tears to see a magnificent bird sullied in the most ignominious way, no longer able to fly because its wings were covered in oil. That’s the emotion at the root of the song, not the cause, which is something that is intellectual. It’s the heart that matters the most to me.”
While busying himself with his 70s covers project and other endeavours that capitalized on his singing talent, Sylvain Cossette has let 12 years slip by since he released any original material. The soon to be fifty-year-old songwriter has, however, resurfaced: Le Jour d’après, the new album he launched this fall, effortlessly floated to the top of the Francophone charts.
The joy of singing is in Cossette’s blood, and he has a knack for communicating it. The three volumes of his 70s project that saw him covering anglophone classics of the era reached the magical threshold of 400,000 copies sold and 400 stage performances. But, you see, there’s no way Cossette can limit himself to being just a singer. “I’m very involved in my shows: I do stage design, I script, I do a lot of stuff, but creating an album from start to finish, writing everything and getting the creative high, whether it’s by writing a song in a few minutes or by toiling over it for weeks on end, that is truly exhilarating.”
A Family Affair
At home, Cossette is surrounded by all kinds of instruments: guitars, a harp, a piano, a sitar. Throughout the years, he’s used all of them to compose songs that he’s kept for himself or offered his beloved wife, Andrée Watters, or to others. When he embarked on the project that became Le Jour d’après, about a year ago, his first impulse was to take three songs out of his drawer of saved songs. A fourth one was added to the line-up, but he wasn’t satisfied. It’s the ideas that came after that guided him. “Feeling like writing an album is nice and all, but you still need to know what to do with it, because sometimes it comes to you as a torrent of inspiration and you have to be ready to embrace it. You need to keep a cool head, to be able to understand what is sending you this or that way, good or bad.”
The man decided to turn to his loved ones to help him inform his material. His daughter Élisabeth, brother François and lover Andrée all joined their voices to his. Reine, his sister supervised the proofing of the lyrics while his other daughter, Judith, was in charge of documenting the process in pictures. It was, clearly a family affair, but the creator also recruited the help of Louis Côté (K-Maro, Shy’m) as co-producer, but still making sure he resisted the temptation of sounding too trendy. One must bear in mind that even though he loves pop music ever since his early days as a member of Paradox and the beginning of his solo career in 1994, Sylvain Cossette has never tried to be trendy. Instead, he let’s the verses come to him as they are, sprinkling a little British flavour over them before singing them in his timeless voice.
“I’m one of the most undisciplined guys there is, he says laughing. I don’t do voice training, I never took singing lessons, I can’t read music. [. . .] It’s like I still have a teenager’s voice despite being almost fifty. The only discipline I have is that I’ve never smoked, never did any drugs, I drink very little and I don’t go out to bars after my shows. . .”
Guided by Passion
For many artists, musicals can be incredibly useful launch pads, and as soon as their careers take off, the go solo. Cossette refuses to restrict himself to any one code of conduct. Following his 1999 album Humain, he joined the ranks of the immensely popular musical Notre-Dame-de-Paris and, a few years later, in 2006, also played in Dracula and co-created Les 7 alongside André Ducharme. A true lover of this music and theatre hybrid, he has also co-created a second one with Andrée Watters, but they will only reveal it to the public when they deem the timing is right.
Sylvain Cossette likes to say that he has no career plan and just goes with the flow of what excites him at any given moment. That is why, notably, he will not close the book on the 70s adventure, for one thing. Lately, however, there are a few certainties in his life: he will tour for Le Jour d’après in the fall of 2013 and his next album of original material will come to fruition much faster than its predecessor. “I like to leave doors open to all kinds of life situations. If I get up one morning and I feel like writing an album, I do it. A musical? I write that. I never close doors on anything because I love surprises.”