She could easily have stepped onstage once more and kept on doing what made her famous. And that was no small feat. In an era of austerity and tanking record sales, Lisa Leblanc sold 140,000 physical units of her first eponymous album, thanks to the success of her emblematic song, “Ma vie c’est d’la marde” (“My Life is Crap”), the kind of song that stays with you for your entire career, just as “Hélène” did for Roch Voisine.
“I was overwhelmed by the phenomenon,” says Leblanc, in hindsight. “I’m from the Maritimes. I love chit-chatting with people. My inspiration comes from the encounters I have, and the conversations I have, with people. But at that point, I had to put up a self-preservation mechanism, because there were simply too many people at once. It’s a beautiful problem to have, and I’ll always be grateful for my audience, but I simply can’t chit-chat with everyone for 30 minutes. On the one hand, you don’t want to hurt anyone, but on the other… I was exhausted, on the cusp of a real burnout.”
Then, in the Fall of 2014, her Highways, Heartaches and Time Well Wasted EP introduced us to another side of her. Not only was she now singing in English, but she did it in a supercharged, folk-punk-rock style. If her actual, intentional goal was to alienate commercial radio – which had always supported her anthemic Francophone choruses to that point – she couldn’t have done it any better. But the question remained: would she dare do that for her second full-length album, too?
“Life on tour is non-stop adrenaline. And then Pow! You have six months off to write new songs alone in your apartment. Hello, angst!”
The answer is loud and clear. Released on September 30, 2016, Why You Wanna Leave, Runaway Queen? is mostly in English, but its 12 songs form a motley collection of folk music styles: explosive on “Ti-Gars” (one of the rare Francophone songs on the album); traditional bluegrass on “Dead Man’s Flat”; nostalgic and minimalist on “I Ain’t Perfect, Babe”; introspective on “Why Does It Feel So Lonely (When You Are Around)”; and nearly Hawaiian on “Dump the Guy ASAP.” All of the guitar distortion is in place, and the banjo sounds as if it’s being played by the devil himself – especially on her brilliant cover of Motorhead’s “Ace of Spades.” Fans of her first album, beware: Leblanc is back where we don’t expect her. But her character and colourful personality are the same as ever.
“During the tour supporting the first album, we were playing it in an increasingly rock style,” she says. “The EP and new album are simply a reflection of that trend, and it’s even more obvious now. But this musical direction has nothing to do with singing in English. A French album would’ve sounded exactly the same. I think, ultimately, that it’s simply that I like movement. Standing still and trying to re-create the buzz of my first album held absolutely no appeal for me.”
This notion of movement will manifest itself throughout the interview. “Why You Wanna Leave, Runaway Queen?” is aptly titled. “It’s pretty much the sentence that summarizes the last five years of my life,” Leblanc explains. “It’s like I’m incapable of standing still. Ever since I left home, I stayed in Granby for a year to attend the École nationale de la chanson. Then, from 19 to 26, I was on tour non-stop. I’ve spent my whole adult life on the road. When that’s all that you know in life, how can you be expected to come home and just be ‘zen?’ That’s why there are so many musicians who come home and feel totally lost. Life on tour is non-stop adrenaline. And then, Pow! You have six months off to write new songs alone in your apartment. Hello, angst!”
Six months is exactly the amount of time Leblanc had before recording began for her new album, for which not a single song was written yet. So, instead of freaking out, she succumbed to the call of the open road: she embarked on a two-month road-trip across the U.S., her second one in as many years. “The first was a dream come true,” she says. “During the second one, I really took time to fully enjoy every moment. I met a ton of people. I took banjo lessons. I improved my playing, I played jam sessions here and there. I came back with a few song ideas. The block was finally over.”
Back in the city, she headed to the studio, where producer Joseph Donovan (Sam Roberts, The Dears) was waiting for her. After working with Louis-Jean Cormier for her first album, and Emmanuel Éthier for her EP, Leblanc was once again in motion. “I’ve been a Sam Roberts fan since my teens,” she says. “And it was Joseph Donovan who produced his third album, Chemical City, one of my favourites. I like starting from scratch and working with new producers and new musicians. It’s the same thing with this album; it’s an opportunity to start all over again and play small clubs in the U.S. That motivates me.”
Leblanc has nothing but praise for Donovan, who convinced Sam Roberts to sing on her song, “I Love You, I Don’t Love You, I Don’t Know.” “Joseph really helped me get over my writer’s block,” she says. “He coached me. We met every other week for writing lessons. I’m not a fan of routine, but being forced to work on this album was beneficial for me. It helped me convince myself that I’m a normal gal. I’m more ‘zen.’ I’m slowly getting to understand that travelling is fun, but it can also be fun to decorate your apartment and unpack your boxes.”