“When this album comes out, it’ll have been five years since the last one, Les Grandes Artères, and I’m surprised by that,” says Louis-Jean Cormier. “I thought I’d never do that – like Daniel Bélanger, and other singer-songwriters, where I thought to myself, ‘Damn, how can they wait so long between albums?’ Well, as it turns out, it’s not very hard; you take a year off, do a few gigs like screen composing and circus music with Serge Fiori…” But the break is over: Cormier is back with what is arguably his best album, an offering that’s less folky, more muscular, an above all, with much more biting lyrics.
The title comes from a line in “La Photo,” the last song on the album. It’s probably the simplest song Cormier has written; it’s comprised of five small verses, all with the same melody as the chorus. No bridge, no solo, just a simple groove. “It’s a very ‘90s, Peter Gabriel kind of feel,” Cormer says, that comes from the looped percussion, and a few piano chords. The lyrics: “Quand la nuit tombe/Chaque fois qu’je vis la fin du monde/Je monte ici et prends la photo usée dans mes mains” (“When the night falls/Every time I live through the end of the world/I come up here and hold this worn-out photograph in my hands”)
It’s francophone “chanson” in its purest form. On paper are a few nostalgic rhymes, tender memories that resurface reassuringly, even though it acknowledges that one day, we too are going to pass. The song is a masterpiece: anyone with one working ear and a heartbeat will need tissues. “Marie” can go back to sleep, “La Photo” has stolen her crown as the most beautiful song in Cormier’s repertoire.
“This album has a premonitory aspect to it, it seems,” he says. “That’s because those songs come from very deep in me.” “La Photo” belongs to Cormier’s partner, who lost her father when she was young. Cormier found inspiration in her story. He would have loved for his own father to hear it, but that never happened, because his dad passed away about a month before our interview. “The songs have taken on a different meaning since my father died,” says Cormier.
“The step back I took during my sabbatical made me want to get straight to the point.”
“[‘La Photo’] happened on the penultimate day of production,” he says. “It’s one of those songs that just happen, you know? There are one or two on every album, that song that happens super-fast, words and music just coming together. It came from a quasi-esoteric discussion about life after death that I was having with my girlfriend…”
The simplicity Cormier adopted in writing “La Photo” is characteristic of the whole album’s narrative arc. “The step back I took during my sabbatical made me want to get straight to the point and talk about stuff that comes from my heart, stuff I’ve gone through and everything I feel like saying,” says Cormier. The message does come through, and over music that’s a lot less folk-tinged than his previous albums. Karkwa’s sophisticated rock aura can be heard in certain orchestrations, but with an added touch of electronics, and even some sampling – as on “Face au vent,” where he samples an orchestral recording of Gilles Vigneault’s “La Manikouta1.”
Another important thing Louis-Jean Cormier gained from taking a step back is “to not be afraid of dipping my finger in social issues,” he says. “I feel like describing and taking a stand on our society’s ills – but I want to avoid making somewhat cheap claims. I’m not afraid to rock the boat, just as I’m not afraid to write touching things to my dad or my son.”
He does indeed address his son directly on “Toi aussi,” a powerful text written with his “eternal mentor” Alan Côté, who’s a songwriter on top of also being General Manager of the Festival en chanson de Petite-Vallée. The lyrics: “Me vois-tu comme ça toi aussi/ Les mâles comme des animaux/ Qui vénèrent les filles dans le lit/ Mais les méprisent dans leur dos” (“Do you see me like that, too/Males are animals/Who venerate women when they’re in bed/But despise them behind their backs”). Similarly, the single “Je Me Moi” set the tone for the more socially engaged and concerned side of the album, by decrying online trolls, and all the other uninvited opinion-givers that poison community life.
The songs were written in both Montréal and Los Angeles. “I wrote very little music in Los Angeles, I went there for the words,” says Cormier. “The album’s lyrics were written in L.A. during a stay at the SOCAN House.”
The hardest-hitting of them is “Les Poings ouverts,” which he co-wrote with poet and novelist David Goudreault. It speaks directly about racism and our relationship with other people, the difference of skin colour, accent, or religion. “David is a friend, I wanted to work with him,” says Cormier. “And he shares his life with a black woman, just like me. When I offered [that he] work on this song, he accepted because it spoke to him a lot.”
“Les monstres ne se cachent pas sous nos lits/Mais sous notre ignorance” (“Monsters aren’t hidden under our beds/But under our ignorance”), Cormier sings, before adding that he feels like he’s living “among American rednecks.” His new love relationship, and a trip to Africa they made together made him “totally reconsider the country and the province where I live,” he says. “I had the wrong idea about my environment. We tell ourselves that there were always idiots around, we’d hear them on [radio] hotlines, and read them in the comments section of the newspaper. But now, it’s reached another level. My girlfriend literally receives messages saying, ‘Go back to your country!’ This kind of gratuitous violence towards people we don’t even know is very serious.
“It’s an interesting song coming from the mouth of two white men,” he continues. “At one point I considered inviting Dominique Fils-Aimé to collaborate on it, but she said, ‘Seriously, that song is best sung by whites,’” says Cormier.
Truly, he’s found a renewed urgency to create, thanks to these 10 new songs.