On a hill or in a valley, on a Greyhound bus, in a 2004 Chevrolet Optra or hitching rides, Rouyn-Noranda born singer-songwriter Louis-Philippe Gingras reckons he must have rode the 226-kilometer Route 117 highway running from Montreal to the Ontario border through the La Vérendrye Wildlife Reserve as least 300 times by now.
“Once, around Christmas time, I was heading for Rouyn from Montreal in my car to take part in family reunions,” he recalls. “I hadn’t been able to find my driver’s licence, and I didn’t even know whether it was still valid or not. When I got to Tremblant, I got stopped by a cop. He must have thought I looked suspicious. That’s when I found out my licence had expired. My car was impounded, and I had to hitchhike with my guitar. Boy, was it ever cold!”
“It’s a fact that I’m disorganized, not very rich and unattached.”
Traverser l’parc (Riding through the Reserve), Gingras’ Dany Placard-produced current album, contains much evidence justifying that dutiful traffic officer’s intervention. The stories of drunken episodes, complex romantic arrangements and pennilessness it tells definitely don’t portray the songwriter as someone a parent would like their daughter to marry. With his heavy “joual” accent and crude approach to everyday life, Gingras belongs in the Plume Latraverse songwriting school, with its endearing mixture of nonchalance and poetry.
“It’s a fact that I’m disorganized, not very rich and unattached,” Gingras admits. “What I’m talking about on the album fits my own life, but poetic licence allows me to create interesting contrasts between what I went through and how I tell the story. I was able to see the difference after taking part in music competitions.”
As the winner of the second prize of the 2010 Festival de la relève indépendante musicale d’Abitibi-Témiscamingue (FRIMAT) and of the top honours of the 2012 Festival en chanson de Petite-Vallée, Gingras speaks from experience. “When you take part in a competition, you end up cruising the jury the way you’d be cruising a girl,” says Gingras. “First impressions are always crucial. It’s too bad, but that’s how it goes. People size you up before you have a chance to play your first note. As an artist, I believe you have to be aware of who you are, and how you’re being perceived by others. What image are you projecting? What are your strengths? Now that I realize that, I always dress up for the stage. I even shave before the show to create a more striking contrast between my clean-cut appearance and my trashy roadside folk/blues music style.”
Once again, the former jazz student of Cégep de Saint-Laurent brings back Route 117, the long snake-like highway on which he wrote many of the songs of Traverser l’parc during the eight-hour trip, including “Andromède,” which was a finalist in the 2014 Francophone edition of the SOCAN Songwriting Prize competition. “Like many of my pieces, ‘Andromède’ grew out of a line I liked for its visual and sonic content,” Gingras explains. “That’s often the case with me. I don’t write on a theme, I just like to elaborate on a line or on words that spark my imagination. I let myself loose without worrying where this might take me. In this particular case, I was on a Greek mythology trip, and I the sentence ‘M’as gazer pégase (‘I’ll be gassing Pegasus’) got me going. And, since I was on my way to meet a girl in Abitibi, the two stories merged into one. By the time I got there, the song was almost finished. ‘Roulé dans l’noir’ [‘Driving in the Dark’] was also written as I was crossing the Reserve. We’d gotten caught in a huge thunderstorm. I was chasing my own tail at the time. Never pleased with myself, always moving from town to town.”
Following appearances at a series of festivals to promote his album this past summer, Gingras is spent part of the fall of 2014 writing songs for his next album. Recently diagnosed with bipolar disorder, he’s slightly concerned that the medication he’s on might hamper his creative process by levelling his emotional hills and valleys – mostly his highs.
“My moods are pretty stable now, so I’m not going to complain,’ says Gingras. “What I find, so far, is that my new state of mind takes me away from concentrating my writing on myself. Traverser l’parc is a reflection of the way I felt at the time I wrote it. My next album is going to deal with the ways people interact. I’m focussing on a cast of characters. My most recent song is about a woman cashier in an Ontario Giant Tiger store. I want to take myself out of the picture for a change.”