On Homme-objet, Luis Clavis tackles utterly contemporary themes with sarcasm, self-deprecation, and vulnerability.
Listening to the 15 tracks on his debut solo album can leave you stunned. No one expected Clavis – who’s known mostly for his playful lyrics and festive charisma as a member of Valaire and Qualité Motel – to get as personal as he does on “Farewell,” an electro-pop-jazz number with a lo-fi folk aura that closes the record. “Quand ton odeur quittera mes vêtements / Il sera sûrement temps que je les brûle,” sings the singer-songwriter gloomilyt (When your smell no longer permeates my clothes / It’ll surely be time for me to burn them).
“I wanted to confront myself and do more personal stuff,” says Clavis, seated in a café near his place. “As soon as it felt even somewhat intense or shameful, I went straight for it. There’s something fucking amazing about being in a band with childhood friends, but at a certain point, it becomes important to ask yourself what you can do on your own.”
That “certain point” never manifested itself before, even after 15 years as a member of Valaire. After becoming “somewhat by default” the band’s frontman onstage, Clavis felt the need to grab the mic as a solo act about two years, ago when two of the five band members (Tō and Kilojules, aka Tōki) went on a hiatus to work on their good friend Fanny Bloom’s album.
“Before that, I’d never considered such a thing,” he says. “As an instrumental band that evolved from jazz, we didn’t want my voice to become that of a frontman. We strived to remain equals and I liked that… but when the guys went on to work with Fanny, I had a lot of time on my hands. Enough that I asked myself, ‘What do I do with my life when I don’t have my bands?’ I started writing tracks for myself, without any pre-conceived idea of where that would go.”
Clavis started by asking himself what he had to say that was relevant. As conscious as can be about his social status, namely that of “a white male in Québec who’s privileged and had a normal childhood,” he found inspiration in Julia Cameron’s best-seller The Artist’s Way. “It’s a book that motivates people who feel blocked [to overcome their inaction],” he says. “It taught me to write whatever came to mind every day, for five minutes, without judgment. The more I wrote just about anything, I started getting ideas, snippets of verses. It really helped me find an approach, and themes, that are truly mine – because I’ve never had any kind of inspirational struggle, as opposed to some of the artists to whom I listen. I’m a white, heterosexual male, who’s never really known adversity. My parents are even still married!”
Yet, despite his comfy upbringing, the Sherbrooke-born artist managed to put his finger on several of our era’s ills. On Homme-objet, he pokes fun at the cult of appearance and instant celebrity, while being really careful to avoid sounding pretentious or overly critical.
“I judge and observe myself… There’s a degree of the poetry of defeat in that,” he says. “I grew up listening to hip-hop, but instead of doing the hip-hop bragging thing, I chose the character of a loser MC who contemplates life. I like the idea of giving value to contemplation, of living my days without feeling like I need to change the world to quench my ambition.”
“I really wondered how a non-singer like me was going to manage recording of an album of songs.”
Is he trying to embody “downsizing,” in his own way? “No, I swear!” he says, laughing. “I know I’m in the same boat as everyone else, and I don’t pretend I have the solution. I do, however, like the image of contemplation, I think it might be part of the solution. If we taught our kids to observe rather than perform, we’d probably have a better world.”
This way of seeing the world takes on quite an original life on “Cycle délicat,” where Clavis puts himself in the shoes of an almost perfect house-husband. “When I wrote that, I was thinking about the whole mental load and professional burnout issue,” he says. “I’d be totally down to be a stay-at-home husband, being the guy who takes care of everything while he waits for his wife to return home after work,” he says with a grin.
Such modern themes naturally go hand-in-hand with a musical backdrop that’s just as modern. Helped by Tōki on production duties, Clavis’ compositions are electro-pop with healthy doses of funk and hip-hop. “Beck was a big creative influence for me, especially his Midnite Vultures album,” he says. “That album is a tribute to Prince, but recorded by a skinny, not-so-sexy white man. That sensual side that doesn’t take itself too seriously, that’s a trip for me.”
Vocally, he adopts the same “not too serious” attitude, thanks to a calm and at times nonchalant approach. The rapper and vocalist (he refuses to be called a singer) took quite awhile before settling on the right tone. “I really wondered how a non-singer like me was going to manage recording of an album of songs,” says Clavis. “All I had left was honesty, the honesty of a guy who works with what he’s got – I’m light-years from being able to push notes like those people on La Voix [the Québec franchise of TV singing competition The Voice]. I’m convinced I’d have to contend with four unturned chairs if I sang there.”
On the eve of his album release, Clavis says he’s satisfied, but not quite ready yet to deal with the public reaction – even though the reception for the first two singles was good, and found airplay on commercial as well as campus radio. “I’ve been oscillating between ‘OK, this is cool,’ and ‘This is the worst album ever produced in the history of music,’ for quite a while,” he admits. “Each step is a challenge, and I like it like that.”