“The hue of this album is one of friendship,” Mara Tremblay tells us while in self-isolation in the Eastern Townships. It’s also the hue of her reunion with an old partner-in-crime, Olivier Langevin (Galaxie, Gros Mené, Fred Fortin). The pair has been one of the most fertile songwriting teams in Québec music history. Uniquement pour toi, her eighth album, is the work of a duo, Tremblay insists, and of a third collaborator – author, composer, singer-songwriter, and filmmaker Stéphane Lafleur.
The album opens with “Je reste ici, “a love letter to Nashville, where Tremblay travelled for a songwriting residency in the fall of 2018 with the help of SOCAN. “It was an initial journey,” she says, before leaving Music City. “I was in an ultra-fragile place. I left on my own and I had the time of my life! I felt strong for going on my own, but I felt weak at the same time.” Not to mention very excited to meet her idol, Gillian Welch, on the street after buying a new guitar in the city’s East end.
Nashville being a beacon of the music industry, Tremblay “saw a lot of women, much more than in Québec,” she says. “Drummers, sound engineers, publishers, there are a lot of women in the industry there.” She invited her friends Sunny Duval and Marie-Anne Arsenault. “We jammed together and the result was ‘Je reste ici.’”
That song is anything but country, the musical style generally associated with Termblay’s first albums. As a matter of fact, from the first drumbeats by Robbie Kuster, you’d think you were back at United Western Recorders in the L.A. of the ‘60s, while the Wrecking Crew is recording tracks for The Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds!
“We knew we wanted to record it live with Robbie and François [Lafontaine, piano],” says Tremblay, who was surprised by the end result. “You never quite know where a song is headed until you start jamming… It was really interesting to see how this song evolved. Robbie brought a lot to it. Once the drum track was done, we left it alone. We thought it was maybe over-the-top, but we like that!” As it turns out, it was the preferred way of working for Tremblay and her accomplices. “When we’re in the studio, Olivier and I sometimes look at each other and wonder if we’ve gone too far with an idea. And if the answer is yes, we keep it!
“Olivier was 17 when I started working with him,” she adds. “He takes me to new places, musically, and I would take him new places, too. We really ‘got’ each other, really quick, back then, more than 20 years ago… And without trying to sound pretentious, I think what he likes about working with me, is that I push him to his limits. He has free reign. We’re constantly bouncing off each other.”
The result of this creative joust is splendid. Uniquement pour toi is a record with lush orchestrations and a sense of urgency. “I’m good at that, urgency,” says Tremblay. “That’s because I like to only use songs that truly mean something on my albums.” Her album is a bit like a rollercoaster; at first joyous and dashing on “Je reste ici,” “Si belle” and the electro-pop “Paris” – the first song theye worked on, and one of only two that weren’t written by her in Nashville. “I pitched a ton of tunes to Olivier, sent him my notebooks, and he stuck with that one, which is actually a collage of four different songs for which he wrote a bridge. We did that one together, and we felt like writing the lyrics together, too – which is something we’d never done before.”
“I never even wanted to be a singer.”
Then comes the low point. “On verra demain” bends under the weight of life, and Tremblay wrote it while brooding. “I’ve always strived to end my songs on a positive note,” she says. “But the time came when I simply needed to write that I’m not doing well. Happens to everyone, really. You just need to take a breath, take it easy, and wait until it blows over. It’s important that people have a song to go to when they feel that way.”
Following the sad “On verra demain” and “Le plus beau des désastres,” it’s back tothe light with a couple of songs penned by Stéphane Lafleur (of Avec pas d’casque) which feel like a friend extending a helping hand. “I sometimes have a hard time writing words like that,” says Tremblay. “Stéphane managed to find that freshness.” In the album credits, she thanks him for “understanding my heart.
“When ‘Le jour va où tu le mènes’ arrives, it feels like springtime, fresh air, the return of happiness, and that’s what I’ve been going through for the last 10 months. Something inside of me has calmed down, and it feels good.” The album ends with one of the most beautiful songs in Termblay’s repertoire, “Comme un cadeau,” which she wrote for one of her sons, who was going through a depression. “It was the hardest thing I’ve ever experienced.”
After a career that spans 30 years (already?), Tremblay welcomes the release of this album despite the crisis through which we’re living. “Delay the release? We asked ourselves that question only once,” she says. “But as you know, I’ve never been a product, I’ve never made music to produce hits, I never even wanted to be a singer. I want nothing to do with marketing. My career has always been good, even though some radio stations never play me, and even though I’ve remained underground for 30 years.
“Seriously, I’m 50. Crisis or no crisis, it changes nothing. My only goal is for my music to reach people. Touring? I’m at a point in my career where touring sounds like a crazy idea. I’ve spent 32 years with my ass in a truck and sleeping in motels. I don’t mind giving fewer shows. I feel like I’m relaxing a bit for the first time.”