The last time Marie-Mai was on the cover of Words & Music, she posed with her musical and life partner, Fred St-Gelais. The title of that story? Hand in Hand in Hand in Hand. It goes to show how deep a hole was left in her career after their break-up in January of 2016. As if that wasn’t enough, Marie-Mai also severed her ties with her management team (Productions J) and her record label (Musicor). Literally overnight, she lost the three pillars of her career that had been with her from the start. So alone, without a huge machine behind her, the singer healed herself, to release her sixth album this week, Elle et moi. Here’s our no-holds-barred interview with her.

Marie-MaiThis is the very first interview you’ve given since you wiped your slate clean. The first of a long series of interviews to coincide with the release of Elle et moi. What do you expect from the new promotional cycle?
I’m still pondering what I’m going to say, and how. Elle et moi is an incredibly personal album from beginning to end. Definitely my most personal album ever. I’ve never devoted an entire album to a period of my life as I just did. This record is like my diary while I was going through all of this turmoil. I had a lot to say, chaotic things as well as beautiful things. I also felt the need to let people know my side of what I went through. People imagined what situation I was in, based on what leaked in the media. I needed to tell my version of it. This record is an open window on my life during these last few years. Each song reveals a little more about me, and I know people will have questions after listening to them. Did she really do that? Did she really feel that way? I still don’t know what I’m going to say during interviews, where I’m going to place the limits.

Your album opens right at the core of everything with the first single, “Empire. You sing, “Jamais été aussi bas, jamais vu ma vie sans toi” (“I’ve never been so low, never saw my life without you”), before moving on to the chorus: “J’ai un empire à reconstruire” (I’ve got an empire to rebuild”). How demolished were you by the events?

“Empire” is the first song I wrote for this album. Every single insecurity I felt is in that song. I no longer had a record label, since my contract ended when M came out in 2014. The contract with my management team was also about to expire. I was facing nothingness. And I had to go in a studio without Fred for the first time. I was scared. I was questioning whether I actually was a bona fide songwriter. I worked the same way for 11 years. All that turmoil made me compromise my self-confidence. Without Fred, without my fans, without a stage, without a team around me… I felt friggin’ small.

You and Fred intertwined love and work for more than 11 years. Toward the end, knowing his absence would have a deep impact on your career, did Marie-Mai the artist try to convince Marie-Mai the lover to save your relationship?
Music was central in our lives, but it wasn’t at the core of our relationship. When everything was fine, we always said we’d keep making music together even if we split up as a couple. That’s easy to say when everything is fine, and you’re going 180 miles per hour. What with recording albums, collaborating with other artists, touring, and showing up in the media, you don’t have time to think about that stuff. You’re under the illusion that everything’s fine. I was 18 when I met Fred. I’m 30 now. At a certain point, I wondered who I really was, and whether what I was doing was aligned with the woman I’d become. It’s as if living in a suitcase for so long made me forget where I belonged. But life goes on. I’ve moved on. Fred too. He has a gorgeous girlfriend and, besides, I don’t want to be constantly talking about him. This whole situation is a bit unfair for Fred, since I’m the one being interviewed. We spoke recently. I told him I would stop publicly addressing the couple we used to be out of respect for him. But I will always praise him and give him all the credit he deserves. Before I met him, I wrote poems in my daily planner. I didn’t even know I could write songs.

How about musically? How has his departure changed the composition for this new album?
Fred and I were a good team because we came from totally different universes. He was always a rock dude, and I was a pop dudette. I liked Green Day and Blink 182, but I’m a pop girl from the tip of my hair to my tippy toes. So removing Fred from the equation means removing the guitars. That’s the main difference. It’s not better or worse, it’s different. But you know, many times during the composition process, I would wonder: “What would Fred do?” He helped me with my lyrics as well as my melodies. I tend to over-complicate melodies. Fred would work with me to simplify them and make them more efficient.

Marie-MaiYou also had the opportunity to work with new collaborators in the studio. How did you go about choosing them?
I went to L.A. for a writing session. I wanted to flex my songwriting muscles, which were going a little soft after being unused for so long. Cut off from the outside world, far from my daily reality, I wrote without any pressure. One day, I was paired with a British composer, Oliver Som [who’s co-written with James Blunt and Robbie Williams]. We wrote an excellent song for another artist. We clicked. We quickly found a chemistry that was very similar to the one I had with Fred. It made me feel really good. I understood I could find my bearings again with another composer. Then we didn’t talk for about a year. When I was ready to go back in the studio, he came to Québec and we made the album together.

How much do you need a composer/producer to work with you?
When I’m writing, I need someone of whim I can bounce ideas. Send in demos, get his feedback, improve the song. I often start with a beat, onto which I can hang a melody. I needed Oliver to flesh out my songs and challenge me. That’s how I work. My boyfriend, David Laflèche, stepped in toward the end to improve the mix.

Throughout this whole creative process, did you think about the Marie-Mai sound? How do you see it, in 2018? Do you listen to what Katy Perry or Taylor Swift are doing, for example?
I never wrote music thinking about what others were doing. My mix of rock and pop was never even close to what Katy Perry might do. This record is no different. I like the Euro pop of Robyn, but I can’t say that there are singers that inspire me, musically. I admit Katy Perry has some good songs, but you’ll never hear me say, “We must do something like Katy did.” In the end, when I listen to this new album, I believe it sounds like me. The words are the same, the melodies are similar. People will recognize my signature sound. It’s my strength, my universe. I wrote this record to regain my self-confidence.

When did you find your self-confidence?
Gradually, every time I would finish a new song. When I get to that place, anything that makes me feel insecure vanishes. When you’re stripped of what defines you as a person, you lose your senses. I found mine back one song at a time, and even more so when I was in the studio with Oliver. It felt like things were happening, like nothing had stopped. That’s when I understood that my career wasn’t over, it was just paused. That’s what I sing about on “Exister.” From that point on, every step forward brought me closer to who I am today. I want to keep doing what I do, to inspire people through my lyrics. And I think I can touch them with such a personal album. We all go through periods of self-doubt and existential crises, for different reasons. I had to go through it to learn, and go forward.

What did you learn?
To be myself. Learning to live with the duality between the Marie-Mai everyone knows and Marie-Mai Bouchard, the woman nobody knows. Marie-Mai is like a concrete pillar. Marie-Mai is not allowed to feel insecure when she sings at the Bell Centre, at the Stade de France with Johnny Hallyday, or at the Olympic Games ceremony. But for Bouchard, it’s the opposite. She’s shy and insecure. She goes through a ton of emotions. That’s what the song “Elle et moi” is about. For a very long time, I was convinced I couldn’t be both. Marie-Mai took over Bouchard. The only side of me people know is Marie-Mai. And that star system creates a whole bunch of falsehoods. I let too many people say stuff about me that wasn’t true, and that won’t happen anymore.

Like what?
I read somewhere that I was a diva. That is so not true. And I wouldn’t react because Marie-Mai was beyond that. When Bouchard had an opinion on something, Marie-Mai wouldn’t share it, just to avoid upsetting part of her audience. The thing is, I don’t have to be some kind of ever-smiling and kind wonder woman. Tons of people told me what to do, or what to say. Now, I put my foot down. I just got back from taping The Launch in Toronto, a music show on CTV where I’m a judge. I can guarantee you that the people there saw a woman who’s at ease with herself, and not afraid to speak her mind.

Is that why you decided to change your management team and record label?
Prod J really was the best team for me in those early years. I needed a team that would propel the boat as fast as I wanted it. And yes, they protected my output. It’s normal, too, they controlled my image, they wanted it to be big. The main reason I left was artistic. I need 20 people at the table to take my projects to fruition. Prod J no longer had the staff required. As far as Musicor is concerned, that’s a more delicate subject. It’s not easy, because I know my departure will have consequences in the media, but I take responsibility. It’s what I wanted for my personal growth.

You mean that by leaving Musicor, which is owned by Quebecor, you will no longer benefit from the convergence of all of the holding’s media outlets?
I’m not complaining. There’s worse than that in life, but that remains a fact. Nowadays, the only time the Journal de Montréal will mention me is when they comment on some of my tweets. They know I’m good for clicks. But I’m not angry. Other doors are opening. I’m going to be on Tout le monde en parle. I’m on The Launch [which airs in early 2019]. I refuse to let my choices be dictated by the possible media consequences. I need to feel my heart is in the right place.

That’s much to your credit. Thank you for being so frank.
The operative word is transparency.