It would be easy to believe that Martin Léon found a way of re-inventing himself by becoming a film composer. This would ignore the type of man he is, the lover of poetic and musical sounds.
“Did I trip on the love of words that steered me towards songwriting in the first place?” he asks. “That was certainly part of it.” The truth is that Léon had been dreaming of becoming a film composer for a long time after studying contemporary music at the Université de Montréal, and a stint with the great Ennio Morricone in his twenties. Trying to explain the fine distinctions between songwriting and film scoring also wouldn’t be much help in trying to understand a thinking musician, for whom everything is inter-related in a way that’s simple and complex at the same time.
“I think that, in the end, I’m trying to identify the narrative elements of music, whether it be through a song or a film,” says Léon. “I’m always telling a story and trying to find sounds that give a colour to what exists in the spaces between words. I’m trying to clothe the invisible.”
When he was at the top of his game with Les atomes (2010), his fourth recording of songs, Léon was hired to score Christian Laurence’s Le journal d’Aurélie Laflamme and Philippe Falardeau’s Monsieur Lazhar. Other publicly and critically acclaimed Martin Léon film scores include Anne Émond’s Les êtres chers and Philippe Falardeau’s The Good Lie and Guibord s’en va-t-en guerre (winner of the Best Original Music award at the 2016 Gala du cinéma Québécois).
“All of this happened more or less at the same time at an incredible pace,” says Léon, “and I could only manage thanks to my musicians, the composition assistants I met in my songwriting days – the arranger/pianist Alexis Dumais and the arranger/guitarist Hugo Mayrand.”
“I believe the composer should take part in the film’s final sound mix. He has something to say all the way to that stage. Otherwise he’s just a content supplier.”
Becoming a film composer was a major move that forced Léon to re-assess his own role as a professional musician. He admits being thrilled with finding himself at the service of other creators. “As a songwriter, I make 90 percent of all decisions,” he says. “Right now, that would be too much for me, it would require too much attention.” Hiding behind a collective undertaking such as a motion picture, and no longer being the sole creative engine, has had a liberating effect on the composer.
The sense of creative freedom of the past has left traces, however, bringing Léon to believe that a film composer must retain a strong musical identity by leaving his mark on the stories he’s scoring, and taking an active part in the various sound-related stages of film production.
“I believe the composer should take part in the film’s final sound mix,” he says. “He has something to say all the way to that stage. Otherwise he’s nothing more than a content supplier, a role I’m not interested in playing. I like to believe that the film composer is chosen based on his capacity to bring along a specific, signature universe of sound: An Alberto Iglesias with an Almodovar; an Alexandre Desplat who doesn’t write for Wes Anderson the same way he does for Roman Polanski. These kinds of composers inspire me.”
Léon has most recently worked on the soundtracks for two movies due to be released this summer, one for Jean-François Pouliot’s comic film Les 3 p’tits cochons 2, and one for André Forcier’s Embrasse-moi comme tu m’aimes. Each film comes with its own variety of experiences, linked to new people and new environments, in spite of the fact that both scores are being produced in the same home studio. At the beginning of each new venture, Léon immerses himself in the director’s visual world, soaking it up like a sponge. He’ll read the script, watch the rushes over and over again, travel to shooting locations, and screen the director’s previous work. This modus operandi proved essential for André Forcier’s Embrasse-moi comme tu m’aimes, a film by a director with a uniquely poetic cinematic style. That total immersion steered Léon in a specific direction, for this film depicting the dark years of the Second World War in Quebec.
The scoring of Jean-François Pouliot’s Les 3 p’tits cochons 2 was a more up-and-down experience. Having been approached by the director once the shooting had been completed, Léon started on the laborious process of identifying that comedy’s theme. After a two-month trial and error period, he felt discouraged, and wondered whether he really was the composer that Pouliot was looking for. Pouliot having confirmed his trust in him, Léon continued to search for a catchy theme. When the time of the final presentation came, he called on two composer friends in order to secretly present two music themes by them, along with his own. “I didn’t know how to get out of that situation,” he says. “If the director chose those pieces, I was going to tell him that I wasn’t his man in spite of what he thought. Amazingly, the only cue he selected out of the lot was the one I had composed. You have no idea what a relief it was!”
Exhausted by those overlapping contracts, Léon is taking some time off to do things right and re-group. He’s planning to write a film script in his spare time and to explore… until Christmas. Though he has no plans of writing another solo album, he knows he’ll return to songwriting when he feels the urge again. “I know the time will come,” he says.
For now, his focus remains on the movies. And also on enjoying life. “My deepest fundamental values are not to be able to say I wrote 50 soundtracks and sold 350,000 recordings,” he says. “That used to be the case, but not anymore. When I’m on my deathbed, I want to be able to look back with pride on the relationships I had with people around me. I’ll want to have been a man who took care of his inner life. I want to nourish others, and myself, with what’s alive around me, no matter what form that life takes. That doesn’t mean embarking on a journey; not at all. My life is right here… I want to embrace this next step of my life, and be genuinely available to it, instead of with a disorienting “sell-sell-sell” approach that keeps me awake at night…”
To clothe the invisible, you must first know how to live.