Through his ultra-realistic and deeply touching stories, Matiu has created his own furrow of protest songs, far from grand political theories, and close to what makes the people of his community, Maliotenam, tick.
“I’m interested in the human side of people,” says Matiu. “I observe what goes on around me, and I express my humble point of view as sincerely as I can,” says the 32-year-old Innu artist, who sings in French, English, and in his native tongue, on his debut album Petikat – which means “slowly” in Innu.
Matiu (a.k.a. Matthew Vachon) has a raw and uninhibited writing style that’s disarmingly natural, and shines through in his music as much as it does in an interview. The opening song on Petikat, “Jean-Guy,” attests to his talent as a lyricist, and his ease in conveying his daily life. It’s a nod to a cousin who had to overcome drug problems, and it presents the dilemma that many people face in his community, a reservation of 1,300 people located near Sept-Îles, about 10 hours Northeast of Montréal.
“We have to choose between staying on the reservation, or leaving,” says Matiu. “We’re confined to an area about two square kilometers, we don’t see much… And often, people aren’t even aware of their potential. All they can see is a job as a carpenter, in a mine, or at Wal-Mart. You might find a kid who loves video games, but that’s all it’s ever going to be, a game. No one will ever tell him that he could be the one designing the game!”
In a way, “Jean-Guy” is also a discussion Matiu had with himself. Captivated by music ever since he bought himself a guitar in his early twenties, it took a while for him to believe in his own capability. “I didn’t know where to go, what doors to knock on,” he says. “I was quite disconnected.”
Supported by friends who constantly congratulated him, and spurred him on, the singer-songwriter participated in the second season of the TV show Le Rythme, “a kind of Star Académie for First Nations,” that aired on the APTN channel in 2016. One of the judges of this competition was Steve Jolin, the founder and director of the labels 7ième Ciel and 117 Records. “He really dug what I was doing,” says Matiu. “He didn’t sign me on the spot, but he followed what I was doing.” In the months that followed, the young man proved a standout performer at the Festival international de la chanson de Granby and in the Chansons rassembleuses component of Petite-Vallée. “He saw that I was interested in music,” says Matiu, “and that my interest was genuine, so he signed me to 117 and we got our subsidy… From that moment on, I had no choice but to make an album!”
“I call it bipolar folk.”
After breaking onto the scene with his first, eponymous EP in August 2017, Matiu has now spent the last few months working on Petikat. For this carpenter by trade, and father of a five-year-old daughter, the challenges were plentiful. “My work in life is doing renos with my bag of nails and steel-toed boots,” he says. “Let’s just say I don’t have a habit of opening myself up that much! And there I was, having to write songs, not knowing if they were any good, or even relevant… Plus I didn’t want to offend anyone in my community, and I wanted to avoid making big statements. Sure, there’s a level of protest in my songs, but nothing extreme or nasty.”
Co-produced with Luc Charest – a member of the now-defunct band Kalembourg, whom he met “in another life” (when he worked as a stagehand in Sept-Îles over a decade ago) – Matiu’s debut full-length album is firmly rooted in the North American folk tradition. “I call it bipolar folk,” he says. “I’m very much a guitar-and-voice guy, I was raised with Cat Stevens and Neil Young. But when the time came for me to find my style for this album, I didn’t want to hide my other influences. It goes from ZZ Top on ‘Nuitsheuakan’ to Red Hot Chili Peppers on ‘Far Away.’”
So far, Matiu’s bipolar folk has made an impact on the youth in his village. But his music has yet to make an impact on neighbouring communities, at least not as much as another Maliotenam band – Kashtin – did 30 years ago. “Where I’m from, people who go see a show at the community centre want to dance,” he says. “I rarely see shows with chairs, or other types of events that would fit with my type of music. Ultimately, it’s a bit as if I was offering a new style. People often say that what I do is ‘refreshing.””
Just back from a four-gigs-in-four days “tour,” including an album launch performance during Coup de cœur francophone in Montréal, Matiu remains very realistic about his ambition. “I for real don’t have any expectations,” he says. “And besides, I don’t have a lot of free time to embark on a lengthy tour. What matters the most to me is to stay close to my tribe, and the landscapes that inspire me.”