When we reach him on the phone, Matt Holubowski is in his favourite place in the world: the tour van. He might not be very far from Montréal (tonight’s concert is in Sorel, about an hour by car northeast of the city), but hitting the road, even for just a few kilometres, makes him feel at ease. He’s always loved to travel and visited several continents – sometimes as a humanitarian volunteer – and is only now starting to realize that his trade as a musician could take him to places he’s never even thought of before. “My God! If you only knew…” he says. “That’s my ultimate dream. For now, I’m focusing on concerts in Québec, so we rarely leave for more than a few days at a time, but I’d love to be on the road for weeks, or even months.”
One can easily imagine that Holubowski’s music could travel around the globe. His ethereal folk rock has often been compared to that of Patrick Watson, and has a universal and timeless quality. It surely can’t hurt that folksingers are quite popular of late, to wit the fact that Bob Dylan recently won the Nobel Prize in Literature. “It’s funny, we were just listening to Dylan’s Desire in the van,” says Holubowski. “I’d be lying if I said he hasn’t been a major influence! To me, he’s right up there on a pedestal, a role model for any aspiring songwriter.”
As a matter of fact, it was by singing a Dylan song that Holubowski most impressed everyone when he was a contestant on La Voix in 2015. Mind you, he didn’t pick an obvious song, such as “Like a Rolling Stone” or “Knocking on Heaven’s Door,” but the lesser-known ballad “Girl from the North Country.” “It’s funny you should mention that,” he says. “Initially, the one I really wanted to sing was “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall,” but it’s a hard song, and it’s almost seven minutes long. That’s when someone suggested “Girl from the North Country,” which is better known because Johnny Cash covered it. They told me it would connect with the audience more.”
Nowadays, this type of issue doesn’t bother Holubowski anymore. When he recorded his album Solitudes, the people at Audiogram gave him carte blanche, never trying to make him more “radio-friendly” or commercially accessible. “I have nothing against light pop music, but to me, a song must have a certain depth,” he says. “You don’t have to be Baudelaire, but you can surely do better than ‘Baby, baby’… It might be Dylan’s influence, since we’re on the topic, but to me, lyrics are vital; that’s always what I notice first in any music.”
If there’s a thread in the songs on Solitudes, it’s the theme of identity. The identity of the artist who questions the concept of notoriety – notably on “L’imposteur,” one of two French songs on the album – and the identity of a young Québécois, whose father was a Polish immigrant and whose mother was a Francophone Québécoise, and who grew up almost exclusively in English in the town of Hudson. The album’s title is a reference to Hugh MacLennan’s novel Two Solitudes, a book that was a mainstay on his nightstand for a long time. Holubowski even evokes a third solitude: his, the solitude of bilingual Québecois who are sitting between two chairs. “It might sound strange, but it was while I was abroad that I started thinking about our identity here,” says Holubowski. “Especially during a trip to Serbia where, let’s be honest, the question of national identity is quite heavier than it is here!”
Yet identity is a fluid concept. Even though he readily admits he didn’t know much about Francophone Québécois music up until very recently, he’s actually catching up in an almost bulimic fashion. “My first contact with music was Eminem, and I do think it has influenced my writing,” says Holubowski. “I think my French isn’t that good, but I’m getting to love that language through the lyrics of artists such as Richard Desjardins, whose writing just blow me away. I also listen to a lot of Martin Léon – that man is a genius at arrangements – and also Safia Nolin, Philippe Brach, Antoine Corriveau…”
Might we expect to hear more French songs on his future albums? Possibly, but for the time being, Matt hopes his songs will travel, no matter in what language he’s singing. And based on the positive reaction to his music, especially in English-speaking Canada, there’s very little chance that he’ll actually be doomed to a life of solitude.