Aube is the title of Mehdi Cayenne’s third album, launched in November 2015. Aube (dawn), as in the promise of a new beginning, yes, but mainly “because of your lips’ rounded shape when you pronounce it,” explains the Ottawa singer-songwriter. “It’s a soft, feminine word, contrary to my previous album’s title, Na Na Boo Boo! I wanted to drift towards that kind of sensibility. There’s something cyclical about the album: dawn is not the conclusion of something, but the premise of a story.”
We are worlds away from the happy, quasi-punk mess of Oh Canada, the song that helped Mehdi turn many heads in many contests in 2014. He left the Festival en chanson de Petite-Vallée with four trophies and the Trille Or Gala with three… The many honours and recognitions keep piling up for the 28-year-old artist.
“The chords, mostly major, and frank, straightforward and open-minded lyrics. . . I’m drawn to such emotional nakedness.”
So, where does the change in tone on Aube come from? “I was looking for the same type of intensity and dynamic variations, but at a much lower decibel level,” says Cayenne. Rest assured of one thing, however: he hasn’t lost his unclassifiable and atypical nature. “I’ve kept some elements of musical eclecticism, surprise and anti-conformism,” he says. “But on this album, I sought inspiration in more candid classic works like Rodin, Van Gogh or… La Compagnie Créole!”
He Who Talks More Says Less
In almost all of his interviews, Cayenne mentions La Compagnie Créole. He says, “The chords, mostly major, and frank, straightforward and open-minded lyrics… I’m drawn to such emotional nakedness. It’s also expressed in the choice of topics. There’s something risky in that process, there’s no hiding behind something cool.”
Stemming from the thr Ottawa Valley’s slam poetry scene, Mehdi Cayenne (née Hamdad) writes texts that are as nimble as they are solid. To wit, his song “Pigeon-Voyageur”:
Nos mots sont des sons qui vont loin [Words are far-travelling sounds]
Mais qui n’expliquent rien [But they can’t explain anything]
Ainsi les poèmes meurent d’envie [That’s why poems are dying of envy]
de se lover dans nos mains [To curl up in our hands]
“Words designate a concept or an idea,” says Cayenne, “but the more we conceptualize things, the more we forget that reality is perceived before it is named.”
There’s something extremely sensual about the album, almost like a kiss blown to someone who is leaving. Is it a break-up album? Not really. Is it a tale of desire, a convoluted adventure, a tango of the impossible? Most definitely. But even on a song such as “Crève-coeur,” where Cayenne’s sometimes tortured singing is reminiscent of Jean Leloup’s, it’s suffering rather belligerence that rises to the surface: a howling animal lickng his wounds.
“It’s true that I’m more pained than angry,” says Cayenne. “I’m interested in all the reasons for a relationship, before, during, and after. I also harbour a desire to intermingle the sacred and the profane. The carnal side of things, but without forgetting the clumsy candor of a catechism class.”
The Story of Rivière
There’s grandiose sentiments, the ideal of love, and there’s the coffee pot you set on an element of the stove. Small gestures of daily life that exist alongside great mystical surges; that’s all part of Mehdi Cayenne’s DNA. “I arrived in Québec as an infant because of civil war,” he says. “My mother is French. I’ve lived in Montréal, Moncton, Ottawa, New York City, briefly, but I was born in Algeria. My grandfather and 14 generations before him are Sufi imams. Sufism is the mystical branch of Islam. You find the same idea in Prévert, the intermingling two poles that seem to be worlds apart, uniting poetry and realism, joy and pain. “
The Cayenne in his stage name comes from the Cayenne prison, the backdrop to the life of Henri Charrière, an author Mehdi discovered when he read Papillon. Except here, the prison he’s trying to avoid is the one we sometimes build in our own minds. This, then, yields a well-fitting name for an artist who does things his own way, without ever closing doors and, so far, totally independently.
When asked where he sees himself 10 years from now, Cayenne says he’ll be happy if he’s found a way to re-invent himself. What makes him positively jubilant is the fact of “anticipating an artistic evolution, because when you look at it dispassionately, being an artist is quite monastic. You write songs, albums, you tour, then you go home and start over. I just I find a way to not repeat myself.”
That’s what he achieved with Aube, an album that’s like a novel composed of poems, the story of a narrator and of Rivière, who is akin to the spirit of a wandering love. “There was never such linear narration on my previous albums,” says Cayenne. “Aube is an absentee ode, because Rivière is at once omnipresent but never there. You wonder who or what Rivière is? Rivière is that which upsets you yet, from the inside, saves your life.”
Watch “Je te veux,” performed by Mehdi Cayenne onstage at the Mercury Lounge in Ottawa during the launch party for his album Aube on Nov. 4, 2015.