“To me, each new album is an opportunity to go through an identity crisis of sorts,” says Mélissa Laveaux from Paris, where she’s been living for about a decade. For this Ottawa-raised young woman, self-examination is the heart of creativity. “On my first album, I was discovering who I really am, I was still looking for my own voice. The second one was about a rupture, and the difficulty of communicating – most notably with my parents, with whom I lived through a bona fide rupture when I came out as a lesbian.”
Born in Montréal, to parents who’d fled the Duvalier regime, Laveaux was raised in the nation’s capital. She split her musical education between her father’s Haitian records and Top 40 radio (“I’d listen to Kacey Kasem religiously,” she says), before moving on to Joni Mitchell’s folk and Broken Social Scene’s indie rock.
Signed to the No Format label (responsible for records by Oumou Sangaré, Nicolas Repac and Gonzales, to name a few), she released her first album, Camphor and Copper, in 2008. After tinkering with a blues-tinged, folk-rock sound, developing a signature style, and offering surprising cover versions – of songs by Elliott Smith to Eartha Kitt to Weezer – Laveaux was compelled to re-discover her roots after a trip to her homeland in 2016.
She dreams of re-visiting the songs she discovered on the albums of Martha Jean-Claude, a Haitian artist whose activism forced her to flee to Cuba in 1952. “Obviously, I can’t recreate the sound of Martha Jean-Claude, who used to work with an Afro-Cuban orchestra,” says Laveaux. “But I can play guitar, and I know how to make pop music, so I used my strengths to create something new.”
The artist – who confesses to singing in Creole “with a thick accent” – studied a repertoire of folkloric and popular melodies from the era of the American occupation of Haiti, around the beginning of the 1900s. This meant exploring vaudou (a.k.a. voodoo, or vodun) culture, a space of freedom and an instrument of resistance, both to Yankee imperialism and the social determinism of her family. “Even though part of Haitian culture, that of my parents, is quite conservative, there is a lot of freedom within vaudou, and even queer characters have their place in it,” she says, while referencing the documentary Des Hommes et des Dieux by Anne Lescot and Laurence Magloire, which examined that subject.
The end result, her album Radyo Siwèl, presents a very personal vision of those songs, creating modern, guitar-based pop that’s respectful of tradition. “When I sing to an audience in the diaspora, whether it’s in London or Paris, people are very indulgent because they’re nostalgic,” she says. “The real test will be playing them in Port-au-Prince, this summer, for people who are likely going to be much more critical!”
That will be a first for Laveaux, who, in the wake of signing to Montréal’s Bonsound label, will also play Montréal, Toronto and New York, where she’s started creating a buzz. That’s thanks in part to the protest aspect of her art. “Let’s just say that the president is almost promoting my album by talking about ‘shithole countries,’” she says, laughing. Since her record came out, “I’ve been getting as many interview requests from political blogs than I have from music blogs!”
Does that mean Radyo Siwèl is a protest album? “It wasn’t meant that way initially, but the context has made it so,” says Laveaux. “I do feel a duty to remember, but I don’t want to become the flag-bearer of a cause. I’m not a historian or a politician, I’m a singer, and all I want is to place Haitian music on a podium.”