How do you know when your childhood is over? Is it when you start to sing like an adult? Is it when you start to bite into life with a grown-up outlook and vocabulary? Maybe we should ask Nicolas Gémus, who, standing on his 22 years of existence, plays music as if he’s already had a few lifetimes of experience. He’s in his prime, but he cultivates that prime like a flower – one that’s already very tall.
“I was 15 when I wrote the first song on the album,” says Gémus about Hiboux, his debut LP, released in June by La Tribu. “Then, in 2016, while I was at the École de la chanson (in Granby, Québec), I found my writing style.” Only when it became necessary to sort through all that, and cherry-pick the best drafts, did he enlist the help of producer Stéphane Rancourt.
For awhile already, he’s moved on, in thought and songwriting, from the buoyancy of youth. That casual carelessness has slowly drifted toward a much more demanding awareness of reality. “At the Petite-Vallée Camp en chanson, I wrote “Girouette,” a rather lighthearted song, but I felt this huge emotional charge,” he remembers. “I went through pretty rough times in my personal life. That made me want to be truly authentic in what I offer. Going to the logical conclusion of a song allowed me to make sense of my life and start anew.”
École nationale de la chanson’s Mario Chénard and Frédéric Baron helped Nicolas hone is writing skills. “Mario explained that I should write choruses that evolve, in the sense that they’re the same, except for a few words that are different [each time]. That led to me writing ‘Bunker de tes bras’ [which won the Chanson coup de cœur SOCAN Award at the 2017 Granby Festival],” Gémus explains. “The school really focused on helping us find our artistic personas.”
A guiding principle, a direction, continuity; those are important concerns for a songwriter, but, as Gémus says, “I was lucky. Tire le coyote and Jonathan Harnois happened to become my mentors.”
Tire le coyote was the guest of honour at the tail end of his year at l’École de la chanson, and Gémus got to perform for him. “We talked about my song ‘Derrière le bruit.’ When I released ‘Bunker de tes bras,’ he introduced me to [record label] La Tribu. He then offered to become my writing coach,” says the young man.
Jonathan Harnois is a novelist, first, but he’s also worked with the singer-songwriter Dumas, among others. Harnois also got involved with Gémus to “unblock” certain lyrics that were problematic. “I was lucky to have access to this creative bubble,” says Gémus. “Benoit [Tire le coyote] is very constructive without being stern, while Jonathan has a sensibility that’s very complementary to mine.”
Gémus is banking on his authenticity to attract the attention of the public, in a market that he believes is over-saturated. “I need to project something that is true to who I am,” he says. “I am the album. I gave it all I had.”
Even though the Iles-de-la-Madeleine native is only in his early twenties, he wanted to avoid being a victim, artistically speaking, of his own immaturity. “People say I tackle themes that are atypical for someone my age,” he says, laughing.
And he did indeed do everything he could to leave behind the juvenile nature of his early drafts, and gravitate towards more universal themes. “It took me a while before I got to the point where it wasn’t just about writing songs, but also finding out what I wanted to say,” says Gémus. “Then my songs became meaningful.”
Since then, his songs became more like impulses. “A song will happen spontaneously through a chorus or a verse, and then I’ll take a step back and find that song’s heart and soul,” he says. “And then begins the tortuous process of finishing that song,” he adds, giggling. “‘L’amour et la peur’ came out in three hours; but most of the time, I need three hours to write a single sentence.”
However, he does like being surprised by whatever comes to emerge when he’s resting. “It’s a bit early for me to know what I’d like to become, but I’m a fan of 70s folk music,” says Gémus. “I also like razor-sharp guitar playing, and lyrics like those of Daniel Bélanger and Richard Desjardins. Now that my album is out, things are quiet for me. I’ll play as an opener and tour a bit, but I’m in post-storm mode.”
Thoroughness and integrity are the foundations of a long career, according to the singer-songwriter, and he believes a lifelong career “is something that’s still possible,” he says. “Each album will be its own challenge. People tell me that the second one is the hardest, but I believe that as far as imposing some level of difficulty on myself, I’ve already done the best I can,” says the self-professed perfectionist.