Patrice Michaud burst onto the scene with his second album, Le feu de chaque jour, and its massive single “Mécaniques générales” (which won the Prix de la chanson SOCAN in 2014) – now, he’s back with a third album where he’s allowed himself a few bold moves without turning his back on his signature simplicity. We flipped through his Almanach with him.
Success is a strange, savage beast. Most artists spend their whole career hunting it down, but once they’re face to face with it, some freeze and let it run away from them. When singer-songwriter Patrice Michaud crossed paths with it after “Mécaniques générales,” he stared it down and immediately tamed it.
“Popularity – and I say that tongue in cheek, because it’s not like people stop me on the street all the time – isn’t something that bothers me at all,” says Michaud. “I make music and release it on records in the hope that people will listen to my songs and come see me onstage. Art for art’s sake is not my thing! I seek a connection with the audience, and even though it was sometimes tough to manage work and private life in the past few years, I don’t regret a single thing.”
Michaud’s candour could surprise some, but it’s precisely that simplicity and directness that’s made him one of Québec audiences’ favourite artists. Michaud, like his music, is frank and accessible. His teenage-looking face sits atop a beanpole figure that bears no resemblance to any kind of rock-star stereotype. He has a knack for creating intimate and timeless songs, that are nonetheless anchored in their epoch, and that grab your heart before settling in your mind.
“When people do stop me in the street, I always get the impression they only half recognize me,” he admits. “Often, they’ll sing a bit of one of my songs to me, and I love it, because it means I’ve moved them with what I do in life, with the songs I write, not because of how I look. They don’t like me because I appear on game shows or talk shows on TV, but because of the one thing I want to do in life, and that makes me really happy.”
“I’ll never go in a studio thinking, ‘OK, I need “Mécaniques générales” number two.’ There’s no shorter path to disappointment!”
So Michaud certainly isn’t complaining about the fact that he struck a chord in such a vast audience with “Mécaniques générales.” And although past success is never a guarantee of future success, he also knows that his excellent current single, “Kamikaze,” is in heavy rotation on both commercial and public radio. This first impression bodes well for his upcoming Almanach album.
“I’ll never go in a studio thinking, ‘OK, I need “Mécaniques générales” number two.’ There’s no shorter path to disappointment! Still, I have to admit that it somewhat changed my approach, because it allowed me to develop my interest towards the efficiency of pop songs. It basically is with that song that I’ve grown from the pared-down folk sound of my early days. But let’s be clear, ‘Kamikaze’ has nothing in common with it, one way or the other. Frankly, I wasn’t even sure it was the right material for a single.”
A Fresh Start
Michaud is the first to admit it: Almanach is his most heterogeneous album to date. He hasn’t abandoned the folk-rock sound he’s been perfecting since he began his career, but one can still sense an openness to new sounds and new ways of doing things. First, a desire to groove, but foremost, a desire to challenge himself, one that his new collaborator, jack-of-all-trades producer Philippe Brault, understood right away.
“If I compare myself to certain people in my entourage, I can readily admit I’m not much of a music connoisseur,” Michaud admits. “But I’ve caught up in the last two years; I probably listened to more music during that time than in the rest of my entire life! I’ve tuned my ear to production values, and also quite a bit to the search for certain tonalities. Before I started, I spoke to Philippe about what I was looking for, and a lot about my favourite band, Doctor Dog [a Philadelphia band that’s very influenced by the sounds of the ‘60s and ‘70s]. His face lit up immediately, because he understood that we were going to have fun.”
But although the recording process was fun, the birth of Almanach wasn’t easy. Inspiration just wasn’t there, and Michaud was left wondering when he would actually be able to write again, until a proverbial fairy godmother crossed his path. “A new friend (TV host France Beaudoin), who I call my benefactor, lent me her cabin so I could retreat to write, and it really helped,” says Michaud. “That’s where I created, quite rapidly, the song ‘Anse Blanche.’” That magnificent and contemplative song features the guitar work of Brad Barr (of The Barr Brothers) and Michaud’s decidedly very apt writing, where he sings that the St-Laurent river is his “Main” (referring to Montréal’s St-Laurent Boulevard, dubbed “The Main”).
Also, in order to flex his composer muscles, he also found inspiration in others, notably deciding to do a French adaptation of the song “Temazcal” by the American supergroup Monsters of Folk (M Ward, Conor Oberst, Mike Mogis of Bright Eyes and Jim James of My Morning Jacket). “Thing is, I don’t speak English, so I adapted their song in a very liberal way,” says Michaud. “It was a simple writing exercise, but when we actually produced the album, I thought it fit perfectly at the tail end of it.”
It’s been said before: Michaud has a knack for finding the right phrase. His carefully and passionately crafted lyrics are at the very heart of his approach. But don’t you go congratulating him for the magical phrase around which “Kamikaze” is built (“Love is not a thing / It’s a place”). It was lifted straight out of Réjean Ducharme’s novel Le Nez qui Voque. Call it poetic sampling.
“It’s not the first time I nod to a writer, but here it’s the very core of the song, so we needed to clear it with the publisher, Gallimard,” says Michaud. “It’s something I launched in the universe without any hopes of success. I actually believed that the odds were 90% that I wouldn’t even get a response, 7% I would be denied, and a small possibility that it would work. And they said yes! It means a lot to me, because Ducharme is a huge influence for me.”
The People’s Almanach
On his third album, Michaud admits being at peace with the idea that he “writes the same song over and over,” and he also introduces new voices. There’s Ariane Moffatt’s voice, majestic and ethereal on the duet “Les terres des la Couronne,” and also that of Loïc, his four-year-old son, who is the narrator on “Tout le monde le saura,” a grave yet luminous text that akin to a prayer for an uncertain future.
“I’d promised myself I wouldn’t include a spoken word piece on Almanach because I’d done so on the previous two albums<” says Michaud. “But since I rarely keep my word, I ended up doing it with that text, but I didn’t want to read it myself. We tried all kinds of versions: male, female, polyphonic… and after testing it with my son, I found that the piece took on a whole new meaning. He probably didn’t understand what he was saying, but he did it with an immense smile, and I was very moved by his interpretation.”
It’s also from this piece that the album’s title comes, the strange Almanach which Loïc pronounces like it’s some kind of exotic fruit. “I have a love-hate relationship with my song titles,” says Michaud, when asked about the meaning of that title. “That’s because I’m the biggest fan of titles, in all art forms, and that’s made me extremely exacting about my own. This one came late in the process, but I like Almanach, it’s a beautiful and slightly intriguing word. The almanac was a book that compiled important information on harvests, moon cycles and weather patterns, as well as anecdotes, recipes and useless news. In other words, it was a grab-bag of the practical and the useless, both sacred and profane, and it was originally distributed by door-to-door salesmen. In the end, it reminded me of what I do quite a bit…”
The image is indeed quite appropriate: one easily imagines Patrice Michaud as a door-to-door poet, wandering country roads to pitch his songs to the good people. He’ll settle for wandering from venue to venue during his upcoming tour, which begins in February – and which we imagine will be a long and fruitful one.