From his first timid steps at Café Sarajevo to his recent world tours, Patrick Watson has always made sure that he preserved a freedom of thought that has enabled him to build bridges between Québec’s Franco and Anglo cultures.
The walls inside Montréal’s Café Sarajevo might have been made of stone, everyone knew they had a soul of their own. For years and years, they had vibed to the rhythm of the clientele’s bohemian lifestyle. These stone walls hosted gypsy swing bands, poetry readings and even tears of joy when Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic was ousted. But on this particular evening of the winter of 2003, it was a ball-cap-wearing kid that was serenading them while tickling the ivories.
The now-closed dive, located on Clark Street, just below Sherbrooke, was packed for an unplugged” concert by Patrick Watson – a regular there by now. Watson had just released his second album, Just Another Ordinary Day. People were barely beginning to grasp the extent of his musical talent.
Thirteen years later, he’s been around the world many times, on the heels of his four subsequent albums, the latest of which is Love Songs for Robots, launched in May of 2015. Ethereal and refined, this collection of songs rises above the melée. The piano chords, electro-tinged rhythms and Watson’s dulcet tones define the edges of an enticing musical landscape.
“You know, when you think about it, my approach to music hasn’t really changed,” according to the singer’s own analysis. “The Sarajevo was a place to go crazy and have fun. Back then I was still trying to figure out what to do with my compositions. I didn’t even know if I really wanted to sing, or if I was going to keep my stuff instrumental. It’s still true today: I still wonder what direction to give my music.”
“We don’t need to put red or blue hats on people’s heads. It’s completely stupid. Dividing Anglophones and Francophones is totally pointless.”
Just before our meeting, Watson had spent several hours composing music for a string quartet. “Am I going to use it on one of my records, or a film score? No Idea. What matters to me is that I constantly progress as a composer,” says the artist, who has consistently done one movie score per year. Last year it was for the movie The 9th Life of Louis Drax, a British/Canadian co-production that will come out in 2016. “Next week, I’m leaving for California to work on a film development project,” he says. “That’s what I love about my career. I don’t feel any kind of pressure to constantly be Patrick Watson the singer-songwriter. Just being a musician is perfect, too.”
This aversion for labels is quite representative of Watson’s mentality. He’s neither Anglo nor Franco, but simply Québécois. Born in the United States, he rapidly built ties with the local culture through his many collaborations with Karkwa, Marie-Pierre Arthur and Lhasa, to name just a few. “When my family moved to Hudson (a small Québec town about halfway between Montréal and Ottawa), I chose to attend a Francophone primary school,” he says. “Despite the initial language barrier, I immediately identified with the joie de vivre and open-mindedness of Francophone culture, even at such a young age. As a matter of fact, all of my girlfriends were Francophones,” he says grinning. “That must be a sign!”
The political aspect of the Anglo/Franco relationship is of no interest to this man, who believes human beings are more important than any of their allegiances. “We don’t need to put red or blue hats on people’s heads,” he says. “It’s completely stupid. Dividing Anglophones and Francophones is totally pointless. The idea that you don’t belong in Québec if you don’t speak French is negative, and has nothing in common with the true nature of Francophones. I think the best way to convince Anglos to learn French is to explain to them how, if they don’t, they will miss out on some of the most beautiful women in the world and a much more vibrant and relaxed way of life! One can be proud of their culture without having to divide and put down others.”
At the same time, Watson is quick to confirm that this pride is what allowed Québec to evolve culturally. “Québécois have a special kind of love for the music produced in Québec, and all musicians here benefit from that, even those who sing in English like I do,” he says. “For Québec artists, it’s an unbelievable gift to be able to count on such popular support for their creators. Elsewhere, you always feel like you are competing against the whole wide world, but not in Québec; you don’t feel that here.”
According to him, it’s much easier for a Montréal musician to be famous in Québec than for a Toronto musician to be famous in Ontario. “Many artists in Québec manage to earn a living through their art, something that wouldn’t be true elsewhere,” says Watson. “And I don’t say that to mean that they aren’t good, but because their creations have nothing to do with current pop trends. And that, culturally, is an invaluable treasure,” explains the musician, whose 2016 winter-spring tour is still ongoing at press time.
“That’s what I mean when I talk about open-mindedness,” says Watson. “You can stop in the smallest, 100% Francophone hamlet and still be welcomed with open arms and a ton of love. That, for an artist who sings in English, is amazing!”