Beau Dommage sang about Paris. Richard Desjardins sang about Abitibi. André “Dédé” Fortin sang about his beloved Lac-Saint-Jean, and Plume Latraverse, about Jonquière, with excuses. Even the great singer from France, Charles Trenet, sang about Québec. Strangely, though, before Philémon Cimon, nobody had made more room in their songs for Québec’s most spectacular region, Charlevoix – “where I spent every summer when I was a kid,” Cimon recalls. That’s where his grandmother Lucile lived, and her voice can be heard on Pays, a roots album whose writing and recording were approached as a search for cultural identity.
Which doesn’t mean that the magnificent Charlevoix region was left out of our cultural memory altogether, the singer-songwriter points out. “I just believe that it was ‘sung’ differently,” he says. “Félix-Antoine Savard’s novel Menaud, maître draveur is set in Charlevoix. Lots of events depicted in our literature took place in that region: Laure Conan’s Angéline de Montbrun is set in a somewhat imaginary place, but one that is associated to Charlevoix, since the author hailed from La Malbaie herself. And then, of course, there’s [filmmaker] Pierre Perreault!”
So, the inexhaustible Cimon goes on, “there aren’t really any songs about Charlevoix that became popular, but when [anthropologist and folklorist] Marius Barbeau got interested in ethnography in the 1910s, he first spent time in Les Éboulements, where he collected five hundred songs – not only traditional songs sung in Charlevoix, but some that had been created there. It’s very strange; this is an important region for us folklorically, but today, there’s nothing.”
So Cimon decided to something about it with Pays, his fourth self-released album, recorded live inside the Saint-Joseph-de-la-Rive church on four-track tape. One can hear the flickering of the tape during the silences that separate the guitar and piano notes, behind the combined voices of Cimon, Adèle Trottier, and Josianne Boivin. You can also hear the noises of the town coming in from outside, everything from Charlevoix’s panoramic train, as it passes by, to false notes, laughter, and bits of conversation.
Cimon explains that his main inspiration for Pays was Pierre Perreault, the legendary filmmaker whose ground-breaking direct cinema movie Pour la suite du monde had a determining influence on New Wave film. “I recognize myself a lot in Perreault’s approach,” says Cimon, whose “direct music” songs were written in Montréal, but meant to be recorded in that “pays”(“country”) that he’s trying to name, to paraphrase the songwriter (in “Les Pommiers envahis”).
Thus, the approach is intrinsically linked to the writing and recording of the songs, as if they could only exist in this intimate, imperfect setting. Recording that way “means an experience that goes beyond the music itself,” says Cimon. “Ultimately, the song ends up at the service of the experience, and what’s being recorded is more than music – it’s life, as Perreault used to say.”
That experience becomes meaningful as part of a search for identity – that of the songwriter, and that of his country. “First of all, my country is not just Charlevoix,” says Cimon, who was born in the Limoilou district of Québec City. “It’s my own personal quest that led me to Charlevoix. Deep down, my country is my relationship with my roots. It’s an intimate, emotional country that necessarily includes Charlevoix because, when I was young, I experienced an enormous amount of beauty there. A large area to play in, a large area of wonder, above anything else.”
Cimon’s country isn’t political. Nor is it physical, not being defined by borders. “Beyond Baie-Sainte-Catherine, it’s still in my country,” he says. “In Tadoussac, you’re no longer in Charlevoix, yet I still feel at home. My country is linked to my search for identity, so I went all the way back to my childhood, and all of a sudden, I went beyond that childhood. Because after travelling that far [in my quest], I felt like going back even further, to see if I could find something interesting there.”
What Cimon ended up finding inspired him. He met his own history, and that of Québec as well. “It does go back all the way to Jacques Cartier, that Frenchman from Bretagne who travelled everywhere,” he says. “It goes back to the First Nations, of course,” as illustrated in the album’s opening song, “Charlevoix ventre infini,” whose lyrics say in part “Domagaya stolen /Taignoagny stolen /Stadacona stolen /Oshelaga stolen…”