The voice is as clear as at 20. The words are true, as always. The passion remains as one day one. “It feels like it all started 30 minutes ago,” confides Pierre Létourneau, now 74, stunned by the speed at which the years went by. “I was so privileged to earn a living doing what fulfills me.”
“I was so privileged to earn a living doing what fulfills me.”
Fifty-four years after his first stage appearance, the slightly romantic singer-songwriter of old is back with a new album of original material, his 16th, titled Foutue société (loosely: Damned Society). It’s a coherent patchwork of songs whose themes range from the vacuity of our time to a sensual declaration of love while musically ranging from ethereal bossa to energetic pop-rock. “People constantly try to pigeonhole us. Me, I’m all over the map, I write what I feel. I hope people will say: ‘He was a good one, we liked him.’ Those words are very noble. In the end, they simply mean that we connected with people.”
Popularity is something Pierre Létourneau was acquainted with more often than not. The first time around was during the glorious days of the “boîtes à chansons”. (NdT: nightclubs where the tradition of French “chanson” was perpetuated in Québec in the 50s and 60s mainly) “It was an extraordinary artistic phenomenon. We had just disavowed the clergy. Yet, those venues were as quiet as churches. Artists were telling things like they were, naming things, streets, cities, feelings. The songs were ours and they were also the people’s.” In 1963, “La chanson des pissenlits” and “Les colombes” catapulted the “singing author that sometimes also composes” to the top of the sales charts.
After his first trip to Paris in 1970, a trip during which “instead of plugging myself into the French culture, I spent the whole year just entertaining visitors such as Charlebois, Renée Claude and Stéphane Venne!”, Létourneau came back home to Québec. Which meant coming back to stardom. “I missed Québec so much when I was in France that I wrote an homage to Maurice Richard. I recorded it over there with a choir and 35 musicians!” Obviously, the audience here fell in love with this now mythical song. “When I came back, I felt like I needed a new direction, a more straightforward language. I also wanted to work with composers.” What resulted of this new orientation were songs such as “Tous les jours de la semaine”, sang to a Germain Gauthier melody, as well as several songs for Nicole Martin, most notably “Laisse-moi partir”, co-written with Angelo Finaldi.
From record to stages to tours to television – Pulsion, on Radio-Canada — to visiting primary schools to teach the art of the lyricist, Pierre Létourneau reunited, in 2009, with his old brothers in arms – Pierre Calvé, Claude Gauthier and the late Jean-Guy Moreau in a musical review directed by Robert Charlebois entitled Il était une fois… la boîte à chansons. New success, new beginnings, renewed need to sing and tell.
Today, the topics on Foutue société are wide-ranging – from life as a musician (“Souvenirs de tournée”), to the decline of a generation (“Les Bébé-Boomers”), to passionate love (“Tout de toi”), to a world without bearings (Qu’est-ce qu’on a fait pour en arriver là?”) – and the words are as impressionist as ever, yet straightforward and rooted in daily life. Long-time companions and newfound collaborators alike worked on this album “created for the most part in the studio but with tremendous freedom”: Robert Léger and Michel Pagliaro wrote the music, as did also Michel Robidoux and Gérald Da Sylva, in addition to arranging and producing them, Claire Pelletier and Priscilla sang the back vocals, not to mention the team behind Edgar Bori’s new imprint, Vu de la lune. “Making music still gives me great, great joy. But I want to feel useful, first and foremost. Useful to others, so they don’t feel alone so much. Useful to society, in the hope I can contribute to making it less ‘damned’. Imagine a world without music. There would surely be more violence, more aggression.”
Inducted to the Canadian Songwriters Hall of Fame in 2011, he also had the privilege of seeing two of his songs become SOCAN Classics. He casts a lucid gaze upon our mutating industry. “Making music nowadays is dangerous. Success can pounce on you at any moment and be gone the next. One must protect oneself. As far as copyrights go, the laws need to change. We, as artists, must make our voices heard. Luckily, we have organizations such as SOCAN, SODRAC and SPACQ who understand us and fight for us.”
Since his travels are not over yet, Pierre Létourneau has lent his writing skills to Luc Cousineau for an upcoming album and he his himself working on a tour of small, intimate venues that should happen sometime in 2013. “It’s going to be just me and Michel Robidoux on guitar, and I’m going to tell a long, true story and talk about events I’d like to see happen.” Naturally. Like fifty-four springs ago. When it all began.