Richard Séguin earned the Lifetime Achievement Award during the 2016 edition of the Gala de la SOCAN at Montréal’s Métropolis on Sept. 12. It was the perfect opportunity for Paroles & Musique to have a heart-to-heart with the Saint-Venant-based songwriter about his songwriting process, his songs, and their evolution.
“When I look back at what Les Séguin sang about in the early ‘70s and what I sing about today, not much has changed,” says Séguin. “Surely I’m more pragmatic and less of a dreamer. But I haven’t left the ecology theme behind; that era’s stakes are still present today in the social debate, in wealth distribution, in respecting outlying regions, in the democratization of culture, all of which were themes we sang about in the ‘70s. These values are important to me and the discourse hasn’t changed all that much.”
From his first steps with psychedelic band La Nouvelle Frontière (1969-71), then on to Les Séguin (1972–1976) and their glorious Café du quai, as well as the Fiori-Séguin (1978) adventure, followed by about fifteen solo albums, Richard Séguin, like still, deep water, forged himself a very strong identity. His head is filled with a thirst for justice. His boots walk on America’s rural roads.
Flashback to 1978. The Fiori-Séguin adventure. A single album. Torch songs, such as “Deux-cent nuits à l’heure” (“Two Hunderd Nights an Hour”) and “Viens danser” (“Come Dancing”). Three Felix awards. Two hundred thousand copies sold. Richard was only 26 years old.
“Serge [Fiori] and I knew each other since the Café du quai era in Magog around 1972,” says Séguin. “Back in 1977, many bands such as Beau Dommage, Harmonium, Octobre and Les Séguins basically stopped producing. Initially, our project was really simple: two guitars, two voices and an acoustic bass. And then there was the collaboration of other Harmonium musicians, who saw the opportunity as a kind of renaissance.”
Yet the Fiori-Séguin experiment was very short-lived, despite its phenomenal success. “We agreed on it right from the get-go,” says Séguin. “We weren’t going to start a new band or tour. That was very liberating, it allowed us to explore a new musical language, and Serge acted as my guide through it. It was a very beneficial meeting of the minds. It allowed us to each go our own way afterwards.”
A year later, he launched his first solo album. Then, in 1985, his whole life changed.
That’s when the trilogy of Double Vie, Journée d’Amérique, and Aux portes du matin, released between 1985 and 1991, saw Séguin become a bona fide star. He played 24 sold-out shows at the legendary Spectrum, and saw his picture hoisted on the venue’s Wall of Fame, alongside such luminaries as Spectrum, Jacques Higelin, Michel Rivard, and The Plasmatics’ Wendy O. Williams! Séguin remembers that era.
“Hélène Dalair, the musical director, played a crucial role,” he says. “She has this uncanny ability to bring the best out of musicians. She was a true conductor. There’s a lot that came from her in the final, rock-oriented sound that ended up on those albums. Réjean Bouchard also had a big influence on that era. But those were also taxing years on my family life since we were constantly on the road: the stars were aligned, the sales of francophone artists were up, radio was getting on board, we were coming out of the post-referendum darkness. It was my way of singing about our America that people would identify with. I was following in the footsteps of Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell, Springsteen, Mellencamp, and Neil Young. They were all big influences. I felt like I was in the same musical family as these great songsmiths.”
With songs such as “Double Vie” (“Double Life”), “J’te cherche” (“Looking for You”), “Protest Song,” “Ici comme ailleurs” (“Here, Like Eleswhere”), “L’ange vagabond” (“Vagabond Angel”) “Et tu marches” (“And You Walk”), “Journée d’Amérique” (“A Day in America”), “Aux portes du matin” (“At the Gates of Morning”), and so many more, Séguin offered us classics, in a unique voice that still creates joy on every hearing. “And you know what? I’m not tired of singing them yet,” he says.
All of his albums were written in Saint-Venant, a tiny, village of 112 souls in Québec’s Eastern Townships, and that’s no different for huis current album Les nouveaux horizons, launched earlier this year by Spectra Musique.
“It all happened very simply,” says Séguin. “At 62, I gave myself the project of building a place where I could write, and just let go completely. Even being here, in Saint-Venant, away from everything, with no cellphone signal and an Internet connection that’s shaky at best, those things were still a source of distraction. So I built myself a shack, 500 feet from the house, where I could go to write. I also promised myself I would devote well-defined periods of time to this task. And it was a revelation! I’m taken away by this spiral that never stops, all my thoughts are devoted to songs. I gave myself a specific period of time to write. Four to six hours a day. You have no idea how liberating that felt! I get the impression I’ve accomplished something, and it’s like a breath of fresh air in my day.
“To me, inspiration is a motivation,” he continues. “Between tours and live shows, I always have notebooks where I write thoughts and sentences. I sometimes go back to stuff I wrote 10 years ago, and it’s amazing how strongly it still resonates. Like my song ‘Roadie’; I’d been working on that one for 12 years. ‘Quand on ne saura plus chanter’ (‘When You Can’t Sing Anymore’), I’d been carrying that one inside me for at least three years. Sometimes, it’s a word, a sentence, an emotion, frustration, revolt, but as soon as I write a song about it, it becomes work.
“When I’m in the studio, I like to explore. I always compose three or four melodies for each text. Music comes easy to me, as opposed to lyrics. I can work on a single sentence for several days, because a bad rhyme follows you around like a pebble in your shoe. I’m 64 now, and I’m even more conscious of words. When you’ve sung [Québec poet and activist Gaston] Miron (on ‘Les douzes hommes rapaillés’), you tend to approach this trade with a lot more humility,” he laughs. “You’ve just trod on lofty peaks!”
Always by his side, multi-instrumentalist Hugo Perreault received the raw material and refined it in the studio (just as Réjean Bouchard used to do), in collaboration with Simon Godin and Myele. That’s also the team that’ll hit the road in late September to tour Les nouveaux horizons.
“I need to tour to remain sane, I couldn’t write all the time,” says Séguin. “I need to meet people, even though you still feel their presence even in the solitude of the writing process. You know they’re not far away. But in the end, a good song needs to be able to sound good with just a guitar and a voice. From there, we work on the instrumentation. My closest influences are the ones my musicians bring me. When we go on tour, each of them carry their own musical background, their influences; all the ideas that end up on an album come from a mix of all those things. And we work a lot on vocal harmonies.
“I kind of disappeared for a good, long while, and this album and tour is our reunion. I love that cycle. Learning to disappear. Félix Leclerc called it the deer reflex: when there’s too much noise, flee to the forest! It’s good advice. And that shack I built for myself, it’ll be there for at least 25 more years!”