Photos in story by Ronald Labelle

 At 73, Robert Charlebois still is an amazing performer, in complete control of his prodigious body of work. On Oct. 16, 2017, both his immortal repertoire and the exceptional man behind it will be celebrated at the Montréal SOCAN Awards Gala.

Young Robert CharleboisOn that night, he’ll receive the aptly-named Lifetime Achievement Award celebrating the outstanding success of a SOCAN member throughout his career. To Charlebois, this honour is a wonderful recognition. “It goes to show that if there’s one thing everybody agrees on, it’s longevity,” he says. “Nobody really understands what talent is, but careers that have spanned 40, 50, or 60 years always mean something.”

Yet, in the early ‘60s, nothing hinted at such a long career for the future enfant terrible of the Québec music scene – back when he was just a piano accompanist for Jean-Guy Moreau, his friend and fellow citizen of Ahuntsic (a popular neighbourhood in the north-central part of Montréal). The latter, a singer and comedian popular on the boîte à chansons circuit, he specialized in imitating the great chansonniers. “He was very meticulous and he’d ask me to play a few tunes while he went backstage to change,” says Charlebois. “The thing is, people were there to laugh… They didn’t appreciate it at all when I sang!”

Robert Charlebois then came up with a song that was typical of the era, and classic in the sense that it was inspired both by his father’s love of American crooners like Sinatra, and hi mother’s love for French chansonniers like Charles Trenet. A fan of Chopin, he learned to play the piano at boarding school, even though he never actually learned to read the “tiny black notes,” and later discovered rock n’ roll as a teen, especially Chuck Berry and Jerry Lee Lewis. “Those are the basic ingredients of who I am, somewhere between Elvis and Maurice Chevalier,” Charlebois summarizes with a laugh.

Following the advice of Marcel Sabourin – who taught the young singer during his stint at l’École nationale de théâtre du Canada from 1962 to 1965 – to “let his creativity explode”, he wrote several songs and gave solo shows. Meeting chansonnier and poet Jean-Paul Filion in a coffeehouse would turn out to be particularly memorable.

“He saw me singing “La Boulé and got into it right away,” says Charlebois. “He told me that if I could come up with 10 or 12 more like that, he’d introduce me to this guy named John Damant. Not long after, I met with that producer in my best suit and white shoes. He said, ‘We’re not gonna make you do a 45… We’re releasing an album right away, because you’re of the Vigneault and Léveillée calibre.’ Six months later, I was back with a bunch of songs, and we recorded the whole album in a single afternoon.”

Robert Charlebois 1970sA critical success, Vol. 1 paved the way for its successor, released in 1966. Almost repudiated by its author, it went rather unnoticed and Charlebois realized he needed to change his approach. “If writing well is writing like no one else, I figure singing should be just the same,” he says. “In other words, why try to be a Gilbert Bécaud No. 2 when there’s one already?

“Back then, there was a lot of cultural entitlement going on: Bretons wanted to sing like Bretons, and we, too, were realizing that we are not French. So, on my third album, I integrated words from the Québécois patois. My writing was still between two chairs, but it didn’t sound like anything else playing on the radio.”

Determined to broaden his horizons, the twentysomething left to explore the American West over a period of three months. He was invited to stay at Michel Robidoux’s sister’s place – Robidoux was his friend, who introduced him to the electric guitar – and met several important musicians, including members of The Byrds and Big Brother and the Holding Company, Janis Joplin’s band. “That was at the height of flower power, just before the Charles Manson thing,” says Charlebois “One open door led to another, and all thanks to the international language of the blues. I was on the porch of a beachside motel, and when I heard a guitar, I’d reply with the right chord. I met people that way and, one thing leading to the next, I ended up being invited to a party at Peter Fonda’s place, and it was like the entire planet had been invited. There was food, drinks and weed for everyone! Three months later, I was back in Montréal with the same five-dollar bill in my pocket as when I left.”

Re-inventing Everything

It was with a fully-integrated desire to re-invent everything that the singer-songwriter began the writing several new songs. Alongside his commune mates, he took great pleasure in de-constructing and re-constructing sentences written by Claude Péloquin. That’s how, in a single night, “Lindberg” came to be written.

“Claude wrote on cigarette packs, beer cases, scraps of paper,” says Charlebois. “One night, the girls [Louise Forestier, Mouffe and Sophie Clément] gathered all those scattered writings and brought them to me. I cleaned it up and found an intro, and the hook. I showed it to Vigneault, and he said it was impossible to sing and that I’d never manage to turn that into music. I took that as a challenge… Louise and I sat down and found the harmony, and we sang the song to friends of Claude’s who happened to pass by. They kept asking us to sing it again, while lighting up joints. Not that I condone drug use, but I’d lie if ‘psychedelia’ didn’t play a role in how we saw music as a territory to explore. Call it a collective creation,” says the artist, whose song will also be recognized with the Cultural Impact Award, alongside co-writer Claude Péloquin, and their publisher, Éditions Gamma, during the SOCAN Gala.

Emblematic and ground-breaking, that song set the stage for the creative process of Charlebois’ fourth album, which was imbued with a sense of urgency, and involved the collaboration of a few select peers such as the Nouveau Jazz Libre du Québec quartet, Marcel Sabourin, and Gilles Vigneault, who penned the lyrics of “La Marche du Président.” “That, too, was written in a single night, and that was the time Vigneault tried weed for the first time!” he laughs. “Louise and I went to his second-story place in Québec City. I had the basic melody already in mind, and Gilles jumped right in with his pen.”

Recorded in a single night and mixed over a period of several weeks at André Perry’s renowned studio in Brossard (a suburb on Montréal’s south shore), Robert Charlebois Louise Forestier was tepidly received. “It took six months before radio got on board with it,” says the icon. “We were booed when we opened for Jean-Pierre Ferland… We were even excommunicated by cardinal Léger because of the line ‘une crisse de chute en parachute’! [In English, ‘a fucking drop with a parachute,’ but the point of the excommunication was that the swear word ‘crisse’ is derived from the word ‘Christ,’ as a vast majority of Québécois swear words are derived from the church.] On the other hand, the people who liked the album really loved it. Over in France, people saw an energy there that existed nowhere else in Francophone music at the time,” remembers the man who played the hallowed Olympia, in Paris many times in the following years, before going on tour with Léo Ferré. “I, for one, was convinced of one thing: for once, I knew exactly where I was headed.”

Robert Charlebois L’OsstidchoProfoundly changed by a Frank Zappa concert he attended, Charlebois convinced his friends Louise Forestier, Mouffe and Yvon Deschamps to create a multidisciplinary show that they would play at the colourful Paul Buissonneau’s theatre, the Théâtre Quat’Sous. Two days before the première, in May 1968, Buissonneau resigned as artistic director for the show, unable as he was to manage the troupe. “Ton hostie de show, fourre-toé-le dans l’cul” (“shove your fucking show up your ass”), he told Charlebois, who saw in that a great opportunity to re-name said show L’Osstidcho.

“He wanted us to wear small paper hats, but I’d just come from California and seen what an eclectic show can be,” says Charlebois. “He also thought we played too loud, but all we wanted to do was play some rock. We fired him and re-imagines the show by giving ourselves room to improvise. At the end of the first show, the room was completely silent for a good two minutes. We were freaking out, we thought it was the flop of a lifetime…  And then, everybody jumped up as one and applauded for about 10 minutes. We were blown away.”

That show, which was born in a turbulent socio-political context, was instrumental in Québec’s cultural awakening, on par with monuments like Michel Tremblay’s Les Belles-sœurs and Réjean Ducharme’s L’Avalée des avalés.

The Stage as a Proving Ground

The following decade, too, was to be marked by that manifest and dynamic cultural awakening. The Superfrancofête, held on the Plains of Abraham in 1974, was one of the finest examples, thanks to the presentation of a concert titled J’ai vu le loup, le renard, le lion (I’ve Seen the Wolf, the Fox and the Lion) that assembled three key artists of the Québec music scene: Félix Leclerc, Gilles Vigneault and Robert Charlebois.

“The idea was to put on a big party to celebrate our Francophone playground, regardless of anyone’s political sensibilities,” says Charlebois, who, despite many  accolades, once defined himself as “un gars ben ordinaire” (“just an ordinary guy”) in his beloved song “Ordinaire.” “I remember Félix was slightly afraid of me. He’d told Gilles, ‘I know you , Gilles, but do you think we can trust the young one who threw his drums at the Olympia? Apparently he uses drugs and all that.’ As a welcome when I went to visit him at his place, he said, ‘Park your car the other way around, it’ll be easier to leave!’ [laughs] But we ended up having a lot of fun. We got drunk on gin and tonics and we laughed a lot.”

As many artists whose popularity peaked in the ’70s, the turn of the next decade marked the beginning of a somewhat more tortuous path. “When the disco era came about, I felt confident I could get through that, but in hindsight, I can’t pretend it was a great period,” Charlebois readily admits. “I, too, succumbed to the temptation of a beatbox and synths. It was fine back then, but it’s just not my world. What I like is the cultural and character confrontations that are typical of an orchestra.”

It’s partly why the man chose the stage over the studio for most of the ‘90s and early 2000s. Only four albums of original material were released during that period, notably Doux sauvage and Tout est bien, released in 2001 and 2010, respectively, on the La Tribu imprint.

“No one expects anyone’s album anymore, and I’m no exception to that rule,” says Charlebois. “Anyway, in the era of streaming, I predict the death of the agonizing Francophone music industry within 20 years. By that point, all that will be left are amateurs who write bad songs,” he laments. “Hopefully, I can still surprise you. I’m going to New York soon to meet a producer from Brooklyn. Apparently he’s a miracle worker, and I figure that maybe meeting new people will take me in new directions.”

Until the release of that possible album, it’ll be re-examination time for Robert Charlebois. After all, 2018 marks the 50th anniversary of both that ground-breaking fourth album and the monumental L’Osstidcho, which suggests that the SOCAN Gala Awards are probably just the first few drops of a torrent of awards he’s about to receive.

But for the masked singer, those highly nostalgic anniversaries are far from the sign of a coming retirement. Indeed, the legend is touring again in France next March and April.

“I’d have gone for longer, but my musicians and wife won’t let me!” says Charlebois. “A month-and-a-half seems rather short, but to visit 40 cities, it’s not that long, especially since I can’t do one show after another as much as I wish I could. Sometimes I compare myself, and I see bands like the Rolling Stones who play a lot less shows than I do in a year, although we don’t have the same level of energy, either. Still, music is an extreme sport. And it’s the only sport I practise.”

Justin Gray has had a 25-year career as a professional songwriter, amassing a personal catalogue of some 1,500 songs.  He’s worked with John Legend, Luis Fonsi, Mariah Carey and Joss Stone, and had song placements in movies like Sisters, The Lego Ninjago Movie, Oz The Great and Powerful, and in TV shows like Hawaii Five-0 and Hannah Montana. Still, he’d grown “completely dismayed” with how poorly organized songwriters are – “including myself,” he readily admits.

Gray had a personal problem he needed to solve:  How could he upload and quickly search his songs in a database, preferably from his smartphone, in order to pitch a song for a placement?  And how would he know if his co-writers have pitched it, and to whom?

“There is very little communication between co-writers after the fact, and If I were to draw a circle around their relationships —  their managers, their publishers — that grew very frustrating for me, not being able to organize that data,” says Gray.

MDIIO logoTo solve the problem for himself and his peers, the Los Angeles-based Canadian, through his company Songistry, has launched a service called MDIIO. It’s “an easier way for our songwriter community to collaborate, network, pitch and monetize music,” says the MDIIO website.

The user can embed each registered song with as many as 90 points of metadata, such as lyrics, collaborators’ contact info, performing rights organizations, master owners, beats per minute, musicians, and so on, thereby improving accuracy – and payment. Gray had once been notified by SOCAN that dozens of his songs had been uploaded with the wrong IP (intellectual property) number.

“We’re trying to clean up the process of data management in songs, while at the same time linking a global community, because it’s collaborative,” says Gray, the founder and chairman of Songistry, which developed MDIIO. “If we can help find opportunities, that would be amazing too.”

Those opportunities are numerous: A user can post a project to MDIIO’s community, privately or publicly, and can customize it.  For example, he or she can look for instrumental music for a documentary; search for four- or five-star rated songwriters and ask them to submit songs; post the payment amount; and even license music directly from within the application. “We do all of the transactions within it, so for the user who’s licensing the song to you, they don’t have to pay a lawyer, and you don’t have to pay agency fees on top of that,” says Gray.

Songistry debuted in 2013 under Gray, who later brought in tech-savvy Albertan Curtis Serna from the energy and gas sector, as President and CEO, and the concept evolved. The new MDIIO service is an acronym for Music Data Information In and Out.  He’s hoping it catches on, with users saying, “Oh, did you MDIIO the song yet?” in the same way people now use “Google that” or “Shazam it.”

“Our number-one goal with MDIIO is to help everybody in music build viable opportunities and networks to help really propel their careers forward.” – Songistry’s Justin Gray

MDIIO is beneficial to any and all songwriters, he says, no matter how prolific or accomplished, and is offered absolutely free to SOCAN members with a six-month activation code: SOCAN6FORFREE.

“It doesn’t matter if you’ve written 10 songs, or 1,000, or none,” says Gray. “It works on so many levels. We try as much as we can to link any of those songs that you’ve written to potential opportunities that may be out there. Maybe there’s an opportunity to place a song on a TV show, or to place a song with an artist. Maybe you’re living in rural Saskatchewan, and you create music, but there’s somebody who writes Spanish lyrics in Majorca. We’re really trying to encourage collaboration on a global level, and connect the dots.

“Of course, anything that you collaborate on, within this connection that you’ve made through MDIIO, hopefully we can help monetize that relationship down the line, so it’s really about creating.

“I’d rather not use the term ‘social network,’ because it’s not, but [we’re] creating this global community where we connect people to people, songs to opportunities. And it’s not just songwriters. The platform is meant to encourage music supervisors to come on, and there’s huge advantages for them. We have music publishers and record labels who are already using it.”

Songistry logoDuring the soft-launch of the past four years under the Songistry name, the service acquired 1,500 users in the beta phase, and converted half of those to MDIIO users, says Gray. “We haven’t done any branding on it,” he says. “We haven’t done any marketing on it. We really wanted to take the time to make sure that it worked. These early users were people that were founding users, legacy users, that we felt gave us a good base for expansion.

“If you’re in a writing session with two other songwriters, and one writer is using MDIIO, that’s the best kind of marketing that we can have, because it’s validating a platform to other users, from somebody that’s already on our platform within our community,” Gray explains.

“We want to use the word ‘community’ because that’s really what it is. For us [songwriters], you can kind of use Facebook and LinkedIn and Soundcloud in a sort of inelegant manner to try and do this; we just wanted to put it into one very cohesive, very robust application that’s fun and sticky. It creates a deeper level of communication between collaborators, and opportunities.”

MDIIO makes its money from subscriptions – which offer users even more opportunities for networking and uploading more songs, for example – and collects a commission of any placements that comes through the site.

“I wanted to make sure that the percentages that we take are less than what those percentages would be in the real world,” says Gray. “For example, there are a lot of placement companies here in the U.S. and everywhere in the world where they’ll take up to 50 per cent of any placement fees that they would get on a song.  That feels absurd, so we wanted to make sure that we cut that percentage down to as low as 20 per cent.

“So if someone is paying a subscription fee, and they get a placement, that comes down to 20 per cent, one time. We want to also act as a temporary publisher for somebody, if somebody’s in the middle of going from a publishing deal to another one, and they need someone to help administer their copyright, then that percentage reduces down to 10 per cent.

“Obviously I wish that we could be philanthropic in that way, but we do need to keep the lights on somehow,” says Gray. “We feel that this is the least we can do in order to help build our platform, and help it grow… We can provide these sorts of recurring administrative deals, so if a songwriter wants us to administer their copyrights, we can do that, and in 30 or 60 days – or whenever they want to end that deal, because they’re doing a new publishing deal somewhere else – they can just let us know, and get their rights back.

“We want to be very transparent.  We really are trying to help songwriters. Our number-one goal is to help everybody in music build viable opportunities and networks to help really propel their careers forward. Songwriters, artists, managers, labels, publishers, and music supervisors alike. Too many, songwriters especially, feel a sense of helplessness after they’ve finished their recordings. ‘What now?’ is a common phrase I encounter daily. MDIIO will close that gap for everyone.”

Tire le coyote“Recently, I taped an episode of the TV series Microphone with Louis-Jean Cormier,” says singer-songwriter Benoît Pinette – better known as Tire le Coyote since the release of his first album, Le Fleuve en huile, in 2011 – on the phone from Québec City. “We were singing together, and that’s when I realized how he puts tonic accents on this or that syllable, whereas I put them elsewhere. It’s funny how each singer has their own way of doing things and writing, isn’t it?”

To each their own. For a long time, people said Pendant was mimicking someone else – Neil Young, mostly. Because of the musical signature, but mainly because of his falsetto, so reminiscent of Young’s 1970s heyday, especially 1972’s Harvest and 1974’s On the Beach, his folkier and more intimate albums. “It’s how I sing, and that’s that,” says Pinette. And, just to be perfectly clear, he absolutely doesn’t have to justify the way he sings to anyone. “When I started tinkering with the guitar, I was listening to bands like Radiohead,” he says. “That’s how I learned to sing. I don’t even need to strain; I can give several concerts a week and my voice is still good!”

His writing, however, is very singular. Désherbages, his third album – notwithstanding a first EP released in 2009 where he strictly penned the lyrics – appears to be his most polished so far, yet retaining his instinctive way of stringing words and images together. He’s the first to admit that as a lyricist, he’s an aesthete, an impulsive writer.

“I rarely work from a theme or a precise idea I want to express,” says Pinette. “Phrases, images, come to me in segments, and I knit the song using those bits.” Though he might sing like a young Neil Young, or a Thom Yorke, only Pinette himself can write the kind of stanza that opens “Toit cathédrale” (“Catherdal Ceilng”): “Les clichés ont le vent dans les voiles, à qui la faute / Quand les aimants ne collent plus sur le frigidaire de l’autre” (“Clichés are riding high, whose fault is it / When the magnets no longer stick to the other person’s fridge”).

Or, for another example, on the haunting, atmospheric rock psalm “Tes bras comme une muraille,” one of the album’s outstanding tracks: “J’espère faire valser les vieux fantômes / Jusqu’à la limite de nos origins / Pour qu’on puisse donner au soleil son diplôme / Le ménage se fera sans garantie légale / Je regarde au loin mes fenêtres sont sales / Faudra au moins s’assurer qu’elles donnent sur l’avenir” (I hope to make old ghosts waltz / All the way to our origins / So we can give the sun his diploma / The clean-up will be done with no legal warranty / I look into the distance, my windows are dirty / Let’s at least make sure they look to the future”). Tire le Coyote’s poetry is like no other, using simple words that rhyme nicely, and pretty images that illustrate profound and all-too-real sentiments.

Two exceptions to the rule are hidden on Désherbages. At one end of the album sits “Jeu vidéo,” a skillful French adaptation of Lana del Rey’s “Video Games,” or rather, a Québécois adaptation, with stanzas such as “L’ivresse est “stallée” sur ta peau” (“Drunkenness is stalled on your skin”), as he uses the word “stallée”, which is a typical Québec Anglicism (the use of an English word in French). The other surprise is “Le ciel est backorder” (another example of a Québec Anglicism), and its subject matter is serious: “Quand ton corps est une cage où on enferme la maladie / Tu veux reprendre le tirage sous prétexte de tricherie” (“When your body is a place where illness is caged / You want to do it all over, feeling there was foul play”). “That’s the one song on the album where I had a precise idea before I started writing it,” says Pinette. “A friend was seriously ill, in and out of the hospital regularly, and an example of strength and resilience.”

For his new album, Pinette restricted himself to a pre-determined period of writing, contrary to his habit of “writing almost all the time, especially on tour.” His previous album had taken him on the road for more than 18 months, introducing him to new audiences. “I took a break in September of 2016,” he says, “in order to work on my next album. It was the first time I did such a thing: devote myself entirely to creation. I’d decided to write the whole album in three months. The goal was to be done by January.”

The writing sessions were interrupted by numerous distractions, and weekends in the countryside with his family – stepping away from the blank page only to come back to it stronger. He then gathered his partners in crime, Simon Pedneault (who produced Gabrielle Shonk’s debut album) and Benoit Villeneuve (a.k.a. Shampouing) to breathe life into this musically varied album – more so than its predecessors, in any case – where each song seems to inhabit its own landscape, raging from pared-down folk to rock explorations. “I listened to Andy Shauf a lot,” says Pinette. “Especially The Party. His way of writing rock songs inspired me.”

Inspiration is necessary. Then, it’s all about putting your own tonic accent on it.