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.”

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Rachael Kennedy is one-third of the songwriting/production team L I O N C H I L D, which placed a song on a Britney Spears album in 2016, attended the third annual SOCAN Kenekt Songwriting Camp in 2017, and recently signed its first publishing deal, with Alex Da Kid, at Kid in a Korner. As usual, it was a long road to reach this point. Here’s how she did it, with some tips that might help on your own songwriting path:


L I O N C H I L D signing their publishing deal with Alex Da Kid.

When I was 14 years old I sat in my bedroom, wrote my first song and bawled my eyes out. It’s one of the only times in my life I can say I truly had an epiphany; I was going to be a songwriter for the rest of my life. What I didn’t know, at the time, was that that was the easy part, and I was about to embark on a crazy, exciting, overwhelming, exhausting, life-changing, 10-year rollercoaster ride.

Before I even begin writing this, I want to point out I’ve never met any two songwriters with the same story of how they got to where they are, so, first and foremost, there’s no right or wrong way to navigate this wild and ever-changing music industry. All I can say is, there are a lot of talented people trying to make this happen, but one thing you will always be able to control is your drive… SO PEDAL TO THE METAL, BABY!

The Hibernation Period|
The first leg of my journey was what I like to call the “hibernation period,” which occurred from about age 14 to 17, and consisted of me taking all that teen angst and writing songs whenever I could; after school, before school, after terrible high school parties… and this was a very important stage, because it was about the craft. I established a “by myself” writing style and developed instincts which would lay the groundwork for the rest of my songwriting career.

Get Over Yourself: Start Writing with Other People
Yes, we all get it, it’s your art, no one fully understands you, you have your own unique style, etc.  That’s all well and good, but if you want a career as a songwriter, it doesn’t mean much if no one knows who you are. It wasn’t until I started writing with other people that my career even began to exist. When you write with other people, you’re not only expanding your craft, you’re networking – forming relationships, that open doors to other relationships, that may end up bringing opportunities to you that wouldn’t have existed if you were still sitting in your bedroom, writing songs with your guitar, by yourself (though you can always still do this and fill up your emo, angst-y, songwriter-y heart).

As a side note, when it comes to collaborating with other songwriters, I just want to emphasize how important being a good human being is to a successful songwriting career. If you’re a jerk, or hard to work with, or your ego is bigger than the studio, no one is going to want to work with you. There are too many talented people in this business, and if you’re not a fun hang, there are a lot of other nice, friendly songwriters, just as talented as you, who would be more fun to write with.

When I was 19 I called SOCAN and said, “I want to go to Nashville and write songs with dope songwriters… Where do I start?” SOCAN connected me with their Nashville representative Eddie Schwartz, who introduced me to a few people, and sort of gave me the run-down of the Nashville scene. Fast forward to about nine months of writing trips back and forth between Toronto and Nashville, and I decided it would be good to expand my songwriting to one of the other major music hubs, Los Angeles. So I booked the SOCAN House in Nashville for a week, then the SOCAN House in L.A. the following week. I packed up my car and drove to Nashville where I met with Eddie again, and he said if I was heading to L.A. I should send my songs to Chad Richardson, who runs the L.A. branch of SOCAN.

Chad would become my first champion, the first person to really believe in my potential, and he set up all of my first sessions in L.A. I fell in love with the city, and how much momentum I was generating. I began working three jobs in Toronto in between trips back and forth, to save up money so I could spend three months in L.A., network with as many people as possible, and write my face off before getting my work visa to make the move officially. Again, I packed up my car, drove across the country to California, and networked like a maniac. I said yes to everything. I booked two sessions a day, I got into ASCAP’s Lester Sill Songwriting workshop, where I met Grammy-nominated songwriters and formed relationships I still maintain to this day. I went to every music industry event, party, show… you name it, I did it. During this time, I applied for my work visa. Three months later, in a grocery store with my sister in the suburbs of Ontario, I got the news it had been approved. Again, I bawled my eyes out.

The Leap 
The next stage was a game changer: I moved to L.A. At the time, I remember talking to people about moving, and everyone saying what a big deal it was, and how scary it was to uproot your life and move across the continent to a whole new situation. But it felt normal to me. It wasn’t scary, because I knew in my bones it was what I was supposed to do, and I was willing to do whatever it took to chase this dream I had. I truly think that when something is your passion, and fills you with purpose, nothing is out of reach, because reaching for it feels instinctive, and completely natural.


L I O N C H I L D with producer Matthew Chaim at the 2017 SOCAN Kenekt Song Camp.

A side note: be fearless. If you’re afraid of failing, this is not the career path for you. Life is way too short, and way too fast, to not do something because you’re afraid you’ll fail, or that all those people back home will judge you. So if you’re going to go for it, you gotta go ALL THE WAY for it.

In L.A., I quickly met two of my best friends, who would become my songwriting partners, and our songwriting/production team, L I O N C H I L D, was founded in 2015. We wrote hundreds of songs together, and managed to get a song placed on the Britney Spears album in August of 2016. That would never have happened if we all hadn’t spent years, on our own and together, growing a network of relationships that would bring such an opportunity to our doorstep. We were invited to attend the third annual SOCAN Kenekt Song Camp in Nicaragua in April of 2017. Then, after a year of meeting with publishers, about six weeks ago we signed our first publishing deal, with Alex Da Kid at Kid in a Korner.

To Be Continued…
One of the most important things I’ve learned is that your journey is going to have a lot of different stages, and it’s probably going to be very different than you imagine it, and that’s okay! Have your goals, and have a clear vision of what you want, and where you want to be, but be open to the path changing. Most importantly, make music with people you love, and enjoy the small stuff; the goofing off in the studio, the blooper takes from your vocal demos, the struggle, the not-so-good meetings, the amazing meetings, and the interesting people you meet along the way. Cause let’s be real here: songwriters are the coolest people on earth!

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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.

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