We first became acquainted with him as more of a rocker, slinging his six strings expertly through complex, virtuoso solos. “Now, it’s the instrument I like the least,” he says. “All the songs on Maison ouverte started with a bass line. I’d start with a drum loop and then come up with a bass riff. I tried using the guitar last, because I couldn’t help falling back into old habits with it, since I’ve always composed that way up to now. Whether I like it or not, I had old patterns. I really wanted to break them… I also wanted to do simpler stuff. If I played you the riff for “Hey Man,” you’d think it makes no sense!”
Stepping out of his comfort zone was Kearney’ leitmotif right from the inception, and all through this creative cycle. On this second album, which he himself considers to be his first, Kearney even raps during bridges (“Bad Girl Mama,” “Mes pants”) and forays into funk. It comes as no surprise, then, that his guitar playing is more reminiscent of Prince than Fred Fortin. His creative stance has completely changed.
“When I look at rap in the United States, I think we’re on more of a glam trajectory,” says Kearney. “It’s all about grillz, purple drinks, and showing off. We don’t have that here in Québec. We like being more solemn and minimalist in our musical approach, because of folk music and all that. I think we’re starting to lean towards glam a little more, and I wanted to exploit that on Maison ouverte. That’s also why I had a bit of a hard time writing lyrics, because I only listened to Anglo music.”
Almost paradoxically, his lyrics ended up being as Québécois as it gets, grammatically and thematically. Take for example “Câline,” where he sings with a powerful head voice we’ve never heard before. Or “Mes pants,” a song which – under the guise of being corny, yet subtle – delivers a vibrant message to his peers.
“I’ve noticed I always try to have different ways of reading the lyrics when I write them,” he says. “People can then choose for themselves what they take away from it, a bit like Richard Desjardins. If you don’t pay close attention, you might think it’s a Kaïn song, but if you pay close attention, you might notice what he’s saying is really big… The chorus in “Mes pants” is silly and simple, but it’s about being in control, and being oneself, and it’s really about the people of Québec. It’s like when I say, ‘It’s not always pretty when I speak my language,’ I’m addressing our weird inferiority complex…”
For the wheat to grow
Kearney’s career began precociously, and now has two very distinct but very complementary phases. On the one hand, there are his own concerts as a headliner and frontman. On the other hand? All the gigs he books as a session musician. On tour with Jérôme 50 and Pascal Picard, and he also played guitar on a few tracks of Hubert Lenoir’s Darlène. He uses teamwork and sharing as fuel, and feeds his ideas to others without keeping score Quite the contrary. “[That duality] is fine with me, because they’re projects in which I get really involved, personally,” says Kearney. “It’s like with Jérôme, it was implicit that if I was going to play guitar for him, I wouldn’t be held back to play strictly and exactly what he asked… In the end, I’m composing the guitar riffs with him. It’s my guitar style, and I think if he chose someone else, his project would be different.”
Such a double life allows Kearney to diversify his revenue streams. As a matter of fact, the songwriter in him is brutally honest about the financial pitfalls of his trade in songs like “Pop ’n’ roll” and “Mon chien est mort” (literally, “my dog is dead,” but also a Québécois colloquialism meaning “all hope is lost”). He sings about losing talent contests, and dreams that, at the end of the day, don’t pay his rent.
“Copyrights help a lot, but I didn’t want to make any compromises when it comes to my music,” he says. “I call it pop ’n’ roll and I fully assume there’s a pop element to it, I really don’t mind. Whether you like it or not, adding a touch of pop music makes the radio a lot more interested. I manage to make a few bucks with that.”