Éric LapointeThe year is 1994, the city, Montréal. Picture Le Hasard, a now-long-gone pub during the afternoon and a disco at night, at the corner of Ontario and St-Hubert streets. An artist and a Canadian Press journalist are sitting in the empty pub, mid-afternoon, talking about the first album the singer-songwriter has just released.

This music journalist is listening to the young twentysomething talking about his songs and aspirations with a passion that’s a close second to the fervour with which he downs a pint. Things aren’t going well for him, though. The record has only sold a few hundred copies, his songs haven’t been picked up by radio stations, and music journalists from all of the major dailies in Montréal have declined the invitation for an interview with him, despite the best efforts of Gamma, his label at the time, and its representative, Patrice Duchesne.

Twenty-two years later, things have changed quite a bit. Éric Lapointe is now a major, A-list star. He’s sold more than a million records, and has lived the rock-star life like very few others on the Québec scene, regardless of the era. “N’importe quoi,” “Terre promise (poussé par le vent),” and “Marie-Stone,” three singles from his album Obsession (1994), will officially be consecrated as SOCAN Classics* at the Gala de la SOCAN on Sept. 12, 2016, at Montréal’s Métropolis.

Two decades after that first sit-down, the two men meet again to carry on with their 1994 conversation, but this time, with no filter, and solely to talk about the creation of those three songs.

“N’importe quoi”

“That record was my first production and it took a long time,” Lapointe remembers. “It took a year and a half… They were asking me to write ‘ballads for teens.’ Those were the exact words of [Gamma Records boss] Mr. [Jack] Lazare.

“I already knew Roger Tabra, by then. We met often… I was writing songs, but nothing appealed to the record label. I was about to give up. And it was right after I split with Marie-Stone. But we’ll get back to that.

“That’s when Tabra said, ‘We’ll write you a ballad.’ He said, ‘What do you want to sing about?’ and I said, ‘N’importe quoi’ (Anything). He said, ‘We’ve got a title!’ That was the first of many collaborations with him.”

“Terre promise (poussé par le vent) »

“I wrote ‘Terre promise’ when I was 16, when I left home to go West. I was homesick. Then I just left it in a drawer. When I entered the studio to record Obsession, many years later, I brought about two dozen songs of mine.

“Aldo Nova was producing the album, and he picked up only five of them. And on top of that, he told me to work on them some more… Crazy! I’d play my songs for him, and I wouldn’t even have time to make it to the chorus or bridge, and he’d say: ‘No, it’s not on point!’’

“That’s when I dug through my old stuff and pulled out ‘N’importe quoi.’ I sang it for him, and, again, before I made it to the chorus, he said: ‘Now that’s on point!’ Aldo had spotted the hook. It’s thanks to him that the song saw the light of day.

“It’s ironic. I wrote that when I was 16 and I’m now 46. It’s a very symbolic song for me. I can’t avoid playing it in my shows. But at some point, I didn’t sing ‘N’importe quoi’ for a good five years. And when I dusted it off, it had become a nostalgic song. I can’t do that with ‘Terre promise.’ Besides, it ages very well.”

Normal, isn’t it? On the 1994 original version, it begins with a discreet acoustic guitar. It’s timeless. It’s usually a token of longevity.

“If you can’t sing a song with just a guitar and a voice, or a piano and a voice, it’s simply not a song. After that, you can sing it any way you want, country, jazz or heavy metal.”

“Marie-Stone”

“Marie-Stone was in fact Marie-Pier. My girlfriend. And my first major heartbreak. When I was writing ‘N’importe quoi,’ I’d just moved from a three-bedroom flat in Outremont to a one-bedroom in Centre-Sud. I didn’t even have a mattress.

“Marie-Pier smoked weed, which is why I called her Marie-Stone. But she wasn’t a stripper, contrary to popular belief. She was doing her Master’s degree.”

But regardless of the song’s quality, you have to admit that in this case, the video (a stripper in a bar crowded with drunk guys) goes a long way to explain the song’s popularity.

“The video was directed by Alain DesRochers and Podz, who have both become renowned movie directors. We couldn’t miss. Everybody watched Musique Plus back then. Radio had turned down ‘Terre promise.’ It took CKOI a whole month before they decided to give it a try. Guy Brouillard [the station’s musical director] just didn’t want to have anything to do with it. But when Musique Plus put ‘Marie-Stone’ in double rotation, radio had no choice but to follow suit. Musique Plus had kick-started the machine.

“Was it an image issue? I don’t know. Man, they even turned me down at L’Empire des Futures Stars [a now-defunct talent contest sponsored by CKOI]. Yet the demos I’d submitted were for ‘Terre promise’ and ‘Marie-Stone.’ And four years later, I was presiding the jury for that same contest!” [laughs]

So what’s the difference between Éric Lapointe then and now, besides the obvious age factor?

“Well, that’s it. I’m older, I’m a father, and I’ve settled down. But I’m just as passionate as when I was a teen, especially when it’s time to go onstage. And I’m just as nervous now as I was then. It’s a good thing. Besides, it’s a privilege to touch people’s lives. and still sing to sold-out venues with a bottle of scotch nearby.”

* To earn the title of SOCAN Classic, a song must have recorded at least 25,000 radio plays since its launch, at least 20 years ago.

“Terre promise (poussé par le vent)” and “Marie-Stone”
Written by Éric Lapointe, Stéphane Campeau, Stéphane Tremblay, Adrien Claude Bance
Published by Avenue Éditorial, Les Éditions Gamma ltée., Les Éditions Clan d’Instinct inc.

“N’importe quoi”
Written by Éric Lapointe, Roger Tabra, Aldo Nova
Published by Éditions Bloc-Notes, Éditorial Avenue, Les Éditions Gamma ltée. , Les Éditions Clan d’Instinct inc.

 


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Al Tuck was at a party in 2012 when a friend suggested he write a song about Stompin’ Tom Connors.  For Prince Edward Island native Tuck, who’d already written a tribute song for legendary PEI songwriter Gene MacLellan (Tuck was married for a time to his daughter, fellow singer-songwriter Catherine), the timing was right: his young daughter had recently discovered Connors’ music, and the two were enjoying listening to it together. “Sometimes it just takes a little encouragement,” says Tuck.

The song, “StompinTomConnors.com,” is the second track on his latest album, Fair Country, which also kicks off with a cover of Connors’ 1973 hit “To It and At It.” Because while Tuck may be known for his genre-straddling, this album, his ninth, plants him firmly in old-school country with a mix of originals, co-writes (a number of them with Alex Rettie) and covers, including “Fly Right on By” by Rita McNeil and “Always on My Mind,” made famous by Elvis Presley and Willie Nelson, among others.

“My other albums have had drastic mixtures of styles,” says Tuck, admitting that he wanted to do something that would be more accessible to a broader audience, who would know what to anticipate from start to finish. “And it seems to be going up the charts finally out there,” he laughs. “So maybe I was on to something?”

Tuck, who’s been performing across the country for more than two decades, first came to music singing in a boys’ choir. When he was 15, he picked up a guitar and taught himself to cover tunes by Bob Dylan and the Rolling Stones. “It took me a while to find my voice,” he says, describing early experiences trying to channel the blue”. “I realized I didn’t know how to present that, being a skinny white boy,” he says. “I found my voice by easing off the contrived style I was working off of, and trying to be more myself.”

It was in Halifax, where Tuck was based from the mid-1980s until he moved back to PEI in 2004 to be closer to family, that he first formed Al Tuck and No Action, a band with a rotating cast of musicians (in St. John’s, Tuck says, it’s referred to as “Al Tuck and No Filter”). He released his early albums through murderecords, the label formed by the members of Sloan, later earning gigs opening for bands like Soundgarden, Nine Inch Nails and Marilyn Manson, among others.

“I didn’t know how it was going to go, exactly. But this is exactly what I always wanted to do.”

And yet, for many Canadians, Tuck still flies largely under the radar. “I live anonymously, largely,” he says, “but every now and then, there are moments of glory or gratification.” Among them must surely be the fact that he remains beloved among higher-profile singer-songwriters, many of whom cite him as one of the very best. For example, Broken Social Scene’s Jason Collett has dubbed Tuck “the greatest songwriter of his generation.” Feist calls him “a living legend in our midst.”

While he shies away from defining himself as a mentor, Tuck, who’s been nominated for an impressive array of awards – including a spot on the 2013 Polaris Music Prize long list – treasures what he calls his “eye for talent” and enjoys supporting artists as they find their feet. He counts himself lucky, for example, for having been among the first to hear Old Man Luedecke’s early songs. Nor has he ruled out the idea of moving into the role of producer down the road. “I suppose I’m open to it, if it was for the right person,” he says.

But Tuck admits that he hasn’t necessarily oriented his own career on getting ahead in the industry. “I’ve never been happy with the status quo, exactly, but I guess I haven’t had the kind of driving ambition you need to break out,” he admits. Even Fair Country, risked not getting the attention it deserved after Tuck, intrigued by an idea, released it in June 2015 as a red wooden match box featuring a download code. It was released again more recently on CD, and Tuck remains hopeful there will be a vinyl pressing. “I’m just grateful for giving it this second wind,” he says.

Miraculously for such a non-careerist as Tuck, Fair Country reached No. 1 on the Earshot National Folk/Roots/Blues Chart, thanks to the campaign work of award-winning promotions and publicity firm SpinCount, who also handle Joel Plaskett, Buffy Sainte-Marie, Amelia Curran and Donovan Woods.

For Tuck, the goal these days (beyond the playful fantasy of having a band that could double as a baseball team) is simple: to keep writing and to keep playing – though he admits that writing has taken a backseat in recent years, simply because of the backlog of songs he’s already amassed. “Every so often there’s an urge, you know, or an itch [to write], but it would have to really get under my skin for me to want to pursue it – but that’s how I can tell that it’s really going to have some value.”

No matter how his path may have meandered, Tuck says he’s never doubted his decision to pursue a life in music. “I didn’t know how it was going to go, exactly,” he says, “but this is exactly what I always wanted to do.”


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Airdrie, Alberta, is a small city of about 43,000 in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains. On its outskirts lives Art Bergmann, who enjoys a spectacular view of the Rockies, and the sweeping vistas of the Prairie. Fitting real estate for an enduring outsider, who for 40 years has taken a rebel stance and held to it.

Long lauded as one of the original punk influences of the ‘70s, and an equally mark-making figure in alternative rock in the ‘80s and early ‘90s, Bergmann’s current album The Apostate draws from all that and more, in crafting his best-yet collection of songs – and first full-length recording in 18 years. It says a lot about an artist’s persistence and integrity when his prime work is done at age 63; Bergmann is happy about that, as are critics, and the Polaris Music Prize large jury, who long-listed The Apostate in 2016.

It’s not just the incisive commentary on subjects such as rape culture, the abuse of indigenous peoples, environmental issues, and the oppressive nature of religion, which gives The Apostate its clout. The music wrapped around the message is very eclectic, and miles away from Bergmann’s punk bête noire roots. “I started writing these songs as I was finishing up Songs for the Underclass,” says Bergmann. “I was on a tear, coming up with concepts, melodies. I wanted to write an album [where] you couldn’t tell what era songs were from, or what genre, something that would last.”

The Apostate is that album. Lyrically, it holds some of Bergmann’s most searing lyrics and dystopic observations, but also some of his most tender and shocking. The cages he rattles are being shaken by a man with insights gleaned from an immersion in the fields of history, anthropology and paleontology, that started when he first moved to Airdrie.

Such material suggests a match with the explosive sounds of Bergmann’s punk past, but he ups the emotional ante by juxtaposing rejectionist lyrics and inclusive music, coaxing many levels of meaning from the material. The musical resonances include desert and prairie sounds: Tuareg blues from North Africa, percussion references from Pakistan and India, the swirling patterns of Dervish music, and haunted, wind-whipped Americana landscapes.

“I wanted to expand my subject matter to more universal themes than I was concerned with in my early years in Vancouver and Toronto,” says Bergmann. “I wanted this music to get a wide hearing, so I toned down the abrasion and made it more soothing. ‘Cassandra’ is a good example; I put that out as a single, at the insistence of my wife and sister. Coming at a time when the vanished indigenous women was an issue, we felt it was the right time to put it out. That it also coincided with the verdict in the Ghomeshi case was definitely not planned. I’d written ‘Cassandra’ three years before,” he says of his re-working of the classic Greek myth of Cassandra, who was sexually abused by Apollo in order to discredit her.

“In terms of songwriting technique, for me, it starts out with, ‘What will it take to get to where I want it to be?’”

Bergmann is adamant that while the songs on The Apostate may share themes and attitudes, each is a stand-alone, layered with meaning and suggestion. “The songs start out as pages and pages of notes to be honed down, cutting away at the obvious, paring it down to where I know I’ve got it,” he says. “In terms of songwriting technique, for me, it starts out with, ‘What will it take to get to where I want it to be?’”

The collection’s tear-jerker is “The Legend of Bobby Bird,” a wrenching tale of a young Indigenous boy who preferred to take his chances alone in the wild rather than live in a residential school, and ended up freezing to death. His remains sat unidentified for 30 years, but were finally discovered in 2009. “There were so many kids who disappeared and were never seen again, who chose nature over staying in those prisons,” says Bergmann. “I spent time with Bobby Bird’s family, asking their permission, because I know about pain and with his family, the pain is still fresh.”

Bergmann does indeed know about pain; in recent years, he’s been stricken with severe osteoarthritis, and had to undergo surgery four years ago to put titanium around his spine to prevent him from becoming a paraplegic. Still, he’s not going gently into that good night, continuing to rail against injustice and false belief.

Given the album’s title, one wonders what social, political or religious beliefs Bergmann-the-apostate is rejecting. He chuckles, and says, “I’m a complete traitor to all the beliefs, I reject just about everything,” as suggested in the lyrics to his song “Atheist Prayer”: “What will it take/ to crush your belief/ in your mistake/ you’re the God you create…”

Bergmann would love to take his message on the road with a band, but might not be able to manage it. “I wish I were touring, but it’s too expensive for me,” he says. “I can do the songs acoustically, but I really miss the band format, the explosiveness, the power. I’ve got a good little label, Weewerk, and I’ve got a social media presence, but it seems like it comes down to touring. I’d like to have another kick at the can before I give up the ghost. We’ll see.”

Meanwhile, Bergmann’s working on new material, with three or four songs in the pipeline and a bunch of ideas on the back burner. He promises that it’ll be quite different from The Apostate. With his ongoing creative flow, could he ever foresee a time when he isn’t driven to write songs? “The songwriting comes and goes,” he says. “How and why is a mystery. I’ve had dry periods when it does cross your mind, but I’ve always come out of them and [started] writing again. The last time I had one, the fact [that] people were interested in me again, in hearing the old songs again, that got me back to writing new songs.”


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