The Québec six-stringer Steve Hill is at the top of the Canadian Blues scene from sea to shining sea thanks to his seven Maple Blues Awards in two years, as well as the Blues Album of the Year JUNO award in 2015. And that’s just the beginning.

What’s behind all these awards? His four self-produced albums titled Solo Recordings, Vol. 1, Vol. 1 ½ (EP), Vol. 2 and Vol. 3 – the last one released a few weeks ago – bring the total of his recorded output to nine releases in 25 years on the scene by the amazing guitarist who found his own unique groove in his solo work.

“That’s what I like about the new paradigm of the industry: the proximity to the people; you develop actual relationships.”

“With the industry undergoing so many changes, he says, “the fact is I couldn’t afford musicians anymore; I had to re-invent myself. Before going on this solo adventure, I was $30,000 in debt. When I played Club Soda, I would post the posters all over the city myself, with the help of my bass player.”

And record sales weren’t any better. “Before starting my own label, No Label, I would earn a buck fifty per record sold after the first 40,000 copies,” he says. “With last record company, I earned 40 cents per copy sold. Today, I don’t have a manager, I don’t have a label, and I sell outside of Québec! When I visit Toronto or Western Canada, my albums are stocked in record stores (N.D.L.R.: he has a distribution deal with Outside Music). I do a better job of this, “he says proudly. “Twenty percent of my sales are digital, the rest are physical formats.”

Thanks to his media exposure here and abroad, and the countless awards and distinctions he’s earned, Steve Hill couldn’t be happier. “My concerts are sold out,” he says. “After the show, I go straight to the merch (T-shirts, records, posters) table myself and I meet the people for an hour. I take pictures with them, we talk, I autograph guitars, boobies, whatever! [laughs] That’s what I like about the new paradigm of the industry: the proximity to the people; you develop actual relationships. People write to me on Facebook and I reply as fast as I can.”

Steve Hill

Photo: Scott Doubt

This success has meant that he gives about 125 concerts per year, and the telephone is ringing off the hook; downtime is rare. “I recently had no concerts booked for a few days straight, so instead of flying down south, I took a break from being the frontman and became a simple session player,” he says. “I went into the studio to record two songs with singer-songwriter Pépé and Marc Déry, who’s producing his new album, and I showed up at Bistro à Jojo (a famous live Blues spot in Montréal) just for the fun of jamming. A few days later, I was in the studio again with Erik West Millette (Trainz), and Kevin Parent was in the studio next door working on his new album. He invited me to collaborate on one song. I love to play, and it’s rare that I’m available for this kind of stuff.”

But for now, Steve Hill remains a one-man-band. With one foot on the kick drum to maintain the cadence, he sometimes shakes a makeshift shaker, a can filled with loose change, taped to his right foot. To round things off, a drumstick is affixed to his guitar neck, so that he can hit a hi-hat and cymbal.

All the while, he produces multiple hypnotic riffs that range from rural and modern blues to rock, country and folk. “Everything is live, I don’t use sampling,” he says. “It’s an honest reflection of who I am as an artist,” says the man, who calls himself a “guitar whore. I own over thirty guitars and more than twenty amps.”

Steve Hill has two more Canadian tours booked in 2016 and he’s currently looking at offers for dates in the States, Europe and Brazil in 2017.

In concert at Montreal Club Soda, April 28th.

Twenty years after its modest beginnings at Zest, on Bennett St. in Montréal’s infamous HoMa district, the showcase/contest Les Francouvertes has become a must-see event. And even though the list of past winners is impressive in and of itself, what has truly established the event’s reputation is its impact on Québec’s music scene for the past two decades.

Wednesday, April 13, 2016, 11 p.m. Montréal’s Lion d’Or is bustling with excitement as Sylvie Courtemanche, the Director of Francouvertes, is about to announce the three artists who will duke it out at Club Soda during the finals of the 20th Anniversary edition.

Tonight is the third and last semi-final, and provides the occasion to award many generous prizes amongst the 21 contestants. In the end, Mon Doux Saigneur, Caltâr-Bateau and La Famille Ouellette are chosen as the three finalists. The ultimate winner will also grab a $10,000 cash prize.

That night, some faces are clearly disappointed, but others are downright euphoric. “We’ve unsuccessfully registered to participate for four years and now we’re headed for the finals… You bet I’m effing flabbergasted!” says Caltâr-Bateau’s bass player, Étienne Dupré. “Funny thing is, I also drum in Mon Doux Saigneur… It’s going to be a big night for me!”

“It’s fun to see that the feedback is so good,” says Mon Doux Saigneur’s frontman, Émerik St-Cyr, in a much calmer tone. “At the very least, it gives me hope that I’m not crazy, and that following one’s passion might be a decent way to earn a living.’

David Bujold’s band, Fudge, barely missed making it to the finals, and he’s a bit disappointed. “I find it hard to finish fourth,” he confides. “We came so close…”

The guitarist and songwriter is far from a loser, though, and he leaves the contest with a few prizes, including a $1,000 cash prize awarded by SOCAN for his song “Ju.” “I’ve participated in a certain number of contests so far, and the best song prize always seemed out of my league, so despite not making it to the finals, this is a great night.”

Mere inches away, members of La Famille Ouellette can barely contain themselves. “We REALLY didn’t expect this,” admits J-S Houle, the band’s keyboard player and singer. “Our first show as a band was in the preliminary rounds. The Francouvertes became our excuse to crawl out from the shadows and launch our own project, as a bunch of friends.”

Love at First Sight

Eight years ago, electro-pop trio La Patère Rose also played its very first show during Francouvertes” preliminary round. A few weeks later, they won the contest’s 12th finals.

Éli Bissonnette, the founder and head honcho of record label Grosse Boîte, was a member of the jury that night. “It was the first time I saw them on stage and they totally blew my mind. I wrote to them the next day, and shortly thereafter, we had signed them,” he remembers. “We don’t necessarily come to Francouvertes scouting for a new artist to sign, but we’re never immune to love at first sight. The same thing happened last year with Émile Bilodeau.”

Francouvertes Loco LocassSomething similar also happened on Feb. 7, 2000. That’s the night rap trio Loco Locass won the now-legendary final round where they beat, among others, Les Cowboys Fringants. “We hadn’t even played 10 shows when we won that contest. That’s where we learned how to really work a crowd,” reminisces Chafiik. “We knew the Cowboys were electrifying onstage, so we gave everything we had during the finals.”

Among the jury members was Patrice Duchesne, who at the time was artistic director at the Audiogram label. “For a band like us with basically no stage experience, Les Francouvertes was quite a fast track,” says Batlam. “It was the launching pad for our album and, ultimately, for our band – because Audiogram re-released our album a few months later.”

More recently, François Bissoondoyal of Spectra Musique also made a pleasant discovery. “Francouvertes was instrumental in us signing Philippe Brach,” admits the label’s director. “We’d had an eye on him for a while, but seeing him in a spacious venue with a good P.A. and a captivated audience was very helpful.”

Obviously, Francouvertes is not just about the winners. Last year, Eric Harvey, a talent manager for Ambiances Ambiguës and founder of the Duprince imprint, spotted singer Rosie Valland, who didn’t make it to the finals. “I’d heard her first EP, but it’s when I witnessed her stage presence during the semi-finals that I decided to approach,” he recounts. “The Duprince label was officially launched in September 2015 with the release of her album.”

Beyond the Label

Karkwa finished second in 2002, and their “defeat” was far from being just that. That year, remembers Sylvie Courtemanche – the director of Francouvertes, who’s been involved in the event from the start in 1996 – the winners were the now defunct reggae band Kulcha Connection. “Later, Louis-Jean Cormier admitted to me that finishing second was the best thing that ever happened to Karkwa. It was like the kick in the ass they needed to up their game,” says the woman who became the  Francouvertes  director in 2005, when it moved from Zest to Lion d’Or. “Winning the Francouvertes when the time isn’t right can be harmful.”

Karim Ouellet

Karim Ouellet also finished second in the contest. Already signed to a label when he participated in 2011 – something that’s no longer possible under the contest’s new rules – the singer had no specific goals.

“It was my manager who told me about Francouvertes for the first time. I’d just released an album and we were looking for ways to promote it,” says the Coyote Records artist. “The thing was, I’d already done [the Festival International de la Chanson de] Granby and I didn’t really feel like doing another contest… But it wasn’t long before I figured out that Francouvertes was more interesting, particularly because it’s a contest that is attuned to the local scene.”

A year before, Bernard Adamus, who was part of the Grosse Boîte roster, was in the same situation. With his Brun album already out, the singer-songwriter decided to use the contest as a way to gain stage experience. “All I was looking for was assurance and credibility. I’d get a big adrenaline rush every time I’d get onstage,” recounts the artist. “I remember it was a special feeling, because I knew half of the bands I was playing with. I’d run across them at some point or another, at Quai des Brumes or Inspecteur Épingle.”

Although it’s true that the local folk microcosm has always been an important hotbed of talent for the contest, things are slowly changing.

Bernard AdamusThis year, for example, several finalists – notably Ponteix, Cy, Simon Daniel and McLean – were from outside of Québec. “Maybe it’s the HayBabies effect,” says Courtemanche, referring to the Acadian band who won the contest in 2013. “It’s quite frequent that a band influences the cohorts that follow. For many years, we got a lot of demos that were clearly influenced by Karkwa or Les sœurs Boulay.”

Miles away from the sound of those artists, the current trio of finalists – all of them from Montréal – bring a breath of fresh air to the contest, if only by their imposing orchestration and their bold musical hybridization.

“This year is really special, says Courtemanche. “We’re dealing with large bands with arrangements that are a lot less sparse than last year… Let’s just say it’s a lot more expensive in beer vouchers!”

The Francouvertes Finals
Club Soda, May 9th

Jessy Fuchs is and always was a free thinker. Barely 16 when he joined SOCAN, he founded the Slam Disques label, is an art director and video director, he’s the frontman of punk-rock duo Rouge Pompier (loosely: Firetruck Red) and he was the bass player and main songwriter for the now-defunct band eXterio. Rewind to the mid-‘90s: at the time, he caught everyone off-guard during a songwriting workshop organized by SOCAN.

“The panel members were talking about the secrets of a good song,” Fuchs (pronounced “Füsh”) remembers. “I was getting infuriated by what I was hearing. You have to do this and that to write a good song. There was a mic so that members of the audience could ask questions. I stepped up. I was 17 and I totally disagreed with them. Everybody turned and stared at me. I said I felt like they were proposing a template, a recipe, that was tantamount to the death of creativity. I said I believed there were as many ways to write a good song than there were great songs. The crowd cheered me on. I went back to my seat and realized I really enjoyed it. I was good at something: shit-kicking!”

“People in the music scene tend to be quiet in public. They’re afraid to upset someone and lose their support. From that point on, it becomes politics.”

Eighteen years later, the musician is frequently solicited to share his opinions on the recording industry’s issues. His editorials have been published by The Huffington Post and he’s a regular on the Catherine et Laurent show, which airs simultaneously on community stations CIBL and MATV. He’s openly criticized ADISQ who, in his own words, is there to serve record producers rather than artists. He blames musicians for their inability to sell themselves during interviews. He’s opinionated and makes no bones about it. “People like the fact that I’m a musician, a label guy, and that I’m not afraid to speak my mind,” says Fuchs. “That’s quite rare indeed. People in the music scene tend to be quiet in public. They’re afraid to upset someone and lose their support. From that point on, it becomes politics.”

Really? Can one really lose that much just from criticizing their peers? “There’s nothing dramatic about taking a stand,” says Fuchs. “Opinions abound everywhere. I’ve understood that with time, things settle down and people move on.”

According to Fuchs, no one should ever feel ashamed of standing for what they believe. “No one can ever please everyone, and it’s just as true for recording artists. Whether they are pop or rock, too many musicians compromise too much by trying to please everyone. When I act as a producer or art director for records released by Slam Disques, I always warn the band members before giving them my opinion. I tell them my opinion should not matter more than that of their girlfriend or peers. I tell them that in the end, I will always let them decide because the reason I signed them is because I trust them and I’m ready to assume their choices. If I didn’t like them, I didn’t have to sign them.”

Living on $12,000 a Year

Rouge Pompier

Rouge Pompier (Photo: Jean-François Lemire)

Founded in 2002, Slam Disques – whose roster includes O Linea, Athena, Couturier, Jeffrey Piton, Les Conards à l’Orange – will turn 15 next year. That’s quite a feat when you consider the very specific niche market coveted by the label: teenage fans of Francophone punk rock. One glance at the sales and one quickly realizes that most of Slam Disques’s releases sell 500 or 600 copies at best. The only exception being eXterio, which sold 30,000 units, but that was eight years ago. “Our secret? Five employees who work for a salary that I wish could be higher, an unpaid intern, and myself –  who, until very recently, worked 120 hours a week for zero dollars. Except to buy a car two years ago, I have never paid myself a salary for my work at Slam Disques.”

This means he lived on $12,000 a year which he earned from his copyrights from eXterio’s catalogue (including their hit “Whippet”) as well as from the catalogue of Rouge Pompier and a few other collaborations, including one with Les Chick’n Swell. That meant a lot of sacrifices for Fuchs. “I don’t have a family, I have very few expenses,” he says. “All the money I earned for filming, directing, editing and screenwriting videos went straight to the label’s bank account, not mine. The merch for eXterio and the first Rouge Pompier album was paid by the label and the profits went back to the label. To me, success is not a matter of the amount of money I can make, but to the number of projects I’ve successfully put out.”

This determination is equally present in his work as a songwriter. On Chevy Chase, Rouge Pompier’s latest album, released in March 2016, Jessy and drummer Alexandre Portelance produced 145 demos. Of those, 45 were shared to their fans so they could pick the 13 songs that made the final cut of the album. “I’m not interested in bands that write 12 songs for a 12-song album,” says Fuchs. “If you really think everything you write is good, we have a serious problem. By composing 145 songs, I set no limits and I was going in every possible direction without censoring myself: there were gloomy songs, stupid songs, protest songs, pop songs… It’s the fans that picked the best ones.”


The Cornerstone: A Good Song

One of the songs selected by the fans is titled “Ta peau tu la brûles” (loosely: “Burn Your Own Skin”), perfectly expresses the philosophy of Fuchs’ career. “I sing about the fact that we’re the only ones responsible for our own fate,” he says. “There’s no one bigger than you to pull yourself up. I started producing concerts and records because I wanted to work in the music business. I knew I wasn’t any smarter than anyone else when I was a teen, but I also knew that hard work would get me where I wanted to be. Just yesterday, I was invited in a fifth-grade class to tell the kids how I’ve managed to earn a living doing what I’m passionate about. Every time, the message is the same. Want to be an astronaut? Perfect! Don’t listen to people who’ll say, ‘Why?’ Listen to people who’ll say, ‘Why not?’ These are the people who’ll help you get to your dream.”

And those same kids are the ones who, three or four years from now, will be Slam Disques’s new target audience, a market that is purportedly not very interested in Francophone music and even less in paying for its music. “As far as Francophone music, it’s not true,” says Fuchs. “Kids listen to every kind of music. If they like a song, they don’t care whether it’s in French, in English or in Portuguese. It is true, however, that paying for music is quite a foreign concept to them. They have access to the whole world’s repertoire via YouTube. That’s where it’s at for them. My job is making sure that they will easily have access to my artists’ songs and, from that point on, that they want to see them live and, maybe, buy their t-shirt.”

And this video director believes that the ever-popular lyric videos aren’t enough. “Rouge Pompier filmed videos for all the songs on the first album, Kevin Bacon,” he says. “For Chevy Chase’s first single, “Autobus,” we released a lyric video and a regular video. Just putting up a lyric video is useless. In 2016, on the Internet, you need to repeat the same promotional outreach to have the desired impact. A truly creative video is systematically shared a lot more on social media.”

If there’s one thing Fuchs has learned in his 20 years in the business, it’s that “you might have the best promotional plan in the world, but if you don’t have a good album with good songs, it’s just not going to work. Everything starts with the songwriter. I used to think that I could come up with foolproof marketing strategies. Fuck strategy: write good songs, and it’ll work. No promo plan can save a shitty record.”

Rouge Pompier play Montréal’s Club Soda on April 22, 2016
with Kamikazi, Les Connards à l’Orange, Athena and Noé Talbot