“Don’t call it a comeback/I’ve been here for years,” rapped LL Cool J in his 1990 Grammy-winning hit, “Mama Said Knock You Out.” For Alfie Zappacosta, these classic hip-hop lyrics are apropos. The Canadian songwriter wants fans to know, unlike Elvis, he never left the building. And No Avoiding Clichés – his latest live CD/DVD, recorded at Edmonton’s Festival Place Theatre in Sherwood Park – is no comeback.

“I am still alive!” he jokes. “I’ve never stopped working; I’ve just flown a little bit under the radar.”

“As you get older, finding something that hasn’t been done or said before becomes more difficult.”

Even though he’s released five records on his own label (AZ Records) in the past seven years, with little radio play, many long-time fans wondered what happened to the award-winning songwriter. Part of this return to the spotlight is fueled by the artist’s renewed passion in his chosen career and his ability to do things independently.

Based in Edmonton for the past two decades, Zappacosta is ready to hit the road again to promote his new release and share 45 years of songs that, for one reason or another, never hit the mainstream like his earlier hits.

Flash back to the 1980s. Zappacosta was at the top of his game, at least commercially. He won a JUNO for Most Promising Male Vocalist of the Year, in 1984. In 1987, the TV show Danger Bay aired an episode written specifically for Zappacosta, titled “Rock Star.” That same year he also penned and sang “Overload,” which won an American Music Award, exclusively for the multi-platinum-selling soundtrack to Dirty Dancing, which spent 18 weeks at No. 1 on the Billboard Top 200. His hit songs – staples on Canadian adult contemporary radio waves – included “Start Again,” “Passion,” “When I Fall in Love Again,” and “Nothing Can Stand in Your Way.”

While No Avoiding Clichés offers 12 cuts from his catalogue, if you see Zappacosta perform live, he’ll dust off many more tunes, some that even long-time fans may not know.

“This last record was done over a 45-year period of writing,” he says. “I chose only a handful of songs that give a pretty good cross-section of what I’ve been through, but there is so much more than that. I’m calling this project No Avoiding Clichés because as you get older, finding something that hasn’t been done or said before becomes more difficult.”

Why, as the songwriter enters his golden years, is he so re-energized about the music industry? “It’s been a lot of years of ‘I don’t care,’ to now ‘I want to do it,’” he explains. “I’m looking forward to it again. It’s not the age. It’s feeling like I have complete control over my music. Once upon a time there were so many people that would push you this way or that, and even when I liked to believe I had certain control, there often were a lot of people you had to make happy.”

As he hones his chops practicing and working to re-learn songs and remember long-forgotten lyrics to songs he hasn’t performed live in years, Zappacosta stresses this is no short-term comeback.

“I want to be busy for the next 20 years,” he concludes. “I’m around again… don’t think I’m not there. I’m bringing myself back into the limelight. Come see the old dog; he’s just fine!”

Zappacosta (1984); A-Z (1986); Quick! … Don’t Ask Any Questions (1990); Innocence Ballet (1995); Dark Sided Jewel (2000); Start Again (2004); Bonafide (2007); At the Church at Berkeley (2008); Blame it On Me (2010); Live at the Blue Frog Studios (2012); Once Upon a Time (2013); No Avoiding Clichés (2016)

Here’s the latest edition in our series of stories on those happy creative meetings between songwriters that we call duos. This one is about a natural, spontaneous and almost happenstance collaboration, one that united singer-songwriter Marie-Ève Roy (Vulgaires Machins’ guitarist and singer) and Julien Mineau, multi-instrumentalist, producer and leader of Malajube.

“My only goal, with this project,” says Roy, “was to take it to its logical conclusion, and by that I mean writing ten songs that would create a cohesive whole. I wrote these songs very simply, by following ideas that spoke to me, reflected who I am.”

Releasing one’s first solo album should be a milestone that, at least in part, is fraught with insecurity, self-doubt, pressure, and questions. Or so people might rightfully believe, but they would be those whose livelihood isn’t based on writing songs, recording them and playing them live. Perhaps due to her two decades in the business, singer-songwriter Roy is uncannily calm, even though she’s only a few days away from releasing said first solo album.

Julien Mineau, Marie-Ève RoyMaybe, just maybe, this Zen attitude is also attributable to Julien Mineau’s reassuring presence; he’s sitting right next to her in the Villeray café, and never left her side when came time to record Bleu Nelson. First off, what’s with the title? “You’re right, it’s not the title of a song and not even a lyric snippet from one of the songs,” says Roy. “It’s actually a town in New Zealand that I found inspiring when I was there a few years ago.” The blue being, quite obviously, because of the ocean surrounding the island nation.”

From New Zealand, Roy travels to… Place Versailles, a shopping mall in Montréal’s East End, to which she refers on her song “Le monde est triste à Radisson”: “À la place Versailles/Les néons éclairent/La solitude et le béton.” (Freely: “What you see under Place Versailles’ neon lights are solitude and concrete.”) And so it is that we’re taken on a trip inside the artist’s mind, set to music that’s light-years away from Vulgaires Machins’ vindictive punk sounds.

Fans of Québec’s infamous punk rock legends are in for a bit of a surprise indeed: the ten originals are somewhere between ballads and barely faster-paced pop songs. It’s music that caresses and consoles; it’s ‘70s sounding but not retro, as if a sophisticated Françoise Hardy had ditched her yé-yé skirts. Her unconfessed influence? The XX’s melancholic pop songs.

“Initially, I was going for a more minimalist pop sound. But then Julien started playing all kinds of instruments and I went along with it, I liked the direction he was going in, it was perfect.” – Marie-Ève Roy

Says Mineau, “I thought it was interesting to take her there, with her agreement, of course. Tabula rasa, starting anew, recording freely and breaking [her association with punk]. I reckon that someone who’s always been a fan of the Vulgaires will be quite surprised…”

“I’ve wanted to do this project for a long time,” says Roy. “I started writing for it when I ended up alone with my guitar in New Zealand, back in 2010. It was like I decided that it was really going to be my new musical adventure, and the Vulgaires’ hiatus gave me the opportunity to devote myself to it.”

Roy and Moneau didn’t really know each other when she started working on her solo project in earnest, back in 2013. They met when she contacted him to buy a Wurlitzer keyboard. “That’s how it all started, with a piano transaction!” laughs Mineau. “I later offered her to record her album at my place,” in his home studio located in Ste-Ursule, a village of 1,375 souls located about 90 minutes Northeast of Montréal.

Julien Mineau, Marie-Ève RoyAll the album’s songs were written and composed by Marie-Ève, save for “Larmes de joie” (“tears of Joy”), the music for which was composed by Mineau. “My work was mainly on the arrangements,” says the producer. Bleu Nelson was a four-handed recording process: all of the richly orchestrated pop songs were played by the two collaborators.

“It all happened at my place over a period of two weeks,” says Mineau. “Marie-Ève had already sent demos ahead of time, and some of them didn’t even need to be changed at all. We set up, we played, I pressed the record button. We didn’t have a game plan.” Says Roy, “We did talk about the direction of the project before getting underway. I’d been thinking a lot about the sound I was looking for, the vibrato, the very intimate production. I always give myself a few sources of inspiration, The XX and Julian Casablancas. That was our starting point.

“Initially, I was going for a more minimalist pop sound. But then Julien started playing all kinds of instruments and I went along with it, I liked the direction he was going in, it was perfect. I was looking for a very specific atmosphere, but I was also totally open to Julien’s ideas.” Thus, Bleu Nelson is not only an album, but a snapshot of a fruitful musical collaboration. It’s no surprise that the whole project was wrapped in a couple of weeks: they’d established the perfect dialogue.

This was also a first for Mineau. “I’d never produced someone else’s album before,” he says. “Working for others means, for me, less self-questioning and, above all, being able to try new ideas, and I have a million of those. I also took away a lot from this collaboration, especially about cutting back – I do have a tendency to record way too many tracks. It made me want to do this more.” Time allowing, obviously.

Before then, Malajube will finally release another album, and there ought to be another solo album from Mineau, most likely quite different from his Fontarabie foray. “Songs more than instrumentals,” he says. “A completely different world.”

Looking for Montréal’s Ghislain Poirier is always in vain. Just as his 10th album’s title states, he is in constant Migration. In the past year alone, he’s played in Geneva, Berlin, Paris, Glasgow, Grenoble, Toronto, Edinburgh, Rennes, Lyon, Milan, London, Tunis, Marseille, and Belgium, to name just a few! But the man is also in perpetual artistic motion. Since the 2007 launch of his No Ground Under album on the prestigious Ninja Tune label, he’s produced a series of EPs under the moniker Poirier (which were compiled and “retouched” for 2010’s double-album Running High); he co-produced Face-T’s album Tuff Like Stone (2012) as well as Boogat’s El Dorado Sunset, which went on to win two Félix awards for Best World Music Album and Best Production in 2013; he was at the artistic helm of the Tout égratigné project, a collection of re-mixes of Robert Charlebois’ repertoire; and he produced two more experimental albums under the moniker Boundary (2013–2014).

Add to this impressive list his soon-to-be launched electro-dancehall album Migration, which got heads turning and bodies moving even before its release, and his first film score for Denis Côté’s Boris sans Béatrice, both of which launched on March 4, 2016, and what you get is the massive track record of a man who’s managed every aspect of his career for the past 10 years.

“I booked my own tour last fall,” says the man who dropped by our Montréal offices for this early morning interview. “Right now I’m producing Face-T’s next release and working on the launch and promotion of Migration, as well as planning my next live appearances. I even send my press releases myself. But there’s nothing exceptional in the fact that I do all of that stuff myself, a lot of people I know do it, too. It’s a blessing and a boon. It means less creative time, but if we didn’t do it, we might not be where we’re at now. Or maybe we wouldn’t have gotten there in a way that we enjoy.

Rhythm and Politics

“With Migration, I feel I’m making something that’s a lot more like songs, something more hooky,” says Poirier. “I made a conscious decision to increase the melodic side of things without compromising on the usual, signature way I work on textures, rhythm and structure. It was a lot of fun. But I’ve never been a virtuosity buff. I’m not a show-off. I really wanted to avoid the album sounding like it was made only for people who know music. I wanted an album that everyone would like, whether it’s to dance to or to listen on your own. It’s an inclusive album. I wrote the words “sweet reggae music” on a post-it note that I stuck to the wall above my computer. It was there to help me stay focused on the goal.”

“I’ve always thought that the composer can be as opinionated as the singer. I don’t want to make a big thing out of it, but it’s undeniable that it affects the way I think, and therefore my work and the content of my music.”

Ghislain Poirier

Even though Poirier has once more surpassed himself in the sound texture and rhythm departments, he’s also now grafted on a social and political discourse that permeates Migration. The press release for his latest album began with a statement about migrants – “a problem that cannot and must not be ignored in 2016” – immediately setting the tone for a politically conscious album whose main goal is to make you dance. Poirier sees absolutely no reason why pleasure and socially-charged themes can’t co-exist on an album. “We’re all seeking a better world because of persistent inequalities, and that’s what’s at the root of large migrations,” he says, before launching into a list of examples of how governments are transferring their responsibilities to corporations, at the loss of the people’s power. He severely criticizes Enron, Nike, Québec Prime Minister Pierre Couillard’s austerity, the corporate ties that both Pierre Karl Péladeau and François Legault maintain, and, finally, enjoins us to read Alain Deneault’s Gouvernance: Le management totalitaire and La médiocratie. There not even the shadow of a doubt for him; his music is not just meant to make you swing your hips, you also need to use your head.

Poirier’s tendency to look around himself and beyond has been characteristic of who he is since he was a teen. He’s always been very careful to preserve it intact, and has never hesitated to shop his music around to international labels. One such label, the London, England, imprint Nice Up! Records has taken up the responsibility of marketing and promoting Migration internationally. “I doubt I would have the career I’ve had so far if I had restricted myself to Québec,” says Poirier. “I’m not saying I’m ‘bigger’ than someone whose career is entirely in this province, I’m just saying I’m part of a different scene. I want to have an impact here, but elsewhere too. I want to be part of a global dialogue. That’s why collaborating with labels in different territories opens up different opportunities. Like my song ‘Jump,’ which has been played a few times on the BBC. I don’t think that if my album had been released by Audiogram or La Tribu or Bonsound, all excellent labels, it must be said, they would’ve worked on promoting it in England, because they’re not distributed there. It’s a simple market equation. The BBC is right in Nice Up!’s backyard. And I couldn’t be more thrilled, because the guy playing my song, David Rodigan, is at the very top of the world’s reggae scene. If I don’t travel, no one will come knocking on my door.”

On Migration, Poirier once again tapped his partner in crime, Face-T, but also used his Rolodex to call on prestigious collaborators such as Machinedrum (a go-to American electronic music producer), Red Fox (a key player in New York’s dancehall scene and part of Shaggy’s entourage), Chicago’s MC Zulu (back for a third time on one of Poirier’s albums), as well as Toronto’s Dubmatix (who’s nominated for a 2016 JUNO Award and has already won a few of the trophies, whose popularity in Europe is undeniable). “Collaborating remotely is not as simple as sending your track to someone so they’ll record their voice to it,” says Poirier. “There are many back and forth [cumminications] to add, adjust, fine-tune, sometimes even re-record entirely, before we have a final product… It is, however, a process that allows everyone to truly express themselves, instead of getting a kind of coitus interruptus feeling.”

Boris sans Béatrice

To anyone who’s paid attention to Boundary, Poirier’s electro incarnation, it was obvious that one of these days a movie director would have the sense to use that very cinematic music. In the end, it was Québec director Denis Côté (Curling, Bestiaire, Vic+Flo ont vu un ours) who had the flair to do it for his latest picture, Boris sans Béatrice. “It was a true meeting of the minds, a true collaboration between Denis and I,” the new audiovisual composer says enthusiastically. “I was allowed to bring my personal touch to his very personal universe. It all came about because of Boundary. I already felt that I was writing very cinematic music. When Denis got in touch with me, he said he could hear Boundary’s music while he was writing. It ended up that two existing Boundary tracks were used and the rest was composed in the spirit of Boundary. In this specific case, my job really was to accompany the images by enhancing their weird and ambiguous nature. But I didn’t want to enhance them too much either. The film has its own narrative and the music must not interfere with it.”

A few days after its world première in Berlin, the film enjoyed its Montréal première, during the Rendez-Vous du cinéma québécois at the Imperial theatre. Poirier was giggling like a child. “I couldn’t believe that something I did on my computer, on my own, was now going to be part of something much bigger projected on this huge screen!,” he says. “That première was a beautiful moment for me, and I would be delighted if I can repeat the experience for other productions.”

Poirier is clearly ready and willing to migrate to new territories and new experiences, and we can rest assured that he’s not about to stop exploring the possibilities offered by the free circulation of rhythms and ideas.

Below, you can watch a conference presented by Poirier at Montréal’s Creative Mornings, where the artist shares his creative process, talks about the nature of the game, and the tense relationship between music-making and the music industry, which he resolves with fun and respect.