His alias is Anatole, but you can now call him by his actual name, Alexandre Martel. On his third, eponymous project, the Québec City singer-songwriter unmasks himself, and is re-born.

AnatoleAfter producing some of Québec’s most impactful albums of the past four years – for Hubert Lenoir, Lou-Adriane Cassidy and Thierry Larose, to name just a few –  Martel questioned his own career as an artist, at least as he envisioned it early on.

“Collaborating with them and producing their albums confronted me with different visions of what a song is. Each of these encounters had an influence on me,” he says. “Being in orbit of their success [of some of these artists], working for them in a supporting role, made me realize that the spotlight wasn’t important to me as I thought. I found myself fulfilled by my role as a producer and a creator. I no longer felt the urge to write that I had at 20.”

Anatole had to pick up songwriting again – a bit out of obligation – as part of Boutique Pantoum, a series of video recordings organized last year by Le Pantoum, a music creation complex in Québec City. “Initially, I just wanted to re-visit my old stuff, but it didn’t fit with the concept of the video,” he says. “So I wrote songs especially for that project, after four years of not writing music at all.”

Gradually, his Anatole alter ego, known for his cold electro-pop sounds and theatrical stage show, grew less and less appealing, at least in his original iteration. “After the Testament tour (his second album, released in 2018), we were just fed up with what we were doing,” Martel admits, talking about the very nature of the project, which he created with several friends – including co-producer and arranger Simon Paradis.

“Our first goal was to challenge the expectations that people normally have when they go to a rock concert,” he says. “Except that by constantly doing that, we just created a new set of expectations. We created something like an endless bidding war. I felt like putting a stop to all that. I wanted to do a 180 and explore another avenue.”

That’s how the character of Anatole got a fresh start. He’s less flamboyant and more down-to-earth than he used to be. “I wanted to make the curtain between the character and myself less opaque,” says  Martel. “I wanted to make the boundary between the two as thin as possible. That’s when I had the idea to use more vocals and harmonies. It was my way of bringing humanity back to the centre of it all. I wanted to go beyond the artificial aspect of the music [I used to make].”

The fact that the songs have no titles, and are simply numbered, is in line with the essence of this concept album. “I figured that since I’m much less in ‘representation’ mode [through my character], the songs should follow suit,” says Martel. “That’s how we ended up numbering the songs [in the order in which they were created].”

The nine songs on this third album, aptly titled Alexandre Martel, are much more geared towards folk, rock, and jazzy ‘70s pop. The complicity between Anatole and his faithful collaborators (notably multi-instrumentalist Jean-Étienne Collin-Marcoux, Antoine Bourque and the aforementioned Lou-Adriane Cassidy) is highlighted not only in the vocal harmonies, but also in the very essence of the compositions.

“It’s the most collaborative album I’ve ever made,” he says. “Back in the day, Simon [Paradis] and I would create detailed demos of all the arrangements, and then we’d record them with the band. This time around, I would come to them with more schematic tunes. I had a pre-meditated direction, say, I wanted something centred around acoustic guitar with vocals and less synths, and the arrangement would happen in the studio. Sometimes, four or five of us would sit to find a guitar line that was a single bar long. It’s sometimes hard to tell who’s doing what.”

This new approach is also aligned with the album’s lyrics. The writing on Alexandre Martel evokes this idea of new beginnings, re-birth, and breaking cycles. “The lyrics truly amplify the emotions that the music paints,” says Martel. “I went for more personal lyrics that were aligned with my intention of doing a [more organic] human-centred album. I wanted a finished product whose music and lyrics were coherent. The stuff I used to do was colder and distant. This time around, I’m trying to sing [my songs] with an emotion that’s closer to authenticity.”

In this regard, the most recent album by Montréal folk group Bolduc Tout Croche, released in early 2022, was particularly inspiring for Anatole. “The song ‘D’où c’que j’viens’ really moved me,” he says. “The lyrics are simple and say a lot. There is a day-to-day tragedy in there, a way of finding beauty and grandeur in everyday tedium. My song ‘Toune 9’ is an homage [to Bolduc Tout Croche],” he says, referencing a sometimes autobiographical song where he expresses his attachment to the Limoilou neighbourhood of Québec City.

In this spirit of revival, Anatole touches on a more political or, at least, a slightly more “protest song” tip on the very catchy “Toune 2.” “It’s a bit of a criticism of what I call Instagram thinking and sharing meaningless slogans,” he says, referring to trendy concepts and words that people and companies use to give themselves good conscience online. “A lot of people use that to validate their non-involvement by building this fake militancy aura for themselves. My tune says to go beyond the surface, beyond the frame.”

On his new album, by going beyond his own persona, Anatole can claim to have led by example.