Tire le coyote“Recently, I taped an episode of the TV series Microphone with Louis-Jean Cormier,” says singer-songwriter Benoît Pinette – better known as Tire le Coyote since the release of his first album, Le Fleuve en huile, in 2011 – on the phone from Québec City. “We were singing together, and that’s when I realized how he puts tonic accents on this or that syllable, whereas I put them elsewhere. It’s funny how each singer has their own way of doing things and writing, isn’t it?”

To each their own. For a long time, people said Pendant was mimicking someone else – Neil Young, mostly. Because of the musical signature, but mainly because of his falsetto, so reminiscent of Young’s 1970s heyday, especially 1972’s Harvest and 1974’s On the Beach, his folkier and more intimate albums. “It’s how I sing, and that’s that,” says Pinette. And, just to be perfectly clear, he absolutely doesn’t have to justify the way he sings to anyone. “When I started tinkering with the guitar, I was listening to bands like Radiohead,” he says. “That’s how I learned to sing. I don’t even need to strain; I can give several concerts a week and my voice is still good!”

His writing, however, is very singular. Désherbages, his third album – notwithstanding a first EP released in 2009 where he strictly penned the lyrics – appears to be his most polished so far, yet retaining his instinctive way of stringing words and images together. He’s the first to admit that as a lyricist, he’s an aesthete, an impulsive writer.

“I rarely work from a theme or a precise idea I want to express,” says Pinette. “Phrases, images, come to me in segments, and I knit the song using those bits.” Though he might sing like a young Neil Young, or a Thom Yorke, only Pinette himself can write the kind of stanza that opens “Toit cathédrale” (“Catherdal Ceilng”): “Les clichés ont le vent dans les voiles, à qui la faute / Quand les aimants ne collent plus sur le frigidaire de l’autre” (“Clichés are riding high, whose fault is it / When the magnets no longer stick to the other person’s fridge”).

Or, for another example, on the haunting, atmospheric rock psalm “Tes bras comme une muraille,” one of the album’s outstanding tracks: “J’espère faire valser les vieux fantômes / Jusqu’à la limite de nos origins / Pour qu’on puisse donner au soleil son diplôme / Le ménage se fera sans garantie légale / Je regarde au loin mes fenêtres sont sales / Faudra au moins s’assurer qu’elles donnent sur l’avenir” (I hope to make old ghosts waltz / All the way to our origins / So we can give the sun his diploma / The clean-up will be done with no legal warranty / I look into the distance, my windows are dirty / Let’s at least make sure they look to the future”). Tire le Coyote’s poetry is like no other, using simple words that rhyme nicely, and pretty images that illustrate profound and all-too-real sentiments.

Two exceptions to the rule are hidden on Désherbages. At one end of the album sits “Jeu vidéo,” a skillful French adaptation of Lana del Rey’s “Video Games,” or rather, a Québécois adaptation, with stanzas such as “L’ivresse est “stallée” sur ta peau” (“Drunkenness is stalled on your skin”), as he uses the word “stallée”, which is a typical Québec Anglicism (the use of an English word in French). The other surprise is “Le ciel est backorder” (another example of a Québec Anglicism), and its subject matter is serious: “Quand ton corps est une cage où on enferme la maladie / Tu veux reprendre le tirage sous prétexte de tricherie” (“When your body is a place where illness is caged / You want to do it all over, feeling there was foul play”). “That’s the one song on the album where I had a precise idea before I started writing it,” says Pinette. “A friend was seriously ill, in and out of the hospital regularly, and an example of strength and resilience.”

For his new album, Pinette restricted himself to a pre-determined period of writing, contrary to his habit of “writing almost all the time, especially on tour.” His previous album had taken him on the road for more than 18 months, introducing him to new audiences. “I took a break in September of 2016,” he says, “in order to work on my next album. It was the first time I did such a thing: devote myself entirely to creation. I’d decided to write the whole album in three months. The goal was to be done by January.”

The writing sessions were interrupted by numerous distractions, and weekends in the countryside with his family – stepping away from the blank page only to come back to it stronger. He then gathered his partners in crime, Simon Pedneault (who produced Gabrielle Shonk’s debut album) and Benoit Villeneuve (a.k.a. Shampouing) to breathe life into this musically varied album – more so than its predecessors, in any case – where each song seems to inhabit its own landscape, raging from pared-down folk to rock explorations. “I listened to Andy Shauf a lot,” says Pinette. “Especially The Party. His way of writing rock songs inspired me.”

Inspiration is necessary. Then, it’s all about putting your own tonic accent on it.

Photos in story by Ronald Labelle

 At 73, Robert Charlebois still is an amazing performer, in complete control of his prodigious body of work. On Oct. 16, 2017, both his immortal repertoire and the exceptional man behind it will be celebrated at the Montréal SOCAN Awards Gala.

Young Robert CharleboisOn that night, he’ll receive the aptly-named Lifetime Achievement Award celebrating the outstanding success of a SOCAN member throughout his career. To Charlebois, this honour is a wonderful recognition. “It goes to show that if there’s one thing everybody agrees on, it’s longevity,” he says. “Nobody really understands what talent is, but careers that have spanned 40, 50, or 60 years always mean something.”

Yet, in the early ‘60s, nothing hinted at such a long career for the future enfant terrible of the Québec music scene – back when he was just a piano accompanist for Jean-Guy Moreau, his friend and fellow citizen of Ahuntsic (a popular neighbourhood in the north-central part of Montréal). The latter, a singer and comedian popular on the boîte à chansons circuit, he specialized in imitating the great chansonniers. “He was very meticulous and he’d ask me to play a few tunes while he went backstage to change,” says Charlebois. “The thing is, people were there to laugh… They didn’t appreciate it at all when I sang!”

Robert Charlebois then came up with a song that was typical of the era, and classic in the sense that it was inspired both by his father’s love of American crooners like Sinatra, and hi mother’s love for French chansonniers like Charles Trenet. A fan of Chopin, he learned to play the piano at boarding school, even though he never actually learned to read the “tiny black notes,” and later discovered rock n’ roll as a teen, especially Chuck Berry and Jerry Lee Lewis. “Those are the basic ingredients of who I am, somewhere between Elvis and Maurice Chevalier,” Charlebois summarizes with a laugh.

Following the advice of Marcel Sabourin – who taught the young singer during his stint at l’École nationale de théâtre du Canada from 1962 to 1965 – to “let his creativity explode”, he wrote several songs and gave solo shows. Meeting chansonnier and poet Jean-Paul Filion in a coffeehouse would turn out to be particularly memorable.

“He saw me singing “La Boulé and got into it right away,” says Charlebois. “He told me that if I could come up with 10 or 12 more like that, he’d introduce me to this guy named John Damant. Not long after, I met with that producer in my best suit and white shoes. He said, ‘We’re not gonna make you do a 45… We’re releasing an album right away, because you’re of the Vigneault and Léveillée calibre.’ Six months later, I was back with a bunch of songs, and we recorded the whole album in a single afternoon.”

Robert Charlebois 1970sA critical success, Vol. 1 paved the way for its successor, released in 1966. Almost repudiated by its author, it went rather unnoticed and Charlebois realized he needed to change his approach. “If writing well is writing like no one else, I figure singing should be just the same,” he says. “In other words, why try to be a Gilbert Bécaud No. 2 when there’s one already?

“Back then, there was a lot of cultural entitlement going on: Bretons wanted to sing like Bretons, and we, too, were realizing that we are not French. So, on my third album, I integrated words from the Québécois patois. My writing was still between two chairs, but it didn’t sound like anything else playing on the radio.”

Determined to broaden his horizons, the twentysomething left to explore the American West over a period of three months. He was invited to stay at Michel Robidoux’s sister’s place – Robidoux was his friend, who introduced him to the electric guitar – and met several important musicians, including members of The Byrds and Big Brother and the Holding Company, Janis Joplin’s band. “That was at the height of flower power, just before the Charles Manson thing,” says Charlebois “One open door led to another, and all thanks to the international language of the blues. I was on the porch of a beachside motel, and when I heard a guitar, I’d reply with the right chord. I met people that way and, one thing leading to the next, I ended up being invited to a party at Peter Fonda’s place, and it was like the entire planet had been invited. There was food, drinks and weed for everyone! Three months later, I was back in Montréal with the same five-dollar bill in my pocket as when I left.”

Re-inventing Everything

It was with a fully-integrated desire to re-invent everything that the singer-songwriter began the writing several new songs. Alongside his commune mates, he took great pleasure in de-constructing and re-constructing sentences written by Claude Péloquin. That’s how, in a single night, “Lindberg” came to be written.

“Claude wrote on cigarette packs, beer cases, scraps of paper,” says Charlebois. “One night, the girls [Louise Forestier, Mouffe and Sophie Clément] gathered all those scattered writings and brought them to me. I cleaned it up and found an intro, and the hook. I showed it to Vigneault, and he said it was impossible to sing and that I’d never manage to turn that into music. I took that as a challenge… Louise and I sat down and found the harmony, and we sang the song to friends of Claude’s who happened to pass by. They kept asking us to sing it again, while lighting up joints. Not that I condone drug use, but I’d lie if ‘psychedelia’ didn’t play a role in how we saw music as a territory to explore. Call it a collective creation,” says the artist, whose song will also be recognized with the Cultural Impact Award, alongside co-writer Claude Péloquin, and their publisher, Éditions Gamma, during the SOCAN Gala.

Emblematic and ground-breaking, that song set the stage for the creative process of Charlebois’ fourth album, which was imbued with a sense of urgency, and involved the collaboration of a few select peers such as the Nouveau Jazz Libre du Québec quartet, Marcel Sabourin, and Gilles Vigneault, who penned the lyrics of “La Marche du Président.” “That, too, was written in a single night, and that was the time Vigneault tried weed for the first time!” he laughs. “Louise and I went to his second-story place in Québec City. I had the basic melody already in mind, and Gilles jumped right in with his pen.”

Recorded in a single night and mixed over a period of several weeks at André Perry’s renowned studio in Brossard (a suburb on Montréal’s south shore), Robert Charlebois Louise Forestier was tepidly received. “It took six months before radio got on board with it,” says the icon. “We were booed when we opened for Jean-Pierre Ferland… We were even excommunicated by cardinal Léger because of the line ‘une crisse de chute en parachute’! [In English, ‘a fucking drop with a parachute,’ but the point of the excommunication was that the swear word ‘crisse’ is derived from the word ‘Christ,’ as a vast majority of Québécois swear words are derived from the church.] On the other hand, the people who liked the album really loved it. Over in France, people saw an energy there that existed nowhere else in Francophone music at the time,” remembers the man who played the hallowed Olympia, in Paris many times in the following years, before going on tour with Léo Ferré. “I, for one, was convinced of one thing: for once, I knew exactly where I was headed.”

Robert Charlebois L’OsstidchoProfoundly changed by a Frank Zappa concert he attended, Charlebois convinced his friends Louise Forestier, Mouffe and Yvon Deschamps to create a multidisciplinary show that they would play at the colourful Paul Buissonneau’s theatre, the Théâtre Quat’Sous. Two days before the première, in May 1968, Buissonneau resigned as artistic director for the show, unable as he was to manage the troupe. “Ton hostie de show, fourre-toé-le dans l’cul” (“shove your fucking show up your ass”), he told Charlebois, who saw in that a great opportunity to re-name said show L’Osstidcho.

“He wanted us to wear small paper hats, but I’d just come from California and seen what an eclectic show can be,” says Charlebois. “He also thought we played too loud, but all we wanted to do was play some rock. We fired him and re-imagines the show by giving ourselves room to improvise. At the end of the first show, the room was completely silent for a good two minutes. We were freaking out, we thought it was the flop of a lifetime…  And then, everybody jumped up as one and applauded for about 10 minutes. We were blown away.”

That show, which was born in a turbulent socio-political context, was instrumental in Québec’s cultural awakening, on par with monuments like Michel Tremblay’s Les Belles-sœurs and Réjean Ducharme’s L’Avalée des avalés.

The Stage as a Proving Ground

The following decade, too, was to be marked by that manifest and dynamic cultural awakening. The Superfrancofête, held on the Plains of Abraham in 1974, was one of the finest examples, thanks to the presentation of a concert titled J’ai vu le loup, le renard, le lion (I’ve Seen the Wolf, the Fox and the Lion) that assembled three key artists of the Québec music scene: Félix Leclerc, Gilles Vigneault and Robert Charlebois.

“The idea was to put on a big party to celebrate our Francophone playground, regardless of anyone’s political sensibilities,” says Charlebois, who, despite many  accolades, once defined himself as “un gars ben ordinaire” (“just an ordinary guy”) in his beloved song “Ordinaire.” “I remember Félix was slightly afraid of me. He’d told Gilles, ‘I know you , Gilles, but do you think we can trust the young one who threw his drums at the Olympia? Apparently he uses drugs and all that.’ As a welcome when I went to visit him at his place, he said, ‘Park your car the other way around, it’ll be easier to leave!’ [laughs] But we ended up having a lot of fun. We got drunk on gin and tonics and we laughed a lot.”

As many artists whose popularity peaked in the ’70s, the turn of the next decade marked the beginning of a somewhat more tortuous path. “When the disco era came about, I felt confident I could get through that, but in hindsight, I can’t pretend it was a great period,” Charlebois readily admits. “I, too, succumbed to the temptation of a beatbox and synths. It was fine back then, but it’s just not my world. What I like is the cultural and character confrontations that are typical of an orchestra.”

It’s partly why the man chose the stage over the studio for most of the ‘90s and early 2000s. Only four albums of original material were released during that period, notably Doux sauvage and Tout est bien, released in 2001 and 2010, respectively, on the La Tribu imprint.

“No one expects anyone’s album anymore, and I’m no exception to that rule,” says Charlebois. “Anyway, in the era of streaming, I predict the death of the agonizing Francophone music industry within 20 years. By that point, all that will be left are amateurs who write bad songs,” he laments. “Hopefully, I can still surprise you. I’m going to New York soon to meet a producer from Brooklyn. Apparently he’s a miracle worker, and I figure that maybe meeting new people will take me in new directions.”

Until the release of that possible album, it’ll be re-examination time for Robert Charlebois. After all, 2018 marks the 50th anniversary of both that ground-breaking fourth album and the monumental L’Osstidcho, which suggests that the SOCAN Gala Awards are probably just the first few drops of a torrent of awards he’s about to receive.

But for the masked singer, those highly nostalgic anniversaries are far from the sign of a coming retirement. Indeed, the legend is touring again in France next March and April.

“I’d have gone for longer, but my musicians and wife won’t let me!” says Charlebois. “A month-and-a-half seems rather short, but to visit 40 cities, it’s not that long, especially since I can’t do one show after another as much as I wish I could. Sometimes I compare myself, and I see bands like the Rolling Stones who play a lot less shows than I do in a year, although we don’t have the same level of energy, either. Still, music is an extreme sport. And it’s the only sport I practise.”

Hip-hop may have started out in the parks of New York, as everyone from MC Shan to Jay Z has reminded us, but Toronto’s world-conquering battle-rap scene started out in a back alley behind the Eaton Centre.

King of the Dot, Mad Child

Mad Child at King of the Dot

“We couldn’t get a venue. We were 21 years old, and no venue wanted to associate themselves with battle rap,” says Travis “Organik” Fleetwood, recalling the pauper origins of his King of the Dot empire, nearly a decade ago, in 2008. “So we just did it any way we could. Originally we were planning to do it at Yonge-Dundas Square, and then they kicked us out so we had to move to the closest alleyway.”

Understandably, Toronto police thought the circle of 40 or so kids cheering and jeering as two alpha males squared off was building toward a fight. But once they realized that the blows would be only verbal, the cops let it slide.

“They never once shut us down,” says Fleetwood. “They would always ride their bikes by the alleyway and they looked at it like, ‘at least they’re doing something productive and not out causing trouble.’”

After a few more outdoor events that kept doubling in attendance, Fleetwood eventually found a basement venue belonging to a friend’s dad, and sold it out before the doors opened. His fledgling battle-rap league King of the Dot would soon grow into a WWE-like phenomenon, boasting a YouTube page of their fiercest live face-offs with nearly 600,000 subscribers and more than 170 million views.

“We literally built his from the ground up,” says Fleetwood, who quit his steelworker job to run KOTD full-time in 2014. “Everything we’ve done has been trial and error. There was never no blueprint to run a battle-rap league.”

“We literally built his from the ground up. Everything we’ve done has been trial and error.” – Travis “Organik” Fleetwood, of King of the Dot

Battle rap began as a natural outgrowth of hip-hop culture’s inherent braggadocio and competitiveness. It’s a feature also found in the breakdancing, DJ, and graffiti pillars, but came to define this rap offshoot. Battle rap evolved from freestyle sidewalk “cyphers,” where early MCs showed off their rhyme skills to brutally personal lyrical beat-downs, as battlers competed to land the cleverest, cruelest insults. It remained an underground proving ground until an Eminem movie delivered the scene into the mainstream in 2002.

“I was battling when I was super-young, in the ‘90s, I was just going neighborhood to neighborhood. That was the raw feel of it,” recalls veteran Bishop Brigante, King of the Dot Vice-President and the first Canadian battle rapper to appear on BET’s 106 and Park. “By the time 8 Mile dropped, I was like, ‘I did that. I already been through those trenches.’”

“[Back then] it was on beats, it was freestyle off-the-top,” Brigante explains. “It was the purest form of battle rap, because you had to be super-skilled on the spot, with no preparation.” But King of the Dot helped the musical sport evolve into its current form, by having competitors rap a capella with pre-written punchlines, allowing the insults to cut deeper, and the rounds to last longer. “The entertainment value went up when you had a couple months to prepare, and you really wrote it out,” Brigante says. “It became a performance.”

But like Bob Dylan going electric, longtime fans needed convincing, and Drake stepped in to help add credibility by co-hosting a 2011 event, and helping run another in 2015.

King of the Dot, Drake, 40

Drake and Noah “40” Shebib attending King of the Dot

.“A lot of people were still on the fence because the battles were now written, and [Drake] made the city get behind us a lot more,” says Fleetwood. “Toronto was thriving at that time, so it was more than just supporting the league, it was showing unity between the hip-hop scenes from the industry level to the underground level. It showed that the whole community was standing together. A lot of cities don’t got that. You’re not seeing the big names over there going to these underground functions to support these kids on the come-up. Drake was doing that. And it helped us push our brand into America.”

Maybe it wasn’t hard to become the biggest battle-rap league in Canada, since there wasn’t much competition. But King of the Dot has successfully expanded southward, throwing throw-downs in Massachusetts, Arizona and California, while attracting international competitors to their World Domination events. Legendary MCs like Too $hort, E-40 and Wu-Tang Clan’s Raekwon and Method Man have co-hosted events.

Even the new Eminem-produced battle-rap movie Bodied, which debuted at the 2017 Toronto International Film Festival, was scripted by Toronto battle-rapper Kid Twist, the first King of the Dot champion.  “It’s a good dive into the culture and people are gonna be wowed, and when they’re done they can go on YouTube and check out King of the Dot and see a lot of people who were in the movie,” says Brigante.

“We were actually one of the more prominent battle scenes in the world but I don’t think the rest of the world knew that yet,” adds Fleetwood about the old days. “We knew up here because we could see what the rest of the world was delivering, but not many people had their eyes on Toronto. Back then it was a tough struggle.”

Back then. But nowadays they’re the kings – and not just of the dot.