Véronique Labbé was 16 when she started singing country alongside her mom, Lise Roy, in Thetford Mines, Québec. Now 35, she celebrates her 20 years on the music scene with the launch of her fifth album, Mon Noël Country, released a few weeks ago. She’s also nominated no less than seven(!) times at this year’s Gala Country (Québec’s premier country music awards), taking place on Nov. 19, 2016.
“Nowadays, I’m doing more of an American-style country-pop, I’ve become a kind of flavour of the month, but it wasn’t easy; people used to want to hear more traditional songs,” says Labbé, whose tour includes a tribute to Shania Twain.
In other words, Renée Martel isn’t a model for her, no more than Patrick Norman – both demi-gods on the Québec country scene. “There are so many niche markets in country music; Renée Martel and Patrick Norman are more country-folk. I’m more on the pop side,” says Labbé.
Our own country girl tis closer to a Terri Clark, a Travis Tritt, or even a Sheryl Crow, for whom she’s been an opening act. “In my teens, I’d watch CMT (Country Music Television) and I dreamt of a big career like theirs,” she says. “And even though I’m not Anglophone, I managed to share a stage with them.”
So how do you stand out from the rest when you sing country music, in French, in Québec? “Country music is about spilling your guts,” she says bluntly. “The words you sing need to be understood by the listener right away, regardless of their education level. Especially if you’re singing about heartbreak! On my first album, I sang using a normative French, and people didn’t get my country because it was a tad too sophisticated.”
The first award she won was a SOCAN Prize at the St-Tite festival in 2005. “That opened up my eyes on the whole universe of copyright and royalties, and luckily, didn’t change my musical personality,” she says. Labbé has played in St-Tite, Québec’s country Mecca, n less than 19 times. The songwriter was once more saluted by SOCAN during the 2015 Montréal Gala, in the Country Music category, of course.
“When I write a song, it’s the music, first and foremost,” says Labbé. “Melodies come easy to me. It’s the lyrics that demand a lot of work, the thing I find the hardest. So this is what I do: I record my music tracks in the studio; at that point no more than 25% of the lyrics are written. It’s after that, when I listen to the instrumental tracks, that words begin to flow. It’s not necessarily a method I’m fond of, but I have to give myself an ultimatum for words to finally come, so I can finalize the creative process.”
However, the song “Du côté bleu du ciel,” the title track of fourth album, (with lyrics by Nelson Minville, music by Marc Dupré), is an exception – and is nominated as Song of the Year at the Nov. 19 Country Gala. “It was at the very limit of what I do, but I like that type of writing!” says Labbé. “I need to be really moved to accept a song from someone else. That one did me some good, even though it’s a lot more commercial and less country.”
Véronique Labbé is also a TV and radio host for En route vers l’ouest, and she believes SOCAN played an important role in her musical career. “A lot of country artists kick-start their careers with covers to get better sales,” she says. “But to stand out, they need to write their own hits. That’s what my show is there for: getting them known. Without new songs, there’s no evolution. Otherwise we’ll end up singing only hits, just like in a karaoke bar.
“Being a SOCAN member to me is like a protection of me as a creator. They collect and distribute the royalties, but with the kind of music I do, I don’t get as much radio play as other musical styles. It would be nice to have a country music Soundscan.”
Year in, year out, Labbé gets on stage about 50 times. With 2016 drawing to a close, Mon Noël Country caps things off nicely. “The music is country, but with Christmas songs,” she says. “The tough part is knowing where to accentuate. I consciously avoided certain country riffs and punches, so things didn’t get too redundant. Luckily, there are a lot of chord progressions in the Christmas repertoire that totally harmonize with country music.”
The Nov. 19 Gala has been circled on Labbé’s calendar for a long time. And it’s not hard to understand why: her seven nominations at the Gala are for Album, Songwriter, Female Singer, and Concert of the Year, as well as Radio and TV Show of the Year for En route vers l’ouest, and the SOCAN Song of the Year for “Du côté bleu du ciel.”
“It’s the SOCAN Award that I covet the most!” she says.