Alexanfre PoulinThere’s no recipe for success, and Alexandre Poulin is well aware of it. On Les temps sauvages, his fourth album, the popular storyteller steps away from pop clichés and pens lyrics that are halfway between hope and resignation.

Poulin could’ve been fashionable. His clear penchant for Americana would’ve pleased commercial radio programmers who still, to this day, rely heavily on folk.

But the Sherbrooke native loves to go where he’s not expected. “I thought I was really original, back in 2007, when I came out with songs with mandolin and banjo – but I’m over it now,” says the artist, who’s now opted for more ethereal melodies. “Anyway, I’ve never liked being on the highway. I prefer to walk off the beaten path.”

Les temps sauvages, as a matter of fact, is a rebuttal to those all-too-well-worn paths, those accepted routes we sometimes take without thinking about it. He sings about a virtual love-at-first-sight (“Les amours satellites”), a powerless, jobless man facing capitalist forces (“Bleu Big Bill”), and the realization that a love affair is slowly dying (“Nos cœurs qui battent”), while he himself ponders his thirst for freedom and confronts “the obligations of a society that consumes us while we consume it.”

“We live in a rather hallucinating era where everything goes way too fast,” says Poulin. “I’ve always fought against this frenetic pace, but I’ve reached a point where I no longer quite know how to do that.”


Yet that’s precisely what he did last December; slow time down. Exhausted after the tours for his two previous albums, he thought the time had come to take a step back. “I had the chance to take a year off from the stage,” says Poulin. “It’s one thing to be passionate about your work, but it can easily turn into a trap. At a certain point, your body sends signals to you,” he admits.

But as beneficial this break was, it was far from a holiday. His break from work was short, and Poulin rapidly began writing his fourth album. Even though he’s a crafty storyteller, he decided he wanted to shed the myth surrounding him, the one that pigeonholes him as an impassive storyteller who willingly refuses typical pop music song structure.

“I’m known for my chorus-less songs, but if you listen closely, you notice that I’ve written many over the course of my first three albums,” he says. “This time around, however, I wanted to make a conscious effort to strip down my stories. I took away anything that was stuffy or useless.”

Indeed, his many songwriting collaborations with quite openly commercial singers such as Garou, France D’Amour and 2Frères have contributed to him no longer rejecting the pop canon de facto.

The 2014 success of Poulin’s song “Comme des enfants en cavale” also contributed to opening his mind about it all. “This kind of totally unexpected success is very gratifying, especially since I’d given up any hope of radio play by that point,” he says. “As a matter of fact, I consciously applied the same guiding line on Les temps sauvages. Instead of trying to make an album that would sell, I set out to make an album I would buy.”

To steer him through this process, Poulin tapped his longtime partner-in-crime, Mathieu Perreault, and the expert arranger Guido Del Fabbro (Pierre Lapointe, Groenland) to co-produce the album. “Having someone like Guido – who’s much more left-field than I am, musically – on my team was very reassuring,” he says. “When we were recording, I would regularly ask him, ‘Is this too pop?’ whenever I had any doubt. And even though I meant it jokingly, it often gave me a good idea of which way to go.”

It’s partly because of this minutiae and strong work ethic that the singer is slowly but surely gaining popular and critical applause. And while he’s still somewhat of a well-kept secret in Québec, Poulin is starting to reap the benefits of his hard work on the other side of the Atlantic. When he was invited on to the immensely popular talk show in France, On n’est pas couches, in February 2014, he was immediately catapulted to the top of the French iTunes bestsellers chart.

“It’s the kind of TV show that has an incredible impact on your career,” he says. “But I’m not delusional: I’m far from being a star in France. It’s very much like here: the buzz comes from the ground up, and it took a long time before major media outlets started paying attention. As weird as I think it is, I also have to admit it serves me well. A decade after I started my career, there are still people who are discovering me, and see me as a newcomer.”

Alain Chartrand

Photo by/par Benoit Rousseau

The Coup de cœur francophone turns 30 this year. For 2016, about 100 performances are programmed in 13 Montréal venues during the 11-day festival, which wraps up on Nov. 13. Thirty years of creation and discovery, that have made this fall event a staple on Québec’s music scene.

In September of 2016, during the Gala de la SOCAN in Montréal, festival director and co-founder, Alain Chartrand received the Special Achievement Award, given by his peers for his contribution to the promotion of our culture through Coup de cœur francophone. “I am, obviously, honoured – especially when you look at the prestigious list of previous recipients, such as Guy Latraverse or Donald Tarlton,” says Chartrand. “So I was a little intimidated at first, because the award recognizes the work of an artisan, and it comes from an institution that oversees the copyrights of songwriters. I’m proud of this award because SOCAN recognizes the work of live show bookers and presenters, as we are one link in the long chain of the value of music.

“In the mid-‘80s, we quickly realized that there was clearly an interest for the new wave of chanson française represented by artists like Arthur H. [whose first appearance at Coup de coeur was an opening slot for Luc de Larochelière], Dominique A., Arno, and the like. There were many artists waiting to be discovered, and that is the first mission of a festival.”

What concerts have impressed him the most over those thirty years? “That’s a cruel question!” he says. “Alain Bashung in 1995 was a magnificent show, the timing was perfect. Richard Desjardins Symphonique – who, incidentally, played Coup de coeur for the first time in 1988, opening for Isabelle Mayereau, the first time he played in front of 600 people.” In fact, Desjardins played Coup de coeur seven times over thirty years.

“There’s also Danse Lhasa Danse, which we created for the 25th edition in 2011, which definitely became a milestone for Coup de coeur,” says Chartrand. “Pierre-Paul Savoie was in charge of the choreography, with 13 dancers, six singers and five musicians. The first time everyone rehearsed together was on the day of the show!”

Diane Dufresne is also among the Artistic Director’s most fond memories. “I remember that one also,” he says, “because the late Allain Leprest opened for her, and at the end of his performance, he thanked the Fracofolies!”

Danse Lhasa Danse

Danse Lhasa Danse. Photo by/par Jean-François Leblanc

Yet, at some point, Coup de coeur had to leave its comfort zone and explore more abrasive artists such as Massilia Sound System, No One Is Innocent, Vulgaires Machins and WD-40: “Obviously,” says Chartrand, “we had to move away from our go-to intro, ‘Amis de la chanson, bonsoir?!’” (Loosely translated: “Good evening, song lovers.”)

What’s his impression of today’s music ecosystem? “People ask me all the time if I think we’re in a crisis,” says Chartrand. “In the three decades of Coup de cœur francophone, there has never been a creative crisis. The way we consume music has changed, and the tough part today for artists is how to reach the audience. When Coup de coeur started, the recurring issue was getting on the radio, because that was the only way to reach the audience.”

So, Chartrand is an optimist? “There are always are cycles, new faces that emerge,” he says. “Nowadays, we could do two or three separate programs. But will the newcomers have the ability to constantly renew their audience? Take Sylvie Paquette [who’s presenting her homage concert to poet Anne Hébert on Nov. 8]. She’s the first artist to ever play at Coup de coeur. She’s perseverant, even though her record sales were never through the roof. She developed her audience.”

It’s a secret to no one that Chartrand has a privileged relationship with songwriters. “It’s actually more a relationship with the songs,” he says. “I’m interested in songs because they’re interested in me. It’s a mutual interest. There’s also a trust-based relationship with musicians when it comes to paying their royalties. We’ve always made sure we’re up-to-date on the rules regulating copyrights. I’m no specialist, but the way things are nowadays, I believe the problem needs to be solved legally; we need governments to use their power against service providers. We also need to better position Francophone music so it’s better remunerated. But the problem is global.”

It’s easy to forget that Coup de coeur is a partnership project. Forty-five Canadian cities are affiliated to present more than two hundred performances. “Our playground extends over six time zones,” says Chartrand. “Instead of developing vertically, we developed horizontally!”

Among the can’t-miss concerts of the 2016 edition, Chartrand is excited to see Philippe Brach (who’ll premiere the songs off of his new album Enfant-Ville), Klô Pelgag’s new show, Corps, amour et anarchie and the return to the stage of Les Goules.

Meet the Quentin Tarantino of country music – without all the blood, gore and violence, of course.

Dean Brody, the 13-time Canadian Country Music Association Award, four-time SOCAN Award, and two-time JUNO Award winner, name-checks the renegade Pulp Fiction and Hateful Eight Hollywood filmmaker on the title track of his sixth and newest album, Beautiful Freakshow, and marvels at his ability to be a rebel.

“I love Quentin Tarantino movies,” says Brody at the SOCAN Toronto office, on a day where he performed for our staff. “He’s one of the greatest directors of all time. He knows all the rules, but he breaks them, and gets away with things he shouldn’t get away with. I think that’s so cool.”

“I’m very visual, so I think that helps in my songwriting. It’s a totally visual thing to me.”

The same could be said regarding Brody when it comes to rule-breaking in country music – a genre where artistic gambles are rare. Brody has written a number of songs that almost defy categorization, or at least stretch the boundaries of what’s considered “country.”

Witness “Upside Down” and “Bring Down the House,” from Brody’s last album, Gypsy Road: the former includes a whistling, Celtic-flavoured intro, crunchy guitars, and a lyric about “being high”; the latter is a banjo-driven, hard-edged love story about mismatched misfits who shouldn’t work out romantically, but do.

“Bring Down the House” – the song that won Brody 2016 CCMA honours in the Single, Video, Songwriting and Top Selling Single categories – was unorthodox enough that both Brody and his producer Matt Rovey feared showing it to Ron Kitchener, Brody’s manager and the owner of his label, Open Road Records.

“We were shitting our pants a little bit about it, like, ‘How are we going to do this?’” says Brody. “We got all our tunes together, and at the very end we said, ‘Ron, check this one out. We kind of did it for shits and giggles.’ And he loved it, he was all over it. It made us a little nervous; radio’s tough, I think. It didn’t chart as high as my past songs, but it’s definitely the biggest song of my career.”

Beautiful Freakshow continues Brody’s inventive streak: the title song veers from an Ennio Morricone Spaghetti-Western whistle into a bunch of directions, not the least of which is a hip-hop verse by Halifax rapper Shevy Price.

“I was actually listening to some Nicki Minaj at the time, and just the way her delivery is so good,” Brody explains. “It’s almost nasty how she has so much attitude. I thought this song would be really cool if you had this farmer country guy with this girl exhibiting tons of attitude. So right away, I’m thinking Nicki Minaj.

“I contacted a friend of mine, Marc Perry, who knows the East Coast urban music scene. He said, there’s a girl in Halifax, part of the underground scene; her name is Shevy. I showed her the song, and she said, ‘Oh, this is really cool. What kind of dark place did you go to, coming up with this song?’ And I said, ‘To me, it’s happy. I love this song.’ But she really dug it, and we recorded it at her studio. She did her thing and it just came together. When we were building it, we didn’t know what the end product would be. With that song, I would say we don’t even go off the path, we go off a cliff… and see what happens.”

There’s also the roaring-rock country of “Bush Party,” the slap-rhythm shuffle of “Soggy Bottom Summer,” the reggae lilt of “Beautiful Girl,” and what he calls the “almost-too-country” song “Time” that offer another collection of diversified styles from Brody. “I do love exploring the edge,” Brody admits. “Music’s fun, and I like trying different things.”

Here’s where another Tarantino comparison applies: Brody’s songs are cinematic.  He needs to picture it in his mind before committing it to creation. “I need a visual,” he says. “I can’t write a song just based on words or feelings. I have to have a visual, or a metaphor. I think even all my love songs are metaphors. I need imagination… and an instrument.”

So it might not be surprising to learn that Brody has four screenplays on the go, further kindling the pictorial aspect of his music. “I’m very visual, so I think that helps in my songwriting,” he says. “It’s a totally visual thing to me. Like in ‘Blueberry Sky,’ I see it all: the trestle bridge, and the rain, and getting stuck underneath it. Running off the Grandma’s porch with the girl. The Greyhound bus pulling up to the guy who’s working in the shop, grease on his hands. The girl getting off the bus and she needs a ride. There’s no taxi, so he grabs the tow-truck keys, takes her to her Grandma’s house, and they end up spending the summer together. They look like a picture to me: A Forrest Gump/Robert Zemeckis kind of imagery, you know?”

What he doesn’t necessarily need is a songwriting partner, although he’ll occasionally reach out to one if he feels the song needs that push. After writing by committee for an extended time, he’s content now to be a lone wolf.

“I wrote in Nashville for six years, co-writing, and for whatever reason, my ideas aren’t the ones the guys in the room go with,” says Brody. “So I’d end up going home and writing something else. Because when someone triggered my mind to go in one direction, they’d end up going in a different direction. I’m just weird that way; my process is very private. I also feel more like an editor than a songwriter.”

Brody rarely sits down and finishes a song in one session. “I’ll pick up a guitar in the morning and just noodle around,” he says. “If I find one or two lines, I’ll slap it down on my iPhone and then I’ll go do yard work, or something like that. Then I’ll come back at lunch, pick up the ukulele and try the same song again. Maybe I’ll get the start of a chorus, and then I’ll get bored and go do something else. I’ve found that creatively, I do really good with spaces. With just little bits of time. When I force myself to write in three-hour segments, I get burned out.

“And then there’s perspective,” he continues. “I get way too close. I can get it in a good direction, and when I come back, I feel like I can see it with fresh eyes, and chop things off or add something. So perspective is huge for me. But I know writers who can keep that eagle-eye perspective during a three-hour session, whereas I lose it. I have to come back the next day to see what they’re seeing.”

If there’s one type of song Brody doesn’t spend as much time on anymore, it’s the ballad. “They’re my favourite songs to write, but they struggle at radio,” he says. “Even when I look at streaming and downloads and stuff, I wonder if fans appreciate ballads as much as I do. So I think I’ve changed direction a little bit there. I’ll spend a little more time on those fun songs, those happy songs.”