Singer-songwriter Bernardino Femminielli’s last fur years of silence provided an opportunity to take stock. Time to reflect on his glorious failures, his underestimated work and his corrupted relationship with his hometown of Montréal. This exile, both literally and figuratively, was as necessary as it was fertile: by leaving Montréal for Paris, Femminielli found the inspiration to compose three cathartic albums, starting with L’Exil, published by the startup label Éditions Appærent, set up by his collaborators Pierre Guérineau (Essaie Pas, Feu St-Antoine), Jesse Osborne-Lanthier, and Will Ballantyne (City).
“What I like about Paris is that it’s a somewhat desperate city, and I connect with that,” says Femminielli with a smirk. Four years after the stunning Plaisirs américains, the poet, performance artist, and songwriter who moved to Paris over a year ago, now reveals the first part of a triptych that he hopes will rid him of his demons, Daddy and Johnny.
He and his wife left everything behind: Montréal, his friends, ex-business partners, and the shipwreck of his restaurant Femme Fontaine – erected on the ashes of the iconoclastic Bethleem XXX, at the gates of the city’s Little Italy. He got rid of everything but his urge for freedom and creativity, which he preciously preserved until landing in Belleville, in the 19th arrondissement of Paris, where we reached him.
“Belleville is kind of the anarchist neighbourhood,” according to Femminielli. “But it’s mostly a working-class area, there’s a lot of immigrants. There are Chinese, Vietnamese, Thai restaurants, mostly in the lower part of Belleville. Around here it’s very diversified and gentrified, lately – to be honest, the area where I live was quite shady just five years ago. I remember that I would never make it to the street I live on today because it was too… let’s just say it was a no-man’s land. Nowadays, there are families, some bourgeois, but it’s still a working-class neighbourhood. There’s still poverty around, you can see it every day.”
It was there that he wrote the lyrics for L’Exil, over musical compositions that date back to Plaisirs américains. On “French Exit,” the album’s opening song, he fuses three musically different pieces into one 12-minute offering where he spews everything in one fell swoop. He recites, “Quinze ans dans ce trou, j’ai besoin de m’exiler/ La mort dans les lèvres de l’amour/ Sur ton joli corps, petit clown, petit clown, petit clown” (“Fifteen years in this hell hole, I need to exile myself / Death on the lips of love / On your pretty body, little clown, little clown, little clown”), before a motorik beat starts, leaving behind a black cloud of synths.
Femminielli’s work is fascinating, because it wears its references on its lapel, like medals on a general, yet it resembles nothing every recorded in Québec (except, perhaps, some of Lucien Francoeur’s work). Somewhere between krautrock and disco, more spoken-word than sung, his texts have both Serge Gainsbourg’s aesthetics and Gainsbarre’s panache, with crude and even salacious images – but on this album, intimate above all, as if taking stock had prompted the artist to bare all.
L’Exil, and the next two parts of the triptych – described as “more fanciful” compared to this “realist” album – are “a way for me to exorcize and make peace with the past and, in the end, being able to laugh about it all,” says Femminielli, offering a good example of the humour (or cynicism?) typical of his writing. “To be honest, my life is very theatrical. I wanted to express it that way, not by incarnating a storyteller, but by being the victim of my own bad experiences. That’s why it’s quite a personal album.” Personal, yet sensitive to the world around him: on “French Exit,” he mentions French President Emmanuel Macron, and makes several Parisian references.
“I’ve written a lot by walking around Paris,” says Femminielli. “I found inspiration here, the yellow vests movement, the Notre-Dame-de-Paris blaze, the quite heavy atmosphere of the city, of late… It’s kind of an album that looks at Paris as a tourist would; even though I know Paris quite well, I still have a fresh, innocent, and naive outlook on it. I still see what Parisians no longer see.”
Weaving through all that, he also looks at his demons, Daddy and Johnny, with a fresh outlook. They aren’t even two sides of a coin, but rather two Mr. Hydes, “a fragmented projection of myself,” which Bernardino stage directs in the gloomiest moments of his albums and stage performances. Daddy, the dominant pervert, and Johnny the “little clown,” reduced to the role of a sex slave who is often on a leash during his concerts.
“Johnny gives me a reason to say that, in the end, I’m the most pathetic one,” says Bernardino.” It’s a bit like the concept of the oppressor and the oppressed: the character that I [Daddy] play is that of the oppressing macho that gets destroyed, and I start from that point to see where it’ll go. L’Exil is also a healing process. Leaving [Montréal] to get rid of that poison, leaving that other side of me to become someone else.” It’s an idea he expresses eloquently on the album’s title song, when he whispers, “Nous allons offrir le spectacle d’une mort dramatique,” (“We’re going to give you the spectacle of a dramatic death”).
“It’s a good summary of the triptych: the story of a pathetic macho oppressor and of his gigolo who can’t even tie his shoelaces,” he says. “When they see it onstage, people can laugh at it, but they can also try to understand what’s going on, what it all means. What I’m saying is never gratuitous; I explain it a bit, but I believe people need to get it according to their own feelings.”