The forefather of Lac-Saint-Jean’s wave of “dirty rock,” Fred Fortin has just released his most cohesive album so far. Entitled Ultramarr, this work of hypnotic folk stands apart in the artist’s discography because of its softness.
It’s basically a cliché now. When a music writer needs to explain the specific kind of rock music that’s made in Québec’s Saguenay–Lac-Saint-Jean region, he or she, of necessity, invokes the image of a shed packed with old tube amps. And all of them are cranked up to 11! In just a few words, you’ve explained the nonchalant, heavily distorted energy of the bands Gros Méné, Galaxie, Les Dales Hawerchuk and Poni.
Even on the ground, one need not look very far to find said shed. Just drive to Saint-Prime, where you’ll find Noël Fortin’s house and its adjacent, archetypal garage. This garage, the walls of which are decorated with posters of local bands, is the birthplace of Ultramarr, Fortin’s fifth solo album.
“Ever since the arrival of the Coup de Grâce Musical de Saint-Prime music festival, pretty much all the Vieux-Couvent’s after-show parties happen in my dad’s garage,” says Fortin. Since it’s his rehearsal space, they always end up in jam sessions that last until the wee hours.
This is also where he played with the Barr Brothers for the first time, and their presence on Ultramarr is palpable in the cozy folk atmosphere. “When I played with them, we all agreed they would participate on my next album,” says Fortin. “And so, when I write music thinking of specific musicians, it becomes like movie casting. I try to write roles that will highlight their talent. So I started playing a lot of acoustic guitar. That yielded a much more coherent album. Truth be told, I also ran out of rock songs after recording the last Gros Méné album.” Ultramarr is hypnotic because of the open structure of its songs, at times reminiscent of the Sadies’ psychedelic folk, another band with whom Fortin has jammed in his dad’s garage.
This new album goes straight for the heart. Some will probably say it’s Fortin’s best album so far, and arguing against that would prove very challenging. Unlike its four precursors, Ultramarr doesn’t de-stabilize the listener with the occasional acid-rock tinge. Fortin’s production is totally organic, as are François Lafontaine’s keys. Olivier Langevin – the reigning local King of screaming guitar solos – doesn’t even play guitar here, restricting his participation to playing bass on five of the songs.
“Human stupidity is quite a burden for me. And I include myself in that. I sometimes wish I was smarter. I’m 44 and I’m dealing with my actual life. I don’t let myself go totally dark because I want to be there for my kids. My narcissism stops there.”
An Ode to Naiveté
Not only is Fortin a brilliant melodist, but he also uses language in a manner that few before have achieved. By tinkering with the very structure of songs, the songwriter gives himself all the required latitude to juggle his words, make syllables vanish, or stretch out certain sentences. “I always write my lyrics at the same time as I compose the music, because otherwise I end up with wordless music, and I hate just writing words,” says Fortin. “Working the way I do, I can adjust the length of the verses or choruses to fit the lyrics. That way, I don’t end up with a perfectly square song where everything is symmetrical. The music is tailored to the lyrics it inspires.”
What about that approach to language? “The French language is very musical. But to be perfectly honest, I’m not smart enough to think through every word I write. More often than not, it’s sheer luck,” he says, with a sly grin. “The hardest part is remaining coherent. And since I don’t plan out where I’m going with my lyrics, it does happen that the sentences don’t make any sense in relation to each other. Other times, however, it just flows and feeling takes over everything else. It might sound silly, but there are surprises sprinkled here and there in my lyrics that make me lucky. Just like a burglar, you find something that fills your heart with contentment.”
Fortin talks about the spontaneity of such luminaries as Daniel Johnston or Syd Barrett, “two mad geniuses that are straight to the point. They have no filters. They’re the perfect examples of the kind of naive music by which I’m inspired.” Ever since his first album, 1996’s Joseph Antoine Frédéric Fortin Perron, the singer-songwriter has established himself as a unique “signature” artist: No matter what the era, the arrangements, or their register, his songs are instantly recognizable as his. It’s got to do with the stance, the intention, the “tone,” as he would say. “It’s all about having an idea for a song,” he says, “and not overthinking what people are going to think, or how to make it sound more sophisticated. You just go with the flow.”
An Ode to Stephen Harper
This lack of filtering in his creations is in stark contrast to the man sitting down for our interview. Even though we’ve had time, over the years, to get acquainted with this strange animal, Fortin is far from the type of guy who’ll bring his private life into a public place, or reveal his moods in the media. Yet, even when they depict the daily lives of colourful fictional characters as on “Molly,” or the album’s title track, the songs on Ultramarr are filled with dark recesses: psychosis on “Douille,” insomnia and its relentless self-investigation on “Grippe,” or loneliness on “Gratte.” It’s an album about obsessions. “Finding dark recesses isn’t hard. It’s well-known that a lot of artists are slightly bipolar,” says Fortin. “Human stupidity is quite a burden for me. And I include myself in that. I sometimes wish I was smarter. I’m 44 and I’m dealing with my actual life. I don’t let myself go totally dark because I want to be there for my kids. My narcissism stops there. Past that, I don’t think it’s really useful to know how an artist was doing when they wrote a given song. What they meant to say is in the lyrics.”
As if to counteract his melodramatic side, Fortin also throws in a healthy dose of self-mockery and irony, such as is the case on “L’amour Ô Canada,” a tribute to Stephen Harper he wrote on the night of the 2015 federal election. “I was convinced he was going to be re-elected,” says Fortin. “So I holed up in my cabin and, without knowing the election results, I wrote this love song to my beautiful Harper.”
Ultramarr also shows traces of Fortin’s contribution to Les Beaux malaises, a TV comedy for which he composed the show’s opening theme and soundtrack. “The song ‘Tête perdue’ was inspired by the Martin’s brother’s character [played by Fabien Cloutier],” he says. “Initially, that song was supposed to be used in the show, but I felt like adding words to it. I’d watched one of Martin’s [Matte, one of Québec’s most popular stand-up comedians] skits where he talks about his brother’s love of root beer. That was my starting point to write a story. ‘Tite dernière,’ the last song on the album, was also written for the series. It’s for the final scene, but I can’t talk about it since it has yet to air.”
When you read that song’s lyrics, you immediately expect a dramatic ending for the show’s characters. “Ha! You’ll see,” says Fortin. “One thing’s for sure, Martin has announced that the show won’t be back next year. I need to start looking for a new contract,” says Fortin, only half-joking. Based on the quality of Ultramarr, he probably won’t have to look very long.