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

Fred FortinNot 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

Fred FortinThis 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.

In the 1950s and ‘60s, Johnny Cowell put Canadian songs on the top of the pop charts. One of his most enduring remains “Walk Hand in Hand,” a sweeping love ballad that‘s been recorded more than 90 times, including hit versions by crooners Andy Williams and  Tony Martin, and Liverpool beat group Gerry & The Pacemakers. He also composed hits for The Guess Who (“His Girl”) and Bill Purcell (“Our Winter Love”), and his song “(These Are) The Young Years,” in the version performed by organist Floyd Cramer, appeared in the final season of Breaking Bad in 2013. The 90-year-old trumpet player, a former member of the Toronto Symphony Orchestra, was one of the first inductees into the Scarborough Walk of Fame.

Your music career started with the playing the trumpet. What turned you on to songwriting?
The reason I started writing songs was I met [my wife] Joan in a dance band. She was the singer. And she really looked terrific! I wanted to write her a song to sing. And I got hooked. So I just kept writing them.

What did you like about songwriting?
As a musician, it gave me immense satisfaction. I enjoyed just sitting down at the piano and playing. If I had a good idea, it just sort of wrote itself. Well, the melodies came quite easily; I usually had trouble with the lyrics. But when I finished I felt really good about it. And if I didn’t feel good about it I’d throw it in the wastebasket.

Johnny Cowell

You worked closely with the late, famed music publisher William Harold Moon. What was he like?
He was one of my best friends. We just hit it off like a couple of peas in a pod and he was the person who really got me going. He was interested in my songs and brought me into [SOCAN precursor] BMI [Canada]. It was funny, Harold would phone me up at night and say, “I’ve got a good title for you and I’d like to see a completed song in two days.” I was really sorry when he died.

Tell us how you came up with the idea for “Walk Hand in Hand.”
My wife Joan and I we went to New York on our second wedding anniversary and we decided to take the ferry to Staten Island. And when we got there, we noticed a marquee on the theatre: Love is a Many-Splendored Thing. So we thought we’d go see it. All through the film, [the characters] are walking hand in hand. So when we came out of the theatre, I told Joan, “I think I got a good title for a song, called ‘Walk Hand in Hand.’” And by the time I got back to the hotel, I’d written all the music.

There are many versions of the song — Andy Williams, Tony Martin, Gerry & the Pacemakers, etc. How did that happen?
My friend Denny Vaughan. I played on his television program and I took “Walk Hand in Hand” into the studio and he said, “This is it, I’m going to record this.” So he had the first recording – and a very good one, too. He’s a terrific singer. Denny’s the one who took it to New York and played it for Republic Music, and they got it to RCA, and then Tony Martin. From there, Andy Williams picked it up, and several other people.  It was hard to keep track. One night Joan and I were sitting in our living room and watching the Ed Sullivan show, then all of a sudden Tony Martin walked out and started singing my song. We weren’t expecting it. It was just terrific.

“Walk Hand in Hand” has become a kind of wedding standard. How do you feel about that?
It’s funny, some people think it’s a religious song, but not to me. It’s a love song. I sometimes get calls from people looking for the sheet music who can’t find it. I usually Xerox it and get them a copy so they can have it at their wedding. Any time I can get someone to sing “Walk Hand in Hand,” I’m happy to do it.



On January 29, 2016, post-rock outfit Pandaléon launched its third album, Atone. It’s a solid, ambient rock offering that’s in good company with the likes of Sigur Ros, Kinski, Flaming Lips, Swans, et al. Without going as far as calling it a concept album, there’s clearly a thread that ties Atone together, a clear and unique art direction at play. The result is in no small part attributable to the peculiar path the trio and their sound engineer chose for recording these ten songs. They went back to their old primary school, which has been abandoned for about 15 years, and holed up there for five weeks. But to better understand this approach, we need to travel back in time…

Here, then, are three young men – aged 23, 24 and 25, respectively – who were raised in the countryside somewhere between Montréal and Ottawa. Brothers Frédéric and Jean-Philippe Levac grew up in St-Bernardin, where their parents and grandparents ran a dairy farm. Their friend Marc-André Labelle was born a few kilometres away, a village called L’Orignal (population 2,000). “We loved our childhood. It was the kind of environment where everyone contributes. Remote, but united,” says Fred.

Here, then, we have three young musicians who love to re-invent themselves, tweak sounds, and whose interest in composing and recording music is boundless. The two brothers start making music together early on. Frédéric plays keyboards and sings, Jean-Philippe plays drums. In their teens, they set up in an old barn on the family’s property and turn it into a rehearsal space, studio and even a small, intimate concert venue. They call it “La Piaule” (loosely translated, “The Pad”). That’s where they write all their music. It’s a lab. A hideout. Their paradise on Earth.


Marc-André Labelle enters their life at the end of high school. Right from the start, during his first visit at La Piaule, the Levac brothers are blown away by his playing and his personality. The chemistry is perfect, the band is born! “Being in a band is intense. We share a lot. You learn a lot about yourself and what type of musician you are. Each member has to be fully engaged, and that’s how it is for us,” says Fred over the phone from La Piaule. The fourth wheel of this well-oiled machine is Nicolas Séguin, a close friend and the band’s official sound engineer. He’s an integral part of the project, whether live or in the studio.


When the themes of childhood, the past and family come flowing out of Fred’s writing process, the trio decided that this time they wanted to step out of their comfort zone. “We go by our old primary school every day,” says Fred. “It’s a tiny rural school that had about 40 students back then, and they had to close it while my brother and I were attending. We knew the acoustics in that place would be awesome. We jumped on the opportunity.”


So the four young men set up camp in their old St-Bernardin school for five weeks last summer, equipped with a water tank, mattresses, their instruments and recording equipment. “We slept there, we lived there, we had to go outside to brush our teeth,” Jean-Philippe explains in the documentary about their experience that you can watch on their website. “We forgot to eat because we were so busy and involved… We forgot to call our girlfriends, we forgot everything, really.”
“The school itself played an immense role in the whole process,” says Fred. “We spent days testing each room’s acoustics and experimenting with their natural volume and reverberation. Stick my drums in a gymnasium and I go nuts!” The pictures and videos documenting the process clearly show how chaotic their surroundings were while they tried to create a workspace for the duration of the project.

“The school itself played an immense role in the whole process,” says Fred. “We spent days testing each room’s acoustics and experimenting with their natural volume and reverberation. Stick my drums in a gymnasium and I go nuts!” The pictures and videos documenting the process clearly show how chaotic their surroundings were while they tried to create a workspace for the duration of the project.


Even though, musically, the end result quenched their thirst for exploration and yielded a sonically rich album – especially the guitar work – from a human standpoint, it was different. “It was very peculiar,” says Fred. “On the first night, we were super-excited, thrilled to be going outside of our comfort zone. Then we dove head first into this childhood nostalgia. We worked on our music 18 hours a day for five weeks straight, in total isolation; let’s just say we reached quite a high degree of intensity. It was the best recording session ever!”

“Leaving the place was rough,” Fred continues. “The day we left, no one said a word. We took the studio apart, bundled the cords, and took the equipment out in complete silence.” A form of grief? “Undoubtedly. Artistically, I was satisfied by this experience and the recordings we got out of it, but mentally, I was exhausted. It took two solid weeks before I plugged everything back at La Piaule.”

So where is Pandaléon headed after such an experience? “We can’t wait to get onstage!” says Fred. “We really enjoy getting lost in our music when we play live. It’s intoxicating.” Will Atone’s follow-up require another such intense experience? “I don’t know,” he says. “We’ll see. It’s likely that we’ll try recording outside of La Piaule for the next album, just to see how differently we are influenced by a different environment.” A reggae album recorded in Jamaica, maybe? “Ha, ha! Who knows? We’ll go where the music takes us.”

One thing’s for sure, these four lads will not cease exploring, re-inventing themselves, and living their love for music and recording to the fullest. For these guys, the trip is as important as the destination.