While everyone had given up hope, on May 15, 2020, Jimmy Hunt released Le silence, a new solo album re-connecting (mostly) with the acoustic guitars heard on his unforgettable debut solo album in 2010. Inspired by the “darkest period” of his life (marked by a break-up, his father’s death, and turning 40), the short, 23-minute album brings together in an atmosphere of familiar strangeness – sometimes reassuring and sometimes anxiety-inducing – with lyrics that are at times not much longer than 14-word haikus.
Now settled in the small town of Maria, in Québec’s Gaspésie, the leader of the rock band Chocolat came down to Montréal last December for five days in the studio, during which he recorded 10 heady meditations (almost mantras) on the splendours, and more often miseries, of solitude. He worked with the help of a few old chums (including bassist Maxime Castellon and drummer José Major) and new friends (keyboardist Benoit Parent, Hôtesses d’Hilaire guitarist Mico Roy). “I’d never recorded at that time of year, when the days are very short” says Hunt. “We drank warm drinks. It felt like Christmas.” But since a Jimmy Hunt album wouldn’t be a Jimmy Hunt album without a modicum of eccentricity, Le silence also contains a song about microbiomes.
The following conversation is about the evocative power of minimalist lyrics, the pressures created by the cult status of the Maladie d’amour album, and the freedom to create whenever you feel like it, instead of when the industry demands it.
Your song about microbiomes (Vieux amis) could be bizarre, even ridiculous, if it weren’t for the last verse, where you ask the question, “Who is me?” Is this a question you’re finding more answers to as you are grow older?
“No, and that’s what’s so fascinating. When you’re young, you think you know yourself, but the older you get, the less you do. It’s not clear what’s giving the orders – is it the species, our senses, our microbiota? We’re governed by many things, but we realize this with age. We can perhaps steer ourselves a little better, yes, there may be a better pilot flying, as far as our relationship to others is concerned, but who we are? [Scared laugh] I am so unaware of it.”
It’s generally felt that when an artist is singing in the first person singular, she’s talking about herself. There are a few songs on this new album where your “I” seems to refer to a fictional character, particularly in “Les Gens qui m’aiment,” where the narrator seems to be particularly full of himself.
“The ‘I’ of my songs is less and less chained to me. But it’s a fact that the ‘I’ of “Les gens qui m’aiment” is an absolutely narcissistic ‘I,’ who’s talking about the world we’re living in right now. Many people convince themselves that thousands of people love them, and convincing yourself of such a thing is unhealthy. The people who are convinced of that may not be people you can trust. Certain politicians, certain celebrities may think they have that power.”
You seem to me to be a fairly down-to-earth person, but is that a method for you to turn away from that part of yourself, now that you’re living far away from Montréal and the music industry?
“No, I never contemplated becoming a mega-star. This has always worried me a bit, when I started out, when I realized that people I didn’t know were looking at me in a strange way. People are intrigued by well-known people, and it bothered me a bit. Personally, I’d rather look at other people than being looked at by other people. It was kind of spoiling my game.”
On “Jazz engagé,” from the Chocolat album, you sing – in a very satirical way, on “Fou fou fou mon minou,” – that you“ have a black belt in poetry.” In my view, you seem to be particularly distrustful of a poetry whose beauty might be too ostentatious.
“When I’m writing my songs, I give a lot of thought to this need that many people feel to make poetry stylish, cute, even charming and glowing. You can do with less than that. In the case of the new songs, those were excerpts I took from longer lyrics because those were the parts I was interested in. That kind of minimalism fascinates me: saying a lot with very little. Often, the very little can encompass big ideas. Then the challenge I find interesting is managing to make the music the continuation of the message.”
The lyrics for “La Chute” are the album’s shortest. You say, “In February, the Fall flows behind its blue coat / A tireless chorus no-one is there to see,” then the music becomes increasingly distressing. Does that mean that you have an anxiety-inducing relationship with beauty?
“Once again, it harks back to solitude. The lyrics are saying that the sound of the flowing water is perfectly beautiful, but there is no-one to see it… At times, solitude can somehow lead to inner peace, but it can also be quite scary. I thought that fitting the two emotions together was a fun idea.”
How do you deal with the kudos you continue to receive for your Maladie d’amour album of 2013? It was named best album of the decade on the Esprit critique show a few months ago.
“Of course, it’s quite flattering, but afterwards, it certainly puts some pressure on what comes next. I’ve tried not to fall into the trap of wanting to fulfill expectations, even if I know that when you listen to an album you love, you’d like there to be a follow-up. The follow-up often spoils things…
[The success of Maladie d’amour] legitimizes the fact that I chose to make music my life activity. It gives me some confidence. When I did Maladie d’amour, I took risks, I was switching from guitar to synthesizers. They’re commonplace in Quebec now, but when Maladie d’amour was released, there were few of them, and the response was strange. It wasn’t that warm. When I started touring, many people told me they liked it better before.”
That photograph on the new album cover, is that a knife?
“It’s a dagger that you put on the tip of a gun barrel. It belonged to our dad. He’d been keeping this forever in the chest of drawers in his bedroom. I remember, when we were young, my brother and I used to rummage through our parents’ stuff, and the knife was, like, off limits. It ended up on a wall in my in my Gaspésie house to hide a nail. I wanted a reference to my dad on the album cover. With everything I’ve lived through, I loved the symbolism of the knife inside its sheath, as if it had chilled out. It may be less of a threat now, but it’s still a knife.”
You belong to a very select group of artists, in Québec, who seem to be doing exactly what they want. You make records, you perform shows when you feel like it…
“If I’d wanted to be forced to do things, I would have looked for a regular job! [Bursts out laughing] All of this is there to protect what really matters; that is, my love of music. Shows are a bit of a music-business thing. You get into a sort of money machine, there’s a specific rhythm to things, and you risk becoming disillusioned. There are magic evenings when things go right, but there are hard ones, too. I go slow. Doing shows has damaged lots of awesome creators, lots or artists who’ve chosen to self-destruct as a way out. It’s because I don’t want to forget that I say this: You’ve got to be careful with public life and show-business.”