Launched in late November, Fox, Karim Ouellet’s second album seemed to literally negate autumn like a ray of light and a shot of vitamin Pop. It’s not the most rewarding time of year to release an album, in part because critics are already writing their best of year charts, but that did not prevent the 28 year old to make his mark. To wit: his song “L’amour” stayed at the top of the Francophone BDS chart, beating the likes of Marie-Mai, Sylvain Cossette and Céline Dion for the spot.

The industry is already abuzz with his crossover appeal. From CISM to CKOI, NRJ and Rythme FM, there is cause to, as they say, “mind the gap”, but Karim – who was picked as the 2012-2013 Revelation of the year by Radio-Canada – elegantly lept over this gap. “I have no interest in deciding what is or is not commercial. All that matters to me is ‘what’s good and what’s not?’ The goal of music is to make people happy, so if my song makes some people happy, I don’t care whether they heard it on CKOI or CIBL, it’s still the same song. There will be people who’ll get tired of hearing it or won’t like it, but hey! ‘L’amour’ played on all radios! That song had the opportunity to be heard.”

The young artist admits he’s very inspired by the way Lisa LeBlanc found success: “She wrote something very personal with a 100% free state of mind. Then, one of her songs brought her to everyone’s attention. To some, it takes away a certain aura of exclusivity to the song because it then becomes everyone’s song. But her album is still a very personal work of art that wasn’t planned according to a business model or radio format… That’s what I call ‘democratic music’.”

Karim Ouellet has qualities that make him immediately endearing: ingenuousness, charisma, authenticity, and a classy casualness. This is obviously a free man, and it’s visible in the persona he presents and the way with which he gives in to the temptation of pop music as much as in the way he graciously floats from one style to the next. Not to mention his smooth voice that can reach surprisingly high notes, not unlike M, a warm, caressing, velvety voice – in short, a major asset. “That kind of happened on its own. I always sang over songs I listened to. I’d actually sing harmonies because I thought it was kinda sad that those harmonies weren’t there. Then I started accompanying myself on the guitar and at some point, I figured out that I could really have fun with this. I never took singing lessons, I just followed my instinct. I did eventually learn a few techniques for breathing at the right moment, making sure I sing in the right key and protecting my voice.”

Even though his first album, Plume, came out two years ago, most people will discover him with Fox, a gorgeous patchwork of influences dominated by a neo-soul flavour. In a very short period of time, the multi-instrumentist – who we’ve also seen playing alongside Marième, Movèzerbe and Accrophone – learned quite a lot and was quick to put his learnings to work: “Plume and Fox were studio-recorded with the exact same method and in the exact same amount of time; three and a half months. On Plume, Claude Bégin, Thomas Gagnon-Coupal and myself had not preconceived goal, all we wanted was to record songs. But Fox was definitely thought out by Claude and I as a finished whole. The songs are different from one another, but it was important to us that they all work together.”

This bond bore its fruit and paved the way for the following explorations: “When I went into the studio for Fox, I only had two songs that weren’t even finished! The writing and composing happened as we went along in the studio. The final result is somewhere between a very clear and conscious art direction and allowing ourselves to progress by trail and error.”

“The trick is to not take yourself too seriously while remaining serious enough to do what you need to do and do it well.”

But one thing Karim Ouellet is very conscious of at this point is the fact that his biggest challenge will be taking his music to the stage: “We hired Brigitte Poupart (who did the stage direction of Yann Perreau, Louis-Jean Cormier, Misteur Valaire) and we’ve decided to keep it simple in order to become more efficient. We want to make the show entertaining, turn it into an experience.” As for the rest of his career, Karim will, sly fox that he is, apply some of the things he learned along the way: “The trick is to not take yourself too seriously while remaining serious enough to do what you need to do and do it well. One needs to meets their own expectations before trying to fulfill others’. And have fun.”

“Dumbing down” is a phrase usually applied to pop music, but the frontman in loud noise-rockers Metz says that’s almost what they set out to do with the songs for their self-titled album, released independently and later picked up by the renowned Sub Pop label.

The Toronto-based trio – guitarist/vocalist Alex Edkins, drummer Hayden Menzies and bassist Chris Slorach – had released a series of singles since forming in 2008, and wanted to concentrate on songwriting for their first full-length album.

“It was a process of dumbing it down, almost, making everything really simplistic.” – Alex Edkins

“For us, what it meant was really stripping our songs back to the essential idea or feel,” explains Edkins. “Prior to this record, some of our songs were more complicated and convoluted. For this album, we wanted to just focus on the essential idea [of each song] and highlight that.

“So it was a process of dumbing it down, almost, making everything really simplistic. Everything that made the record was very direct and hit the listener full-on.” For example, Metz made every effort to boost the vocals, compared to past releases.

While the recording of the album was quick, it was preceded by considerable honing and demo-ing in pre-production to get the songs up to snuff. The bed tracks were then recorded over a week in a converted barn in Stoney Creek, Ont., with Graham Walsh of Holy Fuck, while the overdubs, vocals and mixing were done back in Toronto with Alexandre Bonenfant (Crystal Castles) over several weekends.

“Everything that made the record was very direct and hit the listener full-on.”– Alex Edkins

“I like to think of it as being self-produced,” says Edkins, “but those guys were invaluable as far as the technical side and making sure the ideas were translating properly to tape.”

From “Knife In The Water,” whose tension-building boom-cha-cha intro is a nod to Phil Spector-produced girl groups, to the classic three-chord punk of “Get Off,” Metz’s intention is to make “good solid songs that have aspects of pop and aspects of punk, a nice middle ground where there’s the best of both worlds happening,” Edkins says. Dictated by the vibe of the music, Edkins says the album – which includes such titles as “Sad Pricks,” “Rats,” “Nausea,” Headache” and “Wasted” – is naturally about darker content.

“I’ve tried, but it just doesn’t seem to work to write a happy song or a love song over that music. It doesn’t seem to make sense. So a lot of the stuff on this record was [about] frustration and paranoia and some of the pressures of living in a big metropolitan city, and the pressures of the modern age that most people can relate to in some way.”

Song and poetry have always been akin. Yet, strangely, poems tend to be confined to bookshelves. Could the wind be turning? In the wake of the success of Douze hommes rapaillés, an album where Gilles Bélanger celebrated the poetry of Gaston Miron, Yann Perreau has teamed up with Claude Péloquin while Thomas Hellman has decided to immerse himself in Roland Giguère’s body of work.

“There’s already music in poetry, and when I hear music, I hear words, remarks Claude Péloquin. It’s all connected. To me, it’s a single universe. Besides, it’s not because it’s written down that it does not go through your ears. Your eyes and ears are quite close together!” It is true that throughout the years, many a poem has bee treated to a musical version or literally became songs thanks to the talent of giants such as Léo Ferré, Jean-Louis Murat, Villeray, Robert Charlebois, to name but a few. But how do songwriters that can very well express themselves through their own writing end up defending the words of another? Well, apparently, through happenstance and love at first sight.

This is how, one day, Thomas Hellman was offered a book of poems by Roland Giguère by one of his friends. “What I discovered was an artistic opportunity, explains the musician. I definitely felt like there was music in those lines. There was something beckoning and I had a definite impression that my musical world could bring something to that universe.”

The same scenario happened to Yann Perreau. Following an unexpected meeting with Péloquin, the two artists from different generations talked about a possible collaboration. Pélo, as he is known, sent a massive collection of hitherto unseen texts to the young singer and it wasn’t long before Perreau was roaming the vast lexical plains of the author of “Monsieur l’Indien”.

Shedding New Light
There is one unavoidable challenge any artist wishing to put music to verses and rhymes will have to face. They will need to give it a second wind or prolong the momentum of the written version. But how does one do that? Does one grant themselves artistic licence or remain staunchly true to the original? For Yann Pour Yann Perreau, the process that lead to the creation of À Genoux dans le désir was not that disorienting since he often adapts his own poetry into a song by reworking them and adding music. “My melodies always come from the words, explains the artist. I don’t have a regular meter (number of syllables). Often times, my music contains unusual structures or added 2/4’s because I need a certain tempo to make my sentence fit in. I don’t like it when things are too regular.”

It’s interesting to know that Péloquin gave Perreau carte blanche to adapt his words as he saw fit, which does mean that Perreau added rhymes where there were none. Rather than that, it’s the images, the prosody and the alliterations that are the basis of the song’s dynamic and, as a result, carry the songs into uncharted territory. “Every now and then I’ll throw a rime in just to tame your ear, but poetry has freed itself from the tyranny of the rime over the past few decades and, just as is the case with songs, it has done it a lot of good. […] It’s good to let the meaning take precedence over the rhyme, it opens the way for more precise emotions.”

As for Thomas Hellman, he stayed very true to the words published by Roland Giguère. But it was crucial to him that the words and music bond seamlessly with one another. In his mind, it is precisely when this bond happens that songs become like a treasure map to Poet’s Island. “Poetry doesn’t need music to be good, he reminds us. When a poem is good, it stands alone. What I wanted to do is shed new light on this poetry, to clear a pathway towards it. It’s the magic of music: it can turn a more opaque poem into something more accessible.”


Underestimated Audience
Throughout his career, Claude Péloquin has dipped his pen in the inkwells of spoken and written word. He is, of course, most known for penning Robert Charlebois’ classic “Lindberg”, but he’s also released many albums and he’s working on a new recording with Michel Le François with whom he had released “Les Chants de l’éternité”. The man – who prefers “looking crazy than looking lost” – is therefore in an excellent position to gauge the impact of a song. “If we can make more people appreciate poetry through music, all the better! Songs are more in the moment. You can always close a book and come back to it later, but music is right now. It’s akin to karate!”

Yet, both Perreau and Hellman believed that by following in the footsteps of a poet, they were embarking on a relatively marginal side-project. In both cases, they were surprised by the scope of the reception they got. In Perreau’s case, it turned out to be a “regular” album in his own discography, but even better than that, it has led him, since last February, to a series of important concerts. “I played the demos to people early on and they didn’t bat a lash; they were convinced those were my songs. When I told them it was Péloquin’s words, the were blown away!”

This scenario was true for Thomas Hellman chante Roland Giguère, even though Hellman chose to go the way of a CD-book, which associates it more closely to the realm of literature. The artist – who is also a radio host on occasion – insisted on addressing Giguère’s work as a visual artist, more so since the late poet was also a publisher… What happened is that Hellman noticed that his fans followed him in this adventure and he acquired new ones from the world of literature. This, just as for Perreau, has led him on stage for several concerts here and in France.

Clearly, perfect rhymes and vivid stanzas are still relevant. Nowadays, they take the glorious shape of a counterweight to the lightness, and even frivolousness of vast swathes of pop music. “There are still people who aren’t afraid of going further, and there is an audience for that,” realizes Yann Perreau. “You have to take chances and tear down walls, acquiesces Claude Péloquin. The audience is able to accept a lot more than we think. And one must be weary of lulling them too much…”