Songwriter Laurent Bourque came to a very uncomfortable conclusion about the sophomore album he’d just completed, some two years after he’d released his first, the critically acclaimed Pieces of Your Past.

Pieces had earned him the Stingray Rising Star Award in 2014, and launched him into extensive touring, back and forth, across multiple borders and waterways. Bourque says, “I toured for two years, and it was great experience. It brought me to Europe for the first time, and it was a blast, but at the end of my final European tour in the Fall of 2016, I was just really, really sick of how I was performing, and my habits onstage, and everything just felt really stale.”

As a solo performer, sometimes accompanied by his drummer (and occasional co-writer) Jamie Kronick, Bourque felt a strong desire for change. “I didn’t feel like me anymore,” he says, “playing the songs on that album. Which is natural, people grow and evolve.”  But the new album he’d just recorded didn’t sit well with the Ottawa-born, Toronto-based artist.

So he scrapped it.

Making as bold a move as any newcomer in the creative world ever could, Bourque canned the unsatisfying album and then set himself three highly improbable goals: He would write 100 new songs; he would start learning how to write with others; and, most frighteningly, he would learn to play and write on a brand new instrument – the piano. These were mountains to climb, but he set no deadlines.

Never skip a SOCAN party!

Laurent Bourque met up with David Monks from Tokyo Police Club at a SOCAN Grammy party in Los Angeles. The end result is one of Blue Hours’ most outstanding tracks, “Wait & See.”

“We kind of hit it off, we talked a lot about songwriting over the few hours that we were there. I told him I was going to write, like, 100 songs, and he thought I was crazy. But he was really interested in doing that, because he’s a guy who writes a lot. Then we just Uber-ed over to a rehearsal studio in L.A. called Bedrock, where there’s writing rooms with a piano, and you can get a guitar in there for an extra 10 bucks.  We rented it out for three hours and ended up with ‘Wait & See.’ On a personal note, there was something really significant about that day for me. I think it was my first L.A. co-writing trip… I was elated after leaving the session, because I was so excited about the song.”

Setting down to write was as easy as breathing to Bourque, but doing it with someone else, and trying to do it on a completely foreign instrument, brought a lot of excitement and energy to the process. Changing instruments mid-career had had a profound effect, because Bourque found writing at the piano completely different from writing on guitar.

“It is for me, because I know very little about the piano,” he says. “I’ve been playing guitar since I was about nine, so I know the guitar extremely well… What that led to, eventually, was a bit of predictability. If I put a couple of chords together, I knew where I would end up going. But in terms of the piano, it was completely new. I had no instincts at all, so it was just about trial and error. Everything felt different, and everything that ended up coming out was extremely different.”

He describes the new music on the final, recently released second album Blue Hour as more melodic and more layered. “I think what I ended up doing is, because I’m not a very proficient player, I wouldn’t end up writing melodies with my hands, it would force me to write the melodies with my voice,” says Bourque. “I mean, ‘Blue Hour’ is a song that has two chords in it, and that’s it, and that’s partly because at that time I wasn’t much better than that. I didn’t really know what I was doing. It forced me to have better melodies with my voice because my skill was so rudimentary with my hands.”

In the end Bourque made his way through about 50 co-writing sessions out of the 150 songs he ended up with at the end of his journey. Only four or five of the co-writes made it onto Blue Hour but the repercussions of Bourque’s songwriting metamorphosis will probably be heard for years to come.

It’s one of the most surprising albums of 2019 in Québec, and arguably Diane Tell’s best album ever. Released in May, Haïku was recorded in France and under the shared artistic direction of Tell and Fred Fortin, who also wrote three new songs for her. Here’s the story of this surprising partnership.

Diane Tell, Fred Fortin, HaikuFred Fortin admits it readily: never in his life would he have imagined producing a Diane Tell album. “It’s crazy when you think about it!” he says. “When the album was done, I went and listened to some of her old albums that I found on vinyl. That’s when it hit me: What the… Everything really is possible in our business!”

“It is true that, on paper, a Fred Fortin-Diane Tell collaboration seems quite unlikely,” Tell also admits, over the phone from her home in the Alps. “The people I told about it all said, ‘That’s quite weird!’ A lot of people wondered why he came to me. But when you take a step back, we have a lot more in common than meets the eye. No matter what the musical style, or our career paths, we’re both songwriters who love to work in a group, and mix things up.”

“You just need to do it for the right reasons, and to have fun,” Fortin agrees, on the phone from a tour stop, promoting his album Microdose. “The thing is, Diane was, artistically, an unlikely match. I was afraid to dive in. My friends spurred me on, they kept saying, ‘You have to do it, Frank!’ They really pumped me up.”

The seed of this collaboration between two of Québec’s foremost songwriters was planted two years ago by Louis-Jean Cormier, during the taping of his TV show Microphone. They spent a day talking “and having a lot of fun,” says Fortin. Shortly afterward, Tell reached out and asked him to produce her next album. “It took a while because I had no time to devote to her project,” he says. “But she insisted. I told her, ‘Look, I’ll check with the boys if we can’t find five or six days to spend together and tinker with your songs.’”

“You try stuff, and bang! you stumble onto something new. It’s very inspiring.” – Diane Tell

So what’s it like when Fortin and Tell spend six days together? An amazing album, where the former expands his musical horizons, and the latter re-invents herself. “Push the envelope, as Americans say,” Tell laughs. “Going ever further with the music, the lyrics, the orchestrations, in an increasingly engaging way. I’m also a producer, so it’s my job to find out how to achieve that, and that’s what takes me where I’ve never been before” – thanks to Fred and his crew, Olivier Langevin and Joe Grass on guitars, François Lafontaine on keys, and Samuel Joly on drums.

According to Tell, “a lot of artists of my generation will try to re-do what made them successful in their prime. In this case, we worked in total freedom, we wanted to try new things. When you want to do something new, you need to change some of the ingredients. You try stuff, and bang! You stumble onto something new. It’s very inspiring, and that’s why I reached out to Fred.”

What’s special about this collaboration is that’s it’s not directly related to actual songwriting; Fortin wrote three songs for Tell, while she had the bulk of the album written in collaboration with poet Alain Dessureault, singer-songwriter Serge “Farley” Fortin, and writer Slobodan Despot. The collaboration is mainly on the “artistic direction” level – the sound, the intent, the orchestrations, all of which are, effectively, forms of creating songs.

Thus, the mandate was strictly producing the album, “but I had it in my mind to try and write songs for Diane, based on the very vague memories of what a Diane Tell song is, since I was pretty young when I was introduced to her work, Fortin explains. “I only had vague memories of her old material and her bossa nova rhythms,” which was the inspiration for his song “Vie,”  which opens the album.

It’s quite a fabulous song, if only because one could never guess that it’s a Fred Fortin song. “I had a lot of fun creating a song like that, and it even re-oriented my own work a little,” he says, in reference to his songs “Microdose” and “Électricité” on his latest album – where one can hear Latin and Brazilian rhythmic influences. Elsewhere, it’s Tell herself who pushes the envelope, notably on the unusually longish “Spoiler”: “Diane brought this demo with an electronic beat,” says Fortin. “It was quite a crazy song. We went along for the ride, and she never stepped on the brake pedal!”

As for Fortin’s two other songs, “Chat” and “Catastrophe,” they’re more evidently his, lyrically as much as melodically. “As you may know, he also recorded ‘Chat’ for his own album, but with a different title,” says Tell. “I find that fascinating because our albums came out shortly apart, mine first and then his. It’s quite extraordinary to hear the difference between our versions. They’re beyond recognition, and they’re a perfect example of the fact that even though the composition is the same, the artist who sings it really puts their spin on it.”

Very candidly, Fred admits he still doesn’t quite understand why Diane asked him to produce her album. “I hope it’s because she likes what I do,” he says. “I have quite a raw and direct approach to this kind of work. Plus I came with my entourage: I work with good people, and that’s stimulating. Finding unadulterated joy in music and doing it uncompromisingly; I don’t think Diane has made a lot of compromises in her career.”

Solitude may be an art, but sitting day in and day out in a room writing music can become depressing for an artist. Martin Roy suffered from exhaustion as he was completing the soundtrack for the seventh, and final, season of the Québec television series La Promesse in 2012. “I was also experiencing touring fatigue,” says the bass player, who was often seen playing behind the likes of singers Jean Leloup, Ingrid St-Pierre, and Daniel Bélanger, and who’s one of Dumas’ most faithful collaborators. “I needed a change of pace, a renewal.”

Martin Roy, Luc SicardAt about that time, his old guitarist friend Luc Sicard happened to be experiencing the same type of professional and existential angst. After spending more than 20 years in a dark studio writing television, film, and advertising music, he was looking for a way to do things differently.

“What was getting to us were those long hours of working by ourselves, and of having to look after everything. We thought, ‘Why couldn’t we share the load?’” says the veteran composer in his partner’s basement studio, in Montréal’s Rosemont neighborhood. So a partnership that began for personal reasons soon proved to be a boost for the duo’s professional output. “For me, on my own, two series at the same was too much,” says Sicard. “But, together, we can handle three of them all at once.”

Since 2015, the pair has scored the TV programs and series Marche à l’ombre (winner of a 2018 Gémeaux Award), Karl & Max, L’Heure bleue, Le Monstre, La Faille, and Victor Lessard (winner of a Gémeaux Award for Best Original Music for Fiction in September of 2019).

Pretty prolific guys, you say? Well, who were the two tough, hooded stuntmen who appeared f nowhere in a back alley to teach a lesson to Jo Barbeau (Antoine Pilon) in Marche à l’ombre? You got it: they were Roy and Sicard! They thought that the (fictional) beating that they were able to give Barbeau on that occasion, at Francis Leclerc’s invitation, was such great fun that they’ve been calling themselves “The Hooded Ones” ever since.

“You can only get a good series if you give free rein to creators.” – Martin Roy

In the studio, the partners allow themselves to be brutally frank with each other. No masks are tolerated. “It’s like in Star Trek, permission to speak freely,” says Roy, while absent-mindedly strumming his splendid Hofner electric bass. “Between the two of us, ego never is a barrier.”

By far the pair’s more talkative half, Sicard gets excited when dsicussing the open dialogue that takes place between the two of them. There’s lots of it because, contrary to other scoring teams, they both work on each and every series or film cue (instead of dividing the scenes between themselves beforehand).

“Martin shares his ideas with me, I share mine with him, and we take it from there,” says Sicard. “We collide with each other, we look at it every which way, and we don’t get hurt. On the contrary, we get stimulated! When you’re 25, and starting in the business, you’re not able to go there, you’re still fragile, but us, we have the advantage of having grown up. If Martin tells me, ‘This is a shitty idea,’ we just trash it, and find other ideas five minutes later! I’m not about to try to convince him that it’s a good idea. We have no time to waste on that kind of stuff! Anyway, we can’t be worrying that we’re going to let a good idea slip through our fingers: ideas are a-dime-a-dozen!”

No resource is more renewable than ideas. But for them to blossom, those who produce them need some wiggle room. This principle is under attack, now that traditional television is losing ground, and that major distributors are yielding to panic.

“A fear syndrome is developing,” Roy was sad to say. “An author can write a super scenario, and it’s going to be completely watered down, because people on high are wondering if ‘the average viewer’ will be able to understand it. Radio-Canada is not calling us directly, but we can sense this fear that starts from the top, and trickles all the way down to us. When you’re writing TV music, you’ve got to like what you’re watching. You’re not showing them a playlist, but investing a piece of yourself, a piece of your heart, a piece of your soul. Broadcasters don’t realize this, but they stifle the product by creating that fear. You can only get a good series if you give free rein to creators.”