Matt HolubowskiWhen we reach him on the phone, Matt Holubowski is in his favourite place in the world: the tour van. He might not be very far from Montréal (tonight’s concert is in Sorel, about an hour by car northeast of the city), but hitting the road, even for just a few kilometres, makes him feel at ease. He’s always loved to travel and visited several continents – sometimes as a humanitarian volunteer – and is only now starting to realize that his trade as a musician could take him to places he’s never even thought of before. “My God! If you only knew…” he says. “That’s my ultimate dream. For now, I’m focusing on concerts in Québec, so we rarely leave for more than a few days at a time, but I’d love to be on the road for weeks, or even months.”

One can easily imagine that Holubowski’s music could travel around the globe. His ethereal folk rock has often been compared to that of Patrick Watson, and has a universal and timeless quality. It surely can’t hurt that folksingers are quite popular of late, to wit the fact that Bob Dylan recently won the Nobel Prize in Literature. “It’s funny, we were just listening to Dylan’s Desire in the van,” says Holubowski. “I’d be lying if I said he hasn’t been a major influence! To me, he’s right up there on a pedestal, a role model for any aspiring songwriter.”

As a matter of fact, it was by singing a Dylan song that Holubowski most impressed everyone when he was a contestant on La Voix in 2015. Mind you, he didn’t pick an obvious song, such as “Like a Rolling Stone” or “Knocking on Heaven’s Door,” but the lesser-known ballad “Girl from the North Country.” “It’s funny you should mention that,” he says. “Initially, the one I really wanted to sing was “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall,” but it’s a hard song, and it’s almost seven minutes long. That’s when someone suggested “Girl from the North Country,” which is better known because Johnny Cash covered it. They told me it would connect with the audience more.”

Nowadays, this type of issue doesn’t bother Holubowski anymore. When he recorded his album Solitudes, the people at Audiogram gave him carte blanche, never trying to make him more “radio-friendly” or commercially accessible. “I have nothing against light pop music, but to me, a song must have a certain depth,” he says. “You don’t have to be Baudelaire, but you can surely do better than ‘Baby, baby’… It might be Dylan’s influence, since we’re on the topic, but to me, lyrics are vital; that’s always what I notice first in any music.”

If there’s a thread in the songs on Solitudes, it’s the theme of identity. The identity of the artist who questions the concept of notoriety – notably on “L’imposteur,” one of two French songs on the album – and the identity of a young Québécois, whose father was a Polish immigrant and whose mother was a Francophone Québécoise, and who grew up almost exclusively in English in the town of Hudson. The album’s title is a reference to Hugh MacLennan’s novel Two Solitudes, a book that was a mainstay on his nightstand for a long time. Holubowski even evokes a third solitude: his, the solitude of bilingual Québecois who are sitting between two chairs. “It might sound strange, but it was while I was abroad that I started thinking about our identity here,” says Holubowski. “Especially during a trip to Serbia where, let’s be honest, the question of national identity is quite heavier than it is here!”

Yet identity is a fluid concept. Even though he readily admits he didn’t know much about Francophone Québécois music up until very recently, he’s actually catching up in an almost bulimic fashion. “My first contact with music was Eminem, and I do think it has influenced my writing,” says Holubowski. “I think my French isn’t that good, but I’m getting to love that language through the lyrics of artists such as Richard Desjardins, whose writing just blow me away. I also listen to a lot of Martin Léon – that man is a genius at arrangements – and also Safia Nolin, Philippe Brach, Antoine Corriveau…”

Might we expect to hear more French songs on his future albums? Possibly, but for the time being, Matt hopes his songs will travel, no matter in what language he’s singing. And based on the positive reaction to his music, especially in English-speaking Canada, there’s very little chance that he’ll actually be doomed to a life of solitude.

Catherine DurandCatherine Durand is an unwavering perfectionist. Ever since she began her career, people have gotten used to the long gaps between her albums. True to her usual pace, four years have gone by since the release of her previous album, Les murs blancs du Nord, and her latest, La pluie entre nous. “It’s a slow gestation,” says Durand. “I don’t write a lot, and I don’t write fast.”

And then, at some point, the artist “owns” her album. “That definitely is a real moment,” she says. “You can write several songs and end up keeping none of them, just as you can write two in an hour that will both end up on the album. You can never know what will make it or not. I’m always on a quest. But all if it happens through a trial-and-error process… Where I want to take things, musically and lyrically. It takes time to figure all that out and make it happen.”

The quest, for this sixth album, was a many-headed beast. After 18 years in this trade, the singer-songwriter naturally feels like it’s time to take stock, and she felt a deep-rooted desire to surprise people, and herself: “This need for change, surprises, meant I had to work with new people, a new producer,” says Durand. “I needed someone like Emmanuel Éthier, whom I already knew. I loved the vibe of Jimmy Hunt’s album Maladie d’amour [which he produced] and I contacted him via Facebook…” Durand didn’t even know if he’d heard her previous work, but it didn’t matter: “In fact, it’s probably better, when you want to start from scratch!”

Durand, with the help of a host of high-calibre collaborators, definitely seems to have found what she was looking for. Partners in crime such as José Major, Joe Grass, Salomé Leclerc and Ariane Moffatt all pitched in, magnifying her songs without saturating them. “My melodic lines are still clearly mine, but there’s something more minimal – and more efficient,” says Durand. “It’s very contemporary. But not overly so. It bugs me when certain sounds are too contemporary… For example, right now, PJ Harvey, and a ton of other artists, throw in a saxophone solo. It feels like everyone’s doing it, so I won’t. I like classic, timeless sounds.”

This is also apparent in the lyrical themes of the new album. “It’s about personal relationships, whether its friendship, love, or family,” says Durand. “The love is there, but getting closer to people who are there is always difficult. Being comfortable together, despite the hurdles, even though it’s not always easy to tread the same path together.”

Self-produced for a few years, now, Durand has decided to launch her own record label. “I love being in control of my business, thinking about it from a business perspective and not always strictly as a creator,” she says. “That spark sometimes doesn’t come easy, but I think it’s a very good thing, in the end. Obviously, I’m very close to my project, it’s my career, my whole life, so I do take things more personally. It’s normal to be more sentimental about what’s happening to you.”

And the burning question on everyone’s lips lately: What about streaming? “At the root of any industry are creators,” says Durand. “Without songs, there would be no record labels, no publishers, no live shows, etc. The root of this whole industry are songwriters and composers. Right now, it seems like the only ones making money with music are the ones distributing it, everyone but the creator. It’s a grave imbalance that needs to be fixed. Cable providers pay money to a fund that re-invests in content creation; why don’t we have something similar for music? I’ve been doing this for 18 years, so I’m much more serene and down to earth. One day, we’ll need actual solutions. I’m very clear about what’s going on and I have faith that things will get better. Problem is, I think it’ll take a long time.”

Going to Chernobyl to take heed of the devastation. Visiting Auschwitz to remember. Exploring the site of a plane crash. Setting down one’s folding chair near the Gaza Strip to watch the bombings…

“Dark tourism” is booming around the globe, as a strange way to assuage our voyeuristic side and face death as a way to reassure ourselves that we, at least, are still alive. This phenomenon piqued Antoine Corriveau’s curiosity so much that it became the creative spark for the creation of his third album, the aptly titled Cette chose qui cognait au creux de sa poitrine sans vouloir s’arrêter (“The thing that beat incessantly deep inside his chest”).

“I heard about this type of tourism while reading a story by filmmaker Denis Côté in the Nouveau Projet magazine,” says Corriveau. “I was totally fascinated. Not in the sense that I wanted to visit various disaster sites, but it just made me want to reflect on this morbid attraction of humankind.”

Corriveau researched the subject. He visited the past and imagined the future. “I wrote what I imagined visiting those places could elicit inside people,” he says. “Then I wrote from the victims’ perspectives. How does a pilot feel 30 seconds before crashing? Then I imagined the future. With everything we see in the media – disasters, genocides – we can already predict what places in the world will become [dark] tourist attractions 30 years from now. That’s quite worrisome.”

“There is death itself, but there’s also the death of a relationship, or of a period in your life.”

“Croix blanche” (“White Cross”), one the first songs Corriveau wrote for the album, is about such a pilgrimage, in the footsteps of the Grim Reaper. And, just as on all the other songs on this album, one feels a personal touch, a kind of intimacy that created between the artist and the listener. Dark tourism left its influence, but there’s something more. There is a sense of daily nocturnal life, through which the narrator celebrates his existence. “‘Croix blanche’ refers to those crosses that are often erected on the site of a deadly accident as a memento,” says Corriveau. “But the more I wrote, the more I realized I needed to transcend the theme and make it mine. I didn’t want to end up sounding like all that I read on the internet. I needed it to come from me. As if I wanted to transpose these tragedies onto a more personal level. There is death itself, but there’s also the death of a relationship, or of a period of your life.”

Corriveau won the 2015 Prix de la Chanson SOCAN for his song “Le nouveau vocabulaire” and he makes no bones about it: the two years that went by during the gestation of Cette chose qui cognait au creux de sa poitrine sans vouloir s’arrêter were marked by a separation, his own personal train wreck, that he re-visited over and over. “When you end up on your own, you don’t owe anyone anything anymore,” he says. “I wanted to rub shoulders with the unknown, the same way one would visit Chernobyl. I pushed the boundaries back. I toyed with that fine line beyond which one loses any kind of stability. I was alone with myself. I was trying all kinds of stuff. I met new people. I found out how far I was willing to go, and also where I didn’t want to go. The euphoric effect of discovery acted as a counterweight to the darkness and imagery of death.”

Needless to say, this new album isn’t exactly mellow music. With his gravely voice and solemn delivery, Corriveau remains true to his subject matter. With the help of his core musicians (Marianne Houle on keyboards, Stéphane Bergeron on drums, and Nicolas Grou on guitars and production), he gave birth to ethereal, refined compositions, augmented by string and brass arrangements.

“It does sound big with those orchestrations, yet the songs are much simpler than on the previous album [Les Ombres longues, 2014],” he says. “I wanted to be able to play the album live with a limited number of musicians. On tour, Marianne plays a synth, and even without the brass and strings, the songs don’t end up de-natured. This album was written much more with the stage in mind,” he says, and it’s a place where Corriveau will spend a considerable amount of time in the coming months. A place where, once more, he’ll connect with the members of the audience, one by one, shooting a musical arrow straight through their hearts.