We meet in a small café on Beaubien street called Le Vieux Vélo (The Old Bike), just a stone’s throw away from Philémon Cimon’s place. The sun’s out, the summer air is fresh, the skies are blue. Philémon is about to launch his third album in the wake of two singles launched in July. One of them, “La musique,” is pretty much a lyrical poem. “La musique est un amour à sens unique,” he sings. “Elle me déchire, m’inspire.” (Loosely translated: “Music is unrequited love, it tears me apart, it inspires me.”) He describes music as a despotic mistress who expects everything and gives nothing back. “That song talks about my rapport with art,” says Cimon. “There’s something pure in unrequited love. I even think that how love is supposed to be. The ones who find reciprocity are the lucky ones.”
Cimon has released three albums in less than five years. Les femmes comme des montagnes, his latest, follows in the footsteps of L’été (Summer), which came out in the dead of winter 18 months ago. It seems that music can also be a muse, and Cimon is clearly spellbound. It’s not yet time to take stock, but when he looks back on his career so far, Cimon admits he’s quite surprised by the road covered. “It’s impossible to know where creativity will take you,” he says. “All you know is it’s taking you somewhere! To me, this third album is the sum of the previous two.”
“It’s impossible to know where creativity will take you; all you know is it’s taking you somewhere!”
Launched independently in 2008, his first EP, Les sessions cubaines was an immediate critical success. Tremendous sensitvity, courageous vulnerability, and youthful spleen, all counter-balanced by the Cuban brass section of the mythical Studio Egrem. Audiogram signed Cimon in order to re-release new and augmented versions of several of these songs. “That record to me is my coming of age,” says Cimon.
That was followed by L’été, an album that took us far, far away from Cuba, and was recorded with musicians from Montréal. “My musicians and I have grown to know each other better now,” says Cimon. “For Les femmes comme des montagnes, I wanted to record a band album. We worked on the arrangements together, I gave them a lot of free reign; now we’re able to go a lot further together. We started rehearsing the new songs and, all of a sudden, I had the urge to go back to Cuba with them. In warmer climates, things are looser. There’s more space for life.”
Cimon got in touch with the Studio Egrem people, the headquarters of the Buena Vista Social Club musicians. The dates were good for everyone; so off he went, but this time with his whole Montréal gang, including co-producer Philippe Brault. Once there, Cimon met once more with his musician friends, and his cousin Papacho, the pianist, as well as the female singer with the irresistible accent heard on the song “Je te mange.”
Cimon is quite right when he says this new album is the sum of the two previous ones: the Cuban brass we missed dearly on L’été is back, so is Papacho’s distinctive piano playing, all wrapped in something sprinkled with a bit of a sixties feel, not unlike the sound of Serge Gainsbourg. Yet there’s enough space to let the guitars rip and let loose in the studio, as can be heard on a track such as “Maudit.” The lyrics are spiffy and they breathe. Cimon is singing is freely and nimbly. Clearly, he’s growing into his own. He’s now allowing himself to sustain notes a little longer, to sound a little harsher, to explore new registers. One really gets the impression the artist has allowed himself a little more licence.
“I had to step out of my comfort zone because I needed to say something different,” says Cimon. “Years go by and one discovers things one didn’t know, mainly because we didn’t need to discover them at that time. Whatever we wanted to express was expressible with the tools we had. On my first album, I was talking to a girl. Nowadays, I’m talking to people at large from my very core, speaking my truths, which happen to be pretty much the same as anyone’s [“Vieille blonde,” “Maudit,” “Ève”], and that requires a vocal language that’s more metaphorical.”
Speaking of metaphors, who are those women he compares to mountains? What does that mysterious title mean to him? “The classics of literature have inspired me,” says Cimon. “Stories about getting to a higher level. In Cervantes’ Don Quixote or Dante’s Divine Comedy, there’s a central idea of climbing a mountain to get to a woman. In Milton, Adam and Eve are in paradise on the mountain before being expelled…”
The album is like luscious, black silk. A delicate weave that‘ll be perfect to wear as a scarf come fall.