“Speaking French is a choice we make on a daily basis,” says Mario Lepage, a.k.a. Ponteix, a Franco-Saskatchewan person who chose music as the vehicle for his minority status. Bastion, his first full-length album, was written in his small town of St. Denis, a Francophone community in a sea of prairie, where speaking one’s language is a decision that’s renewed daily.

Ponteix, Mario LepageTo talk music with Lepage, we have to talk about the Francophone minority outside Québec. “For a lot of people, living in the language of their choice is a given, but for us it’s an issue,” he says. “You can catch English like you catch a cold, if you’re not careful,” he says laughing. My grand-dad would say ‘Aaaah, the Anglos!’‘

Speaking French was a struggle for Lepage and his family, which is why the subject is still so important for him, to this day. “When my dad went to school, he’d be bullied because he spoke French,” he says. “A lot of people of his generation chose to not speak French because of that.”

He promised himself that he’d write Bastion at home, where his roots naturally took him toward those musical themes central to his culture. “The more I wrote, the more I realized I had a deep relation to the place,” says Lepage. “My native village in the Great Plains really connected me to my heritage, the source of my Francophonie.”

Ponteix songs are part and parcel of the landscape that gave birth to them. “I had more and more songs that spoke about my relation with that place, so I figured it all had to go that way,” he says. “Wide-open spaces, endless skies, I felt my music was suited to travel in those wide-open spaces. Looking at all that, at the horizon, I got the feeling my music was like a screenshot of it.”

Linguistic duality is at the heart of Ponteix’s lyrics, exploring the numerous dilemmas attached to the local culture. “In ‘Alamo,’ I also talk about mental health,” he says. “It’s a double-entendre: the effect of that voice inside your head that won’t shut up also represents the pervasiveness of English. In my reality, it’s unavoidable,” says the artist.

Inevitably, family ends up at the heart of the portrait painted by Lepage. “I found old cassettes at my grandmother Irene’s,” he says. “She would record all kinds of random stuff when we were kids. At the beginning of my album, you can hear my cousin Ginette reciting a poem about 40 years ago. And at the end, that’s me at three years old, talking with my granny. She tells me that we’re going to learn a song together, and that she’s going to teach me good manners.”

It’s not happenstance that Ponteix isn’t a Montréal-based artist from Saskatchewan. For Lepage, there are just some things that mustn’t be transplanted. “There’s something truly special, culturally, at home,” he says. “No matter where I am, home will always be there.” The internet allows him to be a part of what’s going on without having to move. “We’re taking back control of our career, now,” he says. “Not everything is necessarily in the hands of a record label, and there’s a lot that can be done remotely.”

A movement of young artists, growing in numbers, is tearing down geographic and linguistic barriers – one by one. “There were a bunch of us who really enjoyed playing music in French,” Lepage explains. “We’re all friends, and we encourage one another. We had the chance of having great models who had to struggle before us: Folle-Avoine, Hart-Rouge, Anique Granger… They had to fight even harder than we do.

“It’s easy to forget that we’re Francophone. In my band, there’s this one guy who has Franco roots, but his parents struggled so much because of French that they simply decided to not transmit that part of their culture. Bastion is the source of my Francophonie. The song ‘Prud’homme,’ from the album, is my community choir singing in the church where my ancestors attended. That says it all.”

Whenever he feels limited, Lepage sees it as a challenge. That’s why he built his album on his own, with the help of only a few collaborators, notably Fred Levac, who co-produced, while always remaining firmly in charge. “I’m the son of a farmer,” says Lepage. “My father was just like that. He didn’t have the best equipment, and used ingenuity to make things work.”

The album, released in March, will travel about in various guises over the coming months, before both Franco and Anglo crowds. “Music does not need a language,” Lepage concludes.

Laurence NerbonneTenacious indeed is the age-old myth that inspiration, and inspiration alone, is what gives a song its power. Laurence Nerbonne never particularly subscribed to that notion, but she rejected it for good after participating in SOCAN’s 2018 Kenekt song camp in Nicaragua.

Every morning, alongside 17 other rhythmic and melodic craftspeople – some of them established beat-makers on the global pop scene – she did a bit of yoga, before being assigned to a team that would retreat to a seaside cabin, surrounded by howler monkeys. Their goal: crafting a song – with their laptops, smartphones, and rich imaginations –worthy of being presented during that night’s communal listening session.

“It’s crazy how impressive it is to rub shoulders with people who are in such top creative shape,” says Nerbonne, a few days before her sophomore album Feu is slated for release, an album where she penned all the music and lyrics. “It truly is a myth that songwriting is nothing but inspiration, an illumination. Most of the time, it’s a lot tenacity, and a lot of work. Thing is, even if you’re the recipient of some grand illumination, if you don’t have the tools to see it through, nothing’s going to happen.”

As an example, she cites Sia’s hit “Chandelier,” which “follows the rules of a great pop song, and will stand the test of time because Sia put emotion and instinct into it.”

On being a Poptimist

How to craft a good pop song
“Think about writing techniques, how a good chorus should summarize the issues brought up in the verses, the various shapes a song can have – all that allows you to highlight your inspiration, and make the result of your initial idea clearer for the listener. It’s like visual arts: Picasso had to become a master painter before he could start de-constructing everything. Picasso was in top shape! So to write a good pop song, you need to be in top shape, because it’s a lot harder than it seems to arrive to such essential clarity, and pour emotion into it so that it’s not too clinical.”
On being a Poptimist

 The word “pop” will be uttered many times during our conversation. And even though she does step into the ring of burning-hot hip-hop to drop several rebellious rhymes on few of Feu’s tracks – “Fausses idoles” and “Back Off” come to mind – Nerbonne is deeply motivated by her desire to sync the sound of Québec pop to the rest of the world. Flirting with rap is emblematic of this desire, rather than a desire to re-invent herself; it’s synchronous with the contemporary codes of the genre, which permeate all of the genres that are hip from one minute to the next.

“La seule foi qui me reste, c’est en nous” (“The only faith I have left is in us”), she chants on “Fausses idoles,” and that “us” is everyone who, like she does, loves their pop music to be synced with the rest of the world. Back in 2016, Nerbonne’s debut full-length XO was nominated for Pop Album of the Year at the ADISQ gala, alongside Nous autres by 2 Frères.

“I have nothing against 2Frères, but I did wonder whether we really were in 2016,” says the artist, who won the Best Francophone Album JUNO Award in 2017. “I don’t see any common ground between what I do and their folk sound. So if we’re going to consider 2Frères as pop music, ADISQ needs to create an Urban Music category, at the very least.”

It seems, at least from Nerbonne’s perspective, that there is a lot of work to do before poptimism – a critical movement that rid pop music of its reputation of being superficial everywhere in the Anglophone realm – takes hold in Québec. There are still too many players in Québec’s music industry who equate pop and glop.

“What worries me is the survival of the French language and of our culture,” says Nerbonne. “It’s increasingly difficult for young people who listen to trap music all day long to identify themselves with Québec’s music. When I get a message from a youngster saying they usually only listen to Anglophone music, but love my album even if it’s in French, I feel like I’ve accomplished something. One thing’s for sure, however: our tardiness is keeping us from attaining international fame.”

We should, in other words, collectively burn down all the prejudice that still plagues the word “pop” in Québec. That’s just one of the many ways one can decode the title of the album, one that’s constantly oscillating between an uppercut and a whisper.

“The infamous sophomore slump; I thought it wouldn’t happen to me, but it did, so much so that I wondered if I still had it in me,” says Nerbonne. “I decided to not be afraid of losing my past glories to avoid making the same album a second time, and that’s also playing with fire. What matters to me is that there’s still a communion, a fire that burns between my fans and I, and that communion is only possible through authenticity.” She pauses. “When you think about it, fire is both the most dangerous and the most beautiful thing in the world.”

Attention le feu, c’est chaud, c’est dangereux ? (Watch out, fire is hot, it’s dangerous) “Exactly! Shout out to Gabrielle Destroismaison! She had it all figured out.”

There’s a line in Toronto punk band PUP’s single “Free At Last” that goes “Just ’cause you’re sad again, it doesn’t make you special.”

This one line puts a whole generation on blast. It’s a self-eviscerating take on millennial snowflakes and all their concerns, whether they be mental health, the environment, the rise of fascism, the lack of meaningful work, the machinations of the one percent, or a whole host of other entirely justifiable reasons for being sad.

Thing is, in PUP’s case it’s kind of a lie. PUP – Stefan Babcock (vocals, lead guitar), Nestor Chumak (bass, backing vocals), Zachary Mykula (drums, backing vocals), and Steven Sladkowski (guitar, backing vocals) – are special. And it’s specifically because their intensely personal songs so perfectly capture the turbulence that comes with stumbling through the world each day.

It’s working for them. Formed in Toronto five years ago, PUP quickly became favourites of the punk scene with their first two albums, winning accolades everywhere from the New York Times to Pitchfork, NPR to Rolling Stone. Their last album, The Dream Is Over, not only debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard Heatseekers chart, but also catapulted them into international waters, selling out shows worldwide throughout 2016. They also won the $10,000 SOCAN Songwriting Prize in 2017, for their song “DVP.”

Their new third album, Morbid Stuff, continues in their sad and special vein: it’s  11 songs of deeply-mined observation on anxiety and despair. In particular, it’s a window into songwriter Babcock’s soul, exploring his bouts with depression, his heartbreaks and existential angsts, and the difficult journey of trying to find one’s place in the world. It also flips the script for PUP. The band’s last album The Dream Is Over was built around a physical health crisis of Babcock’s that could have forced him to quit singing and cause the end of the band. The inward-looking catastrophizing on Morbid Stuff, though intensely about the self, feels paradoxically more universal. Anyone who feels things too deeply can see themselves reflected in these songs.

Babcock can certainly be accused of feeling the world too deeply.

“I have absolutely noticed that about myself,” Babcock says, accompanied by Mykula at a west-end Toronto café, to talk about songwriting with us. “My mom pointed it out. She said, ‘The world is always ending for you,’ and holy shit, is that true. Because even when something is going good, I tend to create problems in my own brain. Which can be really hard for my bandmates and my girlfriend.”

All this morbid stuff Babcock thinks about is, however, good for making songs. Babcock’s pointed lyrical style is ripe with slogans perfect to be carved into desktops, or Sharpied onto handmade T-shirts. The single “Kids,” for example, is a nihilistic love song with the tear-it-down line “I don’t care about nothing!” “Scorpion Hill,” a tale of dark thoughts and life spiralling out of control, features the slogan-worthy “If the world is gonna burn / Everyone should get a turn to light it up.” The metalcore-adjacent “Full Blown Meltdown” sums things up with “I’m still a loser and always will be/ So why change now?”

Don Valley Days

PUP won the 2017 SOCAN Songwriting Prize for their song “DVP.” The song, from the band’s second album The Dream Is Over, recounts a troubled drunk-driving episode down the Don Valley Parkway, the vital expressway that runs down the middle of Toronto. PUP’s Stefan Babcock reflected on the Don Valley.

On the song’s subject matter
“It’s not a grandmother-appropriate song, that’s what my parents said. They wouldn’t send that song to my grandma.”

On rafting down the Don Valley Creek with his sister in his youth and falling in the water
“We both had full body rashes after that. Of course, you’re going to get pinkeye from being in that water. I have a lot of fond and not-so-fond memories of Don Valley.”

On winning $10,000 for the SOCAN Songwriting Prize
“We’re very surprised and honoured that a song that dumb won… we’re very grateful for that.”

Listening to “Full Blown Meltdown,” inarguably the heaviest, most frantic song on Morbid Stuff, shows that however hard Babcock may be for his bandmates, they understand how to package his thoughts around bristling, appropriate sounds. The song sounds like a breakdown.

“This song is just rage,” says Mykula. “In that song the lyrics are really aggressive and snarky, and that was injected into the music.”

It helps that Babcock’s lyrics come from an honest place.

“They’re very much based in real life, and from personal experiences,” says Babcock. “It’s not about the similes, or the metaphors, or whatever. It’s just about saying what I want to say as directly as possible.”

Distilling this soul mining down to its essence is far from an effortless process. It requires extensive self-editing.

“This stuff certainly doesn’t just fall out of me,” he says. “The lyrics usually start off as gibberish, but I know what I’m trying to say. I do melodies first and I know what the theme of the song should be, but I don’t know what to say yet. I’m really not articulate. So for the first couple months of playing the songs, the melodies will be exactly what they end up being. But the words won’t be there, and I’ll be thinking in my brain, ‘How am I gonna say this thing that want to say, and not make it gibberish?’ And I definitely work way harder on the lyrics than anything else, because writing melodies comes naturally to me, but writing lyrics doesn’t.”

Getting to this place isn’t easy. During the writing process Babcock frequently checks out from the urban world to commune with nature. This comes with risk (see sidebar). It’s why any nature references in PUP songs are more rough waters and groddy reservoirs than gorgeous sunrises.

“I’ve almost died in nature many times,” says Babcock, who can tell a mean yarn about the time he and his sister were trapped in a snowed-out valley in Cape Horn, Chile, with no food. “I’m very into survival skills, survivalist culture, and when I say camping, I don’t mean car camping. I’m, like, in the middle of the Northwest Territories with nobody around.

“There’s a lot of pristine beauty, but more so we’ve found ourselves in complete disaster situations, where we felt like we might not get out of it.”

Cheating death? Isolated adventures? The deep exploration of self? These things may involve sadness, but they sure sound like living, and that is special.