“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.
To 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.