“When I sang ‘C’est Zéro’ for the first time during one of my shows,” Safia Nolin reminisces, “it was crazy, the venue was on fire. It’s the type of song everyone sings along to in a karaoke bar, y’know?”
Do we ever. As did all the people gathered in the intimate and welcoming venue that is the Moulin du Portage de Lotbinière, in September of 2016, when Nolin sang a stripped-down version of the cult hit – written by Manuel Tadros and popularized by Julie Masse. She didn’t hesitate for a second, and recorded the song – which was written in 1990 – on her album Reprises Vol. 1. “What? That song was written 30 years ago?” says the young singer-songwriter. “Come on! I wasn’t even born in 1990!”
So is this SOCAN Classic, since 2012, still relevant today? Aside from Nolin’s gorgeous cover, New Brunswick’s Mia Martina offered us an electro-dance version in 2014. That same year, Julie Masse herself sang it during the finale of the TV music-contest show La Voix (the Québec franchise of The Voice) to an utterly ecstatic crowd.
In 2019, a podcast called “Pourquoi Julie?” (“Why Julie?”), dedicated to the singer’s career, was named one of the best podcasts of the year by Apple. On Google, the name “Julie Masse” is among the most searched in Québec. The 30-year-old song obviously benefitted from this exposure, and inspired many T-shirts worn proudly by those unafraid of “bitter, colourless mornings” (a freely translated line from the song, in French: “des matins amers, sans couleur”).
Birth of a Hit
“You want me to tell you about ‘C’est zero’? Is there really anything that hasn’t been said already?” says Manuel Tadros, jokingly. Indeed, the songwriter, actor, and jack-of-all-trades regularly gets the opportunity to talk about the birth of his hit. Here it is in a nutshell. The year is 1990, the same year that Laurence Jalbert scored with “Tomber (en amour)” (“Falling (in Love)”), while Jean Leloup was adamant that “L’amour est sans pitié” (“Love is Merciless”), and Gerry Boulet moved us to tears with “Pour une dernière fois” (“One Last Time”). The charts could hardly have more diversity: Philippe Fontaine, Les B. B., Kashtin — take your pick!
Enter a young singer from Témiscamingue, who reached out to Tadros to ask him to write a repertoire for her. They met for the first time near Saint-Hilaire, and Tadros was struck with inspiration immediately after getting behind the wheel to drive home. “Remember, there were no cellphones back then,” says Tadros. “I know I have an awesome melody and powerful words, so I have to memorize them while I’m driving.” As soon as he got home, he quickly kissed his girlfriend and their baby, one Xavier Dolan, who was barely one at the time, and ran into his office to write everything down and record a demo.
However, upon hearing that demo, the singer will turn it down saying it’s “too old” for her. Tadros is discombobulated, until manager and producer Serge Brouillette contacts him. He’s just taken on a young backing vocalist with the makings of a star: at 19, Julie Masse already possessed an undeniably powerful voice and stage presence. Would Tadros have a few songs for her?
As soon as Brouillette and Masse hear “C’est zéro,” the deal is sealed. The only condition Tadros has is that he be given the task of coaching the young singer in the studio and the production duties of the song. Granted.
“Julie had never recorded anything before,” says the songwriter, “and initially, we considered making people believe she wasn’t from Québec. We really wanted the song to sound as ‘international French’ as possible. I’m really picky about pronunciation, phrasing, and word stress.”
Lest we forget, “C’est zero” was indeed distributed in France then, but it was in Québec, and in Canada, that the power ballad became extraordinarily popular as soon as it was released, on March 19, 1990. So much so that shortly after, Serge Brouillette founded Disques Victoire in order to produce Julie Masse’s albums. Trophies, No. 1 on the charts, the highest-rotation video (that was suggestive but in good taste)… It hit the jackpot. Masse even sang “C’est zero” live on the French CBC New Year’s Eve variety show as 1991 became 1992!
Let’s get back to the recording of the future-but-not-yet hit. Says Tadros: “My arranging partner Pierre Laurendeau and I set up at Harmonie Studio in Longueuil. Imagine this, we worked with a software called Voyetra – no one used Apple yet, back then, and we didn’t even have a mouse, it was all keyboard-based!” he remembers with a laugh.
“I’ll tell you something no one knows,” he continues. “I’m the one playing those electronic drum fills on the track! It was supposed to be Julie’s boyfriend, but he was too stiff! I told him: ‘Gimme those sticks!’
“I think one of the things that explains the continued success of this song is also its structure: verse, chorus, verse, chorus, verse… and then, Boom! There’s the bridge, 33 seconds before the song ends, with a new chord and a few new words: ‘espérer ton retour, c’est zéro’ (‘hoping you’ll come back, that’s a zero’). It’s unexpected, you know? As were the words ‘un coup de couteau dans la peau’ (‘a knife stab in the flesh’). Everyone thought that image was violent, especially when uttered by a young woman. But that’s precisely what struck people, such an extreme expression of heartbreak! People still talk to me about ‘that stabbing song!’
“I can still picture myself in that brown, two-door Chevy Malibu that I’d inherited from my father,” says Tadros, repeating those words and the melody over and over. “That car didn’t look like much, it was kind of a jalopy, but it had quite a powerful engine.”
Just as “C’est zéro” probably looked like just another pop ballad, initially. Wrong! It’s propelled by a powerful engine, according to Safia Nolin: “It reminds you, with genuine beauty, that the pain of a lost love is eternal and timeless.”