It’s Valentine’s Day, awakening the eternal lover inside every one of us. ’Tis the occasion to tell your husband, wife, partner or lover that you love them now and forever.

Red roses, gourmet chocolate, candle-lit dinner and a lovers’ getaway are the go-to gifts to mark Cupid’s Big Day. But what about music? Love has been by far the most universal song topic, regardless of language, since the beginning of time.

And there are plenty of love songs that are totally outside the scope of this February holiday. Timeless songs that talk about love on a daily basis, the ups and downs, its long-lasting effects. In short, songs like Francine Raymond’s “Vivre avec celui qu’on aime” (“Living With The One You Love”).

First released on the singer-songwriter’s debut solo album three decades ago, in 1987, “Vivre avec celui qu’on aime” (lyrics by Luc Plamondon, music by Francine Raymond and Christian Péloquin, published by Plamondon Publishing, Les Éditions Dernière Minute and Éditorial Avenue) became a SOCAN Classic 10 years later.  Valentine’s Day offers a great occasion to talk with the person who sang it, about how it was written, 20 years after it became a classic, and 30 years after its release.

Francophone Artist, Anglophone Song

Francine Raymond

Photo: Laurence Labat

“I already had the music, which I produced in close collaboration with Christian Péloquin, my go-to musician,” recalls Francine Raymond. “He wrote about three quarters of the song’s music. Christian always carried a big bag of loose cassettes. He would pull one out and say: ‘Listen to this.’ Without his bag of cassettes, nothing would’ve happened, and we wouldn’t be having this discussion today,” says Raymond, who lately devotes much of her attention to photography.

Raymond made her first steps on Québec stage in the early ‘70s, mostly alongside Péloquin and Hollywood and Wine, up until the mid-’80s. She spent years on Québec’s roadhouse circuit.

“I’d just stopped touring that scene six nights a week, back then,” says Raymond. “His music and my inspiration yielded a first draft. For me, melody always dictates what’s gonna come next. Because I had a lot of experience with Anglophone sounds that are easy to articulate, I’d written that first draft in English, and a complete demo.”

For Nicole

“It was the first song on that album that we completed,” Raymond continues. “In fact, it found its final form a good two years before the album came out. I’d even submitted my English demo to Nicole Martin. She said, ‘Darling, that’s a huge hit. I want it.’ But at the time, I was in France for engagements I had with Johnny Hallyday and Michel Berger. That’s when I ran into Luc Plamondon. At some point, we were at his place, and I played him the demo. Then, he tells me he wants to write a set of French lyrics for that music. I figured I needed to tell Nicole about this. She graciously gave the song back to me and said, ‘Go for it.’ She knew that song was going to be a huge hit. The rest, as they say…”

New Theme

Francine Raymond

Photo: Monic Richard

In the end, the lyrics Plamondon gave to Raymond had nothing to do – nothing at all – with her own first draft.

“It wasn’t at all an adaptation of my English lyrics, the likes of which were so common in the ’60s in Québec,” she says. “Luc drew inspiration from a secret love affair that had just ended between two of his friends. In English, the song was about something totally different. It was a song about changing the world… I think I’ll change the world todayTell me how I can work it out. Something to that effect.

“Having Luc’s name on one of your songs opens a lot of doors. Back then, I’d been living in Paris for months when it happened. I was in a ‘Paris-zone.’ I jumped from one square to the next. I had absolutely no trouble switching from an Anglo scene [where she sang covers] to an entirely Francophone environment, because I’m very adaptable.”

In the bottomless pit of love songs, there’s a plethora that are filled to the brim with “I love you”s and “I want you”s. And their opposites, of course, breakup songs that mean the same thing, in the end, but where the notion of departure is crucial. “Vivre avec celui qu’on aime” is both.

Passages such as “Vivre avec celui qu’on aime/balayer tout derrière soi/pour ouvrir tout grand les bras” (“Living with the one you love / Leaving everything behind / To throw your arms wide open”), or “À chaque amour/la vie recommence/À chaque amour/une autre existence” (“With each love / Life begins anew / With each love / A new existence”), or yet again “Vivre avec celui qu’on aime/quand on s’y attendait plus/À cœur perdu de trouver/le goût de vivre” (“Living with the one you love/When you didn’t think it would ever happen/With a heart for finding/The will to live”) are prime examples of this. Although it’s undeniably a breakup song, “Vivre avec celui qu’on aime” also looks beyond the horizon of heartbreak.

“We did indeed stand on both sides of the fence,” says Raymond. “We wanted to establish a theme and fully understand that emotion. I had to lean into it. If a role is not a good match for you, you can’t play that role. The comments of the audience showed us the many ways they made that song their own. People used it at weddings. Others used it to move forward after a breakup. Remember, this was in the ’80s, when people started talking a lot about re-constructed families. Luc understood that.

Video from Yesteryear

“The video for the song was filmed when Musique Plus [the Québec equivalent of Much Music] was still in its infancy, and played on the notion of departure/new beginnings because of the boats in the port where we filmed it. We filmed it in the port of Sorel with a few connecting images shot at [the] La Ronde [amusement park] in Montréal. It was October, and it was freezing. Christian’s hands were literally frozen by the end of the day.”

In that video, Raymond sports blonde locks that are reminiscent of Stevie Nicks, but she holds her guitar like Chrissie Hynde of The Pretenders would, while wearing a beret and matching jacket that wouldn’t look out of place on Rod Stewart.

“Rod Stewart, yeah, there’s some of that in there,” she says. “The look was totally intentional on my part. I figured if I didn’t look like a ditz, people would listen to the music more closely.”

And listen to the her songs we did: “Vivre avec celui qu’on aime,” “Souvenirs retrouvés,” “Y’a les mots,” to name but a few. Irresistible pop songs. While we’re on the topic, what is Raymond’s definition of a good song?

“It’s an observation of the mind,” she says. “It’s contemplation with one’s ears. It involves your heart, your soul, and all the right places… We are the channellers of an essence. In reception mode.”

We reach Peter Peter in Paris, where he’s lived for three years now, to talk about his third album, Noir Éden (Black Eden), an electro-pop gem that‘s already garnered much critical success in France. While Montréal is covered with a thick blanket of snow, the sun is shining brightly over Île-de-France, where an effusive, enthusiastic Peter Peter explains the genesis of his pop-yet-atmospheric album – created with one foot on each continent.

Peter Peter“It was created partly in Montréal, because I wanted to work with the same team as on Une Version Améliorée de la Tristesse, especially Emmanuel Éthier on production,” he says, “and partly in Paris, because that’s where I call home. In fact, it all began in my flat, the place which probably has had the most influence on the sound of this album. I went to Montréal, came back to Paris, and finished the mix in Montréal!”

One might imagine that the singer-songwriter was executing a carefully measured recipe, but be forewarned, you won’t find any maple syrup, wild boar, or Camembert poutine here. Peter Peter’s music exists within his own unique internal geography. “One thing I can assure you of, is that I did not set out to consciously make a ‘French’ album, especially since that doesn’t mean much anymore in this era of globalization,” he says. “Each city has its own personality, its particular context, no doubt about that, but musical genres increasingly transcend boundaries.”

One might think that moving to France was a calculated professional move intended to increase his footprint on the European market, but Peter Peter confesses that his ambition was much more personal than professional – and that it is, in fact, a longtime dream coming true. Call it a promise he made to himself when he was a teenager, back in Québec City.

“When I lived in Québec City, I would listen to Smashing Pumpkins over and over,” he says. “I would dream of running away, hopping on a bus and moving to a city where people didn’t speak French, like Toronto. Clearly, I had a very limited idea of what ‘exotic’ means! I didn’t do it, but it was that very urge that drove me to move to Montréal, and that was an epiphany. It made me more curious, I came into my own, and my perspective on the world changed. But it wasn’t enough, so as soon as I got a record deal in France, I jumped at the opportunity to move to a place where I would feel even more discombobulated – if only because I didn’t know anyone there.”

“I’m not known any more in France than in Québec. The big difference here is that there are ten times more people!”

Far from being a big star who’s all over the media, Peter Peter has nonetheless managed to build a loyal fan base in France since the release of Une Version Améliorée de la Tristesse three years ago. The media are fond of his charming disposition, especially music magazine Les Inrockuptibles, who recently described him as the “damned variety singer that French pop was missing.” From our vantage point, one could get the impression he’s the object of a tsunami of love, but Peter Peter is quick to curb our enthusiasm.

“I have an audience that likes my melancholy songs, and certain media are aware of me, but all in all, I’m not known any more in France than in Québec. The big difference here is that there are ten times more people!” Don’t go thinking that Peter Peter is the next Roch Voisine. When he walks the streets of Paris, he’s not overwhelmed by hordes of delirious teens. “As a matter of fact, I quite like being essentially anonymous,” he says. “I’m sure my label would prefer I’m more popular – and I would too, honestly – but the fact that I have an audience that allows me to earn a living means that I won’t have to make any compromises to reach the mainstream. It truly is the best of both worlds.”

Although he’s long believed that he was destined to a nomad’s life, changing cities or countries with every album, Peter Peter is now growing quite fond of the stability he’s found in his newly adopted country. And despite the unavoidable fact that he will forever be a stranger – his accent giving him away instantly, certain critics happily and somewhat bizarrely pointing out that he is not a “voice” singer, à la Céline Dion – he’s developed his own routine in Paris, his new port of call.

“I don’t know if it’s because I’m now a thirty-something, but I’ve found a certain stability here that I’d never found before, and I like it,” he explains. And Noir Éden is precisely about that. The record touches upon the extreme solitude of being an ex-pat – both geographically, and on a personal level – and on the desire for stability, domesticity, even, that drives the singer nowadays. “Those things are very present on the album, but it also comes from the creative process,” says Peter Peter. “My first two records were done really hastily, using Garage Band. For the first time, on Noir Éden, I had all my equipment and my instruments set up in my apartment. I was in my own bubble.”

Based in the Montrouge, a neighbourhood on the outskirts of the 14th arrondissement, Peter Peter watched as the world was set ablaze while he was retreating into his inner world. “In the days following the Charlie Hebdo attack, I could see the GIGN agents (Groupe d’intervention de la Gendarmerie nationale] down in the streets; there was something apocalyptic about it all, and that’s what I sing about in ‘Allégresse.’” This contrast between the outside world and the cocoon of his flat is also present in “Vénus,” a song where he describes the impassive nature of his cat (whose meow we can hear during the song’s opening) in the face of mankind’s murderous insanity.

Thus, in between his existential reflections and pop sensibilities (to wit, the very radio-friendly “Loving Game”), Peter Peter creates music that’s both melancholy and rapturous, something like a post-modern Pet Shop Boys. There are more experimental passages, acoustic nods (“Cristal Bleu,” the album closer) and synth lines that are dangerously close to being kitsch. Noir Éden, as its title clearly states, is an album of paradoxes where Peter Peter seems to have found his way, and his voice.

“It’s true that I’ve allowed myself to explore more, vocally speaking,” he says. “Even though I’m Francophone, I’ve always found it challenging to sing in French… I was searching for my voice on the first two albums, I willingly avoided certain parts of my vocal range; there were ways of singing that were nearly taboo for me. I still have a flow that I define as Anglophone, but nowadays, I own my French side, such as the way I pronounce ‘no man’s land’ or ‘Shangri-La.’”

For his third album, Peter Peter explored his deepest recesses. He’s now at the stage where he needs to re-connect with his audience, which will begin during the Montréal en Lumières festival at Club Soda. “I’ve honestly never felt so happy to go back onstage,” he admits gleefully. “That’s another one of that album’s paradoxes: I feel like I made big sacrifices by creating this album with a feeling of great solitude and now, all I want is to get out of my own head and meet people.”

When Rose Cousins was a university student in Halifax, she used to sneak down to the cafeteria in her residence and play the piano – but only when nobody else was around. “I wouldn’t play it in front of other people,” she recalls. Though she was then learning to play guitar, and had started to enjoy performing informally for small audiences, the time she spent at the piano was for nobody but herself.

Indeed, it wasn’t until her second record, 2009’s The Send Off (produced by Luke Doucet, now of Whitehorse) that Cousins – known for her soulful voice and her dark, emotionally-charged lyrics – dared to let the piano back in, on a few mournful tracks.

And so it’s fitting, somehow, that with her latest album, Natural Conclusion, her fourth full-length album, and one she’s calling “the most honest and vulnerable thing” she’s ever produced, Cousins is at the piano more than ever.  “I’m excited,” she admits. “Piano was my first instrument, so I feel like I’m coming full circle.”

But it’s not just the piano playing that has her feeling exposed. With this album, Cousins, who was born and raised in Prince Edward Island, pushes herself into all kinds of new territory, including her approach to writing and producing her music.

“I was terrified of co-writing, but I wanted to brave it.”

It has been, in many ways, a change borne of necessity. After the release of her JUNO-winning and Polaris Music Prize-longlisted album, 2012’s We Have Made a Spark, Cousins, who also won a 2012 Canadian Folk Music Award for Contemporary Singer of the Year, was exhausted and in need of a break.

“I was trying to pay attention to the physical manifestations of working too hard and performing too much,” she says, thinking back. “I had worked steadily all the way through 2013, and had done a ton of touring. And it wasn’t really till I got back from a big Australian tour in early 2014 that I was, like, ‘I am a piece of garbage.’”

And so, for the first time in her musical career, Cousins cancelled some tour dates, before promptly slipping on some black ice, breaking her arm and forcing a rest. “It takes eight weeks to heal a broken limb,” she explains. “And exactly eight weeks after I broke it I had my first [scheduled] gig.”

But rather than launching another exhausting schedule of touring and recording, Cousins took a step back and made some space, using her time to dabble in the studio, and to travel to Boston, where she has many musical connections. After releasing an EP in September of 2014, Cousins says she knew she was ready to take the leap into her next challenge: co-writing.

“I was terrified of co-writing, but I wanted to brave it,” she says, explaining that she was drawn to the idea of writing songs that others could perform, as well as writing music for film and television. “I want to be able to supplement my income creating music that can be working in the world, while I’m also working in the world doing other things.”

For Cousins, it was also an opportunity to embrace a change of pace, swapping a relentless touring schedule for the opportunity to spend some time working with people for more prolonged times, in various cities. In the fall of 2014, she landed in Nashville, and then moved on to writing stints in Los Angeles, Toronto, Ireland and Boston over the course of the next year, building relationships and experimenting with new approaches to songwriting along the way.

“It was fun to step outside of whatever my genre is, and to write really poppy stuff or swampy stuff, or dance stuff,” she laughs. “Who even cares? It was so fun to spread my wings and just not worry about whether Rose Cousins has to sing it onstage.”

While Cousins describes herself as an introvert, and admits that she hates small talk, she says she enjoyed the intense personal conversations that would develop with people she’d only just met, as they got down to work. “My greatest fear was that I would lose the way I write by myself,” she says, “but now I know that’s not true.”

A couple of co-written songs from this period appear on Natural Conclusions, which was created with Grammy Award-winning producer Joe Henry.  The album also features a slew of supporting artists, including pianist Aaron Davis and guitarist Gord Tough from Toronto, Haligonian Asa Brosius on pedal/lap steel, bassist Zachariah Hickman from Boston and Hey Rosetta!’s Kinley Dowling on strings, with backing vocals by friends Jill Barber, Caroline Brooks (of The Good Lovelies) and Miranda Mullholland (of Great Lake Swimmers). Both The Guardian and CBC Music have cited the album as one to look forward to in 2017.

Rose CousinsCousins, who has typically performed on her own, is also thrilled that she’ll be sharing the stage with a band for the first time when she hits the road to tour her new album. She’ll play 2017 dates in the U.S. and Canada from mid-February through mid-April, concluding with a hometown show at Charlottetown’s Confederation Centre.

“I’m looking forward to playing with them and experiencing the music with a band, something I haven’t given myself the privilege of for the majority of my career,” she says warmly. “It’s next-level for me, just like the writing and the recording of this record has been an evolution for me.”

As she looks ahead to what she’s learned and what she hopes to do next, Cousins, also a photographer, is clear that making time for her own creativity – rather than stealing moments for it between gigs – will be critical. “I feel better as a person when I can create things more often,” she says simply. Ultimately, however, she’s focused on continuing to broaden her own horizons, both in music and beyond, as well as finding more ways to support other artists.

“I’m looking for a way to make a difference in the world,” Cousins says. “And though I know that music does that, and brings things to people, and makes a difference, I do wonder where else I could make an impact.”

In the meantime, look for her at the piano.