Living in Quebec, you’d be hard-pressed not to come across at least one written article a week that makes reference to our dual identity crisis, and its perceived dangers and/or benefits. Montreal, more specifically, has been a beacon for peoples from across the globe for decades and longer. Italians, Haitians, Greeks, Ukrainians, Vietnamese, and of course, the English-speaking enclave that has historically congregated in the western part of the city.

Over the last decade, I’ve played a lot of shows and have had the pleasure of sharing the stage with a lot of musicians from many backgrounds. Recently, however, it has become more and more difficult for me to draw these cultural or linguistic lines between them. Not that it mattered in the first place, but as any Montrealer will tell you, we tend to identify along these lines before anything else; it’s our unspoken social contract. “Hey man, cool last name, what are you?” “Oh, I’m Portuguese, born and raised on Marie-Anne and Clarke.” The cultural, but more importantly, linguistic barrier that once loomed large over our society is slowly eroding.

Being a musician, my tendency has been to observe my peers for clues, and I’ve noticed something interesting: I can no longer credibly assign the labels of “English” or “French” to most acts or bands I see live in my city. There is, of course, the language with which they express themselves in song, but as I gaze at the musician makeup on stage, it’s no longer clear to me.

I can go see a French show, say, Marie-Pierre Arthur, and catch Joe Grass on stage along there with her, or go see Plants and Animals and there is Nicolas Basque. Or go see Galaxie, and there is Lisa Moore singing on stage with them. The Montreal music scene is a perfect microcosm to this linguistic line-blurring. I find this fascinating and stimulating. I never understood the point of having to choose a camp. I love Fred Fortin, but I also love Patrick Watson, what’s the problem? It seems the crowds agree with me as well. More and more traditionally “anglo” hang-outs like Casa Del Popolo or Sala Rossa aren’t so anglo anymore, and neither are their counterparts east of Saint-Denis.

What’s most fascinating to me, is that it appears to be happening at the molecular level of the bands themselves; the musicians. A gig is a gig, and when it comes to Québec, which means any language goes.

To delve deeper into this phenomenon, I sat down with some friends to take me through their thoughts, experiences, and opinions on the topic. I wanted as much as possible to speak with musicians who have performed in both languages to shed light on how they came about “mixing” with the others and how this fusion helped shape the musicians and artists they are today.

Lisa Moore

Lisa Moore

Place of Birth: Montréal, Qc.
Year of Birth: 1980
Main Instrument(s): voice, electro vintage synths, FX pedals
Active in music scene since: 2006
Associated acts: Blood and Glass, Creature, Ariane Moffatt, Patrick Watson, Galaxie, Marie-Pierre Arthur, Thus Owls, Little Scream

Geneviève Toupin

Geneviève Toupin

Place of Birth: Swan Lake, Mb.
Year of Birth: 1980
Main Instrument(s): piano, guitar, vocals, accordion through some weird pedals
Active in music scene since: 2007
Associated Acts: Willows (my solo project), Chloe Lacasse, Joseph Edgar, Charley Davidson, Le Paysagiste

Benoit Morier

Benoît Morier

Place of Birth: Winnipeg, Mb.
Year of Birth: 1980
main Instrument(s): Bass, guitar, lap steel, kora, drums
Active in music scene since what year?: 1995
Associated acts: Lisa Leblanc, Chic Gamine, Yves Desrosiers, Geneviève Toupin, André Papanicolaou, Charley Davidson

RREVERB:
How have the audiences changed since you started with respect to the cultural (linguistic) make-up at the shows?

Lisa:
I’ve been lucky and have played with bands that transcend language, I guess. One thing I can say is ten years ago English Canada used to be considered ‘stiff’ compared to Quebec…and now that’s changed… Our shows in Toronto and English Canada are no longer stiff… People dance like crazy and stay out late, they come talk to us after the show… and shows in Quebec are different somehow… All I can say is Quebec shows have less and less red-haired bohemian chicks with hemp necklaces dancing right next to the stage and humping the monitors. Times are changing.

Geneviève:
I play mostly in francophone projects in the francophone circuit throughout Quebec and Canada. I used to play a mostly francophone show but since putting out The Ocean Pictures Project in 2012, my shows are now pretty much bilingual. I’ve noticed a lot more receptivity from the audience since making this change. I think it just makes sense; seeing as I write in both languages and live in both languages. The audience can sense the authenticity behind it and it seems to go over quite well. I can’t say that I’ve noticed a huge change in the cultural make-up at shows.

It really depends on where I’m playing. In Vancouver, for example, every time I’ve played there a part of the audience doesn’t understand French and yet are very open and curious to the French material as much as the English, it seems. I think there’s still some work to be done to bridge the gap between the anglo/franco scene, but what I wonder about the most is finding ways to interest audiences in discovering new music… but that’s an issue that goes beyond the language question as far as I’m concerned. And as a bilingual artist, there’s always the question of fitting in… trying to figure out where exactly you fit and feeling like you have to kind of start over if you want to put out an album in English after having toured a French project or vice versa.

Benoît:
I grew up in Winnipeg, and played my first professional shows there. Being a “francophone hors Quebec”, whenever we played a show for the French community we always had to present a 100% French content show. Otherwise we’d never get asked back. I started playing in Quebec in 2007 and I honestly can’t say I’ve noticed much of a difference. Outside of Montreal it’s typically a pretty francophone crowd (where I’ve played), and here in the city there are so many circles that it depends on who I’m playing with. I guess I haven’t been around long enough to notice any changes.

RREVERB:
Which acts do you think helped bridge the gap between Anglo/French crowds/fans?

Lisa:
Patrick Watson because he sings in English but speaks in French between songs, same with Milk n Bone… actually a lot of bands that sing in English and are Quebecois create a crossover… and so do instrumental acts like Godspeed. What’s really special is when a Francophone artist touches an English-speaking audience. It’s harder to achieve since there is just SO MUCH English-speaking music out there. But it happens! I’ve seen this happen with Jean Leloup, Ariane Moffatt and Radio Radio… many artists from France have achieved this… Serge Gainsbourg, Edith Piaf, etc., etc but it is really special to see it happen in our generation in Quebec.

 

Geneviève:
I admire the Dead Obies for their mix of English and French lyrics throughout their albums and concerts. Bands like Karkwa and Arcade Fire have done some collaborations which I found to be inspiring in that respect. I have a lot of respect for Lhasa De Sela who was doing a lot of that, going from French to English and collaborating with artists from both scenes. Lisa Leblanc is another interesting example. She had a huge success with her first French album and followed it up with an English EP which she toured throughout Canada with a lot of success. It was a bold move but at the same time, why not? I know Vincent Vallières had you opening for him, too, for a while, and I thought that was fantastic.

 

Benoît:
An obvious one for me is Lisa. She started out mainly in French and has a lot of francophone fans. She’s playing more and more in an anglo market, and even when she signs in French, she’s really well received. I come from Western Canada but i’ve always played a good amount of francophone music. So i’m used to singing in French, often to people that don’t understand.

RREVERB:
Can you remember a key moment or story when you realized “this could only happen to a Quebec-based musician”?

Lisa:
Recording the upcoming Blood and Glass record with two English speakers and two Francophones… saying sentences like, Ey man, quand tu fais les punches sur les uns et les deux man it’s so great do it every time c’est DEBILE.
Never knowing if a musician is asking me to play C or Si (B)

Geneviève:
Good question… let me think about that as I eat my smoked-meat poutine…

Benoît:
I really wish I had a hilarious story. We’re lucky in Quebec, though; the cheese in the green room is often artisanal, and so is the beer. Elsewhere in Canada, you’re lucky to even get cheese! And if you do get cheese and crackers, they often cut up the cheese in cubes, which is a terrible thing. How are you supposed to make little cheese-and-cracker sandwiches with cubes? You need slices, people.

RREVERB:
What is your prediction for the future of the Quebec music scene with respect to language barriers?

Lisa:
I just toured Italy with Blood and Glass… the response was great! And some Italians in the south spoke zero English… They were still touched and singing along! Right before we went on our Italian tour Julien Sagot was there doing the same circuit… He sings entirely in French and a lot of the bookers and locals told me they loved his show!
So Francophone music is not just for the Francofolies festivals or for French-speaking countries. Good music transcends barriers.

 

Geneviève:
My hope is that there will be less and less of a language barrier, more and more collaborations between artists from both scenes, more and more cross-cultural festivals and events with curious and receptive audiences lining up at venues to discover all kinds of new music. That’s my hope and I’m sticking to it!

Benoît:
I feel like the gaps are sort of being bridged. More and more musicians are working in both scenes. But the music is different. Will French music appeal to more anglos in the future? Who knows.

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I’ve been alive for 38 years and as far back as I can remember, there hasn’t been a “standard” model of Quebec and Montreal culture. It is a living organism that keeps changing and evolving, and thanks to artists like Lisa, Geneviève, Ben, and countless others, we should be in for an interesting ride in the years to come. Profitez-en.

Listen to Lisa, Geneviève and Benoît in the playlist below

 

Crédits photo:
Lisa Moore: Daniel Francis Haber
Geneviève Toupin: Pénélope Fortier
Benoit Morier: n/a

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About The Author

Andre Papanicolaou
Collaborator - RREVERB

Andre Papanicolaou is a Montreal-based singer/songwriter, producer, touring and session guitarist. Over several years of recording and touring with other artists (Vincent Vallières, Daran, Pascale Picard Band, Patrice Michaud), Papanicolaou began to carry around a notebook and write down a series of essays. He brings to RREVERB a unique point of view: the one of a professional musician.