Robert Charlebois, poetry, love and time passing
New album, Tout est bien
Barely a year after its release in Quebec, Robert Charlebois’ new album, Tout est bien, is available in France at last. Coming a decade after the spare Doux Sauvage, the collection brings us twelve new symphonically orchestrated songs that already sound like classics. RFI Musique met up with the Canadian singer.
RFI Musique: Why did you wait ten years before bringing out a new collection of original songs?
Robert Charlebois: I’ve been busy touring, doing around 150 shows a year. I also directed Il était une fois la boîte à chansons, a project about the golden era of Quebecois author-composer-singers following in the steps of Félix Leclerc, like Claude Gauthier, Gilles Vigneault, etc. And then over those ten years, it’s as if I’ve gone from being a “monument” to a “legend” – the whole family comes to see my concerts! When you’ve done 300 numbers, people sometimes ask why you carry on. The audiences don’t need any new songs, I do them for myself, otherwise I’d turn into a fossil. I may also have taken ten years because when I write I ask myself whether it’s better than before. If it’s not much of an improvement, then it goes in the bin. You become a perfectionist over time.
When you wrote Satisfaction, you must have been thinking of The Rolling Stones!
Of course I was! There’s even a little tribute at the end on the guitar. It’s a summary of my life in four verses: my childhood, with my first memory of fireworks, the teenage years with Elvis’s first songs, then the women, and the woman of my life. I had the idea for that track about eight or nine years ago, but it’s not easy to condense your life into three and a half minutes!
The lyrics are by you, David McNeil and Jean-Loup Dabadie, except for Prépare ton lit pour mon p’tit bonhomme, which is by Mozart.
I think Mozart is amazing, but he doesn’t move me to tears like Beethoven and Chopin. However, his writing… the letters he wrote to his cousin are pornographic enough to scandalise the Marquis de Sade, but the letters to his wife, while still erotic, are tender and loving. There’s a freedom in his thinking, a kind of madness. He says absolutely everything… and it’s musical. I chose this letter without changing a line of it. When we got to the studio, the technician put a steel plate on top of the strings of a grand piano, I started to play and we decided to keep it like a gag.
You also set Saint Augustin to music on Ne pleure pas si tu m’aimes…
It’s something of a final act, this gloomy extract from Saint Augustin’s Confessions. I didn’t change a word there either, I just turned round a few sentences for the sake of the rhythm. The lyrics were written in Latin in the 4th century, translated into French in the 17th century, and I set them to music last year. I find that extremely modern and beautiful, and I don’t know anyone who could have written something so deep yet so simple. When I read it, the music came at once, like a flash. All I had to do was find the notes on the keyboard.
The title you chose for the album actually comes from that text.
I thought it was a lovely title, it isn’t everything’s fine because it could be better… Everyone sings about things going badly, a lot of people sing out against the powers that be. But I’ve given up on social clichés and chosen to make an album about love. It’s the first time in the space of thirty records. I’d sung about trains, planes, cars, friendship, countries, factories; I had done some love songs, but it’s the first time that I’ve put together songs that take male-female relationships at face value, and that’s what really interests me now because I’ve got to an age where there’s more behind me than ahead of me.
You sing about love, and about heartbreak too.
I sang On n’en guérit jamais to Linda Lemay ten years ago, there was only the chorus, and the other verses were a Christmas song! And then gradually, I started to remember the arguments I had with Léo Ferré, the tours we did together and our discussions about women. He was pretty macho, Mr Ferré, when he said, “When I see a couple I cross the road.” I didn’t agree with him, and we had some ripe disputes! I always feel very emotional when I listen to Avec le Temps, and I wanted to give a little nod to Léo. Not everything disappears over time: burns heal, but if you cut off your finger it doesn’t grow back again. Some broken hearts never mend.
You have become a “legend” – what do you think about the contemporary Canadian music scene?
When I do radio programmes, they tell me that the singers with big, loud voices get sent over to France, but there are no more great composers like Gilles Vigneault, Félix Leclerc, etc. It’s not our fault if that’s what the French like to buy! There are some very good songwriters, like Daniel Boulanger and the Cowboys Fringants who tour round France and play to a full house, but you never hear about them in the media. On one side you’ve got the Anglophone scene, with Patrick Watson, Rufus Wainwright and Arcade Fire, but there are some fantastic things happening on the Francophone scene too. At the moment, cheesiness is in vogue: the French and the Quebecois are both mad about cheesy. People buy what they see on television, as if real life was being played out on the small screen!
Robert Charlebois Tout est bien (La Tribu) 2010
Playing live from 16 to 20 October 2012 at the Européen in Paris.
Translation: Anne-Marie Harper