Quebec Media Rejected Hubert Lenoir, So He's Taking Over the World Instead
"I feel that music is like the international language. And I'm just glad that it's that, if it pleases people even though they don't speak French."
Published Sep 13, 2021It seemed like nothing could stop Hubert Lenoir's rise. The Quebec City musician became a phenomenon on the release of his 2018 debut album, Darlène, a glam-rock opera about a pair of lovers. The success led to his now-infamous performance on La Voix (where he showed off a tattoo on his bum of an ejaculating fleur-de-lis), being shortlisted for the Polaris Music Prize, and earning the praise of fellow musical provocateurs such as the Strokes, Mac DeMarco and Kirin J. Callinan.
But then, the press got involved.
The criticism of his La Voix performance continued at the ADISQ gala, the Québec equivalent of the Junos, when he won the Félix for Best Pop Song of the Year. When Lenoir took the trophy and put it in his mouth to see how much of it would fit, Quebec media personalities denounced the act and Lenoir by calling him attention-seeking. When he went to France, the critics were even harder on him, calling him "superficial" and "arrogant."
"I felt very polarized," says Lenoir to Exclaim! now. "I was getting a lot of praise and a lot of hate." That attention directly inspired Lenoir's sophomore album, PICTURA DE IPSE : Musique directe, out on September 15 via Terrible and Simone Records. The first teaser from the album, interlude track "uber lenoir, c'est confirmé," features an audio clip from conservative Quebec City talk show host Dominic Maurais calling Lenoir a "complete idiot," ending with Lenoir saying that sometimes you need to protect yourself or else you will snap.
PICTURA DE IPSE is the sound of Lenoir protecting himself. "Musique directe is me saying direct things and being no-bullshit about how I feel. But also, I feel like Musique directe is an ode to music in general, some sort of manifesto about how I perceive music and music production. An ode and a manifesto to music because, throughout all these dark times, one thing that never let me down was my love for music."
Music has always helped Lenoir get through hard times. He was frequently bullied by other students during his school years. When he got out of school, he started building himself a strong community of people who were like him: artists, people who were proud of being different, and who didn't shun him for who he is.
After success came and the press started being hard on him, Lenoir says the trauma of childhood bullying came back in a more violent way. He struggled with the attention and the negative comments — until he discovered recordings on his iPhone.
"I wasn't writing anything meaningful after these comments. I was just shattered. I just didn't know what the hell had happened and then I discovered that I had been recording for maybe two or three years, some audio footage, because I was just being a person that likes sound. And, to this day, I don't even know why I was doing that. But I recorded all the time. And I was like, 'Okay, I have the path to find myself back again through these.'"
Those recordings are all over his newest album. They are close to his reality and what he felt in those moments, making himself completely vulnerable to listeners — moments such as "uber lenoir, c'est confirmé" and the trio of "Transit" tracks, mashing up audio from rides in Quebec City, Montréal and Paris with music by Montreal punk duo CRABE. Those recordings feature political speeches ("Québec Transit"), pilot announcements ("Paris Transit") and mythical songs about the city ("Montréal Transit"). Their chaotic composition gives us a glimpse of how those journeys were for Lenoir — a trip through cities that opened up new possibilities for the artist while he remained on his guard after being heavily criticized by the media.
According to Lenoir, his inspiration behind this album is direct cinema, a documentary movement popularized by Quebecois filmmakers, most notably by hand-held camera pioneer Michel Brault, which aimed to capture reality as accurately as possible. With his new album, Lenoir says he wants to create "musique directe," a new genre of music. Presented in chronological order, PICTURA DE IPSE brings listeners through his vision and recordings, as he captured them. He understands the importance of introducing a story to people through an album.
"As an artist, my main medium is really the album — and I say albums, but I don't care about the length," he says. "Even though people can feel maybe like they are a little bit archaic, I feel that in 20 minutes to an hour, an hour and a half, you say something that you cannot say with just one or two songs. Or just singles. It's just the way it is."
At the complete opposite of Darlène's glam-rock sound and closer to modern synthpop, PICTURA DE IPSE goes beyond Darlène's fictional narrative, instead diving into the person Lenoir is today. On "QUATRE-QUARTS," he explores religious iconography and death with lyrics like "Marie-Madeleine est bénie des Dieux'' and "Crucifix de Croque-Mort" over a upbeat, dancefloor-ready rhythm. On slow jam "OCTEMBRE," featuring French R&B artist Bonnie Banane, Lenoir sings about his difficulties in conforming to norms. Lead single "SECRET," featuring DeMarco (on drums) and Callinan, finds Lenoir singing about unrequited love. PICTURA DE IPSE is about a character Lenoir knows well: himself. He offers himself on a plate to everyone, challenging them to take a bite.
Now signed to Terrible Records — the same record label as Blood Orange, Solange and Moses Sumney — there has been some interest from the United States toward Lenoir's music. "I feel like there's more attention coming from the US than ever, toward my music, and it's kind of hard in a way because I'm making music in French. But also, in my own country and in France, I'm also pretty different from other artists. I'm making things differently. I'm always feeling in between every spectrum. So it's kind of interesting that it's kind of sad — I'm also embracing it. I'm kind of living what the album is about."
For Lenoir, the attention he gets in the United States feels great. He mentions not feeling as much as an outsider there and that there is a space for him and his art. He still feels sometimes like he isn't accepted in Quebec — the sting of the past words that were said about him hurts to this day. "I felt let down in a way. I'm starting to realize it again, with this album. I feel that all throughout my life, and Musique directe is about the feeling of not fitting in and you realize the consequences of being different and how you cope with being different in society."
As much as Lenoir is happy about the attention from the United States, he remains faithful to his Francophone and Quebecois roots. When asked about how he explains his newfound success in the States, he answers straight from his heart: "I feel that music is like the international language. And I'm just glad that it's that, if it pleases people even though they don't speak French."