Published Jul 10, 2018When the Polaris Music Prize long list was announced on June 14, most of English-speaking Canada probably didn't even notice the inclusion of Quebecois singer Hubert Lenoir's debut LP, Darlène. The record, a Hunky Dory-esque glam odyssey and self-proclaimed "post-modern opera" that references soul, jazz and French chanson — and is complemented by a companion book by author Noémie D. Leclerc, Lenoir's partner — was released in February to little fanfare outside (and even inside) his home province, but it's been steadily winning listeners over since.
Like Lenoir himself, Darlène is complex and enchanting, inscrutable enough to lure you in but warm and open once you engage.
"It's a story," he tells Exclaim!, "about a girl called Darlène living in Montmorency, close to becoming a young adult, and she meets Ashton, an American guy from Vermont, coming to Quebec City wanting to kill himself by jumping from Montmorency Falls."
Between the album's opening three-song suite and later album highlight "Ton hôtel," Darlène feels like the work of a veteran songwriter, so it's jarring to find out that Lenoir, born Hubert Chiasson, is just 23 years old. But in conversation, it's easy to see how he's hit these heights of artistry so quickly. Before our interview, he asks me not to quote his French lyrics in English ("they lose their poetry"), and he's meticulous with his answers, often halting a sentence halfway to begin again more carefully; as a Francophone, it's hard, he says, "explaining your art in English, explaining precise emotions."
It's hard to believe that an artist with such attention to detail was raised on a rather thin musical diet consisting mostly of Top 40 and rap-rock.
"Growing up, in my family, music was not a big thing at all. Any sort of artistic — I had no artistic interest until 15 or 16, when I met some other people in high school who had interest in it. Before that, I was raised on pop culture, like Limp Bizkit, and any type of shit that a teenager would listen to — this is kind of where I'm coming from."
In his late teens, he was awoken to a world of music he'd never heard.
"I got interested in jazz, prog rock, psych; '70s music was the first. Some of it was like Brian Eno experimental stuff, but also Elton John, Paul McCartney, Pink Floyd, Genesis. Coming from a more conservative family and being surrounded all my life by 'normal things' — I was into sports! Then, suddenly, this music really changed me. It felt like, 'Oh, that's what I want to hear. I've been waiting for this my whole life.' It sounds cliché, but it really was like that."
Around 17, he began learning the guitar and joined a band with his brother called the Seasons. They achieved a moderate amount of success writing and touring simple, vaguely folksy pop songs with English lyrics. They released their sole album, Pulp, in 2015.
"The Seasons for me was the first school to learn writing songs and how to sing," Lenoir explains. "I started knowing myself more as a songwriter and an artist."
It was formative, but after just a few years in the band, he no longer felt connected to it.
"I live with the record I did, but I don't like it any more. I was 18, and it was my first time in the studio. You know, you want to do something, but it doesn't sound like what you wanted to do. I was tired of the compromise of being in a band. I had ideas, and I didn't want to have to justify myself. I wanted to do something that's going to have an impact; not necessarily a commercial impact, but an impact in art and the grander scheme of things, you know?"
Lenoir started work on Darlène a year ago, and it came to him quickly.
"I wrote this record in five months. Everything went pretty fast; creatively, it was very rewarding. It was waking up in the morning, listening to soul, Motown, Steely Dan, Oscar Peterson and then going on to ballet instrumentals. I was feeling so free."
Out poured a record that summarizes the music discoveries of Lenoir's past few years: glammy rock'n'roll on the opening "Fille de personne" song trilogy; whimsical, ornate French chanson on "J-C"; easy jazz on "Darlène, darling"; and soft psychedelia on "Momo."
"I wanted to do something about the art that's grandiose and has an impact. Coming from a family that never went to the opera — I never had the money for that — my grandmother used to give me some CDs of Carmen or Faust, and I really enjoyed them, but my relationship with opera is only, like, audio. Darlène is a story that's romantic, epic — I just like to think of it as a modern-day opera. It's how I wanted to write it, with changes of tempos and mood, and wanting to do something instrumental. I wanted to do something that was enjoyable, so maybe that's why it's different from prog rock or something."
Darlène is a story of love, loss and self-discovery, and in conversation, the word "emancipation" comes up regularly. The making of the album coincided with huge changes in Lenoir's life — including coming to terms with his sexual identity.
"Emancipation is such a wide term, but it's a theme in the book that's very obvious, and in the record. When I started writing Darlène, I was in a place in my life where I was still hiding parts of my personality. I was feeling bad, and I thought that now was the time to show who I was."
"This is a touchy subject, 'cause I don't want to put out the queer flag; I don't know if I define myself as bisexual or queer, because I don't like labels. But I was having a hard time just being a 'normal' person labelled as a boy. I just started wearing more makeup in public; it was very recent. Before, I was just doing it at home."
Making Darlène, he says, "which didn't have a big budget, was an emancipation. To me, there's really something about the album that's about emancipation, but it's also about — not disobey, but not listening to shit around you and just doing your own thing."
It's an attitude that has ruffled feathers in historically traditional Quebec, where Lenoir was recently invited to perform "Fille de personne II" alongside contestants on the province's hugely popular TV singing contest, La Voix.
His May 6 performance — in which he writhed sensuously around the show's stage, grasped at his groin, his bountiful black curls and his gold necklace, leapt onto the judges' chairs and, at the end, exposed a butt cheek sporting a fleur-de-lis — was the source of much media consternation. The next day, Lenoir found himself at the centre of a storm of online vitriol.
"People just started hating on me like crazy. When I woke up the morning after, friends were writing me like, 'Are you okay? Are these comments hurting you?' I just said, 'I'm fine; I've been called a faggot my whole life. It's not going to change anything, people bullying me [on] Twitter. The media wanted me to come out as a victim in the story, but I said no. Now, people in Quebec recognize me in the street: some older women give me grumpy looks; some of them want to hug me and protect me. But it's like, 'Don't touch me, I'm fine.'"
Lenoir's La Voix appearance "changed something for me," he says, but he looks back proudly on his uncompromising, challenging performance — and on his incredible debut record that, along with his Polaris nomination, feels poised to make waves.
"In Quebec City, it's more conservative. But just doing your thing, just doing music and believing what you do, having the courage to do the art that you want to and fuck the rest — that was a big thing for me."
Now, Lenoir's looking forward. He's got his first tour dates outside of Quebec planned for the fall, and though he's tight-lipped about both, he's also working on music for a forthcoming film "for a great filmmaker in Quebec" and a new album/performance art piece "that I don't want to talk about, 'cause it's a great idea, and if I talk about it, somebody's going to steal it.
"Darlène was coming from a very personal place, but I was referring to a version of myself from five years ago when I was writing it; right now, I'm writing in the present time of what's going on in my life, so that's the difference. I still want to make art and be creative and curious about any art form, so who knows how it's going to come out? I'm just keeping myself curious and doing some reflection."