La belle chanteuse
by Craig Silliphant
January 25, 2013
Saskatchewan has a lot of roots music (and rock n’ roll, like anywhere else), but we are also seeing measurable growth in the Francophone music scene, which isn’t all that surprising when you realize how many French-speaking communities dot the prairie landscape. Singer/songwriter Alexis Normand has been at the forefront of the rise of this scene since releasing a self-titled EP a few years back. Normand’s music is best described as ‘cozy’; she explores not just lyrics and melodies themselves, but how we relate to life, and what our emotions sound like. She sings, plays guitar, piano, and ukulele, enjoying a budding solo career as well as being a part of retro-gospel group Rosie and The Riveters.
(Left: Alexis Normand photo by Jocelyn Anne Chillog).
The provincial government declared 2012 as the Year of the Fransaskois. Radio-Canada, CBC, and the Assemblée Communautaire Fransaskoise held a contest to find a theme song, which Normand and her co-writer, Fransaskois hip-hop artist Shawn Jobin, won with their song ‘Cet Horizon’ (about the relationship that we have with the Saskatchewan landscape). She has recently released a new full-length album called MIRADOR, and I caught up with her to ask about music and art, the Francophone community in the province, and her own musical journey.
CRAIG SILLIPHANT: What has changed for you since the first album? Not in terms of the music itself, but you as an artist?
ALEXIS NORMAND: I have become more confident in my creating process and have learned to start ignoring the ‘what ifs.’ “What if my songs are terrible? What if there is no crowd at a show? What if no one gets it? What if?” F*ck the what ifs! Part of ignoring these questions is due to the acceptance of who I am as an artist and musician and being confident in what I have to say and how I decide to express myself in song. The process has also become more personal and I explore topics that are closer to me; ones that vibrate heart strings other than those that resonate to heartbreak and love stories.
CRAIG: How did you first discover music as a listener?
ALEXIS: Oddly enough, I first discovered music as a listener studying classical music in high school. I was taking a history of classical music course, during which I studied many big composers of the romantic era. Since then, I have been fascinated by the choice of instruments, structure, and chord progressions and how they can be used to convey a specific idea and emotion. This applies to pop or singer-songwriter music too. What type of bass line would best serve the message at the core of a song about forgiveness? Does a descending melody line mimic the falling rain? I also like to give myself challenges like making a major key sound sad and nostalgic and speak about your grandmother.
(Right: Photo by Jocelyn Anne Chillog.)
As a francophone musician, I listen to a lot of music from other French-speaking regions around Canada and the world. There is so much diversity out there. If I am not collecting inspiration and ideas while I listen, I am building a broader sense of the musical landscape that exists outside Saskatchewan. This enables me to better understand where and how my music fits into the big picture.
CRAIG SILLIPHANT: How did that musical fire inside turn into playing music? I know you went to school quite extensively - what did you take away from it? Was it a good experience or did it teach you that you could learn more on your own?
ALEXIS NORMAND: I think I was born with the music bug. Although my family isn’t necessarily a musical one, I grew up with music: my dad was a DJ when I was little, my parents enrolled me in a music-for-tots class, and (later on) I started piano lessons. When I was in high school, I taught myself how to play the guitar using one of my dad’s old books of Beatles tunes. The first song I learned was ‘Yellow Submarine,’ and after learning all the other songs in the book, I started writing my own. I don’t really remember a time when I didn’t play music.
I spent five years at the University of Ottawa to study music and education in French. Although most of the skills and knowledge I learned are specific to teaching music, some of the skills are useful as a singer/songwriter, such as an in-depth comprehension of music theory and musical analysis. This makes learning, memorizing, composing and arranging music easier. I can also write and read music charts, which are helpful when I hire new musicians to back me up. All that darn essay-writing helped me better organize my thoughts and plans coherently, which is essential to the grant-writing process.
After university I studied in Granby, Québec at L’école National de la Chanson. It was an intensive ten-month crash course on the singer/songwriting career. My time in Granby helped me clearly understand just how badly I wanted to give songwriting a go as a career. I had the time to nurture and fuel my “musical fire inside” - a passion that drove me back to Saskatoon to begin this journey.
I don’t regret those six years in school at all. They have helped me diversify my sources of revenue - something I believe is essential to living as a full-time musician. On top of the skills directly related to the singer-songwriting trade, I have worked as a musical director, and have given music and songwriting workshops in schools for students and teachers. Of course, I can also fall back on substitute teaching when my musical activities aren’t as busy.
CRAIG: How big is the francophone music community in Saskatchewan? Do you feel alone here, or do you get more of a big fish, small pond feeling?
ALEXIS: The francophone community in Saskatchewan isn’t huge. I think we make five percent of the provincial population. I don’t really feel alone because the Fransaskois music community feels like a family. We all know each other and often perform together. In fact, most shows and events organized by the Fransaskois community bring several artists and musicians together in one production. Some musicians have more experience than others and this makes our collaborations very rich in exchanges.
Aside from the community of artists, we also have the Conseil Culturel Fransaskois (Fransaskois Cultural Council) that supports us with by providing professional development workshops, funding opportunities for specific projects and performing opportunities in the Fransaskois Performing Arts Network, as well as the school-touring network in Francophone and immersion schools. We’ve also got Radio-Canada, a great media support that follows us in our development. After that, any real francophone industry players are virtually nonexistent in Saskatchewan. Francophone artists need to travel really far away to meet any other francophone industry person like a manager, agent, venue, publicist, etc. That said, looking at this unique situation through an industry perspective, I also feel like a big fish in a small pond.
CRAIG: Has the scene grown since you, and others like you, began cultivating it?
ALEXIS: Yes, the scene has grown and evolved. It is a slow process, but nevertheless, it is growing. Thankfully I am part of a new trend: artists returning home to Saskatchewan to start building their career. This is a tendency that is true on both the francophone and anglophone side of Saskatchewan’s arts industry. [And it’s] not just attributable to the artists that have returned. There are many community workers and employees that have the vision and foresight to work towards creating opportunities and venues for cultural activities. La Troupe du Jour is a prime example of this work, as they now have an actual home on 20th Street. Another example is Cinergie, Saskatoon’s francophone film festival, which has seen an increase in attendance too. But of course, there is much work to be done in order for musicians in Saskatchewan to keep a foot in community-based cultural industry development and branch out to the industry machine in other francophone regions.
CRAIG: So, what is your vision for the French side of the Saskatchewan music scene?
ALEXIS: Some of the development of the Fransaskois music scene relies on community development. If you get the community members interested in cultural events, you cultivate an audience. This is a more difficult job than it seems and I applaud the francophone community centers for their unending work. This helps me remain optimistic. Saskatchewan is the only Western-Canadian province with an organized network of presenters. I would like to see more industry players come to light here: a booking agency, management opportunities, etc. There is much room to grow - it just takes people.
(Left: Alexis with Zoe Fortier. Photo by Jocelyn Anne Chillog.)
CRAIG: How did the concept for your new album, MIRADOR, come to you?
ALEXIS: Back in 2008, I had an ah-ha moment: ‘One day, when I have an album,’ I thought to myself, ‘wouldn’t it be cool to have a painting associated to each song?’ This idea stems from one of my favourite university classes. It was a seminar that studied the similarities between different art forms - how impressionism and cubism are expressed in music, visual art, and dance, for example.
I proposed the idea to Zoé Fortier, a visual artist, in 2009. Only, rather than commissioning her to react to all my songs with a painting, we thought it would be far more interesting to share the creating process together.
Together we explored physical and abstract locations inspired by the prairies to understand how these places may have shaped our identity. For example, one day, Zoé and I decided to spend an evening at the Lucky Horse Show Bingo. We took notes, me in words and Zoé in sketches, shared them and found a common idea, which then became our starting point for creating.
Sometimes we would create simultaneously and other times we exchanged complete works. The result of our collaboration is threefold: an album, a series of paintings and a multidisciplinary concert.
CRAIG: How do you know Zoé?
ALEXIS: Zoé and I go way back, sort of. We are not related, but we have the same aunt and uncle. As is the case for many Fransaskois - we knew of each other for a long time before we actually met.
Zoé and I both had summer jobs at the Association Jeunesse Fransaskois in 2008. We got to know each other during breaks and lunches but especially over coffee. We started talking about our current projects and the future projects we hoped to accomplish. That is how the idea of collaboration came up.
CRAIG: There has been an evolution in your sound, subtle perhaps, but noticeable. How would you describe the way you think it has changed?
ALEXIS: My sound has matured since the EP I released in 2010; the jazz side is less Latin-inspired and more groove-driven, whereas the folk component is more refined. There is an overall organic feel - a broad and atmospheric sound that is comforting in a nostalgic way. On a symbolic level, I think this reflects my fondness for the vastness of the prairies and the fact that I am really happy to be based at home in Saskatoon.
(Left: "Te Vela" by Zoe Fortier.)
CRAIG: What will we see at the live show?
ALEXIS: Since Zoé was an integral part of the creating process; it was difficult for me to imagine a show that promotes the album without having her somehow involved. I treat Zoé like any other musician on stage except that her instrument is manipulating video projections. In order to enhance the experience and allow the spectator to perceive the spaces described in the songs in a variety of ways, Zoé created images and animation to accompany the music. She manipulates these abstract flowing projections in real time with a tactile approach that includes traditional methods of animation such as Chinese shadows, cut outs, and filters.
My hope is that the music and visual components will nuance the perspective through which viewers perceive their environment. Viewers are invited to experience their relationship with the spaces that surround them, and that live within them, in a different way.
CRAIG: And it’s bilingual, right?
ALEXIS: The show is bilingual! Most songs are in French, but when the crowd is mostly bilingual or anglophone, I speak in English most of the time. I also made booklets with the translated lyrics so that people can follow or read through them before or after the show.
CRAIG: Do you find a lot of anglophones coming to your shows?
ALEXIS: Most anglophones that come to my shows are in some ways affiliated with the ‘fait Français’ or are people who would like to practice their French. I am always surprised by the increase in bilingual and anglophone participation in the shows. I am also always surprised at how open anglophones are to listening to music in French. It seems that the music speaks a lot for itself.
CRAIG: Do you have designs on pushing your career beyond our borders?
ALEXIS: Yes, yes, yes! I’m releasing Mirador on January 15, 2013 in Ottawa! The day before Contact Ontarois – the francophone showcase event in Ontario. I also showcased at Contact Ouest in Whitehorse last September, during which I was awarded an opportunity to showcase at La Francofête en Acadie in Moncton in November, and at the Roseq
[Eastern Québec’s showcase event] in March. These were the only two prizes awarded to artists from Western Canada who showcased in Whitehorse.
Although I want to remain based in Saskatchewan for as long as possible (or forever!), I can see myself sharing my time between Saskatoon and Montréal. I am realizing more and more just how important a physical presence is in each region in order to benefit from networking opportunities and develop a following.
CRAIG: What is your favourite Saskatchewan musical act and why?
ALEXIS: Rosie and the Riveters! Just kidding. I’m totally digging The Karpinka Brothers - they give a great show and [they’re] great guys who give back to the community. They are the best thing, after a hug! I’m also enjoying Indigo Joseph.
CRAIG: How do you think we could improve our music scene?
ALEXIS: Keep on keeping on. Audiences need to keep encouraging local musicians by going to shows, buying the music and hiring local acts for their private or community events - and paying them fairly for their work! Musicians need to continue nurturing relationships with audience and industry players to sustain growth in the scene here at home. I also believe we should keep working our craft in order to continue evolving and keep the scene interesting, and keep audiences interested. Industry players need to keep building on past achievements and pursue new opportunities and collaborations that bring local acts to the forefront. It is validating for all. Of course, there is also the obvious: more funding opportunities are always useful. Wouldn’t it be cool to receive municipal funding for artists, like in some other urban centres?
CRAIG: Lastly, what is it that you love about the prairies? What do you dislike?
ALEXIS: I love the sky. I blame this on my mother who has at least three photo albums full of sunrises and sunsets. When the Saskatchewan license plates were branded with the new slogan, ‘Land of living skies,’ I vividly remember my mom saying to me as she drove me to piano lessons, “Are those the most beautiful license plates you have ever seen?” “Uh, sure mom.” [And] I hate winter.
For more information on Alexis, visit www.alexisnormand.ca.