Bonne Chance et Bonnes Chansons (Good Luck and Good Songs)
In the world of Québec folk music, there are veteran ensembles like La Bottine Souriante, visionaries like Michel Faubert, youthful power groups like La Volée d’Castors and charismatic charmers like Yves Lambert. Then there’s Le Vent du Nord, a quartet with elements of all these and more. In about two and a half years, they’ve risen to the very top of their field. They have played all over Canada and the United States, and toured as far afield as Italy, France, Spain and even Malaysia. They have released two CDs; the first one took the 2004 Juno award (Canada’s equivalent to a US Grammy) for Traditional Album of the Year. The second? It’s too early to tell, as the disc just came out, but it has all the elements in place: it’s a more mature album, more fully developed, and just as much fun as the first.
How did this sudden powerhouse come to be? How far will they go? I met the members of Le Vent du Nord at an elementary school in the Washington, D.C. area in April 2005. We spoke in both French and English, but more in French, so many of the quotations in this article are translated. They were in D.C. to play one of their less glamorous gigs: an after-school show for schoolkids and their parents. Glamour or not, though, they are performers who warm to any audience and electrify any venue, giving their best no matter what. In fact, the main sense I got from interviewing them was that they consider themselves lucky—lucky to be touring, lucky to be recording, lucky to be winning awards, lucky even to playing together in a band. It was all, in their words, “bonne chance,” or good luck.
The members of Le Vent du Nord love telling stories, and the formation of the group is one of those oft-told tales that raconteurs like these can sink their teeth into. It’s an example of the kind of luck they’re talking about, a constellation of coincidences leading to success. Bourque began the tale: “I had been playing in Matapat for many years, about six years, but in 2002 I was at home…it was May, 2002. And I was talking with my wife about the fact that we were going in different directions, like it happens with many bands. And I said, ‘well, the way I see it, we’re going to have to split. If this ever happened, I met two guys when I was on tour in Vancouver, we played in a jam session there, that’s Olivier Demers and Nicolas Boulerice. They were playing with [the trio] MontcorbieR. If I ever quit Matapat, I’d really enjoy playing with those guys.’”
“You said it was your dream!” interrupted Boulerice. “Yeah,” Bourque conceded, “some guys have dream girls, I have dream boys!” Then he continued the story: “I said ‘well, it’s impossible, because we’re both playing in bands, it wouldn’t work.’ Two hours later…we had never spoken on the phone, but he found my phone number…Olivier called me and said, ‘Hello, Benoit, this is Olivier Demers from MontcorbieR.’ I’m like, ‘wow, you know, how come you called me now?’ He was asking questions regarding New Bedford Summerfest, because we were going there. And he tells me that they’re going to quit MontcorbieR at the end of summer. He said also, ‘Nicolas and me, we’re going to move into the same apartment.’ I said, ‘where?’ He said, ‘oh, it’s outside of Montreal, it’s a little village called Verchères’…which is my hometown! They were moving into the same street as me, into one of my friends’ houses! That was the beginning of it.”
Boulerice took up the tale, explaining how the two roommates and their neighbor, already interested in working together, ended up forming a quartet: “Benoit asked me if I wanted to play at his daughter’s wedding. I said ‘okay, no problem.’ Olivier at the same time was touring for a year or so with La Bottine Souriante, and for this tour he was up north in Lanaudière, the same area as the wedding. At the same time a good friend of ours, [guitarist and singer] Bernard Simard, called me to say, ‘hey, I’m in Québec, I moved back here, I don’t live anymore in Brittany,’…and he lived in the same area! So I said ‘you know what? Come to the wedding of Benoit’s daughter!’ I got Olivier to come the wedding too, and we just played music all night, and the morning after, we said, ‘okay, let’s form a band!’” At the time, Boulerice and Demers had recorded a disc as a duo, called Le Vent du Nord Est Toujours Fret. In the wake of that project they had put together a part-time quartet with two friends, called Le Vent du Nord. “It was just luck that [Bourque and Simard] were free,” Demers remembered. The other friends bowed out, Bourque and Simard joined up, and the band began practicing in earnest soon thereafter.
The new quartet was made up of seasoned performers, each with a number of previous groups and recordings under his belt. The one with the most experience was Bourque. A well-known dancer and dance teacher as well as an accordion player, percussionist and singer, Bourque was a member of Eritage, a pioneering Québec folk group, from 1979 to 1984. He played and sang with many bands after that on a part-time basis, while also pursuing traditional dance. In the mid-1990s he was a member of Ad Vielle Que Pourra, and in the later 90s began playing with fiddler and guitarist Gaston Bernard. When the Bourque and Bernard duo added bass player Simon Lepage in 1996, the popular band Matapat was born. It was on breaking with Matapat after six years that Bourque joined Le Vent du Nord. Simard, a contemporary of Bourque’s, had been a member of La Bottine Souriante in the 1980s, and had then moved to France, where he participated in the folk music scene in Brittany, especially with the group Cabestan.
Boulerice and Demers, considerably younger than their bandmates, represented another generation of Québec music performers. Demers’s diverse musical experiences had included chamber music, choral singing, jazz and country; his primary work in folk music had been with the trio MontcorbieR. In the early 2000s, he was asked to sub for fiddler André Brunet in Québec’s most popular and successful folk band, La Bottine Souriante. He opted to give up his hope of joining La Bottine permanently in order to play full time in Le Vent du Nord.
Boulerice, a university friend of Demers’s, had perhaps the most diverse resume of all, including jazz and traditional Indonesian music. One of the things that sets Le Vent du Nord apart from the rest of Québécois folk music is the presence of his primary instrument, the hurdy-gurdy. A barrel-shaped instrument on which strings are scraped by a wooden wheel coated with rosin, and fingered with a keyboard, the instrument is called “vielle à roue,” or “wheel fiddle” in French. It gives Le Vent du Nord a classic French flavor, tinged with early music, which is not part of the usual Québec folk sound. Still, Boulerice feels it fits in with the group’s approach to French-Canadian roots as a historical touch. “It’s an instrument that would have existed in ‘New France,’” he explained, “though there’s little evidence of it. There were a few, which disappeared. But it’s an instrument which is still very close to our roots.”
Like so many parts of this band’s history, Boulerice says that his discovery of the hurdy-gurdy was a lucky accident. At university, he was a piano student, and for his band work he was looking for a portable keyboard instrument. “I liked the accordion, which I played a little...piano accordion,” he explained. “But it wasn’t my instrument. So I was looking for another portable keyboard instrument. Because I like singing, too, I was looking for an instrument you could sing with.” Since his childhood, Boulerice had been hearing an intriguing, drone-rich instrument on French recordings. “Someone told me ‘that’s the hurdy-gurdy,’ and the sound had always intrigued me, but without having actually seen the instrument.”
Boulerice soon found that it was hard to find a hurdy-gurdy in Canada. “I decided to make one, because it was the only way to procure one! I found a guy who made hurdy-gurdies in Québec, and he came to teach us to make it. We did some experiments, and that was my first shot with the instrument.” After this, Boulerice made some trips to France and also to Ireland to apprentice as a hurdy-gurdy player and a luthier.
On his return to Québec, another piece of bonne chance came to him. “I had a friend who bought me a CD of Ad Vielle Que Pourra, it was Ménage à Quatre. I think my eyes popped out; it was superb!” At that time, Ad Vielle Que Pourra, which featured musicians from Belgium and France, was one of the few bands in Québec that did use the hurdy-gurdy, and they made a point of having more than one hurdy-gurdy player in the group. They knew of Boulerice’s experiments with the instrument, and two weeks after he first heard their CD, Ad Vielle’s leader and hurdy-gurdy player Daniel Thonon called Boulerice on the phone. “They asked me to play with Ad Vielle Que Pourra! It was really unique, and it went really fast for me. And certainly, with Daniel Thonon, I also had a lot to learn, because he had been playing for a long time.” After two years in Ad Vielle Que Pourra, Boulerice put in stints with Les Batinses and MontcorbieR, and continued playing jazz piano, before the lucky circumstances that created Le Vent du Nord.
The band’s good luck continued after its initial formation; you can see it very plainly in the story of their first CD, the 2003 release Maudite Moisson. They decided to record the album very quickly: they began rehearsing together as a band in September 2002, and wanted to have the album recorded by December 1. But their chosen studio was booked, and they were forced to record through much of December, which at least gave them more time to work on the material. Still, two to three months as a band is a very short time, and they were surprised when a CD they thought of as hastily conceived and executed was nominated for the Juno award. They looked at the other nominees in their category, including La Bottine Souriante and Blackie and the Rodeo Kings, both big names in Canada, and decided they had no chance. “Mostly people were expecting Blackie to win, because they almost win for every record they have done, and each one of the three of them (Stephen Fearing, Colin Linden, and Tom Wilson) have won Junos separately too,” Benoit explained. La Bottine Souriante had also won Junos before, and among French language groups would certainly be considered the favorite to win. Because of all this, the members of Le Vent du Nord didn’t even go to the ceremony. Imagine their surprise, then, when they won. A band with no history, no name recognition, and no international exposure, which had only two months to select, arrange and rehearse a repertoire and record an album, nevertheless won the most prestigious award in all of Canada.
The band remains humble and philosophical about their win. “The Juno doesn’t change anything,” Boulerice said. “A few people just said ‘you did a good CD. You did a very good CD. Continue.’” Bourque agreed, but allowed that the Juno has helped them gain exposure and name recognition, making it easier for them to tour and support themselves. “It’s a tool, it’s a good tool,” he said. Festival presenters and concert promoters, he explained, receive hundreds of kits a year from hopeful bands, so many they often don’t listen to a lot of what they receive. A new band, even one made up of well-known performers, may never be heard unless the promoter opens the kit and starts reading and listening. “If they see on the top of the kit that we won a Juno award, they’ll say, ‘oh, I’m going to listen to it.’ That’s a very important step. So it gives us a chance each time we try to reach presenters.”
The Juno allowed them to tour extensively for about a year, after which the band underwent a change: Simard left the fold, and was replaced by Simon Beaudry. Beaudry is the group’s youngest member (the others tease him by calling him “Cutie”) and Le Vent du Nord is his first real band. But he was no stranger to traditional music, having come from a family steeped in it, and having played since his childhood with his brother Eric, now a member of La Bottine Souriante. Like the other younger members, he studied music at university, has a solid grounding in jazz and classical music, and understands the inner workings of pop arrangements as well. As always, the band chalks up their success in finding him to good luck. “Simon was another lucky break,” Demers said. “When Bernard left, we played as a trio for a while, and we were looking for another guitarist who could also sing, and who wasn’t busy in another group. And for a band to work well, you need a guitarist who is good, but also someone who you get along with, who has time because we tour a lot of the year, and he has to sing, and he has to know this music. We want someone who can also bring new traditional music to the repertoire, to bring some color. And we found it all in Simon.”
So far the band members have emphasized their good luck. But being this successful isn’t just a matter of bonne chance. You also need bonnes chansons, good songs. The members of Le Vent du Nord also emphasize that their originality and appeal come from their unusual repertoire of good songs and tunes. “The repertoire is something really important for the four of us,” Boulerice explained. “We like to look for rare things, things that we love, and that move us, or to create things like that. For many Québec groups, originality is a big research process.”
“It’s less and less easy [to find good songs],” Beaudry agreed. “Because there are more groups, and everything’s being done. The easy repertoire is all done.” The solution is a two pronged one: members do research in libraries, archives and private collections, and they go to rural areas and seek out older people who sing and play. Archival and field research may involve resources of their own, or within their families. Boulerice’s father is a folksong collector, and many of his ancestors sang and played. Within his family tradition, there are a lot of songs to be found. But he still goes out collecting himself sometimes: “I think that’s part of the fun of it, too. Doing research in books, but in the field also.”
Beaudry explained the fieldwork approach more fully: “There is a lot of collecting of traditional songs going on in small villages [in Québec]. You can go to villages which are a little smaller, a little less well known, where there haven’t been folk groups coming from the village, but where there have always been people who sing. It’s a little delicate to do this kind of collection, because some people are not always easy to approach, because it seems to them that you’re stealing their songs, their repertoire. So you have to really explain yourself and what you’re doing carefully.” Demers explained that the fieldwork approach is more difficult for the younger band members: “As I get older, I think it will get easier, the process of collecting. At twenty-five, talking to an older man is not the same as at thirty-five. So I think that as I get older, I will have more success, and more of a taste for collecting.” Bourque relies on a large collection of vinyl LPs of traditional singers and players, and field cassettes he made during Eritage tours in the 1980s, to find songs rarely sung in the revival. And to top it all off, the members of the group write songs and compose tunes, to make sure there are some unique items up the band’s collective sleeve.
Once individual members have found or composed songs or tunes they’d like to perform, it passes through a democratic process of vetting that Bourque calls the “band filter.” Some tunes may be fine in themselves, but don’t suit the band, others may not capture the fancy of some of the group’s members. Those are left behind, and the repertoire is refined. If they don’t have enough material, they broaden the repertoire and filter again. The group goes through the same process during arranging: ideas for arrangements are suggested by each band member, but only those that excite or interest a majority of the members make it into the final arrangement.
Now that they’re past the first album, their music is further refined in the process of touring before it finds its way to disc. This was a great help in creating their second CD, Les Amants du Saint-Laurent (2005). “Even if we were not totally ready when we went into the studio, because we wanted to fix many little things,” Bourque explained, “it was more ready than the first album.” Demers agreed. “This time we knew how it should sound, we had heard it on tour. We were a bit more confident, because we knew how to play the pieces, and the group really existed.” Boulerice concurred, and said also that the group’s greater familiarity with the material allowed them to craft more complex arrangements. “There are also, maybe, more funny songs,” he concluded. “The new disc is a little more worked-through, but at the same time a little lighter than the first one.”
Writing in Dirty Linen # 119, Bill Chaisson agreed that the group was confident, accomplished, and meticulous in their arrangements, and called the album “beautifully arranged and masterfully played.” They apply their skills to materials from a range of sources: the folklore archives of Laval University; a book from 18th Century Geneva; the collections of scholars Marius Barbeau and Helen Creighton and collectors Ludger Ferland and Daniel Roy; Boulerice’s family collections, assembled by his father Jacques; and, of course, originals by the band members. It adds up to an unusual collection of material, many belles mélodies and bonnes chansons. With their bonne chance, they’re bound to be contenders for another Juno!
The live concert of Le Vent du Nord is a different experience from their CDs. Bourque is well known as a charismatic performer with as much stage presence as anyone on the scene. In Matapat he was the frontman and lead singer, while Lepage and Bernard provided the grounding of virtuosic musicianship. But in this group, all the members are vibrant personalities in addition to being serious musicians, and Bourque takes a backseat on vocals to lead singers Boulerice and Beaudry. All four members have an easygoing stage manner, and enjoy telling jokes and teasing one another between songs. Bourque does a lot of step dancing in concert, too, which does not translate well to recordings. (“It always cracks the CD when I step dance on it,” he quipped.) They exploit all the visual tools they have, from Bourque’s dancing and his use of the bones to Boulerice’s hurdy-gurdy, a visually interesting instrument that many people in their audience have never seen, even when they play in France. “And,” Boulerice finished, “Simon is a good-looking gent, too! Cutie!”
Boulerice had the last word on the band and its performances: “There’s a lot of energy, I think. That’s what they tell us. One of the things that people sense about Le Vent du Nord is that the people in the group, all four of us, are spontaneous people. We aren’t people who want to break our head with work. We want to, let’s say, enjoy life. In our arrangements, they are perhaps a bit more worked out now, but still it’s something that happened naturally. If we had to become something other than ourselves, we wouldn’t do it!”
Five minutes later, just being themselves, they had the schoolkids and their parents dancing in the aisles.