In her debut album “Not So Deep As A Well“, Myriam Gendron showed an extraordinary skill in building something simple and out of time. The French-speaking canadian singer-songwriter talks about her special relation with music and book, not only focused on the Dorothy Parker’s poems she sang in her album, very peculiar and deeply felt.
First of all, a curiosity: I see you write your blog both in French and in English, so how do we have to pronounce your name? do you feel a bound to your country, its culture and heritage?
I’m a French-speaking Canadian. My name is pronounced with the French phonetics (hard to explain in writing without getting too technical!). I grew up in the province of Quebec, pretty much entirely in French. I learned to speak English at the age of 10 when my family and I moved to Washington DC. I now live in Montreal, a very bilingual city, but French remains my main language of communication. Since this album is in English and my record labels are in the US, it was necessary for me to have a blog in English, but I still feel I have to address people in French. The situation of Quebec is quite complicated. Being a French enclave in North America, it nourishes a very strong ideology of survival. And because language and culture are completely intertwined, it’s not very well considered to choose English as your artistic language of communication when you’re a French-speaking Quebecer. I must admit I’m not totally at ease with it. But since my lyrics are poems written in English – and it wouldn’t really make sense to sing them translated –, I feel like it’s ok! If I make another album, it might be in French. I don’t know yet.
I read from your biography that you travelled a lot since you were very young: do you think that travelling has influenced your way of being as a person and/or as an artist?
It definitely formed my personality, but to what extent is hard to say. I guess the fact of feeling regularly uprooted brought me to create a strong inner space, something to travel with, and maybe that’s where I draw my artistic energy from. But things are probably more complicated than that!
How did you started playing music?
I started very young. The public school in the neighborhood where I grew up was not the regular primary school. The music teachers were two very devoted and passionate men who managed to create a special (and free) music program for the pupils. One third of the time spent in class was dedicated to music. We learned mainly violin, piano, flute and choral singing, but we touched other instruments as well – cello, xylophone, maracas and so on. I consider myself very lucky to have had such an early musical education. The guitar came later. I was about 13 years old when I started playing.
And when did you feel you were ready to play it on stage or to release a record?
Not until very recently. I only started writing songs with this Dorothy Parker project. Before that, I just played covers for the fun of it. And the Dorothy Parker project itself started as a simple hobby. I thought the poems were very musical and I decided to try putting some of them to music. It worked unexpectedly well and I quickly found myself with a nice collection. My boyfriend really believed in these songs and took the matter into his own hands. He pushed me to perform on stage, to record the songs, and he started looking for record labels that might be interested. It all went really fast from there.
As a listener, what music you usually liked best over the years? And nowadays?
As a teenager, my favorite bands were Nirvana, Hole and The Pixies. Around age 15, I started listening to softer stuff like the great French singers Jacques Brel, Georges Brassens and Léo Ferré. That’s when I developed a real taste for the lyrics. Leonard Cohen came a bit later: that was a huge shock, a turning point. Then came Bob Dylan, Townes Van Zandt, Michael Hurley, etc. Nowadays, I still listen to a lot of folk, but I’m also into other kinds of music. I listen to a lot of krautrock (Neu!, Can, Faust…), I love the early Brian Eno, I’m in love with PJ Harvey. I’m also really into the great acoustic guitarists in the line of John Fahey (Glenn Jones, Jack Rose, Michael Chapman…). And I will always love rock and roll!
Is there any artist you consider important in your musical formation or at least someone you feel close to your sensibility?
If I had to name only one, it would have to be Leonard Cohen. I admire him, I relate to him, as an artist and as a person.
Of course I can’t avoid to ask you something about the peculiar choice of singing the poems by Dorothy Parker: how did you get that idea? Is there any specific meaning behind your choice?
I’m not sure if there’s a specific meaning, that’s not really how it happened. I came across a collection of her poems while browsing the bookshelves of a small bookstore in Montreal. It was a beautiful clothed 1936 edition. I’m a bookdealer myself and the object attracted me. I had only heard of Dorothy Parker before picking it up. I knew of her incisive literary critics but I didn’t know she had written poetry. So I started reading and the poems just sounded like songs. I took the book home and began putting them to music. It’s while writing the songs that I started to really get into her poetry and to feel closer and closer to her.
All the songs on “Not So Deep As A Well” seem so natural, so truly personal, as if they were made of your own words: how much can Dorothy Parker’s verses witness your way of being and feelings?
I think that in any great piece of literature, you will find something you can relate to. But these words are not mine. It’s important for me to keep that in mind, to keep a certain distance. Still, Parker’s poems do speak to me in a very special way. They show a mix of fragility and strength, of humor and despair, that I really relate to. And from what I can gather, many people feel the same.
Do you write songs too? Can we expect an album made of your own words?
Ah, that’s hard to answer. I did write a few songs recently, both lyrics and melody, but I don’t feel as confident with words as I do with music. It might come eventually.
I’ve been touched by how the album is essential and intense at the same time: is this your ideal way of expression or are you interested in something different than only voice and acoustic guitar?
I’m interested in the bareness I can reach with just the voice and the guitar, but I did feel the need to add percussions here and there on the album, and there’s one song with an electric guitar. I like that bare, more spectral, electrical sound too, closer to the early Cat Power stuff. I like variety in sound. Although the combination voice + acoustic guitar may be my most natural way of expression, I like to try new things.
It seems that folk music is growing and spreading widely among independent artists in the recent years: what do you think about this return to simplicity and to (generally speaking) folk languages?
It’s hard to say, I lack distance, but I feel it’s like in fashion, it all works in cycles. There was a very strong folk revival in the 70s, and maybe we’re experiencing something similar these days. We’ve reached such a high level of complexity in sound, there’s this feeling that we can’t make anything new. Coming back to simplicity by making folk music, something deliberately old, is one way of reacting to this. But there are many other ways. I don’t know much about the noise scene, but I feel like making noise music and making folk music are two very different yet equally successful ways of negotiating this overwhelming heritage.
How did you get in touch with the labels that released “Not So Deep As A Well”?
My wonderful boyfriend Benoît Chaput did all the work! He’s a publisher and a few years ago he put out a collection of articles by the music critic Byron Coley (“C’est la guerre: Early writings 1978-1983”, L’Oie de Cravan press). They’ve been good friends for a while and Byron attended my first performances in Montreal. I think he really liked what he heard. He manages the Feeding Tube record store in Northampton with Ted Lee, who also takes care of the label. When Benoît told Byron he was looking for a record label for my project, Byron said that based on what he had heard, he thought Ted would be interested to release it on Feeding Tube Records. So we sent a demo. Ted liked it and offered to do a limited edition of 300 vinyl copies. Around the same time, Benoît and I came across Barna Howard’s album on Mama Bird Recording Co. I loved the record and Mama Bird seemed like the kind of small independent label I was looking for. We sent the album to Vincent Bancheri, the label manager, and he got back to us within a couple of days. He was very enthusiastic about the record. He offered to do a digital-only release. After hesitating for a while, I decided to try to make both ideas work.
What do you think about the way music spreads nowadays through the web? Do you think it is helpful for a young new artist like you?
For sure. I’m very impressed at how fast the record is travelling. I think the first people to talk about it were in Finland, Germany, Italy and Poland. And now it’s Japan! It’s all a bit surreal.
What’s the meaning and the goal – both personal and artistic – of making music?
Whoa, that’s a broad question! I guess music, like every other art form, is a language, a way of communicating. Ultimately, all languages share the same goal: making the communication work. Ideally, I want my music to move people, to change something for them, within them, the same way my favorite artists have moved and transformed me.
And, finally, what else can we expect from you in the near future, and what do you expect from music?
I don’t have specific plans for the near future. I’m about to have a baby so that slows things down a bit as far as music goes. But I don’t intend to stop! I’ll try to use the time my maternity leave gives me to, of course, make the most of this first year with my baby, but also to write new songs, try new things. I would like to start performing again during the fall, maybe do a few shows in the US. See where it all leads me. What I expect from music? Nothing more than what it already does: make us feel things, help us grow, bring people closer together.
(full version of the interview published on Rockerilla magazine no. 406, June 2014 – interview in italian)
photo 1-3: Antoine Peuchmaurd