Francophone Provocateur Has a Love for Language
par Tony Montag
dans ?, juin 1998

Montréal's Jean Leloup has made a career of playing with words, mixing genres, and upsetting Quebec's linguistic police

Celine Dion and Jean Leloup may both be hugely successful singers and come from Quebec--but the similarities end right there. Those who voted Dion their least favorite national act in the recent Georgia Straight Readers' choice Music Awards will be happy to learn that Leloup is very much the un-Celine of Québécois popular music. After all, Dion will probably never sing about meeting the devil while hitchhiking and planning to set fire to "a few large buildings" with him; nor will she presumably pen rock songs about 19th-century American author Edgar Allan Poe and his drinking problem, or refer to needle marks and AIDS in her overwrought opuses. And she's even less likely to describe herself as "assez fucké, merci".

Leloup did all the above on his most recent album, Le Dôme--which garnered him a Félix award (francophone equivalent of a Juno) for songwriter of the year in 1997, and sold more than 100,000 copies. Regarded as the enfant terrible of the Quebec music scene, the 37-year-old Leloup is outspoken, unpredictable, and uncensored, and enjoys ruffling a few sanctimonious feathers with his songs. "Everything is so politically correct now in our society that it gives me pleasure to turn things upside down and see the response," he admits, on the line from his home in central Montreal. "Actually, I don't even think about it any more. I've understood for a long time that song is one of the last remainig areas where you can cause major provocation."

The music of Le Dôme draws on a refreshing but somewhat bewilderments of folk, rockabilly, pop-rock, reggae, hip-hop, noise, and more. According to Leloup, it all reflects his restless creativity. "They're exercises. When I hear a style that I like, I say, 'Okay, I'll try putting of my texts to that.' I've got loads of pieces of writing without any music yet. And as long as the budget for a record lasts, I have fun experimenting like that--although at times I feel like, 'Oh shit, I need to have something that's more consistent.' But then, I like all sorts of music."

Leloup's backgroud may help to account for his heterogeneous taste. Born in Quebec, he spent his early years in Africa--first in Togo, then in Algeria, where, at the age of 11, he started to play guitar. "I taught myself Beatles songs," he recalls. "There wasn't much happening in Algiers in terms of entertainment for young people, and if you knew how to play music you were very popular. I put together my first band there--the Blue Faces. I was inspired by a wide range of music and musicians, people leki Georges Moustaki and Jacques Higelin from France, and on the English side, Jimi hendrix, Curtis Mayfield, Tom Waits, David Bowie, Nina Hagen--Arabic and African music as well, even though you won't find that on my albums, and I'll never do anything pseudo-African. But it's in me, it's something I feel. I learned a lot over there."

Vancouverites will have the opportunity to hear this quirky and controversial musician when Leloup--accompanied by two backing singers, a bassist, a drummer, and a lead guitarist--plays an open-air concert in the 1500 block of West 7th Avenue on Saturday (June 13), as part of the annual Festival d'été francophone de Vancouver. "Half of the show will be old songs, and half will be new material, mainly stuff for my next album, which I'll be recording soon," promises Leloup.

Although he sings mainly in French, the bad boy from Montreal interjects a lot of English words and phrases into his quick-fire conversation, and into such hit songs as "Johnny Go" and "I Lost My Baby". It's a practice that upsets Quebec's language police. "I sing at least one song in English on purpose--even for gigs on Saint-Jean-Baptiste Day--just to piss them off," says Leloup, who also styles himself Johnny the Wolf. "But by singing in English I'm not threatening anyone or anything. My French is fine, it's just that sometimes verbal hooks or phrases come to me in English, and I keep them if I like them."

Leloup is, in fact, very concerned with matters of language. His writing stands up well on the page, and among influences on his oeuvre he cites French poets Arthur Rimbaud, Charles Beaudelaire, and Henri Michaux, along with Poe, Charles Bukowski, and H.P. Lovecraft on the English-speaking side. "The Greeks said that the essential quality of a poet was to have 'enthusiasm'--which comes from a word meaning 'God in you'. They believed that music caused poetry to come down from above and enter the hearts and minds of poets," states Leloup. "That's why it's no more difficult for me to write and compose than it is for me to talk. Word associations and even rhymes come naturally when your tongue is in rhythm with your body and with your heart--as happens with rappers."

There's a remarkably free flow of language in Leloup's songs. As for his litterary efforts, he's unusually modest. "I've managed to write a novel--well, actually i've written two, but they're dull. It's frightening how dull they are! I've got lots and lots of texts for songs that aren't on any of my records, and some short stories I hope to have published soon. There are about 15 of them--stories about Kunderwald, a country I've invented which likes to maintain a high unemployment rate so other countries don't get jealous. There's a Kunderwaldian mindset here in Canada. I've got some screenplays, too. I'd like to do more, but there's never time--and I always end up choosing to go for a walk instead."

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