French is Roch Voisine’s first language, except when it comes to writing songs.
The veteran Quebec heartthrob has been performing and recording in both official languages for three decades, with a string of hits from his 1989 breakthrough, Helene, to this year’s Olympic anthem, Living Out My Dreams.
Born in Edmunston, New Brunswick, Voisine spent much of his childhood in a francophone corner of the province alongside the U.S. border. Although the community spoke French, the radio and TV stations that wafted over from Maine were in English.
Growing up there in the 1970s, artists like Gordon Lightfoot, Elton John and the Eagles had more of an influence on young Roch than the great Quebec rock bands of the time.
“What a lot of people don’t know is I don’t write in French,” the father of two young sons revealed during an interview in the empty theatre of the Casino du Lac-Leamy. Our seats faced the stage he’ll be taking with his band on Dec. 2.
“All those records in French, if I wrote the tune, they were written in English first and then adapted,” he adds. “We don’t translate songs, we adapt them, try to find a new angle. I become more of an artistic director on the French songwriting than the actual writer.”
That’s why his new album is so important to him. Movin’ On Maybe is Voisine’s first album of new songs in English in 12 years, and it feels like a return to his roots.
“I’m a true bilingual,” says the former University of Ottawa student. “It’s all mixed up in there so I need both sides. I’ve put a lot of emphasis on the French for years and years in Europe so I was losing myself and I wasn’t motivated anymore. I need to get back to basics, get back to where I come from, and this is where I come from.”
The songs on Movin’ On Maybe were written over the last 15 or 20 years, even as Voisine focused on the French-language side of his career. When he decided it was time for an English offering, he went to his ‘archives’, which consisted of three huge boxes of cassettes of songs he wrote or co-wrote.
After resolving the technical challenge of finding a cassette player with a digital port, Voisine spent a week sifting through the material, selected a few dozen nuggets and eventually whittled them down to the 12 tracks on the album.
“Honestly, I found songs I forgot I had,” he says. “Finally I can put them on a record and sing them, and actually tell you those stories: how I felt when my sons were born, how I felt when my parents got divorced, how I feel on stage, and tell you stories of life.”
By working with a young producer, Voisine was able to freshen his soft-rock sound in hopes of earning radio play. Like every recording artist, he’s been affected by the precipitous decline in record sales. In fact, the album’s title, Movin’ On Maybe, reflects the uncertainty.
“Do we go on? Record sales are down 30 per cent this year. It’s easy to understand but it’s terrible. It changes everything,” Voisine says. “And then moving on – maybe? We’re moving on because I don’t know what else I would do. I’m passionate about my work. I’m where I belong so I’m going to go on with it but day after day is a big question mark. You have to adapt, adapt, adapt. As my manager says, you have to work three times as much and make six times less.”
To keep up, Voisine has projects on the go on both sides of the Atlantic. In France, the Forever Gentlemen project, a collection of classic crooner songs that includes Voisine, as well as Paul Anka, Garou and others, has been selling well. Of course, the 50-year-old Voisine is also prepared to spend more time on the road.
“I’m fortunate I have a good fan base here and abroad,” he notes. “And I like touring. We try to make it as fun and interesting as possible. It’s constantly evolving. With my band, I pick them well and let them work. I don’t try to order them around. You can learn so much more.
“I’m still in good shape and I think I sing better than ever because my voice has deepened and I have more range now. I feel good. As long as I stay healthy, I can keep on touring.”
Source: Lynn Saxberg / Ottawa Citizen
Photos: Wayne Cuddington / Ottawa Citizen