Pierre Lapointe: Le Meilleur

Pierre Lapointe, described as the “the strange yet beautiful child of Thom Yorke and Barbara”, has conquered French-speaking Canada with his baroque pop, but is virtually unknown outside the territory. Rockfort meets the man who calls himself "le meilleur" - "the best."

(JF Leblanc (c) FrancoFolies 2009)

There’s no doubt that Pierre Lapointe is a big deal in his home territory, the French-speaking regions of Canada. In Montréal, where 65% of the city’s population has French as their first language, he’s as big a draw as international heroes The Arcade Fire. But, singing in French, it’s unlikely he could make Arcade Fire-sized waves outside the Francophone world. 

Not that his music is inaccessible. Steering a path from yearning piano-centred drama to upbeat pop, Lapointe bathes everything in a uniquely French approach. The romantic arc of chanson Française is retooled. There’s nothing old-fashioned about his songs, yet they are grounded in a knowledge, an immersion, in something quintessentially French. For someone coming from the outside, he most evokes Michel Polnareff in his golden years of 1966 to 1972. But the drama allies him with Pulp. Then there’s his lyrical approach – sentences can, baroquely, be delivered in reverse. Instead of  “not that his music is inaccessible” in Pierre Lapointe-speak it would be “inaccessible, his music is not.”
Live, the contrast between his choice to stand still as the music rolls off the stage and his between-song persona is marked. He speaks. And speaks. He speaks of himself. There’s no shyness. His anecdotal approach is hardly modest, and it is funny. He played live with a full orchestra in 2007 showcasing his second album ‘La forêt des mal-aimés’, with dancers on a stage decked out as a forest. He’s also played a one-off show solo at a grand piano. Modesty not lacking, he wrote that he was “le meilleur” on the noticeboard of the press room at Montréal’s FrancoFolies Festival. Controversially he’s said chanson was too easy, and that he wouldn’t write in that style.
It could all seem like overreaching, but both the recorded music and the live shows underpin the fact that he is a major and unique artist – as though he has become an art project.
All this aside, he makes incredible, engaging records and is stunning live. First seeing him in 2009, I was floored – it was powerful, seamless, compelling. Perhaps being an outsider has enabled Lapointe to achieve this singularity.  
He first made waves in 2001 by winning the singer-songwriter category in the Festival International de Chanson de Granby. He made demos in 2002, then signed with Audiogram Records in 2003. By this point he had also played France. He was awarded the Prix Félix-Leclerc in 2004. His eponymous first album had sold 85,000 by June 2005. Second album, 2006’s ‘La forêt des mal-aimés’, sold 28,000 copies in its first week. He was described as “the strange yet beautiful child of Thom Yorke and Barbara.” By the end of 2006 both his albums had each sold 100,000 and were certified platinum. More awards, more French dates. Third album ‘Sentiments Humains’ followed in April 2009. But still, he remains a largely local star.
(Victor Diaz Lamich (c) FrancoFolies 2009)
Seeing him live three times over five days in June 2010 at Montréal’s FrancoFolies Festival confirmed everything – he is that good. But coming to Pierre Lapointe cold – as an outsider – is intriguing. Like being spun into a busy world running in parallel to the one you know, but is largely unknown. Equally unknown to many outside Québec is the city of Gatineau, where Pierre grew up. “It’s the fifth biggest city in Québec, near Ottawa,” he explains. “A really really boring city. Wrong for me be a teenager in the city, a real suburb city.”
Despite that, the arts figured in his life from early on. “All my money went on [art] shows, exhibitions. It was a liberation for me. I was into theatre. My mother studied visual arts which was how I saw Marcel Duchamp. Duchamp and Mondrian were a big revelation, I was obsessed with that. It was hard for me to live with that in my head.”
Asked whether arriving at music was inevitable, he (curiously, in view of his response) demurs. “No, no. When I was young I learned the violin, I took lessons for five to ten years, then I started playing piano at 12. It was a revelation to me, I’d play piano for hours, from eight to midnight I played the piano. I was really obsessive but at the same time I understood the music. I started with songs with no chorus and no verse, it was experimental for me. They did have a melody though.”
His musical inspirations were catholic, but when French very French indeed. “Gainsbourg and Barbara. Britpop too: Blur, Pulp, Supergrass. And PJ Harvey. Bowie, Beck, Bjork. With Gainsbourg, it was the image of the songs, ‘Harley Davidson’, it was the aesthetic.”
Whatever the Anglo-Saxon influences, Pierre says that he would “never” sing in English. “It's important for me to sing in French. Everyone sings in English, it’s impossible for me to describe English things. “
He further confirms that his inspirations are drawn from more than music. “For me, pop music and visual artists are the same thing. I am a fan of Matthew Barney, Jeff Koons too. I’ve worked with fashion designers. I have ideas in my head (for clothes) but I don’t have the technique (to make them). I worked with architects. I’m going to do a tableau vivant in an art gallery. FrancoFolies is a big thing for me, they found the money for my first conceptual show.”
As for that public persona, the lack of modesty, when asked why he would say he’s le meilleur he counters “it’s impossible to say something like that, which is why I say something like that.”
It’s impossible to guess what Pierre Lapointe will do next, but it’s obvious he sees no limits – no limits between different strands of the arts, and no limits to how he can incorporate all his enthusiasms. He should be heard beyond Canada, but when asked if it is important for him to speak to France as well he says “it was, but now I’m older I don’t care where it is. I just want to sing.”
Kieron Tyler