‘Folk-Trash’ Singer Lisa LeBlanc Talks About Canadians Boycotting Her New EP + More
Lisa LeBlanc, the French Canadian "folk-trash" singer, spent last summer rambling through the American South, playing her banjo for tips, making Cajun friends, working on her English, and taking notes on the weird barroom conversations she overheard. LeBlanc was already an admirer of American folk and roots music, having taken in the bluegrass that filtered out over Canadian airwaves and obsessed over folk classics like Karen Dalton's haunted Vietnam-era version of 'Katie Cruel.' Now, with a little bit of extra time between touring and recording, LeBlanc set out on the road for two months -- and came back with a few songs for her first-ever English-language EP.
"I ended up busking in New Orleans and going to old-time Cajun and bluegrass festivals in Mississippi and Louisiana," LeBlanc told us about part of the trip. "So that's where a lot of the inspirations come from for this EP. And all that time on the road."
LeBlanc plays reimagined regional folk, taking the traditional music of Acadia, the French-speaking, coastal-forest region of Canada from which she hails, and pairing it with ass-kicking energy, resulting in a sound both rustic and raucous. ("Folk-trash" is how she describes her own music.) Onstage, LeBlanc glows; her heart-on-her-sleeve sincerity inspires kids to run around with their fists in the air, as they did on a recent evening at a 1,000-person venue in Montreal.
It's a little harder than you might think for a French Canadian artist to release music in English. In Montreal, where LeBlanc lives now, a sordid colonial history has given rise to a fierce Francophone pride; artists like LeBlanc, who sing in both languages, face a particular amount of pressure to focus on French. LeBlanc talked to us about how she feels toward the listeners who told her they're "boycotting" her new recording.
If you're reading this in the U.S., you might not have heard of LeBlanc, but if you're in Canada, it's likely you have -- her French-language debut album hit No. 8 on the Canadian charts last year, putting her in the company of acts like Taylor Swift and One Direction. But LeBlanc says she takes more cues from Charles Bradley, the former James Brown impersonator whose autobiographical, hyper-emotional stage performances LeBlanc has studied in putting together her own empathetic, energetic show.
LeBlanc sat down with us backstage in Montreal to talk about her road trip, her English-language music, and the artists she studies for inspiration.
So, you had an English-language EP come out a week and a half ago. It has a little bit of a different sound than your first record, from 2012, which you sung in French. How did the songs on that EP come together?
[Last year] I had two months off and decided -- screw it, I'm going for a road trip. So I went down to Nashville, Memphis, New Orleans, Lafayette. Then over to Austin, then out west to San Francisco, L.A., Vegas. I hadn't written any English stuff since I was a teenager. The music just kinda came out -- the first song came out of nowhere, then another one popped out.
You said you stopped in Lafayette, Louisiana. The Cajuns in Lafayette are related to the Acadians in New Brunswick, where you're from, right?
Yeah, they got kicked out of New Brunswick and Nova Scotia, which is on the east coast of Canada. A lot of people ended up in Louisiana. I'm Acadian, from New Brunswick, and down there, they're Cajuns. A lot of the music is really similar. The traditional music of where I'm from is really similar to the Cajun stuff. There was a natural connection going to Louisiana because everyone looked like my uncle and aunt. [Laughs]
Did you talk to any musicians while you were down there?
Yeah, well that's how I spent a lot of time ... I ended up busking in New Orleans and going to old-time Cajun and bluegrass festivals in Mississippi and Louisiana. So that's where a lot of the inspirations come from for this EP, just kind of the jams we had. And all that time on the road. All the music that I grew up on had its roots in the cities I was visiting. So it was just really, really fun and I met a lot of great people, played a lot of music. I always had my banjo on me and that's how I met people -- I had a banjo on my back, so obviously people were saying, "Who is this chick?" That, mixed with all the kilometers we've done from the last four years of doing shows -- [the EP] is a mix of all that stuff.
Did it trip out those Cajun musicians that you came down and had all these connections?
Yeah, obviously, because when you're Acadian and you go to Louisiana people just open their doors, and go "What!" And likewise for Cajuns who go to New Brunswick, they go, "Oh my God, you're from Louisiana?! You're a Cajun? OK, let's get the family tree out." [Laughs] It's pretty awesome.
So you went on this journey to all these places, and then did you go back and start recording right after that?
I wrote while I was on the road, a little bit, and some songs come from some things that I saw. Like 'Gold-Diggin' Hoedown' was exactly what I saw at a bar in Nashville ...
I was like, this can't be real, so I have to write a song about it. The song came out like six months later. Everything kinda soaked up after a crazy month and a half on the road. After that, things started popping out, slowly but surely. We continued touring right after my trip, up until December, right here in Quebec, up in New Brunswick, and a lot in Europe. It was really this year that we decided to focus on [the new music].
So it was during your trip that the English language songs started flowing better?
Yeah, because you know, I'm bilingual, but my native tongue is French, and you can hear it. [Laughs] It always takes me like two or three days to get [back to it]. Because living in Montreal, bizarrely I've lost a lot of my English. But being in the states, I always spoke English, and even started thinking in English. It was just more natural than being in Montreal and always speaking French and being in a French mood. It kind of just flowed better and all the influences were all around.
Do you get backlash from the French speakers about switching to English?
New Brunswick doesn't really care because it's bilingual, and pretty much everyone speaks both languages. Everyone in New Brunswick was like, "Oh, she's doing an English thing." Nobody thought about it twice.
But here in Quebec, people were like, "Why are you doing this?" But here, there's more of an attachment -- the French language goes beyond language, it's political and historical. So, I mean, it was a little more challenging. [Some] people accepted it pretty quickly. But, there were some people who said, "I'm boycotting this."
Wait, people actually said that? That they were boycotting you because the record is in English?
Yeah, they did. I don't really care, honestly. You do music for yourself first.
Now that this EP is out, are you going to let it ride for a bit? Or are you going to be recording more stuff soon?
Yeah, next year we're going to be touring with the EP. And it's cool, because we were so busy with Quebec and Europe -- which is a great problem -- that we didn't have the time to go to the states and to go out west in Canada. I wanted to go anyway, even when we just had a French album.
But now with this EP -- I didn't even think about it when I was making it, but it's opening some doors, making it easier to book some shows, even though the shows are still bilingual, because the first album is in French. But it's a year to just kind of travel, play some places we've never been, and see new places. It's going to be an exciting year. I'm going to be writing a lot more this year than the last few years. And we'll release a full-length probably in 2016.
Who is 'The Waiting List' directed to?
[Laughs] A person. [Laughs] A guy. The way I saw 'The Waiting List' was that the same s--t that was happening to me was happening to my friends at the same time. So, it's a pep talk to my friends but it's also kind of a pep talk to myself, convincing myself that it's going to be OK.
Sounds like one of those situations where it's easier to say it in a song than to say it in real life.
Absolutely, yeah. You can say whatever the hell you want in a song. And you never even have to tell it to the person that you're writing to. [Laughs]
But they'll get it. I'm sure they'll get it.
Oh, they do get it. And I tell them: "By the way, that one's for you." [Laughs] "You kind of inspired the whole shebang." But yeah, it's a pep talk, seeing it from the perspective of someone who's observing it versus seeing it full face.
Who are some recent influences -- people you've been listening to that are pushing you in your next direction?
I saw Charles Bradley live twice and cried like a baby, like everybody else does. I'm a big fan of really good interpretations. And there is something about Charles Bradley that blew me away. As far as singing your heart out ... I mean, he's over the top, but perfect. He's really sincere and authentic. Though [the music] might resemble other things -- obviously with his whole James Brown influence -- there was something about it that for me was just like, what you see is what you get. Just like, being so generous. That's one of my big ones lately. In the last few years, he was really the one that blew me away.
That's interesting because it sounds like the influence was not strictly musical but more about stage presence.
Yes, stage presence, which for me is super important. I love seeing shows where someone blows me away. There's something I find extremely interesting about the charisma of someone, the way that when you're on stage and you know that you're on or off, and people are going to feel it but they're not really gonna know what's going on. You're hypnotized because the person onstage is exactly where he wants to be.
It's hard to do.
It's extremely hard to do. And trying to find the good in-betweener -- putting it out there and being really transparent but not being awkward -- it's an art in itself.
I love your version of 'Katie Cruel.' Was there a specific version you were listening to?
Karen Dalton. Karen Dalton all the way. It's one of my favorite songs of all time, especially the Karen Dalton version. After arranging and rearranging that friggin' song for a hundred times and trying to friggin' sing it and get it right for the record and trying to get it right on stage, we had such a hard time. And I hated that song for such a long time. And you know what, I still hear that song, when I hear Karen Dalton's version it gives me goosebumps. There's something about her interpretation of it. [Sighs] It's crazy. I just really love that song.