Published Sep 27, 2012Bernard Adamus came out of left field four years ago to become one of Montreal's most offbeat and beloved singer-songwriters. He's no product of Mile End. Rather, the songs from his debut album, Brun (2009), explored life in the grittier neighbourhoods of Hochelaga, Centre-Sud and Rosemont. Singing with a Tom Waits-ian yowl, his joual-heavy, bluesy compositions found great notoriety among Francophone Montreal, then the rest of Quebec. Exclaim! caught up with him at the Festival De Musique Emergente in Rouyn-Noranda, where he was apprehensive but excited about playing the festival mainstage with new material from the forthcoming release of his second album, No. 2.
So this is a big step up? When I saw you here two years ago it was a packed little showcase but this will be in front of many thousands of people.
Two years ago it was different. Everything had basically started and now we're kind of closing the festival. I don't know how many people will be there, I haven't seen the place, but it looks like it's very friendly. I was afraid the stage might be too high and we'd lose contact with people but looks like it's not the case.
Has your relationship with this festival been supportive?
Yeah I really like this festival. In most festivals, it's really hard to be close to the people. Here you have shows in all small bars in the evenings so whatever door you open there's something really happening in there. If I would compare here with the Montreal Jazz Fest or Francofolies, it's great to have a show outside, but for people playing it's really hard to get a good feeling about the crowd. People are just wandering and they might not even know the band. Here, there's like 400 people in one small place, really with you.
Is proximity that essential?
I think so. We have an acoustic band mostly. It doesn't make sense to play on a huge stage. I definitely have a better time on a small stage.
You broke out based on a few bars in Montreal, playing in back rooms, your music was quite a change from what was going on in Montreal at the time. How did you find an audience with such blues-oriented music?
It's really bluesy music for sure, but it's not blues rock music. It just basically took time to figure out how to sing blues in French, how to manage to have the same feeling. I never was a fan of electric blues. I like all the songwriters — Woody Guthrie, Leadbelly, that type of music. I don't know how it all came up but it really talked to people.
The way that you've put it together almost has western swing elements and experimental touches. Considering that blues is such an old form, this makes it more contemporary in a way that electric blues doesn't seem contemporary.
I also have a lot of lyrics, so it makes a strange hip-hop feeling and something that's still bluesy.
I feel a stronger emphasis on rhythm with what I've heard from your second album — how do you compare them? Is the band is the same?
The band is basically the same. There are a few electric songs, the first album had none. The album, strangely is more personal than the first one. So I don't know how people will respond. The first one was very personal as well but maybe with a bit larger view and this one is very, very close to me. It's a very personal album. Will people say it's too much? Maybe. But there was no other plan.
Did your inspiration come from Montreal's working class neighbourhoods?
Mostly the first album. This one is my friends. I don't know if that makes sense to sing about them to other people, cause they don't know them. So I don't know if it's going to talk to people. I think it's too personal, but maybe I'm wrong.
But what do people look for in music anyways? Individual expression, I hope!
I'm clear about that! I love to hear something I feel is personal to the artist. But maybe it's too much!
How did winning the Felix Leclerc prize last year change your life?
It opened doors, no doubt about that. It's not the main goal about playing music but it definitely helps, can't argue with that. But it was fun. We went to France and since then we've been a few times.
France has been good to musicians from Québec.
Well it's been good but I don't think the average French person understands a single word I'm saying. The accent is very, very different, I have a lot of words and the lyrics go very, very fast. There's a lot of slang, sometimes with English in it. I guess they like the energy of the show but I don't think anything's ever going to really happen in France. But we're going back there in November and in March but I think it'll always be small places and strange festivals.
So you're on a proper label after self-releasing the first one, how does that feel?
The label is pretty elastic. They didn't say a single word about what to record and how to record. The producer wanted us to at least try recording in a real studio (as opposed to the ad hoc recording that produced Brun). It was a nice place, out in the country. Most of the album was recorded there. But it came with a lot of stress to go to an official place and "do that song today." I'd rather bring the gear, mics and everything into some place than record in an official studio. The place was still very nice. The label, it's not big, but everybody does their jobs.
What's up for the fall?
For the fall, we'll keep on doing the new show. The first tour was with almost a totally different band. There used to be another guitar, now it's only me, plus some banjo. Now it's a full brass band, a sousaphone, a trombone and a trumpet. The trumpet player plays keys in four songs. So we'll see how people react. We play five shows (before the album release) and then we play two-three shows a week until December and after that I'll re-evaluate the whole thing.
Will you play mostly in Québec or around the country?
Well that's the thing. I think the band could play folk festivals pretty much all over Europe, I've had people from Australia invite me in world music festivals and blues festivals. I have a great life in Quebec but if I really look into the right places and work with the right people I could travel more. So maybe that would be something I'm interested I'm doing. I'm pretty sure that even if people don't understand at all it can really talk to people.