Alexandre Désilets likes to play with contradictory feelings. In his songs, the Montreal artist often contrasts the mood created by the music with that suggested by the lyrics. He even applies that approach to words and phrases themselves—such as Fancy Ghetto, a coupling that provides Désilets with the title, and title track, of his third and latest album.
“I like it bittersweet,” he explains, reached at his home, a day after returning from two shows in Switzerland. “If the melody is sweet, the arrangements too, and it’s going towards something luminous and poppy, and on top of that you put some happy lyrics, it’s dangerous. Things become cheesy very fast. I try to have it so if it’s melancholic in the words we go somewhere else in the music, and vice versa—balancing it out.”
Désilets, who headlines this year’s 25th-anniversary edition of the Festival d’Été Francophone de Vancouver, was last in town in January, as the male singer in the brilliant multimedia production Danse Lhasa Danse.
As a poet and musician he draws ideas from the visual arts—and science. “I studied agriculture,” he reveals. “I was interested in everything to do with plants and animals, and I still am. I read a lot of science magazines, and I inspire myself a lot with cinema and photography. I like to observe people and pick up things in my environment, and I think it comes from my scientific background. I’ve always been interested in observing and analyzing.”
For his last two albums Désilets has been working on the lyrics with a cowriter, Mathieu Leclerc. “I start by composing 12, 13 songs and laying down the melody, and I’ll pretend I’m singing words,” says Désilets. “I work really hard on these demos because I know they’ll inspire words, and a certain type of rhythm or arrangement will inspire a special mood or a story. It’s in the pacing.
“Once that’s down I’ll sit down with Mathieu and we sketch out the album, and pull out all the possible scenes,” he continues. “We choose a theme or story, and start to document ourselves with different ideas, films, books, to find an angle. We take our time. Working with someone else helps me try different things and ways of writing, takes me out of my secure zone, so the way I write now is less intricate, less impressionistic than it was—more down-to-earth.”
When Désilets started out, as a student at Concordia University in the late ’90s, he provided vocals for electronic music. “I collaborated with musicians and went a lot into the studio. The most formative was these projects where I was experimenting with the voice in all aspects and developing my range. Using the voice not only as lead singer but as an instrument permitted me to develop different styles. I was capable of transforming the voice for whatever I needed. Though I’ve tried to pick up guitar and bass, it’s always been the voice.”
Alexandre Désilets performs on the outdoor stage at West 7th Avenue and Granville Street on Saturday (June 21) as part of the Festival d’Été Francophone de Vancouver.