By Jack MacLean, Copy Editor
Folk music serves as an expression of the people and era from which it originates. For Le Vent Du Nord, a folk band out of Quebec, Canada, delivering that expression to audiences is as exciting as it is daunting. The band, whose name translates literally to “The North Wind,” formed in 2002, when Olivier Demers, the fiddler/foot tapper/guitarist, was studying music in college. After some early mix-ups during its first 5 years, Le Vent landed with its current line-up – Olivier Demers, Rejean Brunet, Nicolas Boulerice, and Simon Beaudry. Today, the four-man band performs around 120 concerts annually, as well as a multitude of music festivals, in both Canada and the United States.
“There’s a market for it,” said Réjean Brunet, the band’s resident accordionist, bass guitarist, and enthusiastic jaw harpist (more on that later). Like any genre, Québécois folk music has a niche, but also melds seamlessly with the folk music genre as a whole. Yet even with a large base of loyal folk listeners, getting into the business is challenging. “You start something, you cross your fingers, you hope it will work and people will follow. Of course, there is a little bit of magic, but being active is a big, big thing.” For most new bands, the road to proper recognition is arduous, yet Le Vent found success early. Its first album release, “Maudite Moisson!,” in 2003, won a JUNO award for Roots & Traditional Album of the Year (comparable to an American GRAMMY). This was the first of many awards to come, including a second JUNO award in 2011, a slew of nominations at the Canadian Folk Music Awards of which they won two, and “Artist of the Year” at the North American Folk Alliance Annual Gala. It was evident that the Québécois group had struck a chord in the folk music industry.
Le Vent’s spirited sound honors the traditions of Québécois folk music while bringing new, exciting and creative twists to the mix. As classically trained musicians and folk music aficionados, preserving the traditional sounds of Québécois folk music was always their first priority. “We have the piano, guitar, fiddle, but there’s no drum sets, there’s no electric guitar … it’s acoustic. So we are close to that [tradition],” said Brunet. Yet Le Vent still sought to bring their own styles to the table. “We are bringing in a lot of harmonies . . . and instead of just making the basic chords, we like to color it a little. Adding a 6th or something or adding other notes. Not just in the chords but also in the vocals. During the melody, we try to be as clear as we can to leave space for harmonies and for things to happen.” All four members contribute vocally, while each also brings a different instrumental variety, all of which fit the traditional folk music repertoire.
In line with most folk music, Le Vent employs the fiddle, accordion, acoustic guitar and piano. Yet some instruments may not appear as familiar, even to the most devout folk music listener. The “hurdy-gurdy” (meaning “wheel and leg”) resembles a violin, but operates by a crank that rubs a rosined wheel against strings, while keys on the side of the instrument change the pitch. Nicolas Boulerice is the “hurdy-gurdyist” of the group, while also contributing on the piano and accordion.
Brunet also fancies a less-than-recognizable instrument, although the sound of which can easily conjure memories for anyone who has watched old-time cartoons. The jaw harp, also known as the mouth harp or juice harp, is no more than the size of a harmonica. It is comprised of a flexible metal reed that, when plucked while in the performer’s mouth, results in a cartoonish “boing.” When played alone, it sounds rather silly, but when played rhythmically by Brunet during one of Le Vent’s tunes, it adds a complex and unique quality to the music.
Accompanying the melodic instruments of Le Vent’s music is traditional Québécois percussion: foot tapping. Le Vent, adding contemporary furnishings to the folk music they play, utilizes a “foot tapping board” which is rigged up to the sound system through which they play their instruments. Olivier Demers taps on this board while he plays soulfully along with his fiddle. The resulting sound emulates the booming noise of an entire village stomping along to the music.
Traditional Québécois folk music was born out of circumstance. Poor immigrant families used music – the stomping of feet and chanting of voices – to create bonds and foster a sense of community. Now, hundreds of years later, its musical influence carries on through Le Vent du Nord’s music, which seeks to carry on that purpose of bringing people together. “It’s real music. Real singers. No fireworks . . .it’s who we are as Americans, you know, North Americans – both Canada and the United States. It’s the fiddle. It’s working songs. So it’s very unique and fun – and very human.”
Le Vent du Nord will be performing at the Hettenhausen Center for the Performing Arts on Friday, February 24, at 7:00 pm. Tickets are on sale now. For more information on the band and to see tour dates, visit there website.
Below is the full transcript of the one-on-one interview with Réjean Brunet:
The band formed in 2002. How did the band come to be?
Yes, the band formed in 2002, this will be our 15th year together. The band started with a project with Olivier, our usual fiddle player and Nicolas, the hurdy-gurdy player. It started, in fact, they were studying music in college together and they played in many bands together but suddenly decided ‘let’s play some folk music!” So they started to play and other people joined in the beginning. In the first year they had like 100 concerts already. Because, it is a small world, and folk music, there are small events and concert halls for folk music and it’s – when you start to go at one place, another place, eventually will call you or – there’s a big market. The band started playing [in the United States] in New England. So all the states from New York, Maine, Vermont, all those east coast states and Boston Area. There is a lot of folk music, and there’s some everywhere . . . we started 15 years ago and we are still going on! So we are really – that’s unusual. These days, to still be a band after 15 years and touring, you know.
So in the states, you play mostly festivals, or concerts?
During the course of a year we have maybe around 120 concerts, but of course many of those will be in concert halls. I mean – sometimes small auditoriums, not that many bars, we don’t play pubs and bars. Maybe 300 seats. And of course in the summer its music festivals and folk festivals.
So when you think of folk music, it is so big, and there are so many niches. What’s been the process for you guys to find your niche audience of listeners, especially here in the states?
It’s a really interesting question, because at the same time, I don’t know. I know, but I don’t know. I mean we have been playing first album won a JUNO . . . so you know you start something, you cross your fingers, you hope it will work and people will follow. Of course there is a little bit of magic, but being active is a big, big thing. If you are available to tour, and to give concerts, people will follow you. It’s funny, because there are people that we know who met the band 10 to 15 years ago and they are still following us!
I’m so curious with folk music, because it has this great antique quality there, which means a lot to, especially older people who grew up in that culture listening to that music. So how as a band have you maintained that respect for the tradition but also brought your own twist and style to the music?
I think we like to listen to all kinds of music. Being aware of what is made these days and being creative. Even if we, in our music, we are quite, we are close to tradition, in terms of sounds. We have the piano, guitar, but there’s not drum sets, there’s no electric guitar … mainly its acoustic. So we are super close to that. At the same time, we are bringing things in our own way. We are bringing in a lot of harmonies. That traditional music, you know the basics of it, usually the songs were not harmonized that much but because we want to bring our signature we bring that. Some of us have studied in jazz a little, so I mean, we have all studied music jazz, pop, rock. Myself, I’ve always been playing folk music since I was a kid, so that music is part of me. But we are trying to bring that life to it … We also work usually not on tour but often we have our live versions and we have a stage manager and new shows we have someone who is saying ‘let’s present this’ and you will talk here and you will go there, so there’s a little bit of staging. But not too much.
It’s interesting that you brought up all the different genres you all studied. You’re obviously all very talented musicians who try to play different things and listen to different things. When you listen to contemporary music from this past century, do you hear influences of this folk music that preluded, really, all music?
Not much in pop music, of course. More to the acoustic music, the singer/songwriter, you know. Even all the new artists, in country and folk. I like to listen to everything. Of course we don’t hear that much fiddle – Irish or Celtic, but there’s some everywhere. A little bit. Some traces of fiddle in country music. Its still around. But, we also all listen to bluegrass and bands from everywhere. So it’s quite lively. There’s a lot of bands that are composing some new stuff. Scotland has a lot of bands but with a lot of drums and electric instruments, but of course the bagpipes and — so of course we like new bands but we are closer to tradition when it comes to instrumentation.
You can definitely hear, especially with the accordion – there are those instruments that hark back, no matter what you are doing, they’re going to sound and remind you of those cultures and eras.
You talked a little bit already, but I was curious, when you are on the road, and not listening to traditional folk music, what kind of music do you listen to?
Its large (laughs). I listen to different things. Myself, I like rock. Even a little on the side of heavy metal and – you know, I listened to that when I was a kid, more than now. Now, I really like to listen to jazz. Classical jazz at home that is what I will listen to. Not necessarily knowing who it is but in the background. And of course folk music. But on the road we like to listen to old 80s and 90s songs, and we have fun saying ‘oh yeah remember this song!’ We really listen to everything.
I think it shows in the music. It obviously sounds very traditional, but there are times where you get an edge of something, which is probably your personalities showing through, and your styles coming through.
Yes, yes. And like you were saying, with the arrangements, you know, instead of just making the basic chords, we like to color it a little. Adding a 6th or something or adding other notes. Not just in the chords but also in the vocals. So we really work under a microscope. You know? Adding little things. To make sure people hear what we want them to hear. During the melody, we try to be as clear as we can to leave space for harmonies and for things to happen.
What’s next for the band?
We are in the states till Saturday, and after that, we have a special show we are putting on in Quebec. It’s another band comprised of three guys and we are four so altogether 7 members and we have put on an entirely new show with all new material. So we do that show in Quebec and around Quebec and in Montreal and a few gigs in Glasgow. That show we will do some in the states. North Caroline? Somewhere. (Laughs) It’s on our website. After that, we have a symphonic show. Almost ten years ago, we met a composer out of Boston, he was a conductor for a symphonic orchestra and he heard the guys and, 14 years ago, said ‘wow I like that music!’ He didn’t know anything about folk music from Quebec and he said ‘I have to arrange these songs for these guys.’ So it started with 4 or 5 songs. 10 years ago he arrived with a full symphonic show and we did that in Quebec and that has been recorded and – so once a year or twice we are doing that show with different orchestras and that will happen also in the states. So we have a symphony show. It’s very much our music but it has the orchestra. We are very lucky to have things like that. Out of that we have other stuff.
My final question. You have one shot, talking to a potential listener, how do you get them to give Quebecois folk music a try?
The best way to know if you like it or not is to listen! I can guarantee you it will make your toe tap! You know, especially during a sad day – come see us! It gives you a smile. It’s super easy to listen to, and makes everyone happy. Its real music, made by real people, its acoustics. Even with a sound system it’s still acoustics that are actually vibrating for real! Not plastic or electronic. It’s unique. Its real music. Real singers. No fireworks. Just –
Exactly. It’s genuine. And it’s not so far from anything you’ve heard. Whatever you’ve been exposed to, whatever age you are, you have heard it somewhere. In movies, the titanic, the lord of the rings, somewhere you’ve heard the hurdy-gurdy or the fiddle. It’s a party, in a pub or something and they’re having fun! Just with the fiddle! So imagine 4 people singing and playing. That sound is – it’s who we are as Americans, you know North Americans – both Canada and the United States. It’s the fiddle. It’s working songs. So it’s very unique and fun – and very human.