There is a music school on a foothill in Western India where the singing starts at 5:30 A.M. The children drag themselves from sleep and traipse outside carrying wicker mats and stubby candles. They sit in a dusty, pillared hall and practice Indian scales that lope in circles. A hundred of them warble in the dark, one above the other, like a flock of bickering geese.
The sound is what woke Quebecois pop star Yann Perreau one morning last March. The sensitive singer-songwriter, known as Montreal’s most vigorous stage performer, is on a two-month trip through the country with his girlfriend, and has stopped this week at the Kalkeri Sangeet Vidyala, the traditional Indian music institute run by Quebec-based non-profit Jeunes Musiciens du Monde. She is slowly getting used to bucketing herself with groundwater in the muddy corner the school calls a shower. He has a stomach flu.
Un serpent sous les fleurs
(Bonsound; US: Available as import; UK: Unavailable; Canada release date: 24 Mar 2009)
Normally, Perreau records alone in the studio, “en huis clos.” But on this day he prepares to tape a new tune, “L’ange sur la mezzanine,” with the young early risers. He looks like usual: dressed in a fitted white button-down colored with red and yellow flowers, the start of a mullet by the peak of the neck. And he sounds like a librarian, ever soft-spoken. A crowd of village kids, not one of whom can speak French, are attempting to learn his song. He lies back, interjecting only with a hand that rises and drops, keeping rhythm as it cuts through hot air. Soon the lyrics are transcribed into Kannada, the language of the province, on an oversized blackboard. Seated on a low footstool, Perreau sings, his husky voice made clear by the song’s higher range. When it is over, he drops to his knees and lets out a shrill “Woo-hoo!” It is the liveliest thing he has said all afternoon.
* * *
“The whole thing was very spontaneous and I think that if too much resolve had gone into it, it wouldn’t have worked as well,” says Perreau of the experience. “There was this natural electricity that even the children were swept away in.”
The impromptu recording session nicely sums up the approach that the 32-year-old took on his artless new album, Un serpent sous les fleurs. The CD, which was released on March 24th by Bonsound, has a vital, organic feel rooted in the stir of travel; the artist spent five weeks in France on a “creative retreat” before leaving for India. It is a record open to—founded on, even—experimentation and collaboration, one that saw Perreau team up with a medley of lyricists and performers. The outcome is a far cry from either the hermetic tone of Western Romance (2002) or the highly personal, often angry strains on Nucléaire (2005), his previous two offerings. Here, Perreau finds himself more receptive and his latest work has all the verve of a test run.
Backing him instrumentally on this album are George Donoso III and Martin Pellard, both former members of Montreal indie rock group the Deers, and Alex McMahon, a sought-after session man who co-produced the CD. Perreau doesn’t often invite partners into the studio, and the live band contributes a certain energy. In fact, the entire project is an exercise in patchwork. Many of the lyrics began as poems sent to Perreau as gifts by friends and collaborators. “L’ange sur la mezzanine” is based on prose by French musician Camille Dalmais (of “Ta douleur” fame). “I chose contributors who have lived through things that touched me,” he says. “I adapted their texts, added to them, personalized a few lines. Sometimes I took my own poems and fixed them to other people’s words. The result is a world that’s remarkably open and that, at the same time, looks a lot like me.”
He even joined forces with his audience. This past autumn, Perreau decided to bring the new tunes on the road for 15 shows, in search of spectator feedback, before even stepping foot into the studio. “Coming into a show with only new stuff is pretty dizzying,” he says. “People can be severe. They want their candy, and here we were offering up concerts in the dark. But it worked.” The tour, “Créations en evolution,” was a significant change from his previous series of concerts, in winter 2007, called “Perreau et la lune,” in which he and McMahon revisited popular songs in an intimate, nocturnal setting.
The artist has since brightened up. “I’ve always had a way of creating that was very much my own, and I sort of proceeded instinctively, but with this third disc, it’s like a shell has cracked open. I have this new need for light.” His recent performances were exploratory, vulnerable. And there was nothing intimate about them.
* * *
At one of these shows, a night in late August on the Le Divan Orange stage, Perreau is like a mechanical toy with an immeasurable string. He manages to be everywhere at once, spinning in maddened circles, taking long guttural breaths, jumping, gyrating, almost seizing, pounding his hands down on an imaginary piano. The artist is often called a “bête de scène” [animal of the stage] by critics. “It’s boring when a performer is static,” he says. “For me, the stage is like a playing field. It’s important to me to incarnate my songs, my lyrics. I do what I do onstage more out of a need to communicate. I become the messenger.”
He starts off the second half of the soirée the way he closes the impending album, with “L’ange sur la mezzanine.” It is soft and lovely, but even here he shakes his head wildly, looks as though he’s preparing for lift-off. And then, at the show’s end, he climbs carefully off the platform, picks up a beer and wanders outside to the terrace. All that is left is a man, rather small and unassuming, who wants to chat quietly with those who remain. He is very nearly shy.
* * *
The new album is one that captures the unpredictable vivacity and urgency of Perreau’s live performances. According to McMahon, Perreau did the vocals on all eleven of the songs over twelve straight hours. The group had intended to work for two or three days. “But Yann wanted to do it all at once, like a boxer,” McMahon says. “I was like, ‘Relax, we can have lunch!’ And his voice didn’t run out, either; we pretty much kept everything he did that day.”
The pieces, mostly dance music steeped in electro-pop, are all optimism. “Le président danse autrement”—a cross between Anita Ward’s “Ring My Bell” and “She Is” by the Fray—is a keyboard-heavy jingle prodded by a few jumpy horns. “Conduis-moi” is much slower, but just as keyed up. What begins as a light, lingering piano melody straight out of Cirque du Soleil is quickly barraged by a succession of electronic trills like shooting lasers. The poetry is less brooding and interior this time, more user-friendly. Perreau calls it an “ouverture d’esprit.”
The CD’s exuberance is almost relieving. While the irritated, despairing musician on 2005’s Nucléaire is attractive, Perreau’s sudden confidence seems like a better fit with his stage persona. On the single, “C’est beau comme on s’aime” [It’s beautiful the way we love each other], he sounds like a cheerleader with a gift for punchy piano progressions. And even when it turns syrupy (the mark of amour, no doubt), the artist’s insouciance is catching. The hit off his last album, remember, was a rampant bit called “La vie n’est pas qu’une salope” [Life is nothing but a whore].
It feels as though we’ve finally been given permission to take an unmediated pleasure in his music. “There’s a strong desire here to bring my head above water, to look towards the sun,” Perreau says. “India is not always pretty, but on the whole you leave the country with a sort of strength, with light in your eyes, with a tendency towards construction and creativity.”