An Interview with Laurence Nerbonne

It’s been two years since Laurence Nerbonne took the plunge for a solo career after her former group Hôtel Morphée dissolved at the beginning of 2015. It turned out to be one of the best decisions she’s made, as her debut album, XO, was released last year to popular and critical acclaim. Nerbonne has no plans of slowing down yet, and is already working on new material. She kindly took the time to chat with CJLO about her creative process, Quebec pop music, and more.

Image credit: Kelly Jacob

It’s been nearly a year since your album XO came out. How has this past year been for you?

It’s been mostly a surprise, because I just did most of this album on my own after my band was over. I just started to make music on my computer. I was already doing that before, but I took this occasion to push it more and try to learn how to make music, like beats and programming and some instruments on my computer. I started with one song, and then a second one, and then [another]. It’s really been a solo process. It’s just a big surprise that everything’s been working very well actually, and I like that people recognize themselves in the album. I think it’s the best reward.

Has the reception towards the album been greater than you expected?

Yes. I mean, when you do music, you always [have] doubts about yourself, and you’re just asking too many questions, and you’re not sure of what you’re doing; especially with French pop, like francophone pop music. You’re always asking yourself if it’s too cheesy, but I found people really like it, and I found that there is a big hole in French pop music in Quebec right now. Not many people are doing it. Everywhere else in the world people are doing new music with new sounds inspired by R&B and hip-hop, but here in Quebec we’re still somewhat stuck with a folk culture. So, I really try to go out of this whole folk culture and try something new, but in French.

Do you think perhaps you’re starting a new movement in Quebec towards that pop sound and getting away from the past?

I think there are many young producers that are doing beats and hip-hop right now, and I think that we are learning how to create a new language. There are many French and English projects that are starting right now because it’s really difficult to put some French on American beats and music. So, it’s like a new thing, and I think many people are trying to think about it and trying to make it. I hope that there will be more music like that in the next year. I think it’s just starting.

I was going to ask you why you think it’s important to write your songs in French, but then I realized that a lot of Francophone artists get asked that a lot. Does it ever annoy you when people ask you that, since it’s your mother tongue it’s likely you would write in French?

In the future, I’d like somebody to write English [lyrics] for me, because I think it will be easier and will give me some opportunities. Christine & The Queens did one song in English and I think that decision opened a big thing for her, but for me it’s just natural to speak French. So, it’s still easier for me to write in French, and because I usually write my songs, music and text, at the same time, I think it’s the easiest way to do it for me.

Do you think the Internet makes it easier for people to listen to music regardless what language it’s sung in?

Yeah, for sure. I mean, mostly young people are listening to English music. I did too when I was young, and I do it right now; I always listen to English more than French. But, you know, I think right now language is not a big issue. I think we can like [music] in any language and make a career with iTunes and Spotify. There’s no limit, that’s for sure.

Does the songwriting process come easily to you?

Sometimes it’s easy, sometimes it’s really long. I think I really have to be in the mood. It’s not that romantic; you have to work. It’s like, you wake up, go to the studio or just stay at home and open your computer, work, and do it again and again. Sometimes, like when I wrote “Montréal XO,” it took me one month to reopen the session because I was so tired of listening to the same thing, and I just found the chorus and that was it. One month later I just opened it and found everything that was missing on the song. So, sometimes you can do a big song in two days, [and] sometimes you can do a big song in two months.

Do you prefer making the beats or writing the lyrics for your songs?

Oh, for sure making the beats. I think that many people are able to make a beat, [and] many people call themselves beatmakers, and that’s okay! You can do all the beats you want, but what is difficult is to make a song out of this beat. I found [a lot of] not interesting music on Spotify, some people that got some beats, and they’re not really good songs. Beats are a really popular thing right now. I like it because it’s fun and we have many machines and instruments to do it easily [on]. Right now you can do a lot of things with beats so I really like it, but I try to push my beats and do the best I can, because I think there’s really good beatmakers, but it’s always the same thing you hear everywhere.

Now that you’ve shown that you can write a really good beat and really catchy songs, do you ever see yourself like Sia or Robyn and writing songs for other artists?

Yeah, sure. Right now I’m starting to work with other people. I would like to work with other women too, because it’s difficult to produce some tracks for a man, actually. They don’t want a woman to put beats on their thing, so it’s difficult right now. There are no women that are producing for other people right now in Quebec. It’s like a new thing, and right now I’m doing a song for another woman and playing beats on her tracks. I like doing that, but my career and my music is the priority because everything is going well, so I’m benefiting from that for now.

Your album XO was mainly stewarded by yourself. Other than contributions from your collaborator Philippe Brault and a feature by Lary Kidd, you took care of the writing, beats, producing, and the album artwork. For your next project, do you see yourself having more collaborators, or will it be very much a solo project in the fullest sense of the term like XO?

I don’t know for now. I want to work with other people, and I started something with other people, but you never know until you finish the songs, because sometimes projects are started but not finished. I’m really disciplined; I’m working really hard, so maybe my songs will be finished faster. I really like working on my own. I’m a bit of a control freak, but I always get bored easily being alone. I’m not sure what [my next album] will be. I think I will just see what’s going to happen, and the best songs I will make, whether they’re mine or if it’s a collaboration, I will put them on my next record.

If you could choose a dream collaborator to work with, is there anybody you would choose?

I don’t know. I don’t have this kind of dream [collaborator]. I just do my thing. The more I do my thing… Other producers or beatmakers are calling me or writing to me to do some collaboration because they find that the songs are good, so they want to work with me. I don’t have a dream of one person I want to work with, and I don’t want to drop some names [laughs]. I think I will see what’s going to happen. For sure, I want to work with people that are maybe on the English side. For this album, I met some beatmakers from the English music scene and I think it will be a new thing for me, and it will put my songs on another level, maybe.

You’re also an accomplished painter as well as a musician. Do you think that being a painter as well as a musician leads to better art?

I’m not sure about that. I’ve thought about this many times, because people ask me that. I think that music gives me a break from painting, and vice-versa, and that it’s another way to express myself and to learn new things about myself. It’s weird, because sometimes when I’m painting I have some really good ideas about music. Maybe because it’s relaxing and my brain is doing automatic things, so I’ve found new melodies and things like that. So, when I put my colours away, I go on my computer and I write it, so it’s a bit weird. I think it’s a way to be balanced by doing two things that are really different.

Do you find one to be more relaxing than the other?

I mean, painting is really done alone, and I’m not stressed out by it. I don’t want to be better than others; I just want to be better than myself. You don’t know if you’re going to sell [a painting], so you just have to do something you like. With music, you have to stay in the moment. You always have to be sharp and listen to new music; it’s a bit like training. Painting… I think I will be able to do that until I’m old [laughs], but music is right now, so [there’s] a bit more stress and intensity.

One of your most popular songs, “Montréal XO,” is a love letter to the city. What does Montreal mean to you as an artist?

Diversity (the song is talking about that actually), and differences between people. I think Montreal is all these influences together, and freedom too. I came here when I was 17 years old, and I wanted to do art and music, and the city gave me the opportunity to meet people and [fulfill] my dreams.

It seems Anglophones often miss a lot of the great Francophone acts that are going on right now unless the effort is put in to check them out, while Francophones are more likely to be following the great Francophone and Anglophone artists currently making music. Do you think there are any underrated Francophone artists that you wish more Anglophones knew of?

I think that French artists are a bit… I think English people maybe don’t listen to French music because it sounds like French music. I don’t know if you understand what I mean? People say that English people don’t like French music, [but] I don’t think that’s true. I think that they will like it if it wasn’t sounding like Folk/French music. I think that we have to work harder to make some different music. I think of the Dead Obies, for example, are really starting to change the game about hip-hop right now. They’re Francophones, but it sounds like English music, so I think they are a bit underrated for sure. But, I’m sure there [are] English people that listen to their stuff.

For sure, they performed at Concordia and it was a big show.

I think there are other artists too that are doing pretty good music, but it’s difficult to sound French in a modern way. I think that Christine & The Queens do it really well, and Coeur de pirate does it well too. So, I think it’s possible, but you have to find a way to put the words and your musicality together for the English people to like it. When you’re able to do that I think that it will work in any languages.

Are you optimistic about the future?

Yeah, I am. Actually, I don’t feel like other artists, in this kind of perception about the music scene. I think that what is different, is that you have to work maybe harder, and you always have to keep yourself in the moment. So, you have to work every day. You cannot make an album and wait three years, go on tour and not care about anything and always get drunk. You have to really work like it’s a day-to-day job, and I think that people have to open their minds too about new music, especially the same people always on the television and everything in French. [Montreal’s] a small town you know. You have to work with other people, not always French music like Quebecois [music] with folk arrangements. I’m really open to new people, and we have to listen to the younger [generation] too. I think that’s a big problem; we don’t do that a lot and we have to do it if we want to understand the future.

Catch Laurence Nerbonne opening for Alex Nevsky on March 11 at the Metropolis (59 Rue Sainte-Catherine Est)