An Interview with Peter Peter

It’s been five years since Peter Peter’s breakthrough album, Une version améliorée de la tristesse, was released, with the native Quebecer decamping to France in the interim. However, the artist has finally released his third album, Noir Éden, which has received glowing reviews since its release—thanks to its deft melange of pop structures and experimental sonics. Peter Peter kindly took the time to discuss the new album, songwriting, and more.

Image credit: Paul Rousteau

Noir Éden just came out last week here in Quebec, and has been out for about month in France, though reception on both sides of the Atlantic has been positive. Is there a sense of relief now with the record finally being available that you can no longer control how the public may perceive it?

Yeah, I’m kind of relieved, for sure. It’s been a while since I’ve released an album, because I’ve been writing and travelling a lot in the last few years. I was working hard on this album, and I went through a phase where I was sometimes in doubt about it. After a while, even when it was recorded, it took a while before [it was released because] it took longer than expected to market it, so I had to wait longer. We postponed the date three or four times, so I’m very relieved and very happy that the audience can encounter it. Now it’s a real album that’s released out there.

With the album finally out, do you plan on taking a break from songwriting and creating music altogether, or are you someone who always has the itch to write?

Back then, for the first album, [songwriting] was a part of me. When I moved to France, I had no apartment [as] I was moving from one place to another, so it got out of me for a while. I couldn’t record demos where I was, etc. So, I wasn’t writing much, [and] that’s the part that was terrifying [to] me, that I had to write an album and I hadn’t written in so long. Usually though, I was just writing systematically all the time. Now it’s back on since I’ve been writing Noir Éden; I haven’t stopped writing now.

Is it sort of like exercise for musicians? If you don’t use those songwriting skills or work out those muscles, do you feel you lose it the longer you don’t write?

Yeah, you know probably the self-confidence and stuff like that, you got to take care of everything for sure, and you got to exercise it. Although, it’s the same thing with muscles—if you exercise too much you can have issues. If you don’t exercise, it’ll be in tough shape. I was kind of rusted because... I won’t say because it wasn’t natural, but it wasn’t a part of my everyday lifestyle anymore. I was [thinking], “maybe I’m not going to be able to able to write better songs than my previous albums.” I was thinking too much. When you don’t do things you just think about things, you think too much. So, I just had to get on and write, and like I said, now that it’s back on I’m very happy; I feel I’m in a good shape now.

You’ve said that the overarching narrative of the album is of “someone who loses touch with his feelings, with reality, who always has the impression of being alien to himself, of not existing for real.” How much of that is autobiographical, considering the solitary nature of the songwriting and recording process for the album?

It’s very autobiographical for sure, but it’s also like a fabulation of it. I wanted it to be more cryptic, so it can be interpreted more freely. It’s what I felt for so long. When I moved to France, I was looking for loneliness and a kind of exile. I wanted to begin with that and go [for] further introspection and see how far I could go with that. I felt that I went there very [deeply], because every time I was trying to go back to reality or more of a social life, I was trying to see if I was deep inside my head [with] my thoughts. I wasn’t very social anymore, so it’s totally what I went through when writing the album. The album is an album about writing an album, staying home and writing an album and going deep in your mind and trying to get something out of it. I wasn’t seeing people, so I felt like I was losing connection with reality.

Considering that France is where you’ve set up homebase for this album, and considering that you’ve moved around quite a bit in your life, is France finally home for you, or do you see yourself continuing the life of the nomad and moving every few years?

For a while when I moved to Paris it was what I figured; I was like “Wow” [when] moving from one city to another. But after a while when I realized I wasn’t writing much [after] moving so much, I got anxious about my future. Now I have my city life in Paris and I’m very happy to have my small studio in a small apartment where I can write and evolve. I feel it’s not a goal anymore, moving [to] another big city, but for a while I thought so. I thought after I would maybe be tired of Paris, but now I feel very happy to have an apartment and the city lifestyle so I can write many albums. I feel at home when I’m in Paris, but I don’t feel like I’m French. I’m not French, I’m still Canadian. For a few years I guess, at least one year or two I would say I would live there.

“Loving Game” is the album’s catchiest pop moment, featuring a chorus written in English. What was behind that decision, and how do you chose what language a particular song or verse/chorus will be in?

What happened was, my publisher asked me if I could write a song for Céline Dion, because she was looking for young songwriters for her new project, and I decided to try it. I started to write a song [but] I never sent it because I felt it wasn’t good enough. After a while, I listened back to the song, and it had that pop synthesizer melody [sings melody], and I was like “Yeah, that’s cool.” I could throw everything away, but this is a good melody. I was probably singing it in the street and the shower and I was thinking [the melody] could be just vocals. I was doing yelps or yogurts, where you just say whatever, and I decided that I was mostly hearing it in English. I thought it could be a cool gospel song, and I decided to write a French verse [where] I would sing the verse and then a gospel choir would sing the chorus and it would be awesome. It’s not very Quebecer or Canadian, it’s very French. I thought it was funny doing that, because in France they don’t have that sight of French/English, because here in Quebec we probably do have an issue with language, so they don’t have that complex over there. To me it was like the ultimate bilingual pop song. For a while I was wondering if I would put it on an album, but it was part of the story so I decided to put it there.

I read you crediting Roch Voisine for the English-French set-up of songs like “Loving Game.” Is “Hélène” your go-to ballad?

[Laughs] Yeah, probably. That’s what I had in mind when I did that probably, for sure. I don’t remember the chorus; it’s the bridge that’s in English I think. You know, doing a bilingual song here is very cheesy, but I wanted to... l’assumer, [to] just put it out there, I don’t care.

Considering that “Loving Game” was originally written for Céline Dion, do you ever think about branching out and writing songs for other artists, perhaps being a songwriter for hire?

Not for a while though, since I’ve gotten into writing again and I’m in this state where I want to write for me. Maybe one day I’ll be so bored writing and recording albums that maybe I’ll do it, but for now I feel I want to work for me. It never really went well when I tried doing too many things at once. I’m that kind of artist that when I have something too specific I have a blockage, I just can’t do it. Maybe one day I’ll be a professional songwriter, but now I’m more sensitive to write.

Francophone artists that I’ve interviewed, as well as artists that record in English but are Francophone, often say that writing songs in French, particularly pop songs, is a more difficult task than to do the same in English. Do you find it difficult writing pop songs in French?

Yeah, for sure. Usually when I do some yelps, some yogurt singing, it’s always going more towards English, it sounds more English than French. For sure English is the more natural way for me to write pop in general, and our ears got really used to it. But when I was younger I was living in Quebec City and we had a band. We were singing in English but we were all French and we weren’t good in English. We had all those grammatically weird sentences and syntax. So, to me now it’s just easier to write in my mother tongue. Now I feel it’s easier in French because I don’t have to emulate English as if I was perfect in it. But for a while when I’m doing yogurt singing I’m doing [it in] English. So, it was easier to try to sound better in French because it was more natural than it was to pretend I was English.

My last question then is about that cat on the album cover. What’s its name, why did you include it on the cover, and will it be in any of your future projects?

[Laughs] Okay, the first question: His name is Humphrey [but] he’s not my cat. There’s a song on this album called “Venus,” and she was like my daughter. She was my ex’s cat, the girl I was living with when I wrote the album. Venus is a big part of this album, because I was writing by myself, I was staying home by myself and Venus was there and she heard all the songs and she was always with me. So when we had the photoshoot, the photographer asked me, “Hey, did you want me to bring a cat?” And I was like, “No, I don’t want a cat on the set because it’s not Venus,” and I don’t want a cat because of all those Internet kind of things. So he said no problem. We were supposed to actually shoot press photos; it wasn’t for the cover or anything. But when I got on the set he had brought a cat for some reason, and he said, “I know you didn’t want one, but my assistant has a cat and we’re going to try it.” So, they put it on my back and we sat there for a few seconds and we had maybe four photos. After a while we got the photoshoot going, and I look at the photos and when I saw the picture I said, “Okay, this is weird, but I think it’s going to be my album cover.” I was looking for something, but someone was working on the illustrations. If I probably had it in mind it wouldn’t have been a good photo, but it was just out of nowhere and the cat got there, and I loved it when I first saw it. So, it’s why it’s the cover, and I don’t think Humphrey’s going to be in my future projects [laughs].

Noir Éden is out now on Audiogram. Peter Peter will be performing March 8 at Club Soda as part of Montréal en Lumière.