The Unorthodox Romance of Julia Daigle and Un singe sur l'épaule

“I hope it's going to make people dream. Because I dreamt a lot about that project,” said Julia Daigle, skittish about whether that was too pretentious a statement to make about her recent album, Un singe sur l'épaule.

The Montreal singer-songwriter need not worry. Listening to the record feels like stepping into a bewitching dreamscape, untethered from modern musical tropes. The effect is altogether reminiscent of Kate Bush, a creative North Star for Daigle and another artist that draws you into her world on her own terms.

“She was someone I mentioned in my very first meeting with Dominic [Vanchensteing],” Daigle said of Bush, while referencing her primary collaborator on Un singe sur l'épaule. “And so we met and we had a couple drinks and we just talked and because we were strangers at that point, we needed a key word to just open our imagination.”

The word they came up with: “medieval.” It’s a totally accurate description; thanks to old-fashioned instrumentation that includes banjo, farfisa, mandolin, baglama, and bouzouki, Un singe sur l'épaule echoes music from the depths of time. Mixed with the non-traditional structure many of the LP’s songs take, the album is a lot different from the art-drenched pop music Daigle makes as one half of local duo Paupière. “It was probably the biggest challenge I had musically to not have a pop format,” Daigle said. “I'm used to thinking about chorus and verse, like kind of a recipe.”

As with many solo albums from artists part of a group, Un singe sur l'épaule is a personal record for Daigle. “It's more like a journal,” she said of the album. “It's very coded, in the sense that I don't talk directly about some things that I've been through or experienced, but it is very, very personal to me.” Daigle explained that in contrast with her new material, with Paupière, “I write more like stories with characters that are not me, or [anybody] I know. It's just things that I imagined.”

It’s true that Daigle avoids a confessional lyrical approach. The whole heart-on-your-sleeve thing isn’t much to her liking. But Daigle is a devotee of romanticism as a movement, as she explained about "Sur la haute colline," a song off Un singe sur l'épaule that adapts its lyrics from the work of the same name by Quebec poet René Chopin. It’s one of collaborator Vanchensteing’s favourite poems, one he sent her after a session thinking it could be a song.

“It's very romantic, but not in the romance [sense], like people falling in love,” Daigle said. “Just romanticism in general – the pain of living, and beauty […] the vision of time that is different. I just think it was very touching, because the words are still as beautiful now as they were when he wrote it. I think it's timeless, his art [and] his creation in general.”

The dichotomy between Daigle’s romanticism and her avoidance of traditional romance even extends to her never having written about the most quintessential song topic: love. “I actually never wrote a love song in my life, like in Paupière or in this project,” Daigle admitted. “There's many forms of love, but romantic songs, it's not my thing.

“Maybe someday I'm going to write a love song for someone, but it just never happened,” Daigle later added. “I have songs about friendship or passion – passion for your art, passion for living… But, yeah, it's not my thing.”

One of the most romantic-sounding songs is the only other track on Un singe sur l'épaule not written by Daigle, and again is not romantic in the lovey-dovey sense. Backed by longing saxophone and pillowy synths, "Nanette" is based on Nanette Workman, an American-born singer who in the ‘60s ran in the same circles as artists like The Rolling Stones. She also made it big in Quebec by singing in French, impressive considering it wasn’t her native language. Before she shot to fame, however, Workman was in New York City, trying to get into the prestigious Juilliard School and ending up as an understudy on Broadway.

“[Vanchensteing] read her biography that she wrote,” Daigle said, “and that’s just a part of her life that he thought was very beautiful, and he just made a song for fun.” Inspired by Vanchensteing’s inspiration from Workman’s love of her early years in NYC, Daigle compared her approach on “Nanette” to that of an actress inhabiting a role.

“When [Vanchensteing] showed me the song, I just loved it so much,” Daigle said. “It was very magical. I think we only did four or five takes for that one for the vocals, and [in] one shot, which is very rare for me. Because I often search for a long time for the tone, for the good intention that I want. But this one, I felt like I was possessed or something, [from] the strong feelings that [Workman] probably did have.”

It speaks to the power of art that it can transcend time, becoming relevant to each new generation that comes into contact with it, much like the poems of Chopin or the story of Workman did for Daigle. It’s no surprise why artists hope their own creations become timeless, but not necessarily for any narcissistic reasons, according to Daigle.

“It's kind of like dreaming of being like a superhero in a way,” Daigle said, “but not in a megalomaniac way of thinking. It’s just because you've been traveling through other artists before, so for sure you dream of giving back and making other people travel through you.

“I think it takes a lot of courage to expose yourself and show your work. And, you know, sometimes you discover something and you're like, ‘Thank you’ (laughs).”

Un singe sur l'épaule is out now (Lisbon Lux Records)

Photo credit: David Cannon

Alex Viger-Collins is the host of Ashes to Ashes, your home for modern pop in all its forms, every Tuesday at 8:00 p.m.