I Hear You Calling: An Interview With Myriam Gendron

If Myriam Gendron’s debut album, Not So Deep As A Well, was a surprise, her new record, Ma délire – Songs of love, lost & found, is a revelation. Stripping songs to their core and rebuilding them with a unique vision and modern edge, Gendron’s music is faultless. Her work is woven with a sharp simplicity where guitar lines are stripped to their barest, most potent form, and vocal melodies effortlessly hit like a ton of bricks. This rare combination is why her work is instantly timeless.

Ma délire – Songs of love, lost & found is out on October 1 via Feeding Tube and Les Albums Claus. It’s among the very best albums released in 2021 and will have staying power well into the years to come. Order it HERE. Myriam answered my questions throughout September.

Before getting into the new record, I want to ask, like I often do to start interviews, what some of your earliest memories of music and sound are, whether it’s a song or musician or an environmental sound – anything that has stuck with you?

I was lucky, I grew up with music. My elementary school offered a special music program: one-third of the time spent in school was dedicated to music. I still remember the songs we played and sang (from popular songs to religious hymns in Latin). My childhood musical memories are very full! If I try to go earlier than that, I think what stuck with me is one lullaby my father sang to me: the traditional song “Dans la prison de Londres”, but with the wrong melody! He was mistakenly using another traditional melody, that of “Isabeau s’y promène”. Both are very well-known traditional songs, but he mixed them up and created a new one. That’s the one I remember, and that’s the one I sing to my kids. I like that. I think it might have inspired me in my non-purist approach to the traditional material.   

There’s a seven-year gap between the first record and this one. When did you know you wanted to make a record of traditional music?

In 2016, I was invited to Le Bic, Quebec, for a one-week residency in an old mill that had been turned into a boat repair workshop. A very inspiring place. At the time, my partner and I were completely obsessed by a 1971 record he had just bought for a dollar: Ça roule by Philippe Gagnon and Dominique Tremblay, two folklorists who did very modern and experimental stuff with traditional music. On this record, we discovered the traditional tune “Au coeur de ma délire”. Their version of it is absolutely stunning. Not many people know this song here, and I thought it was so beautiful I wanted to do something with it. I tried many things and finally decided to use the sounds of my surroundings to create a musical landscape and play the song on it. It’s the same recording that you can find on Ma délire. That was the sparkle. After the residency, I knew I wanted to go further and make a record inspired by traditional music. But motherhood has been my main project since Not So Deep as a Well came out. I had two kids in the meantime and it’s been very time and energy-consuming! When my youngest one turned three, I decided it was time to go back to music. I really needed it. I applied for a grant, I got it, and I was then able to take a seven-month leave from my work and dedicate myself entirely to this new project.   

I think there’s something so important to this new album beyond it being music that I find incredibly powerful and moving in that so many of these songs aren’t something people have heard in any form, or at least not many people. I’m curious, how do you view that aspect of this work, of presenting these songs to a new audience and keeping these songs alive in a sense?

I’m not sure if that aspect of my work is as strong in the United States as it is in Québec. Maybe I’m wrong, but I think most Americans know “Shenandoah”, “I Wonder As I Wander” and “All The Pretty Little Horses”. Traditional music is much less anchored in the collective memory here. Of course, many people have worked hard to keep it alive, but there are strong forces that make it difficult for this heritage not to sink into oblivion. I personally needed to restore something I felt had been broken. But it’s a very personal project. I’m not on a mission here! That being said, I’m very happy if my album can give a new life to these songs by presenting them to a new audience. 

Building on that, John Jacob Niles comes up a couple times in this record, which makes sense considering the work he did as a folklorist. When you set out to do this project, how did you approach this aspect of it – the collecting of this traditional music – in a very different way than Niles did, of course – and figuring out what songs you wanted to work with and share?

I spent the first weeks just listening to traditional music. A lot of it! I wasn’t looking for anything in particular, I just wanted to let it in. It was very passive. I was confident my unconscious would do the work. And although there are a few exceptions, I think that’s pretty much the way it all worked itself out. The songs picked themselves! But there was still a lot to be done after that: what do I do with this song? Do I have something relevant to add to it? What tuning should I use? Do these words feel right in my mouth? Does this song really need me?  

What were some of the biggest obstacles and challenges you dealt with as you worked on the music and began putting the album together?

At the beginning, when I realized I wanted to work with songs in both French and English, I thought the language would be an obstacle to the coherence of the project. I was afraid the Quebecer traditional songs wouldn’t blend well with the American ones. But I was wrong. It was amazing to see how all these songs could talk to each other beyond the language barrier. I think the hardest thing was finding the right shape to give to the songs, both lyrically and musically. “Shenandoah” is probably the one that challenged me the most. I ended up splitting it in two because the lyrical and the musical shapes I found for it were both right but didn’t fit together!  

Did your work in your “day job” as a book dealer have any influence on this, especially when it came to researching the songs and music?

No, my work as a book dealer didn’t have that kind of influence on the project. Most of the material I used for research, I already had at home because my partner has an amazing record collection! I found the rest on the internet. But I think my work had a deeper kind of influence. I’ve worked with books for over twelve years. Every day, I see how classics still speak to people on a fundamental level. There’s a reason why these books stuck. And I don’t think you can write anything valuable if you haven’t read your classics and integrated them into your writing. It’s not about imitating. The challenge is to create something modern and original (and good –the hardest part!) that puts itself in dialogue with what was done before. That’s the literature I love. And that’s what I’m trying to do with my music. 

Photo by Constance Mensh

One thing that immediately struck me about the new record is that it has a wider sonic palette, whether it’s from guest artists or the ambient sounds on “Au cœur de ma délire” to the Mick Turner-inspired playing on “La jeune fille en pleurs” (it really does have his spirit in it, it’s wonderful). What prompted this expansion in the sonic elements? What was it about these songs that spoke to adding, say, Bill Nace creating a beautiful racket or asking Chris Corsano to play drums (and in such a lovely, restrained manner)?

I see myself as a folk artist, but I don’t want to make folky albums! And that feeling got stronger with this new record because I was playing with traditional material. I was very aware of the danger. I’m not a purist, I like to mess around! I wanted to bring the songs completely elsewhere. It was my way of treating them with respect. It was my way of keeping them alive. 

So many of the songs are incredibly moving, but “Waly Waly” stands out to me for several reasons, but especially in the way you’ve reworked it a bit. Lyrically and thematically, there’s such a melancholy to it, but your version has an airiness to it that takes some of the sting out of the words. I love this juxtaposition of ideas and am curious what inspired you to kind of take it in this unexpected direction?

I’ve come across many versions of this great song over the years. I think my favorite is Fred Neil’s version on Bleecker & MacDougal. I love it so much I thought nothing else could be done with this song. But I still played around with it a bit. It was hard for me to give it up. And then one day, it just appeared to me I had to arrange it like “The Red Dress” on Not So Deep as a Well. I had to play it like a march! All of a sudden, desperate observations on the transience of love became beautifully melancholic and somewhat light and peaceful. It was amazing for me to witness that transformation! I think the song found some new meaning. 

I was excited to hear the “Shenandoah” renditions as the song has always held meaning for me, especially from my mom’s side of the family who all grew up in Canada (my dad’s family being from Missouri was just kind of an added connection). What is it about “Shenandoah,” and especially that melody (which is really lovely played on guitar!), that you find so moving and so incredible?

It’s simply the most beautiful melody in the world! I don’t really know why. I won’t try to explain it. I’ll just put it this way: if I was a religious person, that melody would be my God! 

I particularly love the second version on the album, especially the way you recorded it. It adds this almost immortal spirit to it, like the song is just out in the ether, existing this way for all times. What was the inspiration for this version, or what made you want to record it in this way?

I’m happy you hear it like that because it’s exactly what I tried to do. I wanted it to sound like a very intimate performance caught by accident, something that was not supposed to be heard but ended up captured on tape. It was my way of fighting the grandiose aspect of the song. And it reflects the work I did on the lyrics. I eliminated all historical or geographical references to focus on the intimate: the feeling of loss, longing, the need for otherness.  

Your original works on the album fit in so seamlessly that I probably would have mistaken them for other traditional pieces of music if the liner notes didn’t say otherwise. How were you able to put yourself in this place or frame of mind to kind of channel this kind of energy into the songwriting?

With this record, I think I illustrated my “birth”, for lack of a better word, as a songwriter. As I said earlier, I strongly believe we need to read our classics before we can even begin to think about writing anything of value. Ma délire is me doing my homework, playing with my cultural heritage to figure out where I stand and what I can do on my own. I stole a few ideas here and there in other traditional songs and I used them to say what I felt needed to be said. I was already soaked in the material… It was surprisingly easy to write these songs!

I really love “Poor Girl Blues” and how you took two and combined these two songs, “Poor Boy A Long Ways From Home” and “Un Canadien errant” – something I would have never imagined, but because of your rendition here, I can really feel the connection. I’m curious about when you first made that connection between these songs that made you want to put them together?

This is something I could talk about for hours! I need to put three things on the table before I can answer.

(1) The song “Un Canadien errant” is in itself a song full of connections. It’s a very important song for me. I wrote a paper on Leonard Cohen’s rendition of it when I was studying literature at University and the ideas I developed at the time have stayed with me throughout the years. I won’t go deep into it here, it would take too long, but when I started thinking about making a record based on traditional material, I knew I wanted to use that song somehow and try to add a new layer of meaning to it. The song had already shown so much hospitality, I knew it could welcome yet another story. 

(2) “Poor Boy A Long Ways From Home” is another traditional song that has been living with me for many years. It’s one of the oldest songs of the blues repertoire. I pretty much learned to play fingerpicked guitar with Fahey’s version of it, and I’ve been singing along to Mississippi John Hurt’s “Poor Boy” for years. 

(3) In the past few years, I’ve been quite irritated with the simplistic way some people (who talk very loud) have dealt with racism and problems of cultural appropriation, especially when it comes to art. I strongly believe that art is about projecting oneself in other lives, other times, other cultures, to better understand the world and to better understand ourselves. 

So here is my answer: I don’t know exactly when I made the connection between (1) and (2), but I know it happened because of (3)! Both songs talk about loneliness, roaming and rambling, the need for otherness. Both are lost paradise stories. It probably just appeared to me one day that there was a bridge to build there, and that building it was a good and meaningful way for me to respond to the numerous abuses of identity politics.

The title of the new album kind of gives it away, I suppose, but these are all love songs in their own way. What strikes me is how they present the idea of a love song in so many different contexts. What, for you, makes a song a love song?

I’m naturally drawn towards songs that depict some kind of romantic longing and it shows in the selection of traditional material I made. But there is more to it than the lyrics. There are some songs on this record that aren’t obvious love songs. There is one in which the narrator, rejected by a woman, ends up cursing all women, accusing them of being hypocrites; there is a lullaby for children; there is the story of a serial lady-killer; there is an instrumental piece I wrote for a friend who was dying. They too are love songs. This may sound corny but I think I see all my songs as love songs because love is the main feeling that pushes me to make music.

Something you said resonates very deeply with me, talking about your kids and how that became your main project after the first album. My daughter just turned eight this year and for years after she was born, I really struggled to figure out how to find the space for both being a father and working on music. I think I’ve finally found a healthy coexistence, but I’m still trying to figure out what effect it has all had on my own creative practice, so I want to put that question to you – what impacts – besides just time, though that’s obviously a huge one – has being a parent had on your creative works and practice? I do love how your kids make some surprise appearances throughout the album!

Yes, time has a huge impact. You need to be well-organized if you have kids and a day job and want to be creative. I totally gave up on it during my children’s first years because I didn’t want to be frustrated all the time. I can definitely understand why some people choose not to have kids. There’s something very alienating to it! This year, when I was working on the record, it was very hard for me to stop at 4pm to go pick up the kids and go through the evening routine with them. A big part of me just wanted to skip directly to 8pm and continue working. I’m a very obsessive person! I think my kids saved me. I would have gone mad. They help me keep some balance. They help me forget about myself. It’s not always easy but I know it’s very healthy.

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