Marie Davidson and Pierre Guerineau of Essaie Pas have teamed up with Asaël R. Robitaille to form l’Œil Nu, who released their debut album Renegade Breakdown this week.
Not one, but two people in Marie Davidson’s life thought of her when they listened to, of all songs, Miley Cyrus’s new disco-inflected single “Midnight Sky.”
Why would someone hear Cyrus go full slick pop and think a Polaris Prize shortlisted artist known for pounding beats and sardonic spoken word would want to listen? Naturally, it piqued Davidson’s interest.
“Didn’t like the music but I loved her voice,” Davidson admits. “She has a quality to her vocal chords. I found the song ordinary and it falls into the easy trap of mainstream music, but her voice is channeling a pure rock, ballsy woman performance I really love. It appeals to me, those grainy voices.”
It’s with that open-minded spirit that Davidson, husband and Essaie Pas bandmate Pierre Guerineau and longtime pal Asaël R. Robitaille approached l’Œil Nu, a new trio celebrating old school songcraft and the delightful decadence of pure pop.
They’ve known each other since the la Brique days, and this project actually started in the recesses of that Montreal artist space back in 2011, only it was just Robitaille and Guerineau recording demos that never saw the light of day, and they were mostly influenced by Italian and French film composers. Since then, Davidson and Guerineau have made music as Essaie Pas, Davidson has found success as a solo act and Robitaille has been an important cog in the local scene, working with Xarah Dion, Elle Barbara and Bernardino Femminielli, among others. Robitaille also contributed to the last Marie Davidson (“So Right”) and Essaie Pas (“Complet Brouillé”) albums.
“A lot of his work has been done in the shadows, but he’s the most talented musician we know,” says Guerineau of Robitaille. “He did conservatoire, so he’s classically trained in guitar and composition.”
Robitaille’s technical prowess as an arranger and guitar player is all over the l’Œil Nu album’s 10 tracks, which begin in more lush classic rock territory before moving to playful synth pop and ending with unabashed balladry. Davidson would record solo vocal demos on her phone before bringing them to her bandmates, where they would venture deep into their mental discographies to bring out of the most in these uncharacteristically sing-songy, rhyme-heavy lyrics from Davidson.
“When I wrote ‘Back to Rock,’ I was listening a lot to the first two Oasis albums, Fleetwood Mac’s Tusk and the first Stevie Nicks solo album,” says Davidson. “That was during the winter, but then I got into a big Carpenters phase. Then Asaël started playing prog rock for us, like King Crimson, Rush and Genesis. Oh, and a lot of Heart also, and the Runaways. On some songs, we aimed for a big rock sound, but on other songs, it’s pure soft ballads. There’s also a funnier, synth element. But on each track it’s a mix of electronic and instruments.”
Adds Guerineau: “Her range is more natural. Tempo decides a lot of things, especially when you’re not adapting to a beat. We would ask what kind of arrangement and music would fit. Is it a fun and witty song, or is it more melancholic and slow? It was fun to enjoy different moods on the record.”
Where something like a Miley Cyrus song might come into the equation is parsing the difference between getting knee deep in conventional songwriting and perhaps going a little overboard. It’s a thin line between a truly rousing rock anthem and ham-fisted cheese.
“It’s like when you hear a terrible song at the grocery store, but then it has a really great coda and suddenly you’ve found inspiration in it,” explains Guerineau. He likes trap and EDM production elements, for instance, but don’t expect him to ever make a trap or EDM song.
“It’s going back to your roots and reliving some teenage fantasies. It’s falling in love with pop music and rock when you’re younger. In the last few years we’ve explored different things and got excited with electronic music in a dance sound system perspective with bass, repetition, patterns and textures. We love that, but with this one, we wanted to go to our first love of songwriting,” Guerineau says.
“I’ve listened to so much techno and house the last few years, and I have to admit I hear a lot of cheesiness in it, too,” says Davidson. “It’s everywhere — rock music can be cheesy, and so can dance music. The thing about cheesiness is that it comes from a place where it was once appreciated, and then it becomes overheard and the cheesiness comes in. Saying something is cheesy is a judgement, and I’ve done it myself, but it’s based on a feeling at a certain moment.”
Davidson has the perfect example from her youth.
“I remember as a kid, my mom’s favourite record was I’m Your Man by Leonard Cohen. I couldn’t stand it. When I wouldn’t get out of bed on the weekends, my mom would play it to tease me, cranked to 11. As I was becoming an adult, I revisited the album and I loved it. Taste in general changes — something that you thought was cheesy, later on you’re wiser and might be able to see the depth and suddenly it’s not cheesy,” she says.
Last year, Davidson announced her retirement from the club scene, so a more pop-oriented project in 2020 isn’t all that surprising. But it’s still been a strange transitional year for her, and all of us, because the club scene she willingly left is on hold anyway thanks to COVID. So is she feeling FOMO or has she already moved on?
“It’s so strange to me because it feels like what I went through, everyone else is going through. I’m sure this club scene will come back, but for now it’s dormant. There’s no parties, no DJ sets, no performances, it’s just not possible,” Davidson says.
“At the beginning of the pandemic I was missing going out dancing, but more attending than performing. Lately I’m not even missing it. I’ve been busy with other things, so my creativity and my life has been exploring other horizons. At the moment I’m not missing it, but I do miss performing in a venue. I wish we could play this record on a stage. I’m very much hoping for it.” ■
Renegade Breakdown by l’Œil Nu is out on Friday, Sept 25. For more details and to buy the album, please visit Marie Davidson’s website.
For more Montreal music coverage, please visit our Music section.