Les shirleys Montreal

Montreal band les Shirley define what it means to be a Shirley, and to get Shirley’d

Our November cover story is an interview with Montreal trio les Shirley, who recently released their sophomore album More Is More.

What, exactly, is a Shirley? For Raphaëlle Chouinard, lead vocalist and guitarist for les Shirley, it means being someone’s good friend or buddy — their ride-or-die, basically, even if you don’t identify as female. In fact, the Montreal trio even use it as an expression to describe the experience of seeing them play.

“We bring so much energy onstage, and people who see us live are definitely like ‘Oh shit!’ They receive tons of massive energy,” she says. “We always say after the show, ‘You’ve been Shirley’d!’”

The band’s second album, More Is More, is out today, and sees the band taking their blistering garage rock sound in moodier, more esoteric directions — all while never losing their trademark spunk or raw energy. Musically, the album evokes bits of punk rock, grunge, shoegaze, dance-punk, post-punk and even dream pop.

Though two members, drummer Lisandre Bourdages (Chouinard’s former bandmate in electropop outfit Syzzors) and bassist Sarah Dion are also in NOBRO (Bourdages and Dion play keyboard/percussion and drums in that band, respectively), Chouinard is the only member speaking to us for this piece, as her bandmates were both on tour with NOBRO in Europe. (The members of les Shirley also sometimes work as hired guns for other artists.)

Despite the pandemic being a “fearful” time for Chouinard as artists around the world suddenly saw their schedules emptied (les Shirley had plans to play multiple festivals in 2020 before COVID hit), it gave her and her fellow Shirleys an opportunity to make a new album. The end result would be More Is More, the band’s sophomore LP and follow-up to 2021’s Forever Is Now

The first thought entering your head as you read that last sentence might be, “Why such a short gap between albums?” According to Chouinard, we can partially blame the pitfalls of being an up-and-coming musician trying to make money off your art in today’s precarious musical climate. 

“The reality of being a musician nowadays is that you need new material to tour. You need to feed the booking agents with new material constantly,” she says. “That was part of it. But also, we had all these songs. We were writing a lot during the pandemic, and we just thought, ‘You know what, why not make another album?’

“Also, the cycle of an album is shorter than before. In the ’80s and ’90s, you could release an album and wait for four or five years in between. Some people do it, but I feel like you need to feed the people — you need to feed the beast.”

Those who enjoyed Forever Is Now can expect deeper lyrical subject matter on More Is More, particularly as it was written through the ups and downs of our ongoing COVID reality. “A lot of nostalgia, melancholy, addiction. It’s all about that,” Chouinard says. 

“For me, it was a tough time at first because I deal with a lot of anxiety. I think that a lot of artists have anxiety nowadays, so they can totally relate. We’ve been trying to find some psychologists lately, (but) they’re all overbooked. People are in desperate need of help right now. I hope that people will relate to that in terms of the ups and downs, and the deeper side of les Shirley. We’re showing this other face that we didn’t show in our previous album and EP, which was a bit more on the light side of things.”

More Is More was also produced by the band alongside Marie-Pierre Arthur, and Chouinard “couldn’t have hoped for a better fit” in a production collaborator for the album. “We respect her so much as an artist,” she says. 

“We were really, really big fans of her music prior to knowing her personally. She’s such a Shirley — she is the definition of a Shirley! (laughs) It definitely was an amazing contribution to the album… Sometimes we’d get stuck with some parts of the songs, and she’d always be coming in with fresh ears and fresh ideas for us.”

You can hear a strong ’90s influence on songs like lead single “Nothing Compares,” which is focused lyrically on loss and the overwhelming knowledge that something you cherished will never return. Inspired by a major life event that shook the band to its core, the track was written during the band’s first day in studio for More Is More, at the start of a three-week stint recording the album back in May. 

“The very first day we came into the studio, there were a lot of emotions, a lot of baggage. We ended up crying basically the whole day,” Chouinard says. “I don’t know why, but we just picked up the instruments, and Sarah came up with this lick. She played that, and I was like, ‘Whoa!’ We came up with the song right on the spot. This subject really reflected where we were at that time.” 

There’s also “It’s Time,” a pulsating, hard-rocking feminist anthem all about smashing the patriarchy. The riot grrrl-esque tune begs the question of how far female representation has come in modern music over the years — especially in punk circles — since the days of bands like Babes in Toyland, Bikini Kill and L7. If you ask Chouinard, that kind of representation in music has been improving since her teenage years.

“When I think about when I was in high school, and the bands that I was listening to, I can’t think of any all-female bands,” ehh says. “I can think of some frontwomen, but that was about it. Today, we’re doing a better job at it. There are more and more girls popping up. In my inner circle of friends, there are a lot of kickass female musicians around.

“I see it when we play as les Shirley, as well. Sometimes we’ll play in front of young girls, and I can see the sparkle in their eyes — the realization that ‘I can do this!’ There’s still some work to be done, but we’re definitely doing better. There’s more and more space for women onstage. The next step would be for festivals to understand that a 50-50 split with female-led projects on the lineup would be amazing. But we’re getting there.”

les shirley cult mtl magazine november 2022 cover
Les Shirley on the cover of Cult MTL’s November issue

Les Shirley’s sonic palette isn’t simply restricted to punk or garage rock, either. Songs like “Hands on the Wheel” give off strong shoegaze vibes, specifically Slowdive and My Bloody Valentine. Chouinard even confirms to us that these two bands inspired them for this tune, though it actually began life as a completely different-sounding song.

“If you listen to the demo, it has nothing to do with (shoegaze) at all,” she continues. “Even the lyrics — everything had changed. The only thing that remained was the chord progression. I think that’s because we went into the studio not knowing if that song was actually going to make the cut or not. We liked it, but maybe not enough to put it on the album. 

“It was Ryan Battistuzzi, our sound engineer, who was like, ‘No, there’s such potential with this chord progression! But I really see it as a Slowdive, shoegazey song.’ At first, we were like, ‘What? No.’ Then he’s like, ‘No no no, just trust me.’ We just trusted the process. When it came time to record the lyrics, I had none. I was like, ‘Okay guys, give me 20 minutes.’ I sat in the little vocal booth, and it just came out.” 

Though les Shirley are a three-piece, Chouinard admits it’ll be challenging for them to perform this album live as a power trio. During the band’s three upcoming launch shows in November (in Montreal at Fairmount Theatre on Nov. 24, as well as dates in Quebec City and Toronto), they’ll become a sextet with two extra guitarists and a keyboardist, adding new layers to their live sound — and ensuring that fans get properly Shirley’d.

Beyond this, Bourdages and Dion will return to the studio with NOBRO in December, but les Shirley plans to reconvene for a tour in 2023 (including in Europe). Chouinard says a “secret project” is also in the works with Montreal rappeuse Calamine — a rap-rock EP, to be more precise.

“You know when Linkin Park came out with that album (Collision Course) with Jay-Z? Think about that,” she says. “That’s what we’re going to release, sometime in 2023.” ■

This article was originally published in the November 2022 issue of Cult MTL.

More Is More launches at Théâtre Fairmount (5240 Parc) on Thursday, Nov. 24, doors 7 p.m., show 8 p.m., $40.82. For more on les Shirley, please visit Bandcamp.

For more Montreal music coverage, please visit the Music section.