Annie-Claude Deschênes is going to teach you some table manners

We spoke with the singer from PyPy and Duchess Says ahead of the launch for her debut solo album Les manières de table at PHI Centre on Friday.

Some artists never stop challenging themselves with each new release. Annie-Claude Deschênes has done it this time by combining her love of music and gastronomy into a uniquely thrilling body of work.

After years of becoming a force to be reckoned with on wax and especially during live shows with her bands Duchess Says and PyPy (pronounced “pie pie”), Deschênes has delivered her debut solo LP, Les manières de table (“table manners” en français).

Released digitally on April 5 via Bonsound and Italians Do It Better, with physical editions to follow this Friday (accompanied by a launch show at PHI Centre that same night), Les manières de table finds Deschênes in a lockdown-induced creative frenzy, with ‘80s synthpop and hi-NRG looming large over much of the album, plus elements of disco, funk, electro, industrial, art-punk and new wave.

Speaking to us on Zoom from her home (just after munching on some spinach salad), Deschênes says she’s stoked to have it out there. “I’m in another dimension,” she adds. “I was not expecting this to happen. I composed this album during the pandemic, just for pleasure and to pass the time.”

Ironically, the album was initially never meant to happen at all. After writing songs during quarantine, she admits she went “a little bit crazy” and that it was “essential” to flex her creative muscles during a time of existential malaise for pretty much everyone. (The newest PyPy album, for example, was made through her and her bandmates sending each other files online.)

“I was bored as hell,” she adds. “It was vital. We were not rehearsing or anything with PyPy. Sometimes, I was playing with Phil (Clem), the bassist, but it was really rare. That’s why I decided to just compose by myself. I started to sample stuff and create the base of the songs with that.”

Deciding to release those songs came when the president of her booking agency Heavy Trip, Michaël Bardier, asked her to do a performance art event at the PHI Centre, giving her “two or three months” to come up with something beforehand.

“I think it was my boyfriend who said to me, ‘You should play the songs you just made,’” Deschênes adds. “I was like, ‘Oh yeah? Are you sure? Because I don’t know if they’re good or not.’”

With this batch of spontaneous new material, Deschênes created a show that was half music and half performance art, while the audience could interact with her over a dinner she cooked herself.

“I wanted to create cohesion between the lyrics, the performance, the samples of cutlery,” she says. “I wanted projections. It was only 20 minutes. Afterwards, I posted on Instagram and Megan (Louise) from Italians Do It Better asked me what I was doing.

“She said, ‘Do you have one song we can put on our music compilation?’ I sent ‘Electric Light’, but they found it was a little bit too lo-fi. So (label co-founder) Johnny (Jewel) just said, ‘Maybe I can try to mix it.’”

Sampling cutlery gives off an industrial feel Deschênes enjoys, and she’s especially partial to spoons. Songs like “Meditations” and “Electric Light” feature these types of samples prominently. In keeping with the album’s theme, “Phones” features a French vocal sample of a restaurant reservation being confirmed, and the album’s second track is even called “Culinary Security.”

“I was taking glass and spinning (a spoon) around it,” she says. “In ‘Electric Light’, you can hear it turning. I also took an aluminum plate to do crashes and stuff like that.”

Annie-Claude Deschênes

Influences of old-school electronic pioneers like Kraftwerk, Steve Reich and Herbie Hancock also permeate the album. The textures and sounds these artists helped inspire on Les manières de table feel dark and dystopian at times, something brought on by her own introspection thanks to a combo of pandemic loneliness and cold weather.

“Those sounds, those bands were reflecting the way I was feeling inside,” she says. “I wasn’t consciously thinking about them, it’s more that it was the kind of music I was listening to. It was just natural. I wasn’t trying to do something special — I was just trying to express my emotions or some thoughts I had. I found this period very absurd and dark, and I think that’s reflected in the songs and the album.”

In some ways, the album sounds like a post-apocalyptic aerobics class — a description Deschênes loves (and laughs heartily at) when I tell her that — and it’s a musical foundation she’s fully leaned into.

“It’s strange now to play those songs, because I’m diving into this world every time I play them,” she says. “I can feel pleasure doing those songs. I’m not depressed while I’m playing them.”

It wasn’t just forks, knives and spoons, either — Deschênes quite literally threw everything and the kitchen sink at structuring the album’s instrumentation, including aluminum plates, blenders (which she mostly used live), and pots and pans. Drum machines and sequencers are prevalent as well, with no organic drums to be heard (Duchess Says began as an electronic duo, remember).

There’s also a stark contrast between the concept of table manners — an old-fashioned but important type of etiquette — and the energetic industrial sounds heard on the LP. Surveillance and surveillance cameras are another theme, something that came from how using Instagram made her like she was spying on others.

“In Duchess Says, I was inspired by the church,” she says. “We had (our own) church, the Church of Budgerigars, which was a pretty rigid aesthetic. ‘Table manners’ is the same. I wanted to go full-out with that. 

“When it’s too rigid, I like to just explode the codes. I chose that because it was what I saw in my kitchen. I had a vision of the cutlery drawer, and I was dreaming of that. It was really unconscious, though. I didn’t plan anything.”

Deschênes was also the lucky recipient of a two-week creative residency from the PHI Centre’s NORD program in an undisclosed location up north, where songs that helped shape Les manières de table were born.

“The fact that someone was believing in my work and gave me the final (pats herself on her shoulder) ‘Okay, you can do it,’ made me more confident,” she adds.

“It was super fun. This residency meant a lot to me and this project. I had people helping me with recording and mixing. I had guests, but most of the time I was alone trying to develop the concept. I composed a few songs over there, and then it completed the album.”

Since it’s her first solo album — and one released under her full name — Deschênes hopes it shows listeners a new side to both her performances and how she engages with fans.

“I’ve been doing music a long time now,” she says. “I’ve always had great contact with the public and a lot of proactivity. I love to include them in the shows. We’ve done a lot of stuff — people onstage, me outside the venue. I just want to try something else with them. I think it’s a fun way to do it.”

The aforementioned launch show at the PHI Centre on Friday literally brings the album’s theme to life. She’ll actually be cooking (“I can’t tell if it’s good or not, though!”, she warns) and a culinary designer will be there, along with some special guests, including one who’ll be playing with coffee machines.

As for the rest of 2024, Deschênes will be promoting Les manières de table by playing several shows in Ottawa, Chicoutimi and Quebec City in May. She’ll be jetting off to Europe that same month to play an Italians Do It Better showcase, with a small tour planned around it. Festival dates with PyPy are also on deck, with a new album due in the fall. 

If you ask her, fans of Deschênes’ trademark balls-out live performances aren’t going to see what they’re used to. “I’m not in the same mood,” she says. “I want to make them experience another side of my personality.”

More importantly, she’s already begun working on new solo material. “I’d like to release another single,” she tells us. “I’ve already got three songs.”

Making music under her own name rather than with Duchess Says or PyPy also makes Deschênes feel like she’s “not hiding behind anyone,” while also making her want to interact more with fans.

“I’m not just an entity — I’m myself, and I want to talk with people,” she continues. “It makes for a closer relationship with the crowd and the public.” 

That close relationship is something Deschênes has built over roughly two decades as a fixture in Montreal’s musical landscape, and she’s seen a great deal of change and evolution in both herself and the local scene since she started making music. 

“I’ve experimented a lot with the crowd,” she says, starting with the biggest change she’s seen in herself. “I think I went as far as I could, and now I’ve had to redefine everything and find new ways to do shows. I don’t know if they’re great ideas, but I’m trying stuff. I don’t want to be stuck in a Duchess Says cage.

“If I’m talking about the (Montreal) scene, I can start with 2003. There was something happening at this time, with a lot of bands. It was something special. You could feel it in the air. Everybody was moving to Montreal. Now, it’s really eclectic. There’s a lot of electronic music; it’s taking more space. (But) the post-punk is still there, and that’s cool.” ■

Annie-Claude Deschênes is going to teach you some table manners

Annie-Claude Deschênes plays PHI Centre (407 St-Pierre) on Friday, April 26, doors 7 p.m., show 8 p.m., $23/$28. For more, please visit her website.

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