Montreal Character Series: Catherine Debard

On Community, Zen, and Fucking Matter

  • Photo Zach Goldberg

I met musician Catherine Debard in the winter of 2014 at Casa del Popolo. We were tabling beside each other at a Howl! event—myself, for a documentary production company, and she for her music label, Jeunesse Cosmique. I was immediately struck by her attitude—Debard is stoked, permanently. In speaking about any aspect of her art­—playing in several bands (ranging in genre from crazy noise to thumping dance to ambient drone), to releasing her friends’ music and booking shows—she’s all smiles and laughter, her English is broken, but her spirits are high. She couldn’t spread enough positivity about all her friends and colleagues, and I liked that.

A year later, I contacted Debard about an interview. We met at a (shitty) café on Mont-Royal, but it was crowded and the scowling barista refused me water. Instead, we had our chat in a park around the corner. The air was crisp with fall, the seating damp with rain, and Debard the same laughing, amiable force I had met a year before. We talked of her childhood growing up in Beloeil, leaving DIY shows early to catch the last bus back to the suburbs, her zen parents, and most of all, the community in music.

Catherine’s project YlangYlang releases a new album this winter. You can catch her around the city, booking and playing with any number of friends in tow.

AGE 30

Where are you from?
South of Montreal, a place called Beloeil. I lived in Mont-St-Hilaire also, which is basically just the other side of the river. I had a really nice childhood. Lots of trees and wandering. Suburbs, you know. My parents, what were they like? Really chill. My father is a really zen person. My mother and I had a really close relationship. They divorced when I was like eleven. My mother… really enjoyed children’s books in particular, went and studied children’s literature for a little. Now she works in a library, in a school. My father, he…had this sort of abstract job. He was in charge of a school, repairs and stuff.

When did you first get into creative work? Did you start with music, or was it something else?
I was mostly doing writing when I was younger. I saw my friends playing music and I had a lot of envy toward them, I felt blocked by insecurity. I was scared to start. I’d always wanted to do music, but it was a while before I started. I was around twenty when I finally started [in earnest]. I had taken guitar lessons and piano lessons, but I lacked self confidence, I had just been listening to music and dreaming about it for years.

What was it that gave you the confidence to do it?
When I was twenty, I quit school for a bit and went to Asia with a friend. My perspective changed. I decided to stop being scared of being bad at first. I needed to start doing something in my life that I wanted to do. I had been really thrifty in Asia so I came back with lots of money. I bought myself a shitty laptop and started recording layers of guitar, learning the softwares by myself. I spent years after that just wandering around softwares, recording, putting stuff on Myspace, talking to other musicians.

I was living at my mother’s place in Beloeil. My friends were doing music, but they played in Montreal mostly, since there was no scene in Beloeil. That was about the time when I was coming to Montreal to see shows; a lot of the time I would miss the last act to grab the last bus and get home. I’d come to Sala Rossa and then have to run to the metro to catch the 12:45 bus. It was a cool time, actually. The first experimental shows I ever went to were at Casa del Popolo and Sala. I knew I wasn’t going to stay in Beloeil. It took such energy to get to Montreal, it was a big adventure to leave and get to a show and come back late. It was stimulating.

So, you said you started in writing. What was that like?
Sort of deep, abstract poetry. But I’ve always felt blocked by language. It’s not my favourite thing to do, writing lyrics. Often I work on music for a long time, and then suddenly the song is almost what I want, so I listen to it while I walk and try to find lyrics. I have to force myself to write lyrics, because I’d never do it otherwise, I’d just have instrumental songs, but I do it, I think it’s really important for me to sing. Why? Because I think the human voice is really natural and sincere and powerful—special. To me, to have a vocal presence in the songs, it’s… empowering, more a part of myself.

To sing live is also one of my favourite things to do. It’s complicated. I don’t want to say empty words, and I don’t want to reveal my life, or just talk about being sad or something. I want my lyrics to transcend—another level. I’m trying to understand life, actually. I prefer to write lyrics that dissect life or big questions. Just understanding life rather than writing about being sad, or love, you know, general themes. It’s more like…I use the lyric writing process to put words to the abstract things in my head.

Are there any lyricists out there that you really draw from?
It’s funny, for me, the lyrics aren’t that important. Maybe it comes from that I mostly speak French, and listen to English music, which sometimes just sounds like an abstract construction of sounds. I don’t know—I really respect people who write lyrics, like my friend Vincent (Ferrari) from Così e Così, we worked together for this new album. He wrote these really empowering lyrics, and I’m stoked about that, glad to have those in my music.

You’ve synthesized a lot of sounds in your music. Could you talk a little about your progression? Are you trying to make a specific sound, or is it just a natural progression based on what you’re listening to?
I tend to always try to progress to a kind of ultimate sound, that I can’t really imagine or know. The more I learn about software, the more changes in the way I make music. Originally, I was just recording track over track and layering, so it was more linear. But then, learning other softwares like Ableton, and learning that you can generate musical matter, but then you can actually fuck that matter—pitch it down, shift it, add effects, cut it, create rhythms in drone layers—it really creates a new way to [think about] making music.

I want the sound to be more sophisticated. The more I work on stuff, the more fields of possibilities emerge. So you apply that on an album, and listen to it, and you’re like, ‘wow, I really did it big there, but I don’t want to do that again.’ And you take what you learned and you use it elsewhere. So I always have to take a pause between records because I’m always so drained [after putting out a record]. I listen back and I’m like ‘how will I ever do something else?’ When it first started happening, I’d panic a lot, wondering how I’d ever do music again. But now, I know it’s part of my process—that I need to chill, listen to music, think.

Generally, when I start working on something, I just jam with myself, record stuff that isn’t necessarily amazing, just to generate matter. [I don’t spend much time between records], I work all the time on music… I had a week that I didn’t do music, and that’s a lot for me. I tend to try and empty my head, especially because right now…the energy is sort of crazy. I end up rethinking everything: the structure of everything, where I want to go and what I want to do with my life. Just trying to be present. Reading, watching movies…not forcing the inspiration, just letting it come back; whenever I want to do music, I’ll do it, but [I’m] not doing music in order to not think about life.

You’ve always struck me as a person who is part of a lot of communities, has garnered a lot of community in their life. Can you talk a little about your first community-driven projects?
Well, the first one was Sally Paradise, maybe six years ago. That started as a solo project, but then I included Chi [Chittakone Baccam, local musician], with whom I started Jeunesse Cosmique. It’s the first big community I was a part of. We created it together, gathered friends and artists that had a vision to create and explore and respect and support each other. We did that for five years, and then recently I needed to quit, but they’re still going and putting out a positive vibe, and I’m really proud of everyone. After, I kind of joined a lot of different communities, but not as the center.

I just like helping and meeting people. Like Noisundaéè, that’s Alex (Pelchat). He created it himself, but contacted Joni (Sadler) and Grace (Brooks) and myself to book stuff. Then there’s Island Frequencies, my friend Paula (Peña Navarro), who’s working at Casa, wanted to start a night for experimental musicians, pay what you can, with good vibes, so I helped her with that. There’s No Exist also, with my friends Vincent and Max (Posthoorn), Così e Così and Nothinge. That started more as an exchange of powerful ideas that made us excited and want to help each other to evolve and do more—it’s kind of a really abstract collaboration.

In a No Exist on No Exist interview, you said this: “I can see different motivations to make art, they all exist at once. Expression, self-recognition, recognition, surviving and transcending day to day boredom, generate abstract matter to disturb the consensual vibe, research, have fun, confront… When it comes to sharing my work with others, though, it often makes me reflect about my motivations to release something. Could I honestly be satisfied with the act of creating without releasing it? I don’t think I can and that’s a question of flow vs. stagnancy. Creation needs to travel, morph, stimulate, generate, and be in friction with other creations. Share the sound, let it out of you; it creates a void, a space for new exciting sound. Balance, movement, energy. Otherwise, you just sit on a pool of amazing but inert material. It won’t change anything, therefore it will stay a self-centered act that the world will never know, nor care about. Creation is power.”

Do you feel music needs to be heard to be important?
Yeah, there’s something really intrinsically good [about making music], but I was talking about my own motivations, and we were talking about distribution. I love doing music, I do it all the time, but there’s this need to make the music matter, to put it out there to do whatever magic it can create. I don’t even care if people listen to it—it’s just important that the music doesn’t stay in my computer.

Is that because you want to prove you lived?
No, not even. I mean…hold on, just give me a second.

[Debard looks up to the sky, puts her hands on her face, and is silent for a moment, thinking]

…I know how music makes me feel. I know it changed my life in different moments when I was a teenager or even now. Music has this power of opening things inside you, generating feelings, not necessarily emotions, but sensitivities. I’m doing music for myself to feel better, but also to put something in the world. I don’t do it just for myself. Everyone’s living their lives, we all have lots of lives and we’re here to work on different aspects of life, and it’s important that while we’re here we try to help and generate good energies and change the world, even a little bit, in order to just feel useful or satisfied.

I’m not doing music just for the intrinsic pleasure. There’s this abstract, distant goal of wanting to leave something here on Earth, even if it doesn’t change much. Even outside of music, I just try to think the most I can, to be the most lucid I can be, to act in a good way to try to change the world.

Interviews aren’t my best thing in the world. When I talk to people, I make way more sense than when I do interviews.

You speak English way better than I speak French, don’t even worry about it.
[Debard laughs] Okay.

I’m curious what your advice would be to anyone interested in creating a supportive community for artists.
Depends on the kind of community you want to create. To have a good music community, it’s important to try to reconsider the relationship between the musicians and the audience, to create a safe and inspiring environment. Because, you know, often there’s a separation when you go to shows… [there’s] a space between the stage and the crowd. The shows that are for artists to go and be free to do whatever and improvise, they realize that [shows] are just a moment shared with others.

It’s important to create a chill vibe, so people feel like they can talk to each other. Some people go to shows, and they want to talk to the artist and be inspired, but they’re shy or they just feel like they can’t, so it’s a big step for them to open up with an artist. So, with Jeunesse Cosmique or Noisundaéè, when people come up to talk to me, it’s important that there’s this connection, because that person can go home and be inspired to make music. Same thing for any new artist, when you go to see them, and tell them how you feel—that it was inventive, or interesting, or whatever. It can give confidence.

Even if you didn’t like it, you can talk about that, there’s nothing wrong with that. Music is just a big experimental pool, people need to talk and challenge each other and bring new ideas, and I think communities should be there to offer support and help. Like, two days ago a friend showed me how MIDI works, and my mind was blown, it was like my brain exploded. It’s important to have friends and other artists around to be there to help you.

Do you feel like this city has contributed to your happiness, or your success as an artist, assuming success is just being able to make art?

Montreal isn’t always easy, and it wasn’t when I came here. There were lots of different cliques that didn’t really interact with each other, and I often felt like shit. What we did with Jeunesse Cosmique, we just continued building our community. It was a magnetism effect. You bring people that have the same kind of needs and interests around you. In the last years, more and more of the small communities have gathered to help each other, so in that way in the last years Montreal’s really helped me. Like, Noise Sunday has helped me meet people, and doing shows has helped me meet other musicians…It’s been really important to me.

What are you listening to right now? Is there music out there you think people should hear?
These days…oh, it’s so difficult. I have moments where I listen to tons of music, and moments when I listen to none. But right now…I need to think about it…

[Another of those classic Debard pauses, expect now the silence is filled with her scrolling through her iPod as I circle her, snapping photos. A couple moments of silence pass, only interrupted by the shuddering click of an iPod, and the clack-clack of a shutter opening and closing]

…Well, definitely my No Exist friends, Nothinge and Così e Così. I listen to a lot of Jerry Paper these days. I played with him at a festival that some friends organized in France. He does this crazy lo-fi synth music, kind of existentialist, fun lyrics. What else…oh yeah! I really like Phinery Records… they’re co-releasing an album of mine in November. But I always order things on Phinery, their artwork is crazy. I just got Venutian Formula by Glochids. It’s in my tape deck, I listen to it all the time. Then there’s Peter’s Window, my friend Matt Robidoux from Hidden Temple Tapes. This summer we hung out in Massachusetts, [and] had lots of crazy adventures… [He] gave me lots of tapes. Peter’s Window is one [he released with Hidden Temple Tapes]—super lo-fi, great melodies, kind of Ariel Pink, but more fun (…) we worked on two songs together, for an album, too.

Correction: The proprietors of Noisundaéè wish to make it clear that Noisundaéè was a collaborative effort, originally conceived by Grace Brooks, who wished to create an all-ages femme-positive afternoon show series. Though Alex Pelchat has been instrumental in the booking process, the original concept came from Grace Brooks.

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