Energising traditional folk with Le Vent du Nord

Formed in 2002, Québec folk four-piece Le Vent du Nord have built a global reputation for their high-energy live shows, innovative modern takes on an extensive roots repertoire, and original composition built on frameworks handed down through multiple generations of French, Irish and North American tradition. Mark Powell chats to the band.

You’ve been touring Tromper le Temps quite extensively of late. Do any particular highlights stand out from this year’s circuit?

Simon Beaudry (vocals, guitar, bouzouki): Yeah, it’s been a very busy year so far, with lots of concerts in North America and Europe. Our appearances at the Guinness Irish Festival in Switzerland, Belgium’s Dranouter Festival, and the Tønder Festival in Denmark were all fantastic, to name just a few highlights. And of course there were our three symphonic concerts in Victoria, British Columbia – we were invited by the Victoria Symphony, and we always find performing with an orchestra such a highly refreshing and rewarding experience. Right now we’re looking forward to a short rest at home, although we’re already hard at work on our next album [due late next year], and we’re thrilled with it so far.

Le Vent Du Nord
Le Vent Du Nord

Can you tell us a bit about the background of your music? What are the traditional roots of Québécois folk?

SB: Québec’s traditional music is a blend of French folk songs brought here by the first French pilgrims in the 16th and 17th centuries, and Irish tunes – jigs and reels – that landed in North America in the 1840s, when the Great Famine forced large numbers of Irish people to emigrate to Canada. Back then, this blend was broadly referred to as ‘French Canadian’ music, but here at Le Vent du Nord, we prefer to be a bit more precise about it: a band from the Maritime Provinces or Eastern Canada plays Acadian folk music, while Le Vent du Nord is specifically a Québec folk band. After the failed Québec referendum of 1995 in particular, we felt like playing and promoting our traditional music and culture, and presenting it to a global audience.

Does that imply a different repertoire?

SB: Yes, we have a slightly different repertoire – not least because over half our songs and tunes are original compositions. We don’t really see ourselves as Canadians. That doesn’t mean we’re turning our back on the repertoire that we share with the rest of Canada, but we do emphasise the fact that we’re playing Québécois music. That’s why, whenever we use a song or a tune from the Acadian repertoire or from another region of Canada, we always specify where it comes from. When we say we’re playing traditional folk music from Québec, we’re not trying to take ownership of the whole French Canadian repertoire.

Le Vent Du Nord © Jimmy Vigneux
Le Vent Du Nord © Jimmy Vigneux

How do you select pieces to add to your repertoire? Do you like to put a new spin on older works, or are those traditional styles quite fixed and prescriptive?

Nicolas Boulerice (vocals, accordion, hurdy gurdy, piano): We’re a democratic band, so everyone’s welcome to bring new pieces to the repertoire, whether it’s existing music from more traditional sources (family, archival research, even received as a gift) or a new composition based on one of the traditional styles. We love to have a broad spectrum of influences: Québécois music is a fusion of French, Breton, Scottish, Irish, Indian and British influences, and we try to create a sound balance of them all.

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We also think it’s very important to bring our own compositions of music and lyrics in, to add to the constant evolution and flux of the tradition. Nothing is ever totally fixed; if you’re writing a sonnet, you have the basic rules, but within those rules the writer works to create new colours and rhythms. The results can often be quite unexpected.

How did you all find your way to playing traditional Québécois folk?

SB: Each member of the band has a different background, but Nicolas, Olivier and myself all studied jazz and pop music in college. Nicolas and Olivier actually attended the same college without being aware of each other at first. They connected during a fire drill, when Nicolas saw Olivier with his violin in hand, and asked him if he played folk music – almost 20 years later and they’re still friends. They created the first lineup of Le Vent du Nord shortly afterwards.

Olivier is the only current member who wasn’t exposed to traditional folk music as a child; for Nicolas, Réjean [Brunet; vocals, accordion, bass] and myself, it was in our genes. Our grandparents, parents, uncles, and aunts all sang and played accordion, violin, piano or guitar at family gatherings, so this music has always been a part of us.

How has the band – or, more specifically, the musical landscape around the band – grown and changed in recent years?

NB: Well, in terms of the band itself, we’ve had the same line up for the last seven or eight years – same management, agents, musicians – so we know each other very well. We put our full energy into the project, while Geneviève at the office keeps everything running smoothly through a mixture of gut feeling and detailed planning. It’s a relationship based on everyone respecting and being honest with each other…we’re like a super couple, but with more than two people! As we’ve grown, the music has grown with us – doing 100 concerts per year creates a natural fusion of energies.

Le Vent Du Nord © Guillaume Morin
Le Vent Du Nord © Guillaume Morin

Are labels like ‘world’ or ‘folk’ music still useful, or are they less relevant in an era of instant online streaming and truly global audiences?

Olivier Demers (vocals, fiddle, guitar): Well, I think we navigate many universes with Le Vent du Nord. We can play at a world festival, a folk festival, a Celtic festival – not to mention the many hundreds of nondenominational ones – and be welcomed, it scarcely matters in that sense. But I think a big difference between, say, 10 years ago and today is the way ‘folk’ festivals have changed their mission brief. Many have turned their back a little on real folk roots acts, and opened up to more pop and mainstream music in pursuit of younger and bigger crowds.

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At a time when a lot of festivals are on a knife-edge financially, it’s common to see mid- to large-scale events making those kind of decisions. That creates an environment where the true folk festivals become more isolated and retreat to smaller locations. So, in a sense, the folk label is still important … but not necessarily for the same reasons as it was maybe a decade ago.

The band’s visuals and branding are distinctive – do you have a lot of input into that? How important is it for artists to manage their brand?

OD: I think we’re all very aware of the importance of a professional, strong, consistent set of visuals being attached to an album and tour. While we spend time and effort on creating suitable branding, our intense schedule means we have to put ultimate responsibility for that in the hands of someone we have great confidence in. But we always work with the visual artists, discussing promo images, album art, website, taster tracks. I think it’s partly about controlling your brand identity, and partly just about taking pride in the full process of putting an album or tour together – from sourcing the songs and arranging them, to recording and mixing them in the best conditions, then packaging the results in a way that complements and ties together the whole idea. At the end of the day, the most important factor is to make sure that everyone involved in those creative processes is happy with the results.