Tongue Twister

A Québécoise singer takes an Anglo turn—without abandoning her roots

Photograph by Alexi Hobbs
Pop Montreal on Cœur de pirate’s new album, all but four songs are in English.

When Béatrice Martin’s high school boyfriend broke up with her, he advised her to stop making music. “He told me, ‘You’ll never be able to do anything with your life. You’re not a good songwriter,’ ” she says. So, the next day, she wrote a song about him. It was spiteful and bad, and, oddly, she wrote it in English instead of her native French. The directness of the language suited the emotional intensity of the moment.

During that post-breakup flurry of creativity, she wrote four more songs, this time in French—all piano ballads that sounded nothing like the hardcore bands she played in at the time. She then did what any other seventeen-year-old in 2007 would’ve done: recorded a suite of “shitty demos” and uploaded them to MySpace. She wanted to call her project something that would make her seem less like a lone singer-songwriter and more like a band. She also wanted to rebuke her ex, who sang in a group called Songs for Sailors. The name she settled on, Cœur de pirate (Pirate Heart), is now famous in Quebec and francophone Europe.

Martin, who’s twenty-five and still based in her home city, Montreal, has sold a million records and played to sold-out concert halls in Brussels, Geneva, and Berlin. The last time I was in Paris, during the lead-up to her sophomore album, Blonde, her face was all over the metro. In Quebec, she’s credited with bringing the French-language chanson tradition, with its focus on narrative and wordplay, to a new generation of listeners. “I’m doing my part to keep the language alive for a little bit longer,” she said in a 2008 Montreal Mirror interview.

But this August, after two records of original French songs, Martin is releasing a third, Roses, still under the Cœur de pirate name, on which all but four tracks are in English. The stock explanation—that she’s abandoning her roots in hopes of climbing the American charts—doesn’t make sense, since a bilingual album isn’t more likely than a French one to win over anglophone listeners. Québécoise songwriter Ariane Moffatt, whose 2012 record, MA, was split between French and English songs, says that if she’d been looking to start over in the US, “I would have done the record fully in English.”

Martin is one of several French-language artists—including Moffatt, the Montreal hip-hop collective Dead Obies, and the Acadian songwriter Lisa LeBlanc—who are incorporating English into their predominantly francophone repertoires. She is flirting with the language in the same way that, say, David Bowie played with Philadelphia soul or Ray Charles with country. While it would be a mistake to read this new bilingualism as a victory for federalism over regional identity, perhaps it’s a win for self-expression over ideology. It’s also another way for an artist to build a viable career in an industry where eclecticism is more valuable than ever before.

Martin lives in Montreal’s Outremont neighbourhood in a sunny, semi-detached house she shares with her husband, Alex, a French-born tattoo artist, and their two-year-old daughter, Romy. There’s a high chair installed at the dining table, a cluster of toys and picture books in the corner, and futurist art on the wall. In the living room, beside the street-facing bay window, sits the most important thing Martin owns: an elegant nineteenth-century grand piano produced by the Baltimore firm Wm. Knabe & Co. When she was a child with aspirations of becoming a concert pianist, she trained on the Knabe for hours a day—and she wrote almost all her pop songs on it after setting those ambitions aside at fifteen.

In concert, Martin is compelling and coy. She sings softly and is never showy. Her piano work, with its subtle swells and airy arpeggios, owes a debt to Frédéric Chopin, her favourite composer. I’ve seen her win over tough audiences, including a drunken crowd at Soho House Toronto, which first responded to the French-language singer in their midst with bemusement and indifference. But her music makes an argument for itself, and she’s beautiful—upturned nose, heavy eyebrows, full-sleeve tattoos—in a way that summons attention without demanding it.

Her debut record comprises twelve perfect examples of what the singer and former first lady of France Carla Bruni calls “little French songs”: soft, sexy, intimate ballads. Her follow-up, Blonde, channels the post-cabaret sound of the Parisian Yé-Yé scene—sophisticated (if slightly campy) artists such as Françoise Hardy and Jane Birkin who drove listeners wild in the ’60s. “I was always fascinated by how they could sing such sad songs with such cheerful music,” says Martin. Like the work of that generation, Blonde combines vulnerable lyrics with a kind of pop detachment as it maps the rutted emotional terrain of a breakup. It’s the musical equivalent of someone hiding grief behind sunglasses and a smile. (The title refers to Martin’s hair colour, but it’s also Québécois slang for “girlfriend.”)

You can detect the French influence not only in Martin’s music but also in her commitment to storytelling. As Martha Wainwright—a bilingual but predominantly anglophone recording artist—says, the verbosity of French lends itself to narrative. “French makes singing more challenging, because you have to keep people’s interest over more and more words, but it’s also created a type of music that is word based,” she explains. “Chansonniers are, first and foremost, writers.”

That’s true of Martin. In “Ava,” from Blonde, she tells the story of a sex worker who falls for one of her clients. In the duet “Pour un infidèle,” from her debut, she sings the interior monologue of a woman who suspects her boyfriend of cheating. Québécois singer-songwriter Jimmy Hunt plays the part of the wayward lover: he confesses (to himself, not to her) that he feels guilty about his infidelities. Martin and Hunt then sing the final lines together, resolving to continue loving each other by ignoring what they know to be true. It’s a perfect short story about the betrayals, evasions, and wilful blindness that can sustain love.

If Martin’s tales are personal (or interpersonal), Quebec’s singer-storytellers of the ’60s and ’70s wrote narratives for the nation. In 1978, Félix Leclerc, a musical legend who specialized in rustic cabaret folk, said of his generation, “We write songs the way others make cannons. We are making a country with words.” Other leading songwriters, such as Gilles Vigneault and Paul Piché, felt similarly. When they sang about mon pays, they sure weren’t referring to Canada.

By the ’80s, Leclerc’s sugar-shack patriotism was losing ground to the soft rock favoured by the powerful radio conglomerate Rock Détente. This new breed of apolitical Quebec pop gave rise to a cohort of French-speaking artists who performed in English—the most famous of whom, of course, was Celine Dion. Other artists (Acadian performer Roch Voisine, the pop-punk band Simple Plan) also sold well on the Anglo market, while still others (Julie Masse, Mitsou) crossed over only to fizzle out. All, however, made anglophone pop that sounded like anglophone pop, and all faced Québécois nationalist vitriol for ostensibly selling out.

Martin belongs to a different era and is playing a different game. She’s ambitious, but not in a Vegas-pavilion way. In the days before downloads and audio streaming, when record sales were the most obvious measure of an artist’s success, English was a means of courting the US market, and fealty to Québécois French yielded middling results. In today’s post-album economy, where touring makes up a larger portion of an artist’s income, it makes sense to seek pockets of supporters—that is, live audiences—in as many international regions as possible. (Martin also makes a living in other ways: as a composer for the Ubisoft video game Child of Light and by recording a suite of English-language covers for the Radio-Canada hospital series Trauma.) Albums now function as loss leaders, meant to bring new fans into the fold—and on the touring circuit, two languages are better than one. English gives non-francophone fans a way into Martin’s lyrics, while French gives her access to polyglot Europe and niche appeal among Anglos. “I’ve got that quirky status that people seek out in Wes Anderson movies,” she says.

Perhaps the weirdest thing about switching languages is the way it changes your voice. English, for mysterious reasons, tends to push singers a tone or two lower. Its straightforwardness also makes it ideal for clipped rock ’n’ roll cadences. “It’s easier for grooving or biting into the words,” says Moffatt. “It’s more hooky.” French verbiage, on the other hand, requires dexterity. It’s no coincidence that Jacques Brel, the king of the tongue twister, was a French-language songwriter.

The difference between the languages also has to do with the deeply individual ways in which people relate to them. “With French, there’s no filter, because I’m thinking what I’m writing down,” says Lisa LeBlanc, a New Brunswick–born performer who, following her acclaimed debut of scrappy Acadian folk, came out with an equally scrappy English-language EP. “With English, I have to rewrite a lot more. I find myself looking at it from an external point of view.” In French, she sings from the gut; English gives her a sense of distance.

For Martin, the opposite is true. Her French is more manicured than LeBlanc’s, but in English she feels that she has less control and is compelled to express herself in the simplest ways possible. It’s a fitting choice, since her new record is the most personal within a deeply personal body of work. It includes a song for her husband—the first she’s written about uncomplicated love—and a track about how parenthood changed her sense of self.

I’m drawn to artists with straightforward, honest lyrics, but when listening to Roses, I sometimes find myself missing the stories and wordplay. Martin’s English is cautious, as if she’s afraid of misrepresenting herself or botching the syntax. Still, the unwieldy turns of phrase that crop up make the record only more beguiling. On the first single, “Carry On,” she confesses to romantic fatigue (“I’ve been loved enough today”), and on the standout track “Ocean’s Brawl,” she sings enigmatically about picking “my love up with my bones.”

Roses is proof that Martin is playing the long game—trying out ideas to see what sticks, experimenting with new material that she’ll perfect over time. Stylistically, it feels like a French pop album, but there are many anglophone influences: “Undone” channels the synth-heavy sound of New Order, and in the bewitching “Can’t Get Your Love,” Martin sings the title again and again, as if it were a Donna Summer disco anthem.

It’s unfair to write off Martin’s bilingualism and versatility merely as marketing strategies. She works in English because she can. “If I knew how to speak Italian,” she says, “I would sing in Italian, too.” At a time when sovereignty and cultural nationalism are not nearly as compelling among young people as they once were, Gen Y artists in Quebec can feel comfortable embracing the role that English plays in their lives. If they’re non-monogamous in their love for French, that’s less a betrayal of identity than an acknowledgement of its complexities. “We feel very protective about our language,” says Martin. “Not a lot of people speak French in Canada. So I can understand that some people in Quebec might still get angry with me when they hear the record.” She pauses. “But if it’s good, I’m sure they’ll be proud anyway.”

Cœur de pirate listener guide

In “Comme des enfants,” the first Cœur de pirate single, Martin is at the centre of a love triangle. The chorus translates to, “He still loves me, and I love you a little bit more.” The song was part of the self-recorded MySpace suite that gave Martin, at age seventeen, her first brush with fame. Éli Bissonnette, founder of the Montreal indie label Dare to Care Records and later Martin’s manager, came across the demos online and was enticed by their gemlike lucidity. The studio version of “Comme des enfants” feels like a template for Martin’s debut record: chanson instrumentation—piano with subtle instrumental backing—and lyrics about love, longing, and romantic ambivalence.

Blonde by Cœur de pirate
Cœur de pirate’s sophomore album, Blonde.

Between 2010 and 2014, the Radio-Canada hospital series Trauma released four soundtracks, each with a major Quebec artist singing covers in her second language. Francophone performers Arianne Moffatt, Pascale Picard, and Martin crossed over into English, while Martha Wainwright worked in French. Martin’s 2014 contribution to the series includes beguiling takes on otherwise middling dad-rock standards by Kenny Rogers, the Rolling Stones, and the National. Her most successful English-language cover, though, is an earlier Internet-released take on “Wicked Games,” the shame-ridden ballad about substance abuse and loveless sex, by Toronto R&B performer the Weeknd. “That one went viral and was featured everywhere,” Martin recalls. “It’s a gorgeous song, but there’s lots of swearing in it. And to have me swearing while softly playing the piano was surprising to many people—and funny too.” You can hear her laughing at the end of the song.

“Adieu,” the lead single off of Martin’s sophomore record, Blonde, feels like contemporary Quebec’s answer to the swinging ’60s. It would have been perfect for the Ed Sullivan Show, thanks to its brevity and peppiness. It also uses Bo Diddley’s stomping percussion technique and the sultry tremolo guitar popularized by Nancy Sinatra and Tommy James. The music video is a revenge fantasy, inspired by the ABC sitcom Bewitched, in which Martin stalks her ex-boyfriend and telekinetically obliterates each of his new girlfriends. They explode, like burst piñatas, into coloured ribbons or frothy egg white.

Ava,” off of Blonde, uses a variation of the ’50s progression, a four-chord piano motif from postwar doo-wop music. The cheery melody belies the seriousness of the storytelling. During tour stops in Paris, Martin roamed the Quartier Pigalle, the red-light district known for its porn shops and legendary cabarets. The protagonist in “Ava” is based on a real person, a Pigalle sex worker who became infatuated with a client. “He didn’t really care, because he was just hiring her, but she was in love,” says Martin. “It was an abusive dynamic too, and I can relate, because I was in an emotionally abusive relationship at the time.”

The debut single from Martin’s new record, Roses, titled “Oublie-moi / Carry On,” is about reconciliation, and not only because it’s available in each official language. “In my songs, I’m usually the one longing for somebody else,” says Martin, “but in this one, I’m done with the hurt and the heartbreak.” While her previous two records expressed nostalgia for lost love, Roses focuses on the life she’s building today. The “Carry On” video—set in an abandoned house in the St-Raphael’s Ruins in Cornwall, Ontario—is her first to feature choreography. In preparation for the shoot, she mentored with Nico Archambault, the original winner of So You Think You Can Dance Canada.

This appeared in the September 2015 issue.

Simon Lewsen
Simon Lewsen has contributed to the Globe and Mail, enRoute, The Atlantic, Foreign Policy, and MIT Technology Review. He teaches writing at the University of Toronto.