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Meet Hubert Lenoir: The Quebecois Unrestrained Rock Star Breaking Free

Hubert Lenoir is Quebec City’s fearless pop star on the rise, who at the young age of 23, challenges the status quo and shoves societal boundaries aside through his music, personal style and approach to the creative process. His message to “think free” has led to the creation of Darlène, Lenoir’s debut solo LP and collaborative project with longtime partner, Noemie D. Leclerc. The funky, yet romantic “post-modern opera” that features a mix of 70s rock, jazz and Motown sounds, has undoubtedly proven that for Lenoir, the human imagination is without limits, and the artist must live his art.

Darlène earned Lenoir the Felix Leclerc Prize, an annual award given to Quebecois artists working in music and humor and was short-listed for the prestigious national Polaris Music Prize for best Canadian album, a prize not focused on popularity, but rather, artistic merit. Although creatively gifted, after his performance of his single “Fille de personne II” on La Voix, the Quebec version of The Voice, Lenoir was characterized by some as a controversial figure in French Canada. Lenoir put on a show of unfiltered and provocative inspiration that some viewers did not appreciate, and yet, his exuberance and unfettered willingness to explore uncharted territory elevated his performance to a new level of creative liberation. He flashed his fleur-de-lis in triumph, and laid to bear his artistic essence to the world as if to say, “Here I am. This is me.”

Lenoir lives his truth and is not a persona. While others may initially view his eccentric appearance as evidence that he is entrenched in the glam-rock images of the 70s, nothing could be further from reality. Lenoir appreciates the musical legacy from which his blend of music is inspired, but is very much a modern voice of our generation.

When did you first discover your love for music?  

I was always attracted to music, but I never had any access to music until I was maybe 15 because my parents were not that musical.  I was only listening to the regular pop bullshit that everybody listens to. At 15 or 16, I was introduced to different genres of music. I still believe that my love for pop culture and television will always influence what I’m doing because it’s a big part of my DNA. Even if I get experimental or Avant Garde, I still have roots of pop culture flowing through my veins.

How has your artistry evolved since your days playing with ‘The Seasons’?

Well in a lot of ways. I think that when you start a band at 17, you only want to be in a band and you don’t care to pick the right projects. So, I’ve learned a lot from that. We only released one album, and I’m glad to have achieved this, but now, with this first solo project, or album [Darlène], it’s like my first work of art as an artist.

It’s really what I want to do. I realized that for a while, playing music in my most teenage years, I wasn’t bold enough– I didn’t have the balls to be radical with my ideas, but now I’m getting more and more radical with what I want to do. Sometimes you just have to believe in yourself and that’s a part of working solo too, you only have to believe in yourself.

What was the moment where you got the strength to do that, where you realized you weren’t exactly doing what you wanted and you kind of were like I want to do me completely?

When you become more aware of the importance of making art and making great music, at some point in time, you feel what is your goal as a human being and you understand that you’re in this and honored to do art. So, I came to realize that nothing else matters. I wouldn’t let anybody distract me from this precise goal. It’s not about being famous, it’s not about performing shows or parties or whatever. I still can do these things, and I enjoy them, but for me, the important things are the art and the music.

You’ve described your hometown of Quebec City as somewhat conservative. How has your upbringing shaped you into the artist you are today?

It brings me back to what I was saying first. Obviously, my parents don’t necessarily understand what I’m doing, but it still has influenced me in the way that I know I don’t come from a hip neighborhood where all my family were artists. I’ve met other artists who their uncle is a musician, or their aunt is a painter, and they have all this artistic baggage that I didn’t get to have at a young age. I felt throughout my whole life like a black sheep. Is that how you say it?

Yeah, exactly [laughs]

Yeah, I felt like that. [laughs] But I had other things like MTV, television, magazines.

What inspired the story of Darlène?

The story came from me and Noémie. The book is hers and the album is mine– it’s really a collaborative project. I got to have a look on what’s happening in the book and we talked about it a lot, but still she wrote the story.

The story took place in our hometown neighborhood, which is close to the waterfall called the Montmorency Falls. It’s about a girl living in the neighborhood in her early twenties and she’s kind of lost like an existential crisis– what to do with your life and how to emancipate yourself from where you’re from and from your family. She meets this American boy in Quebec City who wants to jump off the Montmorency Falls to kill himself, and the story is about the weeks leading up to how they become soulmates.

How do you personally feel connected to the story?

I feel connected because it’s pretty close to my relationship with Noémie. I’ve known her for 6 years now and I guess there’s a lot of references to what we’ve been through. I told her a lot about my past and my childhood. It’s pretty autobiographical in a way that it’s kind of embarrassing sometimes.

Do you draw any parallels from the concept album Quadrophenia by The Who? They explore themes of disaffection, isolation and hopelessness. It looks like nothing has changed and the themes in Darlène mirror those themes. Why do you think the youth face those same challenges today as they did 45 years ago?

I think we believe that humankind is evolving, and we’re making progress in terms of technology and social progress, of course, but isolation and boredom is always going to be part of everybody’s life. It’s a funny thing– when we started making this we thought about the fact I was very jaded with the music industry, art and entertainment. I was tired of people just releasing singles or EPs or only doing art to progress their career and not doing art for the sake of it. When we started Darlène, we wanted to do something that was going to be relevant– artistically relevant for decades. I wanted to do something epic and romantic that was going to transcend style. I hope that in decades, young people are going to rediscover this, like it and enjoy it. But in a social way, I hope that young people are not going to have to go through that feeling of having problems with their families or not feeling accepted for who they are.

How would you describe your personal style and how it plays into your art?

I try to dress like music. When I dress I like people to hear sounds. I like when it’s a mix of things, and I like when its unconventional and beautiful. To me styling is really personal. There are tons of ways of wearing a suit and tie and how you make it your own. I also believe people should be more free. I think people should dress the way they feel. If I see something a lot in fashion shows, maybe it will influence the way that I dress, but people should wear more what they feel and just be like kids. I think people would be happier and would feel more unique and the world would be a more beautiful place.

Your music is mostly in French but is gaining a following with many non-Francophones. Why do you think everyone is able to relate to your music despite the language barrier?

I’m proud of speaking French and it’s a part of my identity. When artists from Quebec try to make it out in the States or English-speaking places, they want to be English or American– they just want to pretend. For me, I just like being myself. It’s all about the music, it’s all about the language. Just like Italian filmmakers can do two movies in Italian, then a movie in English with American actors and it still has an Italian feel, that’s what I’m trying to do with music. They care for making beautiful movies and storytelling, and I care for music. And that’s what’s relatable. Music is the most universal language ever so why not?

Musically It’s clear that Darlène draws a lot of influence from the 70s rock opera era. What would you say are the most important differences that distinguish Darlène from that musical time period?

The difference is big because I’m not from that era. Sounds like saxophone and analog synthesizer, are still relevant for our generation. I just see it as like a painter influenced by any type of movement of painting– I’m influenced by these sounds and textures. This is the way I approach things, but I really feel there’s something really modern about it. I don’t care about making nostalgia music and I’m going to keep on going further in that direction– I want to do modern, contemporary stuff. You know some people call me the modern David Bowie, which is flattering, but in the same way David was doing his thing in his era and Prince was doing his thing in the 80s– I’m doing my thing in my era. I like a lot of modern music, like A$AP Rocky, Kendrick Lamar, Rihanna, Kanye– I want to be compared to these modern musicians.

In your monologue “Request to Kanye West” you say, “Changing the world is easy, it’s just no one has the guts to do it.” I think that’s interesting. It’s kind of an oxymoron because if it was so easy, then it wouldn’t take guts. What do you think makes it easy?

This monologue that I did, I kind of freestyled it. What I feel is that we live in a world where everybody has this fear to do stuff and that’s normal. Let’s say something happens that’s not good, everybody fears saying the thing that needs to be said. I believe that we have a lot of power as artists. When we have a public audience and can make a strong impact we have to say stuff properly. It makes me mad when I talk to other artists and they say intelligent things that are radical ideas, but they’re ideas that need to be said in public, and then they go out in interviews on tv or whatever media, and they’re just kind of hoarding themselves. If I ever meet Kanye, I am going to address these things. Like politics is an important thing– don’t fuck with that and say things just to make people mad. I can relate to that sometimes I want to do that too, but you just have to be careful with that.

Did you ever feel constrained to meet society, family or friends’ expectations regarding social conventions?

Yeah, everybody does. Especially when you’re young, at high school age. I lived 40 minutes back in the countryside of Quebec City, so it was much more conservative than the other schools. I would not say things that I wanted to say, out of fear of being viewed as gay. I hid the fact that I liked music because I was too scared of being picked on. I was scared of being myself, I was scared of shining out my light.

Do you think you would still be the artist you are today had you been forced to conform to societal norms?

I really don’t think so. I don’t know what I would be, I would probably be trapped. I wouldn’t be here.

50 years into the future what do you see in terms of our culture? Do you see a world embracing and accepting a culture with less emphasis on labels?

Yeah, I think it will be the death of us if we keep trying to label everything. I understand that it’s hard and people like to place things into boxes, but what’s the importance of all of this? I think if you really think about it, these rules were set long ago and are not really relevant today. I also think tradition is very important to our society, but we do need to think about how these traditions limit us in our goal to be happy. I’m not going to stop until I feel like a change is about to come, but I feel like a change is about to come.

What is next for you?

I am working on music for a movie. It’s a great female director. I’m also working on a performance art project that I’ve had in mind for maybe like a year from now.

And I’m working on a next move– a next, big, artistic move.

Images courtesy of Hubert Lenoir

Stay tuned to Milk for more artists we love.

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