In early October folk singer Christianne launched her new album, Algoma, at Theatre de L’esquisse. The venue sits on the corner of Marquette and Marie-Anne in the Plateau. Its exterior is sparse and secretive. If it weren’t for the percussive rumblings and muted guitar, I might have missed it.
The interior is minimalist and utilitarian: stage up front, pop up bar in the back, plenty of foldout chairs in between. It doesn’t seem like much, but with the right mix of fans, friends and acoustic guitars, venues like these become testaments to the curative power of performance.
By the time I arrived, it was standing room only and Christianne was well into her third song. She was joined on stage by two backing vocalists, AC Villeneuve and Marjorie Fiset, also on piano. Guitarist François Leger Boyer played backing riffs while bassist Simon Castonguay and drummer William Côté supplied the rhythms.
Christianne’s voice can hit up a drawl and twang as good as Lucinda Williams’ but it’s dominated with drawn out and formal pronunciations. It’s husky, nasal and strong. Backed by multi-layered percussive beats and the plucked strings of a couple guitars, and it becomes a dram of Lagavulin on a cold night.
Algoma is full of heartache songs, songs about belonging and songs with wordplay (“The objects in your rear view mirror/ are so much closer than they appear”). But mostly, it’s just music about home.
Christianne grew up in Blind River, one of the tiny northern Ontario towns that dot the Trans-Canada Highway over Lake Huron. These dots, affixed between trees and stone and stuck in the middle of nowhere, have a tendency to emit raw talent that just can’t shake the isolation of its origins.
“I’m so nostalgic of that past, of that time when people would get together and meet around a campfire drinking beers in this communal atmosphere. I found in the big city, it was just so lacking. I couldn’t find it anywhere.” Isolation breeds community. In Christianne’s case (as with her many rural forbears and peers) it breeds art.
It makes for a formidable mix when a musician is able to channel both blue collar earnestness and wide-eyed vision. Like a modern-day Georgina Ann Stirling, Christianne’s artistic conviction pivots off her backwoods roots.
After the show (much later after the show – I’m hanging around her band members and mates at a nearby bar) she tells me Bob Dylan is her biggest influence, “He taught me the meaning of having a message.”
That influence goes a long way towards explaining her lyrical approach. Reggae-inflected protest chants (“Une Chanson pour Che”) and Springsteenesque anthems (“Blind River”) or meditations on lineage (“Asabiyah”) are all treated with the same simple, tight rhyming schemes typical of Dylan’s folksongs.
Christianne’s clarion-call is for reverence of the north, reverence for the hardships and community it renders. “The title, Algoma, means “sacred lake” in Algonquin… these landscapes [where I’m from] have become a part of our Canadian artistic mythology. The name was there because I wanted to represent the north.”
But the north isn’t just nature. For her, it’s something much bigger.
“My grandmother on my mum’s side is very blatantly Ojibwe, but she’ll never say so. She’ll be on her last rights but she wouldn’t say so. I feel it’s important to celebrate that and bring it forth. It’s what the north is, it’s the wilderness. It’s the spirit of the world.”
Within an hour or so of our arrival at the bar, Christianne cajoles everyone into playing a drinking game that basically involves repeating yelled slogans and numbers until someone in the circle fucks up. Like most 2 a.m. drinking games it wasn’t terribly pretty. But I’d be lying if I said it didn’t feel like a campfire.
You can listen to and purchase her album here or on iTunes.
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