I speak French everyday in my hometown, Montreal—imperfectly and with a heavy accent. But it still feels natural for me to write and sing in French. I love French songs. I’m not a connoisseur, but I listen to the old time French singers, especially Edith Piaf, but also Brassens, Brel, Aznavour, Montand and Trenet. Serge Gainsbourg has probably made the biggest impression. A lot of Anglophones listen to Melodie Nelson, but his best songs are elsewhere, and you really have to know the language to appreciate his genius. Felix Leclerc is a Quebecois songwriter that I like. Nowadays I like Vincent Delerm. His self-titled first record is really good.
With J’habite un pays I wanted to undo the patriotic song. I mean that tradition of song that some of us were brought up with that celebrates brotherhood and love of country. I copped some of the form and lexicon of that type of song to say something else. The country that I’m singing about in the refrain isn’t a place; it’s the interior landscape of a very lonely person. So the song is about solitude rather than solidarity.
Anglophone Quebeckers aren’t particularly patriotic. We don’t feel Canadian in our bones like someone from Ontario might, but we don’t feel Quebecois either, at least not like some of my Francophone friends who see the fleur-de-lis in trees and rivers and the sky over their heads. Then there’s Israel. For years I went to Jewish school, where I was taught that Israel, a country I’d never been to, is my homeland. I eventually visited Israel. I liked it, but I felt very far from home over there.
I like to think that I don’t belong to any country. I realize this is a privileged angle, since some people are actually born countryless, or are forced out of their country. I’m really fortunate to live in Canada, but I don’t see any reason to be proud. It’s just dumb luck that I was born here and not somewhere else.
I appreciate how in the old French songs the lyrics are equal to the music. Also, it’s possible that French songwriters don’t obfuscate as much as North American songwriters. Their lyrics tend to be more clear and direct, which is interesting, because spoken English is supposed to be more straightforward than French.
I put a lot of time and care into my lyrics. One bad lyric can kill a song for me, but only when it’s my song. I’ll more readily forgive clunky lyrics in someone else’s song, if the music is really good.
We’re so used to sloppy lyrics that we don’t even hear them. They don’t bother us. The more immediate and purely emotional impact of rhythm and melody do a good job of covering them up. But in the great French songs, all of the elements come together in a beautiful way.
Daniel Isaiah is a singer/songwriter from Montreal, whose debut album High Twilight is out now on Secret City Records.