Paul Cargnello: The Token Anglo
Special treat today, kids. The best dressed man in showbiz, Pointe-Claire’s own Paul Cargnello talks about dodging bottles at the Saint-Jean-Baptiste Show, making money with Bouchard-Taylor and more strangeness in the life of the Québec music scene’s token Anglo.
Where are from, what’s your story? 487-… That’s an NDG number, isn’t it?
I’m in NDG now and I grew up in NDG but when I was in High School my parents moved out to the West Island, which was a nightmare. We were in Pointe-Claire. It was really really Anglo and it served my sort of enclosed culture very well, which was already happening anyway.
I moved downtown with my wife when I was 18. She’s totally bilingual but I had always been neglectful of it because of my high school years in the West Island. I realized I was a fucking idiot and I had to learn it quickly!
You didn’t know French when you moved downtown?
I learned it in school because you had to, but I really didn’t take it seriously.
What made you interested?
It’s not so much interest as it was question of necessity and respect. I started feeling guilty about how neglectful I was about a place we are sharing, you know?
You’d be surprised. In Anglophone culture in Québec there’s a lot of fear that we’re going to lose our culture and that we’re going to be swallowed by francophone culture. We’re very unique compared to Canadians. We share so much that it seemed stupid to me to hold any of that up. I was really taken aback at how immature I was in my high school years.
I just discovered you recently with your Une Rose Noire single. I looked you up on the Internet and I was quite surprised to see that you already had quite a few albums. In those albums you can see a progression from all English with a few French songs to nearly all French songs. How did that happen? What’s the story there?
The more I spoke French, the more I started to write in French. I write constantly, and slowly but surely I would start dreaming in French and writing in French.
I’m not going to say it was a political decision… but it would be hypocritical for me to say that because I truly believe that everything is politically motivated, whether you are aware of it or not. My interviews were being done in French, my performances were to Francophone audiences, my fan base had become at majority Francophone, and I though that it was time I give something back to that fan base that had been very loyal.
It was a political decision in the sense that it’s a message being sent to Anglophone artists that maybe more of us should be doing this. The majority of Anglophones and Francophones that I know in Montreal are able to switch. Fine. If we can compose in French, why not try? Why not give a humongous portion of who lives here something to chew on?
Ok, but if Rose Noire hadn’t had the success it had, would you still be recording a second consecutive French album?
Believe me I didn’t do this for any financial reason because I never assumed in my life that commercial radio would ever play me. My messages are somewhat subversive. Even Rose Noire is not a happy song. It’s about alienation and at the same time I’m referencing the black rose, which is really sort of an anarchist reference. So it’s very strange to me that it became such a mainstream hit.
I want to be able to do whatever the hell I want and not be “An Anglo that sings in French”. I’m an Anglo that CAN sing in French.
I was going to say. You were at the Francofolie this summer and you were at la Fête Nationale and we know how hard they work to show how inclusive they are at la Fête Nationale. Do you worry about being the token Anglo?
The new Jim Corcoran?
That’s litterally what people call me, the new Jim Corcoran. I am constantly worried about being the token Anglo. I was worried this was all because of Bouchard-Taylor… and I’m sure that it is. But why not take advantage of it regardless? I realize that the Saint-Jean organizers were really taking a chance. The organizers were really afraid for a while.
Yeah! There was a fear that there would’ve been bottles thrown… Because of the fact that I’m not openly separatist.
I’m a socialist. If a sovereign Québec means a sovereign socialist state, I’m a sovereigntist. But if Canada suddenly becomes a federation of socialized health care and banks, I’m going for Canada. I vote in terms of politics. I don’t vote in terms of patriotism or flags. Pride to me is something that is achieved, not something that’s inherited.
Artists in Québec are often considered spokespersons for the Québec “people”, with a few exceptions like Jean Leloup, or Xavier Caféïne, who don’t want to be labelled Québec nationalists…
An neither did Robert Charlebois. He’s openly federalist. The funny thing about this whole thing is I think we DO reflect a little bit of what Québec is. I think I reflect what my generation of Anglophones AND Francophones better that the generation that came before us. The old guard of Liberals and Parti québécois types are nightmares because they hold these opinions that range from insulting to absolutely disgusting about each other, about each others cultures and about Canada versus Québec.
There is a certain type of Angryphone that I see on my blog that are absolutely convinced that Francophones are angry, racist ultra-Catholics… This old antiquated idea of Québec. You didn’t see Francophones that way?
Definetly not. With Anglophones I find there is still a lingering, American, black and white racism. With Francophones I’ve noticed a different tendency of racism. It’s linguistically-based. People are like, “I don’t mind the Vietnamese coming here, but I don’t like it when they don’t learn French”. There’s a difference in the targets of who they pick as the racist butt of the joke. I’ve met a lot of Francophones, it tends to be outside of Montreal and mostly an older generation, that tend to have a strange thing towards Jews. There’s a lot more anti-semitisim that I have encountered in the Francophone world than in the Anglophone world.
I have a Jewish friend from Vancouver and his family in Côte-Saint-Luc didn’t believe him when he said he had a Québécois friend, a Francophone friend. They’ve lived in Montreal all their lives and they have no real relationship with any Francophones.
That’s weird! I don’t know what it is because I’m cross-pollinating constantly, OK? So it very difficult for me to hone in on, because I have so many Jewish friends, so many mixes. My keyboardist is Haïtian and he’s got his own hangups about the Francophone thing, because his francophonie comes from somewhere else. It’s hard sometimes to figure out exactly who hates who…
If I can give you the opportunity not to be the nice token Anglo who likes everything and everybody: What pisses you off about Québec?
Oh Christ… I guess it’s the egoism in our industry, especially in our arts. Rockstars in Québec seem ridiculous to me. We have our own ‘système de vedettes‘ (star system) that’s so evolved that we litterally think… huh… Eric Lapointe is a ROCK STAR. And he’s not. He’s nobody. He’s a fucking speck on the music industry.
Our sense of self-importance is really hightened. Did you ever watch TV, things like L’Avocat du Diable? They’ll be talking about the environment and say things like: “How does the environement affect les Québécois?” Not talking about us as people. Talking about les Québécois. We definitely think about ourselves first. That’s a little bit annoying.
I noticed you said “Nous les Québécois“. You’re comfortable saying that? Without qualifying it in any way?
[Hesitates] Yes. I don’t typically define myself as Québécois, but if you we’re going to ask me my identities politically, or nationally, I would say: Montrealer, Québécois, Canadien. In that order. Québec and Canada are really close, and they’re a distant second and third. I’m Montrealer, that’s what I’m proud to say… let me retract that: I’m comfortable saying that. Saying Quebecer… I have a bit of a harder time because I constantly feel alienated. And then, you know, saying Canadian is like saying citizen of the Universe. I have nothing to do with Canada, but I know that my passport says Canada.
Did you listen to French music growing up? Did Jean Leloup make it to Pointe-Claire?
Oh Christ yeah! I mean Jean Leloup is without a doubt one of the biggest influences on me. And not just musically. Intellectually. Jean Leloup is a wacko, but he’s a smart fucking guy too, and his lyrics are fucking cool, and he avoids politics a lot of times but there is an element of darkness in his stuff. That’s the cross-over act, right? He managed to touch us as much as he touched Francophones.
The other thing is, when I grew up, my mother was very good friends with Gus Coriandoli from Me, Mom and Morgentaler. He influenced me a lot too. They sang in Spanish and French and English. So what they had an accent? Everybody loved them and they were able to connect with as many people as possible at all times and it was just such a beautiful thing to see.
When are you going to do another English album?
Part of the reason that I’m putting together a French album now is because when I was doing Brûler le Jour, I was writing so much in French that many songs didn’t make it. I had a lot of New Orleans-themed stuff. I’m going to New Orleans every summer and I’m coming back with a lot of music from another place where Francophone culture exists. It’s been trampled under for years and years and years, but it’s still there.
It’s an interesting place and there are some links… because there is such a fusion of culture down there and there’s such a fusion of cultures here. Over there you can see the example of what happens if you don’t protect the language. Over here is the example of what happens when you do. It’s a language going very strong.