As a bit of an overzealous freak when it comes to good folk music in Ottawa, it’s been a few years now since I first developed a weak spot for decorated bilingual duo, Moonfruits. With the release of their sophomore album Ste-Quequepart in 2017, my generally cynical outlook on concept albums started bruised and further softened. The album was crafted to play like the soundtrack of an old film, one I’ve now listened to in its entirety on at least a dozen separate occasions. On the train, on the bus, in the shower, walking home from Vanier at 4AM. I’m often in search of escape and, if you are too, may I just say that the friendly, quirky romanticism of Saint-Somewhere is just the place to go to forget about where you may be.
As an anglophone and someone with an ego as fragile as tissue paper, I wanted to write about the album for some time but wasn’t sure I could do it justice, given how I am generally quite focused on lyrical content. I do believe, however, that their ability to convey authentic emotion through carefully constructed melodies and complimentary harmonic arrangements transcends any form of linguistic barrier, and that as someone who cannot actually understand 80% of what is being sung, I feel a genuine connection. That being said, I did take the time to translate most of the lyrics, though undoubtedly crudely, and found that I was not entirely off-base in terms of assuming the lyrical content based on the tone. I did read all of the English prose that accompanied the release of the album, many of which have a distinct Brother’s Grimm sort of flair which primed me for the blending of the wholesome and the foreboding.
There is a sort of unsettling undercurrent alive throughout the record with the ambling twang of the banjo conjuring images of a dusty, rusty old town in which all its strange but friendly inhabitants talk a bit too slow, stare a little too long, and love a little too hard (I’m particularly thinking of songs “Roustabout” and “Big Bureau Blues” here). The album has the drama of a cinematic experience, something I wholeheartedly attribute to the chemistry between its sole members Kaitlin Milroy and Alex Millaire. Their uncanny ability to banter back and forth with a sort of playful, dramatic edge before seamlessly marrying their voices with such captivating tenderness and sincerity speaks to their success as partners, in and out of the industry. As a married couple making music together, there is a sort of intimacy necessarily afforded to the listener that sometimes clouds our perception of how much hard work goes into appearing effortlessly in sync.
I reached out to chat with Moonfruits a few weeks back, knowing they were back in town after an extensive BC tour and they were kind enough to answer a slew of my questions, most of which were specifically about how their working relationship has evolved over the years, as well as how the relationship between their music and their audience has changed. Below you can read our correspondence in its entirety.
How has your dynamic as a duo changed over the years? Your sound? Your songwriting? How has it evolved?
We started off as a very bare bones street duo with just one beat up guitar, our two voices and a mittful of shakers. In order to make ourselves heard over traffic, footfalls, and sometimes other performers who played amplified in the street, a lot of our first tunes were pretty loud and percussive. As we started building a following, gigging indoors (!) and, especially, playing to more listening audiences, we sought more subtlety and intimacy in both our sound and message.
With our second record, Ste-Quequepart—an entirely French-language album—and over a hundred shows across Canada to all kinds of folks, bilingual storytelling is another dimension that has opened really itself up to us. More on that later! As well, we both learned new instruments for this album, banjo for Alex, and glockenspiel, tambourine and kalimba for Kait. Now that we’re back home, we’re turning our attention to writing and recording again, (and spending time with Sully the cat). We’re excited to see where the music and live show go!
Are solo projects out of the question? Are you working on a new album?
We’re really hitting our stride as Moonfruits and have so much we’d like to say and do through our music and performances that neither of us have really considered any solo projects per se. One thing that’s for sure is that we have a wealth of material we’re planning to record with more tunes, stories, and ideas always coming out.
How was your BC tour? What are the challenges of touring? Where would you like to tour next?
Though we had performed a couple isolated shows in BC last year, this first proper tour of Vancouver and Vancouver Island with Sarah Osborne was downright magical. Coming from Ontario, it’s sometimes hard to believe how majestic and imposing the Rockies are. We’d be walking down a little Victorian street in Nanaimo or Courtenay and have our breath taken away by the sight of them, while the folks from there would just kind of walk on and give us a funny look. They’re obviously quite used to them.
The people we met were all extremely welcoming and eager to share all that BC has to offer, which in our case meant amazing veggie-burgers, badass coffee, purple gin, seaweed–no coincidence that the highlights are largely food-dominated … we love food! And music and artists (of which there is a seemingly infinite amount in BC) that we absolutely need to check out.
We felt an instant connection with Sarah Osborne–we had only shared the stage once with her in Ottawa this past December–and the tour quickly became a healing and cathartic time on the road despite a pretty hectic schedule.
The challenges of touring are also the best parts–it’s a question of learning to manage your energy, stay healthy and rested and on top of emails and promo, but also stay in the moment, stay inspired, connect with new audiences, meet other artists and have fun!
Touring plans are currently taking shape in the form of a bike-music tour of Ontario, an Artists On Board trip through VIA Rail’s awesome program, *fingers crossed* a first tour of Europe, and then an eventual release tour for the next album. Pretty exciting.
St. Quequepart, to me, is the perfect roadtrip album for the folk lover. What albums do you listen to on tour? Who are you current favourite Canadian folk musicians? Francophone folk musicians?
If we’re completely honest, we’re pretty boring people and get a lot of our mojo and new musical ideas from silence. The road is also when and where we get a lot of our thinking, imagining, and planning for the future done, and, for us, that often needs large tracts of silence as fertile ground.
That being said, when we need some tunes, we often turn to one of our absolute favourite bands on the planet, Du Bartàs, from France. The five members play cuatro, accordion, asian violin and a tickle trunk’s worth of percussion instruments, and sing in Occitan (a branch of Latin that’s a close cousin to Catalan) and Arabic.
We saw them perform by chance on our first busking trip in Europe as a band–incidentally it was also shortly after we got engaged–and were immediately hooked as much by their political messages, as their crunchy harmonies as use of rhythm.
From participating in a few years of Folk Music Ontario conferences, we literally have a box of new Canadian music–tant en français qu’en anglais–we chip away at listening to while we’re on the road, but a few faves are our dear friends, Georgian Bay, Leif Vollebekk, Kyra Shaughnessy and The Ramblin’ Valley Band. Spoon, Fleet Foxes, Kaia Kater, Earth, Wind & Fire, Radiohead, and Sigur Rós are also never too far behind.
What kind of response do you get from your bilingual fans? Your francophone fans? Your anglophone fans? How does the response change from across Canada?
We’ve found that the response between francophones, anglophones, franco-curieux and plain old music lovers is pretty well the same the country over. We feel that the music behind the tunes translates their meaning well enough that even if a language isn’t spoken, it’s felt. Bringing in storytelling from the imaginary village of Ste-Quequepart has infused the performances with a lot of humour and, we find, gives an emotional arc to the set that really allows us and the public to create this imaginary world together–one that we’re always adapting and improvising around depending on where we are.
The choice to be visible, as well as audible, is always a little political, which has always been a sort of pillar of folk music. Do you feel the pressure from anglophone institutions to be ‘more accessible’ to anglophones? What do you think can be done by the anglo music community to be more inclusive of francophone musicians and francophone listeners?
To be fair, because French is a minority language in Canada–though it is extremely well supported compared to other languages spoken across the country–we’ve more so had the experience of institutions having those kinds of demands on the French side of things. If we’re performing for an institution whose mandate is to defend la cause francophone, often times our contract will be so explicit as to specify a percentage of the number of songs that must be in French and will occasionally specify that we need to address our public in French between songs. Arts granting bodies often have similar formulaic approaches to cultural support and development.
We love French, we love performing in French and we’re quite happy to do as we’re asked, but while this kind of approach jives with organizational mandates, it fails to jive with our artistic expression as a bilingual band. We want to play for music lovers of all sorts and to do that we want to create a space for audiences to discover something new, musically and linguistically. Linguistic plurality suits us better. On the flip side, because English so dominates the industry in Canada as a whole, in order to reach the broadest audience, your show and your music needs to be accessible to them. There are no formal requests because English is the default.
As a side note, our dear friends in Georgian Bay regularly write tunes that seamlessly incorporate French and English in the same song. That’s something that peeks our interest, and we’d love to attempt it. It flies in the face of this notion of language purity and it makes for beautiful poetry.
If we have a comment for our hometown, Ottawa, it’s that it would be wonderful to see a bar or venue openly welcome francophone, bilingual and franco-curieux performers and audiences alike. At present, there isn’t a spot that comes to mind–that isn’t North of the Outaouais river–that offers that kind of an atmosphere.
Where can we see Moonfruits next? Any new, exciting projects coming up?
There are a few very exciting things on the horizon for us!
On May 14th we launched a music video for our song “Le Maire,” pulled from Ste-Quequepart. It was shot at one of our favourite bars, Belmont, in our very own neighbourhood of Old Ottawa South with 30 of our fans, friends, and neighbours who kindly stood in as villagers from Ste-Quequepart (Alex’s dad even dressed up like the priest!). Andrew Robillard was our videographer, Don Charette of Naskigo Productions produced the video (he also produced our album Ste-Quequepart), local players of renown Don Cummings, Michel Delage, and Toby Meis played the house band, and it also incorporates drawings by France’s O’lee Graphiste. All in all, we’re pretty stoked to share it with folks!
Friday of this week, on May 18th, we’re excited to be performing with Montreal-based folk-rock collective Cheshire Carr at the Blacksheep Inn in Wakefield.
On June 8th, we’re playing an afternoon show for the Festival Folk et guitares d’Aylmer and, on June 23rd, we have the amazing opportunity of playing a joint concert at the Francofest de Hamilton with the Ottawa-based hip-hop artist and L’Armure du Son owner-operator Le R Premier, Hamilton-based DJ Unpier, Toronto beatmaker Kenan Belzner and members of the Hamilton Philharmonic Orchestra.
Ommie Jane is an Ottawa-based musician and writer for publications such as Ottawa Showbox and Ottawa Beat. She also runs the Ottawa Alt-Country Folk & Blues Facebook page, and occasionally promotes concerts through that name.