How Dominique Fils-Aimé's debut album unfolded into an award-winning dream trilogy
The Montreal singer is up for her second Polaris Prize short-list nomination, this time for Three Little Words
When Dominique Fils-Aimé put out her first EP independently in 2015, she had no idea what she was about to put in motion: a road that would lead to a Juno Award and two Polaris Music Prize short-list nominations.
The Haitian-born Montreal singer had taken an unexpected route to writing her own music, first becoming a semifinalist on La Voix, a Quebec reality singing competition, in early 2015 before writing and co-producing her first release. She knew she wanted to be a full-time artist, but she didn't want to do it alone, and so far she'd only heard "no"s from the labels she had pursued.
"I remember telling the universe, 'I'm creating this EP so that you bring me the right team because I can't do this alone,'" Fils-Aimé recalls, smiling over Zoom from a sunny, Mile End park.
And the universe delivered — or her EP did, at least. Kevin Annocque, an old friend of Fils-Aimé's, approached her at the EP's release and said he wanted to start something together.
"He told me, 'I'd like to have a sit down with you because I've had a breakthrough recently that I need to leave my job and I need to start a label to represent and help support artists that are being underrepresented in Montreal, because there is a lot of amazing soul music that is being made, and is not being brought forward.' And it completely resonated with me," says Fils-Aimé.
Ironically, an established label started pursuing Fils-Aimé at the same time, but the feeling in her gut was telling her to give Annocque a chance. It was a tough decision: while Fils-Aimé was green to the music industry, Annocque was greener, and they both had a lot of learning to do.
"I remember he was so genuine," says Fils-Aimé. "He was like, 'I know music, but I don't know anything about the music industry. I'm willing to learn. I want to be fair with the type of label that I make. I want the artist to have a fair share of the profits, to have the word and the input and to be able to create free of [commercial] pressures....' So to me, that was just the most beautiful thing someone could tell me as a team."
"I also thought to myself [that] it would be a much more fun story in 10 years to be like, 'We started everything from scratch,'" she continues. "And even if it fails, it'll be a learning opportunity and there will be some kind of adventure. And then worst case, it falls apart. I start somewhere else. Life is long."
But one Juno Award and multiple Polaris Prize short-list nominations later, there's no restarting necessary. EnSoul Records, co-founded by Annocque and Fabien Rousseau and home to Fils-Aimé's music, ended up being exactly what the singer needed to release her dream: a trilogy of albums, concluding with 2021's Three Little Words, which is currently up for the Polaris Music Prize. The final chapter, Three Little Words takes its inspiration and vibrancy from soul music of the past and present.
A label debut as thesis
When Fils-Aimé was asked whether she wanted to first release an EP or a full-length album on EnSoul Records, her answer was neither. Instead, she wanted to do a "form of thesis" and release a trilogy of full-length albums, each focusing on a different era of African-American musical culture. She started going back to her roots, to the music of B.B. King, Billie Holiday, Erykah Badu and Lauryn Hill that she'd grown up on, and thought a lot about how much Black history isn't taught in schools — and how much that formative music and history is connected.
"I was thinking, I don't know how I could choose one style of music that would really represent me," remembers Fils-Aimé. "So I knew already that I wouldn't fit in a box, that it would probably be a mix of influences. And then I also noticed the more I would listen to these artists, the way they made me feel, I realized … [how] art has always been the place where we could capture the essence of how humans felt. They created those kinds of history books but on the human level, where you get to trap the emotion and really cultivate what will be part of our global and common history in a way. So I found it really interesting that I could clearly define in my mind three clean movements of how the history and the facts and what was happening created different musical movements in different genres."
2018's Nameless is steeped in blues, while historically and thematically linked to slavery. 2019's Stay Tuned! is at home in the jazz era, a time of revolution and a renewed fight for civil rights (an album that earned Fils-Aimé her first Polaris short-list nomination, as well as her first Juno Award, for vocal jazz). The most recent and final chapter, 2021's Three Little Words, finds its voice in soul, its joyous yellow cover emitting hope for a brighter future — even though there is still a long way to go.
"I remember thinking, 'What is the main message that I want to leave behind?,'" says Fils-Aimé, explaining how she named the album. "And it's always been about love, but I didn't want it to be straightforward." The first "three little words" that people tend to think of are "I love you," but Fils-Aimé wanted it to be open to interpretation; "three little words" also describes the title of every song on the final album, a format that she followed to keep everything connected. Bob Marley's parallel "Three Little Birds" is also a staple for the singer, one that she remembers discovering on a hot, sticky summer night as a teenager. It's never been far from her since.
'Love is that link that bonds us all'
Three Little Words is where Fils-Aimé says she finally embraced the love and positivity she wanted to put out into the world, no matter what people would think about it.
"When we look into the lyrics from the two first albums, I've never said ['I love you'], like the words didn't come out ever because they were a part of me that was kind of shy to truly expose how strongly I believe in how connected we are in this universe and how much love is that link that bonds us all. And then I felt like it was important for me to free myself from that shame and really just accept who I am and share that part of my vision with everyone through this album."
It's a tone she sets with album opener "Grow Mama Grow," a rousing, supportive track with a killer horn section. Fils-Aimé's layered vocals are inspirational, with an intimate a cappella closing.
"Whenever we plant seeds, we don't scream at the tree, at the plant, at the seed [and say], 'Why aren't you a tree yet?' We're just giving it water, sun, love, and whenever we see the first little leaf beginning, we're so excited.... Why don't we give ourselves the same kind of excitement and freedom to be and to nurture ourselves the same way we nurture the plants that we allow to grow?" she says, of the mood she wanted to set with "Grow Mama Grow."
While nearly all of the 14-track album is comprised of originals, the closing track is a cover of Ben E. King's "Stand by Me," and is a standout for Fils-Aimé's beautiful, simple recording but also for its flip from a major to minor chord.
"There is this circle that I wanted to create in the trilogy," says Fils-Aimé. "I want people to be able to listen to it from the first notes of the first to the last [song] and for it to loop, so the last notes of every album is the beginning of the next. So they all merge together." She wanted "Stand by Me" to merge into the first song on Nameless, which is "Strange Fruit," but in a minor chord.
"I wanted to create that movement within 'Stand by Me' because there can be different emotions that come out of being united; we can be united in joy, but we can also be united in grieving or in rebellion. So I wanted those different aspects of why we unite to be present within the song and to also link us back toward the beginning of the circle that is life and link us to the first album."
For Fils-Aimé, the intention in her recordings is just as important as anything musical. The singer doesn't have formal training, and it was a prolonged stress leave from a job working in psychological support for employees in 2014 that allowed her to dive into GarageBand and learn how she wanted to work with her voice.
"I had nothing to do with my time but go to see the psychologist and do whatever I wanted with my time," she says. "And music was what made me feel the best and what made me feel like I was truly creating frequencies that were healing me physically and mentally."
Those frequencies are what she focuses on while recording, what she considers the intention and emotion that she puts out in a session. "I do think that if you cultivate or work on everything that is more the frequencies and the emotional aspects of it, it's the same," Fils-Aimé says. "It's just another approach to music where I went from the emotional perspective rather than the technical side. But at the end of the day, they all meet somewhere in the middle and it's just different ways to create."
With her trilogy finished, Fils-Aimé isn't sure what she wants to put out into the world next, but she has the time and support she needs to figure it out.
"The fun part of creating at first, and the really free part of just dreaming, forces you to remember to let go and to trust the universe as it will bring you what you need if you're on the right path," she says. "So I'm letting go."
Don't miss Short List Summer: a season-long showcase of the 10 albums shortlisted for the 2021 Polaris Music Prize. Read the weekly Polaris Spotlight feature at cbcmusic.ca/polaris and tune into The Ten radio special every Sunday night at cbc.ca/listen.