The dark but hopeful world of Klô Pelgag's Notre-Dame-des-Sept-Douleurs
The francophone artist discusses the devastating events that inspired her Polaris Music Prize-nominated album
Written by Erin MacLeod
"For a year and two days I've been loving you, and when you return I will have long hair," sings Klô Pelgag, originally in French, in "J'aurai les cheveux longs," a layered, sweeping ballad from her 2021 Polaris Prize shortlisted album, Notre-Dame-des-Sept-Douleurs.
The song, recorded before the pandemic began, seems to put a finger on what soon became our shared experience of dealing with separation and repeat lockdowns. The whole record is a rich listening experience, providing a range of different sounds, sensibilities, soaring Kate Bush-esque vocals and gorgeous strings — perfect to sit with over those months of social distancing.
On a summer day when we are able to sit in the same space and, thanks to the wonders of vaccination, we can speak face-to-face, I ask whether or not the artist may have glimpsed the future and provided us with some company during what has been, and remains, a difficult time. (Our interview was conducted in French, and I've translated her answers.) Klô Pelgag, a sobriquet for Chloé Pelletier-Gagnon, who is considered and thoughtful throughout our conversation, takes a moment to ponder this particular idea, but then laughs. She acknowledges that it was, perhaps, an "ideal situation for the album. Because for certain people, they might understand it better. We experienced imposed solitude during the pandemic. It was like a test for many people. Normally we live among lots of people; maybe it acts like a means of presenting a window onto another reality."
The reality presented on Notre-Dame-des-Sept-Douleurs is a textured, multi-faceted world in which things may not be exactly what they seem. This is the third full-length release from Pelletier-Gagnon, whose previous music was as richly textured as this album, but the clarity of vision here is stark. Beginning and ending with eponymous songs, the opening notes of the first are characterized by mystery and foreboding. The second contains that same element of mystery, the album closing with calming piano and the sounds of running water, perhaps referencing "La Fonte" ("The Thaw"), a song where Pelletier-Gagnon speaks with her father, who died in early 2020, looking to springtime as "a bomb that brings everything back to life."
Pelletier-Gagnon has been open online and in interviews about her devastation following her father's death, as well as the emotional struggle she has had with overworking in the past. Grief and struggle are both key to this album, but Pelletier-Gagnon appears to reach inside pain to pull out what might be referred to as exhilarating expressions of both sadness and joy. This idea of differing perceptions of the same thing is at the heart of this project.
Pelletier-Gagnon's childhood experience of family trips and seeing the road sign for Quebec village Notre-Dame-des-Sept-Douleurs (literally "Our Lady of Seven Sorrows") gave way to the album's title. The mere name of the place was frightening to her and Pelletier-Gagnon imagined dark and dreary streets, empty of people, perhaps reminiscent of the lockdown scenes of last year. When she visited the space during the recording of the album, she learned that this little village of fewer than 40 people was an idyllic island.
In a literal sense, the album takes us to the countryside, the regions of Quebec. For anglophones who equate Quebec with Montreal, this offers an opportunity to take a trip outside the city. Though launched in summer 2020, it was stunning rural winter scenes of the island village that provided background for the album's long-form, full-album lyric video.
"I come from a small region of Quebec and this is part of who I am," explains Pelletier-Gagnon, "And the majority of people who live in Montreal have come from the regions! Without the regions, Montreal doesn't make as much sense. It's very rich."
But beyond geography, Pelletier-Gagnon is refreshingly open to talking about how her shifting perception of the place that is Notre-Dame-des-Sept-Douleurs has symbolic resonance to her mental health. "I was also thinking about the state of depression and how everything seems insurmountable, and at base, this stems from the perspective we have of things," she says. "There is a parallel between the title and the state of depression in that there is a difference between the way we imagine things and what they are in reality. At some point we must bring these together."
This was perhaps exemplified for all of us during the past year and a half: "During the pandemic as well, there have been things that seemed so hard, but sometimes these could be transposed onto a positive." We are invited on that trip from the Notre-Dame-des-Sept-Douleurs of her mind, reaching into the noirceur to come out the other side and see the reality that may bring joy and delight, having learned from the experience.
In this way, there is a resolution found on the album, or perhaps a sense of repair: "I think that the album is positive in the sense that we can speak of difficult things, but it is never too serious. In 'J'aurai les cheveux longs,' there is a waiting, but there is hoping. The person does not throw their arms down and give up. There is still hope. And the album ends with [the penultimate] 'La maison jaune' as well, which is a song where everything is left in the past, and it is about leaving, and I find this positive."
Pelletier-Gagnon does indeed exude positivity when she speaks — but explains that her "joy can sometimes be almost aggressive!" Case in point: the announcement of the Polaris short list met with Pelletier-Gagnon's statement that she was "violently stoked." Being shortlisted is significant for her as a francophone artist. Though her last two albums were longlisted, this is particularly special. "It is like being considered 'music' and not just 'francophone music,'" she explains, "like with everyone else."
For Pelletier-Gagnon, language shouldn't prevent someone from gaining access to the possibilities of her music. "The person who is listening plays a role in what the song is and becomes depending on who they are and what they have experienced. We don't always understand the same things and this is what I find interesting with music — the perceptions."
She gives the example of Japanese and Turkish music, which she enjoys even though she cannot understand the language. "It doesn't matter," she says, "I also think that the voice is also an instrument. There is still an ability to gain a sense, an impression, even if you can't understand the words. You can understand the urgency through the way that a person sings, for instance." And besides, Pelletier-Gagnon does provide translations on her website, but she warns, laughing, that if you've developed your own perception "you might be disappointed by what the words say!"
It's tough to think of disappointment when it comes to Pelletier-Gagnon's music. There's such a generosity in her approach. She lays herself bare on this record, asking questions in almost every song, questions that she says are "really me asking myself to inspire reflection rather than response." The album therefore does not end; it gives the listener opportunity to think and consider, each song provides something to return to, to rethink, each time revealing something new and different, offering us access to our own Notre-Dame-des-Sept-Douleurs.
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.