For many, with the arrival of 2022 came a sense of renewed optimism. A new year ushered in an ever-hopeful feeling that we were moving beyond the worst that this global pandemic has to offer, and returning to something of a normal existence once again. Yet within the first quarter, we’ve seen spikes in Covid-19 numbers, unruly traffic disruptions around both the Canadian and US capitals, and war atrocities being committed in eastern Europe. So much for renewed optimism! Amidst these crazy times, however, I’m happy to report that a perpetual light continues to shine – thank goodness for the arts!
The music and arts community has not failed us during these pandemic-filled days, offering us all some much-needed escapism within the confines of their incredible music and creativity. It is perfectly fine to seek the embrace of a big warm plushy blanket of music during our times of need, and many artists have stepped up when needed to provide such comfort. Thanks to the proverbial blanket they have wrapped around me, I’ve taken delight in finding my own musical soup for the soul over the last few weeks – great new traditional alt-country (Meredith Lazowski), super old-time rock n roll childhood memories (The Hypochondriacs), and the soothing sounds of Stax-era soul-blues (Jesse Roper). If only there were some yesteryear sounds of the Amy Winehouse pop-jazz variety in this personal pilgrimage too, right? Fortunately, for those of us seeking such enlightenment, Montreal, QC emerging artist Léonie Gray is ready to take the baton, and stamp her claim on the genre with her stunning debut album, “Who?”
“Who?” provides a vessel to further explore themes surrounding mental health, feminism, relationships, racism, and personal development – which form the core of the album’s thirteen original songs (all co-written by Léonie), and in which she contrasts difficult and introspective subjects with a lighter, livelier musical palette. “Making a debut album is like reaching into the dark, then eventually finding the switches on the walls to turn on the lights,” Léonie shares. “It’s discovering each room one by one, furnishing and decorating them with other people. It is to discover oneself, in many ways.” And while more than comfortable in the world of folk and classical music, it is the vibrant nature of soul, R&B, pop and jazz that captured her heart – influences that can be found across the entirety of this album, the airwaves bursting into life with a smorgasbord of gorgeous vintage sounds.
“Push yourself when life happens / Falling down the stairs / Curse it out but get back up / Because no one cares / Every trip and every fall / You lived through it all / So get your sisters / The whole crew / Let’s get through this war.” The piano notes that lead on the opening track, “Power,” replicate that of a heartbeat, laying the groundwork before an all-out assault of thumping bass, drums, guitars and trumpet accompany our first taste of Léonie’s up-tempo, soul-filled vocals. “I wrote Power with research and introspection in mind. I wanted a fairly specific topic, one that spoke of my personal experiences, and then I realized that we all, at some point in our lives, have had that moment of helplessness when facing a person or situation,” she shares. “Even though we live in a world that is not favorable to everyone, together we are an army and we can take back what is ours.”
Indeed, the entire album proves itself a compilation of these moments of introspection and reflection. “Who? mainly demonstrates the evolution of self-knowledge, which highlights mental health with all its aspects like mental illness, interpersonal relationships with family, friends, partners, therapy, work and sexuality,” Léonie offers. “I spent part of my twenties working on this album, getting to know myself, and ‘documenting’ my knowledge, my questions, and reflections into my songs.” “It was hell in my mind / By myself in the dark / Looking at my poor tiny life falling apart / You know I never meant to break your hearts / To love yourself was never said to be so hard / So I kept staring at the clock.” For Léonie, “Clock” is one such track that concentrates on issues surrounding mental health and therapy. “If you ever have to go to a psychiatric hospital, you’ll notice that some of the rooms are completely empty and white,” she professes. “And are equipped with only one clock mounted on the wall, which is enough to make you feel insane.”
With some bouncing keys, some giggles and ambient chatter, the thread of “Too Much Of You” links back nicely to “Clock,” bringing the theme of romantic relationships into the fold: “Threw you on a pedestal / Stayed stuck in between my wall / Patterns screaming out my name / I’m too old for these kind of games.” For Léonie, this particular piece concentrates on the toll of finding a fine balance with that new love interest. “Too Much Of You talks about the early emotional investment and expectations regarding a romantic relationship while feeling like we ask for too much,” she states. “In this song I navigate between my mental health and my feelings for someone new, triggering lots of different insecurities.” “I don’t know where to start / Tryna pull me out the dark / Should we rise or should we fall / What is left of your beating heart?”
The other core themes laid out by Léonie receive equal treatment at various moments across the album. Discussions surrounding friends are found during “Lou,” a work-inspired nightmare is descriptively transcribed into “Monsters and Echoes,” and “Taxi” becomes a metaphor about a sexual encounter. And revisiting the primary theme of mental health for the closing tracking, “Parachute,” the album rotates full-circle back to the beginning of this sonic journey. “Parachute is about depression, the state of ‘falling’ into depression to be precise. The kind of fall that can be fatal if not addressed properly,” Léonie adds. “I struggled with depression ever since I was a kid, enough so that I now recognize my symptoms and patterns, and am able to be more mindful of my mental health.”
“Parachute” provides the perfect closing number, itself a powerful piano-based vocal ballad further accentuated by being the only album track in which the artist sings fully in French. The gradual inclusion of trumpet and strings not only add a somewhat Gallic flair, but also an authentic time stamp of classic French musical theater – drawing parallels, as least for me, to memories of Edith Piaf in her heyday. “Y´en aura pas de facile / Quand t´es en chute libre / Accroche-toi / Ca va fesser fort en bas / Y´en aura pas de facile / Quand t´es en chute libre / Accroche-toi / Ca va fesser fort en bas.” This may not have the up-tempo, vintage pop-jazz sounds of the album tracks before it, but this complete change of pace proves a fitting and sentimental encore to the lively evening of incredible music that preceded it.
“Who?” shall be available this coming Friday, via La Maison Mère (under a Spectra license) – and across most streaming platforms.
Photo Credit: André Rainville