He’s lived in London and New York City, unfurling his folk-pop intimations across their stages, impressing their audiences (and occasionally their label reps), but fate keeps bringing JF Robitaille back to Montreal. Not only do his hometown roots bind him to family and friends, they lock into a musical landscape that has produced legendary folk poets and world-dominating pop ensembles.
When Robitaille was discovered in New York City by Nona “Lady Marmalade” Hendryx in 2006, he’d already made music his career. Montrealers remember his thinking man’s indie rock band, The Social Register, launched at the inaugural edition of the Pop Montreal festival in 2002. Prior to that, he’d released a DIY solo record, and hauled his acoustic guitar across London for a year. But it was only when he reverted to solo work that he began to turn heads across the continent.
Recorded by Howard Bilerman at Hotel2Tango (the Montreal producer and studio behind Arcade Fire’s Funeral), Robitaille’s six-song EP, The Blood in My Body, was released in 2007 via Hendryx’s label, Rhythbank. Critics were practically unanimous in their praise, comparing Robitaille to such indelible songwriters as Leonard Cohen, Nick Drake, Del Shannon, Morrissey even The Velvet Underground. Between residency gigs at NYC’s Pianos, and supporting sets for the likes of St. Vincent, Julie Doiron, Jonathan Richman, The Dears, Stephen Malkmus and Sean Lennon, he continued to write and record in that vein, straddling folk and pop, darkness and light with poetic gloom and melodic beauty.
But the LP that emerged, fully recorded and mastered, will likely never be heard. When Rhythmbank folded in 2008, the album fell into a legal black hole, forcing Robitaille to start over.
His first move was homeward, to Montreal. After penning a dozen new songs, he recruited drummer Chris Wise (Elephant Stone, Sunfields), bassist Tavo Diez De Bonilla (Octoberman, Two Minute Miracles) and guitarist Andrew Johnston as his back-up band. Producer and onetime Tricky Woo guitarist Adrian Popovich recorded Calendar, and even strapped on a six-string to play on “The New Girl.” Other one-track cameos include keys by Dears singer Murray Lightburn (“Enemies”), who hosted pre-production sessions in his basement studio, drums by Dears alumnus/High Dials member George Donoso III, and guitar by Jason Kent of Sunfields (“Everything’s Broken Here”). Infusions of cello, harmonica and organs that simulate woodwinds and brass bring richness, but not opulence, to a raw-sounding folk record with temporary pop highs and raucous tangents.
For a record mired in romantic discord and loss, existential malaise and nostalgia, Calendar is as easy on the heart as it is on the ears. As smart and incisive as they are tender and vulnerable, and surprisingly light on bitterness and cynicism, Robitaille’s lyrics match the melancholy tide of his music-subject to change with currents, wont to crest and to recede, and guaranteed to return to familiar ground.
WATCH the video for “Modern Love Song Part 1” below:
*Presently working “New Girl” publicity and consulting.