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Lisa LeBlanc and Les Hay Babies talk about sexism, Justin Trudeau and French folk music

Andrea Warner

Lisa LeBlanc and Les Hay Babies are four people in their early and mid-20s turning Canada’s French folk scene on its head.

LeBlanc makes blistering thrash ’n’ trash folk, shredding her banjo and guitar (and often voice) with raw, witty, storytelling songs that are as likely to make you cry from feelings as from hurting your neck headbanging.

Les Hay Babies are Julie Aubé (banjo), Katrine Noël (ukulele) and Vivianne Roy (guitar; she also performs solo as Laura Sauvage). Their songs are wild expanses of stomping, stormy, harmony-heavy folk with elements of dream-pop, country noir and playful nods to ’60s rock.

They are longtime friends, all from tiny towns in New Brunswick, and proudly Acadian. They also happen to have new albums coming two weeks apart in early fall, and ended up playing together at the 2016 Vancouver Folk Music Festival July 15-17.

CBC Music invited the four artists to a roundtable discussion after their Sunday morning workshop to talk about the state of French folk music, language battles and embracing English, Acadian erasure and sexism. What we also got was all the scoop on that nose-flicking incident with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau on Canada Day, a love fest for Coeur de pirate and a stomach ache from laughing so hard.

You all grew up in New Brunswick in separate small towns?

Vivianne Roy: Yeah, except me and Lisa. We went to school together.

Really? That’s so nice! How long have you known each other?

Lisa LeBlanc: For a while.

Roy: Forever. [Laughter] But we became friends when we were like —

LeBlanc: Teens.

Roy: Yeah, 14 and 16 years old. I remember being friends with her cousins and we would go to sleepovers at the same house when we were f--king seven.

LeBlanc: (Laughs) It’s Rosaireville, it’s pretty small. You kind of know everybody, but we started hanging out — we were a bunch of little weirdos, the black sheeps of Rogersville and we started hanging out together and we loved music.

Look at you all, busting wide open to the West Coast!

Roy: It’s pretty cool how that happens.

LeBlanc: The only time we see each other is on tour. It’s great. [Laughter] I mean, it’s cool that we can see each other on tour.

And then the three of you [Les Hay Babies] met separately at a music competition? People really give music competitions a bit of side-eye, but I always thought they were such a celebration. But maybe I’m wrong, a Pollyanna because I don’t play music.

Katrine Noël: Depends on the competition.

Roy: We’re kind of not into competitions now. It was a battle-of-the-bands in high school, on different years we all met each other, but we had never hung out the three of us, and then we were in another competition and started hanging out for the first time. We’d always ask each other, "How's Julie doing? How’s Kat doing?," whatever, but it had never happened. Then we started a band.

Paint me a tiny picture of what the music scene is like in New Brunswick.

Roy: It is a tiny picture. [Laughter]

LeBlanc: It kind of is. It’s a big picture but a tiny picture at the same time. The thing about New Brunswick is there are musicians all over the place. Not that many do a living out of it, but there’s a lot of music all over the place wherever you go. From Rosaireville, where we’re from, everybody kind of plays because there’s nothing else to do. That’s a main hobby, or at least it was for my family and for us. It’s everywhere if you’re thinking of the whole traditional stuff and Acadian kitchen parties, that’s more in homes and you’re not going to see as many shows, but if you’re talking about what the music scene is, it’s mostly in Moncton and Fredericton.

Noël: There are bands that are Moncton famous but they’ve never played outside the East Coast.

Roy: It also depends what you’re really into. There’s also a very cool punk scene in New Brunswick, Saint John, Fredericton and Moncton, but that’s another thing. You don’t really have access to it unless you plunge yourself into it and get exposed to it. There’s all kinds of random scenes like that. I find that people back home are super modest about their music; they don’t play music to make it big. They play music because they like doing it and they make their own scenes.

Julie Aubé: I agree with all of them, it’s a small scene, but the cool thing about it is it’s such a small scene, there’s no competition. It’s not a competitive thing, the music industry in New Brunswick, it’s very much one where you invite all your musician friends to do your show with you or to play on your album. It’s a really encouraging atmosphere, a really encouraging place to start a career. People will give you chances and will give you exposure whenever they can. It’s very encouraging.

Noël: Something I’ve seen a couple of times, which I find really cool, sometimes there will be two events on the same day, it’s kind of rare, but on the Facebook event, they’ll say, "Don’t forget, go see the other show! It starts at 7, we start at 9."

LeBlanc: Yeah, even though they’re totally unrelated, it’s such a small thing but people will —

Noël: It’s not a competition. It’s not like, "F--k, I hope they don’t go see these guys," it’s not like that.

That’s so interesting. I had just assumed there’d be some fight for the same crowd.

LeBlanc: No, everybody’s been so encouraging. We all started, bizarrely, in the same kind of way, and especially when you’re from New Brunswick — especially a francophone from New Brunswick — I think as soon as you start making music and somebody hears about it, you’ll get a chance to play a cool venue.

Roy: They want to give you a chance to succeed.

LeBlanc: Yeah, exactly, like, "Play, come on! Here’s workshops, come to the workshops, here’s a grant or whatever, to do your thing. Please play music." I think it’s really cool, so yeah, to start in New Brunswick and then we started branching out in Quebec afterwards, but we couldn’t have been doing it if we didn’t have all that background from home. Coming to Quebec, we were a little more prepared, so it definitely helped.

Is there an expected trajectory that you’ll move to Quebec at some point? Like, not even relocate necessarily but that the goal is breaking into Quebec?

All together: Kind of.

Roy: I think it’s part of it, but the more that you tour, you realize it’s not just Quebec. Like, we wanted to come to the West Coast for a while. But I think a lot of people do move to Quebec to keep doing their music. I’m living there, she’s living there.

LeBlanc: Yeah, it’s just a larger crowd. There are more francophones in Quebec than there are in New Brunswick.

Roy: I still think it’s true, and it’s the willingness. A lot of people around you are willing to play.... And it’s just normal for an artist to want to experience a bigger city.

Aubé: To move to the hub of where everything is happening. The hard thing about living in New Brunswick full time is the travel. For Vivianne, she's living in Montreal, somebody can offer her a show two hours away and say, "It only pays $500," but it’s OK because it’s only two hours away so you don’t care. But when you live in New Brunswick and it’s a 12-hour drive, it kind of limits you in a way. It depends what kind of career you wanna have and what kind of life you want to have. It’s not necessary to move to Montreal. If you want to live in a big city and do your life that way, that’s cool, but we’ve proven that you don’t have to live in Montreal to have a career in music. Me and Kat living in New Brunswick and Viv lives in Montreal and we meet up together and we thought it’d be hard, but it’s really not. Like, people make too much a big deal about moving to Montreal or not or moving to Toronto or not. Like, frigging just do what you wanna do on your days off and then just fly to meet up for your shows. That’s 2016, man. [Laughter]

I know with a lot of Vancouver bands, or, even just being in media, people are always like, "Wait, when are you going to move to Toronto?"

Noël: Same. English go to Toronto and French people go to Montreal.

Aubé: We get asked all the time and we just say, "You don’t have to live in Montreal to do this!" There are very good francophone artists that live in Manitoba or Saskatoon or Sudbury and I think that’s awesome. And Vancouver.

Is there a rivalry between French-speaking people from Quebec versus New Brunswick?

Aubé: Generally not, but some people have different opinions on Acadian French. Some people love it, some don’t like it.

Roy: They think we’re trying to assimilate. [LeBlanc laughs]

Aubé: Some people think we’re purposefully trying to slander the French language by saying English words and they think it’s on purpose and we’re just making up our French dialect as we go. But on the other hand, there’s a big part of Quebec that’s really welcoming and they love Acadians and Acadian music.

LeBlanc: Most of them.

Aubé: Yeah, most of them. You only get a couple assholes here and there.

LeBlanc: Even in New Brunswick —

Noël: There’s assholes in New Brunswick, too.

Roy: Yeah, there are people in New Brunswick, too, who have said, "Oh, it’s a shame these girls are singing like that," saying we exaggerate the language or whatever, but the language has changed so much over the years and we’re just in that generation that speaks that way.

Noël: And there are a lot of people in New Brunswick who don’t listen to Quebecers’ music because they don’t like their accent, so it’s just a dead end.

LeBlanc: Choose your battles.

When people assume because you speak French you’re from Quebec, is there a sense of Acadian erasure? Is that a real concern?

Roy: It’s not a big concern, but it’s just like, "Ugh." It’s just like, "F--k, we’re going through this again? No, I am not a Quebecer." Sometimes you don’t want to get into it and you’re just like, "Yep, whatever, I’m from anywhere you think I am."

Aubé: It’s like a long story to tell. "What are Acadians? Oh, there are French people in New Brunswick?" But more and more people know of Acadians.

Noël: Which is good.

Aubé: Which is nice for us.

LeBlanc: We don’t have to do the history channel.

Aubé: I don’t think any of us like being labelled "Quebec music" or "from Quebec." We’re always like, "Oh, but we’re not though."

Your community sounds super supportive, but did you experience pushback as women entering the music scene?

A loosely collective: No, never.

We should all go to New Brunswick!

Noël: People were very encouraging. I mean, sometimes it was like, "Oh, you’re cute," or whatever, but.

Roy: But I find it’s inevitable that people just assume — like, they can talk about gear and stuff with other people but they just assume in the industry — I don’t know, I might not even talk about that. But sometimes they ask questions and they think you don’t know anything about gear or how to set up a stage.

Aubé: Yeah, or any technical stuff.

Roy: That annoys me a little bit sometimes.

Noël: Sometimes we do a soundcheck and they act like it’s our first soundcheck, but it’s actually our 300th. But it never pisses me off that much.

LeBlanc: It might be a little annoying sometimes but it’s not a big thing.

Noël: And maybe when we first started playing, like, three girls, we were pretty young. We probably got a push because we were three girls and people were curious about it, like, that’s offsetting, it’s actually a girl band. So many high school boy bands try to make it, but we just had that extra support because we were girls maybe.

Aubé: The thing that annoys me the most, though, and actually, this is a thing: we only get compared to other girl bands.

LeBlanc: Right.

Aubé: We’re never allowed to be compared to a band that’s only guys. They say musically we’re similar to like —

Roy: The Be Good Tanyas. [Laughter]

Aubé: Yeah, it’s only ever girl bands. But maybe our music was more similar to say, I’m just going to name any band, the Eagles, but they would never say that! They’d be like, "You’re like the Dixie Chicks because you’re three girls!" That, to me, is so frustrating.

Noël: Yeah, that’s true! We don’t even sound anything like them, but oh, because we have hair and we sing? We always get compared to Lisa, too.

Roy: Which is okay. [LeBlanc laughs]

Aubé: But I was trying to put it in perspective and I was like, OK, if we were men, and we played in a band and we had a bass and a guitar and a mandolin, like, that, you’d just compare us to —

Mumford & Sons.

Aubé: Exactly!

Noël: Actually, that’s the only male band we got compared to ever. [Makes the sad trombone sound while the others laugh.]

Vivianne, I know that you have your solo project, Laura Sauvage, but one of the articles that came out when you were doing press for that said you were “formerly” of Les Hay Babies. As soon as you’ve got a solo project, you’ve broken up. Is that the rule?

Noël: That was one article that got around and everybody was like, "What?"

Roy: Everyone was like, "You’re breaking up the Hay Babies?" I don’t even know. But no.

Lisa, your new record is mostly in English. Are you nervous about that at all?

LeBlanc: No. I really don’t care about it. I mean, I’m kind of over it. My icebreaker was the EP I released in 2014, which was an English EP, and that was the initial shock, like, "Oh, what? Lisa’s made an English record? OK." So I feel like I’ve done those interviews, I’ve done that explaining. "Yep, I started writing in English. Yeah, I did. So, whatever!" All of the francophones I know not from Quebec in Canada write in both. They’re bilingual and that’s it. I had something to say in English. I love both languages. I love French, I’m such a fan of the dialects and I’m such a fan of Louisiana and the Cajun accents and it’s so amazing for me, but I wanted to branch out. Whatever, man, I’m releasing an album and if people don’t like it, don’t buy it. You can’t please everybody and that’s not what I’m aiming for, because I would probably be making really bad music if I were trying to please that much. And, whatever, some people probably think I make bad music anyways! It’s OK, I don’t care. I’m doing it because I like it. That whole language debate, we’re always going to get it. You know, coming from New Brunswick, too, we’ve had that even for French, too.

Roy: If people ask the question, it’s because they don’t know anything about it. Like, "Why did you write in English?" If you ask the question about it, you have nothing to say about it. You can’t talk shit just because you started writing in English —

Noël: I guess it’s just like, especially in Quebec, it’s just not that much a reality because people don’t write in English because they don’t feel comfortable doing it.

LeBlanc: And it’s such another debate, too, if you’re from Quebec, you have such a different culture and history. There’s also a lot of anglophones in Quebec that we don’t speak of very much. But when you’re from New Brunswick, you’re bilingual. It’s such another — we never grew up with the Quebec culture, we grew up with our own local, Acadian culture and what was going on in the US and stuff. But since I’m in Montreal, obviously, the question’s being asked, and some people might be obviously offended by it, but I can’t do anything about it except be like, well, here’s my point of view, this is where I’m from, hopefully you understand and if you don’t, well, that’s it. There’s nothing else I can do.

And it’s not like you suddenly stop speaking or singing in French or Acadian. This is another facet of your expression. I did an interview with Beatrice Martin and her last [Coeur de pirate] album was primarily in English and she was sort of preparing for some pushback and I feel like she did get some.

LeBlanc: She probably did.

Recently she came under fire for hugging Justin Trudeau. There’s this weird demand on her as a person

Noël: There really is.

Roy: Yeah.

LeBlanc: There’s too much demand on her, I feel. In a sense, it’s like, she’s just another musician, calm down.

Noël: She tours a lot and she’s a smart girl. I don’t know why people —

LeBlanc: Yeah, I find people are pretty hard on her.

Roy: Let her do her thing. Let her play music! She’s a hard worker, she works super f--king hard and she’s really nice. She’s a really humble person.

Vivianne, I heard that you flicked Justin Trudeau’s nose. Tell me more. And if any of the rest of you have bodily assaulted, minorly and in an affectionate way, any political figures or dignitaries, I want to know that, too.

LeBlanc: [Laughs] Nothing close to that.

Noël: Actually, Justin Trudeau and I made out a little bit. [Laughter]

But that was your solemn duty as a Canadian.

Roy: So, at the Canada Day show, we had to get onstage with Metric and sing or whatever and there was a long red carpet. I wasn’t really sure how it was going to go on. I kinda felt like Mr. Bean [laughter], when he was meeting the Queen and flossing and all kinds of shit, checking his breath. I felt kind of like that. And as soon as I knew we were playing that show right after his speech, I was like, "I have to flick his nose." I do it to everybody. It’s not just like a flicking Justin Trudeau’s nose.

LeBlanc: No, it’s like a thing.

Roy: It’s almost like a tic. I’ll meet people for the first time and flick their nose right away. Before even knowing their names.

Noël: I could never, ever, ever believe Viv if she said — like, I could have a big stain on my shirt but I would never look if she would tell me.

LeBlanc: No, we can’t! We’re like, "No!"

Noël: Yeah, I’d rather actually have a big stain on my shirt.

LeBlanc: You have to turn around and be like, "Is she still there?" Then look and be like, "OK, I’m fine."

Roy: So we were waiting in line and the girls were like, "Don’t do it, don’t do it." [Laughter] And, honestly, for like three seconds, I thought, yeah, maybe I shouldn’t do this. Like there were snipers and stuff on top of the building. [Laughter]

Noël: They would have shot your finger off.

Roy: So he came up to me and I was like, almost, I guess I was super spaced, I wasn’t even nervous, I was like, I’m a f--king pro at this shit. So I just tell him, "Oh, you have something on your shirt." And while I’m saying that, they shoot, like, a blank canon, so he didn’t hear it, he just saw me point and thought I was complimenting his necktie, so he looked down and I’m like, "booooop" [mimes flicking] and then I just immediately laughed and got his shoulder.

Noël: And we laughed like "aargh!"

Aubé: We were like, shaking his wife’s hand and then like, "Hahahahaha."

Roy: He laughed and then he stopped laughing and kept shaking hands and then he turned around and was still laughing. I’m never going to forget that image of him pointing at me and laughing with his beautiful eyes. [Laughter]

Noël: Like this [gestures].

Double finger guns?

Roy: Yeah, double finger guns! [Laughter]

Noël: He’s actually telling the snipers, "Go!"

LeBlanc: Follow this girl.

Noël: And while she was doing that, his wife was right behind him and she said, "You girls look like a bunch of troublemakers." [LeBlanc laughs]

Roy: Right before?

Aubé: Right after.

Noël: And she said, "I like troublemakers."

Hang out with me on Twitter: @_AndreaWarner

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