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Polaris 2017: 5 things you didn't know about Lisa LeBlanc's Why You Wanna Leave, Runaway Queen?

Jennifer Van Evra

If you’ve ever seen Acadian singer, songwriter and banjo player Lisa LeBlanc live, you know what a powerhouse performer she is — and that fearless, laid-bare approach is palpable on her latest album, Why You Wanna Leave, Runaway Queen?.

Lyrics about relationships, break-ups and other life tribulations mingle with rock, folk and bluegrass, as well as playful hints of spaghetti western and Hawaiian lap steel.

LeBlanc's sophomore album is one of this year’s Polaris finalists, and leading up to the big award on Sept. 18, we’re offering five things about each of the shortlisted records. Here are five things about Why You Wanna Leave, Runaway Queen?.

Related: Watch Lisa LeBlanc perform Why You Wanna Leave, Runaway Queen? in studio

1. It’s not a break-up record

With songs such as “Dump the Guy ASAP,” “I Love You, I Don’t Love You, I Don’t Know” and “Could You Wait ’Til I’ve Had My Coffee?” it would be easy enough to assume that Why You Wanna Leave is a break-up record — but LeBlanc insists it’s not about break-ups, and at least the songs about romantic rifts have a sense of humour.

“You have to laugh about it,” said LeBlanc told the Montreal Gazette. “I always laugh at the shitty things that happen to me. I always try to find the humour in bad things that happen. I feel like if I don’t do that, I sound like I’m complaining. I feel like there’s something nice about humour. That it can take something that’s very very dark and bring a little bit of light into it.”

2. One track is a Motörhead cover

The album is heavily rooted in LeBlanc’s Acadian ties, and mixes foot-stomping country with rootsy folk and bluegrass. But LeBlanc is also a closet rocker, and kicks her banjo into rock 'n' roll mode for an unforgettable cover of the Motörhead classic "Ace of Spades."

“It’s a very guitar-hero album. There are a lot of guitars on there. I love guitars. So it was fun to get some really cool guitar parts happening,” said LeBlanc, who argues the tight-knit, under-the-radar metal and bluegrass communities have more in common than they would like to think. “My big influences were classic rock and I feel they pop out even more on this record. I feel like the stuff I was listening to as a teenager really comes out on this one. I listened to a lot of Fleetwood Mac. Old Aerosmith. Jimi Hendrix. Tom Petty. Maybe because it was an English record and I was used to listening to the lyrics of these guys.”

3. At first all of the songs were depressing

When LeBlanc first began writing songs for the album, they were all downtempo and dark. “At the beginning, I thought this record was going to be completely depressing,” she confessed in an interview with the Toronto Star. “The first songs I wrote were all the downtempo ones: ‘Why Does It Feel So Lonely?’ ‘I Ain’t Perfect, Babe,’ ‘5748 km’ and, like, ‘Voodoo Women,’ which didn’t even have the ‘rock’ part yet. I was, like, ‘This is going to be so f--kin’ s----y.’ But then all the uptempo stuff came right after."

Injecting humour into the songs, she adds, also helps to keep the songs from sinking into a pit of despair. “I love how humour can just kind of make something very dramatic lighter. I feel like I can express it better. If I’m feeling very sad and something comes out, the first shot is going to be really depressing and I’m, like, ‘Jesus Christ, go for a walk or something. This is so depressing.’ And then, with some twists, I feel like the message can be clearer for me and it doesn’t sound like I’m just cutting my vein.”

4. Even though the album is entirely in English, it’s tightly tied to LeBlanc’s Acadian roots

Many of LeBlanc’s earlier songs were in French, but Why You Wanna Leave is all in English. LeBlanc says it's not a political choice, or a marketing one; it’s just how they came out.

“It’s not a question. There’s not much thought that goes into whether this is going to be a French song or an English song. When I’m starting it, sometimes I’ll try in English or French, to see whether it works better in one language or another. But it’s never been strategic. I really like both. It’s a challenge in both languages, which is something I really like," she told the Montreal Gazette.

Between albums, LeBlanc also bolstered her Acadian quotient and pursued her fascination with Cajun culture by heading to Louisiana’s Blackpot Camp, a kind of “music camp for adults,” to study everything from two-step dancing to Cajun fiddle to flatpicking. There, she found an immediate kinship. “You see it instantly. You see people that look like your cousin. There’s an instant connection between Cajuns and Acadians.”

5. Before she wrote the album, she first had to overcome serious writer's block

After a stretch of constant touring, LeBlanc took a break from the road and settled in to write her next album — but it was easier said than done. “It’s like I’m incapable of standing still," she said in an interview with Words & Music. "Ever since I left home, I stayed in Granby for a year to attend the École nationale de la chanson. Then, from 19 to 26, I was on tour non-stop. I’ve spent my whole adult life on the road. When that’s all that you know in life, how can you be expected to come home and just be ‘zen'?’ That’s why there are so many musicians who come home and feel totally lost. Life on tour is non-stop adrenaline. And then, pow! You have six months off to write new songs alone in your apartment. Hello, angst!”

Instead of stewing in that angst, LeBlanc set out on a two-month road trip across the U.S., meeting people, taking banjo lessons and playing jam sessions en route. “I came back with a few song ideas. The block was finally over.” When she returned home, she headed into the studio with producer Joseph Donovan (Sam Roberts, the Dears), who arranged for Roberts — one of her favourite musicians dating back to her teens — to sing on the song “I Love You, I Don’t Love You, I Don’t Know.”

“Joseph really helped me get over my writer’s block,” she says. “He coached me. We met every other week for writing lessons. I’m not a fan of routine, but being forced to work on this album was beneficial for me. It helped me convince myself that I’m a normal gal. I’m more ‘zen.’ I’m slowly getting to understand that travelling is fun, but it can also be fun to decorate your apartment and unpack your boxes.”

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