Preparing a show for a venue that’s normally a Montreal porn theatre isn’t everyone’s game, but for hometown singer-songwriter Lydia Képinski, it’s a chance to go all out.
“For Cinema l’Amour, my character is a little bit more edgy, we were inspired by Marquis de Sade,” explains Képinski over tea in a Plateau café the day of her Sept. 26 Pop Montreal show. “It's a man who wrote some controversial books, just before the French revolution, and it was really sexual and about freedom and imprisonment as well.”
Later that evening, Képinski would perform to a sold-out, raucous crowd that knew all the words to her 2018 debut album, Le Premier juin (The First of June, a.k.a. her birthday), and her 2016 EP. With choreographed dancers writhing back-and-forth against each other in the aisles, real-time and pre-recorded films being played on the big screen, and Képinski pausing at a few points to bask in the audience’s cheers while she stood onstage, it felt like the show may have exceeded expectations.
And the 24-year-old singer-songwriter of Franco-Polish heritage is meticulous about those expectations. Firm about her vision and her business, Képinski has studied classical piano, taught herself how to play guitar in high school and makes music that dips from grunge to rock to synth-pop. It’s a mix that seems almost unsustainable, but a list of influences that spans decades — and includes literary names Victor Hugo, Homer and Quebec’s Marc Favreau — informs the heartbreakingly genuine throughline of her work: the lyrics.
“I wanted to do something artistic about my life,” explains Képinksi. “But I think I was searching a bit [for] the best medium for me. And I went through visual arts and literature at university. But there was something appealing in the music scene that is all about performance, and it was an aspect I was really missing in the literature or the cinema or the visual arts scene. So I think I wanted to do that because there's a part when I can write, and that's the most important step.”
Képinski’s 2018 debut album — which has been nominated for six awards at l'ADISQ, Quebec's version of the Junos — details the end of her adolescence in novella-like quality, touching on mental illness, death, suicide, romance and abusive relationships in delicate ways that feel far more frank and self-aware than most coming-of-age stories. (For journalists about to interview her, Képinski sends along a press kit that details each song. Also in the kit, she says she considers each song to be a step toward achieving adulthood but, despite being so open about her experiences on the album, it doesn’t mean she wants to answer interview questions about suicide at 8 a.m.)
While Képinski is focusing on the francophone markets for now, it’s no reason for anglophones further afield to miss out on her music. Below, six things you need to know about the emerging singer.
1. She is a corporation
Képinski counts herself and her manager as her core team, and together Képinski says they’re trying to build a structure so “we can benefit from the grants at the same level that a big label could do” — while cutting out that big-label mediation.
“Our goal is to be the only company that can have this money directly because I'm a corporation,” she explains. “I don't look like [it], but I am [laughs]. So I'm an evil capitalist [laughs] corporation."
2. She writes songs about depression, death and abuse to give people hope
“It's the way I felt during or after [...] those periods that I'm just stuck with and I need to get it out. And to make a song with it, so people can relate, it's like this trauma was worthwhile ... that it was not in vain. Like, yeah, this trauma can be overcome, plus, can be an example of overcoming for other people who can relate to this song, and look at me and say, ‘OK this girl survived, so I can survive.’”
3. Serge Gainsbourg is her artistic model
“I think Gainsbourg was able to do a thing that I want to achieve: to keep my music honest and sincere and sincerely odd — but being able to reach a [broad audience]. And this is the goal because we have such a small market in Quebec that oftentimes people will change their songs or change their way of behaving or just tweak their songs so they can reach the most people possible. I think it kind of devalues what you do and I don't want to lose my edginess because oftentimes the artist will — they're so edgy at the beginning and we love them because they're original, and they grow old and they want kids and they want [a] cottage and they want a car [laughs] — so they lose this edginess so they can reach more people.
“And that could be cool but what's best, I think, is to keep your edginess, but still being able to reach a public. But I think there is a movement of young artistes Québécois who are changing the game. So I don't feel I'm alone in this; I think it's reachable. But you know … I want a cottage and a car. I don't mind having kids [laughs]. No, I would love to have kids."
4. She sees a new generation of francophone artists — including herself — as a group that is taking the public by surprise
“The major thing to me is that they offend people ... like Safia Nolin showing up at the ADISQ gala just wearing normal clothes … and she's offending every baby boomer of Quebec. And then you have Hubert Lenoir who shows up at La Voix, just doing his thing, showing his ass, everybody gets offended…. And me when I talk, [on] the radio, people get offended. So it's just people reacting — I guess we are different, obviously. Because people wouldn't react otherwise…. When people react, it means we are doing something different. And I think different is good.”
5. She is ‘kind of obsessed with biohacking’
“It's like hacking your everyday life to be more in health ... I recently read a book that's called Move Your DNA by Katy Bowman and it's so interesting, it's debunking the exercise mentality and talking about movement, how everyday movement is more important than exercise three times a week, one hour. Like those kinds of things. I'm really into, it's called a ‘primal world,’ like getting back to those principles of the cave men. Like walking barefoot or not eating on the table, but eating on the ground. So I guess you can say that when I'm at home, I'm always eating on the ground, outside…. It sounds witchy, but it's not [laughs]."
6. She writes (almost) every day
“Since it's working a lot more, my career, it's been really hard for me to write every day. But usually my routine is to get up and write. It's like working out — like I don't hope not to run all year long and then do a marathon. l’m running every day, and then I can not run for a week but then I'm ready to do [a] marathon if I want to … and it doesn't have to be good every time. I think most of the people do not write because they're afraid that it's not gonna be great, or as great as their expectations. But yeah, it really debunks that mindset when I just write every day.”