Ottawa’s Laurent Bourque takes a musical risk with album Blue hour

Detail from Laurent Bourque's Blue hour album cover.

There comes a time when you just have to stop doing what you are doing and try something new. That certainly happened to the singer-songwriter Laurent Bourque.

A couple of years ago the Ottawa native was preparing to go into the studio to record a new album to follow up his 2014 debut album, Pieces of Your Past, which won him Canada’s Stingray Rising Star Award.

He was in pre-production meetings at the time and he wasn’t feeling right about the project.

“I left that weekend realizing that none of the songs felt exciting to me. And I wondered ‘Why the hell don’t I feel excited about what I am doing?’ I didn’t want to put a record out just to do that.

“I didn’t see the point if it was not good enough for me; if it was not going to be fun to play on tour. It was a really odd moment.”

Laurent Bourque. Photo: Nathan Cyprys

Bourque made a bold decision. For a guy who says he is not really a risk-taker, it was a daring move but he basically tossed the songs he had written into the garbage bin and started over.

But it was more than a simple re-do.

He really changed it up.

He decided he would seek out writing partners to come up with new material and he put his guitar aside for the piano, an instrument that he really didn’t know how to play at the time.

The result of this dramatic change is the gentle, ballad-rich album called Blue hour. Bourque will be at the piano in Ottawa on Oct. 18 at the NAC’s Fourth Stage.

This music certainly a long way from Billy Corgan and the Smashing Pumpkins. Corgan was Bourque’s hero as a teenaged rock and roller in a band in Ottawa.

“My days of being in a rock band are long gone,” he said.

The real jaw-dropper about this album is the fact that Bourque learned how to play the piano while he was writing the material for the record.

“My previous record which came out in 2014 was guitar oriented. I put that one out and toured it for a couple of years. Then I had a whole other record ready to go and what ended up happening was I realized that I was completely unsatisfied with all the songs and everything. I ditched it completely during the re-production process.

“Then I just rebooted my approach to making art. That is when the piano came into my life. A bunch of other life events all led to a two year period of writing and learning the piano and writing with different writers instead of on my own.

“It really changed everything doing that. It made it more immediate. Because you are working with someone else, you have to try to finish a song in four or five hours or else you go home with nothing. It forces you to focus.”

It was like going back to songwriting school, he said. The great thing about working with other musical minds is that collaborations offer a new perspective on music, “because everyone approaches music differently.” Even the mistakes help.

He ended up writing about 150 songs with other people. He whittled that down to 30 and then he had to cut further to get the final 10 tunes on Blue hour.

He was helped in the final cull by his producer, his manager and his longtime friend,  drummer Jamie Kronick.

“Jamie and I played hockey together when we were 11, 12. We were in our first band together in Ottawa.”

The two actually met through hockey not music.

But “he was learning to play the drums and I was learning to play the guitar and it was like ‘Hey, let’s form a rock band’.”

Bourque started on the guitar at age nine taking lessons at the late lamented Ottawa Folklore Centre. The band continued into his high school days at the private Lycee Claudel in the Alta Vista area.

His parents weren’t musical. His grandmother sang in the church choir. His mother is a writer, “maybe the language part comes from her.” He’s not sure about the music part.

After high school he went to McGill and stayed in Montreal for awhile before heading down Highway 401 to Toronto where he lives today.

“I just had to leave the nest,” he said.

He did have a piano teacher in Montreal but “I didn’t take it seriously. I can’t say I learned too much, other than where your fingers should generally be. I certainly could not play a full song with chords.”

That has come with an intense period of study in the making of Blue hour.

Still, performing live on the instrument has been “super weird and scary to do this. I can’t say I feel completely comfortable with it. I have done a handful of shows now where I play the piano.

“I have been practicing at home every day. I made the record last summer and I did probably 80 per cent of the piano you hear on record.”

After cutting the record, Bourque had to learn how to play his songs for the tour that is now happening.

“I had to figure out what I had played in studio.” He didn’t write the music down.

His first show in which he played the piano and sang in front of people was during Canadian Music Week this past spring.

“I was terrified. I had never done this before. I remember telling my bandmates before the show ‘Guys I’m scared right now because this is my first time playing the piano in front of people. They were like ‘What the hell are you talking about? Are you serious?'”

Fortunately it all went well and now he’s in a groove.

“It makes it fun again. Writing for the piano and playing it has reinvigorated me. I was bored with the way I was performing live before.”

With all those extra songs you’d think he’d be headed back to the studio for more, but first: “I am working on a French EP. I am writing with a couple of writers and producers from France I have work with before.”

He comes from a bilingual home and is equally fluent in both official languages. But he has tended to write in English.

This French EP is different in that it contains disco rhythms and synthesizers instead of the acoustic piano sounds of Blue hour.

His fluency allows him to explore the possibility of audiences in English and French Canada along with opportunities in Europe if he so chooses.

As well, he wanted to test himself.

“I never want to make the same record twice — at least not back to back.

“All of my favourite artists like to make every record different. Kanye West is the best example of that. He’s never made same record twice. I look up to that.”

NAC Presents Laurent Bourque with Jacquie Neville
Where: Fourth Stage
When: Oct. 18 at 8:30 p.m.
Tickets and information:

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Peter Robb began his connection with the arts community in Ottawa in the mid-1980s when he was the administrator and public relations director of the Great Canadian Theatre Company. After a long career in journalism with the Ottawa Citizen where he served in a number of different posts he returned to the arts when he became the Citizen's arts editor.