Myriam Gendron’s Open Book Approach

Justine Latour

Myriam Gendron’s Open Book Approach

Justine Latour

The Quebecois singer-songwriter on her stunning new album Mayday, her mother's final days, and how so many brilliant musicians end up on her records

With her deep knowledge of history and literature, combined with her vulnerable, evocative lyrics, Myriam Gendron has the power to open emotional portals. There is something intangible about the sound of her voice, the phrasing of her words, and the chords she chooses that unlocks something within me, like few other musicians can.

On her 2014 debut, Not So Deep As A Well, the Quebecois singer and multi-instrumentalist surprised everyone — most importantly, herself — by setting poems from Dorothy Parker’s eponymous 1940 collection to music. At that time, Gendron worked at a bookstore and had never composed anything, but as she told me in our interview, “Every poem was a song!”

When Gendron submitted her sparse home recordings to beloved cult labels such as Feeding Tube and Mama Bird Recording Co., they accepted the songs, but refused to consider them unfinished demos. Through word of mouth from the fans of these labels, Gendron’s stunning debut found a devoted audience, perhaps largely because of its homespun, unpolished quality.

Gendron returned triumphantly — and somewhat unexpectedly — in 2021 with Ma délire – Songs of love, lost & found. Predating our current year of dense double albums ranging from essential (Diamond Jubilee) to awful (The Tortured Poets Department), Gendron’s sophomore collection of songs built upon traditional compositions from artists such as John Jacob Niles. That time, she was joined by acclaimed guests from the world of free improvisation, including drummer Chris Corsano (Björk, Bill Orcutt) and guitarist Bill Nace (Body/Head), alongside a murderer’s row of Quebecois musicians.

On her third album, Mayday, Gendron continues her work within the folk song continuum, while contributing more original lyrics. This time, guests include drumming legend Jim White (Cat Power, Bill Callahan, Xylouris White), guitarist Marisa Anderson, saxophonist Zoh Amba, and more. Singing in French and English, Gendron meditates on the passing of her mother, environmental devastation, and the lullabies we sing to our children that we can’t sing to ourselves. I’ve cried listening to Mayday a few times already, and I thank her for that.

During our video chat, Gendron proudly showed me her original copy of Not So Deep As A Well, shared the hilarious story of her first hug with White, and offered intimate details about the difficulties she’s experienced. In lyrics or in conversation, Gendron is an open book.

How was your tour with Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy?

MYRIAM GENDRON: That was great, absolutely! I had never been to Texas before. You hear all sorts of stories, but people were really nice. I didn’t feel threatened or anything. It was way too hot, but the shows were nice.

Did you have any BBQ?

GENDRON: No, unfortunately. We had some tacos. I was just following their crew and doing what they decided to do. Will likes to eat well, so it was nice. We ate in nice places. He’s a very special person.

I wanted to send my condolences for your mom’s passing, even though I know it was several years ago. Was that event a major catalyst for this project to begin?

GENDRON: It was pretty central. It wasn’t the only thing that was on my mind, but it definitely played a big part. It was just a very hard year — 2022 — generally speaking. Many good things happened, like Ma délire got a lot of good reviews and good exposure, and I toured in Europe for the first time, so that was really great. I actually had to quit my job because music was taking up too much of my time. That was a job I had for 15 years!

What were you doing?

GENDRON: I worked in a bookstore. So 2022 was a life-changing year, and through it all my mother passed. It was very intense, then I had to play a lot of festivals, then go on tour across the US and Europe. I came back home at the beginning of 2023 and I had nothing. I had no job. I have a family and all, so I obviously had something, but it felt like emptiness.

You were missing a grounding purpose?

GENDRON: I felt useless. I’ve always been a very busy person — maybe keeping myself busy as some form of escape? Many people do that, right?

I relate to that very deeply. [laughs]

GENDRON: [laughs] Yeah. But then all of a sudden, I came back home in January 2023, and I felt empty. I had all of this grieving to deal with that I wasn’t able to find time for before. So that was the starting point for Mayday. “What am I going to do with my life?”

You had this big space in your life, and you thought “I’m going to make an album to fill that space.” Well, the lyrics of “La belle Françoise (pour Sylvie)” are just so intimate and evocative. I really appreciate you sharing that she said wine had lost its taste, and that she called you Mimi.

GENDRON: That was my little name.

It almost makes me cry thinking about that moment of you next to her on her deathbed. Was that song based on a real moment you had with her?

GENDRON: It comes from a traditional song. I just changed the lyrics, but kept the structure. I heard that song and got obsessed with the melody, so I just had to decide what to do with it. Then I realized it was going to be a song about my mother. Originally it was about a woman who was sentenced to death because she killed her father. She was about to be executed. The man who is going to kill her, how do you call him — the butcher?

The executioner?

GENDRON: In French we have a fancy word for it that might exist in English. It would be something like the beheadsman or the hangman?

Oh wow, OK.

GENDRON: He brings her water and she says no. She doesn’t want to drink from the hands of her executioner. Then he starts crying. It’s a very strange song with a strange lyric. I decided to see what it would feel like if I switched the roles. I’m sort of like the executioner, because I’m taking care of someone who’s going to die. I’m the one who’s bringing her water — or wine.

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You’re more like a doula than an executioner.

GENDRON: That’s true, but I’m the last one there. I’m the only one to take care of her.

You help her cross over from one world to the next.

GENDRON: Yes, exactly. So that moment that I’m describing didn’t happen. She didn’t tell me that wine had lost its taste. I’m sure she could have because she felt like that. Everything we were trying to get her to do had lost any power over her because she knew she was going to die. She had no reason to get excited about anything.

That’s evocative. When I was going through a period of depression last year, I experienced something called anhedonia where you can’t find pleasure in anything. I’m sure that would be heightened to another level if you knew you were going to die.

GENDRON: I’m really sorry to hear you went through that. My mom loved wine, so something I regretted after she died is that I didn’t give her a last glass. I feel guilty about it, but I’m sure she wouldn’t have drank it anyway, because she felt like that. Nothing had any taste anymore.

It’s like life had lost its taste to her.

GENDRON: Yeah, exactly! So offering a glass of wine in the song was my way of making up for that. I knew what she would have said, which took away the guilt for me.

Giving her a chance to look deeply into your eyes is the best glass of wine you could have given her. This album also includes the song “Terres brûlées” or “Scorched Earth,” which is about the destruction of the environment. I thought about the concept of ‘Mother Earth’ when I was listening. Is that in there at all?

GENDRON: I don’t want to give an interpretation of that song, because it could be about anything, but I like that interpretation.

I often think about indigenous people’s perspective on preserving nature, where the trees, the land, and the sky are considered people, too. In that way of thinking, if we burn the earth, we also burn ourselves.

GENDRON: Absolutely. I feel that, and I talked about that interpretation of the song in another interview, but I wasn’t thinking about my mother.

Here in BC, there’s an archipelago called Haida Gwaii. The government of the province recently came to an agreement with the Haida Nation from that region to give their land back to them. This is big news that points to something very hopeful, but it’s barely been reported on in mainstream media anywhere. In my opinion, when we talk about nature preservation, and who are the best people to protect Mother Earth, the land back movement should be the loudest part of that conversation. So even if it wasn’t intentional, your song resonated with me on that level, too!

GENDRON: Oh wow, that’s amazing. I’m so glad it did.

I also noticed the month of May is a recurring theme throughout the album. After your mother passed away in May, did that time of year take on a new significance?

GENDRON: It’s a very strong month, symbolically. Everything is blooming and it’s so pretty, but May 2022 was so challenging. I was feeling this strong contrast of how beautiful life was supposed to be, and how hard it was for me. My mom felt that too. She said, “There are better months to die than others. This is not the right month to die.” She really felt like she was missing out.

That’s really sad. Maybe February would be better when it’s dark and gray, but we don’t get to decide when natural causes take us, unfortunately.

GENDRON: That’s true. My daughter was also born in May, so it’s a life and death time.

How do you begin researching for an album project like this, where you combine elements of old poems and traditional songs from different cultures, in various languages? Do you go in with themes like mothers or May in mind when you start looking for things?

GENDRON: I didn’t have a theme when I started. I was obviously dealing with a lot of emotions that had to find a way out. I knew that if I made a third record I wanted to keep working in the same direction that I did on Ma délire; I wanted to use traditional songs and transform them with more original writing, which I started to do on that album.

Songs like “Farewell” are inspired by some archetypes from traditional music, but they’re really my melodies and my lyrics. Those were things I discovered working on Ma délire: that I could do it, and that I really enjoyed it! So I wanted to see what else I could do. It’s not like I find it a superior kind of songwriting, because it’s all the same to me, but I wanted to go deeper in that direction.

In terms of Mayday, there wasn’t a lot of research. At one point I felt blocked so I started painting my house and fixing things.

I relate to that deeply. When I have a deadline, my house is never cleaner.

GENDRON: [laughs] Yes! So I was doing very concrete work on the house, and in doing that, I was listening to a lot of music. That was my research—getting inspiration from things. There were a few songs by John Jacob Niles that triggered things for me again, and “La belle Françoise” is one I heard while doing that too. I loved that melody and knew I wanted to do something with that song.

I love that! Taking melodies and reworking them seems central to what we call folk songs. I definitely think you’re working in a continuum.

GENDRON: Oh yeah, for sure!

You also return to Dorothy Parker on this album in the song “Dorothy’s Blues.” How did you first discover her and how does she continue to inspire you?

GENDRON: I didn’t know much about her until I became aware of this book. [Holds up Dorothy Parker’s poetry collection, Not So Deep As A Well]. I guess I was 24 or 25 and I was just browsing at a bookstore — not the one where I worked. The beautiful gold writing stood out to me. It was really pretty, so I just picked it up.

In my mind at that time, Dorothy Parker was a satirist. I didn’t know she was a poet because her work had never been translated into French books at all. Then I opened it, and since I have it right here, I’ll show you. The first poem I read was “Threnody.”

Oh wow, your signature song!

GENDRON: Yeah! I read the first line of the poem — “Lilacs blossom just as sweet, now my heart is shattered” — and I thought, “Ooh!” Then I read the whole thing, and I immediately felt it was a song. It was all there; it just felt so obvious. Then I kept turning the pages and it kept happening. Every poem was a song!


GENDRON: I had never written songs before, but I somehow knew that I could turn these poems into songs. At that point, I had no idea I was going to make a record, or start a career in music.

Every time I talk to you, you say, “I didn’t think I was going to make this record,” then you keep doing more and more. Your new album was released by Thrill Jockey, so I think you have to keep going, Myriam!

GENDRON: [laughs] Maybe I say that kind of thing too much. It was never my intention, but I’m enjoying it quite a lot now that it’s happening. The only hard part for me is now that it’s my only professional activity — like I don’t have anything else. I don’t know if that’s going to work. We’ll see…

Well, I think it’s working! I like to support Quebecois artists like you especially, because I still don’t think you get nearly enough attention from English-speaking music fans, or the mainstream media in Canada.

GENDRON: It’s crazy, right? My stuff works super well in the United States, but I have no idea about English Canada, to be honest.

I wanted to ask you about Marisa Anderson and Jim White’s playing on “Lully Lallay” and Zoh Amba’s sax playing on “Berceuse.” You’ve been blessed to have some great free-improv players on your albums, like Chris Corsano and Bill Nace, who’s back on this one too. Do you like to add some chaos into your quiet, meditative songs to keep them interesting?

GENDRON: Yes, that’s important to me. It became more obvious on Ma délire because there was none of that on my first one. I didn’t know I was making a record, so I just recorded the tracks at home with a USB mic. I didn’t really work on them or come up with any arrangements. When I sent the record to labels, it was a demo in my mind. I was going to re-record it and add more instruments later, if anyone picked it up. But then it was released exactly as I submitted it. The people at the labels said it was perfect as it was — you’re not touching this!

Was it my hero Byron Coley from Feeding Tube who said that?

GENDRON: Yes, and also the people who run Mama Bird Recording Co. in Portland. They said, “We’re keeping these as they are.”

Intimate songs like those shouldn’t sound glossy, in my opinion. I think the demo quality is perfect.

GENDRON: That’s fair, but when I listen to the album now, I say, “Ugh!” There are so many things I would change if I could.

Your version was unfinished when you submitted it, so I totally understand.

GENDRON: Yes, and it’s probably why people like the album too, so I’m serene with that. I just can’t listen to it. I didn’t tour a lot for Not So Deep As A Well, because I had my daughter shortly after it was released, but I played a few shows here and there in the years that followed. I really got the feeling that the people who liked my music and my shows were not the typical folk people. I don’t say “typical” in a bad way, but I hope you know what I mean.

People who go to big city folk festivals?

GENDRON: Yeah! When I opened for acts in that scene, most of the time it didn’t work. People weren’t into what I was offering. But then when I opened for experimental people like Bill Nace or post-rock bands like Godspeed You! Black Emperor, that worked. It’s not an obvious combination, but for some reason, that became my audience. I don’t know if it’s because my music was released on Feeding Tube, but I think it’s more than that. I was happy about it because that’s the music I listen to as well. I don’t listen to that much regular folk music.

[laughs] That makes sense!

GENDRON: When I made Ma délire, it was so long. It was an hour and 15 minutes long, and at first it was just guitar and vocals. I knew I had to add stuff. I felt there was a lot of space for noise and weird, experimental sounds.

When I listen to Mayday, I feels hard to imagine “Lully Lallay” or “Berceuse” without those parts. They add to the themes, and make the lyrics more evocative. It’s so great.

GENDRON: On Ma délire, it was kind of obvious. I wrote to Bill and Chris, and was so happy with what they did. Then when I started making Mayday, I knew that I had to keep doing it, because it adds so much to my sound.

I love how loose Jim’s drumming is. It sounds like he’s in a basement band bashing away while learning the song, but he stays in time so well. He has a great touch.

GENDRON: He’s very intuitive, because he feels the songs! He got very emotional in the studio. I translated the lyrics and he thought that was very helpful. Jim doesn’t talk much, but he’s very serious about what he does.

I cried the first time I listened to the song about your mom, after I knew what it was about. I was walking around in the sun and it made me think about my own mother. That was a good experience, ultimately, and I think you’ve created a portal for people to tap into their emotions.

GENDRON: That’s really what I do, I think.

How did you first connect with the players on Mayday, like Marisa Anderson?

GENDRON: Mercury was the first record I heard from her. I really, really liked it, and played it a lot at home. I started doing research on her, and watching interviews where she talked about how she works with traditional music. It’s fascinating! She blends two different songs from the traditional repertoire and creates a new story, but it’s just electric guitar. I find it fascinating.

It’s similar to what you do, in that sense.

GENDRON: Yes! She was a huge inspiration for Ma délire. Her work is really important to me, and at first I thought that working with her would be too good to be true. Then more recently I learned that she was aware of me, so I thought maybe I could reach out. Jim was the same way. I’ve been a huge fan of everything he’s done with Cat Power, Bill Callahan, Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy, Dirty Three, all that stuff. I also love what Mick Turner does as a guitarist.

Jim recently talked to The Quietus about Mary Margaret O’Hara’s Miss America, which is a favorite album of mine as well. It was really cool to read what he thought about it.

GENDRON: Oh yeah, yeah. It’s great! I had never met Jim until quite recently. I was in upstate New York for the Woodsist Festival in September 2022. Jim was there with Bill Callahan. They played a set together. I didn’t know I was going to see Jim, and I think it was some kind of last-minute arrangement, but I was so excited to see him backstage. Jim White!

He came to see my set, and I watched their set obviously, and we made a nice connection. Then backstage afterwards I had a few beers and asked him, “Can I hug you?” He said, “Yeah, sure!” Then we hugged, and it was a funny moment.

Is Jim a big guy?

GENDRON: His hair is quite imposing, but he’s not very tall. He’s normally sized I would say, but his presence is big, of course. He’s Jim White!

After that I stayed on his mind, I think. Not because of the hug, but because of my set. [laughs] He invited me to open for Xylouris White a few months later in New York, which I did. It was great! We played a song together, then I left and that was that. I still thought it would be so amazing to have him play a song on my record, but I hadn’t written most of the songs at that time, so I didn’t mention it to him.

Marisa Anderson came to Montréal in May or June of 2023. I went up to her before the show and said hello, but she didn’t recognize me until I said who I was. She knew who I was and said she had hoped I would be there, so that was really nice. I told her I had a new record in the making and was wondering if maybe… [laughs] It was a long shot for me, but I told her I wanted her and Jim on “Lully Lallay.” I could hear it in my mind.

She said, “Oh my god! I can’t believe this. I was with Jim two days ago and he talked about you. He said, ‘It would be great to collaborate with Myriam.'” So it was meant to be. He somehow knew that I would go see Marisa, because we talked about that later. Jim told her not to write to me, because he knew Marisa would be playing in Montréal a week later, and he just wanted to wait and see what happened.

Wow! That’s amazing. He knew if you went to the show and asked her, it would show your intention, and how serious you are, and also connect you two. Jim seems like an interesting guy!

GENDRON: Oh yeah. He and Marisa came to Montréal in September and we recorded those three songs together.

How did you meet Zoh Amba?

GENDRON: I heard about her because she was playing with Jim and Chris quite a lot. Zoh recorded her sax parts at Jim’s house. She came to Montréal with Chris for the Suoni Per Il Popolo festival in 2023. We were on the same bill. I was really happy we finally got to play the song from Ma délire that he plays on together for the first time, because the recording was all done remotely. This was the occasion to do it, and it went great.

When I was working on my set, I had this droney song. I felt that Zoh could do something on that song that was quite exciting, and she did. Chris was also playing drums with us and it sounded amazing.

That stayed with me, so when I wrote “Berceuse” I kept Zoh in my mind. The idea of the song is that we’re all singing lullabies to our children every day about how the world is going to be OK, while the real world outside is not OK at all. It’s scary. It requires so much strength to keep doing that every day.

It’s so hard to think about where the world is going politically, and the environment, but also myself on a personal level. Everything fell apart in my own interior world. Just saying everything was OK every night was really hard for a while, because it’s not OK at all. I’m getting better now, but it was really hard every day to be a good mother.

I feel for you so much. I can barely take care of myself!

GENDRON: [laughs] I would have loved to be alone in a room for a year to get my shit together, but I had to be a parent. It was very hard to be a parent, a good one, but at the same time, thank God I had that. It kept me going and brought me meaning when nothing else made any sense.

I’m so glad you’re feeling better, and that we now have this beautiful album.

GENDRON: Thank you! When I wrote “Berceuse” it was a lullaby, but I needed a kind of storm to illustrate the world in which we sing lullabies every day. I wrote to Zoh and explained the idea of the song and what I wanted her to do. It was a pretty long email, but she responded really enthusiastically and said, “Yes, I want to do this.”

You always have the best people playing on your albums. Can you tell me about the Quebecois musician Cédric Dind-Lavoie who plays on Mayday as well?

GENDRON: Cedric is a multi-instrumentalist. He made an album that was released around the same time as Ma délire called Archives. It’s a wonderful record. I strongly encourage you to look it up. For that album, he went to Laval University, where they have the folk music archives. We don’t have that many field recordings of Quebecois traditional music available, but it’s all there in Quebec City. Cedric went there and hunted through their collection to find songs to work with.

What he did on the record is that you’re hearing the field recording, but he’s playing all kinds of different instruments on top of these recordings that are often just voice, or maybe fiddle. He plays piano, upright bass, all sorts of instruments. It’s quite something, the effect it has. It’s like a time machine. It’s really good.

When I wrote “La belle Françoise,” I felt I didn’t know how to arrange it. It was a long song so I thought it needed something, but I didn’t know what. I felt really strongly about the song, so I had to give it to someone else. I sent it to Cedric and told him to produce it. I said “I don’t want to have anything to do with it.” He added a very subtle upright bass, and ultimately we kept it pretty minimal. Then because he was in the studio I asked him to add a few more things to some other songs. He’s a great musician. Very sensitive.

What’s next for you? I know you’re coming to Vancouver for the Coastal Jazz Festival later this summer. Do you have more festival dates?

GENDRON: I’m playing Thing In The Spring on May 17 with Jim and Marisa. Then I’m going to Switzerland for a festival during the summer, and then touring Europe in November.

This will be your first time in Vancouver, right?

GENDRON: We’re playing Seattle the day before, so we should have time to walk around the city a bit, but we’re heading back on the road right after the show to head south to San Diego. My whole tour is with Jim and Marisa, which is pretty exciting!

Mayday is out 5/10 on Thrill Jockey/Feeding Tube.

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