This past Sunday night found me at downtown Ottawa’s Atomic Rooster where I caught a performance of newly formed duo, Etoile Noire. Two Ottawa musicians, Justin Trudeau and Fabien Melanson, stood on opposite sides of the stage, acoustic guitars in hand, one who played left and the other who played right. Already I could see a sense of balance established, but when they began to play and sing, the chemistry between the two was evident. Justin took over much of the lead guitar parts and harmony vocals while Fabien sang most of the material, played rhythm guitar, and kept time on a foot-stomp box. What Justin had in his great guitar picking and riffing style, Fabien matched with his vocals and sense of rhythm—a perfectly well-rounded union.
This is the story of two talented musicians in their own right, who by way of an unfortunate predicament made an enlightening discovery of musical collaboration. Justin had been playing a string of regular cover shows where he found himself having to find another bandmate to accompany him. Hecalled upon Fabien to fill in alongside him from time to time. The fusion felt more and more like such a good fit that the two began jamming ideas together. A barrage of song material flourished over the course of the past five months, culminating in the duo’s first single release, “Gone”, with set plans for a full studio album to follow in the fall, along with an eastern tour.
Both long-time local musicians in the Ottawa area, the two have each brought their array of skills and styles to the table. The musical result is a Canadiana whirl of folk, rock, and country, rooted in colourful toe-tapping beats, superb guitar rhythms and leads, and lyrics derived from personal experience, written in both languages which reflect and embrace their native French/English heritage.
Justin had this to say: “Every song we wrote, we went through every note and every lyric together. I’ll have a line and he’ll think of something to finish it and vice versa… I don’t ever complete a song without him. We had the idea from the get-go to write some bilingual stuff in there. So in the single release, there’s a French bridge, while some songs are entirely in English. We may lean towards writing more songs that could be entirely in French. We’d like to be able to have the option of playing some Franco-Ontarien and Quebec venues too.” Fabien adds: “We really want to do that… we’re Canadian, both speak French, it’s part of our heritage, and I find that you can say things differently in French than you can in English. It’s also a beautiful language.”
Justin has been playing guitar for 14 years and has built his amazing versatility of band experiences involving rock, country, and various other indie ensembles, including some notable connections with members of the Prescott family. He focused mainly on his guitar playing rather than singing, which has come much more into play these last few years.
Along with being an accomplished singer, Fabien has a great sense of rhythm in his guitar playing, is a poet when it comes to writing lyrics, and like Justin, demonstrates great flow and structure in his songwriting. He also designed the foot-stomp box he uses while playing and has created several prototypes. The one he used during the show had a warm sound, similar to the bassier tones of a cajon.
Their single, “Gone”, as it turns out, is very infectious. There were textures of light into heavier chugging rhythms, matched with Fabien’s soft into strong passionate vocals, and included a brilliant guitar solo outro by Justin. After I’d listened to the song at home, then later heard them perform it live that night, I instantly remembered it, and found it had grown on me even more. There is also lyrical contrast as it speaks of love coming and going, like a star that shines brightly one moment, then loses its lustre the next, or becomes a black star… an étoile noire. Many of the songs convey similar thoughts on life’s not-so-perfect moments. “Gone” was released on Valentine’s Day this year because they felt the broken-hearted needed a song of their own on that day too. They are also entertaining the idea of putting the single out on 45 vinyl as well. The future full length album will also include a booklet, reminiscent of a time when record albums were exciting to buy not just for the music, but for things like the artwork and insert pull-outs of lyrics, stories, and sometimes posters that were included.
There is also lyrical contrast as it speaks of love coming and going, like a star that shines brightly one moment, then loses its lustre the next, or becomes a black star… an étoile noire.
According to Justin, “our concept of Etoile Noire, or Black Star, is that it’s an actual character. It’s an entity that’s always there… we’re either looking for it, or it’s already there. It represents both good and bad. We want to release an animated booklet with our CD when it comes out. We’ve connected with a couple of illustrators that we’re also going to use for our next video.”
The rest of the show offered a nice combination of songs the two had written together, along with one each of them had written on their own, and two cover choices. It showed the diversity of styles each had individually, which blended so beautifully in the pieces they wrote together, as well as in their adaptations of pieces by Steve Earle and Neil Young.
Everything about Etoile Noire speaks balance and harmony—from their stage presence and perfect melange of musical creativity, to bilingual song lyrics that convey the salt and pepper of life’s ups and downs.
Etoile Noire will be performing at the Rainbow Bistro on Saturday June 3, along with performances by leMeow and Silver Creek. Check out their new single, “Gone“, available for purchase on their website at www.etoilenoire.ca.