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Montreal musician Patrick Watson found unexpected success on TikTok during the pandemic.Nicola D'Orta/Handout

Justin Bieber took to TikTok in March to give his 25 million followers a taste of his idyllic home life. In the sunny video, his baby nephew sits on his front lawn interacting with the Peaches singer and his wife. To soundtrack the adorable moment, the world’s biggest pop star chose a song that has become internet shorthand for life’s tender moments: 2010′s Je te laisserai des mots, by the Montreal singer-songwriter Patrick Watson.

Over the past year, “the French song,” as Mr. Watson refers to it, has gained an unlikely second life on the social video platform. Originally composed for the Catherine Deneuve film Mères et Filles, the song has been used in more than 200,000 TikTok videos and garnered more than a billion streams across platforms.

“A billion!” Mr. Watson says with a laugh. “That’s crazy.”

The 42-year-old then considers his later-career run of pop success, which over the past few years also includes being covered by Billie Eilish and performing with the BBC Symphony Orchestra at the Barbican in London. “I’m not the most talked-about musician, but my music’s a little bit everywhere,” he says. “Like, all these crazy things are happening but I’m a bit under the radar.”

Montreal singer-songwriter Patrick Watson released the album Better in the Shade after taking up the study of modular synthesizers.Handout

Born in California and raised in Hudson, Que., Mr. Watson has been steadily releasing classically indebted music since 2001. Throughout his career, he’s managed to brush up against international attention several times. His music, which is inherently cinematic and lends itself to bouts of extreme emotional swings, has been featured in Grey’s Anatomy and The Walking Dead, and he and his eponymous band won the Polaris Prize in 2007.

However, this time felt different, he explains: a product of a paradigm shift in the very definition of popular music.

Where once a pop hit was defined by the catchiness of its topline or an earworm-inducing hook, “the modern pop song is now a soundtrack for people’s personal movies,” he says. “The modern hit is the song that can make your normal life seem more interesting and romantic on Instagram.”

He pauses, before adding with a laugh, “Which is great for me.”

There is, of course, something darker at play in Mr. Watson’s recent success: As the global pandemic has gripped our lives, people are looking for songs that make them feel less alone.

The singer offers his own version as an origin story. For as long as he can remember, Mr. Watson has suffered from mental-health issues and anxiety. In composing and studying music, he found a therapeutic outlet. “It was and is the best antidote for me,” he says. “My brain is always crazy. So when I play music I just try and make it quiet and make my body feel better. In a lot of ways I think that’s the starting point – whether I like it or not.”

As the pandemic hit, Mr. Watson was in the middle of a tour across Europe. Then, suddenly stranded at home in Montreal, he discovered the internet – an outlet he hadn’t taken much interest in before – to be a place of solace. In his spare time, he took up listening to audiobooks and began performing on Instagram in the hopes of providing a similar remedy for others. His performances became a uniting ground for lonely music lovers, and before long, Mr. Watson’s streaming numbers began to climb.

“I grew up playing music in a church – not so much for the religious aspect, but just being part of people’s lives; in a way that you can help them get through the day,” he says. “I felt that Instagram was the closest I’ve felt to that connection in a long time.”

Moreover, in embracing his TikTok success, he began to notice another shift: Fans actively participating in music, rather than passively listening to it.

“You see thousands of people covering songs, sharing it with each other, learning how to play the piano, learning how to play guitar,” he says. “Everyone is complaining about the death of the music industry, but I think that’s a much bigger win: We may lose the big fancy rock stars but everybody is playing a piano. That’s way more beneficial; it’s such a more beautiful idea.”

Inspired, he took up the study of modular synthesizer and, late last month, put out a new album, Better in the Shade, relying heavily on the instrument for texture. “I dialed in the electrical chaos to make good musical choices,” he says.

At only seven songs long, Better in the Shade is, as he describes it, “a tidy listen,” yet holds true to many of the principles he’s aligned with over the past two years. There are moments of implied movement and quick tidy structures, at times recalling the playful runs of Claude Debussy or the darkness of Jeff Buckley or J.S. Bach. Which is to say, it’s a vibe.

But is it pop? Even Mr. Watson’s not exactly sure.

“I think you have to look at music like food,” he says. “There are things you eat for dinner, there’s things for lunch and things for breakfast, they all serve a really different purpose and they’re all equally important.”

“Cardi B’s mixes are a work of art, as much as Debussy’s orchestrations are, and when you think about artists like Frank Ocean or James Blake, the hook is in the sound design, not just in the melody,” he says.

In his view, there’s room for artists like him, Justin Bieber and Billie Eilish to co-exist in music today. Each can offer something that’s different but compelling in its own way. “It’s my job to help you enjoy the small moments in your day to make it a little better.”

Special to The Globe and Mail

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