Only 25 years old, he signs his liner notes "Pierre the Great." He regularly chides concert audiences for not showering him with sufficient applause, and even studies his own dishevelled good looks between songs in the mirror placed atop his piano.
In the span of two years Pierre Lapointe has made himself into the hottest and haughtiest Canadian pop star you have probably never heard of. Unless you're a francophone and live in Quebec; then, chances are, you've most certainly heard of his sudden rise to favoured musical son. His second album, La forêt des mal-aimés (Forest of the Rejected), debuted in the No. 1 spot on the Canadian album charts in March, beating out new releases from nobodies such as Prince and Ben Harper. It sold 28,000 copies in its first week of release in Quebec -- a feat only Las Vegas showgirl Celine Dion has eclipsed.
Sitting in the boardroom of his Montreal record label, Lapointe laughs at the company in which he finds himself, arms outstretched to measure the musical and material gulf between him and Dion. "We did no advertising," he says, "we had maybe 300 posters up in Montreal and that's it." Lapointe calls it his "backdoor route to success": winning prestigious songwriting prizes in Quebec and France, word-of-mouth acclaim through cleverly conceived performances and a busy touring schedule. Thinking himself something of a secret subversive in the do-it-yourself mould, he says, "people were happy to participate in something that was a little underground."
Lapointe, who grew up in the Gatineau region of Quebec across the river from Ottawa, first rose to prominence in 2001 when he won the prestigious Festival de la chanson de Granby --an annual prize given to a previously unknown francophone singer-songwriter, which has proven a reliable predictor of future stardom. His self-distributed demo recording went on to sell an impressive 3,000 copies and win him a contract with Montreal label Audiogram. The resulting eponymous debut in 2004, an elegantly orchestrated set of melancholic chanson that enabled Lapointe to quit his janitorial job at a hospital, has sold over 85,000 copies and is still going strong.
Despite his initial success, Lapointe has demonstrated little interest in repeating himself. Chanson française, the postwar movement of poetic singer-songwriters such as Charles Aznavour, Barbara and Jacques Brel that took the cabaret tradition of Edith Piaf and Charles Tenet and infused it with lyrics befitting a more anxious age, is a mere building block on his way to more avant-garde adventures.
With La forêt des mal-aimés, Lapointe consciously set about building a bridge between the classic orientation of his debut with his more eclectic inclinations. "I base the way I work," he says, "on that of an artist who starts with a very classic method, then starts experimenting with it so he can develop his own style. To do this I would have to understand chanson française, I would have to start with the basics. Just as a painter begins with drawing and classical painting before taking on the abstract."
The same gift with fragile melodies is on display, but the arrangements are more varied, often straying into rock and electronica with the addition of guitars, drums and ambient sound. La forêt bears more than a passing resemblance to some of his idol Serge Gainsbourg's experimental, groundbreaking collaborations with maverick French producer Jean-Claude Vannier ( L'histoire de Melody Nelson).
Lapointe takes considerable pains to constantly refresh his approach to either source or original material, finding new angles from which to explore them. For the song Deux par deux rassemblés, a rousing Franco-surf rock anthem, Lapointe began with some communist protest chants he heard from the 1960s. "We worked the sound and the violins to evoke something like Gainsbourg after having listened to Franz Ferdinand," he says. Gainsbourg is forever Lapointe's touchstone; he calls the mischievous Gallic crooner the perfect example of "intellectual pop, who is able to please so many." In a sense, the new album is an illustration of what attracts him to Gainsbourg.
It's difficult to chalk up Lapointe's success in Quebec to anything other than his elegant songcraft, musicianship and the canniness with which he presents himself on stage. For there doesn't seem to be much distinctively Québécois about his music. Critics more commonly compare him to iconic chansonniers such as Aznavour, Gainsbourg and Brel rather than a Gilles Vigneault or Robert Charlebois of his home province. He has even been accused of singing with a fake French accent and employing a very un- joual, even archaic, form of the language in his lyrics.
"The sound of my music is very European," Lapointe admits, "very classical, but this is just an aesthetic choice. For me it is a very Québécois work, with a way of thinking unique to my generation. I came to understand the history of Quebec through song. I couldn't write like I do now if I did not feel my Quebec fibre while listening to Robert Charlebois. Even in the visual arts, had I not known the work of les automatistes [the Quebec abstract-painting movement of the 1940s] I don't think I would have the same approach to my music as I do now. But I also grew up in the time of the Internet. I am more a citizen of the world."
The "Pierre le grand" bit it turns out is just a playful embrace of showmanship that grew out of his desire to distract criticism away from himself. Lapointe, who studied theatre in Ste-Hyacinthe before moving on to the visual-arts program at the University of Quebec at Montreal, was always terrified of performing before an audience, especially with the kind of vulnerability his songs demand. The first time Lapointe ever performed before an audience was at his CEGEP (junior college), his parents in attendance -- even they didn't know he was about to sing.
"Afterward, people said I looked so sure of myself, so arrogant," he says. "But really, I was terrified. So I went with this -- I created a personality, one that is arrogant and could make people laugh, provoke them, all the while remaining at a distance."
That persona has evolved into the playfully foppish Lapointe of today -- La forêt's ingenious cover art shows him decamped to a haunted woodlot playing the dandy's interpretation of a lumberjack. It's something that will be changed for the album's release in France, where the nuance is lost and executives have asked for a better-tailored representation of the artist. But Lapointe will surely find new ways to provoke, even there. Gainsbourg, infamous for a moment on French TV when he told the young Whitney Houston -- live, and in the most vulgar way -- that he wanted to sleep with her, would be proud.