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Jacques Villeneuve might be a veteran race car driver with nerves of steel and a Formula One world championship under his belt, but he's a rookie in the music business and doesn't want to sing. Or at least not during lunch, in the middle of a downtown restaurant.

"That would be embarrassing," says the newly minted recording artist, who was in Toronto yesterday to promote Private Paradise, his aptly titled debut CD.

"I'm used to being behind a helmet, hidden," the 35-year-old singer-songwriter protests with a boyish blush.

The acoustic rock album, recorded at a home studio in Switzerland, features 13 tracks in French and English, six of which Villeneuve wrote. Although it had a decent showing on the Quebec pop charts, making its debut at 49th place when it was released in February, the critics haven't been especially kind.

One review called the songs "old-fashioned."

"What's wrong with that?" Villeneuve snaps back, singling out earnest folkie Tracy Chapman as one of his favourite singers of all times.

Several have noted that his voice lacks range. "It's true I don't have the best voice out there," he says with a shrug. "I'm not a masculine Celine Dion. But it's not a make-you-puke-because-it's-so-out-of-tune voice."

Villeneuve says he thinks his album is getting a tougher reception than most because he's not being taken seriously as an artist. And that's just fine with him.

"From what I understand, an artist is someone who is very sad and hurt and living under a bridge because they don't have enough money to buy a pen. If you have to cut your veins and bleed to be an artist, I will never be one."

He does, however, insist that his music is more than just a hobby. "I'm serious. I spent enough money on it."

How much? "Enough for my wife to be angry at me."

For Villeneuve, who once dated Australian pop singer Dannii Minogue, songwriting is more of a mental exercise than an outpouring of personal expression.

"How do you turn a phrase? Where do you put the rhythm?

How do you change the words so it makes more sense with the rhythm? It's like solving a math problem," he explains.

With a little more coaxing, Villeneuve bursts into a song, co-written and recorded with his sister, Melanie, about their famous father.

"Your life was a song of love and strife/too many times you rolled the diced," he sings softly.

Villeneuve doesn't plan to give up his day job. He has recently signed up with Peugeot to race in Le Mans, a sports car endurance race.

He says motor sports has been good practice. "When I started, I already had a name in racing, even though I'd never driven. Instead of spending two years racing in the back where nobody knew me, in my first race, people expected me to win. I had to learn very, very fast. The negativity was very strong. I think it will be a help. I'm used to that kind of pressure."