COVER

ROCH ’N’ ROLL

A QUEBEC STAR EYES THE ENGLISH MARKET

BARRY CAME June 1 1992
COVER

ROCH ’N’ ROLL

A QUEBEC STAR EYES THE ENGLISH MARKET

BARRY CAME June 1 1992

ROCH ’N’ ROLL

COVER

A QUEBEC STAR EYES THE ENGLISH MARKET

They began to chant—nearly all 12,000 of them—long before he appeared onstage. “Le Beau Roch” (“handsome Roch”), they shouted in unison, raising a rhythmic cry that reverberated around the interior of Montreal’s venerable Forum. And when Roch Voisine finally drifted into view one night earlier this month, perched on a floating dais and holding a black guitar, the mainly young and female members of the audience rose to their feet and screamed. Dressed in jeans, a school-style leather bomber jacket and cowboy boots, and frequently flashing a boyish grin, Voisine looked like a wholesome college student. For most of the next two hours, the crowd remained standing and screaming as the 29-year-old singer and songwriter, bom in rural St. Basile, N.B. (and now based in Montreal), strutted his stuff. Although there is a lightness to his music that suggests a lack of substance, the young women in the audience did not seem to care. They pelted him with teddy bears and flowers, demanding, and receiving, eight encores. And when it was all over, the pop star left his devoted followers as limp as the damp towel that he had tossed their way, inciting a frenzied tug of war, as he retreated offstage.

Fantastic: Voisine has been performing similar feats of magic all year. His two Montreal shows followed a gruelling three-month European tour that took him to 55 cities in four countries. In the process, he managed to cement his reputation as the pop darling of young women, particularly francophones—even as his music was criticized in the press as saccharine and contrived. A star in Quebec ever since the title song of his 1989 first album, Helene, became a runaway hit (the album sold 300,000 copies in the province), Voisine is now an even bigger sensation in France, where sales of Helene reached 1.25 million—and where the daily France-Soir proclaimed him “French women’s preferred Canadian.”

Now, Voisine has set his sights on an even bigger prize. “English-speaking North America is where I want to go now,” Voisine told Maclean’s in an interview shortly after his return from Europe. “The market is bigger and the rewards are higher, of course, but what it really comes down to is the challenge,” he said. “I just want to see if I’m good enough to make it there.”

Certainly, Voisine has more than met the challenge of the European market. In this year’s tour, he drew more than half a million spectators to 60 shows, selling out concert halls in France, Switzerland, Belgium and Hol-

land. And on April 17, in the undisputed highlight of his European circuit, he delivered an outdoor performance in front of the Eiffel Tower to a crowd of 35,000—and a TV audience of 12 million. Declared Voisine: “I don’t have the words to describe the fantastic feeling that show gave me.”

The singer has been interviewed on scores of European television programs, cross-exam-

ined on everything from his romantic life and squeaky-clean image (he avoids alcohol and tobacco, and is decidedly unsexual onstage) to the state of Canada’s native population. His classic, chiselled features have appeared on the covers of magazines that include Paris Match and Tele-Sept-Jours. And he has been the subject of lengthy articles in dozens of magazines aimed at teens, as well as such respected

periodicals as France’s Le Monde newspaper and the trendy satirical weekly Le Canard Enchaîne.

Voisine has no ready explanation for his success. “It all happened so fast that I haven’t had time to work it out,” he said in the unaccented English of his native New Brunswick (he is fully bilingual). “I think we managed to put together some good lyrics with some good music that just happened to catch the public mood. I also think that it might have something to do with the fact that they find me a little exotic in France in that I'm a North American who speaks French.” He paused for a moment, then added: “But to tell you the honest truth, I don’t really have an adequate explanation beyond all of the usual tired old clichés about having the right stuff at the right time.”

Whatever the reasons,

Voisine clearly has no intention of resting on his laurels.

He is currently putting the finishing touches on a concert album recorded during his recent tour, as well as preparing an all-English album (liis 1990 release, Roch Voisine Double, was a double record with half its songs in English) consisting mostly of his o^vn compositions; it is scheduled for release late this year or early in 1993. A spokesman for his record company, Les Disques Star/Star Records in Montreal, says that it is on the verge of signing a distribution deal with a major foreign label.

Drawbacks: There is, as well, a Hollywood movie in the works. A cops-and-robbers thriller tentatively titled Armen and Bullick, it is scheduled to begin shooting this summer in France and the United States. Voisine will play the private-eye nephew of a veteran policeman played by Mike Connors, star of the TV series Mannix, which ran until 1975. The movie will represent Voisine’s second stint as an actor. Two years ago, he played a rookie hockey player named Danny Ross in the TV series Lance et compte (He Shoots, He Scores), which was a big hit in Quebec but attracted few viewers when it appeared in English Canada on the CBC.

Voisine’s high-profile globe-trotting existence is far removed from his roots in St. Basile, the Acadian town of 4,000 where he was bom. His Quebec-born parents, Réal and Zéland Voisine, were both English teachers, and Roch, the oldest of three children, grew up speaking both English and F rench. Those early roots are still noticeable in his accent in French, which tends to be more mid-Atlantic than earthy Quebec jouai. “I still think most of

the time in English,” he said, “and I write most of my songs first in English, then translate them into French.”

The family moved to Notre-Dame-du-Lac, 200 km northeast of Quebec City, when Voisine was 12—the age when he decided that he wanted to become a professional hockey player. A gifted athlete, he had to abandon his hopes for a life in professional sports when he suffered a serious knee injury at 18 while playing pickup baseball. He retreated to the guitar, which he had begun to play four years earlier, and which he still likes to call “my best friend.” He began to tinker with songwriting. “I started out as a folkie and I guess, deep down, I’m still a folkie,” said Voisine, noting

that his music has been influenced by James Taylor, Elton John, Gordon Lightfoot and Neil Diamond.

Voisine continued to dabble in writing and singing while studying for a physiotherapy degree at the University of Ottawa. It was during that time that he also formed a friendship that would later prove critical to his musical career. Stéphane Lessard, a hockey buddy, helped him write the romantic ballad Helene, inspired in part by Lessard’s breakup with a girlfriend of the same name. As well, Lessard’s uncle, Paul Vincent, was then a prominent radio host. Under constant pressure from his nephew, Vincent finally agreed to give Voisine a start, consenting to act as the young man’s manager. A few years of television appearances followed. But when the album Helene finally appeared, Voisine’s career took

off. Said the singer: “Everything just went boom.”

Success, however, has had its drawbacks. On May 11, Lessard launched a $20-million suit against Voisine and Vincent in Quebec Superior Court, claiming that his former friend and his uncle had both discarded him after he helped turn Voisine into a star. In the statement of claim, Lessard argued that he has the right to one-third of Voisine’s net profits since HeVene, which he estimates to be $40 million, as well as other fees.

Detractors: Last year, Voisine also reached an out-of-court settlement with agents for Neil Diamond, who had claimed that Voisine’s song On the Outside bore too many similarities to

Diamond’s 1971 hit Play Me. And Voisine’s lyrics continue to attract often acidic criticism for their lack of depth. The Paris daily Liberation described his work as “maple syrup rock.” And Montreal’s Le Devoir newspaper recently described his performances at the Forum as “a magnificently decorated shell—but an empty shell.”

But Voisine acknowledges little concern over either legal problems or critical scorn. “I’m in the business of making dreams,” said the singer. “And if you look at the way my audiences react, you’ll have to admit that I must be doing something right.” Like many hugely successful artists, Roch Voisine has failed to win over all the critics. And like any superstar, he can afford to brush aside his detractors.

BARRY CAME in Montreal