The world has always known Roch Voisine as a man of many parts.
Of course, people would say the same about you if you just happened to be a quadruple- platinum, Juno Award-winning bilingual crooner and Officer of the Order of Canada (and one-time spokesman for discount retailer Giant Tiger) bouncing between his homes in Montreal and Paris, where he continues to pack in crowds and top the charts.
While we’re on the subject of hitting Number 1, the New Brunswick-born singer/songwriter’s album, Americana, just topped record sales in the third week of October, according to Nielsen Soundscan. The album — new to North American ears but old news in Europe, where a third installment is already slated for release – aggregates a collection of country and folk rock covers as eclectic as the man himself. Voisine jumps from Bob Dylan (Lay Lady Lay) to Elvis (Suspicious Minds) to a bilingual medley of City of New Orleans and its French version, Salut Les Amoreux.
“It had been out in Europe for a couple of years and it was a hit there, but I didn’t really have the time to release here,” said Voisine, now 47. “We first started with it in Quebec and the response has been amazing, going Number 1 in sales for five weeks in a row. It’s pretty wild and fun because I get to do a lot of singalongs during the concert with this one. A lot of this is stuff that I used to listen to and always wanted to try.”
Chalk up the brave choices (Voisine knows he treads on sacred ground and does so carefully) to the francophone audiences for whom Americana was tailored. These are the numbers from this side of the pond, he says, that French-speaking audiences know and love.
“It’s a tricky thing. The French record company in Europe (Sony France) that approached me to do this intended it for francophone audiences worldwide,” Voisine said. “So we had to pick songs that they would know. There’s no point coming out with a record like this and not have the audience recognize those songs, and a lot of them had been adapted in French in the late 60s and early 70s, Dylan especially…so the success of the album was partly due to the right pick. Knowing that, these are songs English-speaking audiences will obviously recognize as well, so you’ve got an even wider audience.”
The bilingualism comes as old hat to the singer who spawned “Rochmania” in the late 1980s and early 1990s with his monster hits Helene and I’ll Always Be There, but he notes that writing and singing in two languages takes a Herculean effort. Voisine grew up and built his career transcending Canada’s “two solitudes,” and intends on keeping the cultural divide a narrow one.
“Work, work, work, work, work,” Voisine says. “It’s about coming up with material as often as you can. Coming from New Brunswick, you’re raised with both cultures, and you need to have an interest in both cultures. It’s hard to explain, except I can say that what you have to do is write in both languages and work as hard as you can.”