How gentrification affects the local music scene

A conversation about underground music and art of DIY venues at POP Montreal

A jam-packed room on St-Urbain Street played host to a rare discussion during POP Montreal on Sept. 17 about the struggle Montreal musicians face in the wake of gentrification.

Famous for its one-of-a-kind art scene, Montreal has also garnered a reputation for its boundless local music scene. However, even in a world where creativity flows free, artists say it’s hard to ignore how much gentrification has changed the city. Venues close, struggling musicians move away, new residents complain about noise.

Out of these struggles arose a DIY music culture. Tired of the exhausting requirements associated with owning a venue, artists found ways to open venues without the proper permits, making them illegal. It’s a throwback to New York City in the 60s––a bustling, crowded stage where bands like the Sex Pistols and The Clash got their start.

While this creates a myriad of legal problems, artists often feel they have no choice but to create a place to hone their craft. Yet, with the rise of gentrification in Montreal neighbourhoods, these legendary places are disappearing. What was once a welcoming, art-driven environment for DIY venues is becoming a concrete jungle of new condos and overpriced coffee shops. The artists move away and the music that once dominated a region goes with them.

“If the [venues] are all gone, where are artists going to play?” asked Sybil Bell in an interview with The Concordian. She’s the creator of Independent Music Week, a festival promoting small venues around the U.K. featuring new local bands.

“They need to [learn their craft] in a small venue,” she said. “They have to be able to make mistakes, learn what it means to go on tour and learn how to deal with people. Without that, there just won’t be a new chance with other artists coming through.”

Katie Jensen, the moderator of the POP Montreal panel, recalled the moment she realized developers were affecting small and DIY venues in her hometown of Toronto. She has been producing a monthly art, music and food event called Feats in the East for the last six years. In that time, she’s had to change venues six times, as they closed one by one.

“That’s when I realized about the venue crisis we were having in Toronto,” she said. “I started paying attention to these conversations that were being had between venue owners and community members. That really got my interest.”

There is no record of how many Montreal venues have closed over the years, but many musicians claim it’s something they observe every day, and it isn’t simply because of the rising rent costs. Panelist and McGill professor of urban media studies, Will Straw, explained that a key issue is newcomers to newly-gentrified neighbourhoods.

“They come to the neighbourhoods and don’t like the presence of music—so they make noise complaints,” he said.

Bell pointed out that, without legal or DIY venues, Montreal’s music scene wouldn’t be the same. Grassroots musicians would have no way of developing their sound or performing for an audience.

“If you’re driving to work and listening to music, where did that music come from?” she asked. “It’s from a band that started out at a small venue, got good and got signed.”

Photo by Mackenzie Lad


Valérie Poulin to perform at Divan Orange

Montréal en Lumière Festival invites local musician to perform her first EP, 1992-2016

Every spring, the Montréal en Lumière Festival brings a multitude of shows to the city, highlighting local up-and-coming artists. This year, the festival invited singer-songwriter Valérie Poulin to perform at Divan Orange on March 1. She will be performing her first EP, 1992-2016, along with new songs she recently composed. The EP has an old-school rock and roll, vintage and bluesy feel to it. Her lyrics, filled with passion and emotion, along with her raspy voice, give most people chills. Joining her on stage is her backing band which includes, bassist Étienne Duprès and drummer Thomas Sauvé.

Poulin moved to Montreal from Saguenay three years ago to pursue her musical career. “Back home, I was studying to be an art teacher, and in the depths of my mind, I knew I was not doing the right thing. I really wanted to compose my music,” said Poulin. Leaving her hometown for the big city was not an easy thing to do, as Poulin did not know many people here in Montreal. However, she was pleased by the support the city has for young artists. “The music scene in Montreal is fantastic. There are so many artists in this city who are around my age—we relate together and we do shows together. We book shows and help each other out. It’s like a little community,” Poulin said.

According to Poulin, 1992-2016 is a compilation of the best songs she has composed in the last three years. “Creating the album has helped me progress spiritually. It helped me find a way to express what was in the back of my mind and let my subconscious speak,” Poulin said. The title of the EP represents the end of an era for Poulin, who was born in 1992. “I was going through a phase, but I’m done now,” she said. “I am moving forward, I am making new songs, and they are very different from the songs on my EP.”

Poulin’s lyrics are filled with relatable heartfelt stories, such as those of romance and heartbreak. She writes her songs based on her emotions. “When I find something that really speaks to me and I feel emotions that start moving inside of me, I just let it go. I start writing and singing without thinking,” said Poulin. According to Poulin, most of her songs are written through automatic writing — she writes what’s on her mind without second thoughts. She also composes songs with her bandmates, Duprès and Sauvé. “Sometimes, it takes a long time to compose a song because I really want it to have feeling in it. You can see it through the performances in my shows that the music is very passionate,”Poulin said. For her, songs must have a meaning. “My music is very intuitive. If I have nothing to say, I won’t force it,” she said.

In 1992-2016, Poulin sings and plays electric guitar alongside Duprès and Sauvé. “We always play as a trio. When I come to our jam, 80 per cent of the songs are ready, and they make their own arrangements. We have one or two songs we made together which is amazing because these guys are brilliant musicians,” Poulin said. While recording, the band brings in David Marchand, who plays the lap steel guitar. Poulin and her musicians have been playing at venues in Montreal for the last two years. They have already played at Divan Orange a few times. “It’s a lot of fun because we got much better in a short period of time. My musicians are also very active—they’re always going to practice at the studio and play with different bands. Our chemistry on stage can easily be seen when you see us perform,” Poulin said.

One thing Poulin made very clear is that she loves being on stage. She said it’s a place where she thrives and expresses herself completely through her music. “The audience can feel it too. We’ve had shows where people went hysterical, which surprised me,” she said. Poulin’s most recent songs are very rock and roll and groovy compared to her EP, which is full of soft rock ballads. “The audience isn’t expecting these type of songs to be played at the show after listening to the EP,” Poulin said. Her new songs can be heard exclusively at her live shows, a surprise for fans. “I want to start recording them in the studio. My focus now is to raise money to record our new songs because they are really good,” she said.

1992-2016 is local singer-songwriter Valérie Poulin’s first album. Photo courtesy of Valérie Poulin

Recording 1992-2016 was Poulin’s first experience recording in a studio. “Working in a studio improved the songs. When you get to hear what you are doing, it’s then you realize, ‘oh, this is not working, but this works,’” she said. According to Poulin, being in the studio helped her improve her guitar and vocal skills. For Poulin, inspiration comes from a multitude of places. “The things that inspire me are not even music most of the time. It’s more like the human itself, confidence that people give me, poetry, acting, places, arts,” she said.

Her song “En Rester Là” was inspired and written based on Poulin’s love life. She had already composed the guitar riffs and instrumentals before the chorus. “As for the lyrics, I fell in love with someone and the person was in love too. There was a barrier for her and she couldn’t go through it. But there was love—it was platonic love,” Poulin said. According to her, the song can be understood by imagining yourself walking with someone, holding their hand, thinking you are going somewhere together, when suddenly the person is not there anymore. “You ask yourself, ‘where am I?’ In the chorus, I say: ‘C’est ou ici?,’” Poulin said. “You can hear it from the chorus that something sad is happening, but it’s mainly about that feeling of knowing that there is potential but that nothing is going to happen,” she said.

According to Poulin, spending a few years as a musician has made composing music and performing onstage an essential part of her life. “I just found out that I need it. I am filled with energy. When I perform, the energy circulates in a way that brings me release. I realized that I needed it, it is vital for me and, if I don’t have that, I go nuts,” Poulin said. Poulin plans on working with her bandmates to record their latest songs, and to keep on performing as much as she can. “I would also like to be able to listen to my EP and not criticize myself—to listen to it with content and to be satisfied,” she said. “I want my musical path to be filled with love, good relationships and to share my passion for music. I do not want to lose my heart in the process.”

Valérie Poulin will be performing at Divan Orange on March 1 at 9:30 p.m. Tickets are available at the door.

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