Gabrielle Shonk’s Voice Is Too Big for Small Towns

The next Alicia Keys is Québécois.

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Jul 11 2016, 2:44pm

Photos by dragos.ca

Habits are like uncles: Everybody’s got a good, a bad, and a weird one. Of my lesser attractive habits, saying no ranks highest; As an editor for an art site, a large part of my job involves telling people that I don’t—and won’t—write about their music. So sue me: on a Friday evening a few weekends past, I opened one such erroneous email and listened. Now, I’ve got a “Habit” of listening to Québécois singer-songwriter Gabrielle Shonk’s first indie-folk single on repeat ad infinitum.

Shonk sounds like an amalgamation of the past 20 years of star female songstresses—minus their worst habits. Think: Alicia Keys without the rap-guy features; Fiona Apple minus the self-flagellation; Amy Winehouse without, well… Instead, the 27-year-old crooner is something of an anomaly in a world of fast fame. Sure, she smashed her appearance on the Canadian broadcast of The Voice a couple years ago, but even time spent teaching jazz at Arquemuse, a nonprofit music school in Québec, hasn’t added a single note of insincerity or irony to her dulcimer tones. Her voice is akin to that of a young Jewel yodeling in a bar in Homer, Alaska, or Christina Aguilera at a Pittsburgh talent show—perfected yet still pure.

This September Shonk’s releasing her debut album. Until then, I’ll be deep in another bad habit: praying for the music industry to not shut its greedy jaws around another good one. For the sake of capturing the undeniable ‘here and now’ that oozes from “Habit” and its Dragos Chiriac-directed music video, I interviewed Gabrielle Shonk about songwriting, singing between languages, and the anxiety that comes from being a big voice in a small town.

Noisey: Is "Habit" about a type of person, or a specific person?
Gabrielle Shonk:
A specific person.

When did you write it, and why?
I actually wrote it a while ago. Back in 2011, 2012 maybe… I wrote it after a failed relationship. Writing music is always a good/healing way to purge different emotions.

Can you tell me about putting music to lyrics? For me, it's a cyclical song until it breaks, but then it settles back down where it could begin again—a lot like a "habit" itself.
My writing process most often involves writing the music before the lyrics. I’m more of a musician/singer than a writer, so the lyrics often stream off of chord and melody ideas. I like writing the music first ’cause I find it sets the mood for the song and inspires me the lyrics. There’s an emotional connection then between both spheres so even if you don’t quite understand the lyrics because of a language barrier (French, for example) or other reasons, you can still get and feel the intention of the song.

Oh, I really like your analysis of the song. The repetition going on in the lyrics and the whole 6/8 feel does give a going back and forth impression. It’s been really cool to see how this song touches people in different ways. You don’t necessarily think of that when you write a song. Especially for this one, the writing process came from a very selfish place of just expressing these different emotions that I needed to process. I wasn’t really thinking of how people would react to it. I felt it was very revealing on a personal level since I wrote it from life experience, but kind of just decided to leave it that way. I’ve been getting emails and comments from a bunch of people telling me how the song and the lyrics hit close to their hearts… That’s just so amazing to me!

This is your debut music video. What were some important things you needed Dragos to retain, when going from song to image?
Dragos and I have been friends for awhile now and have worked on songs and videos together in the past (he is also a great musician and sound engineer: Men I Trust, Ghostly Kisses), so I know his work and personality pretty well. I know how much of a passionate and perfectionist person he is (as am I) and I love and trust his artistic taste. It seemed very fitting that he worked on the visuals of the project with me and we turned out to be a great team. To be honest, I pretty much gave him carte blanche on the whole project, haha! He shared the photographic DIY vision he had of the video and I decided to get on board with it. He knows me as an artist, and also as a person, so I trusted his idea would well represent me and it totally does! I’m so stoked with what he did; it’s natural it’s simple, yet beautiful, not flashy or tacky (to my taste) and it portrays the emotion of the song perfectly. He really focuses on bringing out the natural beauty and simplicity of things and people and I love that. Plus we ended up having a blast doing it!

Back in 2014, "Habit" was a jazz song. Tell me about your move into the realm of indie folk. Is it something that has come with age?
Folk and soul are actually my first two musical crushes. I discovered artists such as Tracy Chapman and Aretha Franklin as a kid and it kind of always stuck with me throughout the years. I became very passionate and invested in jazz while studying music in college. For awhile during university I kind of put writing music aside and focused on developing and working on my voice itself through singing a lot of jazz. I wrote “Habit” around the time I was finishing school and finding the urge to create my own music again. The jazzy twist it had in the beginning sort of came naturally since I had been singing in that genre for a while. I co-wrote the music for the song with my longtime friend and bandmate Jessy Caron (guitar) who was also a jazz head at the time. The more I wrote though, the more I found myself go back to my musical roots and my love for folk and indie music. I liked “Habit” a lot but when we started putting my first album together, the jazz twist didn’t feel fitting anymore. I thought the song had potential though, so I presented it to Simon Pedneault (the producer of my album) and we brainstormed on how we could maybe recycle the song and make it work with the sound and vibe we were going for. Simon came up with the 6/8 metric instead of it being swingy in 4/4. I immediately fell in love with the idea and we kept working on the song from there. So glad we didn’t just throw it away!

English is not your primary language, yet you learned to sing in it perfectly. Who were some of your inspirations?
I was actually born in the US. I’m from Providence Rhode Island, to be more exact, but I’ve been living in Quebec City since I was five. My dad is American and my mom is French-Canadian. English is actually my first language, but I’ve been living in French my whole life. I don’t get to speak English very frequently in Quebec City, except with my Dad, so singing, reading, listening to music and watching TV in English have been my unconscious ways of keeping the language active. I have so many different inspirations I love a bunch of vintage artists as more contemporary ones… If I were to drop a few classic names I’d say: Tracy Chapman, The Beatles, Marvin Gaye, Joni Mitchell, Bob Dylan, Feist, Billie Holiday etc. etc. The list could go on for days… Fun fact: I started singing as a kid but only started playing guitar in high school. I started accompanying myself on the guitar because I wanted to cover Dashboard Confessional songs (back in 2001/2002). Yes, I’m an ex punk-rock/emo kid!

Is it ever a challenge to go back and forth between languages?
It actually is sometimes. For writing and speaking. But mainly I’d say it’s really fun! Sometimes my brain thinks in English when I’m trying to write a song in French and vice versa. Same type of thing happens when I speak; for example I’ll be speaking English and totally blank out on a word but know it in French and will not be able to remember it or translate it. The most challenging part I think was switching between both languages during the recording of my album. There are songs in French and English on this album and it was very interesting to see the difference in my voice going back and forth between both. I’m very much used to singing in English, but was less used to singing in French. So in the studio the French songs ended up being more challenging for me to sing even if the range was easier. I observed up and close that it takes time and practice to really fit your voice to a language while keeping your own tone and color.

What can you tell me about your debut full-length, coming out in September?
It’s a 10 track full-length album. Seven songs in English and three in French. The album is raw, it comes from a very vulnerable and honest place. It a synthesis of all these years I’ve been writing songs and haven’t released anything, yet it very well represents who I am as an artist and where I’m at right now. Every single person involved in the process is not only amazing at what they do, but are also really good friends. The investment, dedication, and support these people put into the whole project is crazy and I am forever grateful for each and every one of them. It’s an album that is filled with so much love and heart and I really hope people will sense that.

Musically I’d describe it as a folk-popish album but I think you can definitely hear a lot of my different influences such as soul, jazz, blues, etc. There’s a vintage feel to the whole album, but it’s wrapped in a contemporary sound… If that makes any sense haha!

The video for "Habit" is filled with all kinds of hometown anxiety. If you could leave home for anywhere, where would it be, and why?
Right now I’d leave home to go pretty much anywhere on tour with my band I guess. I feel this urge to play these original songs live. We’ve been working on them in our living rooms and in the studio for the last two years so I really can’t wait to just get out there and travel with my music. There’s something so special in sharing live music with new faces in new places. I’m really looking forward to it! Plus the guys I play with are just down straight lovable and amazing so I’m excited to share the stage with them.

Grab a free download of “Habit” here.

Emerson Rosenthal is an editor at The Creators Project. He doesn’t have Twitter because he’s original like that but you can read his articles here.