There's no denying that Poirier's new album Soft Power, out this week on Wonderwheel Recordings, is beautifully global—featuring Brazilian singers Flavia Coelho and Flavia Nascimento, Red Fox from Jamaica, and Daby Touré by way of Senegal.
But it's almost as much an album that's local to Montreal, where Poirier lives and deejays at the monthly Afro-Caribbean dance party Qualité de Luxe and parties like Bounce le Gros and Karnival. Although featured vocalists like Samito and Boogat have roots in Mozambique and Mexico respectively, they're long-time friends with Poirier and locals to this exceptionally international city in Quebec.
Afropop's Ben Richmond called Poirier last week to chat about the new album, about what makes for a good collaboration and even share a kvetch about how they're missing Nuits d'Afrique this summer.
Ben Richmond: How are you doing?
Poirier: I'm good, I'm good!
You're in Montreal this morning?
Yup, and you?
I'm down in Brooklyn. I'm sorry that I can't go to Montreal this year. I've been going up for the Nuits d'Afrique Festival the last couple of years, but it's been pushed back to September-October now.
Yeah, I was supposed to play in July, but as you said, the festival's been pushed back. So I'll play in October.
Where did you perform the last couple of years?
It was during a DJ night focusing on Afro-house with other DJs, so last year we had Coco EM from Kenya, and this year in July we were supposed to have Gardy Girault from Haiti but obviously with the festival pushed to October, we're going to keep it local this time. Nobody's sure if people will be able to travel from one country to another country so in order to plan, the only way to do it is to keep it local.
Fortunately Montreal is an extremely international city. It really punches above its weight.
I mean, yeah there's great talent here, so its not a problem for me, but it's nice to have international guests as well.
When you say Afro-house, are you referring to the specific genre, or do you use it more expansively to encompass a lot of different things?
Large! It could be electronic music made on the continent or the diaspora—so South African house, post-kuduro or Cabo Verde Portuguese stuff, that leans towards a more house-y sound. That was kind of the vibe I was looking for, for that night.
South Africa is definitely the reigning champ of that. There's so much electronic music coming out of Angola and the Angola diaspora in Portugal and Cape Verde.
Yeah, and there are new acts coming from places away from the main countries providing the house sound from Africa, but there's a lot of acts and collaborations so sometimes you have Nigerians making collaborations with South Africans, and the track sounds more house-y too.
Yeah it seems like everyone who Black Coffee comes in contact with has an opportunity to make a really killer track. But speaking of international collaborations, congratulations on the new album!
Can you tell me a little bit about the title, how you came to it?
I always have a working title for my albums, but the working title doesn't always get to be on the album. They're more like a guide. So when I was done with the album, the goal was to do something that was more song-related and softer and sweet. When I looked at the body of work, Soft Power felt like a very good description of what I was trying to do and put together, so it had the soft touch of songs, and more delicate. I stepped back from the dance floor in a way, but at the same time I can't ignore that these songs can sometimes be played at higher volume and make people dance, so I felt like Soft Power described the album.
But also, the expression comes from a political concept. A politician in the U.S. came up with the concept of “soft power” as an idea. Hard power is basically war, forcing other countries or population to do something, and “soft power” is related to cultural influences—so media, culture—and the culture being used to leverage or co-opt or make people lean towards different mindsets. I'm not necessarily referring to that concept directly on the album but I do believe the junction of all the collaboration and cultures on the album is kind of a statement by itself. I wish, my secret desire, is to show people my vision of the world and how we can be together and live together and collaborate together, so I have that way of being has power too, and music has the power to change things or help people move forward.
It's such an international album, was that the concept from the beginning or was that something you started working on that became clearer?
It's like the chicken and egg. I don't know where it's coming from; it's just natural to me. That's the music and the influences that I like, that I deejay and listen to at home. So obviously when I make music, I'm leaning towards collaboration that goes that way. So it's not necessarily planned like “Oh I need a song in Spanish” or “I need a song in Portuguese.” Most of the time these singers can sing in many languages, could be Portuguese, English or French or whatever, so it really depends on the instrumental and the vibe we have. If it comes naturally in Portuguese, then we do a song in Portuguese.
I always have that goal to have something with an international feeling, but at the same time, I feel like the album is very Montreal. Most of the collaborators are from Montreal or live in Montreal, so for me, it's really a Montreal album. But like you say, it's really open to many sounds and cultures. From the beginning, since I started making music 20 years ago, I always wanted to be in an international musical conversation, so I hope that people can hear my music outside of my city or outside of my country and that other people, DJs or vocalists hear the music and are like “O.K.! That's happening there!” For me, I listen to a lot of music from other countries and regions and styles and I'm really aware of what's going on, from the past but also what's going on right now. And I feel like I can be a bridge to bring cultures and communities together. I think that reflects on my album and also in the party life in Montreal where the crowd is very diverse and I'll play many styles of music that maybe people are not really aware of, but the party or the space where we have made that music possible for people to listen to and to like. I believe we don't need to necessarily master or know a style of music to enjoy it, so there's many ways to get in touch with music.
Sometimes I feel like I don't really understand music until I encounter it in one of those social spaces, dancing to it and being around other people with it. All of a sudden it makes the music much clearer than when I listen to it by myself.
Yeah, if you're in a space where there's different people, maybe those people know that song or that style already. Maybe they'll dance to it in a way you didn't know how it should be danced to. Suddenly you can enjoy more of the experience. You can be like “Oh O.K., this is a Brazilian song and people dance to it that way.” It's more like a whole, instead of just at your house where you don't know the codes related to it. In context you always have more meaning.
You said most of the artists you worked with are Montreal based, so that makes it easier, I suppose, to do a sustained collaboration. Can you talk about the process with it? How done is the track when you bring them in? Or do you start carte blanche when you have a collaborator? Some of them, obviously, have more than just you and another artist.
I had an idea for the album in my head and it was easier to start the process with regular collaborators. So guys like Samito, like Boogat, we've done music together in the past regularly, so we know each other really well. We're friends too. So starting with them was the first step to achieve what I had in mind and then having these tracks done, I was able to approach other and new collaborators. I'd tell them, “I have this in mind, I want to do that kind of sound.” Most of the time the instrumentals weren't completely done, so it was really a trusting process, to be like “Hey, let's find ideas together, let's try to make a track and either way, here are the already-done tracks from the project to give you a better overall idea of what it sounds like when its done.”
You were able to give them something to aim for.
Exactly. I wasn't defining any theme in terms of “oh we should talk about that in the song.” It was more like “let's share a vibe, let's talk, let's hang out, where are you from, what happened to you,” and we'd talk for hours and then the music would come. It was kind of like the music was a reflection of the time we spent together. Making a song is a pretty intimate process, so you've got to know each other. I don't believe it's a cold transaction. It's more like we hang out together, we share a vibe, we share experiences. And then without talking about things specific about making the song, it will still influence the results of the song. That vibe will show in the song, that's what I believe.
Did you have any collaborations that didn't make it to the album?
Sure! There's always that, and you know, it's the same as when I'll try to do instrumental tracks that don't need vocals that don't make it to the album. It's a long process and I work with a lot of people and for some people the music I had didn't speak to them or they couldn't project themselves on it. Some people need a more finished track to see where they stand. But the way I go, it's more back and forth—I adjust the music to the vocal and the vocal to the music and we see where it goes. It's small steps on each side. At the end we have a final song, but it didn't happen with me doing everything and then just the voice coming in. I do something, the vocalist does something, I add more, the vocalist adds more. It's a whole process, but it's worth it. It's really worth it.
As you switch between styles, how do you know when you've made something that's distinctly yours, like you've done right by the source material or influences but you've also done right by yourself?
It's just trusting my guts. I'm well aware of what's going on in the music world at the moment and also the past so I just try to make music and the way I feel it, and at some point I can see how these tracks can answer to other styles of music and where I stand in this conversation. It's really instinctive and trusting my guts, but also it's about taking time to play the music with other key people. It didn't happen on the album, but let's say I don't usually do rap and I have a rap song, and I feel it's good but I'm not really aware of rap music at the moment. It would be wise for me to go see some rappers or rap producers or rap friends and play the song to see if they can relate to it. It's a bit like that, making sure of the final results and how it stands and how it inserts itself in that conversation, while putting my touch also.
Sounds like at every stage you have a community and a lot of trust that all of your music is made with.
Yeah, it's all about feedback and as a DJ, it's all about reaction and perception. Music is almost like psychology. You do things and you think it's a happy song, but then it doesn't make people happy, it makes them sad. Then you're like “I should change something...” And sometimes you'll make a song that you think will make people dance, and you play it and nobody dances and obviously you have to change something. It's all about what you want to show and how people receive it, you know? Even if you firmly believe it's a danceable track, and nobody dances, then you've missed your point. So, it's all about finding a balance and I think that's pretty much the whole album. It was a balance between something soft and something that can make people dance. It was a balance between eras and genres and different cultures and it's a very delicate process and I wouldn't be able to master that process in a two-week period. It took me more than two years to come up with this album.
If you calculate all the time you spent meeting your collaborators and influences, it's one of those works of a lifetime, an accumulation.
It's an accumulation of experiences. It's just life, music is life. It's about meeting people and trying to translate these vibes and emotion into songs. And it's also about me giving feedback to other musicians on the album, and giving feedback to the vocalists and getting feedback from other people. It's all about where things stand and how people receive it.
Is there anything else Afropop listeners should know about Soft Power?
Yeah, I want to add a little thing. Even if we're living in a really unusual time at the moment, I think before when it was normal, we still live in a world that is very closed. There are a lot of walls, borders, people who have difficulty going from one country to another country, especially when they're from the southern hemisphere, you know? Music is a good way to ignore the borders or fly over the borders and show another way to be together. I believe this album is kind of pop without borders. I'm trying to make something people can dig and find accessible, but I'm not trying to hide that I'm digging into specific niches of music.
I think I'm trying to show we don't need to have borders for people, especially in a world where goods or money travel so fast. It's unfair for people compared to goods and money, and I think it's a very unbalanced world at the moment. If culture and music can travel a bit more, that would be nice. As Canadians or Americans, traveling around the world is pretty easy, because our countries are powerful but if you're from Haiti or from Ethiopia or whatever, traveling is a whole other deal, in terms of visas and all that.