Hubert Lenoir is pop’s newest guardian angel

After enduring a baptism by fire in his home province, the 24-year-old from Quebec City has emerged as Canada's best chance for a homegrown superstar.

September 13, 2018

Hubert Lenoir walked into our interview on an afternoon in late August literally draped in fleur-de-lis, from his shirt to his tattoo. It’s not uncommon for him to perform wrapped in the Quebec flag. When asked about it, he doesn’t consider himself to be making a statement about Quebec. He doesn’t see a point in drawing additional attention to the conflict between his own on-stage outrageousness and his home province’s conservative politics. Instead, it’s more of a reflection of who he is—he represents only himself, and he references where he’s from only in relation to his own experiences.

“To me, it’s not much like ‘representing’ Quebec, because I don’t like endorse anything,” he explains. “It’s not that I’m proud, although I am proud. It’s more of just being true to where I’m from. In music, a lot of the time we all want to be Americans, or to be British, or Canadians aspire to be like this big American, New York band. To me, it’s kind of a way of keeping it true.”

Maybe I shouldn’t have been so caught off guard by Lenoir’s frankness and sweetness regarding where he’s from. But Torontonians are often known for our skewed sense of geography, especially in terms of the province just north of us. If you’re a born-and-raised Toronto kid like me, or if your experiences with Quebec are similarly limited to occasional weekends in Montreal, it’s easy to forget that Quebec is a province with a different and distinct language and culture.

Hubert Lenoir is a musical artist from Quebec City, and at just 24 years old, he is everywhere. Lenoir has already endured a baptism by fire in his home province, and come through the other side as a rising star. He’s known for powerful vocals, provocative performances, and an androgynous, glam-rock personal style. For someone so young, Lenoir has been creating art and playing music for years, both independently and with the band The Seasons, which he played in with his brother. In the last several months, he’s played festivals across Canada, and even starred in his own ad campaign for the Montreal metro.

He’s recognized as a great-in-progress by the province’s cultural commentators with good reason. His ambitious debut effort, the concept album Darlène (which was accompanied by a novel of the same name by Noémie D. Leclerc) came out this past February and landed on the Polaris Prize shortlist shortly afterwards. (Leclerc joined us for the interview, and though we didn’t speak directly, her presence was felt strongly—it’s clear that he and Leclerc feed off each other creatively, and the two chatted in French whenever they could).

All that means he’s hard to ignore, and he’s received both praise and condemnation online from folks obsessed with his image. “We all have a different opinion when it comes to home,” he said. “The people [in Quebec City] are much more conservative than everywhere else.” He shifted, and shrugged. “I’m from there, and I enjoy it, but it’s different.” 

[Provocation] has a purpose. And people who don’t get it are just going to see you as dirty and pointless; I get all these comments, but I don’t care.

Though he was never rude, Lenoir was blunt. As an artist, he has no time for bullshit. Throughout our conversation, Lenoir kept returning to this idea of the role of an artist—what it means to make a statement by creating something, and what responsibilities artists have to their communities, their craft, and the public. “Art, to me, is not something like oil,” he said. “It hurts me to see bad art being put out; it mistreats the art, it mistreats the public. I don’t want to talk about capitalism. But it drives me nuts.” It’s clearly something Lenoir has been thinking about a lot; every time the conversation turned towards the subject, his answers shifted. But the main point of emphasis was one of care and connection between a creator, the creation, and the audience.

“The artist and the public is a relationship. I’m from the school of thinking that art is not art until it has kind of been placed somewhere publicly,” he explains. To him, historically art has always been in conversation with its context and its viewers. And that relationship isn’t limited to just high art, or the art of the elite. Lenoir is quick to remind me that pop culture is an equally valid form of the discipline, and should be treated as such. Even if you’re making something popular or commercial, you’re still creating art.

Tyler Budd/ A.Side

“I love pop culture. That’s where I’m from. So many artists that I love are pop artists and who did great stuff. Like Prince, who’s one of my idols—he was very popular, and he made so much good music.” Lenoir’s veneration of Prince is unsurprising, but it’s also crucial reminder of why the impact of pop music (and pop culture more broadly) cannot be ignored: the messages it sends and the content it uplifts can be potentially liberating. According to Lenoir, producing something empty or inauthentic weakens the artistic relationship between the creator, creation, and audience. “There are a lot of people are not doing [art] for the right reasons… It’s easy to attack pop, but it’s not just them.”

For any artist creating genre-busting, dynamic music,  supportive artists’ spaces not only essential, but sometimes, necessary for survival. While, there are places like this in Toronto, like all community or worker-owned spaces, they’re an endangered species. I asked Lenoir about his sense of community, and he told me about Le Pantoum — the Quebec City creative space where he recorded the Polaris Prize-nominated breakout album Darlène with his band. “It’s kind of like a family thing,” Lenoir describes the artist-owned and independently run  community hub. 

But Quebec City is much smaller than the city of Toronto; the city was officially established much earlier than Toronto, as well, though both cities sit on lands that Indigenous people lived and worked on for millennia. The vibe in Quebec City has a legacy of being less self-conscious about it’s cultural diversity; you have to work a bit harder to encounter art beyond the mainstream, and to make community with artists. “It’s not like being an artist is like this cool thing to be [in Quebec City]. So that’s why it’s nice to have a place like La Pantoum where you can get to know people and be inspired by them. They’re so true,” said Lenoir. “When you’re there, you know that you’re not alone.”

Lenoir sees provocation as part of the job of an artist. In his case, that often ends up being a discussion about his image — the version of him that people see through social media or videos of his performances. If Lenoir’s image is too often thrust into the spotlight, it’s not always without reason. There’s something eye-catching about his look and his mannerisms. I’m talking about something that exists beyond makeup and flashy clothing. As a performer, Lenoir is compelling, visually and musically.

It’s common for coverage on him to square their focus on  his image first, and end up asking him questions about who he thinks he is rather than the work he does. “Sometimes people end up so much on the look, on the way I look, and not listening to the music,” he explained, sounding tired. “I feel like people want to put a lot of labels on me. My point is that I don’t want labels. People are so obsessed with labels. Just do what you feel.”

To some, Lenoir might be seen as provocative, and he doesn’t shy away from that description. “I believe that every art form should provoke something,” he said. “[Provocation] has a purpose. And people who don’t get it are just going to see you as dirty and pointless; I get all these comments, but I don’t care. I know that I’m doing something important.”

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