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Isabelle Boulay (#15)

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I chose Isabelle Boulay for this pop-culture post for a couple of reasons.  Her career path and music style reminds me a great deal of singers from Alberta, Saskatchewan and BC where I grew up, notably those with rural roots.  Her music has also transcended borders and an ocean with her successes in France, Belgium, and Switzerland.

Earlier posts have highlighted how Francophone celebrity success is often incubated by appearances on various television and radio networks and through an artist’s diversification of roles.  There is no doubt that diverse artistic roles can be an important ingredient of success.  But I would argue that Isabelle Boulay’s success was achieved less through media focus and more through her raw talent and having met the right producers to help take her to the next levels.  

I’d describe her music genre as being a bit softer than much other recent hit-music, and it has always had the slightest bit of a country tinge.  In fact much of the latest country music we hear coming from Canada and the US is softened by dropping much of the traditional blue grass and twangy characteristics, in the end resembling many of Isabelle Boulay’s earlier songs.  You might be saying “Country music? Québec?… Country music AND Québec? Did I read that right?”  Yes, you read that right.  One of Boulay’s last albums was a country album.   Québec and French music from various provinces have had a long tradition of French country music (after all, we all share a common culture unique to this island on which we live together called North America – and the island sometimes isn’t as big as we think it is)… but I’ll talk about the French country music stuff in more detail a little later in this blog and the next  (the Alberta boy here choses his blogs for a reason <big Alberta grin!>)

First and foremost – I do not believe Isabelle Boulay is associated in general with country music in the eyes of most Francophones (at least not by those from the bigger centres like Montréal, Québec City and especially not by those in France).   Apart from her most recent works, she was not self-labelled or stylized as a country singer.  But being from the rural and remote Gaspésie region of Québec (bordering Northern New Brunswick), a region which shares much in common with Acadian rural culture and folk-music, I believe her Gaspésie roots have always been reflected in the music she is comfortable with.  It wouldn’t surprise me if those who listen to French country music would also listen to Isabelle Boulay’s music  (I recall attending a St-Jean-Baptiste festival in the 90’s close to Edmonton, back in Alberta – where French country music was front-and-centre, and it was Boulay’s music that was often played over the speakers between live performances).

In a nutshell, she worked her way up from the humblest of starts – and what could be more humble than a rural singing competition.   She was noticed, and performed at subsequent song festivals 25 years ago.  It all lead to her being signed by an agent, which in turn lead to appearance invitations in the early 1990s, which became larger and more important in nature and scope.  She caught the public’s attention on this side of the ocean, and eventually in France also. 

Isabelle Boulay caught Luc Plamondon’s attention in the mid-90s (one of the greatest Francophone lyricists of our age – writing songs for the biggest of the big names, and he also is one of the greatest French musical writers – in the league of the likes of Andrew Lloyd Weber).  Much of what Plamondon touches turns to gold – and as we say, le reste c’est de l’histoire!   It all paid off for Boulay through repeated performances, repeated song exposure on the radio and TV, and through keeping her nose to the grind.  She became an award-winning, household name with multiple albums in the 1990’s and 2000’s (7 Félix female vocalists of the year awards, multiple awards for albums of the year, an award for best artist known outside of Québec, other state honours, and a Juno award). 

— Now back to the country stuff … —

In 2011 Boulay came out with a country album called Les grandes espaces – which went platinum in France, gold in Canada, and topped charts charts in Canada, France, Belgium, and Switzerland (even in Canada, it held a 9th place national ranking when averaging the country’s Francophone and Anglophone music together – which is quite a feat).   The album’s songs interpreted by Boulay were songs originally written by big names in Québec, France, and the U.S.   Boulay sings a duet with Dolly Parton in one song (True Blue). 

I was going to use this post to mention Québec and Francophone country music in passing, and then just move on… but on second thought, I’ll dedicate my next post to the subject of French country music (am still wearing my rural-Alberta grin!).

If you want more, here are some of Isabelle Boulay’s most successful and best known songs:

  • Jamais assez loin
  • Parle Moi
  • Je t’oublierai
  • Tout au bout de nos peines

For her country-like songs, you’ll want to check these out:

  • Je reviens chez nous
  • Jolie Louise
  • Les grandes espaces

When searching for more (be it videos, music, or other material), please stick to officially approved sites, and do not pirate (our artists form part of our cultural fabric).  Isabelle Boulay’s songs and albums are for sale through various venues and platforms. 

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