When Dominique Fils-Aimé was planning her debut album, her management and record label gave her some very loose direction: Take six months, think up your dream project and then go record it.
Fils-Aimé admits this sort of freedom is a luxury and certainly rare for any artist but particularly one just starting a recording career. It probably helped that her manager, Kevin Annocque, was a friend first. He is also her label boss, co-founding Montreal’s Ensoul Records for the specific purpose of releasing Fils-Aimé’s records.
“He didn’t just say, ‘Do what feels authentic to you,'” says the singer-songwriter, in an interview with Postmedia from her Montreal home. “He also said, ‘Do not feel any pressure to create something that is going to sell.’ He really had this notion that if you create something that is authentic, perhaps it will not be popular radio-wise but it will be real and that is more important than anything else. If you create an album based on what the industry wants, it just becomes something you created out of pressure so your soul is not in it and your art is not fully free. Being free, artistically, to create without the pressure of having to sell and having to be popular is just so liberating.”
So Fils-Aimé was intent on making the most of the opportunity. From the beginning, she envisioned not one album but a trilogy that would trace the history of African-American musical culture. The first, 2018’s Nameless, opens with a haunting cover of Abel Meeropol’s Strange Fruit, a 1939 standard written to protest the lynching of Black Americans that became an anthem for the civil rights movement after it was sung by Billie Holliday and Nina Simone. The final track of the trilogy, from Fils-Aimé’s third album Three Little Words, is a hushed-to-soaring take on Ben E. King’s Stand By Me, which also became a rallying cry for solidarity during the civil rights movement in the 1960s.
Fils-Aimé recorded the covers as an acknowledgement that she was “standing on the work of our ancestors.” But most of the songs over the three albums are originals that show the artist to be a singular talent with a strong command of the roots of African-American music. The recordings often have Fils-Aimé harmonizing with herself through multilayered vocal tracks, offering a mesmerizing and atmospheric effect that can be mournful, joyful and defiant all at once. The ambitious trilogy was meticulously planned from the start, right down to the colour-coded cover art. Nameless is blue, a reflection of not only the genre but also of nighttime, darkness and water. It was meant to represent the “crossing of the ocean from one continent to the other at nighttime.”
The cover of the Juno-winning second album of the trilogy, 2019’s Stay Tuned!, is a fiery red meant to represent the rise of jazz and a revolutionary spirit “that left nothing behind except for the most fertile ground,” she says.
Which brings us to this year’s Three Little Words, which may be the most stunning in a consistently stunning trilogy. The yellow cover is meant to convey sunshine, hope and light and the album includes everything from the hand-clapping, horn-fuelled opener Grow Mama Grow, the doo-wop of While We Wait, the Haitian and African rhythms of the title track and the endearing girl-group bounce of You Left Me, to the delicate harmonizing on The Healing Song. Ultimately, it’s a soul record. But it covers every possible shade of the genre.
“Soul music was really the freedom of expressing yourself from your soul, not just your angry soul or your soul that wants to be free,” says Fils-Aimé, who will play Prince’s Island Park on Monday, July 26 as part of the Calgary Folk Music Festival’s Summer Serenades. “What does your soul want to share once it is free or on the road to being free? So we saw the nighttime of the blues, to the dawn and minds being awoken to the sunshine of soul. It seemed to be three parts of one story that repeats through history and that I could explain through Black history and the emotions that can be expressed through music.”
Like Stay Tuned! before it, Three Little Words has been short-listed for the Polaris Music Prize and is earning rave reviews from outlets such as American Songwriter and The New Yorker. For Fils-Aimé, it’s also the one that best reflects her own artistic evolution.
With the first two records, “I was referring to my understanding or my perspective of the past and the emotions that were lived and the historical moments,” she says. “But I knew from the start that the third record would be: What message do I want to bring? Since we are into the contemporary, that means I am now allowed to share my own personal view and my dreams and my goals for this world and my personal mission, which has always been to encourage empathy and underline the importance of love. I had all the elements present in the trilogy and the last one missing to me was love, which is the one we can never run out of and the one that helps us heal and has so many different meanings and so many uses.”
Born and raised in Montreal, Fils-Aimé always enjoyed singing but didn’t consider herself a musician growing up, nor did she ever consider herself part of Montreal’s fertile music scene. Her professional background is working in psychological support for employees.
“Everything that had to do with communicating emotions was my priority, having people care more for their mental health,” she says. “Music has this therapeutic aspect to it. To me, when you are in the room with people and making music there are all these frequencies filled with emotion that you are sharing and that are going through people and it’s a form of therapy.”
While each album certainly stands on its own, the trilogy was envisioned as a three-part narrative. The live shows will also reflect all three albums with the songs intertwined. Audiences are even encouraged to hold their applause until the end.
In an industry that is increasingly defined by stand-alone singles, social-media stars and Tik-Tok hits, Fils-Aimé admits releasing a trilogy of interconnected concept albums goes against the grain.
“I want to create something that is tangible and I want to bet that people are still interested in diving further into a project rather than just one song,” she says. “I don’t think we give enough credit to people, that we have a short attention span and all that. It’s not true. People are able and willing to discover an artist and a project that is a bit bigger.”
Dominique Fils-Aimé plays Monday, July 26 at 7:25 p.m. as part of the Calgary Folk Music Festival’s Summer Serenades at Prince’s Island Park. Summer Serenades runs from July 22-28.