By Nick Krewen
Special to the Star
There’s a reason every Dominique Fils-Aimé album has been released in February: Black History Month.
“I wanted to underline the link between Black history and music genres,” the Juno Award winner and Polaris Music Prize finalist recently explained from her Montréal home.
It especially makes sense when you consider the trilogy of 2018’s Nameless, 2019’s Stay Tuned! and this year’s Three Little Words, out Friday.
Commencing with “Strange Fruit,” a Billie Holiday song on Nameless that protested the lynching of Black Americans in the South and concluding on Three Little Words with “Stand By Me,” a cover of the Ben E. King classic that’s a plea for strength, loyalty and unity, Fils-Aimé engages her mellifluous, often multi-tracked voice to unflinchingly explore African-American history through 37 mainly original songs rooted in blues (Nameless), jazz (Stay Tuned!) R&B (Three Little Words) and all its variants.
The topics covered also range from atrocity to inspiration, whether it’s appalling moments in history like slavery or the murder of Emmett Till or celebrating such Civil Rights icons as Rosa Parks, Malcolm X or Martin Luther King.
Fils-Aimé hopes that her music will lead to year-long discovery and discussion beyond Black History Month.
“My dream for this month is that it is the opportunity for people to discover the Black culture, and everyone that is contributing to it. right now, or has in the past, and to have their curiosity deep enough for them to keep digging throughout the years, so that it does not become something punctual on the month, but rather something that is the starting point of our curiosity until the day it feels obsolete.
“But right now, it doesn’t.”
Fils-Aimé, a 2017 semi-finalist on the popular Québec talent show La Voix, said the ambitious project started to take shape when she considered making her first full album (an EP was released in 2015) and her manager told her she had six months to decide her approach.
“I started pondering, ‘What is my voice? What is my style?’ and began digging back into all the music and the influences that I grew up with,” Fils-Aimé explained.
“I noticed how everything that I didn’t know from history books, I knew from the emotion that was brought through music, and how I was just directly attracted to that since I was a kid.
“There’s something very raw and very emotional when it starts with the blues, and slave songs – to me, it’s a representation of the ocean – something that’s so big that you feel lost in it , but something that’s moving and yet calm.
“Then, when I thought of jazz, it had this aspect of speaking up, using your voice and using it loudly so that it may be heard properly. I wanted to make sure that was present in Stay Tuned!’
“I saw this red revolution and this empowerment that people kind of presented not only in the civil rights movement but also in the music through the concept of being free of what is standard and really breaking new ground, allowing yourself to create however you want and not caring about what is pre-established.”
She points to the title track of Three Little Words, as an example. Although it’s imbued with tribal rhythms and sung in a seemingly African dialect, appearances can be deceiving.
“It’s mumbo-jumbo,” Fils-Aimé confirms. “It’s done a lot. I remember listening to some African songs when I was younger and asking a friend from Cameroon what it meant and he replied, ‘ Nothing – it’s a feeling. ‘
“I love that – the idea of using the voice as an instrument stripped of words but simply sounding emotional – the same way all other instruments communicate. It’s a kind of leveling the playing field, in a way that everyone else is on the same wavelength.”
But even the jubilant rhythm that kicks off the song isn’t quite what it seems.
“The percussive rhythm is Morse Code for ‘love,’” Fils-Aimé states.
“It brings it back to the idea of music being a universal language. I like the idea of having the pulse of the percussion impacting people with a subliminal message even if they don’t understand it. I do feel like our subconscious picks up on more than we think, so I was happy to be able to deliver that without having to say the words, only using my voice to create an atmosphere.”
Fils-Aimé calls the immersive R&B of Three Little Words, “an explosion of joy, from soul to funk to disco to R&B to neo-soul.”
“I wanted to really dive into all these types of music that make my voice what it is today and underline the fact that I don’t want to fit in a specific box, but that I want to be allowed to travel through different musical styles and be free to create with whatever feels right for the emotion I’m trying to communicate.”
A former psychologist who worked for an insurance company, Fils-Aimé said the stress of the job led her to focus on a music career, accelerated by the confidence afforded her through her La Voix experience.
“It was such an emotional and intense job that I needed an outlet,” she explains. “It became kind of my own personal therapy and the next thing I knew I never wanted to go back to work – I just wanted to keep pursuing music because it felt so good.”
One interesting trait that Fils-Aimé shares with such musicians as Flowers From Hell’s Greg Jarvis and Maryland singer-songwriter Maggie Rogers is synesthesia, the ability to see colours when she listens to singers or instruments.
When Fils-Aimé hears the music of Billie Holiday, she literally sees the colour blue.
For Nina Simone, it’s red: Etta James, gold.
“To me it’s directly associated with a specific colour and often, a colour that makes sense in my mind,” she notes
“For a while, I thought it was the same for everybody. Because if you hear a trumpet , it’s quite obviously somewhat of a bronze golden colour, because it is what the sound looks like in my mind. So it’s always been a link between colours and music.”
As for three of her chief influences, Fils-Aimé says Nina Simone “has always been red because there’s something fiery about her,” while Billie Holiday “it’s a very deep blue that is extremely rich.”
“Although all the pictures I saw of her were black and white, there was always something deep and profound, so it’s like this blue that leads me again to the water. I’m a Cancer and my element is water, so I felt like we had the same elements in a way that the expression of emotions were so present in her voice. She always gave me this comforting, soothing blue.”
And Etta James is gold because “she has a shine within her that is fun and brassy.”
Does she see any colours when she hears herself sing?
“Sadly, I don’t,” Fils-Aimé responds. “I hear the instruments around creating a mood and that gives me the sense of colouring – but when I’m singing, it’s just transparent, as if I’m trying to get in that state of meditation where you become as vulnerable as you can to your emotion and project it through your voice.”
Now that the trilogy has been completed and the message of
“the importance of love and empathy and the need that we have to satisfy each other to be united and to make sure that we stay connected” is hopefully resounding with her listeners, what is Dominque Fils-Aimé up to next?
“I feel very free to do what I want, and I know this is a privilege.
“Now I’m at the phase where I get to think and I get to dream about what do I want to do. I don’t know what’s coming next, but I know for sure that I’ll make sure it’s something that feels authentic to me and as has a message that really resonates with me.”