Florent Vollant: restoring dignity and pride through music

On January 30, the NAC Presents series, in partnership with the BMO Financial Group,  welcomed Florent Vollant, an artist and prominent figure from the Innu arts community. The singer-songwriter from Maliotenam, Québec, and former member of the famous folk‑rock duo Kashtin, returns to his traditional Innu singing roots with his fourth solo album PUAMUNA, which means “dreams” in Innu. We had the pleasure of talking to Florent  about his music and career.

In your view, what is it about the Innu language that make it so melodic?

Given that there is no “r” sound in the Innu language, I strive hard to find the right sound. I know that my audience often does not understand the language, so when I compose, I am very conscious of wanting to create something that is pleasing to the ear. I choose the right words, and a sound that isn’t grating. The language becomes a kind of instrument, and I want it to create a good feeling.

How do you prepare for a concert? Do you have any rituals or habits?

When you’re on the road, some rituals definitely become part of the routine. You are always facing the unknown. You perform your music in places that you don’t really know. I travel with sage grass that I burn to remind me of my roots and to live in the moment. While I use it for myself, I sometimes involve the musicians accompanying me in a smudging ceremony but no one is forced to take part. It brings me closer to my family and my origins. I use that time to centre myself before going onstage.

You opened the Makusham studio in Maliotenam in 1997 to offer training and recording opportunities to emerging Indigenous musicians. What have you learned from these young musicians and what are your hopes for them?

I have learned that they are very intense and have a need to express themselves. They have so much to say. I have also learned that they are extremely talented and that there is a lot of work to be done to guide them effectively. They are truly passionate young people.

Music is work, a lot of work, and it is also a passion. When you combine work with passion, it becomes a vocation. I am pleased when I am able to get this message across to them. They see music as fun, but it takes work to play well!

The 100 Years of Loss exhibition on the residential school system, created by the Legacy of Hope Foundation, will be featured at the NAC on 14 – 30 January. What do you think about this initiative as a way to raise public awareness of the history and legacies of the residential schools?

As someone who attended a residential school for a few years, I am part of that legacy. Clearly, it is difficult when you went through the experience to hear about it over and over again, so it’s hard for someone like me.

We need to be aware that this happened and that many Native North Americans were affected by the residential schools. It is good to help people understand what we went through so that they can become more open.

While music has helped restore my dignity and pride, it is also important that we use our music to give to others. Music has been – and still is – a healing force for me.

Can you tell us about the recording process for the PUAMUNA album? How did it differ from past albums?

The difference was that I created the entire album in my Makusham studio in Maliotenam. For my earlier albums, I did some of the work here and went on to finish them in Montreal. This time, I did all of the writing and recording at home, from beginning to end. As well, the musicians came to me rather than me going to them. For example, Réjean Bouchard came from Montreal to help us with the technical work, and other people like Toby Gendron also helped a great deal with the mixing.

We spent a lot of time in the studio, working on the songs and starting them over from scratch. I decided to take my time to arrange the parts I didn’t like, which sometimes led me to change the rest of the song. I gave myself the luxury of really taking my time.

The album took three years to make, and got started in part as the result of collaboration with Richard Séguin. What does musical collaboration mean for you and how is it especially important for this album?

It has always been, and continues to be, important for me. I have a very strong team spirit, given that I work with a band and do a lot of collaborative work. I started out in a band (Kashtin), so I have always found it easy to exchange ideas and create with others. It comes naturally to me. I often work with other artists and, since I have no musical training, I learn a lot from them and want to give something back in return through our collaboration.

The Makusham studio is a wonderful place for sharing ideas without any stress or pressure; it is a welcoming space where we can give free rein to our inspiration. We have no expectations and we rub the magic lamp together until the genie comes out. We take our time, and if the genie doesn’t appear, we go back to the table and start again. I want to bring that approach and spirit to others.  

How would you describe your approach to composing? Do the lyrics come before the music or after?

My work method, which I have used from the beginning, focuses on the music first. I consider myself a composer, which is really my purpose in life. I start with the melody; the story comes later and shapes all of the lyrics. The stories, which can be sad or happy, are drawn from my community. I put myself in other people’s shoes and try to express what I think they would say. It takes me months to flesh out this canvas before it truly becomes a song. I take the liberty of changing a word here and there, right up until the last minute. That was my experience in making PUAMUNA.

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