By Amanda Nordqvist
Just over a year after his latest release, Montreal-based, multi-dimensional musician Simon P. Castonguay brings yet another softly solemn EP to the table. With Chapitre II, Simon continues his theme of vibrantly buoyant, with just the tiniest inexplicable sense of darkness, erring just beyond reach. His compositions invite you, urge you almost, to explore your imagination and construct stories of your own.
So, Simon - when and why did you start creating your own music?
I started playing music when I was about 14 years old, mainly because my friends at school were in a heavy metal band. They needed a bass player and I really wanted to be cool like them, so I learned to play the bass! Around the same time, I discovered a software where I could enter guitar and bass tabs in a staff and layer an infinite number of MIDI instruments. That was really a turning point because it was the first time I could write all the parts of every instrument in the band (guitars, keyboards, drums, etc) and actually hear it with a playback engine. That’s how I started to learn and experiment with composition – by realising the infinite possibilities of composing with a computer.
Growing up as a 2000’s kid, the evolution of technology got really useful for musicians and other creators. When you look at my composition workflow, you can see that it’s really computer-influenced. That’s mainly why I describe my music as modern classical, because I really don’t use classical music methods and rules. As I grew up and learned by playing different instruments with different bands, I always kept writing and recording ideas (instrumental arrangements, because I couldn’t sing very well). I eventually came to a point where I felt like I needed to get my creations out of the computer and to start playing them with real instruments and live musicians. It gave my compositions a lot more feel and dynamic contrast, and I enjoy working in studios with real musicians. So that’s basically how everything started.
How has the Montreal music scene affected your style and expression?
I’m not sure exactly how the scene really affected my work creatively speaking, but one thing for sure is that it helped me meet and connect with a lot of different artists. As a young musician, I naturally started to hang out with other musicians, and since the scene here is not that big, I eventually started to meet everyone. Montreal has a lot of venues and festivals, there are a lot of opportunities for playing shows and/or supporting your friends playing shows. I end up effortlessly going to artistic events all the time. And I feel like it’s more about the people than about the genre of music. It’s amazing how you can find a classically trained cellist playing in an indie-folk band as well as in an experimental ambient performance project. Everyone is working together. I compose melodramatic soundtracks, but I’m also a guitar player in a rock n’ roll band and a synth player accompanying a folk songwriter in outdoor festivals. It’s not really hard to find a motivated and talented musician here, so musical projects and collaborations are always being discussed. On the other hand, the modern classical scene here is not that big, but is slowly making its way. I’ve had more of a hard time getting my music reviewed here than in other countries. But for this EP, I’ve decided to work with a local promotion team to get my EP and my label (Moderna) a little more known here, and it’s worked really well so far.
You have a background in film studies – has that contributed to the way you experiment with music? Have you studied music or any other form of art as well?
After studying film, I had to choose whether to pursue a career in movie production or to pursue music theory, because I had never taken any music lessons (I still can not read a score…). I started working with a string quartet and I wanted to speak the same language as them, so I pursued my university studies in electro-acoustic music. Unfortunately, I didn’t really enjoy it. I took some useful music theory courses, learned a lot about the physics of sound and I really enjoyed my music history classes, but the program itself was not challenging enough. I stopped going to school and I had the opportunity to work as a musical director for theatre plays. I’ve been working in that domain for 4 years now and it’s really inspiring for my musical work, since I have to create sonic textures and sound design. A lot of people are telling me that they see images and imagine scenarios while they listen to my music. I really appreciate that, knowing that everybody can make up their own story with my piece as a soundtrack. Of course it’s always been a big dream of mine to write a soundtrack for a film, but I don’t want to wait around for that day to come. Unconsciously, I’m just doing a soundtrack for a film that will never exist or in that manner many films produced in the minds of my listeners.
Could you describe your creating process for me?
It obviously starts with the piano. A real piano. I’ve composed a lot on MIDI keyboard in the past, but now that I own a piano, it’s almost impossible for me to play on a keyboard nowadays. I need the feel, the weight and the sound of a real piano. As I cannot read music, I never really play existing songs - I just improvise. I always say to people that I’m not actually a pianist. I feel more like a composer whose main tool is the piano. But like every musical instrument, you need to practice a lot if you want to get the hold of the instrument. And since I never took lessons, I practice in my own way: by messing around with rhythmic patterns and finger position. I eventually come up with a melody or a chord progression that inspires me and I work from there. I never record my ideas right away. I usually jam and mess around with all of my songs and ideas over a long period of time without recording them. Once I feel the need to release something, I start recording. From there, I loop the song over and over and I start to experiment with strings sounds. It can take a long time before I get something that satisfies me. Once I have something, I show it to the string quartet and we practice it so I can hear it with the feel of real instruments. I usually practice my new songs in a live performance setting, because it gives me a deadline on the calendar to write all the arrangements!
What or who is your biggest inspiration when composing?
I’ve been thinking of that question for a while. It may sound weird but I think I can say that my main inspiration is the instrument itself (the piano). The way it sounds, the way you play it, the way the notes are placed, the way it resonates. I love to experiment with different ways of playing it. Most of the time, I play really quietly with felt added between the strings and the hammers. That simple preparation is giving me enough fuel to be inspired. These days, I’m getting drawn into the world of synthesisers and I think it’s driving my inspiration toward electronic elements in my songs. I actually have some Roland JUNO pads on all of my songs in Chapitre II.
Were there any significant differences when releasing this second EP as opposed to your first couple of releases?
Of course. Last fall, I was travelling through Europe for a couple of months and when I got back home, I had the sudden urge to release some of the music that I had composed over the previous year. I wanted it released before the summer, because I knew that I would start working ASAP on a full length album for 2017. I had tons of songs and it was really hard to choose which ones to release - I didn’t want to release a bunch of random songs without a concept. I had to book the studio pretty quickly and I worked like hell for 2-3 months making the string and electronic arrangements. Everything happened quickly and I caused some headaches to the label because we still couldn’t figure out which songs would fit and we had to start the promo rollout. We actually got the final master the day we released it! It was really stressful… But in the end, everyone was happy and we had a beautiful EP.
Did you have a particular message to convey with Chapitre II?
I don’t necessarily have the need to share or pass a message with my work in general. Let’s say that I want to invite people to take time to listen to my music by releasing these soft and delicate songs into this fast, high tempo and crazy world.
Lastly, do you have any advice for young artists out there?
Well, the thing is that I still feel like I’m a young artist and that I still have lot to learn. But I guess that’s actually the best advice: always feel the need to learn. It also means experimenting with different tools and instruments, meeting and talking to other creators, recording and re-arranging in different ways you haven’t thought of. If you’re a classical musician you should experiment with electronics, and if you’re an electronic producer, then try to experiment with classical music. With technology, we are at a time where you can easily create everything that passes trough your mind; every sound, every texture, every idea. Everything is possible, you just need to work your way around that. Also, simply listen to music. And by that I mean A LOT of music. There are so many beautiful songs in the world, it’s ridiculous. Tell yourself that you still haven’t heard your personal best-magical-incredible-mind-blowing-life-changing song. By searching and discovering for new material, you’ll end up listening to a piece that will inspire you in many ways.