Yoan – Cowboy From Quebec
by Roman Mitz
Yoan is an anomaly. In order to avoid the generic sound of some of today’s country chart toppers, the 20-year-old singer whose full name is Yoan Garneau, doesn’t employ formulaic pop-rock guitars and he refuses to sing vapid numbers about partying until the sun goes down. Part of the reason for this can be attributed to his Quebec roots where traditional country music remains the order of the day. This may also explain why the first single from Yoan’s self-titled debut album was a gritty cover of Jimmy Reed’s ‘Baby What You Want Me To Do’, his deep timbre recalling Elvis Presley when the King performed the song on his 1968 television comeback Special.
“People do mention the Elvis connection and I think it’s because he brought an attitude to his singing that I’m also trying to bring to mine,” says the native of Ferme-Neuve. “Country music in Quebec is actually pretty big, but it’s a traditional scene. When you say country music, people don’t see it as being rock oriented. I get the rock part of it but I try to do it in an old way and that’s why people say it sounds different. I was influenced by Outlaw country, and I was inspired by singers like David Allan Coe and Waylon Jennings. Baby What You Want Me To Do is pretty old school and I think it reflects my influences. It’s also a pretty bad-ass song.”
Yoan received his big break in the industry when he won season two of La Voix, the Quebec version of the Canadian reality talent show The Voice. Yoan simply captivated the judges with his deep, warm voice that blends so effectively with folk, blues and country. The singer is grateful for the exposure that the show granted him, and it continues to pay dividends on his album. He performs a wonderful duet with his La Voix voice coach, Isabelle Boulay, on a remake of ‘J’entends Siffle Le Train’ (Hear The Train Whistle), which was a hit for Parisian singer Richard Anthony in 1962.
“La Voix was a great experience and I became well known in a very short period of time, “he says. “It changed my life, and I’m very fortunate to have so much love and support from the fans. It’s like a dream when I look back on what happened, and I appreciate it every moment of my career. Isabelle and I wanted to do a French song for the album and J’entends was one that we just had to do. The story was just perfect, about a train whistle that brings to mind a lost love, and Isabelle and I both love the song.”
Aside from a couple of covers, including a rollicking duet with Brett Kissell on Waylon and Willie’s ‘Good Hearted Woman’, Yoann wrote most of the tracks for the album. ‘My Way Home’ and ‘Goodbye Mother’ are two very sentimental songs that reflect upon the passing of family and friends, and moving on in life. On the album’s second single, the up-tempo ‘Gonna Fall In Love With Yoi’ the singer writes about “burning with desire” over a girl he just met, while ‘One Day’ is a torch ballad in which he recalls meeting his soul mate at a very tender age.
“These days there are a lot of empty songs about whiskey and women. I love the rhythm of the songs but I don’t want to sing about that stuff. That’s the reason I focus on the lyrics and the meaning behind the songs. I’ve lived a lot of things in my life and I’ve lost a lot of people and that comes out in my music. I met my girlfriend a few years ago and I really did have the feeling that I express in One Day; “I’ve only seen you twice but we’ve lived many lives”. You don’t have to be a certain age to write about things like that, because you can be young and experience them.”
There are not too many Quebec country performers who are household names outside of La Belle Province with the exception of Renee Martell, the Queen of Country, who is probably better known across the country for her Canada Post stamp. About 20 years ago Open Spaces interviewed a French Canadian singer named Bourbon Gauthier and, surprisingly, he has a present-day connection to Yoan. “Yeah, Bourbon’s still around and, in fact, he wrote a song that he wanted me to do but it just didn’t fit into the album”. Perhaps the songwriter who has had the most influence on him is his father Sylvain, who turned him on to Johnny Cash and also contributed the song ‘Dis-moi’.
“My dad has been a country music singer for over 40 years,” he says. “I’m a big fan of my dads who has that kind of Trace Adkins voice. I just had to tip my hat to him because I really respect him and his music. There are four songs on the album including my father’s that have French lyrics, and I think I’ll always try to find a French/English balance on my records. To me it comes pretty natural to write in English, but French is my first language and I think it’s important for me to keep writing French songs for the people in Quebec who helped me win La Voix.”
Besides the kick-start that La Voix gave him, Yoan’s career was also given a shot in the arm with his recent win at the Canadian Country Music Awards for Top Selling Canadian Album of the Year. He’s riding the head of steam he’s established through a tour of Quebec which culminates in a headlining gig at Montreal’s Bell Centre in April. After that he’ll start thinking about a follow-up album, although the song writing seeds were already planted in a recent trip to Nashville.
“Yeah, I recently took part in a song writing camp in Nashville and sang at two showcases and it was great. I wrote with Elisha Huffman, Rebecca Lynn Howard and Lindsey Lee, who have written songs for a lot of different performers like Faith Hill and Z Z Top. I had a lot of support from both the songwriters and fans at the showcases; they reacted really positively and I hope I can bring some of the energy and songs to my next album.”