“I knew that I was soon going to reach some sort of plateau,” remembers Marie Davidson of how she felt when releasing her breakthrough fourth album, 2018’s ‘Working Class Woman’. A smart, innovative record, it combined the most thrilling elements of pop, techno and electro, making clear her refusal to be pigeonholed into any one corner of the club. An inescapable Soulwax remix of lead single ‘Work It’ would go on to dominate the next summer’s festival season.
“I felt like I had finally achieved what I wanted to do with this kind of music. All the previous albums were experiments and attempts,” she recalls over Zoom from her home in Montreal. “They were cool, but not absolutely polished and finished as I wanted them to be. But I thought this one was pretty solid”. Its unexpected success took her around the world but, having preemptively dissected the concepts of work, club culture and fame, Marie found the non-stop touring lifestyle was taking its toll.
“I got in this spiral of gigs and festivals, and towards the end I was already planning my move away from it all,” she says. She originally planned to tour the album for a year and then take a year off to “stay at home, write new music and take care of myself”. That didn’t happen. Instead, she felt “stressed and tired” by her hectic schedule. It didn’t help that she was also becoming increasingly disenchanted with the club world. “At some point it started to sound all the same to me, but it was because I was too close to it”.
Marie also started falling out of love with the club scene when she realised she was only booked to play parties where the line-up was full of – mostly male – DJs. Sexist attitudes in the music industry, unjustly dismissed her talent as a producer, vocalist and writer; a feeling that Welsh techno-pop musician Kelly Lee Owens has also expressed.
“I am not a DJ,” Marie makes clear, though she’s quick to emphasise her love for dancing, techno, Italo disco and house, having spent many lost weekends at underground DIY raves in Montreal and Berlin. “If I’m something, I’m probably an enthusiastic dancer for good music,” she laughs.
Having grown up playing in bands, Marie found that she missed “proper gigs” and being with other people. “It was great to do my stuff alone because it’s nice to make all the decisions. But it’s also really hard.” She pauses. “I was so lonely on tour. I was alone all the time: at the airport, at soundcheck, at the hotel room, at the gig. Sure, you’re with people, but they’re partying.”
It didn’t take long for her to realise that she wasn’t enjoying it as much as she should. “I got really sick of doing it all alone and thought if I want to keep doing this job and stay passionate about making music and touring, then I need to bring my friends.”
The natural conclusion was to form her own band, joining forces with husband Pierre Guerineau and their friend Asaël R. Robitaille. For the self-confessed “music nerds” who first became friends through the Montreal DIY scene when Marie was 18, the natural connection was there straight away.
Painting a relatively civilised picture of their studio sessions; arriving in the early afternoon, easing into it by having a tea or coffee and listening to classics bangers at 3am after the work is done, it wasn’t long until the ‘70s and ‘80s loving trio began working on their debut album as Marie Davidson & L’Œil Nu (which translates to ‘the naked eye’). Their debut, ‘Renegade Breakdown’, balances strutting stadium-sized electro-rock that calls to mind ‘†’-era Justice, balanced out by more reflective jazz moments and romantic ballads that Marie sings entirely in French.
Having previously focused on electronic music for almost a decade, each member of the band had a clear aim in mind when making the record. “We wanted to make songs and bring back musicianship,” explains Marie. It’s a direction she hinted at on the closing track of ‘Working Class Woman’, the remarkably human ‘La chambre intérieure’. “Our aim was to make an album that would please us while embracing and paying tribute to all the music that we’d been listening to for the past 15 years,” insists Marie, citing prog-rock, soft-rock, ballads, rock ‘n’ roll, blues rock, jazz and French pop, American songwriting as well as UK rock, “but with a modern touch”.
“We hope people can feel that it’s made in 2020. We’re not trying to do pastiche or reproduction. We’re trying to use those touches but with modern techniques,” Marie considers, adding that while they incorporated backing musicians and friends who played additional bass, guitars and drums, the entire album is recorded and tracked using digital audio workstation Ableton Live.
Something the trio actively steered away from was “repeating ourselves” or “falling into something easily”. Instead, as Pierre says, they were keen to ensure that there’s “not a moment where you can get bored, because there’s always something happening”. Asaël adds that he wants the listener to feel excited about going back through the album, noticing things they might have missed. It’s something that becomes even clearer when Marie says she really wanted to tell stories on this album. “For me, it was about the passage of time and my personal evolution and my relationship to my years of touring and partying.”
‘Back To Rock’, for example, is Marie’s personal story of “breaking up with club culture”. In August 2019 she announced her retirement from club music, writing on Instagram “the day has come for me to depart from the club scene to explore new horizons”. The epic track is also about “workaholism, addiction and moving on – or trying to, at least. But when you move on you first have to let things die. It is extremely painful, and it feels like you’re literally dying yourself.”
While she channels this anguish through her acerbic, direct and often satirical lyrics, on the title track she takes a shot at her critics: “Your pointless opinion, I couldn’t care less; how do you come up with such meaninglessness? Your cheap headlines, your lazy writing.” ‘Renegade Breakdown’ also provides space for Marie to demonstrate her impressive vocal range. “Pierre really pushed me. He was like ‘you should make a signing album’,” she recalls. It was exactly the encouragement Marie needed. “I’m aware that I’m not a very technical singer, but I don’t care. I love singing and I have my own voice – with its limitations,” she says humbly.
What’s most important for Marie, though, is that it’s honest. While making the record, she purposefully tried to “cut words down to simpler sentences to take out the mystery and bring back a bit more actual information”. Her strength as a writer is about getting to the point. “I’m a fan of songs where, if you really sit down and look at the lyrics, you will actually learn about the person,” she explains.
Such directness characterises the dark humour of the album’s title. ‘Renegade Breakdown’ is “kind of a joke, but also true,” reveals Marie. “The funnier jokes are always the ones that have truth in them.” She sees the name, as well as the “internal conflict” demonstrated in the record’s artwork, as her response to the music industry, capitalism, the pharmaceutical industry, airport culture, politics, neoliberalism, fashion. “All that stuff… it’s a real feeling of disenchantment and fleeing, like ‘ciao, bye!’”
And, while ‘Renegade Breakdown’ is undoubtedly different to her solo material, she doesn’t think her real fans will be too shocked. “I’ve always featured music from all over the place – rock, jazz, ambient. The ones that know me shouldn’t be surprised,” she says, biting back at “those who think they know me because they’ve heard ‘Work It’ and danced to it in a club… They might be surprised. Maybe it’s good or bad to them, I don’t care.” She’s vocal about wanting people to realise that this project is a proper band, too. “It’s not like Pierre and Asaël are hired by me,” she laughs. “They’re not my employees. We make all the music together. They’re as important as me, if not more.”
‘Renegade Breakdown’ is out now on Ninja Tune