Dominique Forest's new CD is more personal – and more of a risk – than she had ever planned.

Dominique Forest with Normand Glaude at the Ella Fitizgerald-Billie Holiday Tribute concert. ©Brett Delmage, 2013
Dominique Forest with Normand Glaude at the Ella Fitizgerald-Billie Holiday Tribute concert. ©Brett Delmage, 2013
The Ottawa jazz vocalist has made her name over the last dozen years as an assured interpreter of the Great American Songbook, a repertoire she loves. When she finally decided in 2013 to record her first CD, she put together a list of her favourite standards. And then she thought she'd add one original song. And then another...

On Saturday at the NAC Fourth Stage, Forest will launch the CD – a completely original album of her own compositions. Called C'est à moi – the English translation is “It's up to me” – it's also a very personal effort.

All the songs “tell a little bit about a life lived. If I had written this body of work three years ago, it would have been a very different album. This particular time in my life, it was one of hope and of joy and I really wanted to bring out reflections. It's reflective and introspective.”

The title song was particularly important to her: “ 'C'est à moi' is the first song that I wrote for this album. The words of the song are it's up to me to move forward and to find my way. I can't let grief or anything else stop me. And so it just made sense that if I was doing this album, as soon as I agreed that if I'm doing this body of work, then that's going to be the title song.”

The songs range in style from funk to pop to chanson, as well as more classic swinging jazz numbers and ballads. Some are directly personal – a tribute to her parents, a joyful celebration of a sister's recovery from illness – while others are just for fun.

At the Fourth Stage, Forest will perform with the same musicians as on the album. All are well-known in Ottawa-Gatineau's jazz scene: Tim Bedner on guitar, Elise Letourneau on piano and accordion, Normand Glaude on bass, and Kieran Milne on drums, percussion, and vocals.

"Well, what if I had one or two originals?"

Forest's previous major musical project was the tribute to Ella Fitzgerald and Billie Holiday's Newport concerts. She presented that jointly with Karen Oxorn and Nicole Ratté in a sold-out concert at the Fourth Stage in April, 2013. After that success, she said, she started seriously thinking of recording a CD – a project her audiences had been suggesting for years.

When she first started singing, she said, recording an album seemed to be the thing to do, and “shortly after I started people were asking 'Why don't you do an album?' ”

After the Ella-Billie concert, “I came out of that experience thinking, 'OK, enough time has gone by. And if I'm going to do something I'd like to do it soon.' My intention had been to do a album of interpretations. That's what people know me to do. I'd picked out the songs and I was ready to move forward.”

During the Christmas holidays of 2013, “I thought, 'Well, what if I had one or two originals?' And so I had a couple of songs that I had worked on years before and so I dusted those off, and continued to write. And so I ended up writing in two spells: around Christmas of last year, and then again in February, and came up with essentially these ten songs.”

But she was still unsure.

“I knew I had the capacity to write. I just didn't know if it was going to be any good. This is a first effort. And so it crossed my mind, 'What am I thinking? Is this the right thing to do?' ”

She had already decided she was going to work with Bedner – with whom she'd played many jazz duo gigs – on the album, and they had agreed to get together in April, 2013, to discuss the arrangements. At that point, she presented the songs to him. “He basically said, 'I think you really do have something here! I don't know why it is that you're thinking that we should be doing interpretations. You've got an album's-worth here!' ”

Bedner's enthusiasm was the spark she needed: “I didn't turn back after that.” Milne and Bedner arranged the tunes, and they recorded in September.

"I could not write this song and have it be one of despair"

But one of the songs – which she had started writing seven years before – she wasn't able to fully complete until July.

“La tourbillon” (The whirlwind) is a song Forest had written for her sister, who had been diagnosed with a chronic illness. “It was a really troubling time. And just this past July, after a lot of lows and not a whole lot of encouragement, she did get some very good news which seemed to turn things around, turn the tide. And all of the sudden I knew, 'OK, now I can finish this song.' ”

“Because I couldn't – for the life of me – I could not write this song and have it be one of despair. It could not, it could not, it could not. And so the words of that song: it's the whirlwind that you're in, you no longer have control of your life, everything is in a spin. Eventually you fall into that spin, have it propel you into a direction. And so you're still in charge of yourself, you're still in change of your life and you're still in charge of your destiny. So it was meant to be a very uplifting song. It starts out very tenuous and dark, but it's a very hopeful tune.”

“Say My Name” was also written many years before, Forest said. It is the one angry tune on the record. “This one took a bit of a different spirit as we were recording it. It became even harsher.”

“We're Quite a Pair”, on the other hand, is a very happy, swinging vocal duet with Milne, who has also been her partner in life for the past four years, and has considerable experience singing in his own bands.

“I wanted to do something that was a bit 'coquette', and I just wanted something fun. Fun, and the joys of being in a couple, and you see them evolve. The children are grown but there's still that anchor, that very fundamental love between the two of them. You may get on each other's nerves, but you can't be separated. I wanted it to be a joyful, fun, tune and that's what I hope was conveyed.”

Inspired by her parents, and by a jazz standard

“The House” is dedicated to Forest's parents, as “a retrospective of a life lived and what a house and what a partnership is.” Her mother and father will get to hear the song in person on Saturday.

Forest said her Franco-Ontarian parents gave her a strong musical background as she grew up in Sudbury. It's therefore not surprising that one-half of the CD's songs have English lyrics and half are en français. She speaks proudly of her father, who has loved singing all his life (“It's always been, in a sense, his best friend”), and who turned down the chance to go on the road with Gordon Lightfoot in favour of law school.

“The House” is also the song most directly inspired by a jazz standard, via local jazz pianist Jean-Pierre Allain.

“While I was playing at Molto [Kitchen], I had so many wonderful opportunities to play with Jean-Pierre. And we had great conversations about music and about influences. He's a wealth of knowledge and just a wonderful person. And he had explained to me that there was a particular song that he really loved: 'The Folks Who Live on the Hill'.”

“He had wanted us to do it, and it took some time, but I finally learned it, and it was so well-received. And I remembered the way I felt when I sang it and I remembered how he is when he plays it. It was such a strong sentiment, and I thought the lyric in this song is just so beautiful and it's so poignant that I wanted to write a song that would have that feel, that sentiment, in it.”

The last song on the album, “Come to Me (Rescue Me)”, arises from her experience of writing for this album.

“That one is about sitting down in front of a blank sheet of paper and thinking, 'I've got to bare my soul here. Is this what I need to do? Is this what I want to do? And what will happen if I do this? Is it going to set me free or will it leave me even more vulnerable to bare my soul?' So it's about, if you put pen to paper and you actually express the things that are going through your mind and your spirit, does it really free you? I wrote it from the standpoint of 'Yes, it will', so let the words come, let them rescue you.”

A very humbling process

Forest said that recording her first CD was a very “humbling” process, and “exhilarating, overwhelming, all that. And sometimes frustrating, because you simply don't know what to expect.”

She said the “expertise, the finesse, the sensibilities” of the other, experienced musicians guided her in the studio, although there were times when she rejected suggestions because they didn't fit her intent for a song.

Other than “Say My Name”, she said, the songs ended up as she imagined them. “ 'Le Tourbillon' is even more wonderful than I had hoped.”

A truly bilingual album

The liner notes on the CD flow fluidly between English and French, just as the song lyrics alternate languages. Forest said that simply reflects “who I am. I can't even imagine having to choose one or the other. Being Franco-Ontarian, both English and French are around you all the time. And so if this album was going to be a reflection of who I am and what it is that I can offer, then the bilingual liner notes are part of it too.”

It also reflects her experience living in Ottawa, she said, where you can work and live in both languages.

Forest started singing publicly in Ottawa around 2003, after she met local jazz musician Howard Tweddle at an open mic session at The Bayou. “He got us a gig at the Cock & Lion, and what was supposed to be a four-week gig turned out to last almost a year. And that was really the beginning.”

That coincided with the maternity leave for her daughter, she said, and over the next few years she found she had to be careful to balance out the needs of her young family with an increasing demand for her to sing at jazz gigs. From 2009 to 2012, she coordinated the weekly (and often twice-weekly) jazz shows at Molto Kitchen in Gatineau, frequently singing there herself as well, until that restaurant closed.

Loving the versatility of jazz standards

She enjoyed singing jazz, she said, because of the versatility of the repertoire.

“Some folks find the lyrics to be just too cavalier almost. I find it to be beautiful. I love the quaintness of some of the tunes, that are very coquette. And I just love all the songs in the [Great American] Songbook. They're just lovely. And whenever I could sing a verse, I'd love to do the verse. I liked being able to put my spin on it or not necessarily trying to imitate. Every once in a while there'd be a version that would stick to you a little more so, yes, you're shamelessly ripping off but there are others that you just think, 'I can do it this way'.”

“And it was always such a pleasure to sing jazz. And the more I was doing it the more I was being asked to do it. So it has its own momentum.”

It's no surprise that Ella Fitzgerald and Billie Holiday are among her biggest jazz influences, as well as Sarah Vaughn and Carol Welsman. But Chet Baker?

“To hear his vulnerability, the vulnerability in his voice, this softness, and the melancholy sound of his voice regardless of what he sings, is just ... it grabs me every single time.”

Forest emphasized that her commitment to singing jazz – and jazz standards – hasn't been affected by the fact that this album contains some songs in other styles.

“I don't see it changing what I am doing currently. During my career, I have always extended my repertoire to include pop music or more modern tunes. That has always been well received and I've often had requests for those songs as well. I love the jazz standards and I love all styles of music.”

Her shows – including the CD release show on Saturday – will continue to include jazz standards, she said.

"It's up to me to move ahead regardless"

And what does she think her new CD says about her?

“I think it was daring of me. It's certainly not what I thought I was going to do. So I guess it's laying it out there, daringly laying it out there. I hope that people enjoy it, and I remember thinking, 'Oh gosh, what if they don't?' ”

But, in the end, she's happy with what she produced. “I'd love it if people enjoy it, but I can't that let stop me. And that is the message in C'est à moi. It's up to me to move ahead regardless.”

    – Alayne McGregor

Dominique Forest will release C'est à moi in a concert at the National Arts Centre Fourth Stage in Ottawa, at 7:30 p.m. on Saturday, January 24. She will present another CD release concert on Saturday, April 18, at the Science North/Science nord Centre in Sudbury.

You can hear Dominique Forest talk about the album with Karen Oxorn, and play several of the songs with Tim Bedner in a stored podcast of the Swing is in the Air program on CKCU-FM from January 18, 2015.

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