Welcome to “Cloverdale In Conversation,” a regular feature with a local newsmaker. This week, JJ Lavallee is our guest. Lavallee is a local Métis musician with roots stretching back to a small town in Manitoba.
Lavallee sat down for a socially-distanced chat in Hawthorne Square to talk about his journey as a musician, his thoughts on living in Cloverdale, and he discusses his forthcoming album “Rebirth” along with his forthcoming single “Ready to be Free.”
Malin Jordan: So you’ve been in the studio this week. How’s that going?
JJ Lavallee: It’s going (laughs). I’m juggling work, home, and the studio. I went (to the studio) with a couple of four-minute long songs and (the producer) says, “Well, if you want it on the radio, radio is a horse of a different colour, two-minutes-twenty, two-minutes-thirty.” So he’s telling me I need to cut the verses out of my songs. But a lot of my songs tell stories. If I cut verses out, the stories won’t make sense. I’ve got a four-minute song. It’ll be the first single. But we’re confident it’ll get radio play.
MJ: What’s the song called?
JJL: Ready to be Free. I’m trying to fund it myself, but with COVID, it’s been nearly impossible. It costs money to get in the studio. My producer says, “I like you. If I could record you for free, I would. But I don’t like you that much” (laughs).
MJ: Tell me a little bit about the album. Do you have a title yet?
JJL: Rebirth. Rebirth because that is exactly what’s happened to me since moving to B.C.
MJ: How so?
JJL: Just as a person and as an artist. Being here on my own, coming from an area where everybody knew me. There was a point where I couldn’t go out to eat dinner without having to sign autographs. But then I come here and I’m anonymous. I just learned a lot about myself.
I also learned B.C. is a very expensive province to live in. So you can’t stay idle very long. I’ve done every kind of work, construction, roofing. Now I work in the schools. I work with a dance troupe (V’ni Dansi) out of Vancouver. I’m their violinist. We play for a program called ArtStarts in Schools.
MJ: What kind of music can people expect to hear on Rebirth?
JJL: I would say country. Although this new single started as a country song and I think rather you like country, or say alternative, you’re going to like the song. I think it could be played on JR FM or 96.9 (Jack). Once you hear the song, you’ll realize it doesn’t really have a genre behind it.
MJ: Do you have a tentative release date?
JJL: I’m going to be in the studio next week working on the final edit. If I could get it out by June to hit the radio, that would be great. [JJ is recording his album at Cosmic Pig Studio in Whalley.]
MJ: How is the album progressing?
JJL: Great, but it’s challenging. I always wanted to be a country singer, or so I thought, but this new music is taking me to a unique place. When I first came here, I hooked up with a bunch of rockers. I could never find a country band to play with. And there’s not that many country bands around. I’ve had a struggle trying to find guys my age that play country music. So that alternative, raw kind of style rubbed off on me. But I’m still country at heart.
MJ: So would you say this new music is pulling you in a new direction?
JJL: Absolutely. It’s funny you say that. I was talking with my aunt last night. And she asked me, “What’s the main difference between your music before and your music now?” And I said, “On my last three albums, I tried to make the music go where I wanted it to go. This time, I believe the album, the music, is going to go where it wants to go.”
MJ: What about you? Where did you grow up?
JJL: I grew up in a small community called Saint Ambroise, Manitoba. I grew up in the Prairies. I grew up by a lake [Lake Manitoba]. The community had about 400 people at one time. Fisherman. I was never a fisherman, myself. I wasn’t very good at it. I didn’t like getting out on the lake at four in the morning in -30 weather. I’d sooner stay home and play my guitar. That was me.
So, I grew up in a small town. I spent most of my life there. Then I moved to Winnipeg and I tried to make a big life for myself in the city of Winnipeg. I had fun. I had a lot of success there. Had a few runs with my music career there. Released a few albums. Had some local success.
MJ: And when did you move the Cloverdale?
JJL: I moved here nine years ago. Looking for change. I started living in a place on the corner of 184th and 64th.
MJ: Cloverdale really is a small town nestled in the big city. So, did you kind of feel at home when you got here?
JJL: I did. When I first moved here, I started walking around and I couldn’t believe all the small shops. It reminded me of a town called Portage la Prairie, which was right close to where I grew up. They’re kind of nestled the same way. Little areas like this [points to shops around Hawthorne Square]. And it just gave me that sense of, “Ah! I could live here. I think I’ll like it here.”
MJ: You’re also active in the Métis community here.
JJL: I try to stay as active as possible in the Métis community. I do a lot of work with V’ni Dansi [a Vancouver-based traditional Métis and contemporary dance company]. Once a year, V’ni Dansi puts on a Louis Riel Days celebration and I usually play there. Before COVID we would gather and dance and celebrate. I just play old-fashioned Métis fiddle music. It’s nice to see the elders come there. It gives them a chance to listen to the music. They really enjoy it and it’s good for the community.
Whenever I’m asked to do a function, I do it. I recently did a film for the Métis Nation of British Columbia. They did some filming at Fort Langley about Métis dance and the culture and the fiddle style.
I’m also a board member with the B.C. Métis Federation. I’ve been a board member for seven years.
I’m also well known in the Métis community across Canada. I’ve played several events east-to-west.
MJ: When we were walking up to Hawthorne Square, you were talking about how central music is to your life. Can you elaborate on that a little?
JJL: It’s very important. I grew up in a large family. My grandparents had 20 kids and almost everybody sang and played an instrument. So, growing up I was surrounded by it.
I was the awkward kid. When all the other kids wanted to go hunting and playing with dirt bikes, I wanted to stay around the adults because they would play the fiddle and they would sing. I just loved music from a young age.
But who I was as an artist when I left Manitoba to who I am as an artist today: big change, big difference. The music I’m writing today, I think more people can relate to it. It’s more universal.
MJ: How has it been not being able to play any gigs because of COVID?
JJL: For me, as a musician, I don’t feel well if I’m not playing. I know for everybody else COVID’s been tough, but for me—being able to travel across the country, make a living, going from town to town, I’ve been everywhere across Canada, all the festivals being canceled, not being able to play in the pubs—it’s been really hard. Now when I do do a gig, it’s in a theatre setting, in front of a camera, with a mask on. Stand in one spot. And I’m grateful to do something, but it’s just not the same. You don’t have the audience to feed off at all.
(COVID’s) taught me how important an audience is. It’s important to have that sense of community when you go to the same place to play. You make connections with people. It’s important to have that, because it’s just not the same without it.
MJ: Has COVID affected you in any other ways?
JJL: I haven’t always been a healthy person. I’ve had health issues my whole life. I had half a lung removed when I was 23 years old. I was told that I might never sing again. And then I got diagnosed with an autoimmune disease after that. So it’s been tough. It’s been mentally tough. Questioning what’s going on, what’s happening. Are there going to be gigs? How’s my health? Can I go out in public? Yeah, it’s been difficult.
MJ: Aside from some of the adversity you’ve faced through COVID as a musician, and your health issues, have you faced any other adversity in your life?
JJL: Absolutely. I came from a small community where partying was the only thing we ever saw. A lot of alcohol. That’s not to say I didn’t have a good childhood. It could have been worse. But I went through a bout in my 20s with addiction. I suffered big time through addiction. I almost lost my life. I took about a year off of music to get myself straightened out. When I made a comeback, it was really interesting, because I always thought the typical country singers—you know, the Hank Williams, all those old-timers—they always tell the story of drinking and getting on stage half-cut. And I always believed I had to have three-four beers in me, or something in me, to get on stage so I could be that character. But when I sobered up later in life, I realized I didn’t need any of that.
MJ: How was it when you started playing gigs again, when you made your comeback?
JJL: I remember I got a gig at an outdoor festival. And nobody wanted to hire me because I burned some bridges back then. So they said, “Well, we’ll give you a 10-minute spot. Just to let everyone know you’re back in it and good to see you’re staying sober.” So I went outside and I played. And for those 10 minutes—at first, I was nervous because I thought, “How am I going to do this? I’ve never played without being drunk or high.” And then I got on stage and played—And for those 10 minutes, I felt the emotion in the audience. Everything that was running through my head stopped and I thought, “Hey, I can do this.”
I learned a big lesson. I learned I don’t need any of that stuff. I know that the music is powerful enough to keep anything at bay—whether that be stuff from your past, troubles you have now, depression—music has the ability to transcend many things.
If I can write something that makes me feel good—and I can share that with you and you can feel it too—that in itself is something magical because now we’re connected. We’re connected through a song.
MJ: Is that what Ready to be Free is about?
JJL: The song is about where a person is today in their life and how that ain’t going to be where they are tomorrow. They’re looking back at the past and they’re realizing the past doesn’t matter. It’s what’s in front of them. They’re ready to be free in this life. Let go of all the pain and just enjoy life with the people that they’re with today.
MJ: Because of COVID, everyone seems to be binge-watching a TV series or two. Have you binge-watched anything over the last year that was memorable?
JJL: I watched Yellowstone. I liked it. It’s about a rancher in Montana, a family of ranchers. On one side there’s a gigantic ranch and on the other side is a reservation. So the show starts off with a bit of conflict, but the two start working together because they find out that they have a common enemy.
MJ: Anything you’d like to add?
JJL: After being in Cloverdale for a decade, I love it. It took me a while to start getting to know people out here and I’ve never had any problems … I think Cloverdale is a great place. There’s a real sense of community. When the rodeo comes around, I like checking out the parade—especially being a country boy. And everyone is so friendly.
After our conversation, JJ said he’s available to play birthdays, weddings, and any other types of shows or celebrations, either solo or with a full band, and can be booked through his email: firstname.lastname@example.org.