February 19, 2016
Photo by Daphné Caron
In the spring of 2007, John Carney’s Once opened in theaters. In that low-key musical, we discovered Glen Hansard (of the bands The Frames and The Swell Season), in the role of an Irish busker. An image powerful enough to send a then 23-year-old Quebec musician, David Ratté, all the way to the streets of Galway, Ireland, to play some Radiohead covers. It’s also there that, at three in the morning in a youth hostel, he found the chords for “Thieves,” the very first song from Will Driving West.
Will Driving West—a band name linked to another film reference, (i.e. Good Will Hunting, which ends with Matt Damon’s character, Will, driving to California to go see his girlfriend, as an Elliott Smith song plays on the soundtrack). Will Driving West—a perfect name for a group whose songs are intended to have the feel of a road trip.
The dream of playing folk music bloomed during that trip to Ireland in late 2008, but it took more than a year before it became a reality. In the meantime, Ratté recorded the second album of his post-rock band Man an Ocean and played alongside Frank Fuller. That kept him busy enough, yet it was still a dark year for the musician, who still hadn’t found a musical project that truly fulfilled him.
Thieves, the first single from the album The Breakout by Will Driving West
Things began to change for the better in early 2010 when Ratté sent the demo of “Thieves” to the two young women who would become the first other members of Will Driving West, Andréa Bélanger (piano, bass, vocals) and Camille Paquette-Roy (cello). Together they wrote and recorded their entire debut album in only three months. “The year between Galway and the beginning of Will Driving West was when I had to hit bottom in order to tell myself, ‘OK, enough, there’s no way I’ll spend my whole life unhappy like that’,” remembers Ratté. “With Will Driving West, my happiness has never stopped growing. I don’t even recognize that depressed guy I was in 2009.”
Will Driving West released The Breakout on October 10, 2010. The songs on that self-produced record are defined by their simplicity, with no attempt to revolutionize the art form, but with a winning, catchy quality throughout and lyrics that hit the spot—whether they’re bittersweet (“October’s Coming,” “Another Kind of Departure”) or irreverent (“Throw It In the Fire”).
Two years and some twenty shows throughout Quebec later, Will Driving West, whose ranks now include drummer Benoît Caron, launch the amazing Castles at Théâtre Plaza in June 2012. On that sophomore effort, the band’s intimate folk has a rockier feel, with more complex arrangements and more diverse atmospheres, from the epic “Better Lands” to the stripped down “Invisible.”
“Better Lands” live at Salle Desjardins-Telus, Rimouski, QC
While the songs of Will Driving West have never been played on commercial radio, they’ve often been heard in movies and on TV since 2012, notably in Cannes-bound short film Margo Lily, in web series Comment survivre aux week-ends, in Rafaël Ouellet’s Camion or more recently, in the CBC series This Life.
“Here we go again,” sings Ratté at the beginning of “Grow,” one of the first tracks on Fly, the sublime third album of the band, which now features a fifth member, guitar player Nicolas Ouellette. First released digitally June 2014, then on CD and vinyl February 2015 thanks to a successful crowdfunding campaign, Fly follows the passing of the seasons: spring and the hope it brings, summer in all its glory, the autumn blues, never-ending winter. In the midst of this, we’re treated to everything from a tender love song like “No Empty Promises,” where Ratté touchingly tells his lover “I want you to feel safe inside my arms,” to an anthem like “The Adventure” which has the whole band singing “oh-oh-ohs”, to a gloomier number like “Evicted,” with its intense percussive finale.
Evicted music video directed by Paul Tom
Six years into their career, Will Driving West have sold more than 10,000 albums and played a hundred concerts, all without the support of a record label. Word-of-mouth on and off social media made it possible for the band to attract a decent fan base in Quebec. And in 2016, they hope to follow in the footsteps of other Montreal acts they admire, such as Half Moon Run, and to conquer new horizons, starting with the rest of Canada. That process will begin in May when Will Driving West will take part in this year’s Canadian Music Week.
– Kevin Laforest