TORONTO — Marie Davidson is leaving her own party just as it’s getting started.
Over the past year, the Montreal electronic producer has shaken up club life with her existential ponderings. But while the revellers were on the dance floor, Davidson was spiralling into a personal crisis.
Insomnia, sleeping pills, feelings of creative stagnation. It wasn’t a formula for success, even if outside her mind everything was illuminated.
“I started to feel like I was chasing something that was not coming,” Davidson, 32, said in a recent interview at a Toronto diner.
“Before you go to the party you’re supposed to be excited, but I wasn’t anymore. I was just hoping for next time, the next one, and it started happening less and less. So I realized maybe it’s time for me to move on.”
Quitting electronic music was a promise Davidson made to herself, and hinted at publicly, before her 2018 album “Working Class Woman” took off. The release was shortlisted by the Polaris Music Prize jury as one of the best Canadian albums of the year.
Outside the country, her project was getting even more attention. The New York Times picked its lead single “Work It” as one of the best songs of 2018 (it was No. 14), before Belgian duo Soulwax reshaped the track into a club hit. Last month, that remixed version turned heads at Paris Fashion Week as model Leon Dame strutted down the runway to its pounding beat, swinging his hips in an expressive finale that was shared across the globe.
Few artists are lucky enough to see their album trickle into the cultural mainstream, and most probably would’ve stalled their exit plans to capitalize on the success. But in September, Davidson played Montreal for what she’s called her final live club music performance, before taking a year-long sabbatical where she’ll emerge on the other side with a different sound.
“A lot of people ask me, aren’t you scared? No… I feel like I’ve explored enough,” she said. “There’s no surprises for me anymore.”
Davidson’s relationship with the club was always tempestuous.
Starting in Montreal’s experimental music community during the mid-aughts, she explored many corners of sound before becoming fixated on electronic music around 2012. First it was mainstream disco artists like ABBA, then Italio-disco king Giorgio Moroder, and eventually she was digging through the crates of the Chicago house and Detroit techno movements.
A friend introduced her to audio sequencer technology — hardware and software instruments of the digital era — which was enough for Davidson to set down her violin and begin tinkering with looped rhythms and effects. Around the same time, she was spending her nights in the clubs, an experience that both intrigued and repulsed her.
“Part of me was like, ‘I’m done with this.’ But part of me was still really into it, fascinated by club culture, night life, late nights, drugs — experimenting with all there is to experiment with,” she said.
Her obsession took shape in the 2016 album “Adieux au Dancefloor” — or “Farewell to the Dancefloor” — an unmistakably club-driven project that closes with the title track, a scathing narrative about the vapidity of the scene. “A person taking a picture of himself with his phone. A girl lying on the floor, her eyes rolled back,” she says in the song.
Ironically, the album seemed to resonate with the very scene she was criticizing. Davidson began touring clubs, playing shows that ran later, and pushing herself harder.
“I was extending my capacity in my music making, so it felt exciting… (but) when you party every weekend you can’t really enjoy it any more” she said. “It feels like a job almost.”
By the time “Working Class Woman” was ready last year, Davidson was struggling with her health. Her chronic insomnia meant sometimes she was sleeping only a few hours while touring the circuit.
“That’s OK for one night or two, but when it goes for months it gets really bad, so I started to take sleeping pills because I had to sleep,” she said.
“But then I started using the pills more and more. A year and a half after, I realized I was addicted.”
Davidson knew her latest project was a “meaningful record,” so she made a pact with herself: dedicate exactly one year to touring in support of its release, then retire from the scene completely.
But “Working Class Woman” was unstoppable once it landed on the radar of music critics. They praised the project as a refined extension of her previous album, and called Davidson a peculiar and exciting voice that challenged electronic music with her dark Quebecois humour.
“Work It,” which became the breakout favourite, showcases Davidson as a motivational speaker of sorts, extolling the virtues of a 24/7 work ethic before spinning the millennial tap dance into an empowerment anthem of self-care.
“The Psychologist” explores Davidson’s interest in psychoanalysis by recreating a therapy session, layered with audio samples and drum machine claps. And “The Tunnel” takes a more literal turn down a morbid path, as she recreates a claustrophobic nightmare where she’s crawling through broken glass.
Earlier this year, as she toured the album, Davidson began facing health problems brought on partly by the stress of touring. She developed a skin rash on one side of her face that flared up when she performed, and by this past summer she began cancelling appearances to find solitude at her father’s home in the countryside.
Those experiences only solidified her resolve to close the book on her club days.
The next stage of Davidson’s career will be much different. She’s working with her producer husband Pierre Guerineau on a pop album that adopts elements of jazz and modern chanson, a term given to lyrically driven French songs.
And while she bid farewell to the dance floor, Davidson said she only has good feelings about the past four years.
“I did everything I wanted to do,” she said. “It went beyond my wildest dreams.”
This report by The Canadian Press was first published on Oct. 9, 2019.
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David Friend, The Canadian Press