It’s a cold Sunday afternoon and I am sitting at the Roxstone Café, in Fredericton, NB. Leo LaFleur, Saint John resident, songwriter, vocalist, and musician, walks into the café and I wave him over. He is wearing a hoodie, t-shirt, jeans, pea coat, and boots; certainly not screaming time-travelling musician to me, but his music precedes him and introduces him as an artist caught between two temporal fields: that of modernity and of the middle ages. It draws his audience in, connecting that past to familiar modern themes.
Leo’s latest album, ‘Love & Fortune’, is based off of Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales: a compilation of stories relayed by 29 pilgrims on their way to Saint Thomas Becket’s Shrine at Canterbury Cathedral. The company is mixed and so are their tales, “I tried to incorporate the themes that are in the Canterbury Tales: reason, chaos, love, lust, courtesy, fate, and fortune, all of those ideas, into the songs. I tried to make them as much of a story, as possible, to connect the symmetry and the flow of it, in a way that the Canterbury Tales is. I tried to create an argument with the album: something that I personally felt Chaucer was speaking. I think it plays with the idea of love really well.”
The bulk of Leo’s educational years were spent at St. Thomas University, attending the Great Books Programme, which focuses on the overarching themes of human existence through the eyes of well-known classical and modern authors, “St. Thomas had a profound impact on the way that I think about the world.” Desire, courtly love, and lust: these themes are continually visited throughout both the tales and Leo’s musical take on them. Haunting lyrics, otherworldly strings, and stirring vocals are featured on Leo’s album. “I wanted to have a very strong sense of the past. I think of it more as a singer-songwriter record, even though it has some upbeat rock on it; that’s much more relatable to the Canterbury Tales, but you can picture Absolon, who gives his heart to Alisoun at her door, and I think that ties into rock and roll, and what a person can become,” referring to Absolon and Alisoun, two of the main characters of the Miller’s Tale. It’s a story of love, lust, and broken hearts that features a foolish carpenter, who is married to a lusty maiden, and the two affectionate young men who are constantly fighting for her attention, but come to a comedic end, “The Miller’s Tale had a big influence on the record. One thing that is hard to pull off in melodramatic love songs is the humour that is constantly seen throughout the Canterbury Tales, kind of tongue-in-cheek. I wanted to have something that represented that side of the tales.”
Leo speaks of Chaucer, the mastermind behind the well-known Middle English text, as a harbinger of modern themes, a distant precursor to Bob Dylan , “Early on in his career, he wrote very serious courtly love poetry, and in the Canterbury Tales, he turns to the fabliau tales that kind of, in a lot of ways, mock the courtly love theme and show the dangers of being obsessed with the idea of love, or romance in general. I think that ties into desire, a lot of things that we struggle with in our culture, and a lot of things that I personally struggle with.” Leo links his thoughts regarding the Miller’s Tale to his modern take on it through his album, ‘Love & Fortune’, “I like all of the characters in it. I think that they all represent what can happen to you if love isn’t governed by reason. That kind of theme was prominent in the Great Books program; it was the kind of idea of what lust and desire can do to you if you idealise them in a courtly love fashion.”
Chaucer’s celebration of the Lady at the Well is one subject that is close to Leo’s heart with ‘Love & Fortune’, “Chaucer celebrates his characters through the whole thing, to the point where you think that he doesn’t want them to change. The celebration of the character of the Lady at the Well, it’s about hope, it’s about being lost as the prodigal son perpetually, which is the theme I was going for overall.” The Lady at the Well is a character featured in The Wife of Bath’s Prologue, where the Wife of Bath proudly likens herself to the Biblical story of the Samaritan woman at the well, who had five husbands. Leo’s song, “The Lady At The Well”, celebrates how the Wife of Bath is living her life to the fullest and his prodigal son reference is to the knight’s character, in the Wife of Bath’s Tale, who makes a mistake, realizes he is at fault in several different ways, and comes to a forgiving end, one which he does not deserve, like the Biblical character of the prodigal son.
Leo’s mirroring of Chaucer’s themes is seen throughout his musical masterpiece; from the inspiration drawn out of idealising lust and desire in the Miller’s Tale, to tongue-in-cheek melodramatic love seen throughout the tales, to the notion of being a perpetual prodigal son in the Wife of Bath’s tale, his work is rich in metaphors and connections to the timeless classic that is Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. “I wanted it to be an argument, but at the end of the day, I didn’t want it to be something that preached. I wanted it to be something that was accessible, and I think stories are the best way to do that.” Leo’s album focuses on the medieval nature of the Canterbury Tales; while pairing ethereal strings with modern guitar licks and drum rhythms, Leo’s combination of the ancient with the modern is apparent. His music demonstrates the timeless relevancy that Chaucer’s work emanates. When asked about the feel of his album, he says, “The album tries to blend a little bit of a modern feel with something that had more of a classical feel, like a Leonard Cohen feel, like you are listening to a Geoffrey Chaucer poem. I wanted to have that mixed with something relevant from a soundscape perspective, but that also blended well with the singer/songwriter method, and to tie it all in; it all felt like me.”
Leo LaFleur will be playing on Valentine’s Day, at the Bourbon Quarter (112 Prince William Street, Saint John) from 9pm until 12am. The show will be opened by Drew Sweet and has a cover charge of $8 per person. Feel free to follow Leo on Facebook and Twitter, or check out his Bandcamp page, for more updates about his music and some exciting future projects!