Childhood and Early Career
Carmen Campagne was born on 8 September 1959 in Willow Bunch, a rural community in a valley in south central Saskatchewan with a population of about 350. The Campagne family owned a farm with 350 beef cattle, where they also grew cereals such as wheat and oats. This was later taken over by Carmen’s sister Solange, who transitioned it into an organic farm, producing flax, barley, Kamut and lentils.
It was in this rural setting that Carmen grew up, surrounded by her siblings Paul, Aline, Annette, Michelle, Solange and Suzanne. Music and the French language were important fixtures in their lives. Her parents, Émile and Marguerite Campagne, loved to sing, and her grandparents passed down to them their passion for traditional songs. The Campagne siblings formed their first band, Folle Avoine, in 1979, which would later be renamed Hart Rouge in 1986. The group went on to become very successful, with songs such as “Après tout ça” (1988) and “Inconditionnel” (1991). However, Carmen, a schoolteacher, left the band in 1986. Pregnant with her first child, she worried she would have trouble keeping up with the rest of the family on tour.
A Love for the World of Children
Carmen never missed a chance to sing with her students. In 1988, she and her sister-in-law, Connie Isabelle Kaldor, put out Lullaby Berceuse, which earned them the Juno Award for Best Children’s Album the following year. With encouragement of her family in this creative momentum, Carmen penned her first solo album, Une voix pour les enfants (1990). She completed the project with her brother, Paul, and the backing vocals were sung by her sisters. Carmen was very focused on creating music that was enjoyable for both children and parents alike. Both her traditional and popular songs evoke pleasant memories of her own childhood, often having to do with life on the farm. With songs including “Cot cot cot,” “La moustache à papa” and “Un bon chocolat chaud,” which took on several amusing versions (including country, classical and rap), Carmen became a children’s idol. Critics, too, were unanimous in dubbing Carmen Campagne the newest icon for kids.
An innovator in the audiovisual world, Carmen saw huge success from many of her videotapes, which sold more than a million copies each during the 1990s. She filmed “Un bon chocolat chaud,” set in a bed and breakfast in Montérégie, surrounded by animals and children. During her concerts, she would invite kids to participate and took the time to sign autographs and take photos with them. Taken aback by her audience’s enthusiasm, she recalled with deep emotion one of her concerts at the International Balloon Festival in Saint-Jean-sur-Richelieu in an interview for the show Carte de visite. The event organizers had expected about 4,000 audience members, but close to 12,000 showed up. The concert resulted in several traffic jams between Montreal and Saint-Jean-sur-Richelieu.
In 1995, Carmen released La vache en Alaska, which included the track “La soupe à mon ami.” Carmen often drew on musical repetition and French-Canadian folklore in her songs, such as “Un pied mariton,” which she covered humorously on her 1993 album, Une fête pour les enfants. This style was especially popular with her young fans, who would learn their idol’s songs by heart.
From 1991 to 1999, Carmen was nominated for four Juno Awards for Best Children’s Album (1991, 1993, 1995 and 1998), and one for Francophone Album of the Year (1999).
2002: Tragedy Strikes
After performing on some big stages, such as L’Olympia in Paris (1998), and penetrating the Belgian and Swiss markets, Carmen settled in Quebec, where she continued to produce many videos. However, in 2002, she discovered much too late that her husband and manager had squandered her fortune, a decisive blow that forced her to declare bankruptcy. Following her divorce, she decided to move back to Saskatchewan with her youngest daughter (her oldest two children remained in Quebec with relatives), where she dedicated her time to her elderly parents. She worked in a small bistro and as a substitute teacher and school monitor, rebuilding her life little by little. Soon after, she got a job as an elementary school teacher at the École de Bellegarde. The students recognized her as Carmen Campagne, and wanted to call her by that name. However, inside the classroom, she was known as Madame Campagne or Madame Carmen. She seized every opportunity to get her students to sing.
Years later, after settling down in Winnipeg, Manitoba, she rediscovered her inner fire. She was eager to get back on stage and bring back to life the character who had dazzled so many children. This time, however, rather than simply restarting the machine that was Carmen Campagne, she wanted to try a different tack.
A Woman of Merit
With the continued support of her brother Paul, Carmen released a few albums throughout the 2010s. She also hosted a show on TFO called Carmen à la campagne. On 12 September 2014, Governor General David Johnston bestowed upon her the Order of Canada, “for her contributions to developing music for young children and to French-language teaching.”
The members of the Campagne family were often seen as outsiders. Indeed, finding a place within the francophone music scene was not always easy. However, despite some criticism of their anglophone accents, Carmen and her siblings (who were still in Hart Rouge) enjoyed successful careers.
The Campagne family reunites every summer for a music festival at Terre Ferme, their family homestead, which attracts about 300 attendees per year.
Carmen Campagne, children’s icon, passed away from cancer in Sainte-Agathe-des-Monts on 4 July 2018.
Honours and Awards
- Juno Award, Best Children’s Album (Lullaby Berceuse) (with Connie Kaldor) (1989)
- Felix Award, Children’s Album of the Year (Une fête pour les enfants), ADISQ (1994)
- Felix Award, Children’s Album of the Year (J’ai tant dansé), ADISQ (1995)
- Felix Award, Children’s Album of the Year (La vache en Alaska), ADISQ (1996)
- Felix Award, Children’s Album of the Year (Enchantée), ADISQ (1998)
- Member of the Order of Canada (2014)