Karim Ouellet, Quebec songwriter, composer, singer and multi-instrumentalist (born 8 December 1984 in Dakar, Senegal; died 17 January 2022 in Quebec City, Qc). He is the standard-bearer of an intelligent brand of pop music flavoured with soul, reggae, folk and electroacoustic elements. His poise, velvety voice and catchy refrains make him a distinctive artist. In 2007, he started working more and more with Quebec City artists (CEA, Webster, Limoilou Starz) and was part of the band Movèzerbe. At the same time, he set the stage for his solo career by taking part in the 5 fois 5 music project at the Théâtre Petit Champlain, a showcase for young, up-and-coming Quebec artists. He later played at the Francofolies music festival in La Rochelle, France. In 2009, he made a strong impression by making it to the finals at the Granby International Song Festival. In 2011, with his first album, Plume, Karim Ouellet caught the eye of both the public and the music industry. He won the Pop Album of the Year award at the Gala Alternatif de la Musique Indépendante du Québec, which recognizes excellence in independent music. In 2012, he had his first hit, “L’amour,” from his album Fox, earning him his first major public recognition.
Childhood and Early Career
At just a few months of age, Karim Ouellet was adopted by a Quebec couple. His father was a diplomat, so Karim travelled the globe, living in Canada, Rwanda, France, Senegal and Tunisia before settling in the Montcalm neighbourhood of Quebec City in 2002. His mother played the kora, a traditional African instrument, and his childhood was immersed in music. At a very young age, he started exploring piano, percussion and guitar. He remembers having written his first song at the age of seven.
It was not until his adolescence that his passion for music became serious. A friend introduced him to the electric guitar, and he applied himself to refine his playing through many hours of practice and by performing with local bands. Ouellet started with Nirvana songs, as these were easy to learn and to play, but Kurt Cobain and his band were not the only ones to inspire him; Jimi Hendrix and Dire Straits also fuelled his imagination. Very early on, he was associated with the Limoilou neighbourhood of Quebec City despite not living live there, because his first collaborations were with musicians from that section of Quebec City’s Lower Town. There in the middle of the 2000–2010 decade he met Claude Bégin (of Accrophone and later Alaclair Ensemble), who became his friend and co-wrote the lyrics and music on his first three albums.
The title of his debut album Plume is a nod to “Flume,” a song by the band Bon Iver. Plume is about love in all its variations. Karim Ouellet took this album in a direction no one expected. The logical course of his musical trajectory would have been to develop toward some version of hip-hop, but this is not what happened. With the help of his friends Claude Bégin and Thomas Gagnon-Coupal (Les 2 Tom), he used this first album to work through the sorrow caused by a recent breakup. His lyrics mirrored his heartbreak. The music is a hybrid of mellow pop, folk and electroacoustic elements. “Après tout” was the first single to become a music video, his first attempt at putting his own material on camera. In 2011, he was invited to the Festival d’été international de Québec and also took part in the Envol et Macadam festival (an alternative music event aimed at introducing up-and-coming artists), Première Ovation (and its brand-new festival, Relève en Capitale), the Francofolies de Montréal and the Festival de la chanson de Tadoussac. He also was a finalist in Francouvertes.
Karim Ouellet’s sophomore album Fox was released on 27 November 2012. It would be an understatement to say that it was an instant success, as some of the songs were veritable earworms. The hit “L’amour” topped the francophone BDS charts, ahead of Marie-Mai, Sylvain Cossette and Céline Dion. Fox is also the album that cemented Ouellet’s success with numerous awards, among them the Révélation Radio-Canada 2012–2013 (song), a Félix-Leclerc Award for Best Song in 2013 for “L’amour,” and Francophone Album of the Year at the Juno Awards in 2014. M and Stromae also fell under his charm and asked him to open for their respective shows. Fox earned Ouellet no fewer than five nominations for the ADISQ’s Félix Awards.
Speaking about the great success of Fox, which bridged alternative and commercial radio, Ouellet said he got his inspiration from Acadian singer Lisa LeBlanc: “She does something very personal, with an attitude of 100 per cent freedom. Thanks to one particular song, she has made it big. Some say it takes away from the exclusivity of the song, now that pretty much everyone knows it. But her album is still a personal work, and it was not developed with any commercial strategy or format in mind.… I call that ‘democratic music.’”
With this third album, Karim Ouellett took his listeners down his well-beaten paths, the same ones that had earned him four number one hits on the BDS charts, namely “L’amour,” “Marie Jo,” “Rien ne sert de courir” and “L’amour est un monstre” (recorded with Misteur Valaire). The album possessed the same marriage of elegance and casualness that had previously endeared him to his audiences. Some critics gave it a more lukewarm reception than before, saying that the artist was repeating himself. Trente brought together reggae, rock and electro elements, without drowning out the ever-present soul sound that infuses the music. This album further confirmed that the Ouellet-Bégin duo had a gift for catchy melodies. It was a truly sterling studio recording that earned Ouellet another Juno Award nomination in 2017.
Aïkido, Mini-Album (2016)
Listeners had not yet finished discovering the last of the songs on Trente when Ouellet surprised them with this a downloadable mini-album called Aïkido. To explain his decision, he said, “I have my home studio, where I make music every day. I found myself with two or three new tunes that I thought were good, but I knew if I left them sitting in my computer, I’d never get back to them. Also, I had never offered my listeners a free project before. I was crossing my fingers because I had an ADISQ nomination (I ended up not winning), and the timing seemed right. I also wanted to send a little message to say that despite streaming and the small amount of royalties that we receive, we can still stop whining for two minutes to make music and give people a present.”
The mini-album received rave reviews. According to Frédéric Bussières, host of the show Poste d’écoute, this “unexpected mini-album may actually surprise many people. That is because on Aïkido, Karim experiments more than in his previous releases.… Setting polished craftsmanship and sometimes tangible melodies aside, Ouellet tries, digs deep, and succeeds, all without leaving the listener behind. Quite the contrary: Aïkido has fun with the listener, recognizing their intelligence.” In short, there was no consensus, but there was a desire to hear what was next.
Black History Month (2018)
In February 2018, the singer was asked to be the French spokesperson for the 27th edition of Black History Month. He said it was an honour to raise awareness of Quebec’s Black history. His interest in disseminating Black history was nothing new; in 2007, he had joined forces with rapper Webster on a song called “Qc History X,” a rap account of 400 years of Quebec Black history, which also told of the struggles of First Nations and Asians in Canada — a veritable crash course in history.
- Pop Album of the Year (Plume), Quebec Independent Music Awards (2011)
- Révélation Radio-Canada (2012–2013)
- Félix-Leclerc Award for Best Song (“L’amour”), Félix Leclerc Foundation (2013)
- Francophone Album of the Year (Fox), Juno Awards (2014)