Light a Match to See (and Hear) the Striking Evolution of Chic Gamine

"It all kind of just came together very quickly, which I barely remember now. It feels like a dream."

Alexa Dirks, one of the bright, bubbly singer-songwriters of Chic Gamine, sounded wide awake, waxing enthusiastic over the phone last week from Montreal about the birth of the French-Canadian band she helped conceive eight years ago.

That they've kept it together despite various setbacks over that period is a testament to the style, grace and '60s girl group power the three female vocalists display with their two male instrumentalists on Light a Match. Chic Gamine's third studio album, their first since 2010's City City, will be released Oct. 23.

The departure of founding member Ariane Jean almost two years ago forced the surviving singers of this Juno Award-winning band -- Dirks, fellow Winnipegger Andrina Turenne and Montreal resident Annick Bremault -- to regroup.

"We experiment a lot (on Light a Match) with unison singing more than we ever did on the other records," said Dirks, seemingly relaxed after sharing the wheel with Turenne on a 26-hour drive from Winnipeg that left the band "feeling a little like turkeys" on Canada's Thanksgiving Day. "We're all kind of singing with one voice, which is something that we really enjoy doing because we've been singing together for so long, we know each other's voices super well, we know how to blend with each other really well. It's pretty fun to just have that power to sing as one unified voice."

Jean departed on good terms, offering a thoughtful explanation within the fond farewell given by her bandmates on Chic Gamin's Tumblr page. An excerpt:

"It is with much sadness and joy that I take my leave from this beautiful project in search of something a bit more quiet and simple," she wrote.

When Jean left the group and the road for a more domesticated way of life in early 2014, "it inevitably changed the direction we were going," Dirks said, forcing what was suddenly a singing trio (along with Montreal drummer Sacha Daoud) to ask themselves a series of questions. They knew right away that Chic Gamine should continue but decided against having another female vocalist.

"We just felt like we had created such a thing with each other," Dirks added. "That to try and re-create that exact thing with somebody new, it didn't feel right. ... And there's just nobody that can do what she does in our minds."

Other questions followed: "Who do we want in this band? Who makes more sense? Who would we not have to audition? Who do we really like already, like get along with?"

Seeking more pop and rock for their sweet soul sister act, Montreal friend, guitarist and occasional touring partner Benoit Morier supplied all the answers. Being what Dirks called "a crafty guy" who also adds bass to help create a formidable rhythm section, Morier brings instrumental versatility to the group that already includes Turenne on guitar and all three women playing percussion and synthesizers.

This transitional phase is part of an act that's still "evolving," a word Dirks used frequently during this interview. But it's an apt description for Chic Gamine, the French words meaning a stylish girl with mischievous charm.

The youngest of two sisters who grew up "pretty religious" in Winnipeg, Dirks probably didn't consider herself rowdy enough to be "gamine" material. "It's like I'm not that much of a bad ass. Maybe I am more now," she said. "I never swore or drank or really did much until I was like 21."

However, she did reveal the closest she got to a girl-gone-wild episode was at the age of 15, when she drank liquor for the first time.

Prodded at a party by two sober friends to down a 375 ml bottle of vodka, Dirks said, "I wanted to be cool in that brief moment. One moment, I'm chugging a mickey, and laughing like there's no tomorrow. Next minute, I'm in a ditch and have no idea how I got there."

"It was a very innocent endeavor. I had no idea what I was doing. And I only had fun for like about 20 minutes. And then I was like I wanted to die. I probably could have died. This is funny because I lived. That could have been a really terrible, terrible thing, so I'm not advocating that."

Quickly learning her lesson, Dirks said, "I was so scared to go to parties after that for the rest of my life. It was the only party I ever went to until I was 21 and realized that I can drink responsibly and not cry to my parents the next day."

Dirks still went to bars after graduating from high school, but as a performer in "our first little baby band," Little Boy Boom with Joey Landreth, a Winnipeg artist who still collaborates with her after forming the Bros. Landreth in 2013.

In 2007, Jean, Turenne and Bremault, who grew up in Winnipeg's Saint Boniface district where "kitchen parties and music was such a big part of their lives," were looking to start another group after being among seven women speaking 16 different languages in the a cappella-singing Madrigaia that broke up.

It was in a local bar where they found Dirks "probably singing 'Play that Funky Music' or something terribly embarrassing," she said. Chic Gamine became their baby, following in the footsteps of the Wailin' Jennys and the Duhks, two of their musically rich town's most celebrated roots artists.

To maintain a French identity for their group, the four young "very wide-eyed" women picked the name after writing various words "we thought at first would be easy to say in English" on a sheet of paper.

Since they and Daoud were rushed into action in July 2007 in California for their first official show that Dirks said was about a month after assembling, the name has stuck. "But it's proven to be a little bit of a mouthful for some people," she admitted, laughing about the way a border guard had recently mangled the pronunciation.

Thrown into the fire, "each individual songwriter kind of had their thumbprints on each of the songs" for their 2008 self-titled debut, Dirks said. "But then as it went along and we realized we didn't have to be so frantic with our time constraints and we got to know each other, it became a far more collaborative process."

Chic Gamine, from left: Sacha Daoud, Benoit Morier, Annick Bremault,
Alexa Dirks, Andrina Turenne.

That team spirit continues on Light a Match, which took about a month to record in various Montreal locations, and was co-produced by the band and Montreal's Sebastien Blais-Montpetit.

Before they found him, though, other doubts confronted them. Without Jean, Chic Gamine attempted to record the album in Winnipeg with another producer about a year earlier. "And it just didn't work," Dirks said. "We ended up scrapping all the material we had done in Winnipeg and we just had to start from scratch."

Calling it a mismatch of people -- "It's like you have a baby and not every babysitter is completely qualified to take care of your child" -- Dirks said the disappointment led to discouragement and another period of re-evaluation.

"That's what really, I think, put the fire under our asses to really get it done and to be in full control and to do it the way we want to do it and to not compromise and to feel the best," she said. "So I think it's one of those cliche things that everything happens for a reason. And I truly believe that, though."

At least the trio had each other to lean on. They occasionally take turns handling lead vocals, and Dirks' voice on "Maybe I Need (Some Good Loving)," "I Could Be Your Girl" and "Daydream" is as stunning as Rachael Price's of Lake Street Dive, a group Chic Gamine supported in the United Kingdom. But most of Light a Match's 11 cuts sound like a convergence of angels soaring above the clouds that would make their Supreme Being proud.

Swinging singles from the netherworld need not apply.

"It's difficult to be kind of your own cheerleader," Dirks offered. "But if that's what's the beauty of being in a band is, then we all, it just wasn't one of us as an individual being knocked down and having to pick ourselves up alone. Like we were all together. So we were able to kind of step through that and decide that we still really felt that it was important to get this record made."

Such perseverance was required more than ever when a member of the trio experienced the end of a personal relationship.

The song "Follow Through," a late addition to the album that's available for download here for a limited time, was written to address how they deal with such difficult times.

What if I was just a season / We know things happen for a reason
We know exactly what we want to / I know I never meant to hurt you

"When one of us experiences heartache, we all kind of experience it because we're basically all sitting on each other's laps 24/7 in a van or sleeping beside each other at people's homes or in hotels," Dirks said.

"Sometimes you've got to do things you don't want to do, and it also became something with this record. Not that we didn't want to do it, but just that it was a struggle; it was hard to get this record going and get it on its feet. We were constantly running into brick walls but we knew it was something we had to do and we knew that we believed in it enough to really get behind it and continue to continue."

As the hip chics, ranging from late 20s to early 30s (Dirks is 28), benefit from the maturation process, they encourage others to age just as gracefully.

"We're kind of just taking a chance by branching out and hoping that the fans that have stuck by us still believe in the essence of who we are and what we do," she said. "We're still the same people. Our music is gonna sound a bit different because we're growing as people. ... It's like we took some time to evolve into the sound that we always knew we were meant to be."

More sure of themselves now, the members of Chic Gamine are certain of one other thing: Evolution rocks.

Publicity photo by Rachel Boese. Get your free download of Chic Gamine's "Follow Through" here: