The Blue-collar Artist
The singer-songwriter known as “P’tit Belliveau” once thought you had to go to the city to make a career in music. Now he’s returned to his rural roots to reconnect with his musical identity. From BESIDE Issue 13
Text & photos—Catherine Bernier
As I drive along the shores of Baie Sainte-Marie, the hometown of Acadian singer-songwriter Jonah Richard Guimond (a.k.a. P’tit Belliveau) in southwestern Nova Scotia, I’m surrounded by imagery from “Les bateaux dans la baie” (The Boats in the Bay), the single that was his breakthrough into the Franco-Canadian music scene.
I take the country road that leads to the century home Guimond and his partner, Christine, bought during the pandemic and have slowly been renovating. I imagine all the kitchen parties the large house must have hosted over the years, all the people who must have nestled close to the warmth of the stove, playing music. I wonder if Guimond is keeping up the tradition and whether he jams in the kitchen with friends.
I find the musician in his garage, welding. Sparks fly up toward the ceiling. Christine, who greeted me, approaches gently, careful not to startle him, and then leaves again to paint the walls of the stairway — pastel green, judging by the traces on her T-shirt.
Guimond’s face is pale and his eyes are as piercing as a cat’s. He invites me to pull up a chair, which is actually an old seat from a van. We chat for a while and then head into his studio, his parallel universe on the second floor of the garage, a haven in the midst of the vernacular decor of Acadian Nova Scotia.
A YouTube training video and a matrix of vocal recordings sit on side-by-side screens. Pieces of guitars, empty coffee cups, and unusual objects lie scattered across the floor: a strangely endearing disarray, not unlike the artist himself.
Self-taught and resourceful, Guimond has everything he needs to make his own music at home. He recorded his last album, Un homme et son piano, in a soundproof room that looks like a children’s playhouse. He built it using old encyclopedias and dictionaries as a frame, which he then covered with blankets.
The past is never far for this former carpenter. It’s clear to Guimond that the two occupations are similar:
“In a weird way, I approach music as though it were a blue-collar job. It takes two hours to have an idea and to develop it, but after that, it’s about 600 hours of manual labour.”
“Carpentry is the same thing,” he tells me. ”At the beginning of a project you make the plans, and after that comes all the work!”
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Le P’tit and “le Grand”
There was a time when Guimond believed he had to go to the city to make a career in music, and he spent a few years in Halifax, Nova Scotia, and Moncton, New Brunswick. “Moncton is the country for folks from Toronto, but for me it was a city that was too big.”
He admits he let himself be carried away by the desire to leave his hometown and see something else. “You’re young, and you think you know better than your parents, you think their values are dumb. But you don’t know anything, and then you get a job, you start paying taxes. Then you realize they weren’t so wrong after all.”
After a few years away, Guimond knew he had to honour his visceral need to reconnect with the familiar ground of home.
For someone who draws inspiration from the Acadian community radio station, this decision was deeply significant.
“I didn’t invent anything. When my grandfather hears my music, he doesn’t necessarily think it’s modern.”
Guimond’s grandfather might be less into the new sounds he adds, “but without saying it directly, I know he believes in me as a musician. He trusts me, where before he used to say, ’Please, go be a carpenter too!’ [laughs].”
Guimond tells me he found an old lawn mower, and that his grandfather, who was a mechanic (le Grand Belliveau), fixed it up for him. “It’s the kind of thing you take for granted, and then you leave, and you realize this support system is really important. I think there’s something about living the way you grew up; that’s what human beings have done throughout history.”
In his song “Retourner chu nous” (Coming Home), he sings:
As though everyone I love had magnets
in their bones […]
I want to go where everyone understands me […]
All I see is strangers who don’t give a damn
if I live or if I die.
I want to go home to my beautiful bay where
we help each other every day.
“Retourner chu nous” du P’tit Belliveau, from his album Un homme et son piano.
Less gizmos, more simple pleasures
His grandfather often tells him stories about his past in the “beautiful bay” they share. Guimond has come to understand that his elder grew up in constant poverty, and that this taught him determination and resourcefulness. These are values that Guimond admires deeply and that changed how he views the simplicity of life in the olden days.
“Back in the day, when you didn’t have something, you had to build it with your own hands. Being forced to live that way makes a person appreciate what they have. My grandfather didn’t need to buy gizmos. I still need them a little,” he admits.
Always conscious of the mental and environmental consequences of overconsumption, Guimond channels what he feels to make his music meaningful.
“It’s depressing to see so many people so unhappy, caught in the spiral. But at the same time I don’t want to be preachy, I don’t want to write a song that’s like, ̒Hey, stop consuming stuff, you’re an idiot.’ I try instead to make people reflect on these things in my songs, without it being obvious.”
P’tit Belliveau is a serious project wrapped up in humour, his Trojan horse to address themes that are dear to his heart: work, respect for nature, Acadian Nova Scotia, family, and a return to roots and simple pleasures like kitchen parties with friends.
At the end of the day, Guimond gets a visit from “Grand-P,” his other grandfather. They talk about the property and renovations. At the same time, a friend shows up. He’ll be spending the weekend in the studio working on his first album with Guimond’s help. Seeing that he’s busy, I leave him to his guests and their conversations about their labours, both musical and manual.
I go back and watch the now-famous boats in the bay before night falls over the sea. This is the home that Guimond had to leave to gain some recognition as a musician, and the one he returned to in order to get closer to his grandfather’s way of life, “just a little bit remixed.”
Catherine Bernier is a freelance writer and photographer, and the co-founder and creative director of The Parcelles, a photography studio in nature and a beachfront retreat for artists in residence. Whether she’s in Sainte-Flavie, Gaspésie, her hometown, or in Nova Scotia, her adoptive province, she cultivates a relationship with the ocean and wild spaces.