Richard Desjardins was born in 1948 in Noranda (now Rouyn-Noranda), a small town in the heart of the Abitibi-Timiskaming region. His first encounter with music came thanks to his mother, who introduced him to the piano before he started school. By age 16, the young pianist was accompanying his elder brother Roger in local bars. He then joined a number of local bands, while working days as a copywriter for Radio-Nord.
At 27, with four musician friends, he formed a country-rock band called Abbittibbi, and they honed their craft mainly at hotels in northern Ontario, playing hits from English radio and a few French songs written by Desjardins. They were always scrambling for money, and the musical brotherhood lasted only a few months before breaking up.
In 1976, Richard Desjardins moved to Montréal, soon followed by the rest of Abbittibbi… and the band started up again. At the time, Abbittibbi was only performing occasionally in clubs, for which they earned starvation wages. Never mind. They succeeded in launching a first album, Boom Town Café, and sales were going well, but the band broke up once again after a series of problems with the record company.
Desjardins decided to go his own road, and began putting together an album with roots in poetry and traditional music, where the words would soar on the notes of the piano alone. The singer-songwriter-performer was in no rush, and a few years later he had a repertoire of new songs he enjoyed singing in bars, cafés and small rooms, accompanying himself on electronic piano. Les derniers humains finally came out in 1987 and this first solo work quickly sold out, so Desjardins immediately went back to work writing new pieces for a follow-up album. The spectacular Tu m’aimes-tu, recorded at the Chapelle historique du Bon-Pasteur in Montréal, was released in 1990. Trying to market his product, Desjardins knocked at the door of every producer in Montréal. Everywhere he went, the answer was No. With hindsight, it’s clear those producers missed the boat. Tu m’aimes-tu, which Desjardins would produce himself, sold more than 125,000 copies.
1990 was a turning point in Desjardins’s career. Invited to open the Stephan Eicher show at the Festival d’été de Québec, he had the crowd at his feet, calling out for more. During the same period, Pierre Falardeau’s film Le Party, for which Desjardins had written the score, was enjoying enormous success. The Festival d’été de Québec awarded him its Prix miroir de la chanson francophone, and in 1991, at the L’ADISQ awards night, his peers finally recognized his talent by presenting him with the Felix for Songwriter of the Year, and Pop Album of the Year.
Success on the other side of the pond would not be long in coming. The programmer at Paris’s world renowned Théâtre de la Ville offered him a three-night gig, and Desjardins perfected his style in front of everyone-who-was-anyone in Paris. That first appearance on French soil would be followed by many more. Richard Desjardins played the Bataclan (equivalent to the Spectrum in Montréal) no fewer than a dozen times. After his 1993Quebec tour, he launched Richard Desjardins au Club Soda, a live album that included several new songs, monologues, and even songs he had written back in his days with Abbittibbi.
After touring his solo show (some 450 performances across Quebec, France, Switzerland and Belgium), Desjardins returned to his roots, re-uniting with his brothers from Abbittibbi to record the powerful Chaude était la nuit. The album tour that followed was enough to convince Desjardins that he had been right to believe in the project. That reunion of his old pals became, in a way, a bridge to the next stage in his career. It was a “belle aventure”, since immortalized on disc as Abbittibbi Live, recorded at the Vieux Clocher in Magog.
Then, with friend Robert Monderie, he decided to do something about the issue of deforestation, preparing a wide-ranging, four-year investigation that would become the hard-hitting documentary exposé L’Erreur boréale (Forest Alert). The film raised myriad questions addressed to decision-makers and turned a spotlight on the critical status of Quebec’s boreal forest. Desjardins was devoting time and energy to the making of the documentary, but he was still working on his career as a musician, songwriter and performer, and in 1998 he launched his third solo album — this one recorded in studio, titled Boom Boom. He set out on a cross-Quebec tour that would last for the next two years.
In 2000, Richard Desjardins moved to France, where he performed regularly in cities and towns outside Paris. Back in Quebec in 2001, he set off on tour once again, armed this time with nothing but a guitar and his implacable words. The new tour, Desjardins et sa guétare, would take him to fifty small towns and give him time to work on the songs for yet another album, his eighth, titled Kanasuta. The name, meaning “Where the devils dance”, comes from the name of a forest in the area where he was born, which was protected through the efforts of an organization he had helped found. The mission of Action boréale is to oversee forest management in Quebec.
Kanasuta went on sale in 2003, just as the XIIth World Forestry Congress was meeting in Quebec City. The Kanasuta tour began in February 2004 and would last two years. Desjardins and his musical partners from the Kanasuta Project have given more than 120 performances in Quebec, Canada, France and Switzerland. The tour has also been captured on disc (with more than 5 hours of material, including the documentary Forest Alert). Kanasuta won 5 Felix awards at the 2004 L’ADISQ ceremony, and the Prix Miroir at the 2005 Festival d’été in Quebec City. Desjardins and his musicians will perform the show again at selected locations in Quebec in the summer of 2007.
In 2006, Richard Desjardins began filming — with partner Robert Monderie once again — a new documentary. Le Peuple invisible is a look at the Algonquin people, scheduled for release in 2007. In February 2007, Richard Desjardins is the Guest of Honour at the 6th Festival Voix d’Amériques.