Karl Tremblay, lead singer of Quebec band Les Cowboys Fringants, dies at 47
Weakened by cancer, Tremblay pushed through concerts this summer, buoyed by crowds
Karl Tremblay, singer for Les Cowboys Fringants, has died of prostate cancer, band members announced on Facebook Wednesday. He was 47.
The award-winning Quebec band is known for hits such as Toune d'automne, Les étoiles filantes and L'Amérique pleure.
Tremblay's cancer diagnosis was made public in 2022. In the year following the announcement, several shows were cancelled.
"It is with indescribable sadness that we announce Karl's departure," says the band's Facebook page.
"He was an exemplary warrior in the face of disease and a role model for us all."
The post was signed by Marie-Annick Lépine, Jean-François Pauzé and Jérôme Dupras.
But Tremblay was back on stage with the band in July, singing to a full capacity crowd — nearly 90,000 people — on the Plains of Abraham in Quebec City during the Festival d'été de Québec.
His performance was marked by his clear exhaustion on stage, wiping sweat from his brow and even taking a seat at one point. But he pushed on through the performance with a band that first united more than 25 years ago.
The emotional performance was not the singer's last.
People from across Quebec travelled to Saint-Tite, Que., in September to see the band perform its last show of the summer. Many spectators considered themselves privileged to have had the experience, knowing Tremblay's health was failing.
"We are Les Cowboys Fringants, ladies and gentlemen. A band that was predisposed to come and play for you, here, this evening," Tremblay said to open the show.
He was referencing one of the band's songs, which includes Saint-Tite in the lyrics.
In French, the lyrics to Les routes du bonheur include the lines, "Sur le chemin de Saint-Tite. Comme une fleur, je t'ai cueillie. Toi, ma belle Marguerite."
This roughly translates to, "On the way to Saint-Tite. Like a flower, I picked you. You, my beautiful Marguerite."
Vigils and tributes
On Thursday, Quebec Premier François Legault said Tremblay is entitled to a national funeral.
"We feel an immense wave of love and sadness, and I have rarely seen that," said Legault.
On Wednesday evening, spontaneous vigils took place in L'Assomption, Que.— the birthplace of Tremblay — as well as in Montreal's Jeanne-Mance Park and the Plains of Abraham in Quebec City.
Fans reminisce about 'all the good memories'
Émilie Bachand-Duval first saw the band about 20 years ago. It was a small venue, a church hall — so small, she says, she could have reached out and touched the sweat on Tremblay's face. The music was festive and authentic.
She was instantly hooked.
"It was so real and so true," she said.
For the past year, Bachand-Duval has been travelling in her motorhome with her two children to the soundtrack of Les Cowboys Fringants. She's sharing her love of the band — the music that helped shape her throughout the years — with them.
Mega fan Philippe Samuel discovered the band in 1996 when they were just starting to make music. He attended over 200 of their concerts.
"I'm thankful for all the good memories we've had watching them on stage," he said.
Although Samuel didn't personally know Tremblay, he says he felt like a friend.
He too got to share his love for the band with the next generation of fans, bringing his son to over a dozen concerts.
Fresh out of a record store in Montreal, Jean-Olivier Paquin held a vinyl copy of Les Cowboys Fringants' Les nuits de Repentigny.
"There's such a huge part of Quebec music history," said Paquin.
"I can tell you that Karl up there," said Paquin, pointing a finger to the sky. "He wants us to be happy and smile."
Music journalist Felix B. Desfossés thought he was prepared for Tremblay's passing, but when he heard the news he broke down in tears.
"I was shocked. I started crying right away. Actually I was with my son — he's 11-years-old — and he also really was sad. We listened to one of the Les Cowboys Fringants' song together called Les Étoiles Filantes," he said.
The band has managed to touch several generations of listeners, first in Quebec and later expanding their reach to francophone countries like France. The band, Desfossés says, represented popular Quebec culture — especially for Quebecers from the province's regions — and its songwriting dealt with sensitive topics with care and joie de vivre.
And Tremblay, Desfossés says, was the most charismatic of all the band members — the one who brought everyone together and engaged with the fans in the crowd.
Tremblay was honoured during the annual awards gala hosted by the Quebec association for the recording, concert and video industries (ADISQ) earlier this month.
Louis-José Houde, who hosted the ceremony, dedicated the evening to the singer.
In November of 2022, Quebec's statistics agency said that only four of the top 50 most-listened-to artists in Quebec on streaming services were from the province. The number one Quebec artist was folk-rock group Les Cowboys fringants, in 16th place.
with files from Radio-Canada, Valeria Cori-Manocchio and Émilie Warren