In 2018 while on tour in the United States, Bernardino Femminielli was stopped by border authorities and issued a document declaring him an alien on U.S. soil. You can find an exact copy of this document printed on a t-shirt that accompanies his 2020 LP, L’Exil. “It’s pretty funny because we sold so many t-shirts, with the money I probably could have paid a lawyer to fix the whole problem,” he says.
The incident triggered a self-imposed exile from the continent. The artist and his wife soon left Montreal for Paris. He intimates through whispers (in French) on the opening track of L’Exil, “I fled my debts, this city and this fucking restaurant. To start a better life with her.” When first asked for details behind his decision to leave, he was poetically opaque: “When one starts to get bored with their oppressive society and one is no longer able to live within the rules of its game, this is when one starts to do stupid things and lose track of time and reality. Canada is a big country with not a lot going on, and North America much smaller without the United States. I left for Europe because I lost America.”
Composed in part by reworking lost outtakes from the album’s more dancefloor focused predecessor Plaisirs Americain, L’Exil takes the form of “a mise en abyme”: a story inserted within another. “I took the sessions that I recorded before, way back in 2014, and basically did overdubs whenever I had time between tours,” he explained. “I always wanted to do something with those recordings, but sometimes it takes a long time to find direction. The music I was making back then was misunderstood, even by me. When I went back to the recordings, the music had changed and taken on another meaning.”
Femminielli’s discography reveals a creative mind in constant motion. Since his early ambient releases over a decade ago, he’s touched on genres like synth-pop, italo and industrial. Under the name Femminielli Noir, he and Montreal-born artist Jesse Osborne Lanthier make dark, twisted EBM infused experimental music. Recently, his music has placed these influences alongside avant-garde jazz and the French pop “chansons” of artists like Serge Gainsbourg. As a vocalist, he can be delicate and earnestly romantic, as on L’Exil’s “La Ballade de Daddy et Johnny,” its title seemingly a nod to Gainsbourg’s “Ballade de Johnny Jane.” Elsewhere he talks in caustic, unsettlingly sexual whispers over strange, disjointed jams in which the instruments seem to be playing themselves.
His live performances are equally surreal. Femminielli’s musical world revolves increasingly around a disturbed and outrageously sexual on-stage “chanteur” character. If he’s channeling Gainsbourg, he’s doing it in a way that foregrounds the Frenchman’s ambiguous, creepy legacy. To quote the description of one video he uploaded to YouTube of a gig in Barcelona: “Cabaret on crack. Like a bad sex dream you can’t wake up from. You’ll see a cheerful entertainer, but at the same time, a tragic, depressed night club host. A vulgar crooner.” What’s more, these live performances don’t tend to take place in polished music venues or glitzy bars, but are sometimes staged as interruptions in a club at 3am in the middle of a party, the unhinged and leather-clad chanteur unleashed on an unsuspecting crowd to dance on the thin lines separating hedonism and glamour from horror.
L’Exil is an album about failure, a “paradoxical anthem for the unsuccessful” according to the accompanying text. It documents a decline into resentment, dislocation and madness, told by the numerous alter-egos that form Femminielli’s divided artistic self. Its central protagonist, “The Entertainer,” “L’homme de Spectacle,” sometimes called “Daddy,” is a caricature of Femminielli himself—a self-obsessed entertainer and failed restaurateur tormented by split personalities. The lines dividing the artist from his characters are rarely clear: “I’m not the person to invent things from scratch. When I make fiction, it’s about something I know and can address. For a while, the decaying concept of ‘success’ had remained the only constant deviation from my empty interior,” he says. “My life revolved around the idea that things would magically change in my favour. Within the desperation to succeed, one looks for tragedy.”
Back in Montreal, Femminielli was one of the co-founders of Bethlehem XXX, a famously and unsustainably esoteric restaurant and bar that opened in 2013, known for its lack of a regular menu or cuisine, its eccentric decor and wild parties. Bethlehem was “a laboratory to socialise. It was fun, and unpretentious. Weird, but honest.” After only a few years, it closed due to accumulating debt, and remnants of the same group launched a second project, La Femme Fontaine, a bar that existed for two years before suffering the same fate. “It was bad management from all of us. We were getting into debt with gangsters—our landlord at Bethlehem was a gangster, and we tried to start La Femme Fontaine in the same place… We wanted to play the game like everyone, start a natural wine bar or whatever. I wasn’t really into it, but the neighbourhood was changing, and gentrifying. The crazy shit that we were doing at Bethlehem, the performances, the parties, we couldn’t get away with it anymore, but the people kept coming back, looking for trouble.”
“At Bethlehem, we had cult-like codes of community, a way of seeing life, and support for one another. It was magical. I lived some of the most beautiful moments of my life there. When Bethlehem closed, we should have said goodbye instead of continuing for another two long years with this false idea of secondary glory… When you fail, you’ve got to start somewhere else, not with the same ghosts, and not with the same gangster landlords.” By the time La Femme Fontaine closed, all of it’s co-owners were in a state “self-exploitation, debt, and addiction,” he says. “Vanity and disillusionment ended up controlling our lives, isolating us in our addictions and paving the way for interpersonal manipulation and victimization. It was so tragic! I had to leave Montreal afterwards. I couldn’t handle being there any longer.”
Trapped in a cycle of drug-dealing, consumption and self-destruction, Femminielli lapsed into what he calls “a kind of dissociation disorder.” From this state, he imagined and hallucinated the set of characters that he employs in L’Exil. In lyrics the narrative perspective swaps chaotically—sometimes Femminielli sings as The Entertainer, his caricatured self image, and sometimes he picks his own alter-ego apart, labelling Daddy, “a thick brute, soaked in alcohol, uncultivated” on French Exit. Then there’s his other persona: Johnny, the Entertainer’s submissive counterpart—”an angel, a clown, a sex symbol, a toy, the blue-eyed apollo, the mischievous ephebe, my stopgap and my scapegoat… Daddy is the parental authority to Johnny. The conflict is that Daddy is both the parent and the child, and cannot be trusted with any moral authority. Daddy is the unrivalled poster boy of daddy issues!”
“Femminielli” is itself an alias. The name became “a way to separate myself from my family,” but was also chosen “for its theatrical, mystical and historically complex meaning about identities.” The word’s origin is in traditional Neapolitan culture, in which it was used to refer in a non-derogatory way to a group of people in society who were seen to embody a ‘third gender’. “I feel my whole individual artistic persona had been developed a long time ago,” says Femminielli. “When I was young, my dad used to call me a “maricón” (faggot), because I wasn’t like the others. I was a queer kid, dressed in weird clothes, wearing make-up, skateboarding, fighting all the time… Life can be dark and the people that love you the most also suffer from their limits of understanding you… I found in ‘Femminielli’ a microcosm of possibilities—a source of protection from what society commands of us, as well as room to question gender.”
Playing characters within characters, Femminielli is able to step outside and confront himself, the society that he feels exiled from, and his audience. It’s a method that originated during his live performances, the goal of which seems beyond entertainment, into the realm of alienation: “I had begun to develop a strange fascination of how to make others hate my persona on stage, and a desire to be uglier than I am. I wanted to distort clichés of beauty and to project myself onto him. I enjoy creating a nasty little story, lurid and creepy, with humour and a bit unhinged… Outdated slapstick, bad jokes on stage and cheap baroque artifacts… My angle is kind of like a stand-up comedian but not funny,” he says, “more like someone having a meltdown in a therapy session. I discovered this was the best way to talk about serious issues without blaming anyone, and learned that discussing dramatic and absurd subjects that truly disturb people were suddenly possible.” There’s a political dynamic and intention to this kind of performance too. Through alienation, Femminielli rejects easy identification with his audience, foregrounding instead the more disturbing social dynamics that his range of grotesque on-stage characters reflect: “When I write a story or compose music, and even during my stage performances, my thoughts are with prejudice, hatred and persecution and the injustices that they represent.”
“I have a lot of fun onstage, but it can get very dark. What I don’t miss is the miserable shows, when the promoter throws you into the crowd without the technical things you need, or when they think you’re just going to play a couple of songs. People misunderstand sometimes, I don’t want to just give them the candy, I want them to deserve it!” He tells the story of one tour date in Paris: “It was a night in Pigalle, and the guy before me was just playing techno and he said to me ‘yo Bernardino, you can perform, do whatever you want.’ But then when I started he kept stopping my music. It was very anticlimactic, it was hilarious. Everyone just wanted to rave, people were shouting at me, calling me ugly and disgusting.” The photo shows him naked except for a leather jacket and assless chaps in a DJ booth—although the audience can’t see this because he’s standing behind a desk and a pair of CDJ’s. “Yes, it’s not for them”, he says, “it’s for me!”
Personas and alter egos may have originated as a way of creating interest in the performance space, but it’s clear that for Femminielli they reflect a deeper level of internal division. Conflict, contradiction and division are L’Exil’s primary motifs. In the text that accompanies the album, which was written by Bernardino himself, he seems to dwell on paradoxical statements: “Exile is oppressive, thus one must also transform into an oppressor… Self-destruction becomes a means of self-preservation… Money is earned, and then like life, it’s burned.” They hint at a core conflict between Femminielli’s artistic self, and the surrounding culture and capitalist mechanics he finds himself both within and consumed by. Monologuing on “French Exit,” he says, “The Showman lives in a mysterious and irrational way. He makes poetry with his life, and that is why society—completely dominated by reason—will devour him.”
Like his self-image, Femminielli’s “Exile” takes more than one form. There’s the literal exile from the continent of North America, and his retreat from professional failure. There’s also a sense of permanent exile from society around him, from the perspective of the artist rejected by the industry, and the perspective of a second generation immigrant. Within Femminielli’s exile, there are echoes of his parents’, who arrived in Canada as refugees, themselves exiled from El Salvador during the conflict of the 1970s and 80s. Second hand memory and “neurosis” remain, which in his words take the form of “background noise whistling through my subconscious… a homesickness, a painful loneliness quietly follows me wherever I go.” It’s an intergenerational experience that shapes Femminielli’s perspective, identity and not least his engagement with music. “My father was a communist, and my mother used to tell me that the only music that let people forget the war were love songs. Rock songs were associated with rebels. The transparency of romantic music with subtle lyrics offered a bit of hope to the victims of the atrocities… There were many revolutionary songs throughout my childhood.”
Exile is also internal, as Femminielli’s feeling of rejection from the outside manifests itself as an alienation from the self: “Do I know myself? Everyday I live with an identity crisis,” he says. Femminielli’s masks are for himself as much as for his audience, and sometimes the boundaries between the character on stage and the ‘real’ Bernardino seem to disappear altogether. “Personal or professional failure in showbiz is a great source of inspiration for me. An excellent concept for my character, but it’s difficult to deal with when I’m out of character,” he admits.
“When things are going badly, I have to live with it every day. When things are going well, the failure is not too far away to remind me to make the good days count and enjoy myself. Failure scares me because when I’m suffering, I believe it’s contagious and incurable… you fall deeper into the conspiracy and find yourself more isolated.” Alter-egos function not only to mirror but to undo, or embrace, this isolation and internal division. “The conceptualized characters of L’Exil were employed to exorcise my demons on stage as well as on the road,” he explains. “It is at the precise moment of awareness that the auto-fiction takes shape.”
“I know I’m not marketable,” he says. “Let’s be frank, I make difficult and alienating music. But it’s rewarding. I’m an ambitious and productive artist and I know what I want.” L’Exil, though an exploration of failure, has brought a level of personal, internal success. “I was able to remember the trauma, the fucked up things I might have done, and just write about them. Now I know why I did those things. When you have a nice group of people around you, you can sometimes even go back and fix them… My exile (post-death) in Paris was difficult, but also very rich and fulfilling. It gave me an outside view of who I had become: a wiser, more focused artist.”