The sound universe enclosed in Cécile Schott’s records as Colleen is something quite peculiar in the music scene of the new century. Following the release of her fifth album, “Captain Of None”, the French artist talks about her personal and expressive evolution, from the original obsession for samples to the discovering of her own voice and of an obsolete acoustic instrument – the viola da gamba – and the study of musical cultures from different time and spaces.
After the long hiatus between “Les Ondes Silencieuses” and “The Weighing Of The Heart” you’re back with a new album two years after the previous one. Has there been any difference in the working process of your latest two albums and/or in your approach to composition?
With this album I really tried to work as freely as possible from every point of view. I was on a kind of “creative high” in 2013 and 2014 and I really felt that so many exciting possibilities were open before me that I just had to take advantage of that wonderful feeling and spend as much time in my studio as I could.
When I was rehearsing for my live shows in 2013, some new songs were born very spontaneously and just seemed to flow from me (“Lighthouse”, and then “Captain of None” and “I’m Kin”) and I immediately felt that these songs were quite different to anything I’d done in the past, and that they were the concrete realization of some of my ideas and ideals: they are very “pop” in certain aspects of the songwriting (with melodies that almost function like “hooks”) while being quite experimental in terms of song structure and production : using lots of delay, feedback, looping, stretching or speeding up sounds, etc. They are both very acoustic (the treble viola da gamba is definitely a very “earthy” sound) and yet the structure and the production can make you feel you’re dealing with something more “electronic”.
I also think that in general I wanted to reconnect with a more spontaneous way of making music – somehow going back to the very free spirit that I had when I made my first album “Everyone alive wants answers” in 2002, but with the massive difference that instead of using record samples I’m playing everything.
From all of your records, it’s clear that you’ve always been interested in peculiar sounds and instruments, first of all of course your own viola da gamba: how did you start playing a so peculiar instrument?
It was a long path before I got to play it: first I fell in love with the sound of the instrument when I saw the film “Tous les matins du monde” on TV when I was about 15. It was the first time I heard viola in its original context (baroque music) and it spoke to me in a powerful way. But since I had no classical education and no money, it just remained a dream until I started learning the cello around 2004: at that point I had saved enough money from teaching to actually be able to have a viola made, and in early 2006 I finally received my bass viola da gamba. In 2008 I decided to order a treble viola da gamba (an instrument of the same family but with a higher register, which is meant to be played in viola ensembles), because I loved the harp-like sound reminiscent of non-Western instruments and particularly African instruments. I also had always fancied having a very small, portable instrument, and I saw immediately too that it would be fairly easy to play it in fingerpicking (which was something I was already doing on the bass viola). However it wasn’t until summer 2012 that I really started to play it and discovered that I could get a very original sound out of it if I changed its tuning: it was a real turning point and that’s when “The Weighing of the Heart” really took shape, and without this treble viola I don’t think the new album “Captain of None” would exist as it is.
In “Captain Of None” there is also a renewed focus on percussion and dynamics, clearly related to West African and Jamaican culture: how did you get into those kind of sounds?
I’ve been interested in African music ever since I was able to borrow African recordings from the Paris music libraries when I moved there in 1999. At the time my focus was mostly on traditional recordings from labels like Ocora. It was only fairly recently that I became more familiar with some African productions from the late 60s and early 70s and I find the musicianship (especially from the guitarists) and style of production often mindblowing.
Regarding Jamaican music, it’s been a long love story in several parts! I listened to some great tracks from Lee Perry’s best period when I was a child of 5 or 6, as my parents had a tape of Jamaican music which they probably bought on the motorway without really knowing what it was. I have distinct memories of being on long car and camper-van journeys when we went on holiday and hearing that music, and I think that instinctively as a child I could feel this was very different to the rest of the music that was played around the house.
However, I forgot all about Jamaican music until my early/mid 20s when I moved to Paris and started buying and borrowing Jamaican music from the Paris libraries ( it was the golden age of the 100% Dynamite compilations and the Blood and Fire reissues). But at the time I was concentrating on finding records that would be adequate for sampling in the music I was beginning to make with my computer, so again, I ended up spending more time listening to other types of music that could fit my sampling obsession of the time (sampling Jamaican music doesn’t really make sense, because you’re dealing with a music that’s already pretty minimal in structure, so if you sample it, it sounds more like “stealing” than making something really creative with the sound source).
The third part of the love story with Jamaican music came in late 2012, as I was recording “The Weighing of the Heart”: both my boyfriend (illustrator Iker Spozio) and I started to get into the music massively. The last track that I finished recording for that album was “Breaking Up the Earth” and I was stuck on it, so I decided to experiment in a Jamaican style, and I was so happy with the result and felt so “freed” by it that I knew in that instant that Jamaican music would be my guiding light in the making of the next album.
Of course my album doesn’t sound like Jamaican music as such – it would be stupid to try to imitate it, because I could never do something as great as what’s been done by all those amazing musicians, composers and producers – but rather the idea is to be inspired by the inventivity of that music, and the incredible mix it offers between something very physical and accessible and something that’s a very constructed, abstract and modern way of dealing with both sound and song form.
Traditional instruments coexisted very often with electronics in your records, bridging ancient musical culture and modern technology. Has there been an evolution in the way you balance these two different music languages over the years?
I would say that around 2007, I felt a kind of rejection of the idea of “electronics” in my music: I somehow felt that I would be a better or more “real” musician if I was able to play without looping for example. I also went through a sort of obsession with very bare aesthetics, like the Japanese zen and traditional aesthetics, because at the time I really needed some calm in my life.
When I came back to making music in 2010, and as time progressed and I was trying to find a new vocabulary for my own music, my perception had changed and I had become a lot more relaxed about what I “should” and “shouldn’t” do. I have to credit Arthur Russell here because he was possibly the biggest influence in getting me back to making music and launching me on a different path: I read the excellent Russell biography written by Tim Lawrence called “Hold On To Your Dreams”. I already knew his music but I really delved deep into it at that moment and it was just what I needed from all points of view: he did not care about genre and was the perfect example of someone who used a classical acoustic instrument to do a music that often incorporates effects and electronics, someone who used melody and yet was still experimental in his approach, and also someone who sang in a way that the voice and lyrics are seamlessly integrated into the music, which means that there is no dichotomy between his purely instrumental music and his sung music.
With “Captain of None”, I feel I’ve taken this free-minded approach to its logical conclusion: the album feels both acoustic and electronic, it’s both pop and experimental, it has sung tracks and instrumentals and often within the same track sung and instrumental passages alternate, and I think it’s also the only Jamaican-influenced album with a viola da gamba in musical history!
“Captain Of None” seems the result of a broader composition process, not only focused on loops and repetition. If this is correct, is this the result of you searching for something different than you did before?
There are various things that differentiate this album from the previous one. The Weighing was very arranged and featured many instruments, and it tried to bring together all my influences at the time, and of course I was using voice and lyrics for the first time. With this one the challenge was to find diversity with restricted instrumental means (mostly the treble viola da gamba, my voice, a tiny bit of percussion and melodica on just one song). The diversity had to come from the melodies, way of playing and songwriting, and also from the use of effects and production decisions. A lot of the processing is done live and I used an analog delay pedal manufactured by Moog called the Moogerfooger, which produces incredible “artifacts” that have to be recorded in the instant, because each time you use the pedal it reacts differently – in that sense the effects really are used like instruments in their own right.
Once again, the album features your voice on more than half of its tracks. Is the one of writing lyrics and singing them a definitive expressive choice? Did something change in the way you write and sing now that these activities are no longer “new” for you as they were in the previous album?
For me singing and lyrics now feel really integrated into the act of making music. In terms of lyrics, the album has a strong unity: it is mostly about the human brain/mind and heart, the inner tensions that we all go through, the need to understand oneself in order to live in peace with oneself… When I started to try writing lyrics in 2010, this was actually one of the first “subjects” I wanted to talk about, but at the time I couldn’t find the right way of doing it, so on “The Weighing of the Heart”, the lyrics were mostly about the natural world in a very wide sense – something that is still tremendously important to me. However on the title song “The Weighing of the Heart”, I felt I had managed to express something about the human experience, and I knew that I wanted to keep going in that direction. For me the challenge is to manage to write lyrics about these very “evasive” and personal subjects while avoiding the pitfall of “confessional” lyrics and clichés. I still have a lot to learn and I wonder where this will take me next!
In the lyrics of “I’m Kin”, you repeat being…kin to many different cultures in time and space (Aztec, Iraqi, ancient Greece): is there a universal message behind your music and do you believe that music itself a universal language that can overcome the differences existing in nowadays world?
I do have a huge curiosity for many different things, from arts to the natural world (I’m an avid birdwatcher and am reading a huge book on animal behavior right now), and I feel not only like a citizen of the world, but also just like one living being among many other billions of incredibly intelligent creatures. I don’t think there’s a message as such in my music, but I do think that music is incredibly powerful and I do know that when someone tells me that my music has helped them in their life, there is no bigger reward for me.
Does the title of the new album have any reference?
Only a reference to how I felt at one point. The song is about losing touch with reality and not recognizing or understanding yourself – trying to find rest, yet being unable to do so – hence feeling “Captain of none and nothing”.
The cover of the album is again a wonderful work by Iker Spozio. How important is for you the visual side of your music? Ever thought to associate it with art exhibitions, photographs, movies, etc.?
I’m very lucky to have Iker as a an artistic and life partner: he has had a tremendous influence on me over the years, from what he listens to in music (he’s as big a music fan as I am) to how we both deal with our work, both artistically and professionally. Sharing my life with a visual artists has been very enriching: I’ve always been interested in visual arts, and I’ve learnt ceramics and stone carving for two years during my hiatus from making music, and one of the things I’ve learnt is that the amount of work you put into something is of crucial importance to the actual results – there is no great art without a LOT of work – so when I see Iker working hard on something, that usually motivates me to work hard on my music too. I also love seeing the correspondences between patterns and repetition in visual arts and patterns and repetition in music. And of course it means a lot to me that I’m able to present my music in beautiful physical objects thanks to Iker’s incredible artwork – in this day of digital consumption of music I feel it’s even more important than it used to be.
As for associating my music with other art forms, that mostly happens through all the synch licensing offers I get. Other than that, I remain convinced that I make my best music when it’s for my albums: life is short and ultimately, unless you’re a genius like Mozart or Bach, you won’t make hundreds of great works – just a few dozen if you’re lucky and work very hard – so that’s why I mostly save my work for my albums.
You recorded the album in your studio in San Sebastian: how important are the places where you play and record your music?
Having my own studio has made a world of difference to how I work: I used to get very distracted when I worked from home, especially with email checking, but also little things like going to the kitchen to start cooking something, etc. In my studio there is no internet connection and the only thing I can do is work on my music, so that’s what I do! It’s really done wonders for my productivity, and means I can have the sense of intimacy I require for my music-making. Now the studio is almost perfect, because the old doors and windows were fully renovated in late 2013, so “Captain of None” is actually the first album I’ve made with lots of time at my disposal and really good working conditions – it’s also the first album I’ve recorded in spring and early summer. All this made for a very relaxing experience compared to the often stressful and less ideal conditions in which I recorded my previous albums.
You are a truly “independent” artist, as you usually write, play and produce your music all on your own. I guess this because you want to have complete freedom and control on your creation process, but do you think you could ever work with a producer?
I think the answer is a resonating NO! This album reinforced my love of all aspects of music-making for an album, from playing to recording to mixing to actually trying out all the possible different things that go into producing. I really can’t separate how I “compose” to how I produce right now: it’s one and the same thing, and I get a kick out of doing the whole thing – it’s sometimes incredibly challenging, but that’s also where the learning process is!
Is there any other artist you’d fancy working with?
There are current artists whose work I really appreciate but I really don’t know if I’m made for collaborations. As I grow older I realize that there are certain aspects of our personality that are the ones that make up who we truly are, and I think that my tendency to work alone is what makes me who I am as a musician, and I’ve decided to embrace this “loner” aspect instead of feeling like apologizing for it! ;-)
As a listener, what kind of music did you use to like best over the years? And nowadays?
I actually don’t have that much time for listening to music since I’m making music most of the time, and when I’m not, I’m usually working on the administrative side of my musical activity (dealing with concert bookings, synch licensing, promotion, general email), and unfortunately I’m incapable of listening to music AND working on something. The rest of my free time, I try to be in nature as much as possible, as it’s very important for my physical and mental well-being. So when I listen to music now, I try to focus on what I feel is most rewarding for me both as a listener and as a musician, because I’m always trying to pick up little ideas from other records.
I’ve gone through all sorts of phases in terms of what I listened to, from noisy pop as a teenager to more experimental records in my early 20s, then from my mid-20s to mid-30s it was all over the place with jazz, non-Western music, hip hop, electronica, film music, psychedelic music, folk and blues, classical and baroque music, 20th century pioneers like Terry Riley and maverick composers like Moondog…. Right now I’m still focusing on Jamaican and African music.
With so many music floating around every moment, what do you think creating music and writing songs is still worth for?
The first meaning of making music is for myself: I make music because that’s something I need to do, like breathing. The second meaning is to share it with others, and it doesn’t’ really matter if it’s 500 people or 500,000 people you’re reaching – I think it’s the intensity of the connection between the music and the listener that matters. I feel truly happy and honored that there are people out there really listening to what I do and feeling happier because of it.
(full version of the interview published on Rockerilla no. 416, April 2015 – Italian translation)