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French Music Column: Emmanuelle Parrenin & Donso Interviewed
David McKenna , March 18th, 2011 09:53

In our latest column on the finest French music, David McKenna discusses hearing loss and creative reinvention with Emmanuelle Parrenin, and unusual instrumentation with Donso

Emmanuelle Parrenin has only released two solo albums. The first, Maison Rose, was recorded in 1977 when she was 28. Now, at the age of 62, she has finally produced a follow-up of sorts, Maison Cube. There are numerous reasons for the wait: Maison Rose was part of her deliberate drift away from the French folk scene she had been partly responsible for fostering, and subsequent to its release she moved into contemporary dance: but other factors also intervened. In 1993, she was caught in a domestic fire that stripped her of her hearing.

"The inner ear was damaged so it affected my balance as well," she explains. "I had been in shows where I wrote the music and danced, and now doctors were saying that there was nothing more they could do. So I cut myself off from everything in an Alpine chalet."

Intuitively, she says, she began playing instruments as a form of self-therapy. The healing properties of music are usually spoken about in vague or somewhat spiritual terms, but Parrenin experienced them in a far more tangible sense.

"I healed myself through the resonances from different instruments I played, and I would sing what I was playing as well. Even if I couldn't hear myself, I could feel it as vibrations in my body. Doing that every day my hearing slowly returned, and after that I didn't return to Paris. I continued to live in relative isolation for another 10 years, working in hospitals with people who had all kinds of issues: children, adults, psychotics, people with autism, and I used what had worked for me to help other people. So that really changed the course of my life."

She calls her approach 'Ma-euphonie', which "contains the idea that you're giving birth to something with your voice. I didn't want to call it 'art therapy' or something like that because that's not really how it works. I work with people who come to see me, or groups, and the person is active, not passive, and I find that's important. I make the person who comes to see me produce sounds, and I only amplify the sounds they make."

The musicianship runs in the family – father Jacques led his own string quartet – but experiences like hanging out with Eric Clapton and the Yardbirds during a trip to England as a teenager were equally formative, and by the age of 19 she'd fallen in with a group of people in Paris who went on to open France's first folk club, Le Bourdon, in 1970. The movement had clearly taken longer to get off the ground but the approach mirrored that of folk revivalists in the UK and the US.

"We were a small team that created Le Bourdon," she says, "and in particular we went off collecting, which is to say we took recording devices and went to some very isolated locations in France and Francophone countries to record old songs – all those people are dead now, you know! – which were part of our heritage. And then we donated them to the Musée de l'Homme and the Musée National des Arts et Traditions Populaires. But what interested me most was meeting people who sang and played; who danced. It was the human side that interested me. The music too, of course, but I'm not really a backward-looking person.”

Was that why she eventually distanced herself from folk music?

"Yes. It was a time when, firstly, it was becoming very fashionable and there wasn't the same spirit as there had been at the beginning. There was a lot of what we call in France 'un esprit de chapelle' [cliqueishness]; it was very purist and I don't think I'm like that. I liked it when it felt alive, and when that went I was bored. After that, I was more drawn to making music for contemporary dance, using the same instruments but making a new music with it. I didn't play the harp at the time – just the hurdy-gurdy, the spinet and the dulcimer – but when I started making music for ballets and so on, I slowly began to teach myself the harp."

Emmanuelle is talking on the phone from her home where she is "surrounded by instruments". She counts four harps, two spinets and two hurdy-gurdys, one of which was acquired in 1972 in Paris from a butcher-turned-antique instrument specialist.

"It was a former butcher's shop that still exists on the Place des Vosges, and he had this hurdy-gurdy in the window that I dreamt of owning but couldn't afford. One day I went in there and asked if I could try it out, and when I started playing it he lowered the blinds and fetched some wine and I played and played. I left with the hurdy-gurdy in my hands, and he took my old worm-eaten one in exchange. I crossed the whole of Paris with it in my arms; I couldn't believe that this magical instrument was mine."

She continued to make the instrument her own on albums in a progressive folk vein, like 1975's Chateau Dans Les Nuages (credited to Emmanuelle Parrenin, Phil Fromont and Claude Lefebvre) and particularly on the cult-within-a-cult that is Maison Rose's 'Topaze'. The track's bewitching strangeness, and the accidentally anticipatory nature of the production (trip-hop about 15 years ahead of time, if you like) means that it's the one that is often plucked from the album to be showcased on blogs.

"That's just hurdy-gurdy, but I improvised over a rhythm track that [producer] Bruno [Menny] had come up with, with quite a few effects like backwards drums. It was a way of demonstrating... well, it wasn't as conscious as that, I was just playing without really thinking about it, but I think it shows off the range of this instrument that wasn't really widely known about – that was only really known in the circle of traditional music. "When I fell in love with it I was very young, and what I loved about it is that you feel the sound in your guts – it goes right to your stomach, it makes your bones vibrate. So I wanted to bring out all the tones and colours in it that were undreamt of at the time."

As a whole, Maison Rose was Parrenin's attempt to make the record "I could hear in my mind", with the assistance of producer Menny. Throughout, her playing is augmented by subtly rippling acoustic treatments and far-away harmonies (all of it dissolving almost completely into layered drones on 'Après L'ondée') and her voice is captured with crystalline clarity on the more structured songs like 'Plume Blanche, Plume Noire', which was written for her by Jean-Claude Vannier. Vannier is most famous for his arrangement work on Serge Gainsbourg's Histoire de Melody Nelson but he's also an idiosyncratic song-stylist in his own right, and Parrenin is incredibly nimble as she negotiates his typically restless melody.

"With Bruno we understood each other without really speaking. Afterwards I felt I'd fulfilled my vision of the record I wanted to make but frankly I had no notion that 30 years later people would still be talking about it."

The PR blurb for the new album, Maison Cube, makes the reasonably obvious comparison with Vashti Bunyan. There's the long hiatus, obviously, and the fact that, for all the differences in production approach, instrumentation and the traditions they draw on, Maison Rose and Just Another Diamond Day do have a similarly enchanted air. Parrenin also contributed to the Night Music album by fan Etienne Jaumet (mixed by Carl Craig, linking French folk to Detroit techno), rather as Bunyan did with Devendra Banhart and Animal Collective, before re-emerging with her own record.

The belated sequels, however, have much less in common. Whereas Lookaftering felt, to a great extent, like Bunyan picking up exactly where she'd left off, Maison Cube plays out in another space entirely, even if her past is referenced in the album title and on songs like 'Collectage', which recalls her song-collecting days and takes the form of a message telling her nearest and dearest not to not worry about her while she's on her travels.

"Obviously there's a link to Maison Rose," says Parrenin, "so it's as if time wasn't relevant and there's this continuity. But it's also because, with the musicians who came to play with me, we recorded in a house in the shape of a cube in the middle of a forest [in Fontainebleau, about 30 miles to the south-east of Paris] where we could all stay together, and we recorded all the instruments there. It's an architect's house from the 1960s and we have a kind of community of friends who use it when they want to, ensuring that the bills are paid for. No-one really owns it – the actual owner lives far away and doesn't concern herself with it. So we keep this house alive.”

So while Maison Rose is very much a fairy tale house, Maison Cube suggests a more concrete, modern domesticity – the vocals in particular sound very close, as if Parrenin is singing next to you in a living room, although the cube-shaped house is still "a place where magical things can happen.”

The spur for the album was a meeting with Flóp, aka songwriter Francisco López.

"My son is a blues musician and his producer, having heard Maison Rose, asked if I wanted to make another record. I said 'Yes, I've got lots of music in my head but I want to work with someone on the words', so he gave me the name of Flóp. I went to listen to Flóp live and I liked his lyrics, and following that he came to my house with pockets full of notebooks. He'd read out phrases and I'd say 'I like that one', and I'd pull out an instrument, either a harp, a hurdy-gurdy or a spinet and improvise based on his words. We worked like that for five days, with me developing the music while he worked on the lyrics. So the key thing was working with a lyricist, and afterwards he suggested making a record. That was it, quite simply."

The resulting album has its share of warm drones and mantra-like songs, but also features wistful ambient-electronic ballads ('Pleuré'), Camille-like pop ('Je t'aime') and the eruption of a curious folk-jazz hybrid on 'Le secret'. As well as the aforementioned collection of instruments, Parrenin also plays a thumb piano and musical bowls. The best is saved until last though: the album's ten-minute title track. The verse might be Stereolab covering 'Tomorrow Never Knows', while a neat, jazzy chorus - augmented by cooing Disney harmonies - is gradually prised open by screeching hurdy-gurdy before dissolving into a discordant freak-out. As it happens, it's Parrenin's favourite too, and it may have already laid the foundations for her next 'house'.

"It's the one I particularly like singing on stage. There are songs that didn't make it onto the record that are more in that style and I think I'm going to follow that.”

"Maison Cube" par Emmanuelle Parrenin by lesdisquesBien

So it turns out this month's column is partly a look at a few not-very-rock instruments. If Emmanuelle Parrenin's weapon of choice is the hurdy gurdy, then Donso's is the donso n'goni: a stringed instrument also known as the 'hunter's harp' that originated in West Africa.

The story goes that Pierre-Antoine Grison, the initiator of Donso, first heard the instrument in 2001 when he moved to a new apartment in Paris.

"Through the walls I heard a strange instrument that really piqued my interest," he says. "It was the donso n'goni that Thomas [Guillaume] plays, and one day I met him on the stairs and I asked him 'Hey, is it you playing that instrument? What is it?'”

Grison is better known as Krazy Baldhead, one of the more atypical artists on the Ed Banger label that's also home to Justice and SebastiAn, and producer of 2009's sprawling, kinda-conceptual album The B Suite. Working with Guillaume and Paris-based Malian musicians Guimba Kouyaté (guitar and djele n'goni – a lute-harp) and Gédéon Papa Diarra (vocals), Grison says "it took me two years to figure out which rhythms really worked and two more to integrate the whole harmonic aspect and the singing and finally put the tracks together. It's delicate. I had no interest in making house music with African voices over it, that's already been done to death. It had to work on its own terms."

The result was an electro-fied take on some African dance styles and, although it’s not the first crossover of this type, it's easily as seamless (if less poppy (and also less cloying)) as Amadou & Mariam’s Damon Albarn collaboration 'Sabali'.

"Actually, Damon Albarn's album [Mali Music] is one of the few fusions like that which I think are really successful. It's not the same approach but he didn't put a foot wrong there. Radioclit and things like that are different again, it's much more party music – the aim is not the same.”

Donso are playing the Royal Festival Hall with Sean Kuti on 13 April as part of the African Soul Rebels tour. What to expect? "The album's quite relaxed, but we're aiming for something more intense with the live shows; more trance-y. It's an aspect we didn't really exploit on the album."

Grison joins in with the singing although he admits to not really having entirely got to grips with the language the songs are performed in, Bambara.

"Honestly, sometimes I'm not entirely sure what I'm singing. I do it sort of phonetically..."

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