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Breaking The Silence: An Interview With Colleen
David McKenna , May 17th, 2013 07:48

In our latest French music column, Rockfort's David McKenna speaks with Colleen about how falling out of love with music, and reigniting that love again, have informed her first album in six years

Breaking her silence, Colleen – real name Cécile Schott -  has come out singing and (almost) dancing. In the gap between The Weighing of the Heart and the willowy acoustic lines of her previous album, 2007's Les Ondes Silencieuses, Parisienne Schott passed through a long period of doubt, in herself and in her relationship with music. At one point, when I was trying to find out if she had any new music coming out, I came across a two-part post on her site entitled 'A long account of why I have been silent.'

"It's happened to so many artists, and yet I feel it's a subject that's rarely talked about – possibly because it's not a pleasant one, and even feels a little shameful?"

You can read the entire thing here, but suffice to say it tells the story of how you can end up feeling imprisoned by the one thing that should be making you feel happiest and most free. Somewhere in the journey from her sample-based debut, Everyone Alive Wants Answers to Les Ondes Silencieuses's stark modern chamber music, the fact of being a music-maker (and perhaps even music itself) severely lost its appeal. The way back seems to have involved the above act of writing, rediscovering the pleasure in simply listening (see her lists of Favourite Music, also on the site, divided into different year brackets), taking lessons in ceramics and stone carving, and moving to San Sebastián in Spain, close to the sea.

Though I put it to Cécile in the following interview that The Weighing of the Heart seems to be about solitude and contemplation, I think that you can also detect the "joy" that she talks about. There is, of course, the fact that Schott is singing for the first time, and a new focus on percussion. The artwork of boyfriend Iker Spozio is uncharacteristically colourful. Where previously her leitmotifs (or ritournelles – small or slight returns) could often suggest the painfully obsessive circling of a cherished memory or a loss, or even both at once, the new material seems more alive to the possibilities of the moment, and of nature. This close attention induces an altered state, one more conducive to little epiphanies - time perception changes, your heartbeat seems to slow. You feel that perhaps you can, as one song suggests, 'Break Away' – with the repetition of the title phrase in the piece sounding less like an anxious impulse than a meditative chant, a pathway to reverie.

'Humming Fields', taken from the Weighing Of The Heart LP

Falling out of love with music must have been heartbreaking. Did you have any trepidation about making that public? Was the writing in itself part of the process of recovering a passion for music?

Cécile Schott: I felt a huge relief writing this piece, as if opening up to others about this was one of the steps necessary to recover from my "blank page" syndrome, and as if somehow just uttering the truth was a way of getting negative thinking out of my system and seeing the positive aspects of being a musician again.

When I wrote it (August 2011), I was still a very long way from having completed the record (the only song I'd written in its entirety was 'Moonlit Sky', and I'd written parts of 'The Moon Like A Bell' and 'Ursa Major Find') but I could see I was somehow going to make it, so that's part of the reason why I found the "courage" to write about what had happened to me.

And I got such nice feedback: many people wrote to me afterwards, either just to wish me good luck with my return to music, or to tell me they were artists and were going through or had gone through the same thing themselves and therefore empathised with or found comfort in what I'd said. I was actually quite floored by these people's kindness, and it reminded me of one of the most beautiful things about being a musician, which is the chance you get to connect meaningfully with other people from all over the world – which is all the more important to me, since I work completely alone.

In the post, you mention the vanity of being written about, seeing your name on records. Did you recoil from that? Is there any way to have a healthy relationship with the 'famous' you?

CS: I think this is a very difficult one to answer: there is such a thin line between being genuinely enthusiastic about what you do and therefore wanting to "promote" it, and starting to obsess about getting bigger or more prestigious gigs, having a review in such a magazine, and why your record is selling fewer copies than this or that other person's record…

I'm definitely grateful that my music has never been "fashionable" and that I've never been really famous, as I think you have to be either extremely well-balanced or incredibly self-centered to be able to withstand the pressure that comes from being commercially successful. And what I did learn from releasing my first three albums was that any amount of success you have comes at a cost, and the currency you have to pay with is your time. I think that when you're feeling super passionate about what you're doing, then somehow you don't notice it much: I didn't notice it during the first few years, and right now, as I'm writing these lines, I don't mind spending that time answering your questions, because I'm so enthusiastic about having come back to music and having a new album after six years of not releasing anything. But I think that if you start having artistic doubts, then that's when you start noticing the amount of time you spend on things that are not actually music-making, and that's what happened to me in 2008-2009.

What I've certainly felt, too, is that it's easier to make important artistic changes while removed from any outside pressure. When I decided I wanted to incorporate singing and lyrics into my music, and later on a more percussive aspect, I knew it was something that would take me time and that I wouldn't be successful immediately. So it really helped that my only deadline was the one I was giving myself, and that this was solely determined by the sensation of having reached my aim.

You also suggested you felt encumbered in France. Is there a contrast with where you are in Spain?

CS: I tend to be interested in many many things, so in Paris there were constantly events vying for my attention: a concert, an exhibition, the opportunity to learn something – all positive things in theory, but I was just scattering my energy and everything always seemed to involve hours of public transport. I also had a real concentration problem: as I made music at home, I had the constant temptation of checking my email, because I knew there would be new emails waiting for me every hour, so I never really focused on music for hours on end the way I did when I was younger.

Over here, where I live, it's very different: there's not much happening culturally and for me at this particular point of my life, that's been a blessing – my life consists mostly of a daily walk by the beach, cooking simple meals, dealing with email and music-related requests, and making music in my studio space which has no internet connection, and where basically I can't do anything apart from playing music. When there's enough time then at the end of the day I read, listen to music or watch a film, and the day is already completely full, but in a really good way.

How do you feel about playing live and touring now – are you going to do fewer gigs?

CS: I really feel like playing live and definitely wouldn't do it if my heart wasn't in it. My last concert was in January 2009, and since I work alone, now I definitely feel like connecting with people after all this time! I'm also always really grateful to get to see in the flesh the people that are kind enough to allow me to make a living from this!

I'm crossing my fingers that the travelling part will go smoothly: I just can't believe how airlines seem to regard musicians with their musical instruments as public enemy number one, it's been quite a shock to discover that even after downsizing from my bass viola da gamba to my treble viola da gamba (which is barely bigger than a violin), I'll still have to pay for a second seat with lots of airlines! That's the only thing that does worry me a bit about touring again; other than that, I've been giving lots of thought to how to try and travel as light as possible both physically and psychologically. My suitcase will be just as heavy as before because I'm just too addicted to my sampling and delay/echo pedals, but at least the viola on my back will be much smaller, and hopefully my soundchecks should be a bit less tricky.

Most important of all, I'm really excited about what I'm going to play, as 99% of the concert is going to be new material: I'll play more than half of the new album, which is a first for me, since all my previous albums were almost impossible to play live (some songs will be slightly reworked for the live shows to make them playable, but they'll still be recognisable) and I also have entirely new songs, plus a couple of cover versions I'm working on right now. I'm heavily into dub right now, so there should be quite a lot of live delaying and echoing, and I think that's what I'm looking forward to the most, as it should be tremendous fun!

Your return from silence involves you airing your vocals and lyrics on record for the first time. For the lyrics, had you been writing in any way before, was it tentative or did you know what you wanted to achieve? Repetition, 'looping', of phrases rather than verse-chorus-verse seems to be a way for some musicians approaching lyrics and singing to not go all the way into classic songwriting.

CS: Singing and writing lyrics are definitely the main reasons why it took me so long to make this album. I had a really hard time coming up with lyrics that appealed to me as lyrics per se and as melodic elements that could fit within the music – two different problems for which, in the end, you have to find one unique solution.

My first love in life, even before music, was literature, and as a child I remember writing stories, and later on as a teenager I also wrote a bit of poetry in a surrealist/cut-up style (René Char was my favorite). Once I started to learn guitar, I also briefly tried to write lyrics to go with my music, but that definitely didn't work and very quickly I became so in love with the guitar that I happily forgot about writing lyrics and just felt happy expressing myself via instrumental music alone.

So when I decided to sing for my new music, I did struggle to find the right tone lyrically, and to see what it was I was actually going to sing about. I spent a lot of time reading lyrics from some of my favourite singing musicians, even when they were obviously in a style that I wasn't going to adopt (Townes Van Zandt for instance, whom I consider an absolute master), and I paid special attention to musicians whose instrumental style I felt close to and who did include the voice and lyrics: first and foremost Moondog and Arthur Russell, but also Brigitte Fontaine (her albums from the 70s), and then people whose approach is kind of 'in the middle': Stina Nordenstam, Tim Buckley…

I also read a lot of poetry: some anthologies of English and American poetry, haiku, and some classics which I'd never taken the time to read ('Leaves of Grass', Emily Dickinson…) and I think that definitely broadened my vision of what it was I could do with words for my own use. In the end, after more than two years of writing lyrics, what I settled on was having very few lyrics within each song, with a very "open" and visual feel: I'm definitely very inspired by the natural and the animal world, and also by visual arts in general. Living with my boyfriend, illustrator Iker Spozio, is definitely a big influence: I'm constantly surrounded by visual elements, and we share a passion for Paul Klee and Juan Gris's painting, as well as Sophie Taeuber-Arp and Gunta Stölzl's textile work. I actually thought a lot in terms of painting (colour/texture) and textiles (the idea of weaving, making patterns) for the music, and I think it also carried through the lyrics in both the fact that they're very image-based and the way they are used as musical elements.

Some elements sound actually looped – is it live looping, as I've seen for live shows, or using software?

CS: Yes, I did loop some elements via software (right now I'm only using the pedals for the live shows) - because I play by myself, I have a hard time being entirely consistent when wanting to play the same phrase again and again, and since I then have to overdub, I would have an even harder time overdubbing on rhythmically inconsistent material.

For the singing – did you know you had a voice? Are you someone who sings to themselves a lot?

CS: I sang a little when I was 16-17, in the bathroom at my parents' house, doing cover versions of almost all of Ziggy Stardust and lots of Pixies songs, but that was rather short-lived, as my attention soon turned to mostly instrumental music when I started university.

When I tried to sing again in 2009, I felt really self-conscious as I was living in a flat in Paris where everything echoed and there was almost always a neighbour around, so I didn't use my full breath, and it was only in summer  2011 that I finally ended this disastrous habit and understood I had to breathe for real! I definitely have no particular innate talent for singing, so managing to sing in the way I was thinking of, which was actually a very "pure", simple way of singing, took a lot of work and effort, but thankfully was a lot of fun too.

I think I also learnt about myself in the process: initially the idea of incorporating singing and lyrics in my music after releasing three instrumental albums was quite scary. I felt I was really going to 'expose' myself by doing it, which in a way takes us back to your question about vanity: I had to ask myself why I was so scared, and the answer was that I was worried it wasn't going to work artistically, but also that people wouldn't like it. So I had to acknowledge this fear and remind myself that I don't make music in order for people to like me, I make music that I believe in and if some people like it then I'm really happy, but people's appreciation can't be the condition on which I make my choices.

In any case, no one actually heard the sound of my voice until the record was completely finished, because I didn't want to take the risk that someone would tell me "Cécile, you're making a huge mistake"!

The percussive aspect is also new, was there a lot of trial and error with that? Had you been collecting percussion instruments?

CS: Playing percussion was really great fun almost from the start, even though here again, just as with singing, I definitely can't say I was born with a great sense of rhythm – rather the opposite. It all started from that feeling of simultaneous admiration and annoyance that you can get when you listen to something that's really great and you can't understand how it's made - in my case the percussion on Moondog's records. I'd read Moondog's biography, but there was surprisingly little about the percussive aspect of his music, and for years I was just hopeless with even understanding how basic rhythmic patterns work, until in early 2012 I couldn't take it anymore and started searching for educational material on the internet.

That brought me to the website of David Kuckhermann, a great percussion player and a brilliant pedagogue: I already had a cheap frame drum, so I started practicing on that to see if I enjoyed it, and I was just ecstatic, so I upgraded to a good frame drum, bought several of Kuckhermann's instructional DVDs on playing the frame drum and the cajon, and viewed dozens and dozens of hours of YouTube footage of people playing percussion from traditions from all over the world. I also bought a floor tom, snare drum and cymbal, which make a couple of rather unorthodox appearances on the album, and there were cheap bits and bobs that I already had or instruments given as gifts which I used here and there.

But I have to say that, for me, the rhythmic aspect of the album is to be found in almost all of the instruments played on the album, and not just on the actual percussion instruments – especially in the viola da gamba and guitar: I couldn't have written or played 'Push The Boat Onto The Sand' or 'Geometria del Universo' two years ago for instance.

[Spoiler Alert!] The organ comes from nowhere on 'Moonlit Sky', a real surprise – did that fit in the shop where you were recording too? (Schott recorded alone at night in an abandoned olive shop).

CS: I must come clean here: it's a MIDI emulation of a Farfisa Compact, and not the real thing! Several years ago I would have given my left leg for an organ like this, but I'm a bit healthier in the "instrument collection disease" department now and I must say that I found that MIDI emulation very helpful.

Clearly, the record speaks of solitude and contemplation.  It would be easy to imagine you as a recluse I suppose, but perhaps the feel of The Weighing of the Heart is more a product of your having lots of time by yourself while recording, especially at night?

CS: So far the record seems to evoke this sense of contemplation in most listeners, whereas I see it as quite joyful – but perhaps it's my joy at actually having completed the record that I transpose onto the record's contents itself. I'm definitely no recluse, and anyone who knows me personally knows that I'm very talkative and am quite a cheerful person in general. I guess, however, that what we express through art is slightly different from who we are as people, so it's quite likely that what comes across from the record is from my more "reflective" side, the one that loves contemplating the natural world and animals, and that wonders how one can try to do certain things right in life when so many things sometime seem to be adverse to us.

The songs were already completely composed when I recorded them, so I don't think that recording them at night actually had an influence on the contents, but where it did have an influence on me (and perhaps it can be felt in the interpretation as recorded) was the intensity of having to record that way, with very few hours at my disposal. As I went to my makeshift studio (the former olive shop), I was already praying that there would be no noise so I could record as much as possible, and when silence did happen, it felt almost miraculous, and really intimate. The weather was absolutely dreadful during the two months of recording, so much so that the noise from the rain was a problem too, and it participated to this strange mood of "I'm doing something which neither the noisy town nor the weather want me to do, but I've waited so long for this that I'm going to do it, no matter what!"

The title, The Weighing of the Heart seems partly to me to relate to a sense of balance in the music, of surprise (like the organ, or the occasional effects) without excess. I understand it's from The Egyptian Book of the Dead, but what meaning did it take on for you to want to have it as the title of the album?

CS: I hadn't thought of it that way at all and I really like your interpretation of the title. It's definitely a reference to the Egyptian Book of the Dead, but indeed for me it has a more global meaning. In 2012 several personal trials came my way, and I actually could see myself trying to do the right thing every time, with lots of difficulty - since by definition life is complex, and even with the best intentions we sometimes end up feeling like there's no real answer to the unhappy events life throws at us. So I fell in love with this image of the ceremony of the weighing of the heart – the idea that your heart should be as light as the feather of truth, that somehow it does matter that you do try to do the right thing, and so it seemed fitting to make this the symbol of the entire album.

Colleen's Weighing Of The Heart is out now on Second Language Music. She plays at London's Cafe Oto on 8th June - for more information on the gig and to win tickets, click here.

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