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Baker's Dozen

A Kind Of Visceral Quality: Jóhann Jóhannsson’s Favourite Records
Karl Smith , October 27th, 2016 10:38

With the imminent release of his score for Arrival, the latest in a now thriving partnership with Denis Villeneuve that will see him take on Blade Runner next year, the Icelandic composer shows traditional reluctance in crafting a list of defining albums and opts instead of 13 works that exemplify a philosophy of minimal gestures with maximum impact


Ces Gens-Là
I have a slight obsession with Jacques Brel. I’ve listened to him for a very long time: I speak French very well and have a special affinity for his lyrics and his songwriting and the theatrical way that he performs. If you’ve seen videos of him, he’s almost like an actor performing a character.

It’s interesting – time and time again in these lists Serge Gainsbourg crops up but Jacques Brel doesn’t get the time of day.

You know, I love Serge Gainsbourg as well – he’s wonderful in his own way. But Jcaques Brel is diferent – he’s another generation: he’s less cool in a way, but he’s written songs that are deeply philosophical – metaphysical. I guess most people in the English-speaking world are familiar with them through Scott Walker adaptations or bizarre things like ‘Seasons in the Sun’, which most people don’t even realise is a Jacques Brel song. Nina Simone did a wonderful version of ‘Ne me quitte pas’ also, and Marc Almond has been a very prolific interpreter of his music as well. And it’s very hard to interpret Jacques Brel – it’s not for everyone and it’s easy to do it very badly.

How did you first come to his music?

Even though I lived in France as a child, I think my way into Jacques Brel was through Marc Almond and his covers of songs like ‘The Lockman’, for example – and Scott Walker at the same time, really. And then I went back to the source: these songs are very different in French than they are in English – they have different connotations. Not to say that they’re better, some of these translations are very good – particularly ‘The Lockman’, for example, which one of the great suicide songs. It’s a really harrowing and very deeply metaphysical and philosophical song, you know? It’s like pure existentialism. A crash course in existentialism in three minutes.

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