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Escape Velocity

Language Defines Who You Are: An Interview With Charlotte Adigéry
Adam Quarshie , March 14th, 2019 11:40

A week ahead of two gigs in London and an appearance at Out The Frame festival in Ghent, Adam Quarshie caught up with Charlotte Adigéry to discuss ASMR videos, singing in multiple languages and the politics of hair

When Charlotte Adigéry’s first few tracks started appearing under the Wwwater moniker, it was immediately clear that a slightly devious imagination was at work. In the video for the track ‘Screen’ - a satire about the narcissism and pathology underlying our smartphone and social media use - she sits in a bathtub, drooling, while she scrolls endlessly on her phone.

Self-identifying as a storyteller more than as a singer, the Ghent-based artist’s songs err towards the ever-so-slightly warped, touching on fetishes and her obsession with synthetic wigs, among other things. But she started out more conventionally. She began her musical career at 18, singing backing vocals in various bands, some of which, she wryly notes, were “rather big in Belgium”. At 21, after enrolling in a music course in the town of Hasselt, she began experimenting with making tracks by herself, using Logic and the infinite sample library offered up by YouTube.

Her recently released EP Zandoli, written under her own name, is a more personal work. The result of a collaboration with producer Bolis Pupul, who crafted its chunky synth lines and squelchy beats, Zandoli came out of conversations about identity and heritage: Adigéry was born in France to parents from Martinique and Guadeloupe, while Pupul’s family are descendants of Chinese migrants to Martinique. The EP is in part an exploration of what it means to be a woman of Caribbean heritage growing up in Belgium - a country which she feels has never fully acknowledged its colonial past. But it still remains as mischievous as her previous work.

When I call her up over FaceTime, a week ahead of two shows in London and her appearance at Out The Frame festival in Belgium, Adigéry is in a warm and ebullient mood. She’s surrounded by synths and drum machines in the DeeWee studio, which is owned by friends and collaborators Stephen and David Dewaele, better known as 2manydjs. We talk about storytelling and language, the weird world of ASMR videos, Caribbean rhythms, and the politics of hair.

When did you first get into making music? Have you always been a singer?

Charlotte Adigéry: As a child I always sang with my mum. We spent so much time singing together. And dancing! It was more of a playful thing, and it still is. But there was this moment I decided I wanted to build some kind of career out of it.

Could you talk a bit about how you go about putting a track together?

CA: I have two projects, so I have two opportunities to explore how I make music and tell stories. With Wwwater, it started off as just me working in my little studio, not setting any intentions. It was the first time I did something like that - making music all by myself. I would browse through YouTube and choose interesting samples of people talking, or ASMR samples.

What drew you to ASMR videos in particular?

CA: The internet is a tool to enter different worlds. No matter how weird your interests, everyone can find a community to belong to, thanks to the internet. Now, everybody knows about ASMR, but four years ago it was really new. I was so shocked - how is this creepy woman just rubbing her hands against a mic? How can you get a following from that? I still can’t really bear listening to a whole ASMR session but I was fascinated and captivated by it. So I thought - let’s make a tune out of it. I don’t play it any more but it was really fun to do.

You said you think of yourself as more of a storyteller and I was wondering how you choose the kinds of stories you tell. The track ‘B B C ’ has a slightly subversive angle to it, shall we say? What inspired that track?

CA: I think what artists or musicians do is absorb situations and then use them afterwards in their art. I do that a lot: I observe and absorb like a sponge. With ‘B B C’ I never consciously decided to write a song about sex tourism. Bolis made a demo, and we used this drum machine which had a tacky preset which sounded like a cha-cha. I had this vision of a hotel back in the 80s: older women, too much make-up on, trying really hard to seduce men. I don’t know where that came from!

In Ghent, is there a supportive group of people around you?

CA: The Deewee studio has been a second home to me. If you’ve been working late you can sleep here. And There’s a lot of people I grew up with, like the guys from Asa Moto, who’ve also released two EPs on the DeeWee label. I went to school with one of them, so everyone’s related and everybody supports each other.

But if you’re a smart musician, you don’t focus on Belgium, you focus on the rest of the world and then you know eventually, Belgium will catch up.

What’s Ghent like as a place?

CA: It’s starting to get more and more diverse. But there’s not a lot of awareness [of issues of race] in Belgium. If I say ‘I’m from Martinique’, they don’t know. They say, ‘where are you from in Africa?’. And I say, ‘I’m not from Africa’. My ancestors are from Africa and I’m proud of it. But you wouldn’t say to an African-American that he’s African. He’s African-American, for obvious reasons.

I realised not long ago: Belgium never apologised for the horrors of Leopold in the Congo. So people aren’t really aware of what happened. They don’t talk about it in school either. And the fact that these apologies never really happened, you feel this sense of, ‘If I say something racist, it’s just a joke’. When I go to London, I feel at ease, because I don’t have to defend who I am or explain my curls or my wig. It’s just me.

I wanted to ask about your choice of languages on the album. Your parents were born in the Caribbean, you were born in France and grew up in Belgium. But on the EP you sing in English and partly in Creole…

CA: I have this love-hate connection with singing in English. Sometimes I feel like a hypocrite because it’s not my first language: I learnt it through MTV and watching movies. But if you want to address a lot of people, it’s the easiest way to do so. My first language is Dutch. It’s not a very sexy language to sing in. Not a lot of artists succeed doing that.

Then there’s the fact that I was brought up in French. I wanted to explore all the elements that make me who I am. Language is the means to describe what’s in your head, and when I speak in Creole, it’s another part of me.

I also wanted to ask about the EP cover - with the barbershop sign. You see those signs all over Africa and the Caribbean. What was it that drew you to that image?

CA: Bolis and I spend a lot of time talking about our feelings and how we were brought up. The subject of heritage was something we spoke a lot about and I decided to explore it through the EP. The world of hair is something that really fascinates me and makes me happy. I love wearing wigs. Visually, those barbershop signs are something I’ve always loved. They’re so beautiful. Full of humour as well.

What does the word Zandoli mean?

CA: It’s a lizard that lives all over the Caribbean. ‘Paténipat’ - one of the songs on the EP - speaks about this. Zandoli paténipat - that sentence is a way to describe a Caribbean rhythm. In Martinique there’s a genre called Gwo Ka, which is a percussion-based music. To keep track of all the rhythm patterns, they use phrases, mnemonics. So I turned it around, I used the mnemonics to make a song.

The track ‘High Lights’ talks a lot about alter-egos and changing identities. You said you like to wear wigs and to explore yourself through your hair. Could you talk about how the track came about?

CA: It started off as revenge. [A former bandmate] kept terrorising me about the fact that I change my hair a lot. She kept saying ‘you haven’t got any style. If you want to be a successful artist, you you have to pick one style so people will recognise you’.

And it really got to me: every time I did something with my hair I was scared of her reaction. In Belgium, I always feel different. You don’t really want to stand out because you already stand out, as a black person. And I realised that a lot of black women relate to it: there’s a lot of that going on, being touched all the time, hearing those comments. So I think my song is relevant.

Was performing something that you were always comfortable with?

CA: When I started playing with Wwwater, I was completely alone at the front of the stage - it was intimidating in the beginning. But I try to stay as unselfconscious about myself as possible. So I didn’t really think about it.

Then I realised I wanted to completely pour my heart out. I decided to get more loose on stage: to be unafraid of being ugly or screaming. So I got less scared. I also decided I would just be myself on stage, because then I wouldn’t regret anything I said. If it was this role I was playing and I said something stupid, I would feel more stupid. But it’s just me. So take me as I am.

You can catch Charlotte Adigéry at Sebright Arms in Bethnal Green on 18 March and at the Scala on 19 March. She’s also playing at Out The Frame in Ghent on 23 March