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Escape Velocity

Promiscuous Like Married Men: The Unreserved World Of Tristan
Rob Hakimian , March 11th, 2020 09:26

Rob Hakimian speaks to Isolde van den Bulcke, the Flemish musician releasing extroverted art-pop music under the name Tristan ahead of her live set at Out The Frame festival

Portrait by Caro De Raedemaeker

“Here in Belgium there is a feeling that you have to act normal, because we’re very reserved and we don’t like it if people are extravagant,” Flemish songwriter Isolde van den Bulcke believes. “It’s very tiring, because you can’t shout or anything because people will look at you very strangely.”

This is something Isolde has been trying to subvert her whole life, continually finding new ways to express her extroverted personality through her shapeshifting music, which she releases as Tristan.

This choice of moniker is a nod toward the opera Tristan & Isolde: “I love the story, it’s heartbreaking but it’s also very inspiring. It’s such a dramatic piece, which I can embody in my project.” On top of that, it’s poking back at people who used to tease her as a child: “Everybody was asking me for fun, ‘Did you find your Tristan?’, and I was fed up with the questions, so I thought I can make my own Tristan.” Thus, the name for her musical passion became clear.

Currently, Isolde is in her post-graduate studies in jazz at the Royal Conservatory of Brussels, though she has ambitions beyond that enshrined field. “I was 17 when I started studying jazz and sometimes I think it’s difficult to understand such music at such a young age,” she explains.

She’s now in her sixth year of studying the musical form, but in recent years she’s found herself breaking out of that mould to try and create music that reflects her broad musical appetite. Across her two EPs’ worth of material released as Tristan we can hear an artist who oozes intelligence and self-possession, with the musical style shifting from atmospheric to sensuous to audacious, depending where her mood takes her.

In order to do this, Isolde taught herself to compose and produce in Ableton, which has meant that her music has become more expressive – and it allows her to burrow deeper into her feelings. “Now I write way more about my personal life. In the beginning I wanted it to be less personal because it was too heavy in a way, but now I feel as if it’s therapy.” Although it’s not always clear even to herself what she’s expressing: “It’s strange, but sometimes I start analysing myself after I’ve written the work – that’s when I try to understand myself.”

One of the ways in which she puts her unique mind on display is the way that she titles her songs and EPs. English speakers might dismiss song titles like ‘Maljaande’ and EP names like Delidomia for the dint of being “foreign”, but in fact these are entirely made up words. “It’s this idea I have that if you take one word it becomes so heavy, what this word represents. When I write something in Ableton, even if I don’t have any lyrics yet, I just type a word that I would say represents the atmosphere of the song, and this word also becomes something that has its own universe.”

Tristan’s new single ‘Lesthic’ is a perfect example of this: “I think it’s some kind of symbiosis of ‘lust’ and ‘aesthetics’,” the artist says, unsure even herself. Once again this title was dictated by the feeling of the song, which cuts almost entirely away from the smoother, lounge-pop ambience of her EPs, into a realm of bass-heavy pop. “I was just scrolling through some old ideas and then I started working on it and making it very aggressive,” she explains. “I was listening to a lot of Death Grips at the time, so maybe that explains the completely opposite way of approaching drums.”

This atmosphere also provoked Tristan into making ‘Lesthic’ her most lyrically bold song to date: “It’s about the emancipation of the sexuality of women,” she explains. She had been watching interviews with Madonna from the 80s: “She really talks about how people don’t take women seriously when they talk about their sexuality, and that’s very, very interesting to me. So it’s about that, and also the relationship between two people and the forbidden fruit.” In an unwavering voice she explores this idea through ‘Lesthic’, belting out in the chorus that she wants to be “promiscuous like married men”.

To create the striking Handmaid’s Tale-inspired video for ‘Lesthic’ she was approached by filmmaker Maya Mees. “We’d never met before, but she messaged me and was like, ‘I have a girl crush on you, I want to work with you, I want to help you visually’.”

Mees turned out to be the perfect creative director to work with Tristan: “She is amazing and understands me visually. She just looks at various people's Instagram and asks several questions and then she makes this visual Bible. When I saw it I was like, ‘Oh my god, she understands me completely’,” Tristan admits. “It was a bit scary to see that people can read you so easily. It was a very strange feeling, but I’ll definitely be working with her again.”

Isolde has her sights set on creating her debut album, and she currently has about seven songs and 20 demos in her locker, but she has to juggle Tristan with her jazz studies until she finishes next summer. “I’m looking forward to graduating because I just want to be writing all the time. I just want to wake up and be able to write, write, write, instead of thinking ‘Oh no, I have to transcribe a solo’.”

She will have months of free time to work on her music during the summer break, but she’s not desperate to force herself to finish the album. “I don’t feel like I need to put deadlines on it. I really want to take my time, I don’t want to rush things, because you only once get a debut and I don’t want to fuck it up.”

Isolde admits that her music is very influenced by what she’s listening to, which at the moment includes young pop singer Erika de Casier, Kate Bush’s classic The Hounds Of Love, and Oneohtrix Point Never’s KEXP Session. It’s a diverse mix that suggests an adventurous and wide-ranging debut album is on the cards, but she’s reticent to get over excited: “I don’t want to dream of things that are unreachable. I don’t get why people do that, because they only get disappointed. I hate disappointment. So my goals are quite low: I just want people to like the music or to be able to reach people that might like my music, that’s the only goal I have right now.”

Tristan appears live at Out The Frame festival Saturday 21 March