FRACTURED AIR

The universe is making music all the time

Chosen One: Colleen

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Interview with Cécile Schott, Colleen.

“…for this album there would be a general theme of trying to speak about the human brain, the mind and basically things that connect us all; these inner struggles, inner demons – if you want to call them that – and just, in general, the inner human life is so rich and complex and also it’s just impossible to really understand it and that’s what is really fascinating.”

—Cécile Schott

Words: Mark Carry, Artwork: Craig Carry

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The Paris-born musician Cécile Schott has been making music as Colleen for over a decade now: beginning with a string of much-loved records for The Leaf Label (debut 2003 album ‘Everyone Alive Wants Answers’, 2005’s ‘The Golden Morning Breaks’ and 2007’s ‘Les Ondes Silencieuses’, as well as 2006’s ‘Colleen Et Les Boîtes À Musique’, (an E.P. originally created for Atelier de Création Radiophonique as a commission from France Culture). After a four-year break, Colleen made her long-awaited return to music in 2013 with the release of her album ‘The Weighing Of The Heart’ via London-based label Second Language, its eleven songs featuring, for the first time, Schott’s own voice as well as a new-found love for Jamaican music and rhythm. Colleen’s hugely anticipated fifth studio album ‘Captain Of None’ has just been released by Chicago-based label Thrill Jockey Records, representing the crowning jewel of Schott’s treasured works of art thus far.

The first glimpses of the San Sebastian-based artist’s new material came during 2013’s ‘The Weighing Of The Heart’ tour, in the form of the shape-shifting creations: ‘Captain Of None’, ‘I’m Kin’ and ‘Lighthouse’. The scintillating dub-infused rhythms interwoven with Schott’s mesmerising voice is a pure joy to behold as vast seas of tender beauty ascend into the human space. I was fortunate to witness Colleen’s live performance on two separate occasions during 2013 – Dublin’s Unitarian Church during the early summer and Cork’s Triskel Christchurch in early November – that were dotted with an endless array of utterly transcendent moments created in Schott’s own little corner of the world.

The hypnotic notes of Schott’s trusted treble viola da gamba (a baroque instrument with gut strings) formed the foundation to ‘The Weighing Of The Heart’s sonic trajectory – in accordance with Schott’s use of vocals for the very first time – that would be further explored on ‘Captain Of None’ to wondrous effect. Unlike ‘The Weighing Of The Heart’ – which incorporated a wide palette of instrumentation (for instance, the use of organ on ‘Humming Fields’ or clarinet on ‘Moonlit Sky’) ‘Captain Of None’ limits the instrumentation to Schott’s voice and treble viola da gamba (with the exception on the melodica-led, Augustus Pabo-inspired ‘Salina Stars’). The album’s eight sublime creations further evolve, transform and ceaselessly mutate due to the compelling production ideas and wholly unique artistic vision of Schott, who creates, in turn, a sonic marvel of a record. Inspired by Jamaican music, the dub-inspired techniques (basslines provided by a Moogerfooger delay pedal) utilized throughout ‘Captain Of None’ transports the listener to the further reaches of one’s mind: a lost labyrinth of time.

In Lloyd Bradley’s comprehensive history of Jamaican music, ‘Bass Culture’, one particular chapter describes Lee Perry’s Black Ark Studio (Schott’s own San Sebastian-based studio has been lovingly dubbed the White Ark). Leroy Sibbles describes Perry as “an explorer going into the future of the music” and I feel those very words epitomises both the ambitious scope of ‘Captain of None’ and the breath-taking inventiveness of its author.

“The naked eye can’t see these things” sings Schott on ‘Captain Of None’s penultimate tour-de-force, ‘Eclipse’, it perhaps best describes the lyrical viewpoint of Schott since she commenced adding voice to her compositions on 2013’s ‘The Weighing Of The Heart’, where both realms of the real and the imagined are simultaneously traversed and explored (in a similar vein to Liz Harris’s Grouper guise or Sibylle Baier’s beloved ‘Colour Green’, for instance).

Like a beacon of the night, ‘Captain Of None’ reveals a sense of the vulnerable and the fragile (as well as a sense of the deeply personal) which quietly lie side-by-side with the brave and the permanent. All the while to the pulse of a beautiful, beating heart.

colleen-captain-of-none-artwork-by-iker-spozio-300x300

‘Captain Of None’ is available now on Thrill Jockey Records.

http://colleenplays.org/
https://www.facebook.com/colleenplays
http://www.thrilljockey.com/

colleen_collage_craigcarry_web

Interview with Cécile Schott, Colleen.

Congratulations, Cécile, on the incredible new album ‘Captain of None’, it is very special.

Cécile Schott: Thank you.

First of all, it’s great to see the songs you performed on ‘The Weighing Of The Heart’ tour – the likes of ‘Captain Of None’, ‘Lighthouse’ and ‘I’m Kin’ – present on the new album and to hear how they have evolved over the past year or so.

CS: Yes, it’s true. It’s actually one of the first albums I’ve done where most of the songs – well, half of the songs on the album – were born as live songs as I was basically preparing the live show for ‘The Weighing Of The Heart’. What happens usually when I rehearse is of course I am rehearsing specific songs but there is always a point when, for instance, your hand strikes another chord or maybe you just sing something to yourself and all of a sudden you realize that you have the seed for a new song. And basically the first song that was born that way was ‘Lighthouse’. When I was rehearsing for ‘The Weighing Of The Heart’ live shows in 2013 and then the following summer, ‘Captain Of None’ and ‘I’m Kin’ evolved really rapidly as I was rehearsing in my studio, playing around with ideas. So it’s true it’s the first time I’ve been able to play a couple of songs from a forthcoming album before the album is released, basically. It was actually really nice at the moment of recording, I had the body of these three songs and then I was able to give them further clothes by adding little production ideas and having a more complex sound. It’s obviously easier to have a more complex and interesting sound when you are recording because you have more tools at your disposal.

That’s exactly one of the aspects that makes ‘Captain Of None’ such a compelling journey: it is the instrumentation itself and all the different layers. I think too it’s the studio set-up that you have – which you have dubbed ‘The White Ark’ in reference to Lee Perry’s ‘Black Ark’ – I would love for you to discuss the various techniques because it’s obviously an album with so many ideas where there is so many elements happening in the music.

CS: Thank you. Well basically the album is both very cohesive in the sense that there is only one stringed instrument – that’s the treble viola da gamba – and then there’s the voice and these are the two main instruments. On ‘The Weighing Of The Heart’ there was treble viola da gamba, bass viola da gamba, acoustic guitar, clarinet, piano, organ, toy gamelan (basically a miniature version of a gamelan), frame drum, floor tom and other bits of percussion, and of course my voice, so it was very varied.

With this album I knew I was going to do something different because I really fell in love with the sound of the treble viola da gamba. Basically, what happened was, when I was making ‘The Weighing Of The Heart’, there was a moment when I took the treble viola – and I hadn’t recorded with it yet – and then I changed its tuning and that’s how I first made the song ‘Geometría del Universo’ and then I made a couple of other songs like ‘The Weighing Of The Heart’ and ‘Raven’ with it. And at that moment I knew I was really onto something because I think it’s a very, very specific sound and it led me to a way of playing that was different. So I knew from that moment that the subsequent album would be mainly focusing on this and on the voice.

Also, at the time of recording ‘The Weighing Of The Heart’, I was listening with Iker [Spozio] to a lot of Jamaican music and I felt so inspired by it that I also thought that ‘The Weighing Of The Heart’ was a very prepared album – in a way it’s a very controlled album in the sense that it was my comeback album, I was trying the voice which was obviously a big, big challenge for me and I was quite worried whether or not I could pull it off – and so I had to control many parameters on ‘The Weighing Of The Heart’ and I think after that I needed to make an album where I could feel free – free to play, free to experiment – so from then on, I knew the album would have a kind of restricted palette of instruments but that it would be counter-balanced with my approach to producing it. And you know that’s where the Jamaican influence comes in big time even though it’s true it doesn’t sound like Jamaican music as such because obviously the instruments are different – my voice is nothing like a Jamaican singer’s voice – the point is not to even imitate the Jamaican music that I am so fond of but rather to take my inspiration from production ideas and the idea of experimenting, of playing with sound and seeing how far that can take you in terms of constructing songs, basically.

The quality of the overall sound as well where there is a very warm and organic sound from the instrumentation you use but I love too how like you mention with ‘The Weighing Of The Heart’, on one level the songs are quite longer in the sense that there are extensive closing sections to many of the songs. 

CS: I can talk a bit more about certain things in my set-up that have really led to the sonic identity of the album. For instance, and that’s one of the things I love about trying to develop as a musician, is that sometimes you feel that you want to do something but maybe you haven’t got the right piece of gear to do it – you know, for instance I’m not at all someone who buys lots of gear, it’s something I don’t do. At one point I had a tendency to collect instruments but now I really stopped doing that. But sometimes it’s true that acquiring a new piece of equipment can really make a big difference. I think for this album, two things happened: First, I wanted to have some basslines in my music so I researched what is called Octaver pedals on the internet and I ended up buying one. An Octaver pedal adds another octave below the original sound you are playing, so it gives you a bass sound but with the original sound still present. When I got it and started playing with it, it was like: “Oh I just can’t believe how good this is!” It was giving me a bass sound that was way better than anything I could have hoped for especially because the treble viola in itself doesn’t really have any bass. So the first big change was that I started to think in terms of basslines.

And the second big gear acquisition [laughs] was the Moogerfooger pedal. I basically got this pedal after seeing the Moogerfooger pedals in a video by American musician King Britt and I thought: “wow, these pedals look really cool” so I started to look at demo videos on the internet and I thought: “wow, this looks like something really different”. I already had lots of delay pedals but they weren’t analog pedals, just digital pedals doing emulations of analog delay. So I got one of them and you know again it was a case of not being able to believe the things that it was doing to the sound; it was completely different to everything I had in my array of pedals. So that was the second thing that started to enable different sounds to come into play on the album. And the thing about the Moogerfooger is it’s a pedal that you really have to use as if you were playing live. Basically, I was recording something and I was turning the dials on the pedals or maybe I recorded something beforehand and afterwards I would run the sound that I had recorded through the pedal and I would touch the various parameters that you have on the pedal.

For instance, a song like ‘Holding Horses’, the song is really – apart from the bassline – completely connected with the use of the Moogerfooger; all the different sounds – changes in the sounds you hear – it’s all through the Moogerfooger. Also, a song like ‘Salina Stars’, the melodica goes through the Moogerfooger and it’s what really gives those sounds and likewise for ‘Eclipse’, the voice goes through the Moogerfooger and so that was a really good moment of buying something and seeing that it’s taking you into whole new places in terms of sound, which in turn takes you to a different way of making music.

One of the first things that comes to mind is that the album feels like a live performance in the way that it takes you to the live show itself. In terms of the lyrics, I love how, for example ‘I’m Kin’, I love the beautiful imagery that is drawn from the song itself.

CS: I am a very curious person and I have an interest in so many things and one of those interests is trying to see how humans are connected across the ages, across geographical spaces and how we are connected to animals and just, in general, to the natural world that’s around us. So, I think with ‘I’m Kin’ I was trying to express this feeling of connection to other past ancient cultures including cultures that have completely vanished. I can tell you specifically for instance that the “golden ram from Iraq” is a reference to a statue that’s in the British museum; it’s a statue of a ram, it’s usually called the ‘Ram in a Thicket’ – it’s what it’s officially called, if I remember well – and I remember the first time I saw it, I was thinking wow, this is from the same place that now we only hear about because of the war in Iraq and you know this is like a birthplace and cradle of civilisation which was incredibly important to the development of the arts and so I thought that was quite interesting.

And then, afterwards, basically the song takes you from, first, it’s the connection to past civilisations and then it’s the connection to the animals; so in ‘The Odyssey’, Argos is the dog of Odysseus and when Odysseus comes back from his long journey, no one recognises him because he’s changed so much and there’s only his dog that recognises him. I remember when I read ‘The Odyssey’ I thought that was such a moving passage, I thought that there is no better example of that connection between a dog and his master. And also the next sentence of “the greyhounds hanging from the trees” – I don’t know if you’re going to understand this reference [laughs] – it’s basically a reference to the Spanish greyhounds that are used by hunters and unfortunately the hunters, once their dogs are not useful anymore for hunting or if they’re considered bad hunting dogs, they’re basically left to die in horrible conditions; they’re even tortured. It just meant a lot to say that I felt connected to the fate of the poor animal like that and then it moves onto the elements like “the rocks and the water” and when you tread on something there is this whole hidden world – insects and life underneath – like the song goes from something that is concrete and human to the world of elements and of the tiny, basically.

Again, I think the lyrics are so poignant; they feel almost like parables as you listen to the different songs. 

CS: I think there are various ways of writing lyrics. For instance, I really admire people who can write lyrics that have a narrative content so, for instance, I think a real master of that kind of lyric writing is Townes Van Zandt. When you listen to a Townes Van Zandt song it’s almost like hearing a short story and it works so well and if you had to sum up the contents of his songs they would sound really, maybe cliché but his gift for narrative writing which obviously is infused with a lot of poetry is really, really strong. Or someone like Stina Nordenstam who I think has some songs that really have this sense of mysterious narrative and, unfortunately, I don’t think I am one of those kind of lyric writers. Also, I think I’m very much at the beginning of writing lyrics, you know in total I’ve written very few lyrics but I knew that for this album there would be a general theme of trying to speak about the human brain, the mind and basically things that connect us all; these inner struggles, inner demons if you want to call them that and just in general the inner human life is so rich and complex and also it’s just impossible to really understand it and that’s what is really fascinating. For instance, a song like ‘Captain Of None’ is really about that but the thing is the way I was writing the lyrics I was really trying to stay away from clichés and so when you say a parable, it’s not necessarily that I want the lyrics to be hard to understand and I don’t think that they are but it’s trying to write them in a way that hopefully will resonate with every listener and maybe every listener, when listening to the lyrics, will take something from it and maybe interpret it in his or her own way.

Staying with the song ‘Captain Of None’, I love how both the title-track of this album and ‘The Weighing Of The Heart’, I think it works so beautifully that each song closes the album as well.

CS: Yeah, yeah I like the idea of maybe keeping the most important thing for the end in a way.

If one lyric comes to mind that sums up nearly the feel of the album would be the lyric “I got lost inside a dream”, it encapsulates the journey as a whole. 

CS: The song is about losing touch with reality and not recognizing or understanding yourself – trying to find rest yet being unable to do so – hence the feeling of getting lost in a kind of parallel reality (a “dream”) which leaves you feeling “Captain of none and nothing”.

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When you listen to the new record too you feel there is a trajectory going back to even your first album and the music boxes; there are textures and nuances present that makes you feel shades of your previous material is somehow embedded in there as well.

CS: Yeah, it’s funny I’m actually quite happy about that because, on the one hand, I’ve never made an album like this one but on the other hand it’s true that some aspects of it go back to the first album and in a way that’s quite nice. I think maybe at one point – I’ve never rejected what I’ve done in the past – but I remember when I was making ‘Les Ondes Silencieuses’ I really wanted to be able to play without looping because I was thinking “Oh ok, everyone uses loopers, it’s boring; to be a real musician I need to be able to play without any background looping” so I had these kind of ideas in my head and you know I think as an artist, you do go through various phases and it’s interesting how if you let a few years pass you can change your mind completely. Well, I’ve gone back to my initial love of sampling and looping and I think that’s completely fine and also I think one of the effects of Jamaican music is that in a way Jamaican music and especially the dub productions, they really pre-date so much of the music from the end of the electronica and all subsequent electronic music. And one of the things about Jamaican music is that it’s often very basic in terms of the melodic unit: it can be the same chord for five minutes and when I realized that I was never disturbed by that, I thought well it just goes to show that it’s not about whether something is looped or sampled, if it’s a great melodic unit then yeah, it can last for ten minutes for all I know, so I was really glad to be able to just work without any preconceptions of what I should do. And I still really like that first album [‘Everyone Alive Wants Answers’] so I’m glad I was somehow able to make the circle form itself.

And what is also wonderful are the sublime instrumental cuts. I know you’ve already mentioned ‘Salina Stars’ and I love how it brings you to the likes of Augustus Pablo and the like.

CS: Absolutely. Augustus Pablo was my reference point to the song, it was almost like a little homage. It’s funny because first I thought I wasn’t going to use the melodica because I thought well that is going to sound sub-par compared to Augustus Pablo’s melodic genius but then I took it out of its case and I hadn’t touched it in years and years and then all of a sudden the song was born. And yeah I’m really glad because I think it adds variety to the album’s sound as well. Before, I said the album is only treble viola but it’s not completely true, there is also the melodica.

Actually another thing, Cécile, I didn’t realize it until recently but if you’d like to talk about first noticing the viola da gamba itself, I think it was in a French film?

CS: I think I was about fifteen when on French TV they showed ‘Tous les Matins du Monde’ by Alain Corneau. I remember watching it and just falling in love with the sound of the viola da gamba. At the time, I think maybe I had just started to play the guitar possibly, but anyway it seemed like something that you would think about but it’s never going to be for you because I don’t have a classical education. At the time I couldn’t read notes on the score and also the viola da gamba is a very expensive instrument; it’s very rare. I mean, you can find a cello quite easily but to obtain a viola da gamba is like a whole different process. So that basically stayed at the back of my mind and later on, when I took up the cello, that kind of went into the foreground a little bit until, in 2005, when I made the decision to order a viola and then so afterwards I had to wait for nine months for the viola maker to make it and then I got it in early 2006. But the treble viola da gamba, I only got it in 2009 and the interesting thing is I just wasn’t using it. I got it precisely at the moment when I went through my blank period of not feeling like making music. But afterwards, when I went back to making music, it wasn’t the easiest instrument to go to because I hadn’t really played it. So, I thought: oh, I’ve ordered the viola and it’s cost me money and it’s just lying there and I haven’t even used it until I had this revelation when I was making ‘The Weighing Of The Heart’ and I changed the tuning and so that’s the short story about the viola [laughs].

Another thing is how fantastic it is that you have your proper studio set-up – which is really like for the first time – and no longer having difficulties of only recording at night, for example with ‘The Weighing Of The Heart’? So this time for once you had your proper space.

CS: Well I have to say this album has been such a joy to make. All of my previous albums, there’s always been a challenge of some sort. If I think of the second album [‘Golden Morning Breaks’] it was the first time I was recording with real instruments and I had the so-called second album pressure on and the third album ‘Les Ondes Silencieuses’ that was a really hard one to pull off because I was going for a more minimal sound with the big viola da gamba and for that you need really good microphones, you need quite a good recording technique, so in the end I got the help of my mastering engineer at the time, Emiliano Flores: he’s also a sound engineer so thankfully he helped me to record it. But it was recorded in two weeks in an attic at his parents’ place and then I did some of the additional recording at home but it was far from ideal and kind of rushed. For ‘The Weighing Of The Heart’, I had the studio but the studio had these terrible doors and windows; you could hear the sound of cars and from people coming by so I had to record the album partly in our flat here and partly in the studio at night. It was just insane and I would be so tired; it is just not good for you to work that way and it’s also quite stressful. One of my aims with this album was: “Ok, this time I’m really going to take my time and just do things well” and I was able to do it thanks to the renovation of the doors and windows of the studio that happened in late 2013. Honestly, it was amazing to go there at a normal time like 3 in the afternoon and just spend the whole afternoon until 8 in the evening recording and there is no noise and there’s light coming through the doors, it was just great you know [laughs]. My first pain-free recording, basically.

At the start of your last tour you had some new songs, I wonder do you have sketches of new songs in your head at the moment or is it too soon?

CS: I have very, very small things but to be honest I’m just concentrating on learning how to perform all the songs from the album – well seven from the eight songs on the album – I’m learning to perform them live because the thing is some of them are really easy because they already existed before the album was recorded; ‘Captain Of None’, ‘I’m Kin’ and ‘Lighthouse’ – these were pretty easy – but the other ones were made in the studio and the thing about using delays is that delay works differently in a studio setting and in a live setting: in the studio it was going into the computer and you’re basically using headphones but then it’s a different bag of tricks when you’re playing through a PA system because then the delay doesn’t react the same way. So I’m having to learn how to change the settings of the delays from how I’ve had them for the recording. And also I have to learn how to perform the songs in one go because obviously on the album, with the luxury of recording, you can always touch up on mistakes and do twenty takes if you need to. So right now I’m mostly concentrating on just that and I have a faint idea of what the next album might be like but I also think I shouldn’t rush.

I love ‘Lighthouse’ which is one of the older songs off the new album. I suppose it shows the inspiration you draw from your surroundings in San Sebastian?

CS: Absolutely. I think in a way ‘Lighthouse’ is a bit different from the rest of the album because I think it’s the only one that doesn’t really fit the thematic unit of the rest of the album because it was made much earlier. The thing is ever since I moved here I’ve always had the idea of having at least one song that would pay homage to the beauty of the landscape here, the soothing quality of it and the magical quality of living by the sea because, in a way, I’m used to it now but I think it’s when I see something like a lighthouse, I don’t know maybe it’s the human element within the landscape of the sea, the flashing lights; there’s something about lighthouses that are very poetic. For instance, I always have this fantasy of one day being able to record an entire album in a lighthouse and at some point it would be something I’d love to do. Also in a way I think the lighthouse flashes, they also have enormous musical qualities – I don’t know if that really makes sense – there is something like a pulse that really speaks to me and you’ve seen this lighthouse anyway, it’s always the same emotion of seeing that landscape and definitely as far as living here is concerned, I actually find it very beneficial to be living in a place where there isn’t very much happening because in a way it forces you to look deeper within you and also gives you more time to work on your own stuff. And that’s the way I feel and I’m glad I lived in Paris for many years – and I probably think it was the right place for me at the time – but actually right now I couldn’t go back to a big city. I think it’s really good to be here and have this balance and also this ability sometimes to completely disconnect from city life, and go to a park or go by the river or sea or go to some hills and completely disconnect and I think that is quite important and quite healthy.

I love your story about when you used to visit the local libraries in Paris, which in turn formed your musical education in many ways? It must have been a whole new world of sounds that opened before you?

CS: I think I’m so lucky that I was able to arrive in Paris at the moment I felt like making music again. Basically what happened from the age of nineteen to twenty-three, I gave up for a moment. From about twenty/twenty-one to twenty-three/twenty-four, I wasn’t sure what kind of music I wanted to make and I didn’t have the tools anyway to do something original and I knew that I wanted to do something by myself. I knew that I didn’t want it to be guitar driven – and I was only playing the guitar at the time – and I think arriving in Paris at that time and having free access to all this music at the time when the internet was barely starting, you know that’s like pre-historic times you know for young people reading this now. I think you have to remember that in 1999 there was no way to listen to things that easily and I think it really formed my whole project of making music in a different way through having access to all this different music.

Finally, Cécile, in terms of Jamaican music, what artists would you recommend?

CS: I’d like to suggest the work of the following people; in terms of producers: Lee Perry, King Tubby, Augustus Pablo, Scientist, and the recordings that appear on the Wackies label. For interpreters: the early Tappa Zukie and early Burning Spear are favorites, as well as Noel Ellis, Ras Michael, Stranger Cole, Horace Andy… but it’s just the tip of this huge iceberg of excellent music that is the Jamaican music production from the late 60s to early 80s (the period I love the best, with my year of birth – 1976 – being a particular favourite, but that’s just a coincidence!)

 


 

colleen-captain-of-none-artwork-by-iker-spozio-300x300

‘Captain Of None’ is available now on Thrill Jockey Records.

http://colleenplays.org/
https://www.facebook.com/colleenplays
http://www.thrilljockey.com/

We’re proud to be presenting Colleen (with special guest Caoimhín Ó Raghallaigh) live at Cork Opera House on Sunday 3 May 2015. Tickets are €17.50, available at Cork Opera House Box Office (Emmet Place, Cork City); telephone (+353 21 427 0022) or online HERE.

 

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  1. […] had the pleasure of being interviewed for Fractured Air for an in-depth view of the album, its influences and how it was made. French readers can also find an interview with The […]


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