Our guest this week is Cécile Schott, who records under the name Colleen. Since the early 2000s, she’s generated soulful electronic and ambient music, utilizing vintage synths, drum machines, music boxes, and acoustic instruments. Her latest is called The Tunnel and the Clearing. It was recorded in Barcelona during the lockdown and followed a long period of illness and heartbreak for Schott. The resulting album is indeed melancholy, but also hopeful and staggeringly beautiful. She joined us from her home studio for a discussion about her discography, the circumstances that led to the new album, the influence of dub and reggae, and how the studio process influences her bold and original work.
Transmissions :: Colleen
Episode soundtrack: Colleen, “Gazing at Taurus” ++ “Hidden in the Current”
Thanks for listening. Transmissions is written, produced, and hosted by Jason Woodbury. Our audio is edited by Andrew Horton. Visual work by Sarah Goldstein and Jonathan Mark Walls. Our executive producer and top of the show announcer is Aquarium Drunkard founder Justin Gage. Tune into his weekly radio program, the long running, long celebrated Aquarium Drunkard Show, every Wednesday on Sirius XMU, channel 35, at 7 PM Pacific time. We hope you enjoy this one. If you enjoy Transmissions, please rate, review, subscribe, and spread the word.
Aquarium Drunkard: All right. Thanks so much for taking the time. I appreciate it.
Cécile Schott: Oh, a pleasure, my pleasure.
AD: In interviews, do you prefer that I call you Cécile or do you like Colleen?
Cécile Schott: Cécile.
AD: Cécile. Okay. Well, thanks so much for taking the time to join us here on Transmissions. It’s a real honor to have you.
Cécile Schott: Thank you. Thank you so much.
AD: There’s a really interesting section of your website where you showcase the studio setup in Barcelona, where you recorded The Tunnel and The Clearing, as well as some of your past studios. Is that where you are now? Are you in your studio?
Cécile Schott: Yes. Exactly. I’m in the studio. Yeah.
AD: Has it changed since you finished this record? Have you been moving things around or working with new gear or?
Cécile Schott: No, not really. I’m just looking around. Actually, I’ve removed some gear because I’m rehearsing for some shows that I have next week in a small gathering here in Barcelona. We’re going to do a celebration of the album release, and so I decided to get rid of the pedals that I’m not using just so that it makes everything clearer and there are few cables to get annoyed about. So, actually, there’s fewer stuff right now. There’s less gear.
AD: Yeah. I’ve been thinking about. It seems to me that your studio space, that the place where you choose to create, it seems awfully important to your process. Is that a fair way to put it that the space itself is integral to…The space and the tools that you use to create each album, do those feel pretty integral to your vision for what each one of these lps is?
Cécile Schott: Yes. Absolutely. I mean, really, I’m at a stage where I really can’t separate the production process from the actual music. I think my first albums were also that way, but then at one point, I guess I became more of an instrumentalist/composer or maybe that’s more how I saw myself, but then I shifted again to really thinking in terms of production. I think with my fifth album, Captain of None, and definitely each album…It’s not that I intentionally set out to change my instruments or my gear for each album, but it just always ends up happening somehow very naturally.
For this album, it’s the first that I’m recording again in a home studio setting because my fourth, fifth, and sixth album were recorded in a separate studio space. So, it wasn’t a real studio, but it was a place I rented, and I transformed it into a studio of some sort, and so now I’m back working at home again, and I’m actually loving it for various reasons, but it’s really working for me, and I actually really like that feeling of working from home.
AD: You started working on the album in 2018. Is that right?
Cécile Schott: Yeah. Yeah. Well, what I thought would be the album, but then in the end, so many things happened in the meantime that, actually, the album as it is released right now, the recording started on the 9th of May 2020. It ended on the 1st of December, and everything that I had done before was scrapped. So, you could say somehow…Yeah?
AD: Why did you end up scrapping the stuff? Was it just it didn’t feel right or it didn’t achieve what you hoped? What were some of the thoughts on why you got rid of that stuff?
Cécile Schott: Well, basically, what happened was in 2018, I had an idea for an album that would be very rhythmic. So, I had both the Elka Drummer One drum machine that summer. I was really excited about it. The Space Echo, I bought it later on. It had been years in my head. My thinking was doing a very joyful, rhythmic-based album, which have been a first for me, but it turns out that I was ill with a chronic health problem that really, really drained my energy. I was basically exhausted for two years, which means that, literally, I couldn’t even work for two or three hours a day, which means in that case that you’re just not making progress on your album.
So, I had these little snippets of music, but it somehow was never materializing into something more accomplished. Then finally, I got better treatment and in March of 2020, I really started to feel like a normal human being again, and I started to have normal energy levels, but then I went through this breakup of my long-term relationship. It was something that I wasn’t expecting.
Basically, I went back to making music immediately, but I could feel straight away that the album was going to be something completely different to what I had in mind because the plan, even though, I mean, in the end, I do have rhythm. I do use the Elka Drummer One, but it became more of a, I don’t know, I think it really sounds cliché to say that it was therapeutic, and that it was a journey in self-recovery or something, but it actually was. The more I was making new music, the more I felt that the music, the embryos for songs that I had previously just did not fit. They became irrelevant, basically.
AD: Yeah, yeah. Well, it is a very rhythmic album. It’s beautiful, by the way. The second I heard it I was very, very excited to ask if you could be on our podcast.
Cécile Schott: Thank you.
AD: It’s gorgeous, and it’s so warm, and it is so rhythmic, but it’s hypnotic and there’s a sadness to it, clearly, but it’s also very beautiful, and it feels like it’s about recreating in a way. There are very interesting reflections about duality on the album. I guess I’m thinking of “Implosion-Explosion.”
Cécile Schott: About what? Sorry.
AD: About “Implosion-Explosion,” the song where there’s a dual thing happening, where you’re singing about imploding and exploding. I think about how very often emotions can come that way, where it feels like two things at once almost. I just wonder. So, your studio is there in Barcelona and you had only been in Barcelona since the end of 2019, right?
Cécile Schott: February 2019, yes. So, I had been here with my ex-partner for about a year, then the pandemic happened. Yes. Then I started to record the album just as the pandemic, I mean, the lockdown was starting to be relaxed here because we were in severe lockdown like you couldn’t go out at all except to go for grocery shopping. You weren’t even allowed to walk or anything, but the album, I started recording it just at the end of that.
AD: Wow. So, not only were you processing a breakup, and not only were you just starting to feel better, but then you had the lockdown at the same time. So, I have to imagine, I shouldn’t say I have to imagine, I should just ask you since you’re kind enough to be here: What was your mood like while you were making this?
Cécile Schott: Oh, my mood? [Laughs] Well, I mean, I don’t want to sound overdramatic, but, I mean, the beginning was just…How can I say that? I don’t even know how to express it. The beginning is just landing on your feet brutally. I had been with my partner for 16 years just to explain that this isn’t like a small breakup. It’s more like a divorce, you could say.
AD: Of course.
Cécile Schott: Also, I knew a grand total of four people in Barcelona because I hadn’t really had the time or the energy to build a network of any sort. Of course, because it was the end of the lockdown, it wasn’t really like you could meet up with people easily. I’m guessing the same has been happening everywhere where I think some people have been reluctant somehow to meet with people that they know or that they have yet to know because it’s been such a weird new way of interacting.
So, things did accumulate in that way, but I was very lucky to be in Barcelona because I already knew I love the city, and in a way, my second therapy in addition to making the album was just going for really long walks and making a point of discovering new areas of the city in Barcelona beyond the touristy cliché that it is, really offers so much to someone who’s ready to open their eyes.
So, I had that in my favor, and in terms of mood, one thing that struck me was that I was unable to listen to music for three months. I tried it a couple of times, but it just felt massively wrong, somehow. I just couldn’t do it. Actually, I started to listen to music again as I was practicing my yoga. I started to listen to Indian classical music, which I had borrowed from, well, partly borrowed from music libraries, but also I used to go to Indian music concerts when I lived in Paris because there was a really good program of concerts at the main Asian arts museum in Paris called Musée Guimet. That was my way back in to music.
Actually, it was interesting because Indian music somehow I felt it had some connections to the electronic stuff that I was doing. It’s hard to explain, but the length of it sometimes, I don’t know, I felt it was the perfect way to go back to listening to music again, and by then, thankfully, August, work really started to pick up on the album. I really got going into a nice routine, and after that, it was much more uplifting.
It was also sometimes very moving because I felt the music I was making and the lyrics, even though they are very few lyrics on the album, sometimes I felt it articulated so much what I was going through that I was almost shocked by it, but at least it gave me the sense that I was making the best of what was a bad situation.
AD: Well, yeah. I mean, as I already mentioned, it’s a wonderful album. So, I mean, it sounds like it was a little bit of a painful thing or it took some pain to get through to it being what it is, but I’m very glad that you did make this because it’s so incredible. You mentioned going for long walks and things like that. There are a couple of lyrical or title references to Taurus, the constellation. Were some of these walks at night? Were you looking at the stars?
Cécile Schott: We’ve had a curfew for a long time. Actually, now, I can’t remember if the curfew was enforced during the summer, but I guess so. Anyway, I wouldn’t really want to go alone at night in Barcelona. So, no. Definitely, it was more early morning walks because the summer is really hot in Barcelona as well. So, trying to get up early and go for a walk at that moment.
Cécile Schott: The Taurus reference is, indeed, more like a stargazing at night when there isn’t too much light pollution.
AD: Yeah, yeah. Well, I’m curious. So, you have already referenced the Elka Drummer One and also on this record, you’ve got the Roland Space Echo, and a Yamaha organ, and some Moog tools as well. You’ve made music. It seems to me like there’s a very specific tool set that you’ll use on an album either music boxes or the viola. How do you pronounce it? Is it viola da gamba?
Cécile Schott: Well, I’m not sure how to answer that because I guess the way English people pronounce it is just the way it’s pronounced in English. In Italian would be viola da gamba. Yeah. I’m not really sure how to. Yeah. In Spanish, viola da gamba. Yeah. I think there’s no special trick to pronouncing it.
AD: Okay. Good. I didn’t butcher it too bad, but this predecessor to the cello. So, it feels like each album centers on a few distinct tools. Similar to the way that spaces are very important for you, it seems to me that the tools that you use to build a record tend to be very important, and that you almost restrict your tool set to just a few elements. I wonder if you could tell me a little bit about what it is about that level of restriction that produces or induces a kind of creativity for you. Is there something about saying, “I’m going to make something using these few elements,” and just really focus on creating something interesting out of say a restricted palate of sounds?
Cécile Schott: Yes. So, you’re totally right. I’ve been operating this way mostly since Captain of None. I really think that album was something special to me because I used so few tools on that album. It was just a treble viola da gamba, an octave pedal to generate bass-lines with the same viola, and then a couple of delay pedals, and a little bit of percussion, melodica on just one track. So, I think that’s it, but to me, I don’t know, on that album I had so much fun that I think it’s set a precedent for the rest.
In terms of the actual rationale behind it, I would say that basically my feeling is that we are overwhelmed with just too much stuff in all areas of our life. Personally, I really suffer from this, and I would say that for the past 12 years, I’ve really been on this journey of making everything in my life more minimal. So, when I say everything, it’s literally, for instance, I make my clothes and the way I make my clothes is that the aim is to have few clothes, but ones that really fit me and that I really love and to not have a closet full of stuff that’s not even good quality.
I’m mentioning this because, basically, I get overwhelmed. I don’t like just too many possibilities. It just brings in anxiety to me. I feel the same way about gear. So, actually, I love using new instruments, but only up to a certain point. It would make me stressed out if all of a sudden if someone gave me, I mean, because I was gifted some instruments in the past couple of years, which was very new to me, and I’m very grateful for it, but I haven’t even had the chance to explore all of them.
I think in terms of electronic instruments, I think the whole point is to explore those instruments in depth and, actually, that takes a lot of time, a lot of dedication, a lot of knowledge. Basically, I feel I’ve barely touched the surface, for instance, with the setup that I used on the last album. I actually think I can use it on at least one or two other albums…
AD: There are still a lot of possibilities that you think you haven’t explored yet.
Cécile Schott: Oh, yeah, yeah, completely. So, it’s basically a way of removing this overflow of possibilities, which humanly you’re never going to get to the bottom of it and just saying, “Here are a few tools and what can I do with them.” Then the other thing to remember as well, especially on this album, because my main sound source is actually the organ, I really made a point of expanding my knowledge of harmony and to make music that was more complex and in different keys, and I made that very intentional for the first time in my life. Again, I think there I’ve barely touched the surface of what I could do. I think it was a nice combination, intending to trying to expand the actual note choice and chord choice and to combine that with the restricted number of parameters.
AD: That’s fascinating. You create by yourself and I wonder if this is too strange of a thing to ask, but I’ll ask it anyway. Do you almost feel like your gear is like a collaborator in a strange way?
Cécile Schott: Well, it’s funny that you’re saying this because distinctly on this album, I feel, for instance, that the Elka Drummer One is a drummer that works with me or a bandmate. Definitely during the making of the album, I really developed a strong affection, for instance, for the Space Echo. I mean, I’m learning now that the Space Echo is a really tricky beast because it’s actually more fragile than I…I mean, it worked like a charm for more than a year, but recently, I had to change the tape and it’s developed some problems, but still, it’s just so alive like hearing the noise, the hiss from the tape, and the fact that the tape starts to deteriorate a little bit the more you work with it.
Actually, I kept the same tape throughout the recording of the album because I thought this is a symbol of how we also get worn down by life, and I felt the tape was actually a perfect reflection of that. So, definitely, I have a lot of affection for the instruments I use, and also even though I’m not a gear fetishist, I have to say that analog gear is a completely different thing to the pedals that I was using before and I think it’s very special that and they’re really well-made acoustic instrument like the way my violas were made. I think they do become partners in creation. Yes.
AD: Yeah. I love that idea because it seems, well, maybe you could tell me a little bit about what is the early process look like when you’re making an album. Is it that you’re playing things and you’re listening for specific sounds that evoke an emotional resonance for you?
Cécile Schott: Yeah. So, usually, it’s like a two-pronged approach. So, on the one hand, well, usually, I’m training to learn the instrument better. So, for instance, I had played the piano a little bit, but I’ve never taken any lessons, and I’m not at all an organ player. So, I had to develop all that.
So, for instance, with the organ, I watch some tutorials. I also dug out my music theory books. I had this music theory book that I bought years ago, and it tells you how to complexify your chords and it teaches you about inversions and things like that. So, I was basically simultaneously practicing the organ and practicing different ways of building chords and things like that, and also going through the gear. So, going through the grandmother synths and seeing what that sounded like. I learned how to find the best settings for the Space Echo and things like that.
So, everything is going on at the same time, always through playing, and now, I always have everything set up to record so that any idea that sounds potentially worth keeping I have that on my computer, and I also have these sheets that represent the instruments, and I write everything down as I go because otherwise, there’s no way you could recreate some … It’s just too complex. So, it’s a bit messy, but it works.
AD: You mentioned that you were preparing for some performances. How often do you finish a project and then say, “Oh, my god! How am I going to bring this into a physical space, into a performative space?” It can be difficult, I’m sure, sometimes, especially when you’re allowing for the kind of spontaneity and the unexpected quality that it sounds like you’re looking for in the studio.
Cécile Schott: Yeah. So, here I guess I should mention that even though improvisation plays a part when I’m making things, what I do is that if I like it, I immediately try to write down what I did so that improvisation can turn into something that I can recreate, especially because, usually, your first idea sometimes it’s great, but there’s almost always a way you can refine it and take it to the next level.
So, actually, it becomes a weird way of, I don’t know how to say that, but almost like composing with your improvisation…a controlled improvisation. So, it’s funny that you’re mentioning if I ask myself those questions of recreating things. In the case of this album, actually, it was literally recorded live. I mean, there’s a couple of takes that I had to paste together, but, basically, everything’s been recorded at the same time except vocals, which were recorded later on.
So, in a way, that album does not present a challenge in the sense of this being impossible to replicate, but I won’t lie. It is hard because it’s a lot of data and it’s a lot of different changes because to overcome the limitation in gear, I do use different settings for almost every song, which is how, hopefully, the songs while sounding united and coherent together in the album, hopefully, they do sound different from each other.
It’s even funnier that you’re asking this right now because, actually, so I haven’t even communicated this yet to anyone, well, to the world, but I’m going to do so, actually. This week, I’ve actually decided to retire from live playing, which is a huge decision for me, and it’s been a hard decision to make, but it’s actually, I mean, for a bunch of reasons, and it’s maybe even too complex to get in to on this podcast, but I have a bunch of reasons for deciding to go on a long break from life playing.
One of them is the complexity of making my music live. I think it’s just … I wouldn’t go as far as saying it’s taking a mental toll on me because that’s not the way it is, but it is a lot of data, and because life is already complex and you have administration going on and promotion, and then you have every day to life that requires your attention. That’s one of the things that’s been really draining my energy to the point where I think if I want to keep making music on albums, which is my priority, then, basically, something has to go so that I can retain my mental and my physical energy. So, in an ideal world, I would be full of the energy and the calm that’s required to go on tour, but the truth is I don’t, and so I’ve decided that this has to be sacrificed.
AD: Yeah. Well, I mean, you mentioned that it wasn’t an easy choice to make because I assume you very much enjoy playing live…
Cécile Schott: Yeah, I do, definitely.
AD: You’ve taken breaks from making music before as well, right?
Cécile Schott: Yeah.
AD: Some periods where you just have decided you’re going to give yourself a little bit of time. Do you find that making that decision freeze something up for you that when you eventually do return to something, you see it in a different way? Is that the way it usually has worked for you?
Cécile Schott: Well, yes. So, the time that I stopped making music and albums for a long time started in 2009. The real break from making music only lasted for maybe about a year, and then I went back to making music, but it took some time to actually make an album. So, there was a six-year gap between, 2007 to 2013, between my third and fourth album. It did enable me to come back, and I think what I’m feeling now is different in a very good way in the sense that in 2009, I was feeling an exhaustion, but also I had arrived at the end of an artistic trajectory with the Les Ondes Silencieuses, which was the album that I made that was very baroque-influenced and very minimal, and because it had been my dream to play that instrument, I think that when I finished it, I was very much thinking, “What next?”
The other thing was I was on very bad terms with the label that released my first albums. I was very, very stressed out and disappointed by that. So, the good thing about my current decision is just retiring from life playing because, actually, I have tons of ideas for new music. So, actually, in a way, a positive way of looking at that decision is that I’m doing this to further concentrate on putting my resources into making new music and making albums, which I think ultimately is what is hopefully going to stay.
Then the other massive difference is that I’m on very good working terms with Thrill Jockey. They really support me. The team there is really, really amazing to work with. So, sometimes, I mean, there are issues that come up because releasing an album is actually a very complex thing, and for instance, with COVID, I mean, pressing plans have been running even later than usual. I mean, so there are tons of things that can come up, but, basically, I feel supported, which also is a, yeah, it is a massive difference. So, yeah, it’s reducing my workload to enjoy my life more, and to keep making music, actually.
AD: One of the other things I really like about, well, I want to just compliment your website. I love that you have so much information on your website.
Cécile Schott: Thank you.
AD: I’m a nerd. I love reading people’s list of things, not only tools that they use to make stuff or see their studio or anything, but you’ve got long list of your favorite music from certain eras, and all this incredible stuff, and a beautiful repository of mix tapes that you’ve made. Do you ever DJ live?
Cécile Schott: I don’t, actually. I’ve DJ’ed a couple of times, but very rarely. So, it’s not something I do, and I don’t think it’s something that I will ever get in to, but I do love making mixes, and I actually have two that I need to make now.
AD: One of my favorites that you’ve done is that mix you made for Fact, around the time that you released Captain of None, where you were really exploring those dub influences that you evoke on that album, and the mix features Prince Far I, and Noel Elis, and Scientist. In the end, you talked about hearing Return of the Super Ape as a kid. Your parents had a tape of that? Was that one of the earlier things that you…Do you still listen to a lot of dub, first and foremost?
Cécile Schott: Well, I don’t. Actually, I have to say that my life has sorely been lacking in time to listen to music. I think it’s one of the paradoxes of being a musician is that you spend a lot of time making music and, therefore, you actually don’t have that much time to listen to music or at least in my case, but that’s also because I’m weird in the sense that I have real trouble, I mean, I don’t like listening to music without being fully attentive to it.
So, if I’m cooking and maybe I’ll switch on the … What do you call it? The thing that aspirate…No, what do you call it when you’re cooking and you need the steam to be absorbed by some kind of a machine on top of your cooking stuff? What’s that called?
AD: Oh, yeah, some sort of filter. I know what you mean.
Cécile Schott: Yeah, yeah, you know the one. So, that makes noise, and then I think, “Oh, well, I’m not paying enough attention to the music if that noise is going on at the same time.”
AD: It’s disrupting it.
Cécile Schott: Yeah, or if I’m talking with someone, I don’t even want background music. I’m weird like that. For instance, if I’m writing any kind of email or something, I can’t listen to music at the same time or I can put it in the background, but it’s just not going to register. So, yeah. So, actually, I haven’t really listened to Jamaican music in a while, but, yes. So, one of my life’s happy accidents was my parents buying a tape I suspect on the side of a motorway, those petrol stations where you had racks of cassettes in petrol stations in the ’80s. My parents are not really into music. They don’t have particularly good taste, but somehow they got that tape, which was called Kings of Reggae, and it said Bob Marley. Bob Marley was the first person mentioned on the tape, but it turns out the majority of the tracks were by Lee Perry or The Upsetters. It was tracks from 1976 to 1979, so the best period, in my opinion, of Lee Perry’s output.
Yes, there were things like “Roast Fish and Cornbread” and “Curly Dub,” and some of his best and weirdest tracks. So, we did listen to that on car trips, and I was very small because I was born in ’76. I reckon they probably bought the tape in ’80 or something. So, I would listen to that tape for several years. So, I’m guessing I was from five to seven or eight, something like that. So, obviously, I wasn’t conscious at the time of who Lee Perry was, but I do remember the cow, the moo sound, that kind of stuff. Of course, it struck my imagination as a child. So, it’s just a really, really cool thing that I got to listen to this as a child. Yes.
AD: I’ve been thinking about the way the music that we hear, especially when we’re very, very young, it gets into our heads in ways that I don’t know that we’ll ever as people be able to fully understand because it’s foundational, but do you suspect that in terms of some of the stuff you would have heard on that tape, the studio manipulation, the way things are stretched out, the way there are uncanny textures and echoes and all of that, those are hallmarks of a lot of your music, too. Do you suspect that maybe that was a foundational influence for you hearing that stuff as a very young child?
Cécile Schott: Well, it’s hard to answer, but I guess the answer is yes because it happened, it happened. I think, also, I have to mention that then my next, I think if I were asked, “Is there a song that made you want to be a musician?” I would say The Beatles’ “A Day in the Life” because I remember coming back with a vinyl lent by a friend of the soundtrack Imagine. I was about 13 and I remember distinctly putting on the record at midday in my parents’ living room before lunch, and I wasn’t familiar with The Beatles then, and that song coming on, the beginning, the acoustic guitar chords, and I remember being stopped in my tracks. I mean, I can really see it, and then the ending and just being hit so hard.
Whenever I listen to this song again, and I mean and so much time has passed, I can completely understand why it happened. So, yes, I think there are foundational moments, and I think especially when you decide to make your own music and then you subsequently become a musician, yes, I think there are a few pieces. So, for me, it’s “A Day in the Life.” I don’t know. It’s like being struck on the head, but in a good. Yeah. I don’t know how to explain it with words. It’s almost like, I don’t know if I should say a religious experience, but it’s something that stays with you forever, and it’s basically about you feeling the power of music, and, yeah, being transformed by it and just wanting to reproduce if only a fraction of that for yourself and for others through making music yourself, I guess.
AD: There’s a quote that you said about the new album, about The Tunnel and The Clearing, where you said that never before had you felt so “profoundly the power that music has through harmony, melody, rhythm, and sound itself to express the whole range of human emotions.” At the risk of simplifying, that almost religious quality of hearing something like The Beatles, I find it very moving that while you were working on this album, you’ve been making music for a long time, and you’re very accomplished and you’ve made a lot of records. It’s very inspiring for me to hear that making this there was still as yet another level on which to connect with music. That’s such an interesting thing. How did that strike you as you were working on this album? Did it feel like, well, there’s a song on the album called “Revelation,” is that how it felt? “Truth, reveal yourself to me?” Did it feel like a revelation, a musical revelation?
Cécile Schott: When I was writing the lyrics, I was aware that it could be almost interpreted as a religious thing, but it isn’t. I think when I wrote the lyrics to “Revelation,” it was more about trying to understand what had happened to me in terms of that unexpected breakup, and thinking very much that we all cling to our own personal truth and wondering, “There has to be a universal objective truth, but, obviously, it’s not accessible to me, and I would like to have access to that because I need some explanation for what has happened.”
So, the revelation in question is not a musical revelation, but I was going to say something else in relation to that quote. Yes, I think really what I felt during the making of the album that was pretty new to me or at least not necessarily new, but it doesn’t happen that often as a musician that you feel moments that are, well, again, it’s through, though, that they’re revelatory to you in terms of what you’re managing to express. Sometimes it almost feels like it’s coming from another place, and that it’s handed to you even though I know that, actually, objectively, that’s not true because to me, no, to me, it always happens after hundreds of hours.
I mean, I’ve never calculated how many hundreds of hours I spend on albums, but I can’t even calculate it because so much goes into the finished product, especially because I really make a point of only releasing music that I feel has something to say musically, but also a more human content, but one thing I have to say about this experience of a really hard breakup was it made me so much more receptive to music to the point that it was really exaggerated.
So, for instance, in Barcelona, you have a lot of street musicians, and several times, I ended up in tears hearing someone’s cover version of a song that I didn’t even know existed, actually, because I don’t really follow current hits or anything, but I felt so receptive to music. Sometimes it felt like too much, but on the other hand, I thought, “Well, maybe this is great for your music. I mean, it’s bad that you’re going through a really tough period, personally, but maybe there’s really something to be gained by it on many levels and one of them is the artistic level.”
To be honest, I don’t know, I think this is maybe the album that I’m happiest with. I don’t like the word proud, but definitely in terms of feeling a sense of intense satisfaction about the musical element and the human element behind it.
AD: I was reading a 2006 interview from Arthur Magazine, which is one of my favorites, and in it, you were discussing…Well, so I’m curious about the way you write lyrics. You mentioned that there aren’t a lot of lyrics on it, but there are very evocative words on this. In that 2006 article that I alluded to, you talked about how at that point you weren’t really a fan of writing lyrics or didn’t really have much interest in it, but, obviously, that’s changed over the course of your discography. What is your lyric writing process look like now? Is there a lot of editing and revising or how does it work for you, generally?
Cécile Schott: Well, I think when I started to sing, lyrics writing was the hardest thing that I had to solve, and I think on my first album where I sing called “The Weighing of the Heart,” it was very tentative. It was very influenced by reading the poetry of others. So, in that case, I read the anthology of Emily Dickinson’s poetry, Walt Whitman, haiku, that sort of stuff, and I think a very minimal haiku style was the best that I could come up with at that point.
I remember distinctly wanting to write more personal lyrics, but somehow, it was very hard to do. I’m not sure if it was just the question of letting all this writing process mature, but I wasn’t really able to do it. I think, also, with writing personal stuff, there are always issues of how far do you go in terms of respecting the lives of people who are part of your life. So, for instance, to talk about something very personal, I’ve always thought that at one point I would like to write something about my brother. So, to cut a long story short, my brother committed suicide when he was 21. I was 18.
So, that was in 1994. Obviously, it was an event that really marked the rest of my life, the life of my parents, and I’ve always felt I want to write something about this, but somehow, I’ve never done it, and I suspect my main reason for not doing that is that my parents, luckily, are still both of them are alive, and even though they don’t speak English and I guess they don’t have the internet, so it’s not even …
Still, I would be, yeah, I’m not sure how I would feel about them maybe reading, I don’t know. In the same way, my 2017 album was influenced by being present on the night of the terrorist attack in Paris in 2015, but also my mom was very ill at that point, and at the time of the press release, I didn’t even mention that it was her that was ill because I didn’t know if she was going to survive. I mean, she did, but I think in general, it’s hard to, I don’t know, I’m very much of this cool that, yes, I want my lyrics to be personal, but, also, I don’t think it’s cool to, I don’t know.
For instance, this breakup, sorry, this album is very much about me going through and over, getting over that breakup, but it never occurred to me to actually write directly about my ex-partner because I think, I mean, and a lot of people do it, and I’m not criticizing, but for me, I feel that there is a limit that I can’t cross over, but, so therefore, the challenge becomes how do I write personal lyrics while staying true to that limit that I do want to set myself.
So, I think on this album, I’m really happy, too, with how I think I managed to articulate something, which is more about how I felt instead of talking about the actual details or the other person, it’s more about … So, “Implosion-Explosion” is completely about that feeling of I’m going nuts, but how do I express that? How do I express my anger, my rage? So, I express it through the music itself, and then through those simple lyrics.
“Hidden in the Current,” I have to say when I made that song, I had tears in my eyes as the lyrics came to me, I don’t know, very quickly, all of a sudden those lyrics came to me. To me, they were really encapsulating the whole end of the first process of going through that, recovering from the breakup, and then it’s basically literally one day you wake up and you realize that that’s it. I mean, you’re on your own, and no amount of anger or trying to understand is going to change that, and then the “Hidden in the Current” part initially when I had that image in my mind, at first I was thinking more about how maybe someone leaving you has been hidden somehow in the current of your life and you haven’t been able to see it, but then as the song evolved, it came to mean something else. It was also about how starting a new life and feeling almost reborn is also hidden in the current.
I mean, there is no way you could know that going through a breakup is actually going to be a good thing for you, and funnily enough, so without answering personal details, I think I could never have predicted it, but this experience and also being ill, it’s all enabled me to, I don’t like the word grow because it sounds like so much like a psychological magazine bullshit somehow, but for me, it really has been the case. I’ve really had to step out of the personal bubble I was in. When I was ill, I also gained so much understanding about people who have other chronic health problems and the elderly.
So, in a way, “Hidden in the Current,” where all things grow even on their own, that was my way of articulating that, that there is so much stuff that we don’t know about and that is there waiting to come up to the surface. So, yes. That was my long-winded way of answering your question.
AD: No. I love it. I think that that’s such a beautiful way to think about it and such an honest way is that we can’t know what’s happening sometimes when it’s happening because we’re overtaken by it. There’s too much at once, and, yeah, the process of making sense of all that and making art out of all that, it’s a very complicated thing, but it sounds like there was … It almost would you say that making this album, how has it changed the way you think about the emotional connection that you personally have to the artistic process?
Cécile Schott: That’s hard to answer. Can you repeat the question?
AD: It’s probably strangely phrased, but I think what I mean to say is, have you ever had an album that was quite so emotionally connected? I mean, it sounds like you’re talking about it in terms of the terrorist attack and dealing with your mother, that this is certainly not the first time that you’ve had difficult circumstances and that the music has been emotional, but I wonder if perhaps this is the most emotional that the music has been for you.
Cécile Schott: Yeah. Well, actually, Captain of None as well, I didn’t really talk about it at the time, but I went through a midlife crisis. So, for instance, the song Captain of None is about that. It’s about feeling like you’re losing control of your ability to think straight, and several songs on Captain of None are very personal but in a covert way. I’m not sure how to pronounce this, but, definitely. So, yes, A Flame My Love, a Frequency, that was getting much more personal also because I was obsessed with a fear of death during the making of that album, and I think the lyrics reflect that, but, for sure, I mean, this new album, I guess also I think in a very basic way, I mean, I was with my partner, but my ex-partner from 2004 to last year, basically, he was with me throughout the making of all of my albums except the first album.
So, I don’t know if this sounds strange, but it, actually, felt very new to me to be on my own, and to just have the music to, I mean, I do have my friends and I do have my parents, and I feel very supported by them, but in a way, I think maybe music became a personal friend that I started to have a dialogue with, if that makes sense. So, in that way, it became much more intense, I think.
AD: Yeah. That’s very, very interesting and that music felt that. I mean, you also thank your cats in the liner notes. So, you had them, too, right?
Cécile Schott: Yeah. Actually, my cat, Sol, the big red one, he’s actually asleep just next to me. I mean, he’s on the studio table sleeping on some scores, and I’m glad he’s not noisy because he can be very noisy.
AD: Your Skype image is him sleeping on a—
Cécile Schott: On the top of the Space Echo, yeah.
AD: Yeah. It’s incredible. What a beautiful image. Well, you referenced your first album, Everyone Alive Wants Answers, and I would be remiss if I didn’t ask you to reflect a little on that one because that’s such an incredible album.
Cécile Schott: Thank you.
AD: It’s a record where lots of music is made using samples, but that does feel like its own thing on that record. That was released in 2003. I wanted to ask if upon finishing it or putting it out into the world, was that really, I mean, did you feel like a songwriter is what I would like to ask about that because, obviously, you’re assembling previously recorded material, but it feels like there is a compositional element as well. So, I’m just curious if you would have used the term songwriter back then to describe what you were doing on that album or how you would describe it now, I guess.
Cécile Schott: Well, it’s funny because, also, I think I wouldn’t use the word songwriter for myself right now, even though I do think I make songs or it would be like weird songwriter. The word that I like is music maker because I think music maker really encompasses everything. It’s like composing, improvising, recording, being adept on instruments and gear. So, I think music making, it really encapsulates everything that I do.
So, that album, I really have a soft spot for it. I had no clue at the time that it would, well, I guess, stand the test of time, and I do regret very much that the issue of hearing samples was not raised by Leaf, the label that released the album then because, now, I mean, for quite some years, I’ve been feeling stressed out about that issue of sample clearance.
I do think that for most of the samples used, I really transformed them, but it’s shocking to me now that I think on the liner notes I wrote everything written by Cecile Schott or something like that and I think, “Well, actually, not really.” So, I think I was very naïve. I was very sincere in my use of the music, but in retrospect, I think sampling raising a ton of questions, some of them purely legal, others more artistic. So, I’m very glad that I only made one album that use samples because in a way, you really do sort out your so many potential problems by being responsible for all your sound sources, which is not to say, by the way, that I don’t like making music, sorry, that I don’t like music made with samples. Certainly at the time, I listened to a lot of hip-hop, and hip-hop wouldn’t be what it is without sampling.
AD: Of course.
Cécile Schott: Yeah. So, no, I mean, I think I really had no clue that I would also end up being a professional musician. That was so out of, yeah, impossible to know at the time.
AD: Well, it also helps that you made one album out of samples, and it’s a masterpiece, and then you’ve gone on to make a bunch of incredible records using just your own sound.
Cécile Schott: Thank you.
AD: So, you don’t even have to make anymore sample albums because you made the one. That’s a beautiful record and I think that it helps expand the idea of what the sampler/artist relationship can be like and I respect that you’ve made the decision to more or less move into a completely different mode over the course of your career, but I think that there’s still a lot of the same interest in the relationship between harmony, melody, and rhythm that you hear on this new record that you can trace back to that. So, it’s really been wonderful talking about this new record with you. It’s such a great album and I appreciate your candor and your openness about it.
Cécile Schott:Thank you. Well, thank you so much for the interesting questions. I have to say that for me it’s very moving to talk about it. I feel super privileged to have not only just listeners, casual listeners, but also very attentive listeners, and people who’ve been following my work and who could see spot the differences in the evolution. It feels like, I don’t know, very special to put it out in the world and feel like maybe I’m closing a personal process and being about to embark maybe on another chapter of the story. I’m super grateful for the interest and your kindness as well.
AD: Well, it’s my pleasure. I can’t wait to hear where things go next.
Cécile Schott: Okay. Awesome. Thank you so much.
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