”I prefer to just do things by myself.”
Cécile Schott is excited and effusive as she explains her process to me, bit by bit. We’re not strangers; we both emerged making experimental (mostly) electronic music in the early ‘00s and as such we ended up bumping into each other frequently on the European tour circuit. It’s been a while since we last spoke however – Schott reminds me that it was 2007, in Salford – and we’ve got a lot of catching up to do. In the last eight years she’s taken a hiatus from music, moved from Paris to San Sebastián in Spain, and made an unexpected comeback in 2013 with the exemplary The Weighing of the Heart (one of FACT’s favorite records that year).
Her fifth album, Captain of None – due for release in Spring on Thrill Jockey – is her most ambitious to date. The elegiac vocal elements that buoyed its predecessor are now well and truly on the surface, and Schott has finally embraced her long-standing love of dub reggae, infusing her productions with bass for the first time.
Schott seems at ease with her surroundings and more confident and grounded than ever, happy in her adopted home: “There’s an incredible quality of life because I’m five minutes’ walk from the sea.” She is also upbeat about her choice to leave her former life as an English teacher in Paris, saying that she gets similar gratification from music as she did from teaching. “I have no regrets about being an artist,” she says. “[Music] is underrated as a force in society and in people’s lives. I think music should almost be funded by the National Health Service.”
“I’m not sure how many albums I have within me, and I realize that I don’t have any time to waste”
Schott jokes about her career thus far, saying she isn’t interested in collaboration (“I hate compromise but I also hate conflict”), doesn’t care for remixes and doesn’t give tracks to compilations. Her new label Thrill Jockey seems to be the perfect home. “It’s quite obvious that they don’t release anything because it’s hyped or fashionable. I’m not very old but I’m definitely not a new person on the music scene, and neither are they, so that’s kind of nice.”
It all seems very different from the artist who wrote a sombre, but extremely honest, two-part blog post in 2011 entitled “A long account of why I’ve been silent”.
I want to talk about the gap between albums. When The Weighing of the Heart finally did come, your music felt rejuvenated. Would you agree with that?
Yes. In hindsight, if I read the post again I have two feelings. One is that now I feel so full of creative energy – I feel like I’m on the same sort of creative high as I was in 2005 – that I almost have trouble recognizing myself. On the other hand, now that I’m into the second album of my comeback and I’m mailing a lot again, dealing with the thousands of tiny things that have to be dealt with when you make a record, I can reconnect with the feeling of why I had to stop for a moment.
I think that now I have a more balanced view of things, and I really think that life works in cycles. I will go through periods where I’m feeling very creative, but then after that you can’t always be on a creative high. So now I think it’s a question of being philosophical about it. Also I think I have a more adult view of the music business now – I don’t like the word business, but you understand, obviously.
So, I think I had no choice but to stop when I stopped, and my aim now is to ride the wave of creativity as long as possible. If I need to stop for another three or four years then I’ll do that and hopefully I will be able to come back again.
The big difference now is that I get this sense that my time is limited, not necessarily in any dramatic way but I’m not sure how many albums I have within me, and I realize that I don’t have any time to waste. I think now even more than ever I’m really convinced that the only thing I should be putting out into the world is something that really means something to me. And then if I reach a moment when I’m not convinced then I should just step back from releasing stuff. And in general, in my whole life, I’m trying to cut back on unnecessary commitments because there’s never enough time to do the stuff that’s really important.
When people go on hiatus they’ll usually say there’s an album in progress but it’s taking a long time. It’s unusual that they have the courage to say “I’m taking a step back.”
I got lots of emails from people – sometimes people who are artists as well – who told me, ‘Oh, what you describe is just what I’m going through right now, and I’m just glad that someone has been writing about this.’ So I think it’s just one of those things, if you go through a bad period of your life personally then if you open up about it to, say, a friend, you find out the feelings you’re having are feelings everyone has. It’s just natural I think. We don’t have to be proud of it, we don’t have to be ashamed of it, but I think you do have people that follow your work and are excited for three or four years, and it’s right to tell them what’s going on.
Also I think it helps when people can see that taking a break can be part of the creative process.
I knew that I wanted to try and sing, but at that point I hadn’t been singing apart from when I was 16 in my parents’ bathroom. Literally that was my only experience of singing. So you know you’re going to release a fourth album and you’re not a newcomer, you have to work before you release something. So I literally had to find my voice and I’m glad I took my time because in some ways it is like becoming another musician.
I think it helped a lot because some of the expectation had subsided. You could reinvent yourself and come out with something new and it didn’t feel like such a quick change of direction.
People have told me, ‘oh you’re singing, but it’s not really shocking,’ and said they can hear a connection with my past works. I was really glad, because as the one creating it’s not really easy to perceive what you’re doing yourself. I was really aware of that when I was making The Weighing of the Heart so I just had to be brave and think that it’s just a record – if people don’t like it the world won’t end.
“For this new album I had finally managed to write the lyrics that I had originally wanted to write.”
Your music’s always been quite lyrical, in a way.
On Les Ondes Sileunces there’s a track ‘Sun Against My Eyes’ where the clarinet melody is actually something I sang first. I think I already had the tendency to sing something, but at the time I didn’t have lyrics, so that was a whole new arena to enter.
Another good thing about taking time off was that I found some music that really pointed the way. At the time the really important one was Arthur Russell – that was in spring 2010. I read Tim Lawrence’s biography Hold On to Your Dreams – I already knew Russell’s music but it’s one of those nice things when you have a really good biography in your hands and you’re listening to the records and listening to the evolution of the musician. I really felt a kinship with him.
It helped me decide that I shouldn’t be afraid of changing what I was doing. Here’s someone who plays a classical instrument, he’s also been into non-western music (which is one of my things as well), and the way he sings, when you listen to Arthur Russell’s music it’s not like ‘this is instrumental music’, or ‘this is sung music’. The description is completely irrelevant, and that’s really what I wanted to achieve by introducing the voice in my music. I didn’t want people to think I was writing pop songs, I just wanted to make music that would incorporate the voice. When you take time off it’s also time to absorb other people’s work, and that can really help you afterwards.
And you had time to think about writing lyrics. What was that process like?
The funny thing is, I think the lyrics I’ve written for this new album are the lyrics that I would have wanted to write maybe from the start. Because basically – and I’m not sure how much I should speak about the lyrics of the new album – there’s an overarching theme. It’s going to sound really trite, because the thing about lyrics is that they enable me to say things that in a way should hopefully be not trite, and when you try and explain them it becomes really banal and cliche. The album is about what it means to be human, the inner tensions that everyone has to go through and the necessity to try and understand the self, to go through periods of doubt or old stuff that goes through the human mind, brain, whatever you want to call it.
Originally when I started trying to write lyrics – this is a bit personal – but the first song that I wanted to write, in late 2009, I wanted to write a song about my brother who died 20 years ago. I tried and I tried and I couldn’t. At the time I wasn’t equipped to do that, and I remember trying to write lyrics and changing them time and time again and then time went by and by the time I was ready to record The Weighing of the Heart my focus had changed slightly. I wanted to write about the natural world, which is something I’m still very intrigued by, both on an artistic level and a personal level as well, because I’m really more connected to nature now.
In the end the lyrics on the first album were mostly open-ended lyrics about the natural world, except for the title track ‘The Weighing of the Heart’. That used Egyptian mythology, which was my way of trying to talk about trying to live a good life in the sense of being a good person. For this new album I had finally managed to write the lyrics that I had originally wanted to write, about the human heart.
None of the lyrics on Captain of None are too blatant, they’re quite oblique – there’s a lot for the listener to do.
Everyone can take whichever fragment of the lyrics and decipher it themselves. I think the listener that can understand will understand, if that makes sense. The idea is that the music also guides you. One of the important things about the new album is that some of the music is quite tense, about the end of the world. It’s more in-your-face than what I’ve done in the past, but on the other hand it’s also a very bouncy album. It’s actually really fast compared to the stuff I’ve done in the past, and there’s also a lot of light in the music – it’s not necessarily minor melodies.
If you have music that’s very meditative and then lyrics that are very meditative then that’s a bit too much. It’s more interesting to have a balance between music that moves forward a lot. It’s a lot more dynamic from what I used to do. And then the lyrics, they’re more the internal “spaces” of being – I was interested in the contrast.
That really comes across. I don’t want to say it’s more “poppy”, but it sort of sounds that way.
That’s a really conscious choice. The funny thing for me is that I think I’ve made the poppiest and the most experimental record of my career. I really believe that. There are actually basslines, which is a big introduction.
I think what happened was that when I was recording The Weighing of the Heart in the winter of 2012, my boyfriend and I spent all our time listening to Jamaican music. A lot of dub, but not just dub because Jamaican music really has to be taken as a whole to get the full juice out of it. The Jamaican thing is a very long story because – let me show you something. [Schott reaches to grab a tape and holds it up.] Believe it or not, this tape – it’s called The Kings of Reggae – is a tape that somehow ended in my parents’ possession in the late ’70s. I don’t know how, because my parents certainly didn’t listen to Jamaican music, so I’m not sure if they maybe bought it on the motorway.
There’s Bob Marley and the Wailers, but really the whole tape is really Upsetters and Lee Perry stuff. It’s some of his best stuff – ‘Roast Fish and Cornbread’, The Upsetters’ ‘Scratch Walking’, ‘Come Along’, ‘Curly Locks’, ‘Super Ape’ – and we would be listening to this in the car on trips. I have vivid memories of hearing this music because as a child when you hear music you really notice it, because you’ve not heard any music that sounds like this.
So that was actually my first exposure to far-out Jamaican music, and then when I moved to Paris in the late ’90s, just before making Everyone Alive Wants Answers, I started going to libraries. The libraries in Paris are very well stocked with Jamaican music reissues, so you could find for instance almost all the Blood & Fire reissues and the Soul Jazz 100% Dynamite compilations. That was my second injection of Jamaican music, and I guess the third time is the right time – when Iker and I both got into Jamaican music in late 2012 it really felt like the right music to listen to and to absorb.
“I’m actually quite shocked that I’ve made four full albums without real basslines.”
So what happened was I was stuck on one last track in January 2013, which was ‘Breaking Up the Earth’. It has more rhythm than the others and it has more use of delay and speeded-up stuff, and it ended up that way through the Jamaican influence. I thought, why don’t I relax a little bit, why don’t I just let go of the kind of framework I’ve been putting myself in by doing music that’s very arranged? The Weighing of the Heart is a very arranged, composed album. So I kind of went freestyle on that song. I had so much fun that I thought, this is just too good. Mostly you really enjoy yourself when you make music, but sometimes it can make you a bit anxious. Knowing that you’re making an album that’s going to be released, you can maybe forget to have fun, and maybe you can put barriers in front of yourself.
When I realized how much fun I was having and how excited I was by the result it was almost like someone else had done it and not me. When something like that happens I know it’s the right thing. So I knew this was the way I had to go, and that I would use the small viola – the viola de gamba. It’s really versatile, it’s easy to play in a picking style and I could just experiment and take my cue from Jamaican producers, because I think Jamaican music from the ’70s still sounds ahead of its time, or out of time. Essentially that’s what I tried to do. I don’t want people to hear my records and think ‘this one was made in 2005’ or ‘this one’s 2004’. It’s really important, this inspiration I took from Jamaican producers.
It’s a very percussive record, too.
It is. Even though there isn’t that much percussion, I don’t know if I’m saving this for another record, or if it’s never going to happen. It’s the way I play the viola – I’m really happy that my playing has really evolved and it’s really incorporating the idea of rhythm but within the way of playing a melodic instrument. So yeah, it feels very percussive even though it doesn’t necessarily have that much percussion as such.
The use of bass has changed a lot for me. It really gives the music a completely different mood and I just don’t understand why it’s taken me so long to find a way of incorporating more bass into my music. I’m actually quite shocked that I’ve made four full albums without real basslines. That’s something that I’m hopefully going to explore more in the future.
What studio setup are you using now?
I still use Acid. I think I’m the only producer left who still uses Acid. I’ve got the last version and I even bought it. I thought I owed it to the Acid people to buy their product. The big difference is that now I rent a rehearsal space, a studio. It has a really high ceiling which has a really nice sound to it. My setup is still pretty simple compared to people who are accumulating gear – I’m not that kind of person. It’s a mix of digital, a little bit of analogue stuff, for the delays, and there’s digital emulation of analogue delays, so it’s a real mix of technology. I would love to be intelligent enough and have enough knowledge to do a thoroughly analogue record – that would be a dream, but I wouldn’t know how to do it.
Photos by Estudio Primo
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