Image via: Alessio Bolozoni
It’s been a little over a year since Do It Again, the pop outlaw’s five-track EP with Bergen duo Röyksopp, and a little under five since its icon-making predecessor, the ambitious three-part LP Body Talk. Now, with help from Markus and the late Christian Falk, the singer has launched a clubland project influenced by everything from Prefab Sprout and Suicide to Turkish folk, Arthur Russell and, most evidently, 90s house, her longstanding obsession. Before the international summer tour and the inevitable star-studded remix EP, Robyn & La Bagatelle Magique tell their story to FACT.
Back in 2013, Markus was inducted into the long-brewing partnership between Robyn and sometime mentor Christian, who’d stuck around since her teen-pop heyday in the 90s. During long nights probing Christian’s formidable record collection, the trio chipped away at the singer’s writer’s block and laid down a series of beat-driven bangers, initially slated for release under Robyn’s own name. “I said, ‘Fuck that!’” she laughs. “It felt like a band – we were all in each other’s business.” Robyn sang and played synths, bassist Markus multi-tasked, and at the controls was Christian, a faded postpunk who began DJing in the 90s. He kept the group’s house element intact, sometimes wiping Robyn’s pop choruses in an act of defiance. After his death last year of pancreatic cancer, at the age of 52, the Bagatelle Magique project buckled.
Robyn and longtime bandmember Markus were whisked off on tour with Röyksopp, where each act played its own set before uniting for a firework finale. Rapturous Robyn fans went nuts for early airings of blueprint songs, left unfinished during their time with Christian. But the euphoric vibe didn’t sit right. “We had to wait to finish the record,” Markus says, “so it didn’t get dark.” “When we started making the music together,” adds Robyn, “that’s what we were all into: euphoria. But then, that didn’t wane because he was sick – it just got more intense.”
We spoke to the pair on the eve of Robyn & La Bagatelle Magique’s first track ‘Love is Free’, featuring old Robyn tourmate Maluca, which premiered tonight on Annie Mac’s radio show. The mini-album is slated for an August release, with a remix EP featuring Todd Terry, Mr. Tophat and more, to follow.
Robyn, you introduced this material at the Tekla conference as ‘songs about freedom’. Looking at the titles, there’s ‘Love is Free’, ‘Set Me Free’, ‘Lose Control’… why do you want to talk about freedom now?
Robyn: Ugh, wow – I don’t know how to talk about this without getting super personal. When it came to this letting go thing, I think, isn’t that what we all want? To somehow be okay with being alive, even though it’s really hard? And not being scared. I mean, you can be scared, but it’s not good if you’re scared of being scared, and trying to control things. It’s an illusion – you can’t. You have to let go in order to be happy.
What particular types of control were weighing on your mind?
R: [laughs] I’ve been in psychoanalysis for four years now, so it would take me too long to explain. I’m thinking about how we let things from our past experiences control how we see the world, and how things repeat if you don’t make yourself aware of what you’re scared of. ‘Set Me Free’ is about that scary point where you’re at the edge, facing something that you think is gonna be… is gonna kill you, even. Then of course, that whole aspect of the album became even more potent when Christian was in a situation that was scary for real. But even before we knew he was sick, we were inspired by his lust for life. Like when your life becomes a video game, and you’re excited by what you’re doing, because you’re not scared of it. But life is not a video game. Maybe that’s why video games are so fun. Because it’s an illusion of control.
You can come back to life.
R: Exactly. That’s not how it is in real life, but it’s good if you can feel that way, because it makes it more fun.
Markus: But you also get bored from video games.
R: I get really depressed by video games, actually.
In what way?
R: It’s so far away from reality. They’ve already made algorithms and programmed it and you can’t go beyond this mountain because nobody designed that map. It’s depressing. Except for Mario Kart! On that level, video games are okay. They don’t give the illusion of being real.
How does music contrast that? In clubs, for example, with the music and surroundings, you should feel claustrophobic, but it’s somehow the opposite.
R: Repetition is really liberating, because you interpret every repeat in a new way. You don’t have to do much, because minds are so endless and hard to understand anyway. I guess music has the ability, sometimes, to mirror that. It’s a transportation device that allows you to look at that thing you don’t understand.
“Control is not real. It’s not a real concept.”
90s house was an influence on the record – were you listening at the time?
R: In the 90s, I was clubbing in New York, most of the time at The Shelter but also at random parties, where I was exposed to house music in a new way. It was so mixed: older people but also kids breaking in the house clubs. But we were also referencing the different dance music we’d each grown up on. Christian was 52 when he died, I’m 36 and Markus is a little bit younger than me; we all have different aspects of dance music in us. It was a silent agreement to collage the essence of that together in some way.
Do you still go out?
R: Right now I’m not clubbing that much. I mostly listen to electronic music, and it’s mostly DJs and mixes – I Shazam a lot. I like BISRadio – they’re curating it in a way I really like, mixing electronic music with things that are not obviously from that world. I love Jamie xx’s last mix for Mixmag, and I’m a big fan of Mark E. I love this song by Gary Beck, ‘Ars Poetica’. It’s like a fucking train wreck – it goes and it goes and it goes. And another one, from ’87 or something: this Hithouse cover of ‘I Feel Love’ called ‘I Felt Acid House Love’. Amazing.
In the studio, how did Christian’s influence shape the record?
R: When we started ‘Set Me Free’, it sounded like some kind of punk dance thing. And Markus started playing some modular synth, and Christian was like, ‘Okay, this is gonna be a rave track.’ And then everything turned around – it became something completely different.
M: He ran into the recording room and started playing live drums.
R: And a lot of the percussion on ‘Love is Free’ is Christian playing on forks. And Markus sings some backing, and I play synthesisers and tambourine. I’m really good at playing keyboard with one finger.
Do you mind having less control?
R: It seems to me like control is not real. It’s not a real concept. All there is are different interpretations of… I don’t even know if it’s reality, but it’s the physical laws we live in. I believe there’s something – this is so hard to explain – but something simple in all of us, hidden beneath all these layers of experiences and stories and ideas about ourselves. Losing control is about taking those layers off. It’s something that feels very obvious when you make music. You can’t fake it, you know?
Authors tend to describe literature as reassurance that we’re not alone, being that deep into a character’s thoughts. But listening to music that can happen almost instantly.
R: It’s like dreaming. You might just dream for five seconds, but it feels like you’ve been dreaming for hours. It’s like a different dimension. Some people have that with looking at things too. It blew my mind when I realised that looking at things is just as much an interpretation as listening. You think it’s real but it’s not. It’s your own interpretation. And that made me think about hearing in a different way. It’s weird how the unconscious is so much of a tool when you make music. And in that way it’s like a tool of getting to know yourself. But then, that doesn’t mean that that’s real, you know? It might not be the person you’re always gonna be, or it might not be who you want to be, or it might change. It’s like a forecast. Like a weather forecast. [laughs]
We can only guess who we are?
R: Yeah, and writing songs is like taking your own temperature.
When did you start thinking skeptically about reality?
R: [long pause] Yeah, I think it really started to happen about a year ago. [pause] Have you read this book called Thinking, Fast and Slow? It’s about how we make choices and decisions. He’s researched how humans discriminate, have biased thoughts, and how intuition is not always rational. Because before they used to believe intuition is based on our past experiences and always leads to some kind of rational decision, but he’s saying it’s not.
How did it feel picking up these songs after Christian’s death?
R: He seemed very present, through the music. We had his computer in the studio, and all of his automations and the things he had done. They were still there. It’s kind of weird. And then we had to go back, not to do what he would’ve done – he was so unpredictable – but to somehow have that voice with you. It was a strange thing. I hope I never have to do that again.
Are you still interested in doing solo stuff, moving forward? Or is giving up control a longer-term thing?
R: No, I’m gonna make another album. I started writing again, but I don’t know when it will be finished.
There’s a cover on the record of ‘Tell You Today’, by Loose Joints [aka Arthur Russell] which you and Christian originally recorded for the AIDS charity Red Hot. Is the ‘Love is Free’ theme related to that?
R: For me, it isn’t, but if that’s the way people want to interpret it, that’s fine too. It could be, love is free like ‘free love’. It could a gay anthem, it could be [about how] you can’t control life. It can be ‘screw you I’m gonna stand on my own two feet’. For me, it’s more like a definition of this weird thing that’s really hard to define, which is the unknown. The things you can’t control. To me, that’s what it is.