Interview: Emilie Simon

Photo by Elizabeth Sentianin, Sculpture by
Photo by Elizabeth Sentianin, Sculpture by

The Indie Handbook: First of all, let me say that it is such a pleasure to meet you. Have you ever been to Chicago before?

Emilie Simon: No, this is my first time to even leave the club, so I will discover it with you.

TIH: So you’ve been living in New York for a while, right?

ES: Yeah, it’s been almost two years now.

TIH: What made you pack up and come over here?

ES: At the beginning, I just came for vacation and I enjoyed it, so I decided to stay longer. And I ended up moving here. I think it was just the right timing for me. I was between two albums, so I finished my tour and came here.

TIH: How long do you think you’ll stay.

ES: I have no idea. I didn’t plan it, I don’t plan ahead. I plan what I have to plan, like if I have a tour. I know I am going to be touring pretty much all of 2010. But you never really know what’s going to be happening in your life.

TIH: Oh, I know exactly what you mean. I rarely even know what the next week looks like.

ES: And where do you live?

TIH: I live in Ohio, about 400 miles from here.

ES: Oh yeah? Wow. That’s far away.

TIH: Yeah, well, I read a couple of weeks ago that you were playing here and I’ve been a fan for so long and it’s the first time you’ve been within 1000 miles of me, so it was a pretty easy decision.

ES: Well, I hope you like the show.

TIH: Well, I don’t know how I couldn’t, from what I heard in your soundcheck.

ES: I’m going to play mostly the new album, some of the old songs too, but mainly new ones.

TIH: That’s great actually, since I haven’t heard it yet. It’s not out here, I don’t think.

ES: No, it isn’t. But you can buy it online I think. It was only just released in France, barely a month ago, I think.

TIH: Is there an American release date planned yet?

ES: I don’t know exactly when. We are talking about it now. Nothing is written in stone right now, but I suppose the beginning of 2010, probably between January and March.

TIH: How do you feel about this new album?

ES: I am very happy with it. The album is very different from the other ones: a lot of energy – a different type of energy – a lot of it because of New York and the kind of energy I’ve felt there. It’s the influence of New York on me.

TIH: How do you feel New York has influenced you?

ES: I don’t know why, but there is something very intense and creative about New York with all of the artists around – I don’t know about Chicago, it’s the first time I’ve come here – but something very noticeable to me when I was in New York was that it was full of a lot of energy. You can feel it right away. Arriving from Europe, it’s very different. I don’t want to say that it’s more energy or something, it’s just different and because you are not used to it, it is very noticeable, so it’s really inspiring. I also know that a lot of American artists love to go and spend some time in Europe and they find it very refreshing. It’s probably like going where you’re not used to and choosing a place that is very interesting to you.

TIH: You’re right, they’re always doing something new in New York – always experimenting – a lot of my favorite artists are based in Brooklyn now.

ES: I’m in Brooklyn, too.

TIH: I wondered about that. Do you find you draw a lot of creative energy from being around other artists like you are in New York? I suppose what I mean is, do you look around and see what other artists are doing and draw inspiration from that or is it more self-contained?

ES: I do sometimes. I had a moment when I did that when I first arrived, but the minute I start to really be inside my project, I don’t really go out and I don’t really listen to music. It’s not that I don’t want to, it’s just that I need to be, how do you say it, completely immersed and surrounded by what I am working on.

TIH: So you like to be completely caught up in the project itself.

ES: Yeah, it’s just that I need it. It’s not like I don’t want to hear other things or be influenced. It’s not that. Well, it’s a little bit that I don’t want to be influenced, because it’s a moment where you are so open because you are looking for very precise, very deep things. So it’s a little bit like if you had no skin. You have to be really careful what you put, because it can burn and it can stay. It’s like – it’s very intense what I’m going to create and do for this amount of time is going to affect deeply my work. So I think it’s nice for me to focus on it and try to build from inside.

TIH: I read that you took yourself away from instruments and computers and things for a while. Was that for the same reason?

ES: I think I had a way of doing things from the first album. It was my first album, I was sort of building the basics. For the album after that, I feel like it was a little bit the same way of working; that I was experimenting and still building and I needed to change – to try something else. To see, because, you know, there is a point where you know that you are totally capable to do that again and again and there is no point in doing that again and again. I mean, for me, what is interesting are things like going to a new city and trying something different. So I thought, I am going to stop writing on the computer first and see what instruments I need the most for writing songs and it’s been the keyboard, so I wrote most of my songs with [it]. Yeah, for a long time I was writing without a computer, without programming and everything, just working on the composition itself, the song and its structure.

TIH: Can you tell me a little about your university and post-graduate studies?

ES: I was at the conservatory when I was a child. I started when I was seven years old, maybe. After that, I stayed there for a few years and then when I was 18, I went to the university and got a Master of Music, in musicology. So, I studied for four years and then I wrote the first album.

TIH: What about your association with IRCAM?

ES: When I was as La Sorbonne in Paris, I had different options for music; there was medieval music or choral directing or whatever – you could choose different things to pursue. So I specialized in Medieval music and electronic contemporary music.

TIH: Do you find that that influences your music now?

ES: It’s somewhere in my mind, in my brain. Yeah, probably, you know, it’s there and you don’t know exactly. After a while it all starts mixing together and becomes part of me and my personality. So I probably take a little from here and a little from there, but it’s so mixed with other influences and other things that I’ve learned and my sensibilities have changed the way I use them.

TIH: I wondered about that for some time, especially in the way you used so many found sounds on Végétal and Marche de l’Empereur. Has that always been something you’ve been interested in?

ES: The sounds? I discovered it, really, when I was writing my songs and using the computer, but more electronic music, like drum machines. And when I went to the IRCAM, I took some lessons there and I met the person, Cyrille Brissot, who was building my “Arm”, and things like that. And I discovered electronic music and started working on textures and different kinds of software that they were building there. And I used them mainly to treat my vocals on the first album. And then for Végétal and March of the Penguins, I used different software, some from IRCAM, I also went to visit and was listening to the music coming from the GRM school – so recording the sounds that are around you and everyday life and turning it into music. So this was an idea that I already loved, but I completely twisted it into my music. Like on Végétal, I was using water, but then I was transforming the sound and turning it into something else.

TIH: So, with a lot of your older work, the vocals are more set back within the texture of the song, but from what I’ve heard of this new album, they seem to have been brought more into the foreground. Why is that?

ES: I think it’s a lot in the way I wrote the album and what happened in my life when I wrote it. Like the other albums are more studio albums. It’s more like: I have my studio; I can spend a lot of time programming details and the vocals become a part of the instrumentation and are in balance with the other elements. This one was more about the energy and this kind of urgency of writing. It was not like I have my comfort and my studio and can spend the time. I was moving every week; I had a keyboard and that’s all. So it was more like coming from here [the stomach] than from the brain; it was more of a raw energy, so the vocals took a lot of space because I needed to express myself and I didn’t have all the sounds. So the vocals – the melodies – went a lot like this, up and down. It was really how I felt, also, through this experience.

TIH: Now, I read you had this month-long residency in New York. Where was it?

ES: It was at this little club called the Cutting Room and it was five weeks, with a show every week. I played first in L.A., at the Roxy. It was the first time I played my new songs, but it was a short set, maybe eight songs, something like [that]. At the Cutting Room, when I started my first show, I was adding a new song every week. So every week I had to finish the programming of a new song and make it ready to be played. For most of the album, that’s all of it. And then, I decided to keep this energy of experimenting on stage and find my band and record. So, it’s been the perfect timing and I found the perfect band of really cool, wonderful musicians and great friends that I met. And we got to record at Electric Lady Studios, so we had this wonderful room. Yeah, everything was like it was meant to be like this.

TIH: So, I noticed that you did more collaborating with other people on this new album, I thought I read some mention of members of the Arcade Fire.

ES: Yeah. I worked with Kelly [Pratt] and John [Natchez] – John is not from Arcade Fire, but Kelly plays with them, he’s the trumpet player, and John is playing with Beirut and some other bands – they’re both really great guys and wonderful musicians. And also I played with Jeremy [Gara] from Arcade Fire, the drummer, just on two or three songs, I think.

TIH: Then, are the songs on this new album still mostly self-contained? That is, are they still mostly you, rather than reaching out to other artists for collaboration?

ES: Yeah, it’s more open to other people than my previous work, but, you know, it’s like that’s the way I work. I really need a lot of independence and to be able to make my own decisions. At the beginning, I thought maybe I’m going to find the right producer for this album and, you know, ask somebody else to produce it. But it’s not possible because – well maybe it could be possible – but I didn’t find this perfect person that I can trust so much more than I can trust myself, you know? And because I produce all my own albums now, I really know what I like, what I don’t like, and trusting somebody else, it has to be amazing, and I trusted and I worked for this album with really amazing people and I opened a lot. Mark Plati came to record and gave me really great advice and Renaud Létang in France mixed the album. But I still kept being the producer of the album because I know where I want to go, so was more like the captain, but the crew was amazing.

TIH: Like you’ve still got a vision in your mind of what you’d like to accomplish.

ES: Yeah, and you know, I do a lot of the sounds myself so for this album it was different, because the spine [of the album] is bass and drums and keys, but there are a lot of keys and synths and electronic percussion that I program on top and that’s very important in the global artistic direction of the album.

TIH: So do you think you will be sticking with this sort of format for a while, or will you completely change it again?

ES: I don’t know. I think I just felt like I needed – like I wanted – to play with people. It  was not all recorded live in the studio. I didn’t do that, maybe just some alternate versions, B-sides and stuff, but I thought it was nice to record the basics of the album with people, rather than with machines.

TIH: So this solo set up you’re using tonight, have you used that before this album? I’ve seen some clips of your older performances and you have several musicians on stage with you.

ES: Yeah, I have this solo set up and then I have my band set up with bass and drums. It depends. I mean, for this kind of venue, the solo set-up is perfect. And what I like about it is that it’s easy, you know? I just plug it in and I can still do experimental stuff it’s a little bit more electronic than what happens when my band is playing with me. So it’s a side of me that is interesting and I enjoy doing that and I like being on the machines and stuff. And I’ve been doing that for eight or ten years, but I never did that on stage. People, they hear the work I did on the computer and the machines, but they can’t see it.

TIH: Oh, yeah. It’s really amazing to actually have a chance to see it in person. Can you tell me a little about the equipment you are using, because I saw some things up there that I’ve never seen before.

ES: Well, the way I look at it is here is what I need for this song: I need the keyboard, I need a piano sound, some synths. I need to be able to trigger this sound or this sound. I need to be able to trigger effects on which track, the vocals or maybe the beats. And I worked for a year on this set-up. It seems easy, but it took me a year to go to the stability of this, because there are different to do it: you have to try different software and some are more stable than others and some are not made for that but you find other ways to work with it. It’s a lot of trial and error. Basically, in this set-up there is a simple keyboard, because I wanted something simple. I didn’t want it to be complicated to travel with and to play. I wanted it to be light. I wanted to just travel with one friend, you know. That’s why I’ve kept it very simple; that’s why I don’t play guitar and it’s all keyboard. There is this device, “The Arm”…

TIH: Yeah, what is that? What does it do?

ES: So, basically it’s a remote control and it’s triggering effects on my software wirelessly, and I have it on my arm. I’ve had it since the first album, from the beginning, but we’ve had different systems. This is the third generation. At the time, we didn’t have all this wireless Play Station stuff like we have now that you can use for musical things. So we were using another system, but this one was built last summer, actually.

TIH: I noticed in your sound check that you changed some things, time signatures and stuff, in some of your old songs, like “Fleur de Saison”. Why the change?

ES: I just felt like this was the starting point for my solo shows and if I was going to play my old songs, they were going to be done with this set-up first. So, I don’t know, I just wanted to try different things.

TIH: That’s as good a reason as any. I have to say, I’ve been a fan for a very long time and it’s been such a pleasure meeting you. I am really looking forward to the show tonight. Thanks for talking with me.


6 thoughts on “Interview: Emilie Simon

  1. Pingback: The Indie Handbook

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