Emilie Simon presents The Big Machine

I’ve never made any attempt to hide my admiration for Emilie Simon. Considering the lengths I’ve been willing to go through to acquire her albums—and in several cases, multiple copies—it’s no surprise that two of them made my list of the best albums of the last decade, one of them taking the top spot. If you look, you’ll find these pages are full of adulation. From start to finish, I’ve always been quite up front about my crazy crush on the music, not to mention the woman behind it.

And now, with the long-overdue American release of The Big Machine (her fourth studio album), it’s a pleasure for me to sit back and watch as other Stateside media get their first serious glimpse of an artist who’s had my ear for some five years now. But at the same time, The Big Machine is something of a rebirth for Emilie Simon as well. Call it the beginning of her “American” period [insert copious anecdotes about Antonín Dvořák and the “New World” Symphony]: the first album written (almost) entirely in English, and a whole new sound largely inspired by her adopted home of Brooklyn, NY.

From the opening moments of “Rainbow” (listen to the remix above), The Big Machine seems to bear next to no resemblance to Emilie’s earlier albums. The studied electro-acoustic chamber numbers of her first records are gone, replaced by a dozen pseudo-club anthems that appear (at first listen at least) to owe more to 1980s discotheques and cabaret than to IRCAM or Cyrille Brissot. Where albums like Végétal were often contained, deliberate, even pointillistic, The Big Machine is possessed by a sweeping brightness that inhabits every song—a quality hinted at in older songs like “Sweet Blossom” but only now being fully embraced.

At first I was somewhat disheartened to note the change in Emilie’s music. The sauntering dance hall rhythms of “Ballad of the Big Machine” and “Rocket to the Moon” for instance, though immediately appealing, felt out of place. (Fun fact: Dorothy Parker was once arrested and charged with “sauntering”. She plead guilty and was fined $5.) But when you’ve perfected a sound, as I believe she did with Végétal and March of the Penguins, there are really only three follow-up options: 1) record the same album over and over again; 2) retire; or 3) try something new. Thankfully for us, Emilie has chosen option three and there is a lot to love about the change.

Where Emilie’s previous albums have been decidedly solo efforts—intricately auteured constructions—The Big Machine opens up its doors ever so narrowly to select outside influences, be it fantasy/horror writer Graham Joyce (contributing lyricist on “Fools Like Us”, “Rainbow”, “The Way I See You”, “Nothing To Do With You”, “This Is Your World”), Kelly Pratt (Beirut; Arcade Fire), Jeremy Gara (Arcade Fire), Jon Natchez (Beirut), or engineers Mark Plati (David Bowie) and François Chevallier. Even so, despite such varied contributions (not to mention the inevitable comparisons to Kate Bush), Emilie’s guiding hand is present throughout.

The markers are not always readily apparent, of course, but they are there. Tucked behind the brass and driving synths are the carefully manipulated electronics that characterized Vegétal. Other spots—the tag at the very end of “Rainbow”, for instance, or the found sounds that open and close “Ballad of the Big Machine”, or the entirety of “Fools Like Us”—are vintage Emilie. But the most thrilling moments on this album—the ones that most emphatically reaffirm my willingness to follow Emilie Simon anywhere and everywhere she wants to take me—were only ever hinted at in her earlier work.

A necessary consequence of the often subdued quality of her older electro-acoustic numbers, Emilie’s vocals, more often than not, have been pulled back and absorbed into the texture of the songs. That was the nature of the music. But it’s difficult to put into words (and, believe me, I’ve been trying to do just that for several days now) the shear joy of hearing those once restrained vocals brought to the front. I live for the slow-building bridges of tracks like “Rainbow” or “Dreamland”and to hear Emilie let loose on “Nothing To Do With You” injects the song with an added dimension of urgency.

To be honest, it has taken me nearly a year and half to really understand The Big Machine—and that’s what I’m going for, here: understanding. But I’ve said that sort of thing about Emilie before. If you think you finally understand what she’s up to, it’s only because you’re on the verge of uncovering something entirely new. But that’s what we want from an artist, isn’t it? It’s what I want—someone to grow old with, but who never grows boring. It’s why I still read Tender Is The Night, how I inadvertently memorized The Waste Land, and that’s why I’ll still be listening to Emilie Simon and The Big Machine decades from now.

Still interested? Read my interview with Emilie.

I’ve gone back and forth on the spelling of Emilie’s name. Wikipedia and most media outlets are spelling it ‘Émilie’. Her website, albums, Facebook and Twitter account spell it ‘Emilie’. So I’ve followed the ‘official’ example and opted to leave off the accent.

Emilie Simon in Chicago: the complete abridged interview transcript

Photo by: Elizabeth Sentianin , Sculpture by: artzura.com
Photo by: Elizabeth Sentianin , Sculpture by: artzura.com

Here it is. Finally. The (abridged) transcript of last month’s interview with Emilie Simon. Emilie is off touring Europe right now, so here in the States, we probably won’t be hearing anything from her for a while. In the meantime, you will just have to read this and get all excited for the eventual American release of her latest album: The Big Machine. If you live in Europe, you can already buy the album (or, at least you can in France). You can also catch Emilie on tour, which you ought to do, because it is a life-altering experience. You can read the complete (almost) interview here.

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.

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Emilie Simon gets the Big Machine up and running

Emilie Simon at BerlinI followed her for years – not in a creepy stalker way, but the way any true fan tracks the career of an artist he or she admires – spending countless hours in dusty independent and secondhand record shops near university campuses and enlisting the help of friends and family in Europe to track down a catalogue of records that you just can’t get here. It was all very calculated and deliberate. Meeting her, on the other hand, was (almost entirely) an accident.

It was on one of these prospecting expeditions (in search of a release date for her latest album, The Big Machine) that I caught a glimpse of Emilie Simon‘s tour schedule. Noticing almost immediately that the next show was scheduled to be in Chicago, I, without thinking, sent off a message to (literally) the only American contact I could find and several hours and half a dozen emails later, we had plans to sit down for a cup of tea after soundcheck.

As I approached Berlin Nightclub and heard the sound of “Opium” emanating from behind the swinging doors, I had no idea what to expect. I am not exactly a veteran of the club scene and I had never even heard most of the songs on the album she was touring, but walked in, trying as best I could to look like I knew what I was doing. What I found: half a dozen people prepping and decorating for the party that night, Elizabeth (my contact), and Emilie on a small stage in the middle of the room surrounded by machines and a keyboard. I stood and listened as she finished her soundcheck, attempting to recover the carefully planned talking points that had fled my memory the moment I came into the presence of my all-time musical idol. How do you cover such an impressive body of work in 20 minutes? You don’t, but the attempt became markedly easier when I discovered that we have a great deal more in common than I ever thought I would with anyone I consider a true genius.

Her first two albums (Emilie Simon and Végétal) and her soundtrack for the French version of March of the Penguins, included some of the most intricate textures I have ever encountered in the course of a four-minute “pop” song. The Big Machine is different, though. You could think of it as the first of her “American” works the way you might “Dvořák’s “New World” symphony. After all, she’s been living in New York for almost two years now.

“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,” she says. And any such dramatic change is bound to make an impression: “I don’t know why, but there is something very intense and creative about New York with all of the artists…but something very noticeable to me when I was in New York was that it was full of a lot of energy…. 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.” It’s that spirit of change that was such a factor in the new sound heard on The Big Machine.

“I think I had a way of doing things from the 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…because…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.” And so, the IRCAM alumna and winner of three Victoires de la Musique set out to reinvent herself. “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…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.”

As a result, her vocals, once set back within the instrumental texture of her songs, have been moved into the foreground, featuring more prominently than ever before. “The other albums are 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…. I was moving every week; I had a keyboard and that’s all…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.”

But such “urgency of writing” is the nature of an album conceived almost entirely in a live setting. After a short set at the Roxy in L.A. where she played several of the new songs for the first time, Emilie embarked on a five-week residency at The Cutting Room in New York. “At the Cutting Room… 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.” That live atmosphere was maintained throughout the recording process as Emilie “decided to keep [the] energy of experimenting on stage and find [her] band and record”. And she seems happy with the results, assuring me that “everything was like it was meant to be like this”.

Still, someone so involved in the intricacies of composing, as Emilie is, does not relinquish control easily: “at the beginning, I thought maybe I’m going to find the right producer for this album and ask somebody else to produce it…but I didn’t find this perfect person that I can trust so much more than I can trust myself…. 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 [on] this album with really amazing people and I opened a lot,..but I still kept being the producer of the album because I know where I want to go…I was more like the captain, but the crew was amazing”.

That amazing crew included Kelly Pratt and Jeremy Gara (both of Arcade Fire) and John Natchez (Beirut) as well as sound engineer Mark Plati (David Bowie, Alain Bashung) and Renaud Létang (Feist, Gonzalez…) who mixed the album. The result is an album that “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”.

As we walked back to the club, part of me wished she had an extra day or two to experience Chicago’s own characteristically unique energy that slips so often and unfairly unnoticed beneath the glamorous cacophony of the coasts, rather than the 22-hour reality of airports, traffic, and Belmont Avenue (and you ever do have the time, I hope you will let me know). No offense to the neighborhood, but the one block stretch between Berlin and Starbucks at Clark and Belmont (much of which was under construction at the time) is not exactly the pinnacle of what my beloved Chicago has to offer. Still, for a few hours on October 15th and for reasons I cannot even begin to express, there could have been no more perfect place.

Pourquoi les crayons?

I have to admit, I’m not really sure why I’ve been sitting on this one for so long. I mentioned it on facebook a few weeks ago, but unless you’re a fan (and I don’t know why you wouldn’t be) who happened to be online at the time, chances are, you missed it. I suppose, somewhere in the back of my mind, I had hoped to write this entry in French (as you may have deduced, I have not done so). Regardless, in a rash of dabbling in French music about a month ago, I came across Amelie-les-crayons (yes, it is as ridiculously cool as it sounds).

Honestly, where the music is concerned, I think it is most accurate to say that it sounds French. I mean quintessentially French, often favoring nylon string guitars, piano, woodwinds, accordion, and handclaps (very often, in waltz time), to the extent that, in listening to it, I feel as if I am sitting in a cafe on a cool September evening (and not just because I am sitting in a cafe on a cool September evening). Amelie’s raw vocal quality is firmly rooted in the French chanteuse tradition, but in the execution of her songs, that voice takes on a life of it’s own, almost the character of an absurdist cabaret. If you are familiar with Edith Piaf’s “Bravo Pour le Clown”, imagine that sort of spirit, but unrelenting. You’ve never heard anything like it. More importantly,

you’ve never seen anything like it.

Because there is more to Amelie-les-crayons than just the music (as good as that music is). Amelie-les-crayons is about performance: about creating her own little world and locking you inside with her until you beg her never to let you out. An Amelie-les-crayons performance is a glimpse into this world, blurring the line between Amelie the person and Amelie the Persona (one thing you won’t see is Amelie the rock star). The lighting is intricate, the sets are elaborate, the piano blooms (yes, I said “blooms”), and the energy is palpable (even on YouTube). I wish she would tour here in the States. Luckily for us is in this part of the world, in addition to two albums and an EP, the last two touring shows have been released on DVD (Le Tour de la Question and A l’Ouest). Now, we too can experience the world of Amelie-les-crayons (at least, those of us with multi-region DVD players can). For now, you can get a taste for it below and if you want more (and you will want more), explore the official website; the “Bonus” section is loaded with other videos.