TEN QUESTIONS WITH: COLLEEN
During a recent trip to Paris, I had the distinct pleasure of visiting with Cécile Schott to discuss her remarkable Colleen recordings Everyone Alive Wants Answers and The Golden Morning Breaks. Though the 2003 debut is a superb collection of sample-based settings, Schott's extraordinary follow-up eschews samples altogether in favour of live acoustic instruments. While creating the album, she also extended an already-eclectic listening appetite (that includes Gamelan and Indonesian music) to late-16th century lute songs by John Dowland and early compositions for viola da gamba. Evidence of her passion for music-making appears throughout her home, from a cello perched in one corner to a piano, adorned with Satie and Bartok sheet music, occupying a hallway. After ingesting les petites madeleines and tea while listening to Gamelan music, we discussed more formally her music and working methods.
1. One of the most immediately striking things about your first album is how mature and 'fully-formed' it sounds. There seems to be nothing tentative about it. How do you account for it being so accomplished when it was your first album?
Well, I wouldn't say myself that it was that accomplished because it was a first album. I was twenty-six when I made it and had been making music since I was fifteen, and right from the start, even though my first instrument was the classical guitar, I always created my own little pieces. Then I went through quite a number of different phases because I switched to the electric guitar when I was about sixteen, and then composed some songs for a band I was in whose music was more in a 'noisy-pop' style. When the band split up, I still continued making music, so I think that if I had kept traces of every single thing I did, I think it probably would have amounted to—I don't know, it's just a rough estimate—maybe 400 recordings. So before creating Everyone Alive Wants Answers, I was trying lots of different things with the idea of one day hoping to create an album. And then I got a computer, and started working with samples, and probably created two hours of recordings before releasing the album. It's logical to say that a first album is a global sum of all the things you've been trying to do before. And, finally, I wasn't all that young when I created it; I mean, twenty-six is young but it's not that young.
2. There's an obvious production difference between the two albums. As already noted, the first one was constructed from samples; the second was created using instruments played by you. But do you think they sound radically different?
It's a hard question to answer, especially because, after the first album was released, I probably listened to it three times. That's the funny thing about interviews; you're being asked questions about work which, to me at least, is over and has taken on its own life. So I haven't listened to Everyone Alive Wants Answers for almost two years, though of course I remember how it sounds. I'm going to give you a really uninteresting answer: To me the albums sound both similar and not similar at all. Maybe The Golden Morning Breaks sounds less mechanical because it relies less on loops; it's more about echoes within the music. I don't know the exact word in English but in French it would be décalage. It doesn't mean 'delay' as in 'delay pedal'; it's more about things getting out of sync and then finding themselves again. Also different is that I listened to certain things which maybe inspired me more in terms of the spirit of the music. I listened to Baroque music quite a lot (I'm not a specialist on Baroque music at all; I've never had classical studies, I only started reading music about six months ago thanks to a friend who gave me very basic lessons) and there is something in that music about things overlapping though not completely; that's something I really love and it's also something I hear in Gamelan music, Indonesian music, and is something that really inspired me. Also, at the time of the first album, I didn't know it was going to be an album; I was making music just for myself and wasn't expecting anything from anyone. So the second album was made in the midst of some critical and public success which was really great but put pressure on me.
3. Is it difficult to talk about work (The Golden Morning Breaks was completed in Christmas 2004) which may just be coming out now but may have been created months, even years ago?
I don't think you can be a good judge of yourself because, obviously, if you thought it was crap, you wouldn't want to release it. But on the other hand like everyone I have my doubts and there are some things on the album that I'm not completely satisfied with. But of course I want people to love what I do, so there's a whole mixture of feelings involved. I'm not sure I'm the best placed person to judge it; everyone must come up with their own opinion on it.
4. You've articulated in the past a preference for the naturalness of a sound over its synthetic equivalent. I'm curious if it bothers you if this issue, which is important to you, is not as important to the listener?
I think if it is a synthetic cello sound, listeners will hear it and then, depending on their aesthetic tastes, can decide whether they like it. The thing that should be stressed about my first album is that it was samples but they were always acoustic. In a way, I used samples because I couldn't do certain things and using samples allowed me to. With this new album, I thought “Oh, wouldn't it be great if I were more responsible for the sound and instead of relying on finding those hidden gems in other recordings, if I could be good enough to produce those sounds myself and not rely on chance and on borrowing lots of records until I find something really good.” I thought, “I love instruments, I want to learn all these instruments, and now I've got a bit of money to buy those instruments.” Obviously that comes into account too. At the time of the first album, I had no money whatsoever so samples were the perfect answer.
5. A lot of artists have no qualms about sampling per se. You, on the other hand, seem to take an almost moral position. Saying, for example, that you wanted to be 'responsible' for a sound is a very unusual way of putting it.
With Everyone Alive Wants Answers, I think I really transformed the sounds in 95% of the cases so I don't feel like I stole something from someone. Maybe with some samples from the first album, it's true that if people were to hear the original they might recognize it. It wasn't such an issue before I realized that it was going to be an album put out to the public, because, hey, you've got the right to enjoy yourself, you can do cover versions of The Beatles in your house if you wish and you're not doing anyone any harm. But then the album was released and I started to pay more attention to stuff like the 'Author Rights Society in France' which is quite a bit on the lookout for this kind of thing.
For example, I was convinced that the composer Prokofiev had been dead for more than seventy years (the legal time regulation) but then a journalist wrote a small essay in Liberation (one of the biggest French daily newspapers) about how I had used Prokofiev—he was saying it in a good way, not to criticize me or anything—and then I thought “Oh, maybe I should check when Prokofiev died” and then discovered that he'd not been dead for seventy years. And I started to think that maybe there is something intellectually dishonest about the fact that, okay, I borrowed these obscure records from Paris libraries and it's quite obvious that there's one chance out of 100,000 listeners are going to know this record. But just because they're not going to find out about it, does it justify me using it in a way that's perhaps not imaginative enough? I thought “How would I feel if someone took samples from my music and didn't transform them that much and claimed them to be their own?” I thought maybe you should look at both sides of the picture, even if I've been sampling some Pygmy tribe whose members are all dead. Also there was a concerto for piano, violin, and gamelan by the late composer Lou Harrison that blew my mind when I heard it. I went “Oooh, this is what I would have loved to do, this guy has really done it.” He created this really amazing music from start to finish and inspired me to want to do it too.
Finally, on the subject of samples, the tricky thing is that you should find something good to sample but it shouldn't be so good that there's nothing to add to it. My problem was that I found perfect music and I thought “Well, I'm not going to butcher some Gamelan piece. They've done it perfectly, I can't add anything to it so I should look for my own way of doing things.”
6. Given that you're concerned with the purity of sound, to what degree is the manipulation of that sound acceptable to you? Though, for example, you might start with the cello's natural sound, you're then layering and manipulating it. Do you reach a point where you become uncomfortable with the extent of that manipulation? Do you have an intuitive sense about having reached the appropriate limit?
It's very subjective. Maybe I should start by explaining how the second album was originally going to be recorded. Basically, the switch from using samples to instruments mostly happened because of doing gigs. I didn't want to do a laptop gig so I brought out my guitar, small instruments like the melodica, glockenspiel, and music boxes and then two years ago I bought a cello which was a very big step. I started to develop these new pieces for the concerts and I was very happy with them and, I thought, “Well, people at the concerts seem to be really happy about them too,” so, I thought, I will use instruments on the second album. A piece can be very good for a live show, because there's an interaction between you and the audience, they see what you are doing, but when it got down to being in a room to record it, it was missing the sound of the room, the music venue, and just didn't seem good enough. So it probably took about a year actually to get down to the fact that the second album wasn't going to be a selection of live pieces. Basically, I would record various things, improvisations, live pieces from live shows, and then I would try to diverge from that in one way or another, to do all the things I had done before with samples but now with recordings of other instruments and to try to let chance get into the process. That's when the fun really started, when I thought I might as well try everything and see what comes out of it.
I know when a piece is finished because it just feels right; it's very, very subjective. I don't have set limitations on how much processing I'm going to use; if it sounds good, it's good. Concerning natural sounds, I don't have lots of microphones or engineering knowledge, and I can't play my instruments well enough to just rely on acoustic sound. Actually I'm not even sure that I'm that interested in it; I like acoustic sounds but not necessarily the acoustic sound that comes out of the instrument. I use a compact mic on the classical guitar which makes it sound more like a harp. I'm not some kind of nature freak in terms of the sounds I like and still like very much the possibilities of the computer.
7. The Golden Morning Breaks has been described as dreamy and meditative and certainly there's a melancholy quality to it as well. Are these the kinds of qualities you were trying to cultivate in the music?
Objectively speaking, those terms are probably accurate. It's a bit strange because when I'm making music, I'm usually really happy, especially when I'm getting to a point where the piece is coming to an end. If I'm thinking that it's really good, that makes me happy so I find it really hard to associate melancholy with the music. It's not that I don't like 'happy music' but I've never been into dancing or music hall parties. I mean, I like some songs that have a lot of energy but it's obviously not what I'm trying to do with my music.
8. The PostEverything site includes info that states that your “skills don't lay in replication as much as elucidating mood. That ability to channel emotion is where (your) perfection lies.” Your music does exert a strong emotional response yet—and this is what I find most fascinating about it and makes it so engrossing—there is an allusive quality to it. It indirectly channels emotion by hinting at it in a somewhat shadowy manner. Is this something you're consciously trying to accomplish?
I know exactly what you mean because, for instance, I hate when music pulls the strings of the listener. With instruments like the cello and the piano (there's no piano on the second album though I'm learning the piano right now), it's like flashing a big light. If you play the violin or piano, it can get schmaltzy and that's something I really want to avoid. Basically, I want to be moved by music, whether it's my own or other peoples', but it's not about manipulating things in an obvious way. I can see that some people could find my music cold or difficult to get into but I'm fine with that.
9. Can you describe the album's songs in more detail?
For this album there were certain instruments I wanted to use; that was the starting point. For instance, I have a friend who has a glass harmonicon which is a glockenspiel from the early-19th century, a glockenspiel with blades of glass so it has a really crystalline sound which you can hear on “The Heart Harmonicon.” I thought “This is such an incredible instrument, I have to use it on my album.” So I improvised on it because I didn't know exactly what to do with it. From about an hour of recorded material, I created different pieces and kept the last one. I also got this toy gamelan, a metallophone, and, being fascinated with gamelan, I knew I wanted to do something with that. On the other hand, it's a 'bad' instrument, not really an instrument but one just for tourists, and so the idea was to do something minimal. So I recorded something and then, on that same evening, the rain was patting on the windowsill really hard and I decided to record it and then juxtaposed them and realized “Wow, this is really becoming something else because the rain sounds like some kind of soft percussion.”
There were two tracks that were borne out of the live shows. One is “I'll Read You A Story” which was created using a music box; I'd been performing this track for about a year and a half onstage so I was familiar with it but also knew I wanted it be more complex. So it just evolved more experimentally with delay pedals and that kind of thing. Usually the way I work is based on doing things for a long time and, in the process of trying out things, some great stuff will appear; so you have to record it because you're not going to be able to repeat it. Then there was the final track with its chimes and cello. I had developed it too for live shows so had to try to capture that feeling.
Other tracks were much more about trying different things with the instrument. With the computer, sometimes it's incredible how a melody may not be not terribly grasping or a sound may not be that great, but after you pitch it up a little, it becomes something different and maybe a bit strange and usually that's where things evolve with me. “The Happy Sea” includes the only non-acoustic sounds on the record, derived from a Casiotone and then heavily processed.
To tell you a little bit about where I'm heading on the next album, I aim to find a kind of meeting point between old instruments, instruments that are not used by anyone in music today, and the methods I already use. But it wouldn't be neo-classical or neo-Baroque, and it wouldn't be something really dry. I know some people have tried to make stuff with old instruments but they're coming more from an improv or contemporary background and I'm not interested in that either. I would really like to learn my own language with these old instruments and, though I'm already doing this to some degree on The Golden Morning Breaks, I want to push it further.
10. Could you identify a few pieces of music which profoundly influenced you?
It's funny that if you tell some people who don't have a deep love of music that certain music changed your life, they'll think you're exaggerating. I remember “A Day In The Life” by The Beatles. I can almost tell you what the weather was like; I was 13 and this friend of mine at school had a vinyl soundtrack to a film or documentary on John Lennon and that song was on it. I put it on just before Saturday lunchtime and I can remember thinking “My God, what the hell is this? Why is it making me feel like this? It's making me happy but I could also cry at the same time.” That was my first big shock. This is going to sound really strange to people familiar with my album but I was also a really big Pixies fan. They're a band that made me think I could make music too. I remember the first time I heard on the radio the first song on Low's first album. I was in my first year of university and stopped whatever I was doing and thought “Oh, my God, I've never heard anything like this before.” The first Tindersticks album really impressed me too and the first album by This Heat, even though it was made in 1997 and I discovered it in 1995, really struck me. The next shocks came when I borrowed stuff from the library and discovered Indonesian and Baroque music.