photo: David Thayer

Shapes of Things

Laetitia Sadier on the light within and the work without

by John Payne

Laetitia Sadier | Something Shines (Drag City)

Laetitia Sadier sings ŠŠ coolly, calmly, inquisitively ŠŠ about a range of things that interest her: the environment, wicked capitalism, modern tech, old films, the self, of course, and other people and love and life and home and the world. To accompany her often pithily politicized lyrics, she and her collaborators devise musical settings that interact with the words, clash with but usually shade them, make them sort of vibrate. YouÕll have to hear her music to get the full effect of these resonating sounds/words combinations, and youÕre recommended to do that by purchasing her new album Something Shines and digging in as deeply as time will allow.

Sadier is the France-born former singer of Stereolab and her own Monade group, plus the creator of three intriguingly lovely solo albums including this new one; she likes to keep busy ŠŠ she has yet another new record coming out in September, the debut album from her ŅpolemicalÓ band Little Tornadoes, called We Are Divine. She and I had a little Skype chat recently about Something Shines, about how and why the album and she herself work the way they do. This great talker has a lot on her very open mind, and here now is a mere slice of it:

BLUEFAT: The new album is fascinating, and quite beautiful ŠŠ not a contradiction in terms. Once again, you balance things, like light and dark, inward and outward, the personal and political. The album seems ultimately about being yourself, but itÕs also, according to the press release, Ņan exploration through DebordÕs La Sociˇtˇ du Spectacle, and how it is still up to us to guide and shape our fate, individually and collectively.Ó How might you have been inspired by Guy DebordÕs film?

LAETITIA SADIER: I think youÕre more right when you said the personal or political, the inside or outside. All these dimensions are more true in guiding my work than Debord is, strictly speaking. Because Debord I find extremely hard to read, for a start. And heÕs a very dark character. And though itÕs true there is something to be said about meeting darkness in order to be able to embrace the light, I donÕt think he ever really embraced the light. And he really only ever commented on the dangers of La Sociˇtˇ du Spectacle and how terrible it all is and how doomed we all are. I find him way too dark and too difficult to actually be a guidance for me.

Of course the guy was super-brilliant. But I think he was inspired by people who are less known. Earlier I was listening to a program about a philosopher whose name completely escapes me, sorry [laughs], but who could see already by the Ō50s how television for instance affects peopleÕs minds, en masse, and totally subjugates them. And no oneÕs ever written anything since about television and what it does to people, really.

I think Debord was very well inspired himself by people who wrote about reality and about architecture and things like that. But I did go and see a big retrospective on the work of Guy Debord in Paris last year, and I didnÕt have time to read everything and see everything, though I spent a whole afternoon there, and there were some really striking points. What struck me most is what he said about architecture. HeÕs not the only one who said how it shapes our minds and conditions how we think to a big degree.

ItÕs interesting, I think weÕre at a time that we have been in maybe for the past two hundred years, at a time when we have to look at whatÕs going on, whoÕs pulling the strings around us, and how we just let things happen, we just put the ball down and just let all this stuff go around us, and from what I can observe make us more and more miserable and poor. And things like the depoliticization of people, the impoverishment of language, of thought processes as well. I was watching a film shot in the Ō50s where people are interviewed on the street, and Mr. and Mrs. Everyday could speak so well, and now if you interview people on the street itÕs like [gobblygook sounds]. ThereÕs this verbal, really poor kind of diarrhea of sorts, thatÕs how a lot of people speak, including myself, probably.

There are a lot of alarm bells going on there, politically, environmentally, humanly, with human rapport in the realm of work and how people relate to each other at work. People being put into competition mode has disastrous effects; it makes people very unhappy and stressed rather than, you know, why donÕt we just collaborate and cooperate? Which is what I think we are naturally meant to be doing.

I just did a residency in Gdansk in Poland. And Gdansk is on the Baltic Sea, itÕs actually the first city that would receive the music from America when they were under the PolitburoÕs orders and closed off as part of the USSR. And somehow a bit of music would trickle through to Poland, and thatÕs why it would arrive in Gdansk. And as a result they have quite a reputation or a tradition for music, and being open to music. I was invited as part of a museum, or branches of that museum that were established in difficult neighborhoods, and they invited me to lead a residency with nine other musicians both men and women, and we had four days to create one hour of music from scratch. Which we did.

And that was really beautiful what happened there, how there was a kind of democracy at work, but also people having to deal with each other. We had no time to think too much, it was really rushed, so we had to really come up with the goods, and had to listen to each other, had to propose ideas, and put our egos aside and serve the music. We had to be in the service of this common law, and luckily we all had the same idea about beauty, somehow, we were quite compatible on that front. And you know, it was an exercise in ŠŠ I donÕt particularly like guitar solos very much, unless theyÕre like super, super amazing, but okay, now the boys they want to play guitar solos, okay, hereÕs your guitar, and the girls, oh we want to sing, and sing in harmony, we hear these beautiful things. And weÕd sing them, and we did such a fine-tuning yin and yang picture where we all had to get on but at the same time express ourselves. It illustrated what humans can do here, and it made me extremely happy.

But I donÕt see enough of that around me. I see more alienation than I see human expression ŠŠ alienated human expression. I see a lot of frustration and anger and things like that.

An openness to varied experience is characteristic of the way you make music, too. For example, youÕve collaborated with Mouse on Mars on their new record. ItÕs maybe not too far afield for you, but it's exciting to find you in a setting like that as well. Now where were you personally and mentally and etc. when you made the songs for Something Shines?

You know, since the Stereolab days IÕm cultivating the same piece of land, maybe I grow different vegetables [laughs]. But overall the same things are always coming up, and I just try to dig a little deeper into the complexity, because I have no answers, really. I just want it to have a kind of soothing effect, that kind of feeling effect; I feel we need to heal a lot, that we are damaged, we are hurt, and we are kind of wounded.

And thatÕs where I feel my music comes into play, in terms of healing. I donÕt mean it in a pretentious way or anything, but that really is how I envision it, and also just broadening our vision of who we are and what we are given. Which is extraordinary, and which is unique, and which is extremely lucky to have. So I just want to remind myself of that, because you can be here and itÕs raining outside and thereÕs a big crisis, and thereÕs no jobs, and be super-depressed, but also be reminded of the fact that we are actors of our lives, individually and socially, and this is where I think itÕs interesting to really pick up. I mean, I feel that itÕs good to write it in songs, but now IÕm really at a point where I want to start joining a group of some kind that is getting more pro-active. I know itÕs good to talk about these things, but I want to start to act and have a more direct impact onto the system, which I think is really the root of a lot of evils.

Your listeners get to hear music that usually has a rather heavy lyrical content which is juxtaposed with melodies, harmonies and textures that can be light and airy or somehow purely musically intriguing; the music resonates with the words in novel ways. It's a persuasion device to deliver your more politicized lyrical content, isnÕt it?

Yeah, you've discovered my little wayÉ[laughs]

These resonant juxtapositions of sounds and words couldn't have been contrived completely in the writing and pre-recording process. So how prepared were you before you hit the studio? You must have done a bit of spontaneous ideas-generating once youÕd begun the sessions.

Well, a lot of the tracks, structurally, they're prewritten in the form of a small demo, but not very elaborate; then we elaborate in the studio. So we have the lyrics sometimes, sometimes not. I like to have a bass line, a melody, and the rest becomes, you know, it unfurls.

It was done over a period of a few months, and I never even went to any professional studios, but instead I equipped myself here with a good sound card and good mics, and I recorded quite a bit at my boyfriend's home studio in Switzerland, where he has a lot of keyboards that are quite interesting and old and in good shape. So there was this first wave of recording there, and then the rest was mostly done here at my house in London, alone or with my drummer [Emmanuel Mario], who's also a very good sound engineer and producer; also I had my bass player [Xavi Munoz] who did stuff at home in Spain, because he's quite equipped with mics and recording facilities ŠŠ you know, nowadays you can send the files over the Internet and shwwtt! you put it in into your music.

I wanted it to be a slow process, this one, and I really wanted it to come out of itself, to grow as I was watching it grow. I didn't want to rush it, like I've done with the other two solo albums. It had to be a slow process.

I like your very personal approach to structuring a song. On the new album there's an oddly shaped one called "Quantum Soup," and another one called "The Milk of Human Tenderness," which is very, very interesting; it has lyrical passages that are interrupted by other ŅthoughtsÓ such as oblique chords and curious counterpointings of voice and strings. And then the song just stops. ŅThe Scene of the LieÓ and ŅObscuridadÓ take a similar musically non-literal approach.

"The Milk" was inspired by a book that a woman wrote about an American movie by Barbara Loden called Wanda [1970]. It's a bit of a rare film. People who've seen it, they know they've seen it. I mean, there's only one film like that. It's one of those movies that are completely unique. It's about a woman who's completely lost, in her mind and in her being. It takes place somewhere in Pennsylvania. So the lyrics of "The Milk of Human Tenderness" are about this woman who goes on the trail of Barbara Loden, who was the wife of [film director] Elia Kazan, and of course she lived in the shadow of her husband. But she was really a great artist and genius in her own right, and the thing is, she's quite a mystery and there's nothing really to go by apart from this huge movie called Wanda that she made about this woman who's just completely dispossessed of her sense of self, and in a society where she's married and very poor, very working-class, where there's nothing really to look forward to in life.

That song is amazing for the way the musical framework colors the words. It's an expression of your own sense of symmetry, which becomes ours too, after a few listens. Ideally, a composer will aim to make a non-standard song shape eventually understandable to the listener. Your song shapes are rather rhomboid.

[laughs] Yeah, but you know, nothing in nature is a standard shape. Everything is absolutely unique, and it doesn't respond to a strict rule of this or that. Everything will come out in its own unique way, and I think that's what is really interesting in art, in any art form, or when you meet someone in the realm of creativity, that you want to see the real person and their uniquity, and that's where the interest is, rather than them abiding to the strict rules ŠŠ never talk at school, and doing this exact format and shape. Then it becomes really boring, right?

What I do is completely about finding my own voice, finding my own way and my own structure. It has to espouse the feeling that I have here and want to convey and know best. And I certainly hope it's not going to sound too much like this or that or the other.

"Transhumance" is a beautiful song. What does the title signify?

"Transhumance" is the perfect everybody-wins type of system whereby a shepherd goes from point A with his herd of sheep, let's say, and he's going to walk down and down the mountain, through prairies, and the sheep are going to eat, they're going to feed themselves on the way, and they're going to poop in the field. Therefore, they're going to fertilize the field, so they work both as herbicide and fertilizer, naturally, and the shepherd's going to have a lovely walk, and the people who have the field will be very lucky because the fields will be all rid of bad herbs that they don't want, and it will be fertilized.

And this is a system that works, that proves itself to be very efficient, and where everybody is happy, and yet it's a rarefied form of looking at nature. So the song is an advertisement for this system, thank you for asking.

Now what is your plan? Are you touring and will you come to the U.S.?

I looked into coming to the U.S. and I would like to come with my trio, but the visas are very expensive, it's kind of prohibitive for smaller artists; maybe if you're huge, maybe for Daft Punk it's not prohibitive to pay that visa. But IÕm going to see how things go. I was invited to do a residency with Helado Negro and Jan from Mouse on Mars and other great people in March, and I thought, well, if they buy me a visa then maybe I'll be able to do a tour of the U.S. around March time. What do you think of that?

I think that sounds wonderful.

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