Interview: Colleen

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In 2003, the Leaf label released Everyone Alive Wants Answers, the debut album by a French musician who performed as Colleen. The album received scant notice, but when it did, the response was ecstatic. Full of found sounds and warbly, trembling carnivalesque tones, Everyone is precious and precocious, a playfully morose exploration of sound as mood and emotion, as life and death.

A few weeks ago I emailed Cecile Colleen asking for an interview for this blog. She graciously accepted. Below are the ten questions that I asked and her excellent answers, all unedited. Listen to excerpts of her album here, an excellent DJ mix she did for French radio here and visit her official site here.

are you a sound conservationist? by which i mean that on everyone alive wants answers the songs seem to be not only songs but snapshots of moments in time and space that you felt an emotional pull toward. i have no idea if that question makes sense, but i have a feeling that you'll understand.

i'm not sure what you mean by sound conservationist, and i have to admit that it feels a bit strange for me to talk about songs which are now, for some of them, three years old. I know that people often talk to me about my music in terms of how it brings you to imagine things, but i have to say that when i make music, it's primarily about just that: music. But what this means for me exactly and concretely is hard to explain, because music is the most important thing in my life, whether i'm recording some songs, playing a live show, or learning to play an instrument. Basically the primary motive behind me making music is the urge to hear something and be moved by it, and reach that myself and not just by relying on other people's music. 

your ear definitely leans toward trebly, unsteady sounds. may i ask why?

I'm not sure if it's trebly sounds so much as a tendency (at least in the first album) to use filters because i love the hiss and treble range associated with old recordings — and for sure that's a love of mine, i love old things in general, old objects, gramophones, mechanical music instruments, and the like. I'm not a computer geek at all and don't spend my time marveling at all the software and gear existing. 

do you listen to music while riding public transportation? does this inspire ideas?

i do, a lot, although thanks to now working part time i have to take public transport a lot less than before, but when i play live i always use public transport to go to the place where i'm playing, so that does mean quite a bit of traveling and having time to listen to music while watching landscapes or just daydreaming. Because i've been so busy in the past year and a half, public transport has actually offered me some very valuable time off, the only time when it was ok for me to do nothing but listen to music. But I wouldn't say it inspires musical ideas as such.

how different are performing and recording to you? do you approach them differently?

Recording and performing are bound to be different if only because of where they happen, especially in my case: when i record music, i'm completely on my own, from beginning to end. No one helps me to record, and i don't ask anybody's opinion on what i'm about to record, or what i've recorded. So it's just me alone in my living room.

Of course performing is completely the opposite, it's really about giving my music to the audience and hoping that some people will be moved by it. 

The one point they do have in common is that in creative terms, they really feed each other: i want to create new pieces because i don't want to play the same things over and over again in the live shows, especially if it's in a city where i've played before, and part of those new pieces might end up being recorded, perhaps for a future release. Or if i've recorded something, i'll try to see how i can come up with some kind of live version of it (if it's technically feasible — sometimes it's just not possible).

They are two different facets of making music but i really enjoy them both.

are your performances successful? are you happy with them?

i have to say that so far, over the course of two years, i've been a very happy performer nine times out of ten: occasionally i will have some awful technical problems, or an audience with a couple of difficult members (this is sometimes enough to ruin it for everyone, especially the other members of the audience who just want to enjoy the music in peace — and my music does require silence), but apart from that i feel i've been incredibly lucky with audiences and how my live shows have been received.

I love the immediacy of live playing, the give and response that you rarely have with a record, except if people write to you to tell you that they love it.

There are always things that i could have played better during a show, so i often have the feeling that i could have done better, but then again i don't obsess over it, perfection in playing is not what live shows are about or certainly not what MY live shows are about, and i don't think that's what people come to see me for, so i always judge a show by what i felt (was i enjoying myself when i was playing? did i manage to forget that i was doing this strange thing — performing in front of people — and enjoy the music i was making?) and how the audience responded. If they seemed happy then i'm happy too.

when will you return to the uk and when will you finally hit the us?

i will return to the UK as soon as someone offers me to play a show there this year, and the same goes for the US! It has been quieter over the past few months in terms of live playing for me because i was concentrating on recording the second album, and i think that you do need a break from time to time, if only to regain the sense of wonder at the opportunity of traveling and meeting people and how lucky i've been to be able to bring my music to people elsewhere; it's all too easy for it to turn into a routine and forget about how special live playing is.

can you sing? are there little snippets of words that you have written that make you want to add vocals to your music? do those get used as song titles instead?

Good question: can I sing? Well i still don't know the answer to that, it's a mixture of yes and no right now, though actually i've taken up singing again rather recently (i used to sing as a teenager, but mostly for myself and mostly other bands' songs); right now i'm learning songs by John Dowland, who was one of the greatest English composers of the late 16th century - early 17th century, he made those incredibly beautiful lute songs which have something very minimal and modern about them. The plan with them is that i'll ultimately also learn to play the guitar in a lute-like fashion (the scores i have are transcriptions of the lute parts for classical guitar).

I find it all very exciting and i think it was bound to happen since i just feel like trying every single instrument on planet earth, and the voice is one of them.

I have no idea though if i will ever sing other than in the privacy of my home.

As for words i have a bit of a problem with them — even giving titles to my songs just seems to take me forever. They usually come from novels, are inspired by events in my own life, and for the second album by Dowland's lyrics.

is there a new album on the way? if so, what will it be called and when will it be released?

The second album will be out on Leaf in June 2005 and will be called « the golden morning breaks » (a quote from a song by John Dowland). There is also a recording of a live session which I did for Dutch national radio VPRO which will be released on Dutch label Staalplaat in the Mort aux Vaches series, probably in September 2005.

how strong an emotional attachment do you feel toward your music? do you think of it as an extension of you or as simply a way that you express yourself?

The attachment i feel towards my music is very much part of a broader attachment that i have for music in general, in all its forms. It encompasses the music that i listen to and which is very varied (from 60s pop and folk to jazz to baroque to late 19th century / first half of 20th century composers, early electronic music, music from all over the world, especially South East Asia, and I'm sure I'm forgetting a lot of things), but also the music that i try to play on instruments that i'm currently learning (the cello for a year and a half, now the piano, the clarinet soon, and bits and bobs here and there), whether it's pieces by other composers or me fooling around and trying to come up with something for my own use. But I also love reading about the history of and the stories behind music, how music has evolved over the course of the centuries, the life of composers and musicians, mechanical music, the social context behind music, instrument-making and instrument evolution… And of course making my own music is also very important!

When you really love music it's just endless really, and that's what makes it so exciting and fresh: the more you learn, the more you find out about other things to learn about. 

do you have a job? and if so, what?

I teach English in a high school; since September last year i've been doing that part time and it's been a real improvement in my quality of life, and i feel all the luckier because not only do i have a lot more free time than before, but the time i do spend at school is very enjoyable this year because my pupils are on the whole a really good bunch (not good in terms of their English but in terms of their personality).

I'll probably be back to a more hectic lifestyle when the second album is released, but right now i'm having a really great time just listening to music, playing the cello and piano, reading and watching films and spending time with the people i love, so i feel really lucky.